Thursday 7 May 2009

Oxford Professors of Poetry

On Saturday May 16th 2009 the members of Convocation of Oxford University will be turning up at the Examination Schools building in the High Street to vote for the next Professor of Poetry, now that Christopher Ricks’s five-year term in the post has come to an end (so no more Bob Dylan analysis, alas). The contest always evokes a good deal of media interest, around certain predictable topics: will we get our first female Professor of Poetry (we now have our first female Poet Laureate, after all), or might we get our first black or Asian incumbent?

Early in 1877, as Matthew Arnold’s tenure as the Oxford Professor of Poetry came to its end, William Morris was mulling over an invitation from James Thursfield on behalf of some members of Convocation to stand for election to the post. After long deliberation he chose not to, doubting whether ‘the Professor of a wholly incommunicable art is not rather in a false position’, among other objections; and J.C. Shairp, whom J.W. Mackail coolly describes as ‘of some merit both as a critic and as a poet’, succeeded to Arnold.

But let us suppose, by virtue of a Star Trek-style rift in the space-time continuum, that Morris had accepted Thursfield’s invitation and had won the ensuing election. Could we speculatively reconstruct the lectures which he might have given in this prestigious Oxford post? I have suggested elsewhere in this blog (entry for 12.12.07) that there is a good deal more literary criticism, both in Morris’s early Pre-Raphaelite milieu and in his later Socialist one, than his own dismissive remarks about the critic’s profession might lead us to believe.

I therefore think we both could and should have a stab at reconstructing Morris’s career as the Oxford Professor of Poetry he never was, though I should be the first to admit that had he accepted a subsequent invitation in the late 1880s or early 1890s as a specifically socialist poet and critic he would have been a much more substantial figure in the post than he would have been in 1877. So in the long list of Morris’s unfinished or (in this case) unstarted works his ‘lost’ Oxford lectures as Professor of Poetry 1877-1882 might not be at the top of the list for reconstruction, but it would none the less be an illuminating task to attempt to sketch out how they might have gone. Watch this space!

Saturday 2 May 2009

The 'Romancing' of News from Nowhere

I want to suggest a new hermeneutical principle for the reading of News from Nowhere, which goes as follows: one takes narratively similar episodes from Morris’s late romances, sets them beside their equivalents in his utopia, and lets the complex implications of such episodes in the romances play illuminatingly upon their News from Nowhere counterparts, where they may not, on the face of it, seem initially to be as semantically rich.

How would this method work in practice? When Walter arrives in the ‘wood beyond the world’, in Morris’s romance of that title, the sinister Mistress at whose castle he stays eventually remarks: ‘Wherefore now I ask thee, art thou willing to do me service, thereby to earn thy guesting’ (ch.XIII). An innocent enough request in context, one might think; but suppose now that we let the notion of ‘earning thy guesting’ radiate over William Guest in News from Nowhere itself?

If a guest cannot simply take for granted, but must actively earn, the hospitality he receives, whether from the eerie Mistress of the romance or from the genial neighbours of the utopia, then we must think of William Guest as playing an active rather than just passive role in the post-revolutionary world he visits. We must see him as playing a positive function there, actively changing the place by his presence, not just admiringly gawping at it. No room here, naturally, to go into what this might be; but it is the formulation from the romance, transposed across to Nowhere, which has suggestively opened this possibility to us.

Another instance. The Lady later tells Walter to ‘Go to thy chamber, and there thou shalt find raiment worthy of thee’. He does so and finds ‘raiment ... rich beyond measure; and he wondered if any new snare lay therein’ (ch.XX). Should William Guest have had similar misgivings when he comes across that handsome blue suit that the Nowherians lay out for him? I suspect he should; for dressing like his hosts contributes to making him feel he can belong permanently in the new utopian world (like Julian West in Looking Backward) and thus in part leads to all the later heartache he will endure in relation to Ellen.

The rich semantic potential of the late romances can thus open new vistas on Morris’s utopia, alerting us to a necessary ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ which the genial, sunlit vistas of Nowhere might not themselves propose to us.