Sunday, 1 June 2008

Sentences in Utopia

Not prison sentences, oh no - they've all been long since abolished! But sentences in the sense of bits of language, units of syntax, the very linguistic material in which utopia is evoked in the first place ...

Critics have long argued that Morris in News from Nowhere would have to dramatise the attractiveness of socialism not just in terms of content (institutions, customs, buildings, everyday interactions) but formally too. As Krishan Kumar insisted in 1993, 'the point of [Morris's] prose romance was that form - "the slight envelope of romance", the way and manner of expression - mattered as much as content, "the serious essay", the exposition of socialist ideas'. And this isn't just a matter of genre, but of the very shape and feel of individual sentences in the book.

We've had some promising work in this vein. In a stimulating piece in the Journal of the William Morris Society, Alexander MacDonald argued that in Morris's utopia 'contradictory feelings and ideas are captured in the language of individual sentences' and offered some fine close local analyses to prove his point (X, 2, Spring 1993, 22-26). More recently, David Latham has beautifully suggested that 'much of the first chapter is a play on the "dis-" prefix' (XVII, 2, Summer 2007, 11). So we have some good pointers in the right direction.

Other examples will occur almost at random. Is Hammond/Hammersmith some kind of pun, bonding the family and the place tightly together( after the industrial dissociation of humanity and nature)? Other words are punningly transformed in the course of the text, certainly: the 'seal of the "stir and intellectual life of the 19th century"' which was once impressed on the Oxford meadows is linguistically transmuted into that 'sele of the morning' which the neighbours regularly give Guest as he heads upriver. More bleakly, however, Guest suffers so many 'pangs' in the book, from his first departure from Ellen at Runnymede all the way through to his final disappearence from Nowhere, that the village name Pangbourne comes to look like a stoical pun in its own right. For he will indeed have to teeth-grittedly bear all these pangs and pains if he is to contribute actively again to the socialist struggle in his own day.

What we need, then, it seems to me, is a Christopher Ricks of Morris criticism, someone who would do in detail for the language of News from Nowhere what Ricks so brilliantly did in 1963 in his Milton's Grand Style, i.e. demonstrate the treasures of subtle phonetic and semantic life in language that previously had been taken to be merely solemnly impressive (Milton) or merely politically functional (Morris).

1 comment:

Alias Guenevere said...

The linguistic analysis of Morris’s utopian romances is an insightful and ambitious undertaking. Among the great explorers of Morris’s style are Amanda Hodgson and John Lucas. The first emphasized the elaborated syntax and vocabulary employed in The Wood Beyond the World, while the latter stressed the vernacular simplicity of Morris as prose writer whose words “reflected his analysis of society”. Apart from archaisms and lexical artifices, Morris believed that “what the workers needed from a man speaking to them was plain English” (“Monopoly; or, How Labour is Robbed”).