We’ve had a while now to get used to that cute little red bird with a sprig in its beak which is the William Morris Society’s new logo, and in the Spring 2016 issue of the Society’s Magazine its designer, Angus Hyland of Pentagram, explains the thinking that went into it: ‘we looked at what visually speaking you had in your tool box … Very quickly the bird motif came to the fore … a long tradition of birds as symbols or logos … And people just like birds’.
I don’t doubt that Morris himself liked birds and that he often represented them in both his visual and his literary art; but I would want something stronger than ‘people just liking birds’ as justification for a Society logo. That chirpy little red fellow certainly fits in – despite his colouring – with what we might call ‘green Morris’, a contemporary construction of our hero which sees him as benign environmentalist pioneer, peaceable and organicist in his tastes and politics.
But Morris is actually a good deal less cosy than this. Politically, he is a Communist not a Green; and in Pilgrims of Hope and News from Nowhere he is the poet of State massacres, civil war, revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence, not just birds cheeping in the reed-beds of the upper Thames. And in more purely literary terms, he is also the poet of ghosts, witches and monsters, of eerie metamorphosis and extreme, transformative violence (as Ingrid Hanson has finely shown).
So can we come up with an apt logo for this more unsettling, indeed positively dangerous Morris? Well, yes, if we turn to his epic poem Sigurd the Volsung and take those ‘two mighty wood-wolves’ of its first Book. These brutes devour many of King Volsung’s sons, and later in that Book Sigmund and his own incestuously produced son Sinfiotli actually become wolves themselves: ‘as very wolves they grew/In outward shape and semblance, and they howled out wolvish things’. So I’d happily replace the cheery red bird-and-sprig as Society logo with a snarling northern wolf (suitably stylised, of course); the latter would semiotically signal an altogether different kind of challenge to us.