William Morris and the Art of the Book
The Tamar dividing Devonshire from Cornwall is one of the more delectable of the small rivers of England. There were, above its woods and declivities, mines which yielded lead, silver, copper, and arsenic. The arsenic ovens—for a while the most extensive in the world—did foul damage along the river, about which a Devonshire poet, N. T. Carrington, wrote, in an old-style poem,
And where the blossoming orchards bless’d the view
Tremendous ARSENIC its fatal fumes
Has breath’d and vegetative life has ceas’d
And desolation reigns.
Carrington’s poem was published in 1826. Eight years after, in 1834, William Morris was born in far-off Walthamstow, then a village where prosperous businessmen of London lived and bred their young in suave Georgian houses. Morris and arsenic, Morris and copper, had their connection. Cynics—who have never quite ceased to sneer at the politics of William Morris and at most things he did—may enjoy the fact that it was Tremendous Arsenic, poisoning the hortus conclusus of the fruit-growing Tamar valley, which smoothed the progression of William Morris from Walthamstow to medievalism, poetry, design, and a revolutionary communism. When he was a boy his father, an already well-to-do discount broker, acquired by accident more than a quarter of the £1 shares of the richest of the Tamar mines, the Devon Great Consols, of which arsenic was a product. This holding of 272 shares jumped in value, in a few months, to more than £200,000. The income floating the Morris family—at any rate when Morris’s father remained alive—must have been of the order of £20,000 a year.
Morris himself became one of the directors of the mining company. When at last he resigned his directorship, he came home from the board meeting in the City and placed his top hat on a chair and sat on it, a gesture in Morris’s impulsive physical style.
That was in 1876. By then, at forty-two, Morris had written most of his poems, founded, conducted, and taken over the art firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co., “Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and the Metals,” made himself expert in pattern designing of the freshest originality, and concluded his journeys to Iceland; he was entering the last twenty years of his life, in which he was to be the avowed communist, on paper and on platforms.
Did Morris ever visit the mine? Ever sniff the fumes of his money? There is no mention of such a visit. But it might be said that in all he did Morris was making restitution for the poisonous source of his livelihood; which has left behind, still visible, and not quite the memorial to associate with Kelmscott Manor or the Kelmscott Chaucer, “a vast broken landscape, extending for 2 miles along and above the Tamar,” given to foxes, adders, and buzzards.
The Morris family wealth gave the child Morris, in many things, but not everything, the happiest of humus and circumstance, which may be evidenced in his praise of Chaucer as “the summer poet,” and his master; and in one atom of recollection in Mackail’s Life of William Morris (1899), to which E. P. Thompson’s revised account of him is one of the supplements and correctives—“to this day,” he said, “when I smell a may-tree I think of going to bed by daylight.”
At Walthamstow, eldest of eight children, Morris lived from six to fourteen at Woodford Hall, a manor house in its own park of fifty acres, separated by a fence from Epping Forest, an up-and-down extent of clay in which fallow deer shelter in the bracken, below hollies and pollarded hornbeams, the small snipped leaves of which filter a peculiar light.
Here Morris imagined evil knights ambushing the virtuous among the hornbeams (see his early poem “Shameful Death”), here began that entry into the past and that love of the earth Morris was to celebrate to the end of his incessantly vigorous life—roots of his hope for mankind in a recovered environment and in a happiness of art and peace:
To what a heaven the earth might grow
If fear beneath the earth were laid,
If hope failed not, nor love decayed.
In his childhood paradise the thorns were the coldness or aloofness of his Evangelical parents, and then exile from Walthamstow and the Hall and his sisters when Morris reached thirteen and was sent to one of the new middle-class “public schools”—Marlborough College, in Wiltshire.
He hated that school, which he called a “boy farm,” by analogy with “baby farm.” E. P. Thompson excerpts a letter of Morris’s later time in which he looks back to Marlborough, and to the parental shortcomings at Woodford Hall: “My parents did as all right people do, shook off the responsibility for my education as soon as they could; handing me over first to nurses, then to grooms and gardeners, and then to a school—a boy farm, I should say. In one way or another I learned chiefly one thing from all these—rebellion.”
That unlocks a door to Morris’s projective and creative life. There was trouble at Marlborough. It looks as if the always determined, direct, and violent-tempered Morris was asked to leave (or was expelled? Only someone who has endured one of the English public schools will appreciate the force and shame and prospect of life ruination packed into the words “expelled” and “expulsion”).
In Mackail’s Life sentences seem to be covering something it was unseemly to recall or record: “Under the elaborate machinery and the overpowering social code of the modern public school the type is fostered at the expense of the individual: with a boy like Morris the strain would have been so great that something must have snapped.” Whatever snapped, Morris remained in exile at Marlborough only until he was sixteen; and we are the inheritors of the sepsis of that school, of the generative force of that rebellion. The school was at any rate surrounded with delights of past and present, of positive contradicting the negative. The Marlborough Downs, rolling sheep walks roofed with cloud shapes, came up to the school, “wide, wild houseless downs” (in the phrase of a Jacobean poet) marked by an evident yet vague and mysterious history, in round barrows and long barrows and the circular complex of the ditch and the rampart and standing stones of Avebury, for which “Druidic” was then the word.
Rebellion persisted. Rebellion turned generously against excluders, destroyers, scrapers of ancient beauty, the makers and purveyors of shoddy, against exploiters and—when life is the only wealth—against the greed ex-President Ford has lately called with satisfaction “the name of the American game.” Morris, in rebellion, is soon asking why his kind alone were privileged to enjoy willows and rivers and “Gothic” churches and the inheritance of the seemly and beautiful. Soon he writes poem after poem bringing evil to book and mourning youth murdered or defiled in the white may-tree season, or wives and widows despoiled. Deus est—or Deus ought to be—Deus pauperum.
Rebellion-directed, Morris is driving to the loom and the dye vat, to his proclamations of environment uncontaminated and society regenerated; and last of all he comes to his private joy, which has proved not so private after all, of the Kelmscott Press and his Kelmscott Chaucer, the ultimate payment of his debt, finished as he declined toward death.
If we destroy in our time, we also preserve, the thought of preservation comes easily to us. Morris had to establish and teach that concept ab initio at a time of the most poignant destruction of the past. That has to be understood for the total understanding of Morris. Mackail quotes Morris’s lifelong friend Ned Jones—Sir Edward Burne-Jones as he allowed himself to become, in contradiction—on the Oxford where Morris and Jones first met as undergraduates in 1853: “On all sides except where it touched the railway the city came to an end abruptly as if a wall had been about it, and you came suddenly upon the meadows.” In the poorer streets “there were still many old houses with wood carvings and a little sculpture here and there.”
From this now unimaginable Oxford, Morris, in 1854, in his second Long Vacation, had his first view of Rouen: “No words can tell you how its mingled beauty, history, and romance took hold on me; I can only say that, looking back on my past life, I find it was the greatest pleasure I have ever had: and now it is a pleasure which no one can ever have again: it is lost to the world for ever.” So Morris, founding his Anti-Scrape, his Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, also became the courageous, if at times despairing, champion of the world’s architecture.
All or most of this is well understood by E. P. Thompson, Marxist historian and author of The Making of the English Working Class. But Morris would have his strictures on this book, surely, as a portrait of Morris; or as a study of Morris (Thompson’s description). Just over 200 pages take Morris from childhood through his reading of Carlyle and Ruskin, through his poems, and his art designing, and his marriage, and, via Kelmscott and Iceland, to his crossing in 1883, when he was fifty, of what Morris called the “river of fire” beyond which would be found the inseparables of the new art and the new life. On the brink hesitated the fearful of the English middle classes, Matthew Arnold, and Morris’s own friends; and there they stayed.
After that, shortened indeed from the 1955 edition, no fewer than 400 pages follow of Morris across-the-river, Morris in the revealed history of the Socialist League and the limping progress of socialist thought and activity in England; Morris in his revolutionary communism. “The transformation of the eccentric artist and romantic literary man into the Socialist agitator may be accounted among the great conversions of the world.”
It is not at all that Thompson despises Morris the poet, the romancer, the designer, the maker, the good knight of Anti-Scrape, only that for his vision, they need no more than brief, not always very acute, consideration as the winding path to the climacteric value.
No other biographer of Morris (and no other historian?) has so investigated, so described, the sub-political world Morris now entered, educating himself in socialist thought for the sake of educating others, and stating his convictions in the unequivocal English of his speeches, lectures, articles, and letters. In these political chapters you find Morris disappearing among parochial details, but then up he comes again in some splendid trenchancy. Art is advanced, or exalted, a grand value, as before; but thoughts of art—personal art—by Morris are slighted if not jettisoned. “The arts have got to die, what is left of them,” he tells Georgie Burne-Jones in a famous statement, “before they can be born again,” continuing about his more or less abandoned poetry that though “the personal pleasure” of writing poetry “urges one to the work,” he cannot look at it as a “sacred duty.” “Meantime the propaganda gives me work to do which unimportant as it seems, is part of a great whole which cannot be lost, and that ought to be enough for me.”
Thompson, then, might seem to have Morris on his side, after all, in giving so long and often so tiring an account of Morris teaching and preaching socialism; of Morris among so many indistinct or forgotten men. And he quotes Morris saying, “Everyone who has a cause at heart is bound to act as if it depended on him alone, however well he may know his own unworthiness; and thus is action brought to birth from mere opinion.” Thompson is also for the Cause. He has been moved—and rightly—by that English condescension to Morris as the well-bred poet who went astray down ill-bred alleys. So he plumps the record where it has been left thin. But will it do? Isn’t it possible that Thompson is in vital error in this respect; and that Morris, over the wide view, was partly in error about himself? To me it still seems reasonable—and respectable—and necessary to estimate Morris in a different way; to assert that if his political determination crowns his life logically and honestly, the work which we distinguish as “Morris” is, all the same, the best of his verse, the best of his prose, the best of his pattern designing; in all of which scintillated those qualities which made Yeats—one of his prime unfaltering devotees—proclaim Morris as his “man of life.” Subtract them, and you subtract the heart from the mind.
From rebellion at Woodford Hall, rebellion at Marlborough, the shape and substance of Morris in his work develop consistently. Here is Morris on himself, in 1894, two years before his death:
The hope of the past times was gone, the struggles of mankind for many ages had produced nothing but this sordid, aimless, ugly confusion; the immediate future seemed to me likely to intensify all the present evils by sweeping away the last survivals of the days before the dull squalor of civilization had settled down on the world. This was a bad look out indeed, and, if I may mention myself as a personality and not as a mere type, especially so to a man of my disposition, careless of metaphysics and religion, as well as of scientific analysis, but with deep love of the earth.
—there it comes again—“and the life on it, and a passion for the history of the past of mankind.”
Horrified as he may be of what is done to life, fearful as he may be of worse that may yet be done to it, what is an artist worth who is not, in his work, in what he makes, and separates from himself, such a basic lover of earth, grateful for his presence here, as a guest of life among its other guests? Two who would have understood each other are Morris and Wen I-tuo—
You must stuff my mouth with sand and mud,
If it can only sing about an individual’s welfare
—or Morris and Pasternak (see Pasternak’s Letters to Georgian Friends, passim, Pasternak on loyalty to life, on “love of people and gratitude to the past for its brilliance,” and “concern for repaying it with the same kind of beauty and warmth”; Pasternak on “happiness as it should be, serious, profound, fathomless and sad”). If Morris is to be known, it is in the crystallization of himself.
The fact is we have just about reached the possibility—if only the right biographer turns up—of a proper critical life of this great man, in whom a combination of grandeur and almost naïve directness and combativeness have been so disconcerting, to some. We find him accounted for now in most of the compartments of his unity—in his socialism, with E. P. Thompson’s final clarity which the haughty, scholarly, and otherwise sympathetic Mackail could have achieved in 1899 only by a miracle, and in his designing, whose relationship to modern art is now recognized and appreciated.
As we thumb through William Morris and the Art of the Book, the catalogue, with essays, of last autumn’s exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library, we may reflect ironically that, being rare, Morris objects have been desirable to the rich, and that so much of him as illuminator and as maker of books should have ended up in the treasure house of the villainous old Morgan. But then Morris books at the Morgan, Morris fabrics in the Victoria and Albert Museum, or on the walls of his own Kelmscott Manor can be seen quite clearly to exert the freshness and force of art. But what about the writings?
Here is a fairly recent estimate:
Morris, William (1834-1896), London-born English Socialist and founder of the Kelmscott Press, was associated with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, and was a designer and craftsman as well as writer. His epic and lyric poems reveal an interest in Greek, Scandinavian and medieval legend. His prose works include News from Nowhere (1891).
—from a handbook to English and American poets (the second edition of 1970), edited by two poets, one English, one American. Ignorant, yes, and perverse, ludicrous even, but fairly typical of a neglect which began long ago as an undermining of Morris’s once great literary reputation, a literary-bourgeois retaliation for his political and social apostasy.
To go back to an early sample, Robert Bridges, who could, for all his later urbanity, vent a snobbish insolence on writers it seemed safe to despise, was calling Morris an ass, in June 1877 (and earning a rebuke from his friend Hopkins—Morris’s recent translation of Virgil was “very likely a failure but it cannot be said that Wm. Morris is an ass, no”). Bridges’s reasons for calling him an ass seem plain. A month before Morris had published To the Workingmen of England, his manifesto against the prospect of war again with Russia. Already on the way to his socialism, his conversion, he had not been polite. Those who were leading the English to danger and dishonor were, cried the manifesto, the “Greedy gamblers on the Stock Exchange, idle officers of the Army and Navy (poor fellows!), worn-out mockers of the Clubs, desperate purveyors of exciting war-news…and lastly in the place of honor, the Tory Rump”—under Disraeli, with his “empty heart and shifty head.” The month before Morris had been scalping the clergy of England for their ignorance and philistinism in the restoration of churches.
From this gentleman who was clearly an ass and a cad to speak in such a way, from this poet who would never be Poet Laureate, never be corrupted, much more was to come in the next dozen years. Socialist devotees of Morris who claim that he has never been forgiven, or that rounding on him has left behind it a habit of denigration, are right.
Still, when every weakness is urged against Morris’s verse and prose, when all objections have been taken to his intermittent indulgence in the century’s literary archaism, for instance, when the facile has been subtracted from a huge oeuvre, poems and prose remain which are pleasurable, strong and direct, poignantly fresh as his Kelmscott maytrees, revelatory and reverberant; writing, too, which has also had its forward influence.
This ultimate, ideal, very well endowed critical biographer whom Morris needs will have to take into his new judgment Hopkins on the “deep feeling” of Morris’s early poems, Yeats in praise of Morris’s “Golden Wings,” Eliot on his poem “The Blue Closet,” Edward Thomas wishing at times to be that “writing man” Morris and no one else, and loving his noble pieces of humanity, Auden caught by Sigurd the Volsung and by The Hollow Land and its lyrics. He will have to make many revaluations (realizing, for instance, that some of Morris’s strongest writing is to be found in his Icelandic Journals, a mille-fleurs tapestry of the exquisite details of the Icelandic setting, coupled with its widespread brutality and lack of pity, and its relationship to the courage of a small society through a thousand years).
But if Morris’s new biographer is sufficiently polymathic and sensual and has enough feeling for human destiny, his book should be one of the grand biographies, very rich in pointed anecdote, in pathos, energy and hope, and finally in a special peace and benediction. E. P. Thompson, even if his literary judgment isn’t very sharp, says in this reissue of his guide to political Morris that we may see in him, “not a late Victorian, nor even a ‘contemporary,’ but a new kind of sensibility.” And then: “If he sometimes appears as an isolated and ill understood figure, that is because few men or women of his kind were then about—or have happened since.” Exactly.