William Morris’ essays comprise a small part of his prolific literary work; nevertheless, they are the most significant of his works in clarifying the essential relationship Morris perceived between art and society and between art and politics. Less well known in literary circles than his poetry, translations, and prose romances, Morris’ essays profoundly influenced the socialist movement in England during his lifetime, and they have continued to raise important questions about the crassness of commercialism, the exploitation of nature, the destructive separation of the worker from the pleasure of creation, and the inevitability of social collapse given the current state of Western society. Many of John Ruskin’s themes reappear in Morris’ essays, which also owe much of their exhortative style to Ruskin. Both the subject matter and the style of Morris’ essays were also greatly influenced by his translation of Icelandic sagas and his vision of medieval Icelandic culture as epitomizing the integration of art into society. The substance of Morris’ essays also grew out of his reading of John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx.
Written between 1877 and 1894, Morris’ essays, for the most part, were first delivered as lectures and then published in periodicals or as pamphlets; some were then reprinted in collections. Many of his essays and lectures were first published only in the 20th century. In addition, Morris wrote about 500 editorials and signed articles for Justice and Commonweal, a socialist newspaper he edited from 1884 to 1890.
Best known during his lifetime as author of the four-volume narrative poem The Earthly Paradise (1868–70), Morris turned to essays in the late 1870s when he began to involve himself in such political issues as the “Eastern Question,” the conflict between Russia and other nations over control of the Ottoman Empire, a conflict which threatened to involve Great Britain, an ally of Turkey, in war against Russia. This early political issue and Morris’ indignation at the methods being used to restore ancient buildings stimulated him to begin writing essays, lectures, and newspaper articles. As he became more and more involved in the socialist movement in England, he turned almost exclusively to writing nonfiction prose. In his attacks on the methods of restoring medieval buildings, Morris echoes Ruskin’s The Nature of Gothic (1853). In his essay “The Beauty of Life” (1880), Morris pays homage to Ruskin’s “eloquence” and influence, and in a Ruskinesque vein, writes that “down to very recent days everything that the hand of man touched was more or less beautiful: so that in those days all people who made anything shared in art, as well as all people who used the things so made; that is, all people shared in art.” In this important essay, Morris identifies his cause as “the Democracy of Art, the ennobling of daily and common work,” and holds up the promise of an enlightened society in which art would be “made by the people and for the people, a joy to the maker and the user.” For Morris, the greatest art was also political, as he explains in “The Revival of Handicraft” (1888): “…it is impossible to exclude sociopolitical questions from the consideration of aesthetics.”
Morris’ style, like Ruskin’s, is often expostulatory, instructive, and zealous, punctuated with rhetorical questions and parallel phrasing. In “Art and the Beauty of the Earth” (1881), for example, Morris exhorts his audience to protect the beauty of the earth, following his exhortation with a rhetorical question: “…it is this reasonable share in the beauty of the earth that I claim as the right of every man who will earn it by due labour; a decent house with decent surroundings for every honest and industrious family; that is the claim which I make of you in the name of art. Is it such an exorbitant claim to make of civilization?” In some of his lectures clearly directed to a working-class audience, Morris uses fairly simple diction and organization, often showing the process through which he has puzzled ideas out, for example, in “Useful Work v. Useless Toil” (1884), where he states that:
…the first thing as to the work done in civilization and the easiest to notice is that it is portioned out very unequally amongst the different classes of society.
First, there are people—not a few—who do no work, and make no pretence of doing any. Next, there are people and very many of them, who work fairly hard, though with abundant easements and holidays, claimed and allowed; and lastly there are people who work so hard that they may be said to do nothing else than work, and are accordingly called the “working classes”…
When Morris is writing for a well-educated class or specialists, as in “How We Live and How We Might Live” (1885) and “Whigs, Democrats and Socialists” (1886), his diction, sentence structure, and allusions correspond to the ability of his audience to understand.
Some essays on the history and practice of particular arts, such as “On the Artistic Qualities of the Woodcut Books of Ulm and Augsburg in the Fifteenth Century” (1895), clearly challenge all but the most erudite readers. The socialist lectures appeal on a primary level to the largely uneducated audience Morris was addressing, and as such feature much repetition, second-person references, and simple organization; but on a secondary level, their allusions, especially to history and art, make them seem simultaneously intended for a more sophisticated readership.
Recently Morris’ essays have received more critical attention, part as the result of a critical revival in Morris studies which began in the 1970s and has accelerated steadily.
The additional interest being paid to his essays also refiects the modern interest in nonfiction that has coincided with the rise of cultural studies. Early views of Morris as an escapist who sought refuge in an idealized medieval world have been reevaluated; what has emerged from this study is a recognition of Morris’ complexity as a writer who has much to say to the modern world.
Born 24 March 1834 in Walthamstow, Essex. Studied at Marlborough College, Wiltshire, 1848–51; privately, 1852–53; Exeter College, Oxford, 1853–55, B.A., 1856, M.A., 1875.
Articled to G.E. Street’s architectural firm, Oxford and London, 1856. Founding editor, Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, 1856. Painter, 1857–62: friend of members of the Pre- Raphaelite Brotherhood, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones;
founder, with Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and others, Morris Marshall Faulkner & Co. design firm, London, 1861–74, later Morris & Co., 1874–96. Married Jane Burden, 1859: two daughters. Lived in Bexley, Kent, 1861–65, and in London, from 1865. Traveled in Iceland, 1871 and 1873. Examiner, South Kensington School of Art, later the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1876–96. Public lecturer on art, architecture, and socialism, 1877–96. Founder, Kelmscott Press, London, 1890–96. Treasurer, National Liberal
League, 1879; member, Democratic Federation, 1883, then the Socialist League, from 1884: editor of its journal Commonweal, 1884–90, and League delegate to the International Socialist Working-Men’s Congress, Paris, 1889; founding member, Hammersmith Socialist Society, 1890. Died in Hammersmith, west London, 3 October 1896.
Essays and Related Prose
Hopes and Fears for Art: Five Lectures, 1882
Lectures on Art, 1882
Signs of Change: Seven Lectures, 1888
Socialist Platform (collected pamphlets), with others, 1888; revised edition, 1890
The World of Romance, Being Contributions to the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, 1856, 1906
The Unpublished Lectures, edited by Eugene D.LeMire, 1969
The Ideal Book: Essays and Lectures on the Arts of the Book, edited by William S.Peterson, 1982
Political Writings, edited by A.L.Morton, 1984
Socialist Diary, edited by Florence Boos, 1985
Political Writings: Contributions to Justice and Commonweal, 1883–1890, edited by Nicholas Salmon, 1994
Other writings: poetry, fiction (including the two prose dream narratives A Dream of John Ball, 1888, and News from Nowhere, 1890), works on socialism, letters, and translations of Old Icelandic and Norse sagas.
Collected works edition: Collected Works, edited by May Morris, 24 vols., 1910–15;
supplement, as William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist, edited by May Morris, 2 vols., 1936.
Aho, Gary L., William Morris: A Reference Guide, Boston: Hall, 1985
Briggs, R.C. H., Handlist of the Public Addresses of William Morris, Dublin: Dolmen
Scott, Temple, A Bibliography of the Works of William Morris, London: Bell, 1897
Walsdorf, John J., William Morris in Private Press and Limited Editions: A Descriptive Bibliography of Books by and About Morris, 1891–1981, Phoenix, Arizona: Oryx, and London: Library Assocation, 1983
Faulkner, Peter, Against the Age: An Introduction to William Morris, London and Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1980
Gallasch, Linda, The Use of Compounds and Archaic Diction in the Works of William Morris, Berne: Lang, 1979
Harvey, Charles, and Jon Press, William Morris: Design and Enterprise in Victorian Britain, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991
Kocmanova, Jessie, “The Living Language of William Morris,” Brno Studies in English (9 1970): 17–34
Lewis, Peter, editor, William Morris: Aspects of the Man and His Work (proceedings of the 1977 conference on William Morris held at the Loughborough University of
Technology), Loughborough: Loughborough Victorian Studies Group, 1978
MacCarthy, Fiona, William Morris: A Life for Our Time, London: Faber, 1994; New York: Knopf, 1995
Thompson, E.P., William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, London: Merlin Press, 1977; New York: Pantheon, 1978 (original edition, 1955)
Thompson, Paul, The Work of William Moras, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991 (original edition, 1967)
Thompson, Paul, Why William Morris Matters Today: Human Creativity and the Future World Environment, London: William Morris Society, 1991
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