Friday 23 August 2013

Ceremonies of Ecology

A few posts back I wrote about my son’s D.Phil. graduation ceremony at Oxford University, and I’ve found myself since then reflecting on the term ‘ceremony’ itself. It has some very memorable (albeit right-wing) poetic manifestations in the work of W.B. Yeats, in poems like ‘The Second Coming’ – ‘everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned’ – and ‘Prayer for my Daughter’: ‘How but in custom and in ceremony/Are innocence and beauty born?’. But it crops up significantly in Morris criticism too, as when J.M.S. Tompkins remarks of the Germanic romances that ‘Morris enjoyed devising ceremonies ... Morris enjoys to the full the devising of ritual and ceremony’ (pp.300, 310).

The Morrisian literary ceremony that I most enjoy is the brothership ritual that crops up in both Sigurd the Volsung and The Story of the Glittering Plain. It appears in the latter as follows: ‘the Erne had already made the earth-yoke ready. To wit, he had loosened a strip of turf all save the two ends, and had propped it up with two ancient dwarf-wrought spears, so that amidmost there was a lintel to go under ... they went under the earth-yoke one after the other; thereafter they stood together, and each let blood in his arm, so that the blood of all three mingled together fell down on the grass of the ancient earth’ (ch.XXII).

It is the ecological rather than military-machismo dimensions of this ritual which are most likely to move us today, that sense here of forging in the most practical way an intense identity between humanity and earth. So I wonder whether we might not turf over some of the Coach House garden at Kelmscott House to make Morris Society ‘earth-yoke’ initiation ceremonies possible there too.

Monday 12 August 2013

Art Everywhere: A Morrisian Critique

Today the United Kingdom turns into one giant art gallery, with 57 famous art-works from Nicholas Hilliard’s portrait of Elizabeth I to Peter Blake’s Pop Art cover for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album and beyond, appearing on poster and billboard sites up and down the country for the next two weeks. Pre-Raphaelite enthusiasts will be glad that Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts, Millais’s Ophelia, Madox Brown’s The Last of England and Waterhouse’s Lady of Shallott are represented here. Those of us with twentieth-century aesthetic interests will be pleased to see a good deal of modernism and postmodernism, and even a sprinkling of political art too (Bob and Roberta Smith’s 1997 Make Art Not War).

It will, I agree, be pleasant to have commercial advertising imagery driven off these public sites for the next fortnight, but does this really constitute ‘bringing art to the masses’, as The Guardian newspaper calls it? Depends what you mean by art, of course; and the great, radical insight of William Morris’s work is given in his insistence that ‘first I must ask you to extend the word art beyond those matters which are consciously works of art’ (1883). Art for Morris is first and foremost pleasure, creativity and self-direction in the labour process, in the world of everyday work; and art in the conventional sense – works by Hilliard, Millais and Peter Blake – are only spin-offs from this wider social creativity, ‘superstructure’ to its formative ‘base’, to borrow that old Marxist distinction.

In a culture in which, as we have been learning recently, companies such as McDonalds, Sports Direct, Wetherspoons, Boots, Amazon and many others have up to a million workers being ruthlessly exploited by zero-hour contracts, there clearly is precious little creativity, happiness and self-direction in the world of UK work at the moment. ‘Art Everywhere’ is certainly a good Morrisian slogan, but, as he makes clear in his 1884 talk ‘At a Picture Show’, unless you take the demand for art (in the expanded sense) into the world of work – which immediately takes you to socialist and communist politics – you are just pussy-footing round the real issue here in a mild, liberal-philanthropic sort of way.

Friday 9 August 2013

Odin's Sword, or the Enigma of the Gift

In a 1942 anthology for schools called The Narrative Art in Verse, we find Morris represented by two pages excerpted from early in Sigurd the Volsung and entitled ‘Odin’s Sword’. The one-eyed Norse god strides into the Volsung hall, buries his sword deep into the Branstock tree in the middle of the hall, and challenges the warriors to draw it out if they can. The passage concludes: ‘For they knew that the gift was Odin’s, a sword for the world to praise’. Is this a well-chosen snippet from Morris’s great epic or not?

Well, yes; but perhaps not for the reasons the editor, N.L. Clay, has in mind. In The Water of the Wondrous Isles one of the minor characters cries: ‘The Gift? ... what meaneth that?’; and the Odin’s sword episode suggests some answers to this question. The gift here is also a test, clearly; many warriors try and fail to pull it from the tree before Sigmund finally succeeds in doing so. But such a gift is also a curse (quite as much as Andvari’s Ring, the more ‘official’ curse in this text). For the Goth king Siggeir is so humiliated by his failure to draw the sword from the tree and so envious of it that just a couple of months later he unleashes the terrible vengeance that almost destroys the Volsungs entirely.

So a gift is a test is a curse. A rich complex of ideas is tangled together here, and the question this passage then begs is: is it always so in Morris, are gifts always ambivalent in this way, as destructive as they are honorific? My schools anthology excerpt may indeed ‘tell a story in verse, with manly sentiment’, in the editor’s words, but it also raises some searching questions about gift-giving across Morris’s oeuvre.

Thursday 1 August 2013

Lucia Joyce and Margaret Morris

James Joyce’s daughter Lucia had aspirations to be an avantgarde dancer before the mental health problems which so devastated her life set in (she spent her last 31 years in an asylum in Northampton). In pursuit of this goal, she took dance lessons in Paris from late 1925 onwards with Margaret Morris. ‘Lucia could not have found a better teacher’, her biographer Carol Loeb Shloss writes, and continues: ‘In her native England, Morris based her work in a studio and a club in Chelsea ... As the granddaughter of William Morris, she had a high visibility in the arts’ (p.125). Hold your horses, one interjects at this point: William Morris didn’t have any granddaughters, or grandsons for that matter – both of his own daughters having remained childless.

So what is going on here? Is this is a simple scholarly error in a book that is otherwise careful and accurate? Could Margaret Morris herself have floated the notion of being Morris’s granddaughter as a way of attaining visibility in English and French artistic circles? Was she perhaps actually a grand-niece of Morris, second-generation offspring of one of those copious Morris siblings whose family trees my friend Dorothy Coles was assiduously researching? In which case, there would be some genuine family connection, which has then got inaccurately blurred to being a granddaughter, which is palpably wrong. Someone with more time on their hands than I have might do a little digging here.