Wednesday, 26 April 2017

What to do with Long Poems?



Professor John Carey’s lectures on modernism were certainly one of the highlights of my days as a postgraduate student at Oxford University.  The dry, sardonic wit of his delivery (which also came over very well on television arts programmes), and his exposure of the deeply inhumane attitudes of some major modernist writers, were both intensely memorable – even if there none the less remains much to be said about the cultural and political importance of modernism.


So I am glad to see that, in retirement and now in his early eighties, John Carey remains academically productive (as well as keeping bees in the Cotswolds) and has just brought out an abridged version of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which comes in at about one third of its full length.  Reviews on social media are predictably divided: some see it as a welcome introduction, which may helpfully lead readers on to the full poem, while others denounce it as a symptom of our culturally dumbed-down times, when even the classics have to be turned into sound-bites. I myself take the dialectical view that both opinions, for and against, are true.


But this slimline Paradise Lost raises the question of what we should do with Morris’s long poems, of how we might get them back into some sort of circulation.  Most recent anthologies of Morris’s poetry have concentrated on the shorter, early works and merely given very brief snippets from the lengthier ones.  So does Carey’s Milton project suggest a way forward for us here?  Could Morris’s prodigious poetic feats – The Life and Death of Jason or The Earthly Paradise itself – be edited down to a half or a third of their current length, and then published with interlinking editorial commentary that would fill in the resulting narrative gaps, as Carey has done for Milton?   Is there a Morrisian editor out there bold enough to take this on, and, more important still, would there be a publisher daring enough to give it a go?

Monday, 3 April 2017

Thames Water



‘Thames Water’ – could there be a more stirring phrase to any William Morris enthusiast?  Kelmscott House in London looks out upon the Thames, Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire sits close to it too; the wonderful upriver trip between those two places constitutes the utopian narrative core of News from Nowhere, just as it had been the basis of Morris’s own family holidays in 1880 and 1881.  The Thames tributaries mattered greatly to him too: those memorable designs based on them at once come to mind, some of the most beautiful and enigmatic that Morris ever came up with, and he set up his Merton Abbey works on one of them, the Wandle.  To Morris and his male cronies, the Thames was a river to fish as well as to row upon.  Mackail notes that he and F.S. Ellis ‘had fished over most of the river between Windsor and Richmond’, and in later years he would often escape from political and business pressures in London to pull gudgeon, pike and perch out of the Thames at Kelmscott.




In our own time, however, Thames Water is the name of an international capitalist conglomerate which has just been fined £20,000,000 for polluting the river and its tributaries on a near-unimaginable scale.  In 2013 and 2014 it released some 1.4 billion litres of raw sewage into the river, causing vast destruction of fish stocks and environmental degradation.  Were these just accidental discharges, or rather systematic policy on the company’s part?  Well, the huge scale of them suggests to me the latter rather than the former, as does as the massive fine which Judge Francis Sheridan imposed on the company, in a prosecution brought by the Enviroment Agency.  One of the great joys for William Guest as he arrives in Morris’s utopia is that salmon have returned to the Thames, but it wouldn’t have surprised the author, who was a hard-headed realist as well as utopian thinker, that with international capital still running the show his beloved river should be – in the most literal and disgusting manner– full of shit.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Hyndman and Morris in Cambridge



I have sometimes toyed with the idea – especially now that my granddaughter is growing up there – of writing a book on William Morris in Cambridge as a counterpart to my William Morris in Oxford: The Campaigning Years, 1879-1895 (Illuminati Books, 2007).  What has stopped me so far, I suppose, is a sense of disproportion in the materials across the two universities: Cambridge did not have the deep emotional resonance for Morris that Oxford so abundantly did, and in his later, campaigning years he only spoke there twice as opposed to seven times amidst the Arnoldian dreaming spires.


None the less, there would be interesting research questions to pursue in relation to those Cambridge visits, and some of them are actually posed to us by the participants themselves.  Here, for instance, is H.M. Hyndman, fellow-leader in the Democratic Federation, reflecting on the Cambridge political debate of 5 February 1884 in his The Record of an Adventurous Life (1911): ‘It is a little strange to recall now that in 1883 or 1884, I forget which year at the moment, I proposed an out-and-out Socialist Resolution at the Cambridge Union, of which I am a member, and Morris and J. L. Joynes came down to support me.  It was not a bad debate, and we actually took thirty-seven men into our Lobby.  What has become of those revolutionary undergraduates of more than a quarter of a century ago?’


Yes indeed: where are the snows – or in this case, revolutionary undergraduates – of yesteryear?  Would it be possible for the assiduous researcher to track down the names of Morris and Hyndman’s 37 youthful supporters that day, and then to follow through their subsequent careers to see to what extent the rest of their lives embodied (or not) the progressive politics they had displayed on that memorable occasion?  So whether there is or isn’t a full book’s worth to be written on ‘Morris in Cambridge’, there are still plenty of local tasks left to carry through under that suggestive rubric.

Friday, 3 March 2017

William Morris in Japan



Morris is fortunate indeed in having as energetic an advocate as Professor Yasuo Kawabata of Japan Women’s University in Tokyo.  In 2013 Kawabata brought out a translation of News from Nowhere into Japanese, an elegant, pocket-sized paperback in the ‘Bunko’ series from the prestigious publisher Iwanami Shoten.  With its maps of the book’s journeys across London and up the Thames, its copious notes and substantial Translator’s Afterword, the volume helpfully orientates Japanese readers towards Morris’s peculiarly English utopia. 


With his appetite for translation apparently undiminished by this achievement, Kawabata then collaborated with Economics Professor Hideaki Ouchi to produce in 2014 a Japanese version of Morris and Bax’s Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome (1893), a book which even over here is less well-known than it ought to be.  The volume is a sturdily produced hardback from Shobunsha, and in the accompanying essays, Kawabata situates this work within Morris’s personal and political biography, while Ouchi ranges across the politics and economics of communism. 


More recently still, Kawabata has produced a substantial monograph of his own, William Morris and His Legacy, published in Japanese last year by Iwanami Shoten.  The first part of the book explores the full range of Morris’s own aesthetic production, the second addresses Japanese figures strongly influenced by Morris such as the socialist and children’s literature author Kenji Miyazawa and the philosopher Yanagi Soetsu, founder of the Mingei folk art movement, and the third part reviews a selection of writings on the concepts of anarchy and beauty in the Victorian and modern periods (including some searching analyses of Fiona MacCarthy’s work).  John Ruskin is also a significant presence throughout.  We can perhaps now look forward to Professor Kawabata bringing Morris’s cultural and utopian theory into a full encounter with the complex postmodernity of the early twenty-first-century.

As if these endeavours were not enough, however, the indefatigable Kawabata has also written books on George Orwell and on George Best, and has been a central figure in the Japanese reception of Raymond Williams’s work.  We can no doubt expect much further admirable Morrisian work from him in the future, and all one can say as an English admirer is surely: more power to his elbow!

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Waking up from Dreams



One issue that has divided critics of News from Nowhere over the years is whether William Guest returns as a more effective fighter for communism as a result of what he has experienced in Morris’s utopia.  Norman Talbot had no doubt about this, informing us in 1990 that ‘Guest is back among us, more resolute than ever’.  But there are dissenting voices too, for example Barbara Gribble, who in 1985 announced sternly that ‘one expects him to take up once again his former and ineffectual habits’.  Closer inspection of the text won’t necessarily resolve this dispute.  If Guest does indeed appear rejuvenated on the upper Thames (which lends itself to the Talbot reading), he also gets hopelessly infatuated with a girl 36 years younger than himself and still loses his temper – ‘damned flunkies ... damned thieves’ (ch.XXIII) – just as he did at the Socialist League meeting – factors which suggest that Gribble may be right after all.

Is it an appropriate interpretive procedure to turn to related moments in other Morris works for guidance here?  In the 1857 poem ‘Spell-Bound’, for instance, the speaker tells us that ‘when the vision from me slips,/In colourless dawn I lie and moan,/And wander forth with fever’d blood,/That makes me start at little things’.  One can be so traumatised by the loss of dream-vision, whether that be of a romantic or a political nature, that one stumbles round distraught and disconsolate thereafter.  ‘Starting at little things’ isn’t entirely negative, since much of the strength of Morris’s early poetry comes from its attention to intense, fragmented perceptions and details.  But it hardly sounds like a very effective way of organising a political movement, which is presumably what Guest ought to be doing when he gets back home.  I’ve suggested in earlier posts that we might use material from Morris’s late romances to interpret details in News from Nowhere; and it may be that his early poetry can come to our assistance in this respect too.