Thursday, 31 March 2011

Another Blog Entry There!

Hearing the ‘sudden thunder of the mounting swan’ as he looks over the lake in his wonderful poem ‘Coole Park and Ballylee’, the Irish poet W.B. Yeats declares excitedly, ‘Another emblem there!’; and in the lines that follow he transforms the swans into an image of the human soul flying off into the unknown. This is a splendidly high-handed Yeatsian moment, as he magically transmutes the natural object into an ‘emblem’ or metaphor of his own preferred psychical realities. Ecological critics have deplored the way he rides roughshod over the natural creature at such moments, but such is the energy of Yeats’s poetic rhetoric that one suspects he could pull off the same metamorphic trick with any stray bit of nature that he happened across.

Does a blog today have the same extraordinary (but also possibly high-handed) power of transmuting any random fragment of reality it comes across into its own substance? Is there any bit of the objective world out there, or any topic of debate, that could in principle not find its way into a blog, Morrisian or otherwise; that could resist to the death and not in the end be transmogrified? In his seminal ‘Metaphysical Poets’ essay in 1921, T.S. Eliot proposed that ‘The poets of the seventeenth century, the successors of the dramatists of the sixteenth, possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience’; and I wonder if that is not true of the genre of the blog today, that it can devour and digest anything whatsoever that it serendipitously happens across.

Is there any item or any topic out there, then, that could absolutely not, under any circumstances whatsoever, find its way into this blog, into ‘William Morris Unbound’? In the months and years ahead, dear reader, we shall surely find out!

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Tolkien and Languages

J.R.R. Tolkien once remarked of his literary writings that ‘the invention of languages is the foundation. The stories were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows’ (letter of 1955). William Morris may not have been a philologist of Tolkien’s stature, but, as I have noted above, he certainly had a lively interest in nineteenth-century philology; so could we try out the same Tolkienian hypothesis in his case? In News from Nowhere, for instance, could we, as a thought-experiment, play with the idea that language comes first and that everything else just provides a convenient world for it?

The ‘invention of language’ in News from Nowhere is the resurgence of Anglo-Saxon. Characters go round giving each other the ‘sele of the morning’, attending ‘motes’, or referring to each other as ‘old carles’. At the same time, what Old Hammond refers to as the ‘long-tailed words’ of a polysyllabic Latinate vocabulary are fading away. If such is the basic philological impulse of the book, Morris then as it were has to ask himself: what social conditions would I have to put in place to make such linguistic developments likely, what political changes would have to occur to de-Latinise and re-Saxonise English in this way? And the answer then is the socialist revolution of 1952, which is now, on this showing, nothing more than what the Russian Formalist critics would have called the ‘motivation of the device’, or mere pretext, of the linguistic innovations of the News from Nowhere world.

When Morris intervened in debates about English studies at Oxford in 1886 he spoke forcefully in favour of philology rather than criticism. That being so, it is a salutary exercise, I think, to consider even the great works of his socialist period as being initially philological rather than political works, as needing to invent that particular brand of politics purely in order to provide a plausible frame for their strange linguistic experiments – which then explode even more forcefully through into the last romances themselves.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Size Matters; or, Morris's Rudest Moments

We know that Morris had hopes that Burne-Jones would do some illustrations for the more improper moments of the Canterbury Tales for the Kelmscott Chaucer, but the latter declined, averring that Morris ‘ever had more robust and daring parts’ than he did. But if he thus failed to get his old friend to liven up the Kelmscott Chaucer, Morris had none the less got some pretty rude moments of his own into some of his earlier literary works.

My own personal favourites come from his translation of the Grettir Saga. We have first Grettir’s finely contemptuous vision of the cowardly Gisli propelling himself away by farts from Grettir’s rage: ‘And sweating o’er the marsh with fear,/He helped the wind from mouth and rear’.

But we also have a nicely sceptical moment about Grettir himself, put into the mouth of the handmaiden at Reeks when she sees him naked in bed the morning after his great swim from the island of Drangey: ‘So may I thrive, sister! Here is Grettir Asmundsen lying bare, and him I call right well ribbed about the chest, but few might think he would be so small of growth below; and so then that does not go along with other kinds of bigness’.

So size does matter, though Grettir might perhaps have offered in defence of his shrivelled manhood that he has just had a long exposure to what James Joyce once memorably called ‘the scrotum-tightening sea’. However, he does then pull the handmaiden into bed to show her just what he is capable of with what he’s got; she shrieks out, ‘but in such wise did they part that she laid no blame on Grettir when all was over’.

Any other candidates buried in the Collected Works for Morris’s rudest moment?

Thursday, 17 March 2011

A Syllabus for Utopia

Education is always a delicate, not to say positively tricky, issue for utopia. On the one hand, utopia certainly wants to inculcate its own benign values deeply into its young people; for how else could it make sure there will be no political backsliding to the bad old society it has left behind? On the other hand, it just as certainly does not want to impose these values too monolithically on its young; for that would, in effect, be to brainwash their innocent spirits into its ways and values, which would be totalitarianism rather than utopia proper.

Utopia must therefore find ways to educate its young people sensitively and discretely; and I think this is also true of the manner in which literary utopias educate their readers. Such utopias not only discuss education as an explicit theme within the book, they must also delicately educate their readers as they go along, subtly emitting signals as to what an appropriate ‘syllabus for utopia’ might look like.

Thus when Old Hammond in News from Nowhere twice mentions the French utopian writer Charles Fourier within twenty pages – first to criticise his notion of ‘phalangsteries’, second to praise his insights into creative labour – we must imagine the text saying to its readers: dig here, check this out, investigate further, explore the whole range of Fourier’s ideas and debate them with your comrades as impassionedly as the Socialist Leaguers argue out their visions of the future on the opening page of this book itself.

If we totted up such references across News from Nowhere, we would indeed arrive at a reading programme or syllabus for utopia, which would culturally qualify us as readers of the genre and as political participants in the present. Thus it is that utopia gently educates us even as it holds forth about the teaching of its own youth.

Friday, 4 March 2011

William Morris on the Red Planet

As a boy, I often used to go fishing on Southend Pier, which is still officially the longest pleasure pier in the world (at one and a quarter miles in length). With a flask of steaming hot tomato soup and the packed lunch my Mum had made, one could brave the chilliest of conditions; and the catch might include flounders, dabs, mackerel, codling, mullet, the occasional starfish, and sometimes the highly disagreeable (because poisonous) weaver fish. So imagine my surprise and delight when I reached volume three of Kim Stanley Robinson’s stunning 1990s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) and found that Southend Pier actually features in it – though I am not going to give away any key narrative secrets of the book here by explaining why my boyhood Pier suddenly pops up in Robinson’s great s-f epic.

A little less surprisingly, Blue Mars also contains references to William Morris (whose name is given to one of the square harbours being built on Mars), to Hammersmith (an underground station on the mobile city on planet Mercury), to ‘the almost forgotten guild socialism of Great Britain’; and the Martians have even formed their own version of Morris’s Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (‘committees to protect the earliest buildings from destruction’). And all this is eminently appropriate because the Mars trilogy is not only about the physical process of terraforming the Red Planet, but also about the political attempt to build a good new human world there too.

One could take such references as graceful allusions on Robinson’s part back to an important utopian precursor, as a respectful nod back from the 1990s to the 1890s; but I think they are more than that. Such allusions announce to us, in my view, that the Mars trilogy in effect is the contemporary form of News from Nowhere, that it is Morris’s utopia postmodernised and science-fictionalised as we now need it to be; and that Morrisians will, over the years to come, have to read and engage and debate it as such.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Principles of a Sequel

According to his daughter May, William Morris used to remark that ‘When you are using an old story, read it through, then shut the book and write it in your own way’ (Collected Works, III, xxi-xxii). Could we, I wonder, apply this Morrisian maxim to his own News from Nowhere? One hundred and twenty years after its first publication it certainly now counts as an ‘old story’, so what might it mean to read it through, shut the book and write it in our own way in 2011 or beyond? How might we elaborate the principles that ought to guide such a retelling or rewriting?