Poet, designer of textiles and wallpaper, successful businessman, father (often so-called) of the Arts and Crafts movement, radical socialist, writer of prose romances, translator (in collaboration) of the Icelandic sagas and Virgil’s Aeneid (1875), as well as the Odyssey (2 vols., 1887), and inspirer of the revived interest in the book arts at the end of the 19th c., Morris’s fate in the modern and postmodern periods has been to be remembered in pieces, if at all. Called a “Renaissance figure” in his own time, and described by his doctor at his death of having died “from doing the work of ten men,” his rise and fall as an important 19th-c. figure can almost be used as a gauge for changes in 20th-c. artistic and political culture.
Born in Walthamstow, then a suburb of London, Morris, the son of a man who had become wealthy (dying when Morris, one of five children, was twelve), matriculated at Exeter College, Oxford University, in 1853, and there began his friendship with the painter Edward Burne-Jones that was to be central in his life. There, too, he decided (against his mother’s intentions) to follow art as a career rather than take Holy Orders; and did the reading and traveling that laid the foundation of much to come. John RUSKIN’s Stones of Venice and Edinburgh Lectures, respectively, encouraged his incipient love of medieval architecture and made him aware of the painters known as the Pre-Raphaelites. Trips to northern France and Belgium, where he saw Bouvais and Rouen Cathedrals, as well as paintings by Memling and van Eyck, furthered the lines of development that reading Ruskin had begun. It was at Oxford that Morris began to write poetry.
Articled to the Oxford architect G. E. Street in 1856, the year in which he took his B.A. degree, Morris moved to London when Street did, taking rooms with Burne-Jones. By the end of the year, he had also met Dante Gabrial ROSSETTI and, encouraged by Rossetti, abandoned architecture for painting.
His first public success, however, was not as a painter—he was never to succeed as one—but as a poet. The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems was published in 1858 at his own expense and received favorable notice. One critic compared him to Alfred, Lord TENNYSON. But restlessness, variety, and ventures, as well as experiments in new directions, are the keys to Morris’s career. Married to the beautiful Jane Burden (daughter of an Oxford stable hand) in 1859, he had his friend Philip Webb build for him and his bride, and he hoped Burne-Jones and his recent bride, Red House, in Upton, Kent. The Burne-Joneses decided against moving in, ending Morris’s dream of a “Palace of Art,” but Red House proved significant in many ways. Still today regarded as a fine example of imaginative Victorian architecture, it was for Morris a new challenge: how to furnish it when he liked nothing being manufactured at the time. Along with his friends, he made and painted furniture and stitched fabrics, and this enterprise led to the formation, in 1861, of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Company, destined to be, under the later name of Morris and Co., a profound influence on Victorian taste in interior decoration and a paradigm for the growing Arts and Crafts movement of the 1880s, itself a preparation for the acceptance of the modern design and painting that Roger FRY introduced in the postimpressionist exhibition of 1910.
In poetry, Morris, now a busy business man, discovered his true inclination to be the writing of epics, and so began The Earthly Paradise, a narrative poem modeled on Geoffrey CHAUCER’s The Canterbury Tales, another of Morris’s early and enduring loves, in which a company of northerners, sailing south to escape the plague, land on a Greek island. There, they and the inhabitants agree to tell two stories a month, the northerners a Nordic tale and the Greeks a classical legend. The Earthly Paradise, published in three volumes between 1868 and 1870, extended Morris’s reputation as a poet beyond a small circle of critics and admirers.
By 1870, domestic bliss, if it had ever existed, was at an end for Morris Jane Morris and Rossetti had become lovers. Morris’s two daughters, Jane (Jenny) and Mary (May), were a solace for him, but work was the only real answer. The firm prospered, with Morris becoming more and more the chief designer, and in 1876 a new chapter in his life story began. He published Sigurd the Volsung, a one-volume EPIC that is one of his finest poetic achievements. He made his first move into politics, becoming the treasurer of Eastern Question Association, a liberal organization devoted to keeping England out of the Russo-Turkish War, no small effort, since Benjamin DISRAELI and the Conservative government thought it essential that Russian expansion into the West be stopped. One year earlier the firm had dissolved, with much bitterness on the part of some, and was renamed Morris and Co. But in 1876, too, Morris’s daughter Jenny suffered an epileptic attack, a dark signal that she was to be a semi-invalid the rest of her life, becoming, simultaneously, Morris’s chief worry and the object of his deepest love and devotion.
By 1879, he had helped found the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), whose first project was to protest proposed restorations at St. Mark’s, Venice. (The implicit cultural imperialism went unnoticed by Morris: St. Marks was a possession of all Europe in his eyes.) The creed of the SPAB, taken from Ruskin, was simple. When an ancient building is in need of repairs, do not try to restore it. The building is part of the fabric of history. The 19th-c imagination cannot reconceive and reconstruct the work of an artisan of centuries back: it can only falsify it. Do nothing but stop further deterioration. If a gargoyle has fallen off a medieval cathedral, put a slab of concrete across the exposed surface But writing poetry, managing the growing business of Morris and Co., as well as designing for it, and forwarding the mission of the SPAB were not enough for Morris In 1878, the Russo-Turkish War ended, and the Liberals had succeeded in keeping England out of the conflict. In the next year, Morris became treasurer of the National Liberal League, an organization he thought was dedicated to radical social reform at home. But it did not move fast enough for him, and in 1883 he joined H. Morris Hyndman’s Democratic Federation, the first British socialist group to commit itself to Marx’s theory of history and prophecy of a working class revolt. Then began an amazing period of lecturing on behalf of the Democratic Federation—its name soon changed to the Social Democratic Federation—all over England, Scotland, and Ireland. In these many lectures several themes persist. Morris is against struggling for change by entering Parliament. Socialists in Parliament do nothing but adopt bourgeois values. A sporadic warning of the danger of revolution permeates the essays from time to time; but the main argument is that there is a need to educate (in Marx’s term, “to raise the consciousness of the proletariat”) so that it realizes it is the working class and that it is engaged in class war with capitalists, the industrialists who own the factories and the mines. Morris’s central interest, however, was asking and answering the question, Change society for what purpose? For him, the answer was to liberate the workers to realize themselves as creative, imaginative craftspeople, with enough leisure to take pleasure in their work and with an unfettered imagination at play when they do work. The ideal image is the ordinary individual who helped build the medieval cathedral, hewing out a rough and grotesque gargoyle that expressed the true self of the workman-craftsman: the workman-craftsman who is the protagonist of Ruskin’s Stones of Venice. The one narrative by Morris still most often read today, News from Nowhere (1890), is a vision of a future, the 21st c., when, after a revolution along lines prophesied by Marx, the England of the 14th c.
has been restored (not envisioned by Marx) and the inhabitants, who know nothing of money, ugly architecture, or class conflict (there are no classes) devote themselves to making and decorating useful articles, as well as enjoying those made by others, helping to bring in the harvest, and experiencing genuine love and friendship between the sexes—staying married as long as it suits both parties to do so but separating amicably when one or both no longer wants the tie. The story is a dream, encountered by the first-person narrator “Guest,” who indeed falls in love with the ideal woman of Morris/Guest’s dreams. Ellen is her name. She is healthy and tanned; working in the fields she is scantily—i.e., sensibly—dressed; she is self-confident, open, merry in spirit; in brief, all that Jane Morris was not for Morris.
One could go on, detailing Morris’s works and achievements, citing the titles of collections of poems, collections of essays, and discussing a series of prose romances he wrote late in his life, notably A Tale of the House of the Wolfings (1889), The Story of the Glittering Plain (1891), The Wood beyond the World (1894), and The Well at the World’s End (1896). But the one achievement in his later life that carried most forcefully into the 20th c. was the founding of the Kelmscott Press in 1891. Dissatisfied as usual with what the Victorian era had produced, Morris became dedicated to reforming what he saw was the deep decline in standards and ideas governing the book arts. He designed his own type, sought out the manufacturers of paper and ink that suited him (he had to go to Germany for the ink), laid down rules for spacing and margins, based on medieval standards, and employed decorative elements, again giving rebirth to the vision of what a book is or should be, which he found in the best medieval manuscripts and early printed books.
Today, many of the books produced by the Kelmscott Press seem to defeat their own purpose—to make the reader unaware of the type while absorbed in reading. But they still succeed in reminding us that there is an important visual dimension to all we read, what Jerome J. McGann calls the “bibliographical codes,” and that responding, however subliminally, to type design, spacing, margins, and decorations and illustrations is indeed part of the experience of reading. That the masterpiece of the Kelmscott Press, the Chaucer, today brings astronomical sums at auctions, perhaps proves nothing of its intrinsic worth as a book to read. But many people in the book arts regard it, as well as other Kelmscott productions, as inspiring not only the small press movement of the 20th c. but vastly more important, the awareness of the effect of design on the linguistic message, whatever be its context: advertising poster, magazine layout, or, indeed, books. Using the Kelmscott Press as an excuse for indulging himself, Morris also built one of the most important 19th-c. collections of medieval manuscripts and early printed books (he needed them as models, he said). Many of the best of them have been kept together and are now in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.
Of enormous impact in his own age, as a hero of every movement from poetry to radical politics (the socialist movements in both England and the U.S.—especially England—regarded him as a seminal figure; W. B. YEATS was an early admirer of his poetry; and his fabric designs are still available), as a face that showed up during the 1960s on a lapel button along with others in the series featuring Marx, Engels, Che Guevara, and Mao Zedong, Morris to this day inspires a band of loyal devotees. They continue to read him, admire his designs, and base scholarship on his life and works. He has yet to catch fire again in any area with the possible exception of fabric design, but “Renaissance man” that he was, protean figure who left his mark on so many areas of Victorian and early modern culture, he cannot be forgotten. An unpublished novel by the modernist poet H. D., entitled White Rose and the Red, has Morris as its protagonist. He was in fact a crucial figure to her throughout her life; she never lost her enthusiasm for his poetry and prose romances. And McGann, citing Morris as the precursor of the movement in modernist poetry in which typography and design are essential to the substance of a poem (E. E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, and Ezra Pound are examples), has kept Morris in the discourse of textual scholarship today. What part of Morris’s achievement will be rediscovered next remains to be seen, but it is a good bet that something will—perhaps his socialism, based as much on Ruskin as on Marx, and, at heart, a form of advanced humanism.
Bibliography Faulkner, P., ed., W. M. (1973); Faulkner, P., and P. Preston, eds., W. M. (1999); Kelvin, N., ed., The Collected Letters of W. M. (4 vols., 1984–96); MacCarthy, F., W. M. (1994); Silver, C., The Romance of W. M. (1982); Stansky, P., Redesigning the World: W. M., the 1880s, and the Arts and Crafts (1985); Thompson, E. P., W. M. (1955)
We're sorry this article wasn't helpful. Tell us how we can improve.