Edward Burne-Jones, Psyche’s Wedding, 1895, William Morris
Art,  Art and Design,  English

William Morris – A Revolutionary Force in Victorian Britain

The text below is the excerpt of the book William Morris (ISBN: 9781783107643), written by Arthur Clutton-Brock, published by Parkstone International.

For some years Morris was mainly occupied with his different arts and his business, and still tried to live like an artist unconcerned with other matters. In 1871 he took with Rossetti a beautiful old house on the Upper Thames called Kelmscott Manor House, which he has described in News from Nowhere. He meant it to be a happy refuge from the world; but the contrast between it and most houses of our own time, especially the houses of the poor, troubled him more and more, so that he could not rest content with its bygone excellence. More and more, as he lived there, the quiet waters of the river at his garden end drew his thoughts with them down to the city in which the present was making so blind a preparation for the future:

Hark, the wind in the elm-boughs! From London it bloweth,

And telleth of gold, and of hope and unrest;

Of power that helps not, of wisdom that knoweth,

But teacheth not aught of the worst and the best.

Angels, William Morris
Angels, undated. Tile Panel. St John the Baptist Church, Findon, Sussex.

So he wrote at a later time when, go where he would, he could not escape from the noise of London and the questions it put to him. At this time he wrote now and again about the state of society as if it were a matter that troubled him through his work like a distracting noise that could not be stopped. He says, in a letter written in 1874:

“It seems to be nobody’s business, to try to do better things – isn’t mine, you see, in spite of all my grumbling – but look, suppose people lived in little communities among gardens and green fields, so that they could be in the country in five minutes’ walk, and had few wants, almost no furniture, for instance, and no servants, and studied the (difficult) arts of enjoying life, and finding out what they really wanted; then I think we might hope civilisation had really begun.”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Marriage Feast, Denies Him Her Salutation, 1855, William Morris
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Marriage Feast, Denies Him Her Salutation, 1855. Watercolour on paper, 34 x 42 cm. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

He had already a clear notion of the way of life which seemed to him best for the whole of society; and in this he was unlike many revolutionaries whose aim is to change the machinery of society without having ever asked themselves what they want to do with it when they have changed it. But the machinery itself puzzled Morris so that he was not anxious to start meddling with it. After Love is Enough, he wrote nothing original for some time. “Sometimes,” he wrote in a letter, “I begin to fear I am losing my invention. You know I very much wish not to fall off in imagination and enthusiasm as I grow older.” Yet the best of his life both in action and in literature was yet to be; and the slack time only meant that he was being pulled different ways. It would not have been a slack time for anyone else. He went on translating sagas, and in 1875 he published a translation of Virgil’s The Aeneid.

Rose (detail), 1883, William Morris
Rose (detail), 1883. Pencil, pen, ink and watercolour on paper, 90.6 x 66.3 cm. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

In this work, because of the merits and defects of the original, Morris showed clearly what were his own shortcomings in poetry. The Aeneid, though a narrative poem, was not written for the story and is not read for it. It has every merit except that momentum which only a great story-teller can give to narrative. The mind of the reader rests on the beautiful passages and is not drawn through them by a desire to discover what will happen next. Virgil is a poet who broods over his theme; thought, not action, is the stuff of his poetry; and his language, though not obscure, is complicated and enriched with thought.

But Morris was a story-teller by nature, and his language, compared with Virgil’s, is thin and quick and fluent. So when he translated the The Aeneid, he rendered it too closely to make a good story of it, while he could find no equivalent in his own language for the profound and subtle beauties of the original. Mackail says that he turned the The Aeneid into a romantic poem; it seems to me that he tried to turn it into a purely narrative poem and failed, as he would have failed with Paradise Lost, if it had been written in a foreign tongue and he had translated it into English. Morris’s translation can be read with pleasure; but it is like some of the vaguer stories of The Earthly Paradise, and the The Aeneid is not like these at all.

Philip Webb, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, The Creation, 1861
Philip Webb, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, The Creation, 1861. Stained glass window. All Saints Church, Selsley, Gloucestershire.

In 1875 the partnership of Morris & Co. was dissolved, and Morris’s friendship with Rossetti came to an end. There was a dispute about the terms of dissolution between Morris on the one hand and Rossetti, Madox Brown and Marshall on the other. Morris made friends again with Brown, but never with Rossetti, who was sick in mind and body. But this dispute about the firm was only the final occasion of their quarrel. Morris had once been Rossetti’s happy slave; now he was his equal with different desires and different values. He wrote in a letter after Rossetti’s death:

“I can’t say, how it was that Rossetti took no interest in politics… The truth is he cared for nothing but individual and personal matters; chiefly of course in relation to art and literature; but he would take abundant trouble to help any one person who was in distress of mind or body; but the evils of any mass of people he couldn’t bring his mind to bear upon. I suppose, in short, it needs a person of hopeful mind to take disinterested notice of politics, and Rossetti was certainly not hopeful.”

Explore more about William Morris on:

William Morris Gallery

William Morris Society

Victoria and Albert Museum

The Museum of Modern Art

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