The Proud King by William Morris: Themes, Language, Setting, Structure and Poetic device.
This long narrative poem captures the downfall of a powerful king from riches to rags due to his hubris. His personality flaw lies in pride. Due to the enormous wealth and authority he exerts, King Jovinian exhibits royal arrogance. He feels that he is more than a man and places himself on equal status with God. To him, he cannot die. He has assumed immortality. Because of this, God decides to humble King Jovinian.
THEMES IN WILLIAM MORRIS’ “THE PROUD KING”
William Morris’ “The Proud King” is one that has so many themes embedded in it. Some of these numerous themes are:
1. Pride goes before a fall
The poem insinuate to the biblical teaching of pride and its repercussions, which is projected through the actions of the epic hero, King Jovinian. The key ideology of the poem validates the authenticity of the popular biblical proposition, “God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble”.
2. The supremacy of God
God is a Supreme Being and will never hesitate to prove his supremacy when the need be. When King Jovinian assumes the position of a god due to his influence and affluence, God reduced him to a common madman until he admits that God gave him all that he has. The theme of Supremacy: The poet proves that the supremacy of God is far better than that of the King Jovinian. Jovinian’s supremacy
makes him maintain fear and respect for his positions and possessions
but the supremacy of God ripped him off his power and possesions, shamed him and reduced him to nothing in the eyes of everyone; “The hot sun sorely
burned his naked skin” (in line 100). The angel finally revealed
himself to King Jovinian from line 719-728:
3. The theme of Arrogance: King Jovinian’s arrogance went far even in
his situation of wretchedness, he was arrogantly approaching the nobles; he
was banging the palace gate with a very heavy stone in line 143-144
“He hurdled himself against the mighty gate/ And beat upon it madly
with a stone” and in line 215-217, he was shouting at the ranger;
“Armies will rise up when I nod my head/ Slay me! _or cast thy
treachery away/ And have anew my favour from this day.”
4. The theme of Repentance: Without repentance, the proud king
wouldn’t have regain his power, possessions and wealth. King Jovinian was
potrayed in the poem in different forms. He began to wear heart of
regret; “Muttered, I wish the day would ne’er come back/ If all that
once I had I now must lack” (line 333-334) in his regrets, he still
has hope for “the fresh morning air/ The rising sun, and all things
fresh and fair/ Yet caused some little hope in him to rise” (in lines
347-349) and at a certain point he narrated his plight to Christopher
a-Green from line 365-370:
“And asked him of his name and misery;
Then in his throat a swelling passion rose,
Which yet he swallowed down, and, “Friend,” said he,
“Last night I had the hap to meet the foes
Of God and man, who robbed me, and with blows
Stripped off my weed and left me on the way:”
When King Jovinian became so confused in his state of nothingness, he
called on God in line 435-436; “Ah, God!” said he, “is this another
earth/ From that whereon I stood two days ago?” he further begged God
from line 605-609 “Saying, “Lord God, what bitter things are these?
What hast thou done, that every man that sees/ This wretched body, of
my death is fain?/ O Lord God, give me back myself again!”.
5. Death is inevitable
As they say ” All things must come to an end”. No who you are or the position you hold in the society, you will surely sleep in the cold hands of death when the time is due. King Jovinian thinks his affluence, titles, influence and other worldly fortunes can immortalise him or save him from dying like his predecessors. Thus,this is an utopian thought coming from an conceited king. At the latter part of the poem, it is revealed that he eventually King Jovinian dies and another king reigns afterwards.
6. Ultimate power corrupts ultimately.
In this poem, William Morris reveals how power corrupts mortal men. King Jovinian is intoxicated by power. His disdainful and vain acts are products of his affluence and influence, which he gained through power. The Ranger is not left out here. In stanza 36, we are meant to understand that he is enthusiastic with his earthly gains and position that after King Jovinian leaves his presence, he orders his servants to bring in a musician to play in sweet melodies. He is delighted with his achievements and grateful to the king (instead of God) for the grace that he has enjoyed. This also shows that the Ranger is happy for King Jovinian’s misfortune hence his sarcastic gratitude to him (Jovinian).
“The Proud King” is set in the medieval period, a period when kings in Europe ruled as absolute sovereigns of their lands.
The language of William Morris’ “The Proud King” is simple (that is, easily comprehensible) and conversational; and as an epic poem, it is narrative in nature. The poem is also spiced with Elizabethan lexicons such as “thou” (L. 269), “thy” (L. 187), which are present in the religious register of the medieval period within which this poem is set. The presence of such lexicons does not only project the setting of the poem, but also portrays it as a religious poem, aimed at revealing the evil consequences of pride.
The poem is made up of 119 stanzas of 849 lines. 117 out of 119 stanzas comprise seven lines each, with a consistent rhyme scheme (ababbcc) while the last 2 stanzas have nineteen and eleven lines, with the rhyme scheme, “aabbccddeeffgghhiij” and “abbccddeeff” respectively
POETIC DEVICES/FIGURES OF SPEECH IN “THE PROUD KING”
Some of the poetic devices or figures of speech in this poem are:
“May morning” (L. 15).
“step… step” (L. 30).
“his horse” (L. 64).
“visage vanished” (L. 141).
“Worse who was of little worth” (L. 613) etc.
Some expressions are exaggerated in the poem.
“mighty gate” (L. 117).
“a mighty hart and swift” (L. 45).
“And since his horse was worth a Kingdom’s gift” (L. 47).
The poet uses two opposite expressions to pass across a vital message.
“And is a mighty lord to slay and save” (L. 648).
“New things becoming old, and old things new” (L. 784).
The placing together of two contradictory words to express an idea.
“Thou bitter-sweet thou knowest well this is” (L. 747).
“angry eye” (L. 708).
6. Biblical allusion
There are some biblical allusion in the poem.
“As Adam’s, ere he took the devil’s hire” (L.186).
“Since Noah’s flood has altered all the air” (L. 203).
“That it may lie when I am gone away”.
This literary device occurs when a normal sentence order is reversed.
“King was I yesterday, and long before” (L. 485).
Normally, this would have been “I was a King yesterday, and long before”.
“Morning” (Lines 15, 46, 213).
“God” (Lines 104, 187, 194, 196).
“May morning” (Lines 15 and 213).
“God and the world against one lonely head” (L. 560). The word ‘head’ represents King Jovinian.
11. Rhetorical question
“Is this a dream that my wearied eyes behold?” (L. 634).
“What doleful wonder now shall I be told/Of that I’ll world that I so long have left?” (Lines 635 and 636).
“What thing thy glory from thee has bereft” (L. 637) etc.
Precisely the use of dramatic irony in the poem. The concept of the king’s identity seems ironic in the sense that only the king and the readers of the poem understood the king’s predicament; no one else.