Reading and Content Analysis of Non-African Poetry: ‘The Proud King’ by William Morris


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In today’s class, we will be talking about reading and content analysis of non-African poetry: ‘The Proud King’ by William Morris. Enjoy the class!

Reading and Content Analysis of Non-African Poetry: ‘The Proud King’ by William Morris

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The poem, ‘The Proud King’ by William Morris can be seen as a replica of the bible story on King Nebuchadnezzar and the legendary story on King Solomon from Talmudic text. In the poem, ‘The Proud King,’ we see King Jovinian wake up and begin to eulogize his fame and riches. Due to his wealth and fame, King Jovinian relegates his father’s reign as inferior to his as his father’s kingdom is seen as ‘Kernel of my dogs.’ He berated his late father as a ‘prince of narrow lands’ and promised to ‘Rise higher’ that his father or he would ‘like poor wretches die’. Due to the satisfaction derived from his self-assessment, the King openly declared: ‘What need have I for temple or for the priest, /Am I not God whiles that I live at least’. He reaffirms ‘I am God myself.’ The following day, King Jovinian wakes up from his sleep and decides that he will be going for a hunting game. He recounts, ‘To-day through green woods will we run’ and ‘I … intend to make it better for game and play’. The King puts on his ‘best attire and rode with a heart right well at ease, deep-chested hound’ in ‘the hottest of sun/When all the freshness of the day was done.’ When the king gets to a river, he sits ‘in the water sported leisurely’ after he had left all his royal embodiment and signet on his royal horse. Unknown to King Jovinian, a strange individual had carted away with his ‘rich attire.’ He threatens to deal ruthlessly with the unseen and unknown thief. Tired of shouting in that lonely place, the King stops and decides on the next line of action. He sees a certain house beyond the stream. It was the house of a ranger nearby. In ‘his naked skin,’ King Jovinian approached the metallic gate and would wish that he is treated as King by the lord of the house. But to his greatest disappointment, he realises that the gatekeeper fails to accord kingly respect to him even as he vehemently asked to be brought before the lord of the house. Reluctantly, the gate-keeper brought King Jovinian in to meet with his boss who also failed to recognise Jovinian as king but asked that he be given food and clothe. Angrily Jovinian leaves to find himself on the street again having realised that someone else sits on the throne. Thinking that he has been betrayed by his lords, the King went into the streets lying dejectedly on roadsides in great distress. Out there in the open during the night, Jovinian sees flashes of light shining in the dark, and from it, he sees a lord carried aloft by some bearers in the company of soldiers. The King begins to rain causes on Duke Peters to get his attention. When he did, he tries to make the duke recognise him by asking him few questions: ‘Who gave thee all thy riches and thy place/Well if thou canst, deny me, with such grace…Peter swore of old….’ Unfortunately, Duke Peters could not recognise him as he thought that Jovinian is a madman. By daybreak, Jovinian managed to get to a cart owner who helped him to get to the palace. He secretly sneaked across the first gate before being caught while trying to go through the second gate. Jovinian sees himself arrested by the soldiers who had served him as their king. He begins to scream that he is king. The sitting king asked that Jovinian be brought to him. While in front of the sitting king, the queen and the lords, Jovinian begins to say that he is King Jovinian. But to his amazement, the queen failed to recognise Jovinian as her king. This drove Jovinian mad as he finds it impossible to believe. He was thrown out of the palace and warned not to return to the palace. Jovinian remembered the house of an old priest he had last visited when he assumed office newly as a king. The priest initially could not recognise Jovinian, not until he began to cry to God. Then the priest apologises for not recognising him at the first instance and provided Jovinian with clothing and horse to return to the palace. Though sceptical, Jovinian returned to the palace and was accepted by his servants and soldiers who recognised him as their king. While Jovinian goes into his room, a servant calls his attention to his wife. He goes to his wife and sees her asleep. Still amazed at what had happened to him, the angelic figure that had sat on his throne appeared and spoke to Jovinian. He tells Jovinian not to ever become proud again but note that whatever he had achieved is because God allowed it. So Jovinian turned out to be very humble to his lord and people, knowing that God resists the proud.

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William Morris


  1. Biblical Allusion: The story of the poem, ‘The Proud king’ is similar to the bible story of King Nebuchadnezzar. He is noted in the bible to have a similar fate to that which King Jovinian witnessed due to pride and neglect for God. King Nebuchadnezzar was a powerful king that no other throne in his reign as a king could challenge in every respect of kingship. But God decided to teach King Nebuchadnezzar a lesson by making him act like an animal and he was rejected by his people to be king over them.  For good seven years, Nebuchadnezzar was rejected and he could not sit on the throne until he cried to God for mercy and forgiveness. So Jovinian’s experience model itself after that of King Nebuchadnezzar.
  2. Rhetorical Question: The major poetic device that dominates this poem is the use of rhetorical questions. This is used by King Jovinian who found himself in a mess. Some of it includes: ‘Lord God, what bitter things are these?/What hast thou done, that every man that sees/This wretched body of my death is fain?… Why am I hated so of everyone? Wilt thou not let me live my life again….’ When he met with the priest, he asks: ‘Father…knowest thou Jovinian? Knowest thou me not, made naked, poor and wain? Alas, O father! Am I not the King?’
  3. Antithesis: There is a big contrast in the way King Jovinian lived his life before he lost his throne to an angelic figure and the moment he was helpless out there in the streets in search of help to regain his throne. The affluence that surrounds is a complete opposite of the penury and lack he witnesses in less than twenty-four hours. Antithesis can also be seen in his conduct when he returned as king which is the exact opposite of what he displays before he was displaced as king.
  4. Irony: The poem is full of powerful ironies but the most prominent ones are the claim of the impostor that he has been a king for many years and his own real name too is Jovinian. The impostor claims that his mother, the Queen delivers him as a baby boy in that house to his royal father (When in this house the Queen my mother bore/unto my longing father…). Another irony is in the Queen’s speech when the impostor asks her to speak. She says: ‘Thou art the man/By whose side I have lain for many years/Thou art my lord Jovinian life and dear.’ The mistaken identity on the part of the Queen contributes a lot to dramatic irony.
  5. Narrative Poem: A clear examination of the poem will reveal that the poem adopts a narrative style as its rendition medium. With this, the poet-speaker effectively narrates quaking experience a proud king went through. It was a trajectory of shame that King Jovinian was forced by a supreme power to observe in order to effect an adjustment in his conduct and manners.


  1. The theme of pride: Pride is seen to be the major theme of the poem, ‘The Proud King’. And it is said that pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall. An assessment of the first eight stanzas will reveal that King Jovinian displayed great arrogance even toward God that he says he has no need of temple and priest. In his words, his father’s reign and throne can only be measure by the portion of land where he keeps his dogs. Hence, he calls it the prince of narrow land. These and many more are the reasons while God decided to teach Jovinian a lesson that he can take away from the minds of his subordinates recognition of their King from them. So, an angelic figure was sent to humble King Jovinian who understood at the end that God alone deserves the kind of praise he ascribed to himself.
  2. Sovereignty and Supremacy of God: The poem is an evident statement on the supremacy of God over all humans no matter the power and position. God’s dealings with Jovinian portray this fact as in stanza 93, Jovinian recounts that ‘God is good/….and good hope I have/of help from Him that died upon the rood/And is a mighty lord to slay and save….’ Also in the words of the angelic figure: ‘The God that made the world can unmake thee.’ He continues, ‘Thou hast learned how great a God He is/Who from the heavens countless rebels drave.’ Here, he refers to Satan and his associates.
  1. What are the issues discussed in the poem?
  2. Critically analyse the content of the poem.


In our next class, we will be talking about Reading and Textual Analysis of the Plot of the Non-African Novel: Native Son by Richard Wright.  We hope you enjoyed the class.

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