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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.