Love is Enough, Morris confidently tells us in his over-elaborate poem of that title in 1872; but is William Morris himself enough, I wonder? Enough for what or for whom, you ask. Well, for culturally-minded socialists in the early twenty-first century, let us say. Much as I love Morris and his works, I feel that he is, alas, not enough, not quite; and I therefore need to complement him with Raymond Williams and his work.
It was indeed a ‘river of fire’ that Morris had to cross in 1883 from Victorian middle-class comfort to revolutionary socialism; and that undoubtedly required a degree of courage which it is hard for us to gauge accurately now. Doggedly though he laboured for the working-class cause, however, Morris didn’t thereby simply cease to be a Victorian gentleman and, as Fiona MacCarthy has suggested, in his last days he was ‘more or less reclaimed by his class’ (p.669).
Morris went to Oxford University in 1853 as a matter of course, given his family and class background. But for those of us from working-class families who got to the elite middle-class educational institutions, there was a ‘river of fire’ of a rather different nature to cross; and it is Raymond Williams, son of a railway signalman in a Welsh village who went to Cambridge in 1939, who helped us make sense of that. Morris’s river of fire is Williams’s ‘border country’ (the title of his first and finest novel), less something you cross definitively than a difficult liminal space you have to inhabit, strung out between the working-class neighbourhood to which you remain loyal and the expanded intellectual horizons that have been opened to you.
I remember the shock of recognition when I first read Williams’s chapter on Thomas Hardy in his book on The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence when I was twenty-one years old; for so many of Hardy’s own characters inhabit just such a border country between class identities, none more so than Clym Yeobright, the returning native. Nothing in Morris’s work, formative though it too has been, has ever moved me quite as deeply as that Williams chapter– though Morris makes a brave stab at ventriloquising something like working-class experience in Pilgrims of Hope. So there it is, then: William Morris is very nearly enough – but not quite.