24 March 2010

'Remember Me a Little Then I Pray'—William Morris

Now that I’ve used up much of my best hagiographical material, I’ve been trying to think of another regular ‘feature’ I could introduce so I’m not just posting on willy-nilly topics all of the time. I believe I’ve found one. A couple of times now when I’ve checked out with my purchases at Half Price Books, they’ve given me a wall calendar. Based on a polar bear theme, the aesthetics of the thing have not appealed to me much, but upon closer examination I’ve noticed two things of interest: a number of 15%-off coupons, and the names of a writer or two listed for every day—the days of their birth. Many of these are the sort that appeal to the lit majors at the typical American university these days, but others are writers of real merit.

I have decided to try posting on these whenever they interest me. I do hope that the more regular posts on literary figures won’t chase off too many Orthodox readers who are primarily interested in Orthodox matters. I hope to continue to post occasionally on Saints, and more frequently on patristic writings and moral and theological issues. I also have no intention of abandoning my occasional attempts to relate Orthodoxy and literature, whether on a superficial or a deeper level. The only question is what to do with the calendar so I can check it regularly without actually hanging it!

So the first to catch my attention after I noticed this intriguing little feature was William Morris (1834-1896), who, of all of those associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, displays to the greatest degree the sixth characteristic with which James Merritt has identified their work: ‘Deliberate “medievalism”, such as the use of vaguely medieval-sounding words, or the use of settings that, though unidentified, seem pre-Renaissance.’ [1] Peter Ackroyd notes that Morris ‘was described as possessing a “medievalised mind and turn of thought”’. [2]

In their anthology of Victorian prose and poetry, Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom observe, ‘Morris is remembered today more for his personality, energies, Socialist politics, and vision of the arts (in which he followed Ruskin) than for either his verse or prose romances, which is a pity.’ [3] Remembered, that is, among academics and intellectuals. Among most people, if Morris is known at all, I’d say he’s known almost solely for his wallpaper, which is a great pity. This is not to say that he didn’t design great wallpaper, just that he did so many other things. Here is the brief sketch of Morris’s life—by George R. Creeger—in W.H. Auden’s anthology, 19th-Century British Minor Poets:

An enormously talented individual, Morris was competent at nearly everything that excited his interest, from architecture and domestic furnishings to poetry. Born into comfortable circumstances, he was educated at Marlborough College (a relatively new public school that permitted greater intellectual freedom and experimentation than the older ones) and at Oxford, where he came into association with [Dante Gabriel] Rossetti and [Edward] Burne-Jones, and where he showed great skill in writing poetry. No sketch can do justice to the incredible diversity of his career. Even in concentrating upon its poetic aspects, one can do little more than mention the publication, in 1858, of The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems; in 1868-70, The Earthly Paradise; in 1870, his translation of the Völsunga Saga; and in 1876, Sigurd the Volsung. [4]

Morris wrote, did, and said so many things, that I am only able to mention a few of them. As his physician said after his death in 1896, the cause of death was ‘simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men.’ [5] So I shall confine myself to the poetry, and the ‘vision of the arts’. Concerning the first, Trilling and Bloom write:

Morris derives from a whole series of major 19th-c. poets—Keats, Tennyson, Browning, and Rossetti—but his directness, detachment in depicting savagery, and ability to convey swiftly the effect of violent action are entirely his own, and still unique in the language . . . . Medieval poems by Morris are utterly unlike Tennyson’s; the blood shed in them is not word painting, and the freedom from intrusive moral judgments is absolute. Morris is one of the very few poets ever who can be criticized for not being ambitious enough. His poems demonstrate more genius than he was willing to concentrate. If his interests had been fewer, his poetry would have sprawled less, and meant more, but he valued his other enterprises at least as much as he cared for his poetry. [6]

Here are three examples of Morris’s verse, from shortest to longest. The first is taken from his romance, The Hollow Land, and the last from the collection, The Earthly Paradise. [7]


Christ keep the Hollow Land
Through the sweet springtide,
When the apple-blossoms bless
The lowly bent hill side.

Christ keep the Hollow Land
All the summer-tide;
Still we cannot understand
Where the waters glide:

Only dimly seeing them
Coldly slipping through
Many green-lipped cavern mouths
Where the hills are blue. [8]

Summer Dawn

Pray but one prayer for me ’twixt thy closed lips,
Think but one thought of me up in the stars.
The summer night waneth, the morning light slips,
Faint and grey ’twixt the leaves of the aspen, betwixt the cloud-bars,
That are patiently waiting there for the dawn:
Patient and colourless, though Heaven’s gold
Waits to float through them along with the sun.
Far out in the meadows, above the young corn,
The heavy elms wait, and restless and cold
The uneasy wind rises; the roses are dun;
Through the long twilight they pray for the dawn.
Round the lone house in the midst of the corn.
Speak but one word to me over the corn,
Over the tender, bowed locks of the corn. [9]

From The Earthly Paradise

Of Heaven or Hell I have no power to sing,
I cannot ease the burden of your fears,
Or make quick-coming death a little thing,
Or bring again the pleasure of past years,
Nor for my words shall ye forget your tears,
Or hope again for aught that I can say,
The idle singer of an empty day.

But rather, when aweary of your mirth,
From full hearts still unsatisfied ye sigh,
And, feeling kindly unto all the earth,
Grudge every minute as it passes by,
Made the more mindful that the sweet days die—
Remember me a little then I pray,
The idle singer of an empty day.

The heavy trouble, the bewildering care
That weighs us down who live and earn our bread,
These idle verses have no power to bear;
So let me sing of names rememberèd,
Because they, living not, can ne’er be dead,
Or long time take their memory quite away
From us poor singers of an empty day.

Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time,
Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?
Let it suffice me that my murmuring rhyme
Beats with light wing against the ivory gate,
Telling a tale not too importunate
To those who in the sleepy region stay,
Lulled by the singer of an empty day.

Folk say, a wizard to a northern king
At Christmas-tide such wondrous things did show,
That through one window men beheld the spring,
And through another saw the summer glow,
And through a third the fruited vines a-row,
While still, unheard, but in its wonted way,
Piped the drear wind of that December day.

So with this Earthly Paradise it is,
If ye will read aright, and pardon me,
Who strive to build a shadowy isle of bliss
Midmost the beating of the steely sea,
Where tossed about all hearts of men must be;
Whose ravening monsters mighty men shall slay,
Not the poor singer of an empty day. [10]

Of course, I should hasten to admit that, while I am certainly a fan of Morris’s lyrics, I have not read any of his longer pieces (though at a shop near the British Museum I bought a wonderful Dover facsimile of Morris’s own Kelmscott Press edition—pictured above—of his Wood Beyond the World), and it is at least as much his ‘vision of the arts’ that interests me in him as his poetry. My introduction to this vision came primarily through a book on interior decoration—The Beautiful Necessity: Decorating with Arts & Crafts, by Bruce Smith and Yoshiko Yamamoto. In the introduction, the authors write:

Still, the true genesis of the Arts and Crafts movement was in England, not America, and primarily in the work of William Morris, the English poet, designer, and social reformer. As an undergraduate at Oxford, Morris had read and was inspired by the writings of the art critic John Ruskin, especially his influential chapter ‘The Nature of Gothic’, in The Stones of Venice, which was published during Morris’s time at Oxford. Ruskin, with his criticism of industrialization, his total rejection of the machine, and especially his belief that society could be saved only if one could change the nature of work, lit a fire in Morris that set the direction of his life’s work. Morris not only became adept at crafts, from designing wallpaper to the dyeing of cloth and the weaving of tapestries, but he preached his ideals, providing inspiration in turn for others around him and for those who followed. [11]

But there is more to Morris’s ‘vision of the arts’ than criticising the industrial revolution and learning of crafts. It is important to understand why Morris values crafts. Unlike that high ‘art’ which is largely considered the domain of snobs and geniuses in our day, Morris believed that crafts are the art that innocuously enriches—or at least should enrich—the life of ordinary people. In an 1880 lecture entitled ‘The Beauty of Life’, he writes:

So much is now known of the periods of art that have left abundant examples of their work behind them, that we can judge of the art of all periods by comparing these with the remains of times of which less has been left us; and we cannot fail to come to the conclusion 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. [12]

To the objection that making art the business of all men was to make it too ‘intrusive’, Morris responds:

But indeed there seems no chance of art becoming universal, unless on the terms that it shall have little self-consciousness, and for the most part be done with little effort; so that the rough work of the world would be as little hindered by it, as the work of external nature is by the beauty of all her forms and moods: this was the case in the times that I have been speaking of: . . . . [13]

What Morris is talking about here, when he speaks of art having ‘little self-consciousness’, is what he calls the ‘lesser arts’—the craft of making furnishings and decorations, ‘those arts with whose products men are in touch every moment of their daily lives’, in Trilling’s and Bloom’s words. [14] Later in the same lecture I have been quoting, Morris writes:

I have spoken of the popular arts, but they might all be summed up in that one word Architecture; they are all parts of that great whole, and the art of house-building begins it all [see Morris’s ‘Red House’ to the left]: if we did not know how to dye or to weave; if we had neither gold, nor silver, nor silk; and no pigments to paint with, but half-a-dozen ochres and umbers, we might yet frame a worthy art that would lead to everything, if we had but timber, stone, and life, and a few cutting tools to make these common things not only shelter us from wind and weather, but also express the thoughts and aspirations that stir in us. [15]

It is interesting to note that in another lecture, ‘Art & the Beauty of the Earth’ (1881), Morris emphasises that when practicing such crafts, one must ‘try to get the most out of your material, but always in such a way as honours it most. Not only should it be obvious what your material is, but something should be done with it which is specially natural to it, something that could not be done with any other.’ He adds, ‘This is the very raison d’être of decorative art . . . .’ [16]

Although I’m afraid a detailed discussion and comparison might make this post a bit long, I think there is much here for Orthodox to consider. In my opinion, Morris’s ‘vision of art’ overlaps a good deal with that of the Orthodox Church, and some of these ideas remind me of specific passages in modern theologians I’ve read (I’m thinking primarily of Chrestos Yannaras and Archimandrite Vasileios of Iveron).

But these last observations naturally raise the question of Morris’s religious convictions. According to Trilling and Bloom, while he had entered Exeter influenced by ‘a devout sister’ with the aim of proceeding to holy orders, ‘So far as can be discerned, once Morris had made his decision [to dedicate himself to art], religion was for him a dead issue, and the influence of its idiom is not to be traced in his prose, as it so readily is in the prose, as it so readily is in the prose of Carlyle, Ruskin, and Arnold.’ [17] I have not read it through, but a bit of browsing through the study of William Morris by the famous Communist historian, E.P. Thompson, [18] suggests that he makes little mention of religion, as one might expect. For Thompson, it seems to have been a temptation of Morris’s youth, for, ‘Religion of all varieties was deeply compromised by the same evils’, and its ‘lure . . . began to fade’. He quotes an 1855 comment from Cormell Price that ‘Morris has become questionable in doctrinal points’, and then tells of Morris’s decision to turn to art. [19]

But I shall allow a more optimistic, if naïve, New York Times piece of 1900 (here) to have the last word. Responding to a letter from a reader asking precisely this question, and mentioning certain ‘sentences and paragraphs’ in Mackall’s 2-vol. biography, the author speaks of feeling ‘certain of the deep religious feeling underlying Morris’s nature—perhaps not the conventional ideas of an orthodox Christian, for the reason that his religious principles seem to have been so entirely expressed in deeds, not words’. The author remarks upon the great ‘influence’ of the Anglo-Catholic movement on Morris. But he tells us, unfortunately, that ‘art and literature, from being considered merely the handmaids of religion, came to be considered as worth pursuing for their own sake’, and that the young Morris had originally hoped to found a monastery and even to devote himself to a semi-monastic existence in some kind of ‘order’, but which ‘gradually broadened into . . . a social brotherhood.’ While the utopian, even chiliastic element of socialism cannot be denied, the author discerns ‘strong ethical Christianity’ in the political activity of Morris’s later years. Finally, the author concludes that ‘Morris’s desire on one occasion to be kept from the narrowing influence of the world, so that he might look at things “bigly and kindly”, was so well borne out that his whole life would seem but another and tacitly expressed proof of William Morris’s essential faith in religion.’

I for one have my doubts, but I certainly hope that it is so.

Addendum: It occurred to me that the uninitiated, reading this post, might come away not realising that all of the images here are of things that Morris himself designed or created directly. Even the book is not merely the edition of some clever publisher, but of Morris himself, who designed, illustrated, typeset, and even bound it. This is followed by a Morris tapestry, a house designed by Morris, the William Morris workshop, and a stained-glass window designed by Morris.

[1] James D. Merritt, ed., The Pre-Raphaelite Poem (NY: E.P. Dutton, 1966), p. 12.

[2] Peter Ackroyd, Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (NY: Doubleday, 2003), p. 185.

[3] Lionel Trilling & Harold Bloom, eds., The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: Victorian Prose & Poetry (NY: Oxford U, 1974), p. 617.

[4] W.H. Auden, ed., 19th-Century British Minor Poets, notes by George R. Creeger (NY: Delacorte, 1966), pp. 373-4. The publications mentioned were early inspirations for C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. The latter attended Morris’s college at Oxford—Exeter—and bought Morris’s The Life & Death of Jason, his translation of the Volsungasaga, and his prose-and-verse romance The House of the Wolfings, with prize money from an award for undergraduates (Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography [London: HarperCollins, 1995], p. 77). W.B. Yeats said of the prose romances that they were ‘so great a joy that they were the only books I was ever to read slowly that I might not come quickly to the end’ (Trilling & Bloom, p. 290).

[5] Ibid., p. 290.

[6] Ibid., p. 618.

[7] E.P. Thompson’s description of the last is intriguing. In William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (NY: Monthly Review, 1961), he writes:

The Earthly Paradise is a collection of twenty-four poetic narratives, of greatly varying lengths, and from many sources, classical, Eastern, medieval, and Norse. They are grouped in pairs for each month of the year, prefaced by verses for the month. As in The Canterbury Tales, the poems are bound together by a slender narrative. (p. 144)

[8] Auden, p. 273.

[9] Trilling & Bloom, p. 648.

[10] Ibid., pp. 651-2.

[11] Bruce Smith & Yoshiko Yamamoto, The Beautiful Necessity: Decorating with Arts & Crafts (Salt Lake City: Gibbs-Smith, 1996), pp. 22-3.

[12] Trilling & Bloom, p. 293.

[13] Ibid., p. 293.

[14] Ibid., p. 289.

[15] Ibid., p. 306.

[16] Gillian Naylor, ed., William Morris by himself: Designs & writings (NY: Barnes & Noble, 2004), p. 153.

[17] Trilling & Bloom, p. 288.

[18] On Thompson, I really appreciated the opening paragraph of a piece by Michael Weiss at The New Criterion (here):

The late E.P. Thompson is not a man I would imagine finds much favor in these pages. The reformist Communist who needed the Soviet invasion of Hungary to give up the Party; the founding editor New Left Review, who fell out with that sodality after an arcane spat with its younger generation; the loser in a major intellectual debate with the great Polish anatomist of Marxism, Leszek Kolakowski. Yet Thompson is also remembered for a phrase which conservatives might consider stealing: ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’. . . .

Every historian should have as his guiding principle so generous an estimation of his subject [as Thompson’s].

[19] Thompson, p. 56.


Anastasia P said...

Superb article. I adore William Morris and all his lovely, multi-medium artistic inventions.

John Ruskin's writing is also essential reading for anyone interested in a metaphysical philosophy of beauty, might I highly recommend "The Seven Lamps of Architecture" as a good starting point if you've not yet read it.

Glad to have found your blog!

Xeneteia said...

What a lovely post! I've had Fiona McCarthy's biography of Morris highly recommended to me - have you read it?

123 said...

I had made comment on Facebook about the William Morris Agency (www.wma.com), which has nothing to do with the Pre-Raphaelite. In fact, the name is due to a typical American immigrant practice. Zelman Moses emigrated from Germany as a child and later anglicized (changed) his name to William Morris.

I never actually knew the history of the name, but had always wondered if there was some tangential connection with your William Morris.

Aaron Taylor said...

Thank you for your kind words, ladies!

Anastasia> I have not read Ruskin's 7 Lamps through, but I have read bits and pieces of it. I have a big anthology of just Ruskin, as well as a little edition of The Nature of Gothic.

Have you read E.M. Forster's A Room with a View? They refer to Ruskin quite a bit in that novel.

Rebecca> I have not read that. I'd very much like to read a proper biography of him. Thompson's book is, as he himself states, not a biography but a study.

Orr> Ah yes, 'Zelman Moses' sounds far more like a theatrical agent than 'William Morris'!

Well, sorry, I probably should have heard of them, and then I would have understood the joke. Alas!

The Jester of Qi said...

I just happened to visit the Pre-Raphaelite collection in the Delaware Art Museum this weekend (well worth a visit if you're in the area). Among the many goodies is one of Morris' handmade copies of the Earthly Paradise, which demonstrates his loving attention to all the crafts that go around making a book.

Anonymous said...

How could I never have even heard of William Morris? What a wonderful article, encore!

Daniel said...

I am totally behind you cultivating another focus for this blog!!!

Aaron Taylor said...

Ryan> That sounds really neat. There is a slight possibility I may in the DE area in late May/early June. Is the collection a permanent one?

David> I don't know! But tune in next week for my next 'author profile'.

Maximus> Well, it's unlikely that I'll ever be posting about writers as frequently as I used to about Saints. But the new feature will certainly take some of the pressure off to keep coming up with material on holy people.

Perhaps, though, I could occasionally do much more modest Saints posts? For some time I have limited myself only to those for whom I had really good sources. But maybe I could occasionally throw in a few facts gleaned from the Horologion or my little Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Anyway, it is likely that the meatier posts will be the secular writers.

The Jester of Qi said...

Yes, Aaron, the pre-Raphaelite collection is permanent. Along with the Howard Pyle section, it is really the core of the museum. If you are in the area, it is definitely worth a visit. Their website is www.preraph.org.

Extollager said...

Last year a couple of friends and I each chose 200 books, from our respective personal libraries, that we would keep if we had to give up the rest -- say if we were moving into assisted living facilities or something. (I'm 54, but not getting any younger! The other guys were younger than I.)

I shared my selections in emails to the other guys. William Morris's Icelandic Journals made my first 40 selections.

I recommend the edition I have, a 1970 Praeger hardback with a foldout map. A paperback edition from Mare's Nest is defective, according to a review in the Times Literary Supplement.

Incidentally, if you're interested in Icelandic things, I can recommend Jacqueline Simpson's collection, Icelandic Folktales and Legends, a new issue of which is reviewed here: