|William Holman Hunt's The Light of the World|
When William Morris went to Oxford in 1853, he met Edward Jones (later Edward Burne-Jones), and they became close friends. One morning in 1855, "just after breakfast," Burne-Jones remembered, "he [Morris] brought me the first poem he ever made." This was The Willow and the Red Cliff. Morris read it to Jones, and to their other friends, and it was a hit. That night, or soon after, he wrote another poem, one wracked with guilt:
Dear friends, I lay awake in the night
When I sung of the willow-tree
And I thought, as I lay awake in the light,
Of what you had said to me.
For you remember how you had said
That I should be a poet
Ah me: it almost made me sad,
As I lay in the light, to know it.
For I knew, as every poet does,
What a poet ought to be:
Straightway before me there uprose,
My hideous sins to me.
Sweet friends[,] I pray you pray for me
To Him Whose hands are pierced
That, as, on the breast of His Mother, He,
So I on His breast may be nursed.
I consider this poem to be the first great mystery in the record of Morris's life--the mention of "hideous sins", and of failing to be "What a poet ought to be", is intriguing. Does he refer to a literal sin from his past, a transgression that he'd kept hidden, or was it something more subtle?
It's tempting to think that he felt guilty for misleading Edward and his other friends about the number of poems he'd written. He'd allowed them to think that The Willow and the Red Cliff was the first he'd ever written. It wasn't.
Sadly, we will never know what drove him to write the poem. But whatever the "hideous sins" were, they made him feel that he wasn't living up to the ideal of a poet; the poet who, in Mrs. Browning's poem, says “I seek no wages-- seek no fame:/Sew me, for shroud round face and name,/ God's banner of the oriflamme.” He may have feared instead that he was one of Browning's false poets, who boasted “we are not pilgrims, by your leave/ No, nor yet martyrs! If we grieve,/It is to rhyme to... summer eve."