Saturday, 21 February 2015

Consider this and in our time: on W.H. Auden's birthday

Makiko and I will be opening a bottle of red wine tonight to celebrate the birthday of W.H. Auden (on whom I shall be teaching undergraduate seminars in a few weeks time). Auden’s attempt at a politically committed poetry in the 1930s still seems worth our attention, even if he never achieved anything quite as forceful as Hugh McDiarmid’s first ‘Hymn to Lenin’. Even so, ‘A Summer Night’ still strikes me as an effective attempt to break out of the narrow enclosures of traditional English poetry – that middle-class ‘garden’ of so many 30s poems – and to range illuminatingly across the ‘European sky’ of contemporary class politics. ‘A Communist to Others’ certainly has problems, but I none the less admire the poetic project underlying it. And the famous ‘Consider this and in our time’ remains, in its terse Freudo-Marxist authority, both enigmatic and diagnostically impressive.

It’s sadly true that Auden ends up, poetically and politically, somewhere else altogether. ‘In Praise of Limestone’, beautiful though it is, returns to the meditative tradition of English landscape poetry he began by rejecting; and ‘The Shield of Achilles’, which so powerfully registers the traumas of twentieth-century history – Stalinism, Nazism, US nuclear bombing of Japan - ends up somewhere beyond politics altogether. But still, for that brief moment of engagement in the 1930s, and the poems it produced, a bottle of red wine seems apt enough – though for the poetic career as a whole, perhaps it’s a Forsterian two cheers rather than three.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Gossip on an Old Barn

We all enjoy Morris’s genial account of Kelmscott Manor in his ‘Gossip on an Old House on the Upper Thames’, published in The Quest in November 1895 and reprinted by May Morris in 1936. But this appears not to have been the article he originally intended to write. For in Edmund New’s ‘diary’ of his visit to Kelmscott in October 1895 he notes, on Wednesday 9th, that ‘much rain had fallen during the night; we therefore decided not to drive to the Coxwell barn as we had intended, but that I should draw inside the house and Mr M. should write an article on it instead of on the barn’. To the long list of Morris’s unwritten works we can therefore add his ‘Gossip on an Old Barn near the upper Thames’.

I have often argued in this blog that in the case of works that Morris intended to write but either didn’t start or couldn’t finish, we should now write or complete them for him – or at least speculate in some detail as to how they might go. Could we do this, then, with the non-existent Coxwell Barn piece? We certainly have much testimony as to his intense admiration for this thirteenth-century structure; and we also have what I regard as May Morris’s own attempt to reconstruct the unwritten article, which she does by quoting Thomas Hardy’s evocation of the Shearing-barn in Far from the Madding Crowd in volume XVIII of the Morris Collected Works: ‘I know no writer’, she there remarks, ‘who has understood and interpreted so keenly the past and present spirit of these majestic buildings’ (p.xxix). We might also note that critics have occasionally been so irate that we don’t have a detailed Morrisian account of Great Coxwell Barn that they have even proposed a trip there as a desirable new episode in News from Nowhere itself!

Sunday, 1 February 2015

William Morris and Cultural Theory

The proceedings of Michelle Weinroth and Paul Leduc Browne’s 2011 Ottawa symposium on Morris’s work are now in print. At a weighty 372 pages, To Build A Shadowy Isle of Bliss: William Morris’s Radicalism and the Embodiment of Dreams is a handsomely produced volume and constitutes an important event in Morris studies. But the great surprise of this volume, to those of us who were at the symposium, will be Michelle’s Introduction, which embarks on a stimulating reading of Morris in the light of Jacques Derrida’s concept of ‘spectrality’ from his 1993 Spectres de Marx; for this framework of interpretation was not at all visible at the event itself.

This Introduction is exactly the kind of sophisticated writing on Morris of which we need so much more, and of which we get so little. We should be trying out all the major interventions in recent philosophy and cultural theory on Morris’s work, in order to see what they can illuminate in him but also what he, as communist utopian, may tell us about them, by way of challenge and emendation; the traffic will certainly not be all one-way. Efforts in this direction are rare indeed. Long ago, as we emerged from the 1980s, I tried out a consciously ‘postmodern’ reading of News from Nowhere; Weinroth herself evoked the Kantian sublime in her 1996 Reclaiming William Morris; Marcus Waithe used some aspects of Derrida on hospitality in William Morris’s Utopia of Strangers in 2006.

But where is the Deleuzian Morris, the Žižekian Morris, the Badiouvian Morris, the Kristevan or Cixousian or Irigarayan Morris, the Bloomian or De Manian or Hartmanian Morris, even a Benjaminian, Jamesonian or Eagletonian Morris, or the Morris of current animal studies or political theology or the Lacanian Real? There are so many powerful paradigms from literary and cultural theory, or from philosophy and political theory, which we should be trying out on his texts. Since the existing Morris institutions are of so little use here, we probably need a new Morris Society that will actively encourage such work and a new Morris Journal that will publish it. So little has yet been done in this field. As with Adam and Eve leaving Milton’s Paradise, the world is all before us where to choose.