Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Contexts for the Birmingham Symposium

When the London 7/7 bombs went off on the first day of the 2005 Morris conference in the city, history truly announced its impingement on the event with a vengeance. With the 2015 Morris symposium now so close upon us, perhaps we can think our way ahead of history this time. The most enlivening context for the Birmingham event, for British Morrisians at least, is Jeremy Corbyn’s remarkable campaign for the Labour Party leadership. Corbyn has galvanised the Left here in a way that no-one has for a very long time, and he seems well on the way to creating a genuinely broad-based anti-austerity movement, regardless of the outcome of the Labour contest. So we shall reflect on Morris’s politics in Birmingham at a time of genuine hope for British Left aspirations.


But if Corbyn does win the Labour leadership, massive hostile forces, both within and beyond the Labour Party, will be trained against him; and, as we have just seen on the European political canvas, Left projects can be rapidly destroyed by such pressures. Thus the Greek Syriza party, which has carried so many of our hopes over the last few years, is now in an advanced state of disintegration after Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s disastrous failure to follow through on the rousing ‘OXI’ (No) result in the referendum of 5 July. So our local Cornbynmania has to be tempered by that wider calamity for the European left; and as Morris sagely reminds us, other people will have to fight for what Syriza stood for, under another name.


Meanwhile, the European migrant crisis continues apace, as hundreds of thousands flee from Middle-eastern war and horror; and that miserable hypocrite Obama visits Alaska to preach the dangers of climate change having just allowed Shell to start oil exploration operations in the Arctic. The big corporations pull the strings of their presidential puppet, as ever, but at least, with the Corbyn campaign, we are beginning to recreate a public language in which we can talk about such things again. As one of my colleagues said to me yesterday, ‘my children have grown up without ever hearing the word “socialism” in British political discourse’. And our Birmingham Morris symposium can play its own modest part in adding to this necessary conversation.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

More from Mackail

Morris’s first biographer J.W. Mackail has a penchant for arriving at a compact version, a sort of distilled essence, of whomever he writes about. In the second volume of the Morris biography he offers us a ‘single sentence [which] contains the sum of his belief in politics, in economics, in art’. It is from Morris’s review of Edward Bellamy’s utopia Looking Backward in the June 1889 issue of Commonweal: ‘Mr Bellamy worries himself unnecessarily in seeking, with obvious failure, some incentive to labour to replace the fear of starvation, which is at present our only true one; whereas it cannot be too often repeated that the true incentive to useful and happy labour is, and must be, pleasure in the work itself’. Not bad, though I’d want to see the word ‘art’ in there somewhere to make this the definitive Morris sentence.


In a centenary address on John Ruskin, delivered in February 1919, Mackail offers us a rather less truncated, but still – remembering the daunting thirty-nine volumes of the Cook and Wedderburn Collected Works – usefully condensed version of Ruskin’s work: ‘His effective and permanent message is contained in the Two Paths – five lectures given in 1857-9 – and in Unto this Last, the Cornhill articles of 1860. If we know these, we know Ruskin; and if we add to these the Nature of Gothic as a preface, and the Crown of Wild Olive as an epilogue, we know him, in all essentials, fully’. Whether ardent Ruskinians would agree with so drastic a selection, I am not sure. I shall ask around at Lancaster University’s fortnightly Ruskin seminar when it kicks off again in October.


Mackail gave several lectures and addresses on Morris subsequent to the biography, some of which extend his thinking in interesting new directions. And just as the biography itself has usefully appeared in a modern paperback edition, so it might be worth gathering together these later Morris writings of his, alongside other related things such as his essays on Ruskin, Swinburne and Oxford poetry. They would make a valuable volume that we might well entitle Further Studies in William Morris and his Circle. Perhaps, then, this should be the next task for the Kelmsgarth Press.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Morris and Monsters

We need to think more boldly about Morris and his work, and that does not necessarily have to be done by importing into it new theoretical models from outside (though the more of that we do, the better anyway, I feel). For we can also generate new questions simply by thinking in a more radical way about the relations of his works to each other. For example, why, just a year or two after finishing his utopia News from Nowhere in 1890/91, did Morris embark on a translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf with the Cambridge scholar A.J. Wyatt?


The standard academic answer to that question might be: he often relaxed from his more serious endeavours by translating, and he had always been interested in British pre-Norman literature and culture. True enough, as far as it goes. But let us try out a more searching hypothesis: Beowulf is about warriors battling monsters (Grendel and Grendel’s mother, above all), and Morris’s move to the poem may suggest that there was some thought about monstrosity which did not – or could not – get fully expressed in News from Nowhere itself. Morris had, after all, already given us a powerful model of what it means to fight monsters in the extraordinary wrestling match between Grettir and Glam in his version of the Grettir Saga; you may defeat the monster, but you also become partly marked by its monstrosity in so doing.


Can we take such thoughts back into the utopia itself? Has William Guest put so much energy into fighting the economic monster which is Victorian capitalism that he has become to some degree a monster himself, capable of contaminating rather than just benignly learning from the new world he visits? And is Ellen, accordingly, in some sense battling him as much as she is learning from him in their scenes together, struggling to expel this monster back to its own time, as she finally does (‘she shook her head with a mournful look’ and he can’t get back in). And is the cost of that battle, for her, is to be the enigmatic, isolated, qualitatively distinct figure that she so clearly is in this otherwise genial, relaxed world (‘I have often troubled men’s minds disastrously’)? The more we can unsettle Morris’s works, as Ellen does her neighbours’ minds, the better!

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

William Morris as Translator

Ah, the joys of charity bookshops – those sweet moments of serendipity that Amazon, with everything you’ve ever wanted just an effortless click or two away, can never match! So it was that, after handing over 50p in the Salvation Army charity shop in Carnforth the other day, I came home with a slightly battered but eminently readable paperback copy of George Steiner’s Poem into Poem: World Poetry in Modern Verse Translation (1970).


The first delightful discovery on opening my new acquisition was that p.49 gives us ‘The Sleep of Palinurus’, a twenty-three line snippet from Morris’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid (Book V, lines 847-71), in which Palinurus falls asleep at the helm of Aeneas’s ship and then falls overboard. That prompted the chastening thought that, despite thinking myself reasonably well read in Morris, I’ve never actually tackled his Virgil translation. Whether it can match John Dryden’s renowned 1697 version of The Aeneid in heroic couplets, which I have read and of which I’m very fond, I don’t know; but I must certainly make a point of finding time for it in the near future.


Second delightful discovery: pp.190-1 of Steiner’s anthology gives us another ‘The Sleep of Palinurus’, this time by Cecil Day Lewis, translating the same stretch from Virgil’s Book V, so we have the pleasure of comparing a twentieth-century rendering with Morris’s nineteenth-century version. And this prompts a wider thought. We could certainly do with a full-length study of Morris’s practice as translator, across all the languages that he worked with: ancient Greek, Latin, Icelandic, Anglo-Saxon and Old French. That’s a truly daunting task if you feel you have to master those five languages to do it. But Steiner’s Morris/Day Lewis comparison suggests it could be done otherwise: not ‘vertically’ by delving down into the original language, but ‘horizontally’ by looking at a range of other English versions so as to distil, by comparison and contrast, the unique qualities of Morris’s text. We’ve had local, specialist studies of some of Morris’s translations, but the opportunity still remains for a bold, overall study of the lot of them – someone should certainly go for it.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Favourite Worst Lines

At the beginning of Aldous Huxley’s utopia Island (1965), the hero Will Farnaby lies washed up and injured on the beach at Pala after his yachting accident. Random thoughts race through his mind and, by some freak association, ‘Will remembered suddenly his favourite worst line of poetry. “Who prop, thou ask’st, in these bad days my mind?”’. The line comes from Matthew Arnold’s sonnet on Shakespeare – Arnold being, as it happens, Huxley’s great-uncle.

My favourite worst line from William Morris’s poetry comes from ‘The God of the Poor’ and is very different indeed from Arnold’s cluttered and thickly consonantal line. The squire in that poem, disguised as a poor man, has to make his way to the evil lord MaltĂȘte in order to entrap him, and as he does so Morris gives us the immortally bad first line of this couplet:

‘Now passed the squire through this and that,
Till he came to where Sir MaltĂȘte sat’.

Has there ever been a line of poetry as vapidly empty of content, as carelessly and mechanically knocked out in order to rhyme feebly with its successor? It seems indeed to be a favourite bad line with Morris himself, since he uses a variant of it just eighty lines later: ‘John-a-Wood in his doorway sat,/Turning over this and that’.

You may well have your own favourite worst line from Morris’s prose or verse, in which case please post it on the 'Comments' link below and share it.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Tears in Literature

At the end of his fine book on the modernist painter and novelist Wyndham Lewis, Marxist critic Fredric Jameson claims that ‘on the closing page of The Revenge for Love, before our astonished eyes, there hangs and gleams forever the realest tear in all literature’. One could hardly imagine a more flamboyant literary-critical claim, and I don’t know how on earth would one test out the ‘realness’ of that Wyndham Lewis tear against other famous literary tears: Cordelia’s at the end of King Lear, say, or Lucky’s in Waiting for Godot (although tears in drama are perhaps a special case, since actors actually have to produce them).


On the other hand, tears can be an object of reproach rather than acclaim for an author, as with David de Laura’s memorable critique of Matthew Arnold’s poetry: ‘Even his best performances borrow too heavily from a sort of Romantic thesaurus of language and image: adjectives like sweet, dear, and fair soften the texture; stage properties like night, dark, gloom, forlorn, cold, grave and graves, moon and moonlight are wheeled on and off by the score; “tears” (used sixty-eight times) flow too freely; poems are awash in images of the river and sea of life’.


Could we tot up sixty-eight instances of tears copiously flowing in Morris’s works? And how, in general, do we feel about weeping in his oeuvre: is it the sign of intensely felt and imagined situations, as with Jameson on Wyndham Lewis, or just an irritating mannerism, as for De Laura on Arnold? Two memorable moments where one might start such a discussion come at once to mind: the collective crying of the medieval villagers during John Ball’s speech at the cross in A Dream of John Ball, and, in the private realm, the tears which the wife weeps in Pilgrims of Hope: ‘For the slow tears fell from her eyelids as in her sleep she wept’. In the latter case, Morris introduces the striking notion of unconscious crying (during marital breakdown): tears that you don’t even realise you’ve shed. Whether these are as spectacularly ‘real’ as the Wyndham Lewis tear I do not know, but they certainly feel poignant enough to me.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Ottawa Roundtable Discussion

William Morris’s radical politics are traditionally tied to his activist phase of 1883-1890. But was ‘militancy’ the exclusive measure of his revolutionary praxis? To Build a Shadowy Isle of Bliss: William Morris’s Radicalism and the Embodiment of Dreams, co-edited by Michelle Weinroth and Paul Leduc Browne, (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015) argues that the power of Morris’s radicalism can be discerned within, not in spite of, his aesthetic creations, and that his most compelling political ideas bloomed wherever his dexterous hand had been at work – in artefacts as in fiction. With this central premise, the book complicates received notions of the radical, the aesthetic, and the political, encouraging the reader to appreciate the unorthodox character of Morris’s philosophy of social change.


In an effort to disseminate these ideas within the academy, Michelle Weinroth and Paul Leduc Browne organized a roundtable on the book for the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences – a pan-Canadian event, which typically gathers about 10,000 conferees. The roundtable took place on 4 June 2015, at the University of Ottawa, under the auspices of the Society for Socialist Studies. The speakers included the co-editors and four critics: Matthew Beaumont of University College London, Jason Camlot of Concordia University (Montreal), Nicholas Frankel of Virginia Commonwealth University (Virginia, USA), and Douglas Moggach of the University of Ottawa. Each of these critics received the book enthusiastically and offered an intellectually engaging response to the volume’s treatment of Morris’s radicalism.

In an opening address, Michelle Weinroth explicated the politics behind the book’s cover illustration, arguing that Morris’s radicalism is at its most ‘radical’ where it is most often devalued: in the ornamental and in the oneiric. Nicholas Frankel followed with a critical synthesis of the book’s three core concepts – Morris’s radicalism, the idea of ‘embodiment’, and dreams. Drawing on Morris’s legacy, Jason Camlot reflected on education in the context of ‘The New Division of (Academic) Labour’. Matthew Beaumont then elaborated on Morris’s politics in the light of nineteenth-, twentieth- and twenty-first-century debates about the idea of communism. Finally, Douglas Moggach expounded on Morris’s utopianism as a specific version of an ethical programme of post-Kantian perfectionism. In his closing remarks, Paul Leduc Browne emphasized the importance of reading Morris in and for himself. Such an approach, he suggested, illuminates most sharply the modernity and genuinely original character of Morris’s radical thought.