Monday, 6 October 2008

WM's Book of Ballads

In an interview on the Kelmscott Press given to the journal Bookselling in 1895 William Morris declared cheerfully that 'The books I would like to print are the books I love to read and keep. I should be delighted to do the old English ballads - and I will some day'.

In fact, however, he never did so: his death in October 1896 put an end to this proposed ballad collection, as it did to so many other Kelmscott Press projects; it became yet another Morrisian Book That Never Was. Of all the lost Kelmscott works, it was this one which his daughter May most lamented in editing her father's Collected Works: 'Of all these, I think the non-fulfilment of the Ballad volume is most to be regretted; it would have been a mirror of his taste in traditional poetry, and interesting to see what he chose and what left out'.

We will certainly never now get that lost ballad book back in anything like its full form. But may it not be possible to collect the references to both ballads in general and individual ballads across Morris's copious writings and reconstruct from these something like the lost volume? A glancing mention of a ballad in, for example, a political lecture is a clue that Morris may have been sufficiently interested in it to have included it one day in his ballad collection. To be sure, as Morris and SPAB so often reminded us, a restoration or reconstruction is a poor substitute for the original itself; but in this particular instance, where no original now remains, a speculative reconstruction is the best we are ever going to get.

So there is double task here: for a determined reader to glean all those scattered references to ballads across the immense reaches of the Collected Works, and for an enterprising publisher to get the results - William Morris's Book of Ballads - out into the public realm.


elrond said...

Morris once wrote to John Bruce Glasier that he would think about doing a "lecture" on the ballads for Glasier on one of his Scottish speaking tours, so if this talk could be reconstructed, it might serve as the introduction to a Morris ballad collection!

linda said...

In Commonweal (1887 -- Fighting for Peace) Morris quotes four lines from a ballad beginning, 'The first day it was wind and weet'.