Thursday, 24 January 2013

Eirikr Magnússon 100 years on

On this day one hundred years ago, Morris’s Icelandic teacher and co-translator of the sagas Eirikr Magnússon died in Cambridge, where he is buried in the Mill Road cemetery. Whether any events are being mounted in Iceland to commemorate this centenary, I do not know; there certainly aren’t any over here. So could we at least invent a new Morris-and-Iceland research project to celebrate the day?

I have a feeling that we should be taking a closer look at the work of some of Magnússon’s pupils. Shortly after Morris’s death, the early English and Shakespeare scholar Israel Gollancz published Hamlet in Iceland: Being the Icelandic Romantic Ambales Saga (1898), a book which is dedicated to Magnússon, who had taught him at Cambridge, and which traces ‘Iceland’s long and painful struggle for a Hamlet Saga’ (p.vii). This field of argument was later developed by another important Magnússon student, Bertha Phillpotts, who published The Elder Edda and Ancient Scandinavian Drama (1920) and Edda and Saga (1931). Of the latter, the English literary critic F.R. Leavis once remarked that ‘I and my wife are always pushing it’, and he explains its significance for them in English Literature in our Time and the University (1969): ‘Miss Phillpotts’ book (I wonder it is not used more by literary students) establishes that there was a second ritual origin of tragedy in the North, and that a continuity of dramatic tradition runs down through the Middle Ages to Shakespeare’ (p.162).

One imagines Morris, who himself tried to displace Greek and Roman epic by a Northern version of the form in Sigurd the Volsung, being wholly sympathetic to such arguments; and any Morris student who tracks through the detail of the case as developed by Eirikr Magnússon’s protégés would be doing us all a favour.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Audiences for Socialism

In his 1996 essay ‘The Morris Who Reads Us’ (which is certainly a neat title), Norman Kelvin remarks that ‘As for the late audiences for socialism, they heard him [Morris] at the Hammersmith Socialist Society (his last, smallest and most congenial socialist group). They were composed for the most part of loyal friends and employees of Morris and Co. (for several of whom attendance might have been prudence only)’ (p.347). That’s a rather peculiar final comment, surely, which potentially undermines the authenticity of Morris’s socialist meetings. It’s the kind of remark that you might expect from an avowed political opponent, from some snide Tory hack on Rupert Murdoch’s The Times newspaper, rather than from one of our best Morris scholars (who gave us the marvellous Collected Letters, after all).

So I think we have to insist that in this matter Professor Kelvin should either put up or shut up. He needs to produce documentary evidence that some of Morris’s workmen attended meetings purely for ‘prudential’ reasons – i.e. under real or perceived threat of reprisal from their employer if they didn’t - or he should withdraw this claim. And his speculative ‘might have been’ formulation here suggests to me that there is no such evidence. Morris gives us a graphic portrayal of an employer victimising an employee for his political views in section VI of The Pilgrims of Hope, so he hardly seems likely to have indulged in the same practice.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Manifesto for a Museum of Utopias

With the refurbished William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow emerging (as it should) as a significant force in Morris studies, it may well be time for the Kelmscott House Museum in Hammersmith to rethink what it is all about, to refocus its identity and move forward accordingly. It could concentrate on its west London locality, on the Hammersmith printing and publishing community that Morris and Emery Walker built up between them, on book arts and the private press movement. Indeed, it should do this, but only up to a point – to go too far down this route would risk parochialism.

In my view, we should rather think of Kelmscott House as News from Nowhere gives it to us, as the portal to utopia, the place where you might go to bed tonight and wake up bewildered two hundred years hence in a genuinely liberated human future. To conceive of the house in such terms is to invent a quite different and more ambitious future for it; it is in effect to make its future the very category of the future itself, as a place of utopian study and imagination. Let us by all means keep the basement and Coach House as they essentially are at present, as spaces for the historicist exploration of Morris and his circle, or of the book arts or 1880s socialism or Victorian poetry or arts and crafts. But let us take back the upstairs Coach House flat into Society usage as a new space for utopia, as a portal to many futures.

A Museum of Utopias, then. As far as I know, there isn’t one already in existence; and heaven knows, given the economic and environmental disasters we face, we need active utopian thought and experiment more than ever. There’s a lot of space in that upstairs flat, much potential therefore for the celebration of utopias past and the encouragement of utopianism present and future. I’m not sure I fully know what a Museum of Utopias should look like (though I have some hunches), but I don’t believe it is beyond our collective wit to dream one successfully into being. Let us even give ourselves a deadline: 2016, the five-hundredth anniversary of the founding work of the genre, Thomas More’s Utopia, as the date by which a fully functional museum of the future in Hammersmith should be up and running.