‘In him the British tradition merged with the European’, writes Jack Lindsay in his Morris biography (p.381); and this is an important emphasis, given how often we hear that Morris’s work is somehow peculiarly or quintessentially ‘English’. Lindsay is talking about social theory here and stressing Morris’s break beyond Raymond Williams’s local ‘culture and society’ tradition (Coleridge-Carlyle-Ruskin) to Marxism in the 1880s. But we should, I think, be looking for evidence of his European intellectual interests earlier than this, and in other fields too.
In August 1869, for example, Morris wrote to Philip Webb from Bad Ems in Germany announcing that he was reading Carlyle’s translation of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, and in mid-1871 Jane Morris offered a more extended Goethe commentary, also in a letter to Webb: ‘I have nearly finished “Elective Affinities”. I think with all due respect to Goethe it is a most unsatisfactory book. What! Is nothing real? Must everything that is delightful change and leave nothing behind. I can’t believe it; one begins by liking his characters very much, then they change, and one can no longer look upon them as real people’ (Letters, p.44). A couple of years later, in 1873, ‘she had told Webb that she was reading Goethe’s Conversations with Eckermann’ (Lindsay, p.198). It is surely highly likely that she discussed both these works with her husband too.
‘Close thy Byron, open thy Goethe’, as Carlyle famously admonished his parochial contemporaries; and it certainly appears that the Morris family heeded his advice. So I’m inclined to think that Ellen’s most important river journey in News from Nowhere is not that on the Thames with William Guest, but rather that ‘on the Rhine two years ago’ (ch.XXX), where I imagine she was practising her German and reading Goethe, Heine, Freiligrath and others in the original.