Representations of Hair in Mid-Victorian Arthurian Poetry


The Lady of Shalott, by John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Lady of Shalott, by John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Our hair is an important feature of our identity, often the first thing we notice when we encounter another person. Similarly, in poetry of the Victorian period, hair is often used as an image to convey moral messages about a character to readers. In an essay published in our new issue of Postgraduate English, Jasmin Böhm (Cardiff University) analyses the ways in which hair is represented.

This article analyses images of women’s and men’s hair in mid-Victorian Arthurian poetry: Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, William Morris’ Defence of Guenevere, and Matthew Arnold’s “Tristram and Iseult”. I distinguish erotic, disgusting and threatening aspects of seductive hairplay and examine the significance of hair style and colour as a moral qualifier. In these functions, hair can relate to Victorian cultural discourses of moral purity, gender, and race and allude to both Christian and pagan tradition. Finally, as I demonstrate in a short analysis of Arnold’s poem, characters may also be linked and identify with each other through hair typification.

This article is available to download free in issue 31 of our open access Postgraduate English journal. For more articles from this issue, and the complete archive going back 15 years, find the journal online.

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