Monday, 3 February 2020

Morris in the OED

Ah, so now I know how many William Morris words are cited in the original Oxford English Dictionary, without the later Supplements: 1,359 words in 1,522 quotations.  But is that good or bad?  Is that an impressive tally, or is it not?  Well, a comparison with other Victorian writers reveals that he has fewer OED words than Charles Dickens (5,553 words in 7,512 quotations), John Ruskin (2,879 in 3,231) or George Eliot (2,430 in 2,618).  But he has more than Thomas Hardy (1,111 in 1,129), Matthew Arnold (1,064 in 1,139), Charlotte Brontë (807 in 840) or Dante Gabriel Rossetti (350 in 356).

Of course, such arithmetical tallies tell us very little about what it means, qualitatively speaking, that an author should be cited in the OED in this way.  For a splendid example of how such a philological analysis might be conducted, I refer you to Dennis Taylor’s Hardy’s Literary Language and Victorian Philology (1993), which is where I got that Morris figure from in the first place.  We’ve had useful analyses of Morris’s literary language here and there (particularly by Norman Talbot), but we could certainly do with a study of it as subtle and comprehensive as Taylor’s of Thomas Hardy’s.

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Transfiguration of the Hero

When in Ursula Le Guin’s utopia The Dispossessed the hero Shevek embarks on a sexual partnership with the marine biologist Takver, the two of them take a room together at the northern end of the city of Abbenay: ‘The move was not complicated … Shevek brought a box of papers, his winter boots, and the orange blanket.  Takver had to make three trips.  One was to the district clothing depositary to get them both a new suit, an act which she felt obscurely but strongly was essential to them beginning their partnership’.

A similar sartorial moment befalls William Guest in News from Nowhere, on the morning after his return from old Hammond’s long lectures to him in the British Museum: ‘I dressed speedily, in a suit of blue laid ready for me, so handsome that I quite blushed when I had got into it, feeling as I did so that excited pleasure of anticipation of a holiday’.  Guest’s new clothes don’t have the happy sexual meaning of Takver and Shevek’s, but they too mark a significant new phase for him: departure from London and travel up the Thames.

In both these instances we are surely in the presence of what narratologist Vladimir Propp, in his pathbreaking book Morphology of the Folk Tale (1928), describes as Function XXIX: ‘THE HERO IS GIVEN A NEW APPEARANCE (Definition: transfiguration.  Designation: T)’.  Of the four variants there listed, we are in Morris and Le Guin dealing with number three: ‘The hero puts on new garments’.  That both utopias thus deliver function XXIX so neatly prompts a more general question: how useful would Proppian narratology be for the analysis both of particular utopias and of the genre of utopia itself?  Has anyone tried out a Proppian study of either The Dispossessed or News from Nowhere; and if not, why not?

Friday, 3 January 2020

Sir William Morris, Sir Keir Starmer

Of course, Morris never actually became Sir William Morris because he posed such a severe political challenge to the Establishment that they didn’t award him any major honours, although there was some informal approach about becoming Poet Laureate after Tennyson’s death in October 1892.  In just the same way, there will never be a Sir Jeremy Corbyn or Sir Terry Eagleton.  On the other hand, that politically unimportant figure Edward Burne-Jones became Sir Edward Burne-Jones in the New Year’s honours of 1894, to the disgust of both Morris and his own wife Georgiana.

Labour MP Keir Starmer, who has been much in the news over the past few days, is actually Sir Keir Starmer, for he was knighted in 2014 for his services to law and criminal justice; and now that he has declared himself a candidate for the leadership of the Labour Party, we should reflect on this fact.  If, like Morris or Corbyn, you don’t get a knighthood because you pose a serious political challenge to capitalism, then, in reverse, you get one precisely because you do not pose much or any threat to it, like Burne-Jones.

And Sir Keir, as Labour leader, would be a centrist ‘safe pair of hands’, a major break back towards the right after the Corbyn project (whatever lip-service he currently pays to it).  As a London MP, he would do nothing towards helping Labour retake votes and territory in the North – indeed, as someone identified with the idea of a second referendum which was seen as being Remain in disguise, he would be counter-productive in that respect.   Powerful media forces are supporting his candidacy, particularly the left-liberal Guardian newspaper, which is desperate to stop a ‘continuity Corbyn’ figure, and has made much use of a one-sided YouGov poll to promote Sir Keir (one-sided because its figures do not include union affiliates and registered Labour supporters, who are likely to be broadly Corbynist).  A party of the Left will have a place for Starmer’s undoubted talents, but certainly not as leader.

Saturday, 14 December 2019

Reflections on the General Election

It seemed a cruel irony to have the final seminar of my Utopias course on the very day of such a comprehensive electoral defeat for progressive politics in this country: Boris Johnson very firmly in, Jeremy Corbyn now on his way out.  Our Lancaster MP, Cat Smith, successfully defended her seat, so there was a grain of local comfort in that.  But after the immediate emotional shock of Thursday night to Friday morning, which was deep indeed, how does one make sense of the overall result?

Liar, racist and self-interested buffoon he may be, but Johnson very capably did what he had to do, which was to neutralise the Brexit Party: once that was achieved, he automatically had some forty-plus per cent of the national vote.  Corbyn had the near-impossible task of holding together Remain – his young Labour Party activists and metropolitan supporters – and Leave – the older, northern, white working class for the most part.  I’ve been at local Labour branch meetings at which I felt totally isolated as a Lexiteer, at which the assumption was utterly that Labour was now a Remain party, despite the national leadership’s own, more nuanced position.  To hold these two wings of the movement together would have required a consummate performer, and Corbyn was never that; I’ve been recurrently frustrated over the last couple of years by how lacklustre and energyless he seemed on television.  Add to that extraordinary levels of media vitriol, the anti-semitism issue, and what I think really was a ‘policy incontinence’ which weakened the initial impact of a strong left manifesto, and yes, Labour was indeed in trouble.

Today’s issue of the Morning Star, the Communist Party newspaper, heads one of its election postmortems with a quote from William Morris: ‘Intelligence enough to conceive, courage enough to will, power enough to compel.  If our ideas of a new society are anything more than a dream, these three qualities must animate the majority of the working people; and then, I say, the deed will be done’.   The ways forward are certainly pointed out there: renewed projects of political education (adult and community education, I can’t help thinking, rather than university-based education); the forging of an activist party engaged in the struggles of its local communities in all their diversity and complexity.  The Labour Party will now need a new leader, but the heritage of Corbynism itself – that absolutely welcome break with ‘New Labour’ towards a class-orientated politics – must subsist; and the mass membership that Jeremy Corbyn inspired to join the Party during his years of leadership will hopefully be strong enough to resist rightwing and centrist calls for class compromise.  Brexit will now get done, and with that behind us, no longer poisoning the national political discourse, Labour politics can move forward again.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

J.W. Mackail Revisited

In the dark backward and abysm of time I published in the Morris Society Journal an article entitled ‘J.W. Mackail as Literary Critic’, in which I argued that Mackail – best known now as Burne-Jones’s son-in-law and Morris’s first biographer – was also worth reading as a literary scholar and critic in his own right.  I would still defend the underlying project of that essay, and indeed I have just re-read Mackail’s Springs of Helicon (1909), which still strikes me as a useful account of Chaucer, Spenser and Milton.

In the years since I wrote that piece I’ve occasionally happened upon mentions of Mackail’s criticism.  In his lively volume The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: English Literary Life since 1800 (1969), John Gross gives what is I suppose the typical twentieth-century view of Mackail, who is here unceremoniously lumped in with some of his contemporaries: ‘the orthodox Late Victorian literati do seem to merge into an unusually compact group – the Courthopes and the Mackails, the Sidney Colvins and the Sidney Lees’.  While conceding that they had ‘the Civil Service virtues’, Gross concludes damningly that ‘they were also stuffy, conventional, sedate, out of touch with the growing points of literature in their time’. 

However, there is an alternative view possible here.  Thomas Hardy admired Mackail's work and coresponded wtih him in 1916: 'your lecture on Shakespeare ... suggests all sorts of ideas about him'. In June 1920 C.S. Lewis wrote enthusiastically to his friend Arthur Greeves: ‘the only book I have read with satisfaction lately is Mackail’s Lectures on Poetry: I think he is one of my favourite moderns – he always has just the right point of view and deals with the right subject: he has sent me back to “Endymion” … ’.  And even as late as his An Experiment in Criticism (1961), though admittedly in more muted fashion – ‘Yes, even Mackail’ – Lewis lists the Scot among the ‘emotive critics’ who communicate to you their own enthusiasm for literary works and thus send you off to authors you didn’t know about or had undervalued. In the twenty-first century, J.W. Mackail will certainly never be current again in any major way, but his critical writings might still be worth dipping into now and again.