Unhappy Utopian

The Collected Letters of William Morris Volume I, 1848–1880

edited by Norman Kelvin
Princeton University Press, 626 pp., $55.00

William Morris and the Middle Ages

edited by Joanna Banham, edited by Jennifer Harris
Manchester University Press, 225 pp., $10.50 (paper)

William Morris
William Morris; drawing by David Levine

In his rough serge suit and open-necked shirt, William Morris was often taken for an artisan. This pleased him, but in truth his appearance was at odds with his position, and his tastes. Morris had inherited a considerable private income from shares in a copper mine, for he came from the capitalist class he loathed; while his view of the world was not that of a working man but was formed by his enthusiasms when an Oxford undergraduate in the mid-1850s. His years in the university gave him his poetic inspiration, his artistic friends, his beautiful, silent wife, and a potent dream of comradeship in a medieval town set amid meadows. Even Morris’s socialism was filled with nostalgia for Oxford: the utopian romance News from Nowhere harks back to his youthful discoveries as though to efface the troubled years of his adult life.

When Morris went to Exeter College in 1853 he had High Church inclinations and seemed destined for the clergy. But friendship with Edward Burne-Jones and others of his gifted generation turned his thoughts toward romance and art. They read Tennyson together, and especially Ruskin, whose prose at this time, in The Stones of Venice and the third and fourth volumes of Modern Painters, was as highly charged as any Victorian verse. Morris found that he too could write poetry: it was printed in a journal he financed, The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. But his ambition now was to become an architect. He apprenticed himself to G.E. Street, whose offices were in Oxford and whose practice served the needs of the Gothic Revival in ecclesiastical building. This phase lasted only a few months, for Morris came under the capricious and exciting influence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who turned him into a painter for a little while.

In 1857, with Rossetti and other Pre-Raphaelites, he painted murals for the new Oxford union building. He there met Jane Burden, whom in two years he would marry. This working-class girl, a groom’s daughter, was to become the subject of much Pre-Raphaelite art, her unique features embalmed in their mysterious celebrations of yearning. Janey’s actual personality was also mysterious, and remains so. When Henry James met her years later he found her “an apparition of fearful and wonderful intensity”: since he had known her only through the pictures of her he was filled with awe that she could move and speak. She had claimed Morris’s adoration from the first. He felt that to be in her thrall was itself an artistic activity. “I cannot paint you but I love you,” he wrote on the back of an abandoned canvas.

Although he failed to become either an architect or a painter, Morris had a limited success with his poetry. In 1858 he issued The Defence of Guenevere. Since Rossetti and other poets of the original Pre-Raphaelite group appeared only in periodicals if they published…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.