William Morris (1834-1896) was an English poet and artist, third child and eldest son of William Morris and Emma Shelton, was born at Elm House, Walthamstow, on the 24th of March 1834. His grandfather was a respected tradesman in Worcester, and his father, who was born in that town in 1797, came up to London in 1820, and entered the office of a firm of discount brokers, in which he afterwards assumed a partnership.
As a child the poet was delicate but studious. He learnt to read very early, and by the time he was four years old was familiar with most of the Waverley novels. When he was six the family moved to Woodford Hall, where new opportunities for an out-of-door life brought the boy health and vigour. He rode about Epping Forest, sometimes in a toy suit of armour, became a close observer of animal nature, and was able to recognize any bird upon the wing. At the same time he continued to read whatever came in his way, and was particularly attracted by the stories in the Arabian Nights and by the designs in Gerard's Herbal. He studied with his sisters' governess until he was nine, when he was sent to a school at Walthamstow.
In his thirteenth year his father died, leaving the family well-to-do; the home at Woodford was broken up, as being unnecessarily large; and in 1848 William Morris went to Marlborough, where his father had bought him a nomination. Morris was at the school three years, but got very little good from it beyond a taste for architecture, fostered by the school library, and an attraction towards the Anglo-Catholic movement. He made but slow progress in school work, and at Christmas 1851 was removed and sent to a private tutor for a year.
In June 1852 he matriculated at Exeter College, Oxford, but, as the college was full, he did not go into residence till January 1853. He at once made friends, who stood him in good stead all his life, foremost among whom were Edward Burne-Jones, who was a freshman of his year, and a little Birmingham group at Pembroke. They were known among themselves as the “Brotherhood”; they read together theology, ecclesiastical history, medieval poetry, and, among moderns, Tennyson and Ruskin. They studied art, and fostered the study in the long vacations by tours among the English churches and the Continental cathedrals. Moreover, Morris began at this time to write poetry, and many of his first pieces, afterwards destroyed, were held by sound judges to be equal to anything he ever did.
Both Morris and Burne-Jones had come to Oxford with the intention of taking holy orders, but as they felt their way they both came to the conclusion that there was more to be done in the direction of social reform than of ecclesiastical work, and that their energies would be best employed outside the priesthood. So Morris decided to become an architect, and for the better propagation of the views of the new brotherhood a magazine was at the same time projected, which was to make a speciality of social articles, besides poems and short stories. At the beginning of 1856 the two schemes came to a head together. Morris, having passed his finals in the preceding term, was entered as a pupil at the office of George Edmund Street, the well-known architect; and on New Year's Day the first number of The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine appeared.
The expenses of this very interesting venture were borne entirely by Morris, but after the issue of No. 1 he resigned the formal editorship to his friend Fulford. Many distinguished compositions appeared in its pages, but it gradually languished, and was given up after a year's experiment. The chief immediate result was the friendship between Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (q.v.), which sprang up from a successful attempt to secure Rossetti as a contributor.
In the summer of 1856 Street removed to London, and Morris accompanied him, working very hard both in and out of office hours at architecture and painting. But Rossetti persuaded him that he was better suited for a painter, and after a while he devoted himself exclusively to that branch of art. It was in the summer that the two friends visited Oxford, and finding the new Union debating-hall in course of construction, offered to paint the bays. Seven artists volunteered help, and the work was hastily begun. Morris worked with feverish energy, and on finishing the portion assigned to him proceeded to decorate the roof. The work was done too soon and too fast, the colours began to fade at once, and are now barely decipherable; but the broken designs, so long as any vestige remains, will always be interesting as a relic of an important aesthetic movement and as the first attempt on Morris's part towards decorative art.
Early in 1858 Morris published The Defence of Guenevere, which was almost unnoticed by contemporary criticism, but is now recognized as one of the pearls of Victorian poetry. On 26th April 1859 Morris married Jane Burden, a beautiful Oxford girl, who had sat to him as a model, and settled temporarily at 41 Great Ormond Street, London. Meanwhile he set about building for himself at Upton a house which was to be the embodiment of all his principles of decorative art. Furniture, decorations, household utensils and every article of daily use were specially designed, and in the summer of 1860 the house was ready for occupation. The furnishing of it had suggested a fresh activity; Morris now determined to embark upon decoration as a career. A small company was formed, consisting of D. G. Rossetti, Philip Webb, Burne-Jones, Madox Brown, Faulkner and Marshall, and in January 1862 started business under the title of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., with offices at 8 Red Lion Square.
The prospectus set forth that the firm would undertake church decoration, carving, stained glass, metal-work, paper-hangings, chintzes and carpets. The business, after inevitable vicissitudes, flourished, but the “house beautiful” at Upton proved to be unhealthily situated. Serious illness obliged the family to remove to town, and in November 1865 they resettled at 26 Queen Square, Bloomsbury. Morris was now unceasingly busy, but he found time also for literature.
In June 1867 he published The Life and Death of Jason, which was at once successful; and in April 1868 the first two parts of The Earthly Paradise. The rest of this wonderful storehouse of poetic romance appeared in two volumes in 1869 and 1870. In the following year he was again looking for a country house, and lighted upon Kelmscott Manor house, in the Upper Thames valley, which he took at first in joint-tenancy with Rossetti and used principally as a holiday home. In 1872 appeared Love is Enough, structurally the most elaborate of his poems for its combination of the epic and dramatic spirits; and in the autumn he began to translate the shorter Icelandic sagas, to which his enthusiasm had been directed by two inspiring journeys to Ice-land. Business worries, however, interrupted him; it was found necessary to reconstruct the company owing to its having grown out of proportion with the existing division of profit and labour. Long negotiations ensued, and in March 1875 the old firm was dissolved.
Morris now became sole manager and proprietor, although the other members of the old firm continued, in varying degrees, to give him the advantage of their assistance and advice. Meanwhile the epic mood had possessed Morris very strongly, and, in addition to his work upon the sagas, he had actually finished and (in 1875) published a verse translation of the Aeneid, which is interesting rather for its individuality than for any fidelity to the spirit of the original.
In the following year appeared Sigurd the Volsung, a version full of heroic vigour, movement and vitality, but somewhat too lengthy and incoherent in design to preserve the epic interest intact to the British taste. This splendid burst of poetic activity, however, had raised him to a place among the first poets of his time; and in 1877 an attempt was made to induce him to accept the professor-ship of poetry at Oxford. But he felt himself lacking in the academic spirit, and wisely declined.
At this time a fresh outlet for his energy was furnished by his foundation in 1877 of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, which sprang into being as a practical protest against a scheme for restoring and reviving Tewkesbury Abbey. He began, too, to take an active interest in politics over the Eastern Question, but his enthusiasm was at the moment a flash in the pan. Finding that events were going against his judgment, Morris, as was so often the case with him, shrugged his shoulders and broke free from the movement. Still, although he found it hard to sit close to a definite party, Morris continued to be spasmodically interested in political movements.
During the next few years, indeed, the interest gained ground with him steadily. He became treasurer of the National Liberal League in 1879, but after the Irish coercive measures of 1881 he finally abandoned the Liberal party, and drifted further and further into Socialism. For ten or twelve years this movement had been gaining ground in England, and the Social Democratic Federation was formed in 1881.
In January 1883, within a week of his election to an honorary fellowship at Exeter, Morris was enrolled among its members. Thenceforward for two years his advocacy of the cause of Socialism absorbed not only his spare time, but the thought and energy of all his working hours. For it he even neglected literature and art.
In March 1883 he gave an address at Manchester on “Art, Wealth and Riches”; in May he was elected upon the executive of the federation. In September he wrote the first of his Chants for Socialists. About the same time he shocked the authorities by pleading in University Hall for the wholesale support of Socialism among the undergraduates at Oxford. Nevertheless, the federation began to weaken.
At the franchise meeting in Hyde Park in 1884 it was unable to get a hearing. Morris, however, had not yet lost heart. Internal dissensions in 1884 led to the foundation of the Socialist League, and in February 1885 a new organ, Commonweal, began to print Morris's splendid rallying-songs. Still, differences of opinion and degree prevented concerted action; and when, after the Trafalgar Square riots in February 1886, Morris remonstrated with the anarchic section he was denounced by the advanced party and ever afterwards was regarded with suspicion.
In 1889 he was deposed from the management of Commonweal, and gradually lost all confidence in the movement as an active force. Long before that time, however, Morris had returned to the paramount interests of his life—to art and literature. When his business was enlarged in 1881 by the establishment of a tapestry industry at Merton, in Surrey, Morris found yet another means for expressing the medievalism that inspired all his work, whether on paper or at the loom.
In 1887 he published his translation of the Odyssey, which had many of the qualities and defects of his Aeneid, and is much more interesting as an experiment than valuable as a “Homeric echo.” In the Commonweal appeared News from Nowhere, published in book form in 1891, describing an England in which the principles of communism have been realized.
He then added another to his many activities; he assumed a direct interest in typography. In the early seventies he had devoted much attention to the arts of illumination and calligraphy. He himself wrote several manuscripts, with illuminations of his own devising. From this to attempts to beautify the art of modern printing was but a short step. The House of the Wolfings, printed in 1889 at the Chiswick Press, was the first essay in this direction; and in the same year, in The Roots of the Mountains, he carried his theory a step further. Some fifteen months later he added a private printing-press to his multifarious occupations, and started upon the first volume issued from the Kelmscott Press, his own Glittering Plain.
For the last few years of his life this new interest remained the absorbing one. A series of exquisite books, which gain in value every year, witnesses to the thorough and whole-hearted fashion in which he invariably threw himself into the exigencies of his life-work. The last years of his life were peacefully occupied.
He was sounded as to whether he would accept the laureateship upon the death of Tennyson, but declined, feeling that his tastes and his record were too remote from the requirements of a court appointment. His last piece of work, the crowning glory of his printing-press, was the Kelmscott Chaucer, which had taken nearly two years to print, and fully five to plan and mature.
It was finished in June 1896, and before it was in his hands he already knew that his working day was over. His vigour had been slowly declining for some time, and he sank gradually during the autumn, dying on the 3rd of October 1896. He was buried in Kelmscott churchyard, followed to the grave by the workmen whom he had inspired, the members of the league which he had supported, the students of the art guild he had founded, and the villagers who had learnt to love him. Essentially the child of the Gothic revival, he had put an ineffaceable stamp on Victorian ornament and design, his place being that of a follower of Ruskin and Pugin, but with a greater practical influence than either. In house decoration of all kinds — furniture, wall-papers and hangings (which he preferred to paper), carpet-weaving, and the painting of glass and tiles, needlework, tapestry. He formed a school which was dominated by his protest against commercialism and his assertion of the necessity for natural decoration and pure colour, produced by hand work and inspired by a passion for beauty irrespective of cheapness or quickness of manufacture.
The truest criticism of William Morris is that attributed to his friend, the poet Swinburne, who said that he was always more truly inspired by literature than by life. His Socialism, though it made a brave show at times, was at heart a passionate enthusiasm for an inaccessible artistic ideal. Morris, indeed, was not primarily interested in men at all, but in objects. His poetry deals, it is true, with the human passions, but the emotion is always seen as in a picture; he is more concerned with the attitude of the group than with the realization of a character. He had very little adaptability in dealing with his fellows; the crowd, as a crowd, fired his enthusiasm, but he was unable to cope with the individuals that composed it.
Many of his colleagues bear witness to his generosity and magnanimity, but as a general principle he certainly lacked the wider humanity. This is the one failing of his art: it is also the shortcoming of his poetry. Granted this, there is left an immense amount that will always command admiration. The spirit of beauty breathes in every line; a sense of music and of colour is everywhere abundant; the reader moves, as it were, under a canopy of apple-blossom, over a flower-starred turf, to the faint harmony of virginals. Nor does the poet lack power and vigour when an adventurous story is to be told. The clash of arms breaks upon his pagan paradise with no uncertain sound; he is swift in narrative, breathless in escapade. And over all hangs the faint atmosphere of medievalism, of an England of green gardens and grey towers, of a London “small and white and clean,” of chivalry and adventure in every brake.
The critic has also to remember the historical value of Morris's literary influence, following upon the prim domesticities of early Victorian verse, and breaking in upon Tennyson's least happy phase of natural homeliness. See the Life and Letters, in 2 vols. (Longmans), by J. W. Mackail.
Find us on Google Maps