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William Morris (1834-1896)

 

English craftsman, poet, and early socialist, whose designs generated the Arts and Crafts Movement in the later half of the1900th century. William Morris encouraged to return to handmade objects and rejected standard tastes. He was associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and a close friend of the painter-poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his sister Christina Rossetti, also a poet. Morris's achievement as a designer has somewhat overshadowed his other achievements as a writer and socialist visionary.

"If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe tom be beautiful." (from 'The Beauty of Life', 1880)

William Morris was born in Walthamstow, Greater London, the son of William Morris, a successful city broker, and Emma Shelton Morris. His father died young, but his shares in a Devon copper mine keep the family financially secure. Not having to worry about money was significant factor that contributed to Morris's casual attitude toward class distinctions and his own background: "I am a boor and the son of a boor," he wrote once to a friend.

Morris's early childhood near Epping Forest, where he grew up, was idyllic. He attended Marlborough College in 1848-51, recalling later that "I think I may fairly say I learned next to nothing there, for indeed next to nothing was taught". In 1853 he entered Exeter College, Oxford, where he met Edward Burne-Jones and Charles Faulkner.For a while Morris toyed with the idea of taking Holy Orders, but the emotional lure of High Alglicanism soon faded and he became questionable in doctrinal points. Moreover, the work of John Ruskin converted him to architecture. After taking his B.A. in 1856, Morris began to study architecture but he then decided that his real calling was painting, before poetry took him over. Morris's early poems were published in The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine – he also financed the publication. In 1858 Morris worked with Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and others on the frescoes in the Oxford Union.

The Defence of Guenevere and other Poems (1858) contained much of Morris's best work, including 'The Haystack in the Floods,' 'Concerning Geffray Teste Noire,' 'Shameful Death' and 'Golden Wings.' They all have medieval settings – Morris was obsessed with medieval world. In the prose fantasy 'The Hollow Land' (1856) an unjust knight enters an eartly paradise. He departs it, becomes aged, and finally regains the land through devotion to pictorial art. G.K. Chesterton once remarked that "If his poems were too like wallpapers, it was because he really could make wallpapers."

In 1859 Morris married Jane Burden and worked as a professional painter (1857-62). Their home, Red House at Bexley, was designed by Philip Webb. It was an important landmark in domestic architecture. Literary fame Morris gained with the romantic narrative The Life and Death of Jason, which came out in 1867, and was based on the story of Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts. It was followed by The Earthy Paradise (1868-70), a kind of re-reading of Canterbury Tales, and Books of Verse (1870). The Earthy Paradise became a highly popular. Though Morris was passionate about his work, he did not take himself too seriously. "If a chap can't compose an epic poem while he is weaving a tapestry, he had better shut up," he once said. When Lord Alfred Tennyson died in 1892, Morris was offered the Poet Laureateship.

Morris's visits in Iceland in the 1870s inspired The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Nibelungs (1876), which is regarded his principal poetic achievement. This period in Morris's life was marked by marriage problems – his wife had two long affairs, one with Rossetti and the other with poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt; Morris was involved with Georgiana Burne-Jones.

In the 1860s Morris started revolutionize the art of house decoration and furniture in England after founding the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. The firm first specialized in providing stained glass and fittings for churches, but gradually won a cliente for domestic wares. Morris himself was an energetic craftsman, who learned to dye for himself, when he decided that the firm should turn to printing of textiles. His "Daisy" wallpaper, designed in 1862, became famous – his wallpapers have never gone out of fashion. Other sought-after products were tapestries, carpets, stained glass and stencilled mural decorations etc. "I do not want art for a few, any more than I want education for a few, or freedom for a few," he once said. In 1877 he founded the Society for the protection of Ancient Buildings in protest against the destruction being caused by the restorers.

Morris defined art as "the expression by man of his pleasure in labor." In the Middle Ages art, according to him, artist were plain workmen. The things which are today's museum pieces, where common things earlier. Art should become this again: "a happiness for the maker and the user." Morris derived his art theories partly from Ruskin, who hated contemporary style and has said that a railway station could never be architecture. Ruskin advocated free schools, free libraries, town planning, smokeless zones, and green belts – ideas that presupposed social reforms.

The Morris family moved into Kelmscott House at Hammersmith in 1878. In 1883 he joined the Social Democratic Federation and subsequently organized the Socialist League, with its own publication, The Commonweal. In 1887 he and George Bernard Shaw led a political demonstration in London. Morris was well known for his temper. When in a rage, he could crush forks with his teeth and smash holes in plaster walls with his head. (from 'Idle Idol: William Morris. John Mitchinson celebrates a revolutionary life', The Idler, Issue 41, Summer 2008).

Morris's love for old handsome books and illuminated manuscripts resulted in the founding of the Kelmscott Press. It produced from 1891 to 1898 53 titles in 66 volumes, among others The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. He also designed three typestyles for his press, and translated Virgil's Aeneid (1875), Odyssey (1887), and Beowulf (1895).

Both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien have cited Morris's prose romances as inspirational for their own work. The Well at the World's End (1896) was a forerunner of Tolkien's kind of secondary word fantasy literature. The protagonist is Ralph who drinks from the youth-giving and life-prolonging well. The utopian romances A Dream of John Ball (1888) and News from Nowhere (1891) were first published in serial form in The Commonweal, the newspaper of the Socialist League. Both were cast in a dream setting. Erich S. Rabkin dismissed News from Nowhere as "a Communist tract" but C.S. Lewis praised Morris's style and language. "No mountains in literature are as far away as distant mountains in Morris," he wrote about the author's fantasies.

"The Kelmscott Press reduced the matter to an absurdity – as seen from the point of view of brute serviceability alone – by issuing books for modern use, edited with the obsolete spelling, printed in black-letter, and bound in limp vellum fitted with thongs. As a further characteristic feature which fixes the economic place of artistic book-making, there is the fact that these elegant books are, at their best, printed in limited editions. A limited edition is in effect a guarantee – somewhat crude, it is true – that this book is scarce and that it therefore is costly and lends pecuniary distinction to its consumer." (from The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen, 1953, originally published 1899)

The narrator of News from Nowhere, William Guest, wakes up in twenty-first-century London, in a radically changed society. The socialist revolution has abolished capitalism, money does not play any role in the bucolic harmony, there are no factories or industrial waste in the word of artisans, which evokes the spirit of the Middle Ages. Because the whole people is the parliament, the Houses of Parliament have lost their former function, and they been turned into a dung-market. Like Thoreau in Walden, or a Life in the Woods (1854), Morris rejects mass society and argues for the ideal of the simple life.

On his death, Morris was widely mourned as "our best man" by his fellow socialists. His final words were: "I want to get mumbo jumbo out of the world." Morris's view that the true stimulation to useful labor must be found in the work itself is still relevant. His designs brought about a complete revolution in public taste, though he was aware that only the rich could afford the products of his firm.

For further reading: Life of William Morris by John W. Mackail (1889); William Morris, A Critical Study by John Drinkwater (1912); Rehabilitations and Other Essays by C. S. Lewis (1939); William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary by E.P. Thompson (1955); William Morris: His Life, Works, and Friends by Philip Henderson (1967); The Work of William Morris by Paul Thompson (1967); William Morris by Holbrook Jackson (1971); William Morris: The Man and the Myth by Robert P. Arnot (1976); Worlds Beyond the World: The Fantastic Vision of William Morris by Richard Mathews (1978); William Morris: A Reference Guide by Gary L. Aho (1985); William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, ed. by E.P. Thompson (1988); The Romances of William Morris by Amanda Hodgson (1987); William Morris: A Life for Our Time by F. MacCarthy (1994); William Morris: The Critical Heritage, ed. by Peter Faulkner (1995); Art, Enterprise and Ethics: The Life and Work of William Morris by Charles Harvey, Jon Press (1996); William Morris: Redesigning the World by John Burdick (1998); William Morris and the Aesthetic Constitution of Politics by Bradley J. MacDonald (1999); William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Home by Pamela Todd (2005) - See also: Snorri Sturluson

Selected works:

  • The Defence of Guenevere and other Poems, 1858
  • The Life and Death of Jason, 1867
  • The Earthy Paradise, 1868-70
  • Books of Verse, 1870
  • Love is Enough, 1872
  • Aeneid, 1875 (translation)
  • Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs, 1876 (4 vols.)
  • The Decorative Arts, 1878
  • Chants for Socialists, 1884-85
  • Odyssey, 1887 (translation)
  • A Dream of John Ball, 1888
  • The House of the Wolfings, 1889
  • The Story of the Glittering Plain, or the Land of Living Men, 1890
  • News from Nowhere, or, An Epoch of Rest, 1890 - Ihannemaa (suom. J.K. Kari, 1900-1901) / Huomispäivän uutisia (suom. Ville-Juhani Sutinen, 2008)
  • Poems by the Way, 1891
  • The Wood Beyond the World, 1894
  • Child Christopher, 1895
  • Beowulf, 1895 (translation)
  • The Well at the World's End, 1896
  • The Sundering Flood, 1898
  • The Collected Works of William Morris, 1910-15 (24 vols., ed. May Morris)
  • Stories in Prose, Stories in Verse, Shorter Poems, Lectures and Essays, 1934
  • William Morris, Artist, Writer, Socialist, 1936 (2 vols., ed. May Morris)
  • The Letters of William Morris to his Family and Friends, 1950 (ed. Philip Henderson)
  • Unpublished Letters, 1951
  • Selected Writings, 1963
  • The Collected Letters of William Morris, 1984
  • Political Writings of William Morris, 1984 (ed. by A.L. Morton)
  • The Collected Letters of William Morris, Part B: 1885-1888, 1987
  • The Collected Letters of William Morris, Part A: 1881-1884, 1988
  • The Collected Letters of William Morris: 1889-1892, vol III, 1996
  • The Collected Letters of William Morris: 1893-1896, vol. IV, 1996


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