William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, Pt. 1

detail_256_William_morris150(1955, 1976, 2011) E.P. Thompson, PM Press

A book this size (810 pages!) is always daunting to start, long to finish, but it feels like you’ve really accomplished something by the end of it. Of course there is no way to condense or summarise the contents. Morris was born in 1834 in Walthamstow, near Epping Forest, went to Cambridge, studied medieval history and wrote poetry. Ruskin was the great influence of that period and throughout Morris’ life, but he’s on my list of things to read so I won’t discuss him too much here. This is also the period he met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, became introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, believed Rosetti when he said to paint was the thing, and so he painted. Romance was also the thing, romance and authenticity, and somehow Morris was given the nickname of Topsy which he never lost amongst his friends from these days. There was revolt of a kind in his life and art, but a revolt of what? Thompson pulls out key phrases:

‘Truth to Nature.’ ‘Stern facts.’ ‘Flight of little souls in bright flames.’ ‘Maisons damnees.’ ‘Mystery–the main thing required for the surprise of the imagination’ (54).

Morris writes:

When an artist has really a very keen sense of beauty, I venture to think that he can not literally represent an event that takes place in modern life. He must add something or other to qualify or soften the ugliness and sordidness of the surroundings of life in our generation (56).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Black chalk on paper, dated 1865, 31.5 x 34.5cm, Private collection
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Black chalk on paper, dated 1865, 31.5 x 34.5cm, Private collection

He was to meet his wife Jane Burden here in this circle, a model for Dante Rossetti and daughter of a stable worker. She’s someone I want to read more about — as in this tale as it is told, her last name is particularly apt for their relationship. E.P. Thompson isn’t the best on gender issues, and it is certainly clear that they were not very compatible together and in a rational world would have split, but there is little sense of her here apart from a woman firmly committed to her own comfort and distant from any of Morris interests. He seems to have fallen in love with the ideal that he wrote in his romances, the same ideal that Rossetti painted, all surface and yielding and mystery, no living breathing woman (for an interesting view on this from another model, see Will the Real Jane Morris Please Stand Up). They seemed to have come to an open-marriage arrangement over the years, Morris seems to have had a very practical and what I think of as a modern view of it — in a society where there can be no divorce. This is echoed in  views from his fiction, like News From Nowhere, and important in shaping his views on ideal gender roles and relationships under socialism. But it’s hard to tell what the reality was, Jane’s own biographies beckon. What is certain is that Rossetti remained very much in her life long after he and Morris ceased to agree on anything. The William Morris gallery has an exhibit devoted to her image and what they call Rossetti’s obsession with her until January 2015.

But meanwhile Morris was embarking on a revival of the decorative arts — and the relation of arts to society remained central to his thinking throughout his life. In my own ignorance, I associated his wonderful designs with the Victorian era — which of course they are — but were in fact part of a revolt against so much of what characterises the Victorian. I love the distinction between the superficialities of gothic style and feature employed by so many Victorian architects, and Morris own focus on process, the way in which medieval workers created and crafted and the materials and tools that they used. This would become the essence of Morris’ own craft. He consulted archives, interviewed old craftsmen, experimented with his own weaving, synthesised his own natural dyes. I’m much more fascinated by that stuff than Thompson was I’m afraid. I was surprised just how much of the book tries to come to grips with his poetry and prose instead. His poetry isn’t really stuff I like much, the book opens with a discussion of Keats as an influence — whose work I really don’t like either. But it’s a good reminder of how important his poetry continued to be, so much that Thompson writes that the weakness of his middle period ‘reveals much of the change of attitude from revolt to disillusion in his personal outlook during these years. And it marks a stage in the degeneration of the English Romantic movement’ (114). Harsh, but I am inclined to agree.

It was a slow movement to socialism, and he never left behind this love of the medieval past, the goodness of the country and the evil of the big city, the value of work and craftsmanship. Part of the journey was the foundation of ‘Anti-Scrape’, a society to protect and preserve old buildings from demolition or ‘restoration’ into something essentially new. Of course any work to put alternative values or aesthetics above profit or desire to make a show of wealth will bring you ‘directly into conflict with the property sanctions of capitalist society (231).’ I think a lot of things will do this, but the work around the preservation of ancient properties is also very tied up in conservatism, in the maintenance of the past, feudal, inequalities and oppressions that created these buildings. Ruskin, for example, writes

It is…no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings pf past times or not. We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong, partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us. The dead still have their right to them…What we have ourselves built we are at liberty to throw down, but what other men gave their strength and wealth and life to accomplish, their right over does not pass away with their death… (234 – from the Seven Lamps of Architecture)

But if we do not have the right, than who? How does society grow, improve, change? This seems a bit mad, pushing to an extreme this veneration for what has come before. I much prefer Morris’s approach, and how he believed that ancient architecture:

bears witness to the development of man’s ideas, to the continuity of history, and, so doing, affords never-ceasing instruction, nay education, to the passing generations, not only telling us what were the aspirations of men passed away, but also what he may hope for in the time to come (236).

In the end Morris becomes an important voice for socialism, Thompson writes of it as almost beginning a new life at the age of 50. He leaves the disillusionment and depression behind to enter wholeheartedly into this cause he believes can transform the world. Thompson writes:

The Socialist propaganda brought to such people as these exactly what it had brought to William Morris–hope. Wherever the aspirations for life stirred among the workers–the clear-headed hatred of capitalism, the thirst for knowledge, beauty and fellowship–the Socialist converts might be won (300).

His commitment to it was as total as it had been to relearning ancient weaving techniques, and I am full of admiration at his hating public speaking and yet forcing himself too it, knowing that his fame would bring people and that would be his greatest contribution to the movement. George Bernard Shaw wrote:

He had escaped middle age, passing quite suddenly from a circle of artistic revolutionists, mostly university men gone Agnostic or Bohemian or both, who knew all about him and saw him as much younger and less important than he really was, into a proletarian movement in which, so far as he was known at all, he was venerated as an Elder…Once or twice some tactless ghost from his past wandered into the Socialist world and spoke of him and even to him as Topsy…. (302)

They were quickly sent on their way. These were the days of speeches and more speeches, the tours by key left figures talking up how to change the world in homes and halls and on street corners. They were also days of meeting in pubs and over pubs and next to pubs, the old guard from the Chartists and the 1848 uprisings and workingman’s international still around linking past to present (but cantankerously sometimes), the anarchists infiltrated by agents provocateurs, the Paris Commune, liberals disillusioned with Gladstone, the ‘Land Question’ the question of the 1870s and 1880s (with the rise of Henry George and the Irish Land League),  though nationalism of land was not specifically a socialist demand (way-hey!), as Thompson argues it distracted from robbery of the people through land as opposed to robbery through ownership of the means of production.  But Socialism was on the rise, 1881 saw the rise of the Labour Emancipation League under Joseph Lane. H.M. Hyndman had read Capital by 1880, introduced himself to Marx, and formed the Democratic Federation in 1881 as well. I like that Thompson notes that despite their belief in socialism, many middle class socialists/marxists still feared the proletariat and the ‘mob’ more than loved them — Hyndman believed their revolution was simply inevitable ‘whether we like it or not’ (294). Nor for Hyndman did his views of socialism conflict with belief in Empire, the strength of Anglo-Saxon blood, or the ‘presentation of the Colonies as the special heritage of the English working-class’ (293).

William Morris on the other hand, spoke out against those who have ‘ruined India, starved and gagged Ireland, and tortured Egypt…’ (326). This was just one of the issues that would work to fracture and split the new Socialist movement in a long and complicated and more than frustrating history with which I shall come to grips a little more in part 2. Eleanor Marx’s biography deals with it, as does the history of the Labour Party I’m reading at the moment…hopefully with all of them together and whatever else the future holds I can get a more clear idea of what is important to remember about this period, because I’ve had more than enough fracture and in-fighting in today’s left politics to last me a lifetime… my eyes glazed over at times I confess.

[Part 2 can be found here]

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