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Saturday, 23 September 2017

The Proud King by William Morris

The Proud King is a religious poem by William Morris, set in the medieval era in Europe when kings wielded absolute power and wealth. This didactic poem details the travails of King Jovinian, a powerful and affluent leader of a mighty kingdom. However, the poem is influenced by the classical story of King Aggei, a mighty Russian czar, who fell from grace to grass due to his arrogance and lack of reverence for God. The poem is also a biblical allusion to the proud King Nebuchadnezzar.

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.

The poem begins with an introduction to the protagonist, King Jovinian, a powerful ruler in an unspecified country a long time ago. He is comfortable and richer than most kings of today. He is dreaded by other kings of his time. King Jovinian wields so much influence that his opinion must be sought before any decision is made. No one dares questions his authority. Ascending the throne at a young age, he marries a good wife who stands by his side till he starts becoming old.

On a beautiful morning, he wakes up and begins to ponder on so many things. He counts “his titles one by one” (Line 18), reflecting on the achievements he has made so far. Hence, he becomes contented with life, feels strong and blessed with good health. No man can challenge his absolute power for his kingdom stretches beyond his reach. At his call, a garrison of “ well-armed myriads shout”. With this, his heart is full with pride and he raises his voice, “What need have I for temple or for priest. Am I not God, whiles that I live at least” (Lines 27 & 28). He goes rogue and disregards any form of spiritual guide from the priests he used to consult at the beginning of his reign. Since it all seems he has conquered misery and death, he regards himself as a god. Proud Jovinian belittles his father’s kingdom and influence in comparison to his. In his assessment of his father’s reign, he has achieved significant progression “step by step nor fallen back again” (Line 44).

On a fateful day, he gathers his servants, guards and hounds for a hunting expedition. Adorned in his full royal regalia with unbridled confidence, King Jovinian leads his subjects to the forest in his white horse that “was worth a kingdom’s gift” (Line 66). Fortunately, he sights a big animal and gives it a hot chase, outrunning his subjects. He is, however, unlucky to catch up with the mysterious male deer. Alone, the scorching sun becomes unbearable. He dismounts from the horse to savour the cool warmth of the river. He removes his crown, rich apparels and other royal paraphernalia, places them beside the tree where the horse is tied and bathes.

Satisfied with the comfort the river has offered, he goes back to the bank of the river where he had left his royal costumes to be faced with a rude shock.  Everything has disappeared mysteriously. Absolutely enraged, he searched for them to no avail. He shouted and cried helplessly.

When he realises that help is not forthcoming, he remembers one of his loyal rangers living nearby, whom he has done so many favours and definitely owed him. He walks hastily to the ranger’s house while “the hot sun sorely burned his naked skin” (Line 100). As far as Jovinian is concerned, the ranger is indebted to him and should, therefore, oblige him with the comfort of a great king that he is – dressed in “fine raiment” in the ranger’s “coolest chamber” and gulping down the best wine he has got. Then, he will forget the unfortunate day and the hot sun that has baked his royal skin.

While this is going on in the forest, the subjects who are curious of Jovinian’s whereabouts are met by an impostor who is dressed in the king’s royal apparel while riding his horse. He bears the exact resemblance of the king. So, everyone – including the queen, city elders and hounds – accepts him as their king. But this time around, they see a changed king, a humble Jovinian with a graceful heart.

On the other side, the real Jovinian knocks recklessly the ranger’s gate. The porter at the gate, who is furious at the visitor’s continuous blaring of the horn, advises him to clothe himself and hide his nakedness. The porter further mocks the unknown stranger for condescending below of a beast. Enraged with the porter’s inability to accord him recognition and respect, Jovinian roars, “Open, O foolish man! I am thy lord and king, Jovinian.” Absolutely amused, the porter dismisses him as a dreamer who only craves such a powerful personality. The porter leaves him ranting, hurling stones and throwing himself at the gate until it opens. Jovinian makes his way to meet the ranger as the porter follows, mocking and comparing him to a mad fellow.

However, the ranger does not recognise Jovinian. He asserts, “This poor creature is but mad” and he orders his guards to give Jovinian a cloth, food and throw him somewhere until he recovers his senses. Infuriated Jovinian releases cuss words, threatening the ranger and his servant and runs wildly out of the house to the street.
In the dead of the night, Jovinian sees one of the counsellors, Duke Peter, “a gatherer-up of gold”, who has made his fortune under his reign. He becomes bitter and accuses the duke of conspiring with his enemies who are responsible for his downfall. A soldier in the duke’s entourage strikes him with his sword for disrespecting his lord. When finally granted audience by the duke, Jovinian proudly reminds the duke of how he has made him rich, and probes, “Canst thou not see I am the king?” (line 302). The duke quickly dismisses him as truly a mad man with an incoherent tale. Jovinian becomes speechless with his body trembling like a “poor wretch”. “Left lonely with the night”, reality dawns on him and he becomes sober. He muttered:

“I wish the day would ne’ver come back,
If all that once I had I now must lack:
Ah God! How long is it since I was king,
Nor lacked enough to wish for anything?”

Apparently, Jovinian becomes totally humble for the first time in his ordeal as he recognises God. He wanders through the “lonely road” until “he began his sorrows to forget”. In misery, he sleeps wearily on a pile of grassy sand.

In the morning, he wakes up to meditate on his travails and the ordeal that have brought him to such wretchedness. At this moment of epiphany and deep reflection, he remembers “the fresh morning air” and “the rising sun, and all things fresh and fair”. With such reminiscence on the beauty nature presents that morning, Jovinian’s hope rises as he walks near  “his own city gates” (line 352), although with fear. He hides his face until he finds himself among the poor commoners of the city he once ruled.  He is mocked and shamed by the commoners as he appeared in misery.

Eventually, a wagon moves closer to him while its occupant, fifty-year-old Christopher a-Green, offers wretched Jovinian a lift and milk from a wooden cup out of compassion. When asked of his name and what has happened to him, he conceals his true identity and tells the man that he is Thomas the Pilgrim, a rich business man from another town who had been robbed of his possessions. Christopher drops Jovinian in front of the palace, from where he runs through the open gates naked until he’s eventually stopped by a member of his household who cannot recognise him just like the other people he has met in the city. He describes Jovinian as “seventy times more mad than mad” (line 405).

He takes Jovinian to the guard room”where his own soldiers mocked him bitterly”. These are soldiers who had acted at the prompt of his command the previous day. They take Jovinian to the impostor king – “one clad in gold set on his royal throne, gold-crowned, whose hand the ivory sceptre held” – with the queen and city elders around him. Non of them recognises Jovinian as he stares at the impostor king who doesn’t in any way look like him, yet his people recognise the impostor as the real King Jovinian.

Nevertheless, Jovinian realises that the impostor shines with a “marvellous glory” like an angel. Jovinian accuses him of usurping his throne and kingdom. He tells the impostor point blank, even if he decides to kill him, “I am Jovinian still, and king alone” (line 483). The impostor challenges Jovinian calling the queen to attest to the fact that he’s the true King Jovinian. The queen recognises the impostor as the real king she has lived with all her life. Even the lords, chamberlain, Captain of the Guard, who have walked through the years with Jovinian disown him outrightly while establishing their loyalty to the impostor. The dogs (hounds) with which he had hunted the previous day charges towards him. Eventually, the sergeants thrust him out of the palace, dragging him through the gates to the streets where he often rides in his royal horse when coming back from victorious battles (lines 554 – 555). He breaks down in tears and mutters, “God and the world against one lonely head!” (line 560)

With a stern warning never to return to the palace, Jovinian wanders around the city until he finds a brook where he refreshes himself. There, he remembers an old priest who lives near the brook.  It is that same priest from whom he used to take counsel frequently as a young king. He races to the house of the hermit (priest) who dismisses him at first as a mad man with such a tale referring himself as the great King Jovinian. To the hermit, such tale is best performed as a “Christmas Play” (line 602). Jovinian falls on his knees “and unto God at last he did complain” of the terrifying ordeal and torments he has suffered. He confesses and admits his sins and how he has undermined God, the Supreme Being. After this submissive supplication, the priest recognises him, although in bewilderment.

Being finally recognised by someone gladdens Jovinian and raises his hope of restoration. “Surely God is good”, he says. He humbly asks the priest for the poorest cloth he has to cover himself and a beggarly food to nourish his dying soul, unlike the encounter with the ranger where he demands for the best clothes and wine. With such magnificent transformation of a proud king to a humble beggar, the priest cries as Jovinian relates his trials and travails in the hands of the almighty God.

Just like the biblical triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, the priest offers his ass for Jovinian’s entry to the city once again in “sober joy” (Line 670). This is a sharp contrast to the majestic white horse he once rode on. The guards at the city gate can recognise Jovinian at this point but cannot pay obeisance to him because the impostor king has ordered that “if disguised he passed this gate today, no reverence we should do him on the way”. Definitely, the impostor, an angel who has disguised as Jovinian on the throne, is aware of his coming, hence the order. Jovinian’s “ well-known face” is viewed with awful surprise by his subjects as they “bowed the head” before him (line 690).

He proceeds on the instruction of a Squire (an attendant or escort) to the Little Hall where the queen awaits him with singing minstrels. But he finds the queen asleep as though under a spell, while the angelic impostor stands beside her. Jovinian approaches the impostor in anger. Before he could utter a speech, there “came a sudden light...with flowers of unnamed colours bright...whose hem fell to his naked feet and shone in them” (lines 709-714). From his shoulders, two wings arise. While his body sways in different directions, his “wonderfully made” feathers swerve rhythmically.

At this point, the impostor discloses to Jovinian that he has always been close to him as his guardian angel. He tells Jovinian not to consider the event that has happened for a couple of days strange. It’s just to teach him a lesson that  “the God that made the world can unmake thee” – a proud king who has placed himself on the same pedestal with God. The angel further enjoins him to thank God for only making known his sovereignty and not sending him to the “darkest grave”.

There and then, the angel foretells the end of the world when all men shall be accountable to God for their deeds and only those on “God’s side” shall be saved. He bids Jovinian farewell till they meet at the “council and at feast” of heaven. As the angel’s wings glide into the thin air, Jovinian is transfixed in silence as if in a “well-remembered dream” till the queen wakes up from her deep slumber.

Jovinian is dressed in his rich royal regalia once “and sat thereafter on his kingly throne” for a feast with his subjects at the banquet chamber. The throne appears as though no one had sat on it aside Jovinian. In fact, no one remembers the impostor. But Jovinian cannot forget about the event as it echoes in his mind until he grows very old.

On a bright new day, thirty years after the incident that threw him into misery and wretchedness, he starts thinking about the event and the foolishness of his pride. At this time, the hermit, who is the only witness that can remember the incident, is dead. He realises that he needs to etch the story in black and white for people to read and learn lessons. If such a tale is not recorded, it will seem “like a forgotten dream in morning light” when he is gone. At the king’s command, a brilliant clerk writes the tales of Jovinain’s travail in the hands of God due to pride. Written in golden letters, the scroll is stored in the royal archive.

Unfortunately, the king after Jovinian refuses to take heed to the instructions and warning left behind by the former king. Just like old Jovinian, he is also full of pride. The poet-speaker goes further to advise kings to be wary of the wealth at their disposal because it’s temporary.

Pride goes before destruction
The supremacy of God
Wealth is vanity
Inevitability of death
Power corrupts absolutely
The beauty of art and literature

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