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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Number 155: William Morris "After Avalon"

After Avalon

A ship with shields before the sun,
Six maidens round the mast,
A red-gold crown on every one,
A green gown on the last.

The fluttering green banners there
Are wrought with ladies' heads most fair,
And a portraiture of Guenevere
The middle of each sail doth bear.

A ship with sails before the wind,
And round the helm six knights,
Their heaumes are on, whereby, half blind,
They pass by many sights.

The tatter'd scarlet banners there
Right soon will leave the spear-heads bare.
Those six knights sorrowfully bear
In all their heaumes some yellow hair.

--William Morris

Hap Notes: William Morris (1834-1896) was an amazing guy. He was a painter, a printer, a poet, a writer, a socialist organizer and a textile designer. You've heard of the Morris chair, maybe? It's not a Stickley Arts and Crafts invention named to honor Morris; Stickley took the design of the chair and modified it from Morris' original. Morris was one of the first writers to use fantasy and was one of the originators of the genre. He was actually offered Poet Laureate after Tennyson died (it's a life long post in England) and turned it down. His book designs and textiles were enormously influential in 20th century design. I haven't even scraped the surface and he did all this in his 62 year life span!

The poem is willfully mysterious. Morris is describing the barges that carry Arthur and Guinevere to Avalon. Avalon is a mythical (maybe) island where King Arthur was taken to treat his wounds after the battle with Mordred. It is also said to be where Joseph of Arimathea carried the Holy Grail when he visited England (remember that story?) It is said that Arthur was buried there and will rise up again when England needs him.

Now, there's a place, a monastery in Glastonbury, which is settled on a hill that at one time was surrounded by swamp and water. It is said to be Avalon and the monks living there claimed to have exhumed a casket with the remains of King Arthur within. We can't really check on this since it was in 1191. Long time ago. On the simple log casket was a slab of stone and on the slab was a lead cross with the words (in Latin) Here lies the renowned King Arthur" or some have claimed it said "Here lies King Arthur the once and future king." The cross has never been found. It was said that the bones of Arthur were huge, implying he was very tall.

Breaking off briefly to say that the history of holy and valuable relics is often that they are lost or mislaid. Our species has a habit of losing stuff that we say is important. The Holy Grail, the Iron Cross of Arthur, etc. etc. We get a holy relic, put it down for a moment to get a cup of coffee and when we come back we can't find it. Just sayin'. So when you misplace your glasses, don't fret- you'll find them. Unless they're a holy relic.

Avalon is said to be a magical place where crops and fruits grow abundantly by themselves. It is a place where mortal wounds can be healed. A Heaume, by the by, is a big helmet that extends down to and is supported by the shoulders.

On the masthead is the famous chair, some Morris wallpapers and tapestries and a Morris painting.

Here's a good Morris quote: "A man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body. Memory and imagination help him as he works."

and another: "If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."

one more: "The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life."

You can find more Morris here:

And because it's Saturday, three things to delight or amuse you. First, Barbie dolls (and other dolls) staged in re-enactments of ancient history and much more:

Do you like hot music? Here's Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson doing "Avalon":

And finally, the Avalon most people remember from the 70s and 80s Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music:

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