"William Morris" by J.W. Mackail
From The Dictionary of National Biography. Supp. vol. 3. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1901. 197-203. This document is also available in printer-friendly PDF
MORRIS, WILLIAM (1834–1896), poet, artist, manufacturer, and socialist, was the eldest son and third child of William Morris, a partner in the firm of Sanderson & Co., bill brokers in the City of London, and of Emma Shelton, daughter of Joseph Shelton, a teacher of music in Worcester, and son of John Shelton, proctor in the consistory court of that city. He was born on 24 March 1834, at Elm House, Clay Hill, Walthamstow, his father"s suburban residence. In 1840 the family removed to Woodford Hall (now known as Mrs. Gladstone"s Convalescent Home), the park of which was conterminous with Epping Forest. As a boy, therefore, Morris had the free daily range of that unique tract of country, then little changed since mediaeval or even since prehistoric times; and these surroundings fostered his natural keenness of eye and romantic bent of temper. He learned to read very young, and never remembered a time when he could not read, but was not notably precocious otherwise. This earlier education was at a small private school in the neighbourhood; from January 1848 until December 1851 he was at Marlborough College, and then lived for nearly a year as a private pupil with the Rev. F. B. Guy, afterwards canon of St. Albans, and then assistant master at the Forest School, Walthamstow. He matriculated at Exeter College, Oxford, in June 1852, and went into residence in January 1853.
Morris went up to Oxford with an unusual amount of varied knowledge and a character already strongly marked and well developed. Love of the middle ages was born in him, and was reinforced by the wave of Anglocatholicism which had just spread over England, and which had come as a highly stimulating influence on families brought up, like his, in a somewhat stagnant evangelicalism. Already as a boy he had acquired a singularly minute knowledge of trees, flowers, and birds. At Marlborough he had, with the aid of the school library and all the specimens of ancient building within reach, made himself a good antiquary, "knowing," as he afterwards said, "most of what was to be known about English Gothic;" and Savernake Forest and the Wiltshire downs made a background in complete harmony with his growing sense of romance and love of beauty. At Oxford he at once formed a close friendship with Edward Burne-Jones, who had entered at Exeter together with him, and had brought, from the very different surroundings of middle-class life in Birmingham, an enthusiasm, a knowledge, and a high idealism, which at all points confirmed and supplemented his own. Until Morris"s death the two men lived in the closest intimacy, not only of daily intercourse but of thought and work. They were the two foremost figures in a group of undergraduates, chiefly Birmingham schoolfellows of Burne-Jones, which was perhaps more remarkable than any which Oxford has produced since.
At Exeter Morris read only for a pass degree, and mixed little in the general life of the college. But he was an incessant, swift, and omnivorous reader, and his prodigious memory enabled him in those few years to lay up an enormous store of knowledge. Religious perplexities, under which, in 1854, he was on the point of joining the Roman communion, passed over soon afterwards; ecclesiastical history and Anglican theology were in turn mastered and put aside, and their influence was gradually replaced by an artistic and social enthusiasm in which Carlyle, Ruskin, and Kingsley were the chief modern leaders whom he followed. When he came of age in 1855 he still cherished a fancy of devoting his considerable fortune to the foundation of a monastery in which he and his friends might combine an ascetic life with the organised production of religious art. This ideal became gradually enlarged and secularised, but remained, in one form or another, his ideal throughout life.
In the autumn of 1854 Morris had made his first visit to northern France, and in the long vacation of 1855 he repeated the tour in company with Burne-Jones and William Fulford, another member of the undergraduate circle, who were now known among themselves as " the Brotherhood." During this tour, under the added impulse of his boundless enthusiasm for French Gothic, he definitely renounced the purpose of taking orders with which he had gone to Oxford, and made up his mind to be an architect. As soon as he had passed his final schools that winter, he articled himself as a pupil to George Edmund Street, already one of the most prominent architects of the revived English Gothic, who then had his headquarters in Oxford as architect to the diocese. The articles were signed on 25 Jan. 1856. In Street"s office Morris formed an intimate and lifelong friendship with the senior clerk, Philip Webb, which had an important influence over the development taken by English domestic architecture during the next generation. He worked in Street"s office for the rest of that year, first at Oxford, and afterwards in London when Street removed thither in the autumn. Meanwhile Burne-Jones had left Oxford without [p. 198] taking a degree in order to begin life as a painter in London. The influence of Rossetti was immensely strong on both; and when Morris also came to London and shared rooms with Burne-Jones, Rossetti succeeded in convincing him that he too ought to be a painter. Towards the end of the year he quitted Street"s office, took a studio for himself and Burne-Jones at 17 Red Lion Square, Holborn, and plunged at the beginning of 1857 into a new life. He had already proved his powers in imaginative literature. The faculty of storytelling he had possessed even as a schoolboy; and at Oxford he had found that story-writing came to him just as easily. About the same time he had begun to write lyrical poetry; his first attempts being marked (together with many mannerisms and immaturities) by an originality and power rare in any beginner. " The Willow and the Red Cliff," the first piece of verse he ever wrote, has, except for a few echoes of Tennysonian phrase, nothing in it that is not wholly Morris"s own, and shows a directness of spiritual vision comparable to that of Blake. To this and the other pieces belonging to the same year, Chatterton may offer the nearest English parallel; and neither Keats nor Tennyson (Morris"s two master poets among the moderns) had shown a more certain voice in their first essays in poetry.
Morris was one of the originators of the celebrated "Oxford and Cambridge Magazine," which was conducted and written by the members of the brotherhood and some of their friends, and paid for by him, during the twelve months of 1856. He contributed to it eight prose tales (of which "The Hollow Land’ is the most remarkable), one or two essays and reviews, and five poems, including the "Summer Dawn," which many critics would place among the first rank of lyrics of the imagination. When he began life as a painter he did not abandon poetry, and during 1857 wrote, besides a number of pieces which he afterwards destroyed, and others of which only fragments survive, most of the poems published by him in March 1858 in the volume entitled "The Defence of Guenevere and other Poems." Poetry, however, was now only his relaxation (as in a sense it always afterwards continued to be), and his regular work was drawing, painting in oil and water-colour, modelling, illuminating, and designing. During the last three months of 1857 he was working, together with Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Hughes, Pollen, Prinsep, and Stanhope, on the celebrated tempera decorations of the walls and roof of the newly built debating hall of the Oxford Union Society. He painted one of the ten bays of the walls, and designed, and executed with some help from friends, the ornamentation of the whole roof. While engaged on this work at Oxford he made the acquaintance of the lady whom he afterwards (26 April 1859) married, Miss Jane Burden.
For several years after his marriage Morris was absorbed in two intimately connected occupations: the building and decoration of a house for himself, and the foundation of a firm of decorators who were also artists, with the view of reinstating decoration, down to its smallest details, as one of the fine arts. Meanwhile he was practising less and less the specific form of decoration known as painting; the latest of the few pictures painted by him do not go beyond 1862. The house he made for himself was the first serious attempt made in this country in the present age to apply art throughout to the practical objects of common life. It was built, from designs jointly framed by Morris and Webb (the latter being the responsible architect), at Upton in Kent; it is still extant, though in greatly changed surroundings, with a considerable amount of its decoration, under its original name of Red House, given to it when the use of red brick without stucco was a startling novelty in domestic architecture. Its requirements, and the problems it suggested, had a large share in leading to the formation, in April 1861, of the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, & Co., manufacturers and decorators, and to the whole of Morris"s subsequent professional life. Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Madox Brown, and Webb were Morris"s partners in the firm, together with C. J. Faulkner and P. P. Marshall, the former of whom was a member of the Oxford Brotherhood, and the latter a friend of Brown and Rossetti. The decoration of churches was from the first an important part of the business. On its non-ecclesiastical side it gradually was extended to include, besides painted windows and mural decoration, furniture, metal, and glass wares, cloth and paper wall-hangings, embroideries, jewellery, printed cottons, woven and knotted carpets, silk damasks, and tapestries. The first headquarters of the firm were at 8 Red Lion Square. The work shown by it at the Exhibition of 1862 attracted much notice, and within a few years it was doing a pretty large business. In the autumn of 1864 a severe illness obliged Morris to choose between giving up his home in Kent and giving up his work in London. With great reluctance he did the former, and in 1865 established himself, [p. 199] under the same roof with his workshops, in Queen Square, Bloomsbury.
During the five years (1860-5) at Red House, poetry had been almost laid aside in the pressure of other occupation. The unfinished drafts of a cycle of lyrico-dramatic poems called "Scenes from the Fall of Troy" are the only surviving product of that period. But on his return to London he resumed the writing of poetry in a completely new manner and with extraordinary copiousness. The general scheme of the "Earthly Paradise" had been already framed by him; and in 1866 he began the composition of a series of narrative poems for this work, which he continued for about four years to pour forth incessantly. One of the earliest written, the "Story of the Golden Fleece," outgrew its limits so much that it became a substantive epic of over ten thousand lines. It was separately published, under the title of "The Life and Death of Jason," in June 1867, and gave Morris a recognised position in the foremost rank of modern poets. The three volumes of the "Earthly Paradise," successively published in 1868-70, contained twenty-five more narrative poems, connected with one another by a framework of intricate skill and singular fitness and beauty. Several more are still extant in manuscript, and others again were destroyed by their author; but those actually published (including the "Jason") extend to over fifty thousand lines. In this fluent copiousness of narration, as well as in choice and use of metres, and in other subtler qualities, Morris went for his model to Chaucer, whom he professed as his chief master in poetry.
This torrent of production did not lead him to slacken in his work as a decorative manufacturer, to which at the beginning of 1870 he began to add that of producing illuminated manuscripts on paper and vellum, executed in many different styles, but all of unapproached beauty among modern work. About the same time he had made his first acquaintance with the Icelandic Sagas in the original, and begun to translate them into English. One of these translations, that of the" Volsunga-saga," was published under the joint names of Morris and his Icelandic tutor, E. Magnússon, in May 1870. In the previous month he had sat to Watts for the portrait, now presented by the painter to the National Portrait Gallery, which represents Morris at the prime of his vigour and the height of his powers.
The completion of the "Earthly Paradise" was followed by a pause in Morris"s poetical activity. In the summer of 1871 he made a journey through Iceland, the effects of which upon his mind may be traced in much of his later work. In the same year he acquired what became his permanent country home, Kelmscott Manor House, a small but very beautiful and wholly undisfigured building of the early seventeenth century on the banks of the Thames near Lechlade. Round this house that "love of the earth and worship of it," which was his deepest instinct, centred for all the rest of his life.
For several years about this time there may be traced in all Morris"s work a restlessness due to the constant search after fresh methods of artistic expression, and the growing feeling that, inasmuch as true art is co-extensive with life, the true practice of art involves at every point questions belonging to the province of moral, social, and political doctrine. A prose novel of modern English life, begun in the spring of 1871 and never completed, was one of these essays in fresh methods. Another was the poem of " Love is Enough," begun after Morris"s return from Iceland, and published at the end of 1872: a singular and imperfectly successful attempt to revive, under modern conditions, the dramatic method of the later middle ages, and the Middle-English alliterative verse which had been driven out of use by foreign metres in the fifteenth century. For the next two years his leisure was mainly occupied by work as a scribe and illuminator; to this period belong, among other works, the two exquisite manuscripts of Fitzgerald"s "Omar Khayyam" belonging to Lady Burne-Jones and Mrs. J. F. Horner. Towards the end of 1874 the dissolution ofthe firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, & Co. became necessary for various reasons, and questions which arose as to the claims of the outgoing partners led to a period of much difficulty and trouble. The effect on Morris after the first shock was a bracing one; and if the first period of his life had ended with the completion of the " Earthly Paradise," a second now opened which, without the irrecoverable romance of youth, was as copious in achievement upon a much wider field.
The first products of this new period were in literature. He had been for some time engaged in the production of a magnificent folio manuscript of "The Eneid," and in the course of that work had begun to translate the poem into English verse. The manuscript was finally laid aside for the translation, and the "Eneids of Virgil" was published in November 1875. It had been preceded earlier in the year by a volume of translations from the Icelandic under the title of "Three Northern Love Stories," and was followed almost at once by the com-[p. 200]position of his longest poem, the epic of "Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs." This was published at the end of 1876. Morris himself thought it his highest, if not his best, work in poetry. In it the influence of the north is seen at its height, and for the time has expelled, or driven below the surface, his romantic medievalism and all traces of the Chaucerian manner. Here as elsewhere he owed little to English predecessors or contemporaries. His inspiration was drawn directly from the northern epics of the tenth to twelfth centuries, where it did not derive from models still more ancient and more universal; and the "Sigurd" is at once the most largely and powerfully modelled of all Morris"s poetical works, and the poem which approximates most nearly to the Homeric spirit and manner of all European poems since the "Iliad" and "Odyssey."
During the period of the composition of "Sigurd the Volsung’ Morris had taken up, with his customary vehement thoroughness, the practical art of dyeing as a necessary adjunct of his manufacturing business. He spent much of his time at Staffordshire dye works in mastering all the processes of that art and making experiments in the revival of old or discovery of new methods. One result of these experiments was to reinstate indigo-dyeing as a practical industry, and generally to renew the use of those vegetable dyes which had been driven almost out of use by the anilines. Dyeing of wools, silks, and cottons was the necessary preliminary to what he had much at heart, the production of woven and printed stuff"s of the highest excellence ; and the period (1875-6) of incessant work at the dye-vat was followed by a period during which (1877-8) he was absorbed in the production of textiles, and more especially in the revival of carpet-weaving as a fine art. Amid these manifold labours he was also taking more and more part in public affairs. From 1876 onwards he was an officer and one of the most active members of the Eastern Question Association. In 1877 he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. In 1879 he became treasurer of the National Liberal League. In these years he began the practice of giving lectures and addresses (at first chiefly to working designers and art students), which remained afterwards one of his main occupations. The work of the firm, partly in consequence of the new departures now taken, partly from a wider knowledge and greater appreciation of its products. was steadily expanding. The premises at Queen Square had already become too small for it. Morris and his family had been driven out in 1872 that the whole house might be utilised for workrooms (he then lived first at Turnham Green, and from 1878 for the rest of his life on the Upper Mall of Hammersmith), and in 1881 the establishment was removed to large premises at Merton Abbey near Wimbledon, a sale-room and counting-house having been already set up in Oxford Street in the West End of London.
Since the completion of the "Sigurd," Morris"s production in creative literature had almost ceased. Only a few months after its publication he had declined to be put in nomination for the professorship of poetry at Oxford, and since then his life had been more and more that of a manufacturer and a man keenly interested in public affairs, and less that of a man of letters and artist. In 1882 a combination of convergent causes profoundly altered his political attachments and his attitude towards politics. His enthusiasm for liberalism, after many severe checks from the whiggery of his party leaders, had been converted into open disgust by the Irish coercive legislation of 1881 and the timidity or aversion with which the liberal government regarded his favourite projects of social reform. Looking back in his forty-ninth year over what he had done and what he had failed to do, and looking to the future in the light of the past, he found himself forced reluctantly to the conclusion that hitherto he had not gone to the root of the matter ; that, art being a function of life, sound art was impossible except where life was organised under sound conditions; that the tendency of what is called civilisation since the great industrial revolution had been to dehumanise life ; and that the only hope for the future was, if that were yet possible, to reconstitute society on a new basis.
The Democratic Federation--a league of London working men"s radical clubs with leanings towards state-socialism--was the only organisation at hand which seemed to Morris, from this point of view, to be at work in the right direction. In the belief that better conditions of life for the working class-which substantially included the objects towards which that body worked-were the necessary first step towards all further progress, and that they could be attained by properly organised action on the part of the working class itself, Morris joined the federation in January 1883. He had a few days before been elected an honorary fellow of Exeter College, Oxford. The doctrine of the federation rapidly developed within that year [p. 201] into professed socialism, and Morris led rather than followed in this change. He supported the federation largely with money, and devoted himself almost wholly to writing, speaking, and organising in its service. In 1884 jealousies among the leaders and differences of opinion with regard to policy led to a disruption of the federation. The seceders organised themselves as a separate body under the name of the Socialist League, and Morris, much against his will, was forced into a leadership of this group, among whom he was conspicuous alike by means, education, and character. To the service of the league he gave himself up with even more complete devotion, managing and financing their journal, the "Commonweal," preaching socialism among the working class in most of the industrial centres of Great Britain, and addressing street meetings regularly with the view of organising discontent towards a social revolution. In connection with one of these meetings in East London he was arrested in September 1886, but discharged without trial. During this period he wrote much in the "Commonweal," and also published many socialist tracts and pamphlets, both prose and verse. Not until the spring of 1886 did he begin to find time for literature other than that of direct socialism. He then took up a task, or rather to him a recreation, delightful in itself and the more pleasant by contrast with his political work, the translation of the "Odyssey" into English verse. His ‘Odyssey" was published in 1887, as was a volume of essays and addresses entitled "The Aims of Art." In 1888 followed a second volume of addresses, called "Signs of Change," and the most remarkable of his prose writings, "A Dream of John Ball," a work of singular elevation and beauty, which may be classed either as a romance or as a study in the philosophy of history. In the same year he had taken his head managers into partnership, and thus relieved himself from much of the routine work of his manufacturing business.
Increased leisure, and the conviction (finally confirmed by the events of 13 Nov. 1887 in Trafalgar Square) that no social revolution was now practicable, and that the true work of socialists lay in education towards revolution by influence on opinion, were leading Morris by this time, on the one hand towards a more passive socialism, and on the other towards the resumption of other and older interests. The ideal human life of the future lay far beyond reach; he now once more reverted to that of a remote or fabulous past, in a series of prose romances which he went on writing for the remainder of his life. The first of these, "The House of the Wolfings" (1889), is a story in which a romantic and supernatural element is combined with a semi-historical setting, of life in a Teutonic community of Central Europe in the time of the later Roman empire. It was followed by "The Roots of the Mountains" (1890), a story of somewhat similar method, but of a less defined place and time. The former of these stories is in a vehicle of mixed prose and verse used with remarkable skill, which he did not repeat, although the subsequent romances include passages of lyrical verse. Next came "The Story of the Glittering Plain" (1890), "The Wood beyond the World" (1894), "Child Christopher" (1895), and "The Well at the World"s End" (1896), the longest and most elaborate of his romances. "The Water of the Wondrous Isles" and "The Story of the Sundering Flood," the last two of the series, were only published after his death (1897, 1898). Midway between these romances and the literature of socialism is the romantic pastoral of "News from Nowhere," describing the England of some remote future under realised communism, which appeared in the "Commonweal" in 1890, and was published as a book in 1891.
The Socialist League had since 1887 been dwindling in numbers and losing coherence: its control passed in 1889 into the hands of a group of anarchists, and in 1890 Morris formally withdrew from it. He had already become absorbed in a new work, that of reviving the art of printing as it had flourished in the later years of the fifteenth century. The Kelmscott Press was started by him at Hammersmith during 1890. He designed for it three founts of type and an immense number of ornamental letters and borders, and superintended all the details of printing and production. In 1893 he also became his own publisher. One of the earliest of the Kelmscott Press books was a volume of his own shorter poems, chiefly lyrics and ballads, entitled "Poems by the Way" (1891), the greater number of which were now published for the first time. Fifty-three books in all were issued from the Press between April 1891 and March 1898, when it was wound up by Morris"s executors. They fall broadly under three heads: (1) Morris"s own works; (2) reprints of English classics, mediaeval and modern, beginning with that of Caxton"s "Golden Legend" (1892), and ending with the Chaucer of 1896, which competent judges have pronounced the finest printed book ever pro-[p. 202]duced; (3) various smaller books, originals or translations, including a series of stories translated by Morris from mediaeval French. These, with a full account of the inception and working of the Kelmscott Press, are set forth in a history of the Press by Morris"s secretary, Mr. S. C. Cockerell, which was the last book issued from it (1898).
During these years Morris also took an active part in various movements towards organising guilds of designers and decorative workmen, and continued to write and speak on behalf of the principles of socialism with no loss of conviction or enthusiasm. He also formed, with special relation to his work as a printer, a collection of early printed books, and, a little later, another of illuminated manuscripts of the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries; both of these were at his death among the choicest collections existing in private ownership. On the death of Tennyson in 1894 the question of Morris"s succession to the laureateship was entertained by the government, but was laid aside on an expression being obtained from him of his own disinclination for such an office. In 1895 his health began to give way under the strain of a crowded and exhausting life. When the magnificent Kelmscott Chaucer was finished in June 1896 he had sunk into very feeble health, and he died at Hammersmith on 3 Oct. in that year. His widow and two daughters survived him.
Morris was a singular instance of a man of immense industry and force of character whose whole life, through a long period of manifold activity and multiform production was guided by a very few simple ideas. His rapid movements from one form of productive energy to another often gave occasion for perplexity to his friends as well as for satire from his opponents. But in fact all these varying energies were directed towards a single object, the reintegration of human life; and he practised so many arts because to him art was a single thing. Just so his work, in whatever field, while it expressed his own ideas with complete sincerity, bear an aspect of mediaevalism, because it was all produced in relation to a single doctrine that civilisation had ever since the break-up of the middle ages been, upon the whole, of a wrong course, and that in the specific art as well as in the general conduct of life it was necessary to go back to the middle age not with the view of remaining at the point which had been then reached, but of starting afresh from that point and tracing out the path that had been missed. So long as any human industry existed which had once been exercised as an art in the full sense, and had now become mechanical or commercial, so long Morris would instinctively have passed from one to another, tracing back each to its source, and attempting to reconstitute each as a real art so far as the conditions of the modern world permitted. When he became a socialist, it was because he had realised that these existing conditions were stronger than any individual genius or any private co-operation, and that towards a new birth of art a new kind of life was necessary. To gain the whole he was willing for a time to give up the parts. When convinced by experience that the whole was for his own generation unattainable, he resumed his work on specific arts, to use his own words, " because he could not help it, and would be miserable if he were not doing it."
The fame of Morris during his life was probably somewhat obscured by the variety of his accomplishments. In all his work after he reached mature life there is a marked absence of extravagance, of display, of superficial cleverness or effectiveness, and an equally marked sense of composition and subordination. Thus his poetry is singularly devoid of striking lines or phrases, and his wall-papers and chintzes only reveal their full excellence by the lastingness of the satisfaction they give. His genius as a pattern-designer is allowed by all qualified judges to have been unequalled. This, if anything, he himself regarded as his specific profession; it was under the designation of "designer" that he enrolled himself in the socialist ranks and claimed a position as one of the working class. And it is the quality of design which, together with a certain fluent ease, distinguishes his work in literature as well as in industrial art. It is yet too early to forecast what permanent place he may hold among English poets. "The Defence of Guenevere" had a deep influence on a very limited audience. With "Jason" and the "Earthly Paradise" he attained a wide popularity: and these poems, appearing as they did at a time when the poetic art in England seemed narrowing into mere labour on a thrice-ploughed field, not only gave a new scope, range, and flexibility to English rhymed verse, but recovered for narrative poetry a place among the foremost kinds of the art. A certain diffuseness of style may seem to be against their permanent life, so far as it is not compensated by a uniform wholesomeness and sweetness which indeed marks all Morris"s work. In "Sigurd the Volsung" Morris appears to have aimed higher than in his other poems, but not to have reached his [p. 203] aim with the same certainty; and his own return afterwards from epic to romance may indicate that the latter was the ground on which he was most at home. The prose romances of his later years have so far proved less popular in themselves than in the dilutions they have suggested to other writers. Here as elsewhere Morris"s great effect was to stimulate the artistic sense and initiate movements. So likewise it was with his political and social work. Much of it was not practical in the ordinary sense; but it was based on principles and directed towards ideals which have had a wide and profound influence over thought and practice.
In person Morris was rather below the middle height, deep-chested and powerfully made, with a head of singular beauty. The portrait by Watts has been already mentioned. An "Adoration of the Kings," painted by Burne-Jones in 1861, and now belonging to Mr. G. F. Bodley, A.R.A., contains an excellent portrait of him as a young man (the kneeling king in the centre of the composition); and there is another head of him, also a very good likeness, in the altarpiece of Llandaff Cathedral, painted by Rossetti about the same time.
[Life of William Morris, by J. W. Mackail, 1899; William Morris, his Art, his Writings, and his Public Life, by Aymer Vallance, 1897; A Description of the Kelmscott Press, &c., by S. C. Cockerell, 1898; The Books of William Morris, by H. Buxton Forman, C.B., 1897; private information.] J. W. M.