Sunday, 17 March 2013

Merging with Europe

‘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.


Tony Pinkney said...

For an excellent piece which makes a case for Morris's European dimension in a much more sustained way than I can here, see Ingrid Hanson's 'Socialist Identity and the Poetry of European Revolution in "Commonweal", 1885-90', forthcoming in 'Poetry, Politics and Pictures, 1840-1914: Cultural Production and the Representation of Identity in Britain and Europe', ed. by Hanson, Jack Rhoden and Erin Snyder (Peter Lang, late 2013).

David Leopold said...

Dear Tony,

Thanks for that helpful reference. I note that Ingrid Hanson also has a forthcoming book on: William Morris and the Uses of Violence, 1856-1890 (Anthem Press, 2013).


Tony Pinkney said...

Ingrid is a rising star, David, yes indeed. The book will make a big impact, I feel sure. It will be much harder to argue for the benign 'green' Morris who's currently so popular when it has demonstrated in detail just how consistent, and sometimes dangerous, Morris's fascination with violence is.

gingeclub said...

Morris has been sentimentalized out of existence. That's why so few read him these days. The chapters in Roots of The Mountains where the Huns are massacred by clean-cut Nordic types always give me a chill. And so does all that weird Freudian symbolism in the last things he wrote. Yeats rated him highly for a jolly good reason. To my way of thinking there are lots of threads that tie him to his contemporaries in Europe and Ireland and point forward rather than backwards.