Friday 24 May 2013

Campaigning at Oxford

In my address to last year’s Morris Society AGM held in Mansfield College, Oxford, I suggested that the Society should consider setting up a utopian studies subgroup based at Oxford University. A few years before that, in William Morris at Oxford: The Campaigning Years, 1879-95 I argued that Morris’s nine talks and lectures at Oxford over that sixteen-year period constituted a systematic campaign to win both city and university to his architectural and political values. So if we want the Morris Society today to become a campaigning as well as scholarly organisation, then Morris’s old university is certainly one possible starting point for this.

Just the other day, for instance, Oxford University opened a new lab in its Earth Sciences department funded by nearly six million pounds from the oil company Shell. This funding, over a five year period, will include research into ‘unconventional hydrocarbons’, including fracking, which is currently proving so controversial in my own county, Lancashire. Green campaigners argue that accepting massive funding from Shell will undermine Oxford’s credibility and work against its own research into global warming. The student group People and Planet claims that government cuts to research funding are ‘pushing our best universities into bed with the world’s worst companies’. The Shell-Oxford linkage is certainly an egregious example of that, and no-one in his own time better understood the link between capitalism and environmental despoliation than Morris.

So I suggest that the Morris Society – including its American and Canadian sister organisations – intervene in the anti-Shell campaign at Oxford, as a practical way of making our most important English communist thinker and utopian writer more relevant and better known at his own university. There are idealistic young minds to be won over here, a green-socialist future to be fought for.

Sunday 19 May 2013

Reading Morris at School

On last night’s ‘Archive on 4’ programme on BBC Radio Four, we heard former Conservative MP Jill Knight (b.1923) recalling her schooldays at the King Edward Grammar School for Girls in Birmingham: ‘The English mistress was a keen Fabian and she gave us to study a book called News from Nowhere ... by William Morris. He describes how England will be when the golden age of Socialism has dawned. I read this book and I thought I had never read such utter rubbish in all my life, so I started writing essays and each week I fairly tore it to pieces. So my marks started to get lower and lower, and I thought, well, it’s not my English that’s at fault, it’s my opinion, and I’m not going to change my opinion, and at the end of term I came bottom of English instead of top. I didn’t know anything about these Socialist people or the Conservative people or what, but I decided I was on the other side. Been on the other side ever since’. So Morris’s marvellous utopia clearly doesn’t always have the benign political consequences that we tend to assume it does!

Tuesday 14 May 2013

How to Corrupt Utopia

Our brightest young commentators on News from Nowhere have tended to see William Guest as a disruptive force in the Epoch of Rest he visits. Matthew Beaumont argues that Guest ‘unsettles the tranquillity of utopia’, and Marcus Waithe uses an even stronger verb, maintaining that ‘Guest seems at times in danger of contaminating Nowhere’. Traditionalist readers of Morris tend to be dismissive of such views, believing: 1. that Guest’s relation to Nowhere is entirely benign; and 2. that anyone who thinks otherwise has him or herself been ‘contaminated’ by modern literary theory into perverse excesses of interpretive ingenuity.

However, if we delve back into the history of utopia, we shall find that some of its founding fathers have shared these Beaumont-Waithe suspicions of the visitor to utopia. Take Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627). Its utopian lawgiver, Salamona, ‘amongst his other fundamental laws of this kingdom ... did ordain the interdicts and prohibitions which we have touching entrance of strangers ... doubting novelties and commixture of manners’. So Salamona certainly fears that guests may unsettle or contaminate his utopia, although whether Bacon’s fifty-one visiting mariners actually have this effect upon the various Bensalemites they meet, we cannot tell, since New Atlantis remains only a brief fragment. Just as Terry Eagleton has argued that literary theory is actually more traditional than its traditionalist opponents (because it goes back to the founding concerns of ancient rhetoric), so today’s theory-inspired young readers of News from Nowhere go back, whether they realise it or not, to the concerns of the earliest utopias we have.

Wednesday 8 May 2013

How Poems End

I’ve just got back home from a poetry reading by Northern Irish poet Paul Muldoon at which I did my best to attend to his own verses as he declaimed them in the spirit of his 2006 book The End of the Poem, a volume which (in one of the meanings of its title) might be seen as belonging in a very particular lineage of literary criticism. I.A. Richards kicked it off many years ago with his witty essay entitled ‘How Does A Poem Know When It Is Finished?’ and Barbara Herrnstein Smith followed up in 1968 with her Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End. How – these various works ask - does a poem convince us that it has ended in some substantive and satisfying way, pulling the diverse threads of theme and imagery back together so that (to borrow Coleridge’s image for the organically closed text) the snake ends up with its tail in its mouth.

The genre of poetic elegy traditionally ends with a moment of apotheosis, as when Milton’s Lycidas is converted into the ‘Genius of the shore’ at the conclusion of that poem. Shakespearean sonnets achieve closure by the semantic snapping shut of the final couplet after the three quatrains that precede it. The Romantic ode returns at the close to its opening landscape imagery, but at a higher level, transformed and deepened by the inward meditation that constitutes the middle part of such poems. Victorian poet Matthew Arnold plays many resonant concluding variations on his pervasive river and sea imagery, as with the ‘unplumb’d salt estranging sea’ which so memorably ends ‘To Marguerite’. Modernist poems that finish with an indeterminate Eliotic ‘whimper’ rather than a bang still negatively depend upon the conventional modes of closure which they transgress. Within the literary criticism devoted to Morris’s verse I don’t recall any systematic attention to how his poems end, but as the Richards, Herrnstein Smith and Muldoon studies all suggest, we would certainly benefit from such work.