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.