Introduction for COVE Edition, “Concerning Geffray Teste Noire”

The thirty poems Morris published in 1858 as The Defence of Guenevere are among the finest of their period, an even more remarkable achievement when one remembers that its author was twenty-four years old. Characterized by stark emotion and psychological acuity, the Defence poems exhibited a wide range of narrative techniques and points of view. They embodied the creative synthesis of Morris’s many tastes—for medieval art and history; tales of folklore, magic, and adventure; and romantic ballads and lyrical poetry—fused with the desire to celebrate beauty and romantic love amid a world of estrangement, failure, and violent death.

In selecting medieval European settings for his Defence poems, Morris was indebted to nineteenth-century literary predecessors such as Walter Scott, Alfred Tennyson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and even the now-largely-forgotten Edward Bulwer- Lytton. Although these had all included some medievalist poems in their volumes, Morris’s volume was more unified and radical in his historicism, for all thirty Defence poems are medieval in ambiance, even if focused on legends, dreams, or fictive reconstructions. 

Six of the Defence poems are indebted to Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Many wefts of association had made the legends of Launcelot, Guenevere, and the quest for the Holy Grail interesting to the young Morris. He had originally made plans for a longer Arthurian cycle that largely excluded Arthur, in a work which might have been called “The Fellowship of the Round Table.” However when the first four tales of Tennyson’s Arthurian cycle appeared in 1856 (later expanded into the epic Idylls of the King), Morris may have felt reluctant to retrace ground already claimed by the period’s most distinguished poet. And although four of the Defence’s Malorian poems (“The Defence of Guenevere,” “King Arthur’s Tomb,” “The Chapel in Lyonesse,” and “Sir Galahad: A Christmas Mystery”) are among the volume’s best known works, they project a less romanticized and grittier view of chivalric reality than that conveyed in most of the Arthurian poems of Morris’s predecessors.

Always an avid reader of histories and chronicles that many others found tedious, over time Morris shifted his focus from Malory to include a broader range of folkloric and historical sources. The most important of these was Jean Froissart’s Chronicles of England, France, Spain, and the Adjoining Countries, whose descriptions of the period of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1410) offered a more historically concrete basis for depictions of medieval life than could be found in Malory’s legends. About a third of The Defence’s poems are based on incidents or settings from the Chronicles, and these are notable for their reiteration of themes of heroic struggle, entrapment, and failure. The young Morris’s preoccupation with combat may reflect his awareness of recent attempted revolutions on the continent, and more immediately, of England’s rather inconclusive war in the Crimea (1853-56), a conflict which had been featured in selections in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, edited by him and several friends in 1856.

To Morris’s contemporaries the most striking aspect of the Defence poems was likely their starkly realistic, contemporary approach to what had previously seemed romantic literary themes. One of the volume’s most praiseful critics, Richard Garnett, for example, had no doubt of their authentic realism:

Tennyson writes of mediaeval things like a modern, and Mr. Morris like a contemporary. . . Tennyson is the orator who makes a speech for another; Mr. Morris the reporter who writes down what another man says. (Literary Gazette, March 1858, 42.226-27)

The effect of direct “truth-telling” was heightened by the use of another contemporary form, that of the dramatic monologue, a subgenre whose orally transmitted, eyewitness accounts encouraged the probing of emotion and moral choice at moments of danger and stress. Moreover in its representation of the gaps between an individual’s direct experience and more formal historical accounts, the dramatic monologue sought to mask and reverse the silences and distortions of recorded history. 

In its focus on the effects of protracted war on a participant, “Concerning Geffray Teste Noire” is one of the Defence’s more powerful poems. The narrative’s lonely and careworn speaker, John of Castel Neuf, has waged war for years against Geffray Teste Noire, a local tyrant briefly mentioned in the Chronicles. He has also carried with him boyhood memories of an earlier incident in the same war, in which women had been burned to death in a church. In the poem’s central scene, he recalls a later memory, his discovery as an adult of the skeletons of what he assumes had been a man and women killed in the same endless conflict. Isolated from any personal experience of love, the speaker breaks off his narrative to fantasize a tortured love scene between the two in which he himself becomes a participant, merging his identity with their desire and loss.

The speaker records that to memorialize these slaughtered victims he had arranged for their burial under an effigy carved by “Jacques Picard,” the Defence’s sole reference to a (fictive) artist by name. As a final gesture toward remembrance, he also tries to convey his memories to his auditor, an informant who he hopes may bring his story to the attention of Jean Froissart so that it may enter recorded history. All has been in vain, however: “Picard is “dead now—I am old,” and Froissart’s Chronicles are silent, as soon he will be in his turn. Even the effigy cannot be retrieved, for no sculptor named Jacques Picard has been recorded from the period of the Hundred Year’s War. The sole trace of the lonely struggles of this obscure soldier remains the poem itself, an imagined tribute to the solidarity of human emotion across time.

“Concerning Geffray Teste Noire” remains one of the most potent examples of a type of poetry which emerged in the wake of the Crimean War and which anticipated psychological discoveries that the medical community would only begin to happen upon sixty years later at the end of World War I. Poems by Sydney Dobell and Augusta Webster depict soldiers returning home from the Crimean War with symptoms similar to those Dr. Arthur Brock would use to diagnose “shell shock” in 1918. Brock believed that one of the most prominent symptoms of the “neurasthenic” was his becoming unmoored from a linear experience of time. We can see this experience depicted in those Crimean poems by Dobell and Webster, and we can especially see it in “Concerning Geffray Teste Noire.” The somewhat chaotic chronology of John’s narrative, for instance, along with his eventual confusion of the past with the present, resemble the mental effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as Brock would come to understand it. Further, by showing how the sight of the woman’s bones triggers John’s childhood memory of “smelling the burnt bones” of the women killed in the church, Morris emphasizes the trauma of that early event and how the memory continues to haunt him in adulthood.

Morris’s poem also gestures at gender issues that startled the British military during the Crimean War. Morris’s armored woman would not have been a literary anomaly for Victorian readers as Elizabeth Barrett Browning had depicted a cross-dressing woman on the battlefield in her “Romaunt of the Page” in the decade prior to The Defence. These women would also have become recognizable to the British public in reality as the Crimean War introduced them to the French vivandières and cantinières. These women entered the battlefields to sell food and drink to the soldiers, and they also provided aid when needed. Cantinières and vivandières modeled their uniforms on those of their male customers, dressing in the colors and symbols of their respective regiments. The British soldiers were shocked to discover such women on the battlefield, and the vivandière became a much-discussed figure in British periodicals and in the British imagination more generally, ensuring that Morris and his readers would have been familiar with these women and would likely have thought of them when reading of John of Newcastle’s mental gymnastics to determine how the woman’s bones he discovers have arrived in male military garb. Both this and Morris’s exploration of PTSD demonstrate how he used history to understand his own present.

In dramatizing the difficulties of historical transmission and memorialization, Morris’s avant-garde, dissonant poem constitutes one of the Victorian period’s best representations of the unraveling of identity under the destructive effects of war. “Concerning Geffray Teste Noire” thus reflects early Victorian poetic preoccupations with aberrant mental states, even as it anticipates the later modernist poetry of the First World War and later wars.