Wednesday, 19 March 2014

In Search of Yellowhammers

I love those vivid yellowhammers who feature so prominently in Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘Self-Unconscious’: ‘Bright yellowhammers/Made mirthful clamours,/And billed long straws with a bustling air’, and so on across two stanzas. And D.H. Lawrence (who wrote a booklength study of Thomas Hardy) follows up this motif through Ursula Brangwen in Women in Love: ‘Some yellowhammers suddenly shot along the road in front of her. And they looked to her so uncanny and inhuman, like flaring yellow barbs shooting through the air on some weird, living errand, that she said to herself: “ … They are of another world. How stupid anthropomorphism is”’ (ch.XIX).

Birds are important for William Morris too; and Cormell Price once recorded in his diary that Morris could ‘go on for hours about their habits: but especially about their form’. But among the robins, thrushes, blackbirds, lapwings, wood-ouzels, herons, nightingales, moorhens, woodpeckers, kestrels, ernes, willow-warblers and others who enliven his pages and designs, I don’t recall any yellowhammers. Have I missed something in his voluminous works - some stray text or manuscript that hasn't yet been digitised, perhaps? Can anyone help with an apt reference? In The Well at the World’s End the Lady of Abundance shamefacedly tells Ralph that, as a girl, she had set snares for birds (‘though when I had caught them, it irked me sore to kill them’), so I here, more benignly, set a literary snare which may one day capture us a memorable yellowhammer reference in Morris’s vast oeuvre.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Passwords and Tokens: A Quiz

Morris’s tales and romances are fascinated by the idea of secret passwords and tokens, so here, for the keen Morrisian reader, is a quiz based upon them. I should warn you that in at least one of the stories you will be slain outright if you cannot answer. The answers follow the image below, so take care how you scroll down.

A: When Arnald and Florian gather their men in the Abbey in ‘The Hollow Land’, their guards ask new arrivals, ‘Who went over the moon last night?’ What is the correct reply?

B: Just before Cissela is sent to king Valdemar as Peace-Queen in ‘Svend and his Bretheren’, what token does Siur give her?

C: In A Dream of John Ball Will Green whispers in the narrator’s ear, ‘John the Miller hath y-ground, small, small, small’. What is the correct reply?

D: What token is borne by the runner who arrives at the House of the Wolfings in that romance?

E: ‘When I have set a mark on thee and given thee a token’, says the old man to Hallblithe on the isle of Ransom; what password does he teach the young man to ensure his safety?

F: How do the questers after the Well at the World’s End recognise each other?

G: What token of recognition do Osberne and Elfhild potentially have in The Sundering Flood (which May Morris tells us her father would have made more of if he had lived to complete the tale)?

In a period in which, as Edward Snowden has so heroically shown us, the NSA in the United States and GCHQ over here are remorsely spying on all our electronic communications, perhaps there is more to be said for Morris's low-tech means of mutual identification than we might first have thought.


A: ‘Mary and John’
B: He breaks a thin golden ring in two and gives one half to her.
C: ‘The king’s son of heaven shall pay for all’
D: A war-arrow ragged and burnt and bloody.
E: ‘The House of the Undying’.
F: They wear ‘a little necklace of blue and green stones with gold knobs betwixt, like a pair of beads ... and tied to the necklace was a little box of gold with something hidden therein’ (I, 3)
G: Osberne breaks a gold coin decorated with warriors and the rood in half and shoots one half across the river to Elfhild.