Thursday 25 November 2010

'Earthly Paradise': the Greatest Hits

Is it possible to hazard an informed guess as to which is the most anthologised of the twenty-four tales in Morris’s Earthly Paradise? To do a full accounting one would need to look first at volumes which offer truncated versions of The Earthly Paradise itself, such as Atalanta’s Race and Two Other Tales from ‘The Earthly Paradise’ (1922) in the ‘King’s Treasuries of Literature’ series general-edited by Sir Arthur Quiller Couch. There are also several prose-version anthologies from Morris’s magnum opus designed specifically for children, such as Tales from ‘The Earthly Paradise’, selected by W.J. Glover in 1913. And one would then need to turn, more generally, to anthologies of narrative poetry and tot up the most popular Earthly Paradise offerings from such collections.

It would be a huge scholarly task to do such an audit in detail, so I can only offer an impressionistic answer to my opening question. But my hunch would be that, as the little King’s Treasuries volume of 1922 already suggests, it may well be Atalanta’s Race which is the most anthologised of all the twenty-four poetic tales. It is not the most critically acclaimed, certainly - that would more likely be The Lovers of Gudrun – but it may, just possibly, be the most anthologised.

As some relevant straws in the wind, we might note that Atalanta’s Race appears in George G. Loane’s Longer Narrative Poems (Nineteenth Century) in 1916, in the ‘English Literature for Secondary Schools’ series; in the World’s Classics Book of Narrative Verse, edited by V.H. Collins in 1930; and in T.W Moles and A.R. Moon’s Longman Anthology of Longer Poems as late as 1963.

If Atalanta’s Race has indeed been the most popular of the Earthly Paradise stories, why should this be? It is a fairly lightweight genial tale, offering no particularly impressive formal or thematic features, so why so much emphasis on it among anthologisers? One troubling answer instantly suggests itself. It is the very first of the Earthly Paradise stories, so does its regular appearance imply that anthologisers have certainly felt the need to have something from so weighty a narrative monument as Morris’s great collection, but have in practice, as readers and would-be editors, not actually been able to get beyond the first story in it?

Sunday 21 November 2010

The Socialist Reading Room

In Morris’s Socialist years a reading room and newsroom were provided at Kelmscott House; they were under May Morris’s supervision and opened from 10.30am to 1.00pm on Sundays. Fiona MacCarthy informs us that ‘Walter Crane had suggested a reading list for young Socialists and Morris presented a number of volumes, including a copy of Shelley’s Poems’ (p.520).

Does Crane’s reading list survive anywhere, I wonder, or can we reconstruct what it might have contained by educated guesswork? Was Shelley on it or not, or was that an additional graceful thought of Morris’s own? If we can speculatively put a list of titles together, what was it about these books that made them pedagogically suitable for young socialists specifically?

And Walter Crane’s 1880s reading list might inspire us to draw up one of our own. What would a suggested course of reading for young socialists look like today, in the 2010s? I’d certainly be inclined to have G.A. Cohen’s delightfully produced little book, Why Not Socialism? (2009), with its audacious ‘camping-trip’ metaphor, high on the list. We, in the postmodern, have lost sight of the question of socialist pedagogy for the young; and if the more buoyant and innocent movement of the 1880s and 90s can reactivate that question for us, it will have done us a great service.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

With How Sad Steps, O Moon

When my son was small we were both great fans of the eccentric British astronomer Patrick Moore. We once went to see him speak at Blackpool’s Grand Theatre, we bought his Yearbook of Astronomy, and we equipped ourselves with a modest astronomical telescope which, at its best, let us see four of the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn.

However, not all the astronomical knowledge that the two of us mustered between us helps me to fully understand Morris’s biographer J.W. Mackail when he remarks, in his Studies of English Poets (1926), that ‘It is curious how constantly descriptive writers, both in prose and verse, go wrong about the moon’s movements and phases. Even Morris does so, in the lovely opening scene of “The Message of the March Wind”’ (p.100).

In that poem, you will remember, the narrator announces that ‘The moon’s rim is rising, a star glitters o’er us’, and then two stanzas later reflects that ‘When the young moon has set, if the March sky should darken,/We might see from the hill-top the great city’s glare’. So is Mackail right here? Has Morris really got his lunar observations in a twist?

Thursday 11 November 2010

The View from Kelmscott

John Lendis’s ‘View from Kelmscott’ paintings, currently on display at John Ruskin’s Brantwood, are not at all, thank goodness, the sort of genial, mild, greenly ‘English’ landscape images one might have expected from the title of the series. They are, instead, eerie and unsettling (as one sees from comments in the Visitors’ Book), avantgarde in both their pictorial techniques and some of their semantic content (London Underground and SONY signs built into the image, for example). They express paralysis and defeat, projects of aborted break-out, articulated through those powerful Victorian icons of graceful female death, the Lady of Shalott and Millais’s Ophelia; and the most extraordinary picture here, in my view, is accordingly the ‘Winter Boat’, with the Lady of Shalott trapped in a bleakly snowy treescape.

Why should this be, and what is the ‘View from Kelmscott’? Surely not just bucolic fields and the stripling Thames, nor even just Morris himself and his family and friends; but rather Dick Hammond, Ellen and the utopians of News from Nowhere: ‘gaily-coloured tents arranged in orderly lanes, about which were sitting and lying on the grass some fifty or sixty men, women and children, all of them in the height of enjoyment and good temper’ (chXXXII).

But then this, alas, was a utopia that never in fact happened, a future that failed to materialise, that went down in the bloodbath of Stalinism, the counter-revolution of Fascism, World War and, for us today, that dismantling of the post-war Welfare State we’ve been witnessing since Thatcher and Reagan and now under the banner of globalisation.

‘I wish I had a river I could sail away on’ is the title of one bleakly longing painting here, but she doesn’t. Thwarted hopes, broken utopias, political paralysis, the vibrant energy of Morris’s Ellen shattered into the deathward-tending horizontal stasis of Millais’s Ophelia, or the ‘Kelmscott Ophelia’ as she becomes here. Thomas Hardy once wrote that ‘If a way to the better there be,/It exacts a full look at the worst’; and in these haunting Kelmscott paintings John Lendis has given us a disturbing image of that Hardyesque ‘worst’ blighting our most beautiful utopian English landscapes.

Saturday 6 November 2010

William Morris Martial Artist

I belong to the generation for whom the films of Bruce Lee, from The Big Boss to Enter the Dragon in 1973, were a revelation of what the human body could do and of what screen violence could be. Instead of two ham-fisted cowboys slugging it out John Wayne-style, you suddenly had the extraordinary balletic intensity of Lee’s high-kicking jeet kune do; we were entranced, and within weeks we were signing up at local kung fu or karate clubs which mushroomed across the country.

It takes a considerable effort of mental reframing to see William Morris as a martial artist, and yet he clearly was, as J.W. Mackail makes clear early in his biography: ‘in playing singlestick, of which he was very fond, his opponent had to be guarded against Morris’s impetuous rushes by a table placed between the two combatants’; and later, in Maclaren’s gym at Oxford, Morris offered to teach his new friends ‘the cuts and guards’ in singlestick. Little known though it may be in the epoch of kung fu, singlestick is a longstanding indigenous British martial art, one which has indeed been making something of a comeback in recent years (it was revived by the Royal Navy in the 1980s, for example).

Perhaps the most famous literary adherent of singlestick is Sherlock Holmes, who uses it fight off various enemies in the course of his exploits. ‘I am something of a single-stick expert, as you know’, he boasts to Watson in the ‘Adventure of the Illustrious Client’, though it is another martial art, ‘baritsu’, which Holmes employs to defeat Moriarty in their final one-to-one tussle. For anyone who wants to do further research on Victorian martial arts, I would recommend the finely named online Journal of Manly Arts, which no doubt also has articles on Bruce Lee’s contributions too.

Friday 5 November 2010

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

The Spring 1966 issue of the Journal of the William Morris Society (vol II, no1) contains James Alfred Wilkes’s genial memoir of political meetings in the Kelmscott House coach house in the late 1880s and early 1890s. In the course of this he fondly remembers, among many other vivid occasions, a lively talk by Annie Besant on socialist tactics in relation to the unemployed. After Besant’s stirring address, Wilkes notes, ‘one of the speakers in the debate created a small sensation by the statement that he carried in his pocket an explosive which was sufficient to send us all to kingdom come’.

A ‘small’ sensation?! I’d have been sprinting out of the coach house and leaping off the bastion into the Thames before this speaker (who sounds as though he might have been the Professor from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent) had even finished his sentence. Which just shows that, though we sometimes bemoan the fact that our scholarly papers in the coach house today don’t have the fire and passion of the socialist lectures in the same venue in the late nineteenth century, there are benefits to this more sedate approach too!

Tuesday 2 November 2010

News from Nowhere Day

The William Morris Society always has a commemorative event around Morris’s birthday on March 24th, involving a birthday cake and a collective toast over glasses of wine, and I imagine many of us in private have more sombre commemorative thoughts on the anniversary of his death on October 3rd. Both such dates, however, make for rather general reflections, marking a life in its entirety rather than any particular aspects of it, so I feel that we need more specific Morrisian anniversaries in addition to these two life-markers.

So, in the spirit of the ‘Revolutionary Calendar’ that Commonweal used to publish, I’d like to suggest that we have an annual ‘News from Nowhere Day’ to celebrate the greatest of Morris’s literary works and, more generally, the genre of Utopia to which it belongs. What would be the appropriate date for such an event? Well, the book itself answers that question; for ‘it was winter when I went to bed the last night, and now, by witness of the river-side trees, it was summer, a beautiful bright morning seemingly of early June’ (ch II).

So let us declare, say, the first Saturday in June to be News from Nowhere Day, on which we commit ourselves to organising some celebration of that work in particular and/or the genre of Utopia in general. Such events needn’t be elaborate and might simply take the form of a reading of one chapter of Morris’s utopia followed by discussion of the issues it raises (a model he used in his own lifetime, as it happens); but if we could make this happen up and down the country on 4 June 2011, then we might begin to make his finest work – and the politically crucial genre to which it belongs – socially current again.