Thursday, April 10, 2008

Book Report: William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary

"History has remembered the kings and warriors because they destroyed; Art has remembered the people because they created."
William Morris

William Morris sits atop the house of history like a weathervane turning against the prevailing winds rather than with them.

One of the earliest British socialists, he abhorred modernity. An entrepreneurial spirit of manifold passions, he preferred the middle ages to the Renaissance.

To the manor born (1834), cultivated as an effete poet with other rich and eccentric boys (Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti) of the "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood" at Oxford, Morris spent his middle- and old age calling for revolution from street corners in working class districts of London.

This essay is derived from a book written long ago, 1955 to be exact, by E.P. Thompson entitled, "William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary".

A citizen of Victorian England's roaring industrial empire, Morris could not abide by the times and spent his youth fancying life in the olden days; crafting poems in the style of Lord Alfred Tennyson replete with knights errant and creamy damsels making loving in limpid streambeds.

The society he loathed lauded him, blessed him with the poet's special fame, and validated the writings through which he sought to escape contemporary surroundings.

His Medievalism, Thompson wrote, was typical of the late-Romantic period in mid-nineteenth century England, an impulsive revolt against the Railway Age that hailed an older society of finer values than profit and capital utility.

Departed from academia Morris built "Red House," with an eye to infusing architecture with something of the Romantic revolt; adapting "late Gothic methods of building to the needs of the nineteenth century," said Thompson.

A visitor to Red House in 1863 describe it thusly:

"The deep red colour, the great sloping, tiled roofs; the small-paned widows; the low, wide porch and massive door; the surrounding garden divided into many squares, hedged by sweetbriar or wild rose, each enclosure with its own particular show of flowers; on this side a green alley with a bowling green, on that orchard walks amid gnarled old fruit-trees; all struck me as vividly picturesque and uniquely original."

Formation of his the firm Morris & Co. as he and his partners set out to establish a company of artisans with an eye to reviving the minor arts in England in, "an age of shoddy," according to Thompson.

Medievalism again provided the recipe.

"I have tried," Morris wrote, "to produce goods which should be genuine so far as their mere substances are concerned, and should have on that account the primary beauty in them which belongs to naturally treated substances: have tried for instance to make woollen substances as woollen as possible, cotton as cotton as possible, and so on; have used only the dyes which are natural and simple, because they produce beauty almost without the intervention of art; all this quite apart from the design of stuffs and whatnot."

Glass-firing, woodcutting, bookbinding, pottery, tile-glazing, weaving, embroidery and tapestry all came in for study under his industrious gaze.

He labored, with mixed success, to erase the line separating designer from studio craftsman so that the firm's employees might tap their own creative abilities and thereby alleviate the more grinding aspects of the work.

The venture was met with professional hostility as the product of intruders lacking commercial credentials, but soon enough forced its goal of challenging the reigning principles in decorative art.

Again, the wealthy social creatures Morris loathed bucked up his bank account and acclaimed his creations.

Never grateful, Morris found himself pushed; first toward the ineffectual liberalism of William Gladstone; and finally toward Marx as the Victorian era lurched deeper into violent foreign adventurism and greater abuse of working people.

"We are," he wrote, "living in an epoch when there is combat between commercialism, or the system of reckless waste, and communism, or the system of neighborly common sense."

Bet you never heard it put that way before.

Morris' communism was not the mid-century brand the mature among us became familiar with; the collective mass crushing the beleaguered individual.

A walking paradox, his collectivist vision could not be distinguished from his approach to the arts and was focused upon the individual; guaranteed the single person rights and comforts and, most importantly, the fullest realization of one's talents.

"Education," readers of his socialist tribune, Justice, were told, "must of necessity cease to be a preparation for a life of commercial success on the one hand, or of irresponsible labour on the other. It will become rather a habit of making the best of the individual's powers in all directions to which he is led by his innate disposition; so that no man will ever 'finish' his education while he is alive."

The revolution he foresaw would restore a pre-industrial community still in existence, but ravaged by the commercial Mammon to which every able body was obligated to consummate itself.

His Socialist miracle did not propose the erection of a new structure upon the old, rather reinforced that which had been weakened by economic materialism:

"That true society of loved and lover, parent and child, friend and friend, the society of well-wishers, of reasonable people conscious of the aspirations of humanity and of the duties we owe it through one another..."

His biographer observed that Morris' utopia called for the reestablishment of the personal and voluntary bonds of society and a doing away with the "impersonal and compulsive" relations rooted in a rule by the owners of property.

His thoughts, mostly old and long-forgotten, bear a contemporary ring in many passages.

"Civilization," Morris said, "is simply an organized injustice, a mere instrument for oppression, so much the worse than that which has gone before it, as its pretensions are higher, its slavery subtler, its mastery hard to overthrow because it is supported by such a dense mass of commonplace well-being and comfort."

His alternative served those to the right and left, secular and devout alike. It entailed a "remedy to be found in the simplification of life and the curbing of luxury and the desires for tyranny and mastery it gives birth to."

So much of his effort would be lost in the silly, internecine debates that have come to characterize left-wing politics. He endured and played a leading role in the split of the original Socialist League, fought the idea of running labor candidates for politics until that became the chosen road and bent to it again.

He fought the anarchists of Prince Kropotkin on one side, acolytes of the still-living Freidrich Hegel, on another, and the Fabian Socialists of George Bernard Shaw to his right.

He was caught in a terrible "Bloody Sunday" police riot in London, which caused a severe curtailing of his belief in the ability of civil movements (read: unarmed) to bring about revolutionary change, and spent himself silly on the "Justice" publication until he was rudely moved off its board of editors by men of different mien.

He died in his sixties, spent with efforts in so many of life's theaters, his legacy in poetry secure, his influence upon design engrained in the minds of those who launched the Bauhaus, the force of his belief in the working man evident in the gains made over the ensuing century.

Said the poet William Butler Yeats of Morris, "No man I have known was so well loved; you saw him producing everywhere organization and beauty, seeming almost in the same instant, helpless and triumphant."

And that is living.

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