William Morris

Tom Condit tomcondit at igc.apc.org
Fri Mar 10 23:05:48 MST 1995


E. P. Thompson's biography of Morris is indeed excellent, but
don't take it on unless you *really* want to know about Morris--
It's a long if fascinating book.

For a quick glimpse of Morris' strengths, read his counter-
utopian novel _News from Nowhere_, more or less a response to
Samuel Butler's _Erewhon_.  I say "counter-utopian" because
unlike most utopian novels, _News from Nowhere_ is laid in a
future which has been shaped by a working class revolution,
rather than the intervention of some bonkers philosopher kings or
other deus ex machina.  In this novel, laid in London in our time
(the novel was written in the 1880s), England has reverted to a
largely agrarian society with a revival of handicrafts and
artisanry dominating its industry.  In a wonderful image, the
houses of parliament have been converted into manure sheds.
Morris' whole thrust is to argue that much of contemporary
industrial society has been shaped to fit the needs of the
capitalists rather than ordinary humans, and after the revolution
we can do away with a lot of it.  The book has been quite
recently in print in paperback, and may be still.

To see him at his worst, read some of his poetry.  I was quite
taken with Morris in my youth, and once actually read an 80,000
line poem by him.  (I'm not making this up.)  He was also an
early translator of Icelandic sagas into English, wrote a lot of
historical romances, designed some wallpaper which is still being
produced, and also designed the first mass-produced water
tumbler.  (He was a big fan of artisanry, but didn't see any
point in doing it where it wasn't necessary.)  He was a close pal
of Edward Burne-Jones, Walter Crane, etc.

While Morris had a strong tendency toward medievalism and what
Burne-Jones (if I remember right) once called "the eating of raw
fish", he also criticized all the fooforaw characteristic of the
Victorian age.  In one memorable polemic, he pointed out that
putting a brass eagle on top of a lathe didn't turn it into an
object of art.  (His water tumblers had very clean lines.)

In the midst of all this production of poems, wallpaper,
paintings (he had to give that up--he was dreadful even by the
standards of his circle), novels, etc., he found time to do quite
a bit of socialist agitation.  He is the author of the oft-
repeated phrase, "the job of socialists is to make more
socialists."  I _think_ (don't remember for sure) that he was an
early influence on James Connolly, and he was a strenuous
opponent of Hyndman in the Social Democratic Federation.

Incidentally, and on an entirely different subject (socialist
etiquette, maybe), perhaps people who are used to the Internet
don't have any trouble remembering who a post is from as they
read it, or don't mind going back up to the top, but I prefer my
communications signed.

I am,

Tom Condit


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