William Morris: His Life, Work and Friends
The Work of William Morris
William Morris is about the last Victorian figure, one would think, who could appeal to the present age; for the fashionable oppish and poppish forms of non-art today bear as much resemblance to the exuberant creativity of Morris’s designs as the noise of a premeditated fart bears to a trumpet voluntary by Purcell. For all that, three books about Morris have come out this past year, and none of them treats him in a patronizing way as if he were only a romantic arts-and-craftsy dilettante who finally turned into a sentimental socialist. He is still too big to be either patronized or dismissed.
Though Morris called himself, accurately enough, a dreamer of dreams, born out of his due time, he was also a resolute realist, who refused to take the sordid Victorian triumphs of mechanical progress as the ultimate achievements of the human spirit. Who but a realist could have ended his medieval Dream of John Ball with these words: “Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes, turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.” That sentence should be almost enough to explain why Morris’s life and work hold more meaning for the present generation than for his actual contemporaries.
The main outlines of William Morris’s life were well presented in 1897, the year after his death, in a single volume by Aylmer Vallance; and this was followed in 1899 by a two-volume biography, almost a model of its kind, done by J. W. Mackail. The latter work, unfortunately, had been commissioned by Mackail’s parents-in-law, the Burne-Joneses, both lifelong friends of Morris; and Mackail was curbed at critical points by the presence of too many living people. Mackail’s inevitable discretions and reticences have hampered every later study of Morris, though, had he only taken the pains, he might have left a memorandum of his omissions, to be opened, like the correspondence between Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Jane, Morris’s wife, two generations later.
The many studies that have followed since have, till now, added little except by way of historic background and ideological interpretation. The most weighty of these is that of E. P. Thompson, the Marxist author of an excellent study of the English working class, who has sought to establish that Morris during the last decade of his life was no genteel revolutionary but a wellgrounded follower of Karl Marx. Thompson devoted almost 600 of some 900 pages to this aspect of Morris’s career: a solid, but disproportionate mass of documentation. Of the new studies before us, that of Philip Henderson, the editor of Morris’s letters, is commendable for both its insight and its balance; and it is supported by an abundance of illustrations, some in color, not only of Morris’s wallpapers and prints, but also of his friends and his family, whose sad faces reveal something more than mere Victorian gravity. Paul Thompson’s study—not to be confused with that of the Marxist Thompson—is of slightly more modest dimensions; and it centers on Morris’s career as designer, seeing him no longer as a rebellious isolated giant, but as a well-patronized professional in the mainstream of romantic Victorian design.
Ray Watkinson’s book focuses even more sharply on Morris as designer. Half of it, happily, is devoted to illustrations; and indeed the illustrations of all three books, although they overlap a little, taken together form a rather comprehensive exhibition of every phase of Morris’s work as artist and craftsman. (For some inexplicable reason, none of these studies refers even in passing to the work for which Morris became most famous in America—the “Morris” arm-chair, possibly because it was not Morris’s personal design. But I remember coming upon an illustration of the original chair in an old number of the Craftsman magazine, and marveling over its superb lines and functional convenience—so radically different from all the bastard Morris chairs that were turned out by Grand Rapids. There is not a single chair by Breuer, Eames, Le Corbusier, or van der Rohe that can compare with it in adroitness, elegance, and adaptability to the body.) Thanks to these new books, Morris has been firmly placed in his Victorian setting. But for all that, the man himself remains strangely elusive. How was it that such a backward-looking mind produced so many forward-looking disciples? On what terms did the pre-Raphaelite romantic become the successful Victorian manufacturer? Why did the aristocratic William Scawen Blunt call him “the most wonderful man I have known.” For long it was difficult to fit the parts of Morris’s life together and attach them to his visible personality.
IN ONE ASPECT, Morris seems a Dickensian character, almost a caricature: one whose manly simplicity recalled Joe Gargery, the blacksmith in Great Expectations. Gargery’s “Wot larks!” was one of his household expressions; and he had a liking for healthy, hearty authors, in the same style—not only Dickens but Scott, Borrow, Surtees, and above all Cobbett, whom he knew almost by heart—another confident, self-taught, obstinate, explosively indignant soul like himself, or at least part of himself. But this superficially bluff, busy, extroverted man, unflappable except for his sudden outbursts of childish rage—often vented against himself—was not all of one piece. Actually, he harbored three different personae which were never, through any single work, so completely fused that he could utilize to the full his magnificent native gifts.
The central Morris persona is that of the Master-Craftsman, a figure of towering competence and enormous energy. In his revolt against Victorian kitsch and shoddy, Morris mastered personally one traditional art after another: textiles, stained glass, wallpaper, embroidery, tapestry, rugs, printing type, and every manner of ornament and decoration. The Gothic revival could with propriety be called the medieval Renaissance, for it showed all the characteristic features of that early classic Renaissance which Morris detested. Just as the sixteenth-century Renaissance was an attempt, prompted by newly recovered monuments and books, to restore erotic vitalities and intellectual curiosities that had been suppressed in Christian myth and practice, so the eighteenth-century medieval Renaissance was an attempt to recover vital components of folk culture that purely upper-class groups, princes and artists, inventors and industrialists, had left out of their system. The medievalists were against classic book learning, esthetic formalism, and sophistication. Organic complexity, freedom of adaptation, respect for materials and processes, simplicity and sincerity—these were the new notes.
Though Morris became a passionate medievalist, he actually broke through the medieval rules of craft specialization, precisely as the Renaissance artists had done. He was as much a “universal man” as Leonardo or Alberti. Despite his firm’s success in church decoration, Morris ceased to be a Gothic revivalist: indeed, as an opponent of “historic restoration”—he founded an anti-restoration society—he even condemned some of his own early works. He was rather what Henry-Russell Hitchcock, in his pioneer book on modern architecture, once happily called a New Traditionalist, seeking not to revive the past but to nourish and develop what was still alive in it. He valued excellence where-ever he found it in a Persian rug, an Indian print, or a Chinese pot. Those who best understood Morris’s work and caught his spirit from the 1880s onward never became medievalists.
The second persona was that of the Romantic poet and fiction writer, who wrote verse so spontaneously that he was at first hardly aware of his special gift, or alert enough to guard himself against his dangerous facility. Yet his earliest volume of verse, The Defense of Guinevere (1858), had poems in it equal to Keats’s and Tennyson’s work in the same vein. Unfortunately, Morris’s later popularity as a Victorian poet came through a series of long, flaccid romances, like the Earthly Paradise, whose sleepy rhythms served, we now have reason to suppose, a private purpose in his life: a poultice on a grievous marital wound. In the Seventies, Morris’s emotional needs drew him, not to the high Middle Ages, but to the barbaric and brutal Norse past; and his translations of the Icelandic sagas sought to create a readable Northern equivalent for the Aegean epics of Homer. Possibly this retreat into primitive fantasy and archaic poesy saved Morris’s life; but the roundabout method kept him from approaching the depth of psychological insight that Melville or Dostoevsky achieved under similar stresses. Though no one can doubt the richness of Morris’s inner life, that innerness brought no deeper insight into his own self: significantly he would not tolerate a wall mirror in his house. Though he could produce the most intricate patterns of wallpapers and prints, he had the extrovert’s reluctance to confront the darker intricacies of the human soul, even though they tied his own life in knots.
IN THE LAST DECADE of Morris’s life, the fluent poet and the indefatigable craftsman were joined by a third persona, that of the revolutionary political agitator, waving the red banner of socialist idealism. This change took place during the same dark decade when the author of the Princess Casamassima felt close enough to these stirrings of revolt to picture, with not a little insight, the anarchist revolutionary movement. Morris’s political conscience had been roused to activity by the Russo-Turkish crisis in the late Seventies, when Tory England threatened to play an ignoble part. But from his Oxford days on Morris was the natural enemy of an economic system that was reducing all work to monotonous, machine-paced drudgery, starving the workers, housing them in ugly, crowded slums, stunting the minds and bodies of children, befouling the land and poisoning the air, threatening to create a race of white, proletarian moles, like the Morlocks whom Wells was to describe in The Time Machine. Once committed to socialism, Morris gave himself completely to it, tasking himself with endless lectures, soap-box harangues and polemic articles. He even struggled to master the tortuous scholasticism of Marx’s surplus value doctrine. And he might have said of Marx as he had said of Blake, that he admired “the part of him which a mortal man can understand.”
Morris’s climactic involvement with socialism brought forth his real greatness both as a writer and a man; but though it came too late to alter the texture of his dream life, which kept on gushing forth in archaic fairy tales, it bestowed a fuller social content and a larger human purpose on all his private achievements as an artist, and gave him the confidence to work for a future in which all men might know the joys of creative labor that he himself had experienced. In his speeches and essays on Art and Socialism, as in his Vision of John Ball and his News from Nowhere, Morris not merely summed up his beliefs and experiences as an artist-craftsman, who cheerfully mastered every detail of each technical process, but sought to outline the kind of life that would still be possible, if other men shared his vision and his hope. Here a mature and chastened Morris speaks to us, still hating the age he had so early turned his back to, but now appreciating the genuine contributions of its mechanical facility in collective organization.