Sunday, 22 November 2015

Re-reading 'Modern Tragedy'

I haven’t been back to Ruskin College in Headington since the William Morris Society held its 1990 conference there to mark the centenary of the publication of News from Nowhere, so it was good to return yesterday, with Merlin Gable, for the Raymond Williams memorial lecture given by Susan Watkins, editor of New Left Review.  We admired some of the beautiful traditional houses of Old Headington on the way there, and enjoyed the glorious view across the Oxfordshire countryside from the room in which the lecture was delivered.  Its title: ‘Social Perspectives in Hard Times: Re-reading Modern Tragedy’.

‘Our present social conditions have an undeniable tragic aspect,’ Susan Watkins kicked off, adding that she ‘turned to him [Raymond Williams] more, rather than less, as the years go by’.  She offered a fine account of Williams’s critique of the 1960s Cambridge academic ideology of tragedy, whereby suffering caused by work, war, poverty or unemployment would be mere ‘accident’, too drained of ‘ethical substance’ to merit the paradoxically approving term ‘tragedy’.  And she offered, as Terry Eagleton has also been doing recently, a spirited case for Left thinking including tragedy as a major category of analysis of its own.

For in a period in which capitalism confronts ‘no structural opposition at the global level’, it produces tragic economic, social and military disintegration across the globe, which then, as we saw with last week’s appalling Paris attacks, unleashes ‘tragic blowback’ too.  The magnitude of the post-2008 capitalist crisis was, as one would expect from the editor of New Left Review, powerfully and synoptically evoked.  But what might count as ‘action’ against all this – ‘action’ being in Watkins’s view a central but insufficiently clarified term in Modern Tragedy itself – remains problematic.  Many forms of opposition arise, from Occupy through Syriza to Jeremy Corbyn, but whether they can consolidate themselves seems quite another matter.  Susan Watkins enjoined upon us the task of ‘measurement of the prevailing forces’, necessary without a doubt, but hardly in itself amounting to ‘resources for a journey of hope’, to borrow another of Williams’s own memorable phrases.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Morris Dictum (via Yeats)

W.B. Yeats wrote a good deal about William Morris in his autobiographical writings and also has that fine essay on him, ‘The Happiest of the Poets’, but I do not offhand recall in all that material this particular Morris saying, which is relayed at secondhand by L.A.G. Strong, a student at Wadham College who knew the Irish poet during the years in which he lived in Broad Street, Oxford (from 1919).  In his own autobiography, Green Memories, Strong writes: ‘One night, an undergraduate was present who professed a very fastidious taste in literature, and looked pained when he was advised to read a certain popular author.  Yeats was always extremely tolerant of young men’s opinions, unless they affected superiority.  Then he could flatten them as well as anyone.  He turned on the young man, telling him that if a thing was good the setting did not matter.  “William Morris used to say, to the people who claimed they could only read Shakespeare, ‘Rubbish.  Flame is flame wherever you find it’”.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Food Security in Utopia

My daughter-in-law Ciara Dangerfield has just made an excellent podcast on the topic of food security, a term which seems to have recently grown beyond the question of national food supply to encompass far-reaching global issues of food production, including the appalling fact that, in a world of plenty, nearly 800 million people currently go to bed hungry each night. The podcast, the first in a planned series, is available at:; and it prompted me to reflect on issues of food security in the literary genre of utopia.

In the founding text of the genre, Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), there is a good deal of concern about this matter, albeit in the narrower sense of the phrase. More’s utopia exists in a very hostile world and must therefore make sure it can feed its citizens securely; hence it is that everyone has to spend two years of their adult life practising agriculture, so that these crucial skills are well-embedded in the general population. The more precariously a particular utopia exists, the more it must attend to its food supplies. Aldous Huxley’s utopian island Pala, threatened as it is by powerful and oil-greedy neighbours, invests a lot of its social energy in its Agricultural Experimental Station, though a good deal of Dr MacPhail’s attention seems to be given to the science of mycology and the production of hallucinogenic drugs rather than food as such. In Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed food supply is always an issue on the bleak moon Anarres, and during the great drought that afflicts the Odonians there, it tests utopia almost to breaking point.

In utopias that occupy the world more comfortably, food security is more taken for granted: plentiful supplies and equitable distribution are givens from the start. H.G. Wells’s Modern - and global - Utopia doesn’t seem unduly interested in agricultural matters; and Morris’s News from Nowhere blithely assumes that all its eager craftspeople will happily knock off during harvest season and get out mowing in the fields instead (although, interestingly, there are a few Obstinate Refusers who won’t); it doesn’t feel any need to specify institutional mechanisms that would match up supply of volunteer labour to the areas of the country where it might be most needed. If we are looking for Morrisian thought about food security issues, we should turn rather to May Morris during the Great War, when she gives a considerable amount of thought to how food production around Kelmscott can be improved under war-time pressures. In our own dystopian times, I suspect that thought about food security, as the Greedy Planet podcasts open up the issues beyond science and technology, will eventually take one far into the grotesque economic inequalities under our globalised turbo-capitalism.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Shakespeare and Scandinavia

So, a blog post can grow, under the right circumstances, into a fully-fledged conference paper. For my former Lancaster colleague Richard Wilson fastened upon my post on ‘Eirikr Magnússon 100 Years On’ (24 January 2013) to suggest that I might elaborate its claim that Morris’s Icelandic language teacher and fellow-translator had significant effects upon future English Shakespearean studies at his ‘Shakespeare and Scandinavia’ conference at Kingston University this weekend. So I’ve done what I can in that direction, starting from the fact that Magnússon translated The Tempest into Icelandic, the first edition-translation of any Shakespeare play in that language, and following through to his Cambridge pupils Israel Gollancz (who published a study called Hamlet in Iceland) and Bertha Phillpotts, and then through the latter onto the Leavises on Hamlet. I thus float the hopefully suggestive idea that there was something like a ‘Magnússonian school of English Shakespeare studies’.

No doubt Morris would have thoroughly approved the title of Richard’s Kingston event, but I’m wondering whether we can’t enlist Morris himself, or at least News from Nowhere, into the putative Magnússonian Shakespeare school. For his utopia is certainly strongly marked by both Icelandic and Shakespearean motifs, and might it not then be interesting to think of William Guest materialising suddenly in Nowhere as the equivalent of old Hamlet’s ghost appearing so alarmingly on the battlements of Elsinore in that play? Guest may seem nowhere near as formidable or frightening as old Hamlet, but he is, none the less, like Shakespeare’s ghost, the ancestor of those he meets in the realm he visits (the Hammonds in this case); and as recent critics of News from Nowhere have made clear, he bears a good deal of disturbance with him in that work. Moreover, there have been sexually motivated murders in Nowhere as well as in Shakespeare’s Denmark. So I suspect there might well be mileage in a Hamletian and hauntological reading of Morris’s utopia; it would certainly be worth trying out as a suggestive hypothesis, even if we don’t fully accept it in the end – as, arguably, with the idea of a ‘Magnússonian school’ itself.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Return of the Native

When I gave my paper on ‘William Morris and the Return of Communism’ at the recent Birmingham symposium I described it in the opening remarks as an exercise in political philology. Audience questions afterwards focused, understandably enough, on my exploration of the history and complexities of the word ‘communism’, in Morris and subsequently. But the same philological attention should probably also be paid to the other central term of my title: ‘return’. This too isn’t an easy word or notion by any means, since as Bob Dylan so memorably sings in ‘Mississippi’, ‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way’.

We know that Morris had read Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native (1878), the most searching exploration of what it means to return – or at least, try to - in English literature, so he presumably thought deeply about these matters as he did so, even if he didn’t have the benefit of Raymond Williams’s stunningly insightful discussion of that book in The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970). And of course many characters in Morris’s own fictional writings also return to their geographical starting points after variously transformational journeys.

The Morrisian return I ponder most is that of William Guest, as he time-travels back to Kelmscott House in late-Victorian capitalist England at the end of his utopian experiences in News from Nowhere. The critics have been mulling this over for years: Norman Talbot declared in strongly upbeat tones that ‘Guest is back among us, more resolute than ever’, while Barbara Gribble sceptically remarked that ‘one expects him to take up again his former and ineffectual habits’. So how should we think about Guest’s return here? Will he be as formidable as Ralph and Ursula when they finally get back to Upmeads in The Well at the World’s End or, rather, as radically disturbed as H.G. Wells’s Prendick at the end of The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) and Conrad’s Marlow at the close of Heart of Darkness (1899)? We would need some lively sequel-writing to Morris’s own text to fully explore the possibilities here.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Insitute for Social Futures

Listening to my distinguished colleague Professor John Urry talking to us this morning about Lancaster University’s new interdisciplinary Institute for Social Futures (, I felt I had grasped why Jan Marsh introduced me at the recent Birmingham Symposium as a ‘contrarian’ in Morris studies. For I suppose I have always hoped that the William Morris Society might, in effect, become something like such an Institute, that the necessary scholarly and curatorial work it does around the biographical individual William Morris would serve as the springboard for a more ambitious project – which takes News from Nowhere rather than Morris himself as its starting-point – of thinking about the future, both futures as they have, historically, been envisaged and as they are being imagined, planned and built at this very moment. ‘Imaginaries of alternative futures’ was a phrase that John Urry used several times; and it’s one that nicely evokes my own sense of what my ideal Morris Society would explore.

This is not to say that the Morris Society as we currently have it has not already done some of this work. For it has indeed, as any reader of Martin Crick’s splendid history of it will know, made occasional forays in this kind of direction, with events on work, utopias, the environment, and so on. But always in the end, I feel, historicism wins out, and we return to questions about Morris and his circle, Pre-Raphaelite art, the early Arts and Crafts movement, 1880s socialism – all worthy and necessary topics, but which pull us backwards rather than take us forwards. Could we imagine, as at least a strand of what it does, a sustained Morris Society project devoted to the future, to digital futures as well as green futures, to futures for religion as much as futures for radical secular politics, to everything in fact that that most interdisciplinary of all literary genres, utopia, has explored so voraciously across the five hundred years of its existence? I hereby take a solemn vow – with my sword on the hallowed Boar of Sôn, as in Sigurd the Volsung – to do what I can to encourage the Society in that direction.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Solar Eclipse in Norway

‘O how their hearts were heavy as though the sun should die!’. This line from Sigurd the Volsung set me thinking about Morris’s final journey abroad, to Norway in July-August 1896. He travelled with John Carruthers and Dr Dodgson in a rather desperate last attempt to restore his health by a sea voyage, and the ship on which he travelled, the S.S. Garonne, was making a special trip to observe the total solar eclipse of that year – ‘the astronomers were playing their little game’, as Morris later wrote to Shaw. Morris biographers have assumed that the fact that his vessel was also a scientific mission was sheer coincidence; but my Sigurd quote shows that the notion of the sun dying or disappearing is actually deeply part of Morris’s imagination. Sigurd in that poem is a kind of mythological sun god, in his golden hauberk and with his ruddy rings and blazingly vivid eyes; and he is indeed ‘eclipsed’ and destroyed by the ‘Cloudy people’, the Niblungs.

So was Morris himself consciously in pursuit of a solar eclipse in August 1896? Did he want finally to literalise what had always been a powerful literary motif to him? I’m not sure; but I think that a more inventive mode of biographical writing might make something of this ‘coincidence’. It would certainly look at the role of sun imagery across his writing. It would also meditate on the role of Norway (rather than the more familiar Iceland) across his literary career, from the travellers of The Earthly Paradise, who set out from that country, to the Norwegian folktale evoked by old Hammond in News from Nowhere. It might take the occasion too to think about Morris and astronomy, which also comes up in The Earthly Paradise, and about Morris and science in general; does being on a boat of astronomers indicate a more open-minded attitude to it than we might have thought, and how might that bear, say, upon the invention of ‘the force’ in News from Nowhere? And if, in his bad moments on board, the ropes on deck appeared to Morris in hallucinatory guise as snakes, this might be the prompt to an examination of the imagery of serpents, worms and monsters across his work.

In short, I’m recommending a more adventurous and free-wheeling approach to Morrisian biography than we normally get. After Fiona MacCarthy’s spectacular effort of 1994, there is certainly no excuse for writing a routinely factual one any longer. And I would wager that, as a start in this direction, a booklength study of ‘William Morris’s Last Journey’ could be made very interesting indeed.