Thursday, 12 April 2018

Suggestion for the Morris Societies



William Morris repeatedly acknowledges his debt to Geoffrey Chaucer in The Life and Death of Jason, produced the great Kelmscott Chaucer with Edward Burne-Jones in 1896, and had his narrator William Guest declare in News from Nowhere that he ‘fairly felt as if [he] were living in the fourteenth century’.  He might, therefore, have been very interested in a curious academic-administrative practice adopted at Oxford University in the 1920s.


When Professor George Gordon returned to Oxford from Leeds University to take over as Merton Professor of English Literature in 1922, he set up a postgraduate seminar which was attended by such students as C.S. Lewis and Nevill Coghill, who would become Oxford luminaries themselves in due course.  A decision was taken – whether by Gordon himself or by the postgraduates, I’m not sure – to keep the minutes of each meeting in Chaucerian verse, and some of these minutes survive, including some fine lines by Coghill describing Lewis’s paper on Edmund Spenser on 9 February 1923: ‘Then to Sir Lewis turned the Professour/(That was our tales juge and governour)’, and so on.

Minutes in Chaucerian verse – what an admirable and learned idea!  And how apt, one would think, given Morris’s own Chaucerian passion, to the various international Morris Societies today.  So I commend this old Oxford practice to the Morris Society committees, although they might in turn object that, in certain moods, Morris would accuse Chaucer of betraying English by his excessive openness to French and Italian literary traditions.   In which case they would then be obliged to take one further philological step backwards and have their minute-makers write up their notes in Gawain-style alliterative verse or Anglo-Saxon or even in Old Icelandic itself. 

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Words from the Future



The last time I taught my Utopias half unit, in late 2011, we were in the middle of the international Occupy movement.  Lancaster had its own Occupy camp, in Dalton Square, and one of my students would cycle in from it to our seminar on A Modern Utopia or Herland, and then pedal busily back to her tent in town to continue the protest.  This time round, we are in the midst of significant political events again, though not of the same international scale.  For the academic pensions strike is well under way at sixty-odd British universities, and this is becoming as much a general political protest against the neo-liberal diminution of the very idea of the university as it is a strike on a specific financial issue.

 
Two of my Utopias seminars have fallen casualty to the strike, though I hope the students have been reading and pondering the texts none the less.  The two books involved have certainly been much on my mind during these weeks of industrial action.  The first is Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, in my view the greatest of the 1970s utopias.  One sentence in particular leaps out at me, as I re-read under these new circumstances.  After leaving his anarchist utopia Anarres for capitalist dystopia Urras, Shevek finally makes contact with the political resistance there and informs them: ‘I came here because they talk about the lower classes, the working classes, and I thought that sounds like my people.  People who might help each other’.  Well, the kind of white working-class community in which I grew up half a century or so ago barely exists in its old form any more, but new communities form themselves in new struggles; and certainly the Lancaster University union picket line, as it has evolved over the last few weeks, has come to feel like ‘my people.  People who might help each other’.


The second text which will not now get discussed in our seminars is Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, a raw and powerful book which I have not re-read for several years.  Piercy runs utopian time-travelling in the opposite direction to Bellamy and Morris: Luciente here travels back from a utopian future to the racist nightmare which is the 1970s New York faced by Connie Ramos.  The utopian visitor from Matapoisett brings hope and wisdom, but she is a frail ontological presence too: ‘We are only one possible future.  Do you grasp?’  For it turns out that the utopians need Connie as much as she needs them: ‘You may fail us … You of your time … You of your time may fail to struggle altogether’.  Or, as Luciente had earlier asked her: ‘How come you took so long to get together and start fighting for what was yours?’


That is a question we on the picket line have been asking ourselves too.  How has it taken so long to mount collective resistance to the neo-liberal university on this scale?  For in and beyond the pensions issue itself, we are now fighting for utopia too: for a transformed notion of the university which would break from the marketised dystopia of the present, without just reverting to old-style liberal definitions of the institution either.  This is as yet a frail utopia, facing enormous hostile political and economic forces.  Yet if the new community of resistance which has come into being remains ‘true to one another’ – to wrench Matthew Arnold’s phrase from ‘Dover Beach’ out of context – and if we can involve our students in our arguments and vision, then perhaps we too can open the present to intimations of a better future.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Poem for the Picket Line



I had hoped to pop down south today for the ‘Morris in Oxford’ walk led by Martin Stott, but morning duty on the trade union picket line at Lancaster University campus has been calling instead, followed by afternoon radical ‘Teach-Outs’ at the Gregson Institute in town.  Our strike against the attempt by UUK (Universities UK, i.e., the employers) to savagely cut academic pensions has so far proved tremendously invigorating, and is amounting indeed, as it goes on, to nothing less than the reinvention of the idea of the university against its wholesale marketisation in recent decades.


Colleagues from English Literature and Creative Writing brought poems to the picket line this morning, and though I didn’t get to read mine out at the event itself, I thought I’d offer it here.  Since William Morris visited Lancaster on a political lecturing tour in November 1886, I chose one of his Chants for Socialists, but felt I might take the liberty of tweaking it a little for our current needs.  So here is my version, which I dedicate to Lancaster’s Vice-Chancellor Mark E. Smith who, unlike many other VCs up and down the country, has not yet come out in support of his staff against UUK on the pensions issue.  Morris’s three-stanza poem ‘No Master’ therefore in 2018 becomes ‘No VC’:

Saith lecturer to student, we’ve heard and known
That we no VC need
To live upon this campus, our own,
In fair and manly deed.
The grief of academics long passed away
For us has forged the chain,
Till now each worker’s patient day
Built up the House of Pain.

And we, shall we too, crouch and quail,
Ashamed, afraid of strife,
And lest our lives untimely fail
Embrace the Death in Life?
Nay, cry aloud, and have no fear,
We few against the world;
Awake, arise!  The hope we bear
Against UUK is hurled.

It grows and grows – are we the same,
The feeble band, the few?
Or what are these with eyes aflame,
And hands to deal and do?
This is the host that bears the word,
No VC high or low –
A lightning flame, a shearing sword,
A storm to overthrow.


On ‘Or what are these … ‘ I was going to make a big sweeping outward gesture to the hundred plus pickets – one hundred and seventy yesterday! – who have been turning up at the Lancaster campus main entrance for the last fortnight.  That Oxford Morris walk, delightful as it would have been, will have to wait till next year.


Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Burne-Jones and the Aesthetic



She lived to welcome in the Russian revolution,’ we read of Georgiana Burne-Jones in Fiona MacCarthy’s superb 2011 biography of Edward Burne-Jones, a grand ebullient portrait which, amongst its vigorous evocations of the artist’s eerily otherworldly paintings, love for Italy and endless appetite for flirtation with little girls and married women, unsurprisingly gives us some memorable glimpses of Morris too.

Who, after all, has written about Morris’s handshake before, which was apparently less impressive than we might have hoped?  ‘William Morris’s handshake, Burne-Jones noticed, had no pressure.  It was “like a pad for you to do what you will with”’.  In this it contrasted notably with Rossetti’s: ‘But “Gabriel was different – if he loved you his fingers bent round and round yours and each one pressed and he never hurried to take it away”’.  One wonders if Burne-Jones didn’t get some faint homoerotic pleasure from such a manly grip, since, a hundred pages later, MacCarthy cites him on his Polish musician friend Padarewski: ‘a hand that clings in shaking and doesn’t want to go’.  However, as she shrewdly reminds us, ‘There was always a hint of class resentment in his attitude to Morris,’ so perhaps this colours Burne-Jones’s account of his friend’s handshake, just as it does some of his sharper cartoons of the portly Morris.

With MacCarthy’s global comparison of the two men (which she has certainly earned the right to, after producing marvellous biographies of both of them), I find myself less convinced: ‘creatively Burne-Jones was more than Morris’s equal.  He was the greater artist although Morris was unarguably the greater man’.  What is crucial here is the underlying definition of the aesthetic that shapes this judgement.  If you construe the aesthetic as a realm of intense privileged interiority, cutting away from the bustle and struggle of the social, then yes, of course, The Rose Bower from Burne-Jones’s Briar Rose sequence is a ‘greater’ work than, say, Morris’s ‘The Pilgrims of Hope’, just as Matthew Arnold’s ‘The Scholar Gipsy’, in its cultured melancholy and stylistic local graces, would be ‘greater’ than Arthur Hugh Clough’s epistolary poem Amours de Voyage.


But if you feel that artistic ‘greatness’ (if we must use such a term) lies precisely in works that break out of such traditionalist definitions of a narrow, hermetically sealed aesthetic realm, which cross a ‘river of fire’ towards the social, then the Morris and Clough poems I have just cited are in an altogether different league from the Burne-Jones and Arnold works, even if they lack the consummate ‘finish’ of the latter.  Fiona MacCarthy herself is fully aware that nothing could be more contentious than debates about the ‘aesthetic’; in the paragraph that follows her global judgement she notes ‘a political debate that still continues.  What precisely is an artist for?’ 
 
It sounds as though Georgiana Burne-Jones herself may have been weighing these matters up in the six years of devoted work she put into composing the two-volume Memorials of her husband; for in these later years, as MacCarthy notes, ‘Morris was more than ever on her mind, while Burne-Jones appeared to be receding just a little’.  Georgiana preached socialism to the local craftspeople, ‘became more revolutionary in her outlook’ and welcomed in the Russian Revolution

Thursday, 22 February 2018

William Morris on Radio 4



Today’s broadcast on 1880s socialism, in Anne McElvoy’s BBC Radio 4 series on British Socialism from Robert Owen onwards, certainly had its moments.  Ruth Kinna came up with a nice formulation in calling socialism ‘a fulltime complete-immersion project’ for Morris; and McElvoy’s own account of the Socialist League as ‘the first flowering of what we now call identity politics’, in the form of Eleanor Marx’s embrace of ‘free love’ and women’s issues, and Edward Carpenter’s homosexuality and environmentalism, was an interesting perspective.  Her dating of the post-revolutionary present of News from Nowhere as 2021, however, struck me as rather too definitive, given the slipperiness of the timeframe in Morris’s utopia; and it was just an error to assert that Engels left the Social Democratic Federation, since he was never a member of it in the first place.


Lively and informative though this programme was, it seemed to me yet another instance that proves the case I have argued in a recent article in the William Morris Society Journal: that the word ‘communism’, which was Morris’s own preferred term for his political values, is being systematically censored out of discussion of him.  We should challenge that semantic erasure, I have suggested, because to think of Morris as a communist, of a non-Leninist kind, is to open the possibility of bringing his work into relation to that of contemporary figures like Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek and Jodi Dean, who are trying to invent a post-Leninist communist thinking for our own time.  We need to blast Morris out of the continuum of history, to use Walter Benjamin’s old phrase, in order to make him speak persuasively to our own moment.  Anne McElvoy’s treatment, respectful and learned though it was, left him firmly ensconced in the 1880s and 1890s.