Sunday 23 November 2008

To boldly William-Morris ...

The only use I know of Morris's full name as a verb is in F.R. Leavis's Nor Shall My Sword (1972), which forthrightly declares: 'I have not been William-Morrising, and I have proposed no ideal condition of humanity to be found in any past'. Leavis's strong rejection of Morris here is a curious one, however, given that two of the book's three epigraphs actually refer to him in positive terms.

We have an excellent survey by Peter Faulkner of 'William Morris and the Scrutiny Tradition', where he persuasively demonstrates that Leavis and the Scrutineers 'failed ... to recognise what a vaulable ally they might have had in William Morris' (Journal of William Morris Studies, XVI, 4, Summer 2006, 27-46).

This is certainly true at the level of explicit social attitudes, but I wonder if there might be another way of telling the Morris-Leavis story, with T.S. Eliot as a necessary intermediary. For it seems to me that the utopian values that Ruskin and Morris find in the labour of the medieval craftsman on the Gothic cathedral - the union of artistic creativity with manual skill, in effect, of intellectual and manual labour - comes through as a linguistic value in Eliot and Leavis.

In Eliot's great 'Metaphysical Poets' essay the witty conceit in Donne or Chapman achieves 'a direct sensuous apprehension of thought, or a recreation of thought into feeling'. Only thereafter does the famous 'dissociation of sensibility' set in, whereupon thought and feeling go their own tragically separate ways, as intellectual and manual labour will under capitalism for Ruskin and Morris. Leavis's own term for this holistic poetic integration of senses and intellect is 'Shakespearean English'.

What is a fully social position in Ruskin and Morris dwindles to a position about language in Eliot and Leavis; but it is the very same utopianism, none the less, with the medieval cathedral metamorphosed into the more portable Metaphysical conceit or challenging modernist metaphor. So for all his overt repudiations or silences about Morris, Leavis is in the end, with this holistic utopianism at the very core of his thought about language, no less of a romantic anti-capitalist than Morris himself. Leavis thus after all William-Morrises a good deal more than he realises!

Tuesday 18 November 2008

Utopias Editor Recants

Readers of John Carey's splendid Faber Book of Utopias (1999) will have been struck by how dismissive he is in his editorial comments to the section of News from Nowhere that he presents in his book. Morris's utopian scheme, Carey remarks, 'ignores virtually every basic factor of social and economic reality', and displays 'in its adequacies, the confusion and hypocrisy that have dogged the course of English Socialism' (p.316).

These are hard words, but it appears that the former Merton Professor of English at Oxford University has mellowed over the years; for more recently he writes (in a personal communication to the author, 6.03.08): 'You should not pay much attention to my views on WM. My main grudge against him is that he is so rude about Hammersmith Bridge, to which I fondly recall being taken to feed the seagulls when I was a child'.

Perhaps we could have this comment appended to any future edition of the book itself...?