William Morris's career conforms to Utopia seminar's Objective 1d. To identify the utopian author both within and beyond traditional literary categories—e.g., as writer + activist, agitator, reformer, prophet / visionary?
Morris is best known to literature today as author of a classic utopian novel, News from Nowhere (1890), but in his own time he was more widely known ias a poet, craftsman, architect, translator, printer, publisher, critic, preservationist, and later in life an activist for Socialist reform.
His continuous productivity on these fronts led a doctor, on hearing of Morris's death at age 62, to say, “[His] disease [was] simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men.”
William Morris was born to a prosperous family in Essex, England, in 1834, three years before Victoria became Queen of the United Kingdom, and he died in 1896, five years after her passing, so he's understandably classified with authors like the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy as a Victorian writer, but his florid subject matter may also be classified as a late Romantic author Tennyson, Swinburne, and Charles Dickens, all writing in the Victorian era.
Morris, like Samuel Butler, author of the satirical utopia Erewhon, originally studied to be a painter, and his literary style and circle of friends included members of the late English Romantic school of painters known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rosetti. These painters' styles and subjects, like Morris's writings, depicted Medieval subjects in an intensely Romantic style featuring heavy detail, strong colors, and complicated compositions. In 1859 Morris married Jane Burden, who became a model for Pre-Raphaelite paintings.
(More Pre-Raphaelite art at bottom of page)
Working with Burne-Jones and other artists, Morris headed Morris & Company, which produced decorative materials as a fine art, inspiring the international Arts & Crafts Movement, which flourished in Europe and North America in the late 1800s-early 1900s, and in Japan in the 1920s.
Wallpaper produced by Morris & Company:
Rug & Tapestry designed by Morris & Co.
Architecture in Arts & Crafts style: Morris's self-designed "Red House" in London, and a bungalow in Jacksonville, Florida
Morris as translator with Icelandic scholar Eiríkr or Eiríkur Magnússon (1833–1913) translated and published 6 volumes of the Saga Library, influencing the Victorian movement to study Old Norse and related languages and literatures.
Morris as printer founded the Kelmscott Press in 1891 to publish limited-edition, illuminated page editions of Medieval and Renaissance texts.
Literary interest in Morris faded during my studies but has revived recently due to his influence on Fantasy literature, particularly his early prose "Romances," his high fantasy novel The Well at the World's End, which influenced J.R. R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and poetic works including The Defence of Guenevere (1857).
Morris was also notable for visiting Iceland and translating several Icelandic sagas.
Morris's later commitment to Socialism and authorship of News from Nowhere are consistent with his varied artistic career, all built on the model of the Middle Ages, a.k.a. the Medieval or Premodern era. (The name of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood indicates their support for painterly values before those of Raphael, a leading Renaissance artist.) (See Periods.):
Medieval village life as a model for modern living, in contrast to modern cities. Middle Ages or Premodern era as lost
Medieval guilds as prototypes of craft unions from which workers could manage local economies.
Medieval crafts as meeting of daily work and art whereby labor becomes pleasant and meaningful, as in the creation of art.
Medieval gothic architecture as public expression of community and spiritual values (in contrast to impermanent, ugly, commercial structures of modern capitalism).
For literary and cultural studies, Morris represents a meeting point of aesthetic and Marxist theory and practice.
An important 20c biography, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (1955, 1977) was written by E. P. Thompson (1924-1993), historian of radical movements of late 1700s-early 1800s; best known as author of The Making of the English Working Class (1963).
Thompson found Morris's work preserving English buildings from modern "restorations" sensitized him to relations between arts and society and took him on a journey toward radical Socialism.
197 . . . with every case that came forward he was given further and more horrifying insight into the insensibility of commercial philistinism, the absolute lack of any public conscience where questions of individual profit and loss were concerned. . . He was forced to contrast the attitude of feudal society in this respect with that of industrial capitalism.
199 What could be learnt from the monuments of past aspirations beyond the sense of mortality, and the bitterness and degradation of the present? The answer lay in that astonishing rebirth of hope which permeated all Morris's writing and activity in these years. The masterpieces of the past were not dead relics, but a living inspiration and warning to present, a proof of qualities in man which--however suppressed and slumbering--could not be extringuished for ever.
208 . . . all his researches into Gothic architecture and into the decorative arts reinforced his conviction that the true roots of thses arts were in the traditional skills of the people.
213 [following readings of Marx] In all his lectures he was moved . . . by his increasing understanding of the movement of history, of the fact of class division and the class struggle. If simplicity was the aim, its attainment would liberate ricch and poor alike.
from E. P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, 1955, 1977. In Dorothy Thompson, ed., The Essential E.P. Thompson. The New Press, 2001.
News from Nowhere as utopian fiction: This semester I finally got around to reading News from Nowhere more from a sense of obligation than desire—the old graduate-student discipline of not claiming expertise until you've read absolutely everything in your chosen field.
Mrs. White asked why I was going to this trouble justr before retiring. I could only say it was the same crazy drive that first led me to study literature, so I may as well stay with it to the end in faith that the rewards outweight the pains, which turned out to be the case.
As with much classic literature and especially utopian fiction, studying a text often makes connections to other texts, in this case Edward Bellamy's landmark utopian novel Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1887), which inspired the creation of Nationalist clubs in the USA urging "nationalization" of industries to serve the entire society rather than the wealthy only.
ch 7 analogy with army
cf. delivery of goods like Amazon
street awnings anticipate mall
Morris, review of Looking Backward (Commonweal 22 June 1889)
para. 4 & 5 "alteration of machinery of life" + "mind fixed firmly on the mere machinery of life"
para 9: "Mr. Bellamy's ideas of life are curiously limited; he has no idea beyond existence in a great city; his dwelling of man in the future is Boston (U.S.A.) beautified. In one passage, indeed, he mentions villages, but with unconscious simplicity shows that they do not come into his scheme of economical equality, but are mere servants of the great centres of civilisation. This seems strange to some of us, who cannot help thinking that our experience ought to have taught us that such aggregations of population afford the worst possible form of dwelling-place . . . .
para 10: "In short, a machine-life is the best which Mr. Bellamy can imagine . . . . his only idea of making labour tolerable is to decrease the amount of it by means of fresh and ever fresh developments of machinery. I believe that the ideal of the future does not point to the lessening of men's energy by the reduction of labour to a minimum, but rather to the reduction of pain in labour to a minimum, . . . the true incentive to useful and happy labour is and must be pleasure in the work itself."
para 11: "individual men cannot shuffle off the business of life on to the shoulders of an abstraction called the State [i.e. Nationalism or nationalization], but must deal with it in conscious association with each other. That variety of life is as much an aim of true Communism as equality of condition, and that nothing but an union of these two will bring about real freedom."
Looking Backward cannot have been the only reason Morris wrote News from Nowhere, but Bellamy's book stimulated scores of responses and sequels, and News from Nowhere offers a counter-utopia that replaces machinery with natural organicism and cities with villages.
More immediate reasons for admiring News from Nowhere:
Like most utopian fictions, News from Nowhere starts slowly and features far more dialogue and ideas than action, but at length Morris's novel may have given me more immediate literary pleasure than any other strictly utopian novel, primarily because of the quality of its writing. As a Romantic Victorian author, Morris excels at the authoritative, slightly archaic, but idiomatic, quick-paced style we associate with the British Empire and its tales of high adventure in exotic places.
Nowhere's settings, both natural and artificial, feel personally intimate or dreamlike but also impressively direct and simple. It explores a land of never-was but rarely becomes falsely elaborate or long-winded. Despite its partial return of human society to a legendary past, the beauty represented by those principles appears honest and simple.
Character is never a strong point of utopian fiction, but Morris's career as a visual artist contributes to sharp, quick, evocative sketches of characters' appearances.
My first few reading sessions were more dutiful than engaged. Standard problems with utopian fiction didn't disappear, but the further I read, the more I found myself wanting to read without quite knowing why.
The quality of Morris's writing--the beauty of its prose and vision--somehow seems to prove its truth, that the creation and experience of beauty gives meaning to life and work.
Narrative structure for News from Nowhere bears features like that of other utopian noves: journey + dialogue
The Dream-Vision features in prophecy and literature from the Bible's Book of Daniel through the first English proto-novel, Pilgrim's Progress (1678) by John Bunyan, whose journey to heaven (e.g., a utopian paradise) begins with the author dreaming a dream. (Atwood 72 dream vision)
Social issues represented or discussed in News from Nowhere
Ecological / Aesthetic
Problem(s): Profit-motive commercialism has no motive to make architecture beautiful beyond function of storing and selling merchandise; industry increases profits by unloading wastes into common spaces of water, air, and soil, despoiling environment and harming health. Increased and concentrated human populations increase market-size and profits, also accelerating competition.
Solution(s): Disperse population from cities to villages. (Somehow) reduce "reproductive desire," possibly by increasing life-spans and quality of life. (Morris is indirect about such issues, but increasing quality of life and education generally reduce birth-rates.)
Problem(s): Machinery and abstract economic systems determine social relations, producing artificial desires beyond human needs.
Solution(s): Organicism over machinery (Romantic principle); human-scale communities, technology.
Looking Backward, 2000-1887 [3.61]
At my feet lay a great city. Miles of broad streets, shaded by
trees and lined with fine buildings, for the most part not in continuous
blocks but set in larger or smaller inclosures, stretched in
every direction. Every quarter contained large open squares
filled with trees, among which statues glistened and fountains flashed
in the late afternoon sun. Public buildings of a colossal size and an
architectural grandeur unparalleled in my day raised their
stately piles on every side. Surely I had never seen this city nor one
comparable to it before. Raising my eyes at last towards the horizon, I
looked westward. That blue ribbon winding away to the sunset, was it not
the sinuous Charles [River of Boston]? I looked east;
Chapter 2 Both shores had a line of very pretty houses, low and not large, standing back a little way from the river; they were mostly built of red brick and roofed with tiles, and looked, above all, comfortable, and as if they were, so to say, alive, and sympathetic with the life of the dwellers in them. There was a continuous garden in front of them, going down to the water’s edge, in which the flowers were now blooming luxuriantly, and sending delicious waves of summer scent over the eddying stream. Behind the houses, I could see great trees rising . . . .
Chapter 4: We turned away from the river at once, and were soon in the main road that runs through Hammersmith [district of west London]. But I should have had no guess as to where I was, if I had not started from the waterside; for King Street was gone, and the highway ran through wide sunny meadows and garden-like tillage. The Creek, which we crossed at once, had been rescued from its culvert, and as we went over its pretty bridge we saw its waters, yet swollen by the tide, covered with gay boats of different sizes. There were houses about, some on the road, some amongst the fields with pleasant lanes leading down to them, and each surrounded by a teeming garden.
Chapter 29. A Resting Place on the Thames. Presently at a place where the river flowed round a headland of the meadows, we stopped a while for rest and victuals [nourishment], and settled ourselves on a beautiful bank which almost reached the dignity of a hill-side: the wide meadows spread before us, and already the scythe [hay-cutting instrument] was busy amidst the hay. One change I noticed amidst the quiet beauty of the fields - to wit, that they were planted with trees here and there, often fruit-trees, and that there was none of the begrudging of space to a handsome tree which I remembered too well; and though the willows were often polled [trimmed], . . . this was done with some regard to beauty: . . . a thoughtful sequence in the cutting, that prevented a sudden bareness anywhere. To be short, the fields were everywhere treated as a garden made for the pleasure as well as the livelihood of all, as old Hammond told me was the case.
Work as pleasure
Problem(s): alienation of labor, work-life division; how to motivate labor without external reward of profit?
Solution(s) by other utopias: Twin Oaks, behaviorist communes, Looking Backward: limit hours, distribute as rewards, compensations. In The Dispossessed, the Anarresti rotate "tenth-day" labor to perform important social activities.
Solution(s) in News from Nowhere: People do the work they are naturally inclined to do, whether rowing on the river, providing hospitality and housekeeping for guests, maintaining historical archives, or building finely crafted homes and public buildings.
The problems or contradictions raised by Morris's solutions are obvious and common to utopian planning or fiction. In the text itself, Dick repeatedly discusses how much he looks forward to joining others to harvest hay, and the latter part of the novel depicts their journey to the fields where this happens, but
A common problem in fairly all art and literature is that labor cannot be represented directly, but utopian fiction, by raising the issues of pleasurable labor, raises stakes and expectations that cannot be fulfilled, increasing the genre's risk of rejection as fantastic and unreal since it doesn't accept the "curse of labor" we've all grown used to since Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden or we grew up out of whatever leisure we enjoyed in childhood.
Women as property, labor, or subject or object?
Problem(s): Morris's representations of women's identities or roles struggle with familiar problems in Victorian standards. Do women achieve genuine subjective equality as society modernizes and equalizes, or must they maintain traditional roles supporting men and families?
Solution(s): Though some parents and their grown children appear as characters in News from Nowhere, small children appear only in glimpses, and no families with two parents and young children appear. Women, freed like everyone from unpleasant labor, from individual ownership of property, and from the strictures of marriage, live longer and maintain their looks longer. For instance, Clara first appears as a young woman in courtship with the young Dick Hammond, but it turns out that they were more or less married at an earlier time. She broke off the relationship for another man, but now she and Dick are renewing their relationship. In fact they are around 40 years old but look and act like fresh sweethearts.
Though women in News from Nowhere often appear humoring or serving men, Morris added a chapter to the first book-publication (Chapter 26. The Obstinate Refusers) that featured women workers at a construction site. The first woman they meet is a model for the sculptors on the site. Another middle-aged (but still youthfully-beautiful) model appears, but her mother is Philippa, the chief carver for the builders, who is friendly enough but won't stop her work to socialize with Guest and his fellow visitors. She appears totally dedicated to her artistic work, and her fellow-workers defer to her commands and eccentricities.
The most problematic yet attractive woman character in News from Nowhere is Ellen, a 20-year-old whose beauty is distracting and reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelites' paintings of women:
"We went up a paved path between the roses, and straight into a very pretty room . . . the chief ornament of which was a young woman, light-haired and grey-eyed, but with her face and hands and bare feet tanned quite brown with the sun. . . . her gown was of silk, and on her wrists were bracelets that seemed to me of great value. She was lying on a sheep-skin near the window, but jumped up as soon as we entered, and when she saw the guests behind the old man, she clapped her hands and cried out with pleasure, and when she got us into the middle of the room, fairly danced round us in delight of our company."
The next day . . .
"I looked, and over the low hedge saw Ellen, shading her eyes against the sun as she looked toward the hay-field, a light wind stirring in her tawny hair, her eyes like light jewels amidst her sunburnt face, which looked as if the warmth of the sun were yet in it."
Ellen risks being a "manic pixie dream girl," (2), but Morris gives her a serious voice, which may resemble that of a prophetess or sibyl, as she laments the pain of Morris's present time, when she herself would have had little freedom to determine her own fate and would have had to marry for money instead of love.
Ellen's and Guest's relationship remains unresolved. They row together to the hay-fields. He develops a careful and respectful crush on her. She suggests that he might live with her and her grandfather in their new home up-river.
As a character Ellen represents all that is desirable about the utopian future: beauty, seriousness, care in living, which makes their separation in the final scene potentially aching:
Guest enters the church where the workers' feast is beginning:
"I stood on the threshold with the expectant smile on my face of a man who is going to take part in a festivity which he is really prepared to enjoy. Dick, standing by me was looking round the company with an air of proprietorship in them, I thought. Opposite me sat Clara and Ellen, with Dick’s place open between them: they were smiling, but their beautiful faces were each turned towards the neighbours on either side, who were talking to them, and they did not seem to see me. I turned to Dick, expecting him to lead me forward, and he turned his face to me; but strange to say, though it was as smiling and cheerful as ever, it made no response to my glance—nay, he seemed to take no heed at all of my presence, and I noticed that none of the company looked at me. A pang shot through me, as of some disaster long expected and suddenly realised. Dick moved on a little without a word to me. I was not three yards from the two women who, though they had been my companions for such a short time, had really, as I thought, become my friends. Clara’s face was turned full upon me now, but she also did not seem to see me, though I know I was trying to catch her eye with an appealing look. I turned to Ellen, and she did seem to recognise me for an instant; but her bright face turned sad directly, and she shook her head with a mournful look, and the next moment all consciousness of my presence had faded from her face."
As with fairly all Romantic literature, loss only makes desire stronger for what was glimpsed.
As Morris concludes, "if others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream."
John Everett Millais, Ophelia (1851-2)
James Archer, The Death of King Arthur (1860)
Edward Burne-Jones, The Beguiling of Merlin (1874)
Christina Rossetti, by brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti
William Holman Hunt, The Light of the World
(Christina Rossetti facial model)
Reproductive desire programmed into humans as part of survival of species
Men's desire for young women natural, as is young women's disdain for older men.