Saturday, 23 March 2019

Working Group on Morris’s Poetry

I’ve been making handouts and gathering my thoughts for a mini-course on Thomas Hardy’s poetry which I start teaching on Monday.  I have my various themes and categories broadly sketched out for the four weeks of the course: the notion of ‘the neutral’ (shades of late Roland Barthes there, perhaps!), post-Romanticism, Wessex, London, class, return (as in ‘return of the native’), religion, elegy and, if we have time, perhaps other traditional forms.  Let’s see if I can enthuse our first-year students with detailed immersion in particular Hardy lyrics around those topics.

I’ve been struck, while knocking this mini-course together, by how little attention the William Morris Society currently devotes to Morris’s poetry.  One could imagine a Society working group – I’d be very keen to enlist Rosie Miles of Wolverhampton University to it, if she were willing – that met regularly to look at such issues as how adequately Isobel Armstrong’s analysis of Morris’s verse in the light of the concept of the ‘grotesque’ holds up today, or whether we would still agree with Frederick Kirchoff’s judgement that ‘The Earthly Paradise was at least a partial success.  Indeed, its major sections – ‘The Wanderers’, ‘Cupid and Psyche’, ‘The Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon’, ‘The Lovers of Gudrun’, ‘The Hill of Venus’ – are among the most important (and least fully appreciated) narrative poems of the late nineteeth century’.

Thomas Hardy’s verse to teach first, though – and then a Morris Society poetry group as a project for my retirement years, perhaps!  If anybody else is interested, please get in touch and we can try and make this happen.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Utopia to the Second Power

Re-reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed for my Utopias half unit, I come again across Takver’s rousing statement late on in the book that ‘we’ll go and make an Anarres beyond Anarres, a new beginning’.  If the anarchist utopia she inhabits on the barren planet Anarres has indeed given way to conformity and bureaucracy, then she and her husband Shevek, together with their Syndicate of Initiative, will have to reignite the revolutionary flame that gave birth to that Odonian-anarchist society in the first place.  They will have to fight the actual Anarres in the name of the ideal Anarres it once claimed to be (and perhaps genuinely was).

Takver’s slogan – an Anarres beyond Anarres – has always seemed to me the best way to think about Ellen in Morris’s News from Nowhere.  For we should see her as a figure who could build a Nowhere beyond Nowhere.  If Morris’s neighbourly Thames valley utopia is indeed too pastoral, anti-intellectual and static, as many critics have alleged, then the text invents the enigmatic figure of Ellen to potentially remedy that situation.  Unlike the other younger Nowherians, immersed as they are in the sensory pleasures of the present, Ellen shares the longer historical and political perspectives of old Hammond in the British Museum.  She knows that if a utopia does not remember the bloody political struggles out of which it was born, then it may slide unconsciously backwards towards the very capitalism it thought it had left forever behind. 

What Ellen will actually do in Nowhere, once she is reintegrated with the other utopians at Kelmscott, Morris’s text of course does not show us.  I wager she’ll form some kind of Syndicate of Initiative of her own and thereby reactivate the communist energies of Nowhere, perhaps intervening politically in pre-revolutionary societies elsewhere, as Shevek himself does in travelling back to Urras in The Dispossessed.  Thank God for Ellen, anyhow, without whom News from Nowhere would be a much lesser thing than it actually is.