Wednesday, 26 August 2015

More from Mackail

Morris’s first biographer J.W. Mackail has a penchant for arriving at a compact version, a sort of distilled essence, of whomever he writes about. In the second volume of the Morris biography he offers us a ‘single sentence [which] contains the sum of his belief in politics, in economics, in art’. It is from Morris’s review of Edward Bellamy’s utopia Looking Backward in the June 1889 issue of Commonweal: ‘Mr Bellamy worries himself unnecessarily in seeking, with obvious failure, some incentive to labour to replace the fear of starvation, which is at present our only true one; whereas it cannot be too often repeated that the true incentive to useful and happy labour is, and must be, pleasure in the work itself’. Not bad, though I’d want to see the word ‘art’ in there somewhere to make this the definitive Morris sentence.

In a centenary address on John Ruskin, delivered in February 1919, Mackail offers us a rather less truncated, but still – remembering the daunting thirty-nine volumes of the Cook and Wedderburn Collected Works – usefully condensed version of Ruskin’s work: ‘His effective and permanent message is contained in the Two Paths – five lectures given in 1857-9 – and in Unto this Last, the Cornhill articles of 1860. If we know these, we know Ruskin; and if we add to these the Nature of Gothic as a preface, and the Crown of Wild Olive as an epilogue, we know him, in all essentials, fully’. Whether ardent Ruskinians would agree with so drastic a selection, I am not sure. I shall ask around at Lancaster University’s fortnightly Ruskin seminar when it kicks off again in October.

Mackail gave several lectures and addresses on Morris subsequent to the biography, some of which extend his thinking in interesting new directions. And just as the biography itself has usefully appeared in a modern paperback edition, so it might be worth gathering together these later Morris writings of his, alongside other related things such as his essays on Ruskin, Swinburne and Oxford poetry. They would make a valuable volume that we might well entitle Further Studies in William Morris and his Circle. Perhaps, then, this should be the next task for the Kelmsgarth Press.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Morris and Monsters

We need to think more boldly about Morris and his work, and that does not necessarily have to be done by importing into it new theoretical models from outside (though the more of that we do, the better anyway, I feel). For we can also generate new questions simply by thinking in a more radical way about the relations of his works to each other. For example, why, just a year or two after finishing his utopia News from Nowhere in 1890/91, did Morris embark on a translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf with the Cambridge scholar A.J. Wyatt?

The standard academic answer to that question might be: he often relaxed from his more serious endeavours by translating, and he had always been interested in British pre-Norman literature and culture. True enough, as far as it goes. But let us try out a more searching hypothesis: Beowulf is about warriors battling monsters (Grendel and Grendel’s mother, above all), and Morris’s move to the poem may suggest that there was some thought about monstrosity which did not – or could not – get fully expressed in News from Nowhere itself. Morris had, after all, already given us a powerful model of what it means to fight monsters in the extraordinary wrestling match between Grettir and Glam in his version of the Grettir Saga; you may defeat the monster, but you also become partly marked by its monstrosity in so doing.

Can we take such thoughts back into the utopia itself? Has William Guest put so much energy into fighting the economic monster which is Victorian capitalism that he has become to some degree a monster himself, capable of contaminating rather than just benignly learning from the new world he visits? And is Ellen, accordingly, in some sense battling him as much as she is learning from him in their scenes together, struggling to expel this monster back to its own time, as she finally does (‘she shook her head with a mournful look’ and he can’t get back in). And is the cost of that battle, for her, is to be the enigmatic, isolated, qualitatively distinct figure that she so clearly is in this otherwise genial, relaxed world (‘I have often troubled men’s minds disastrously’)? The more we can unsettle Morris’s works, as Ellen does her neighbours’ minds, the better!

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

William Morris as Translator

Ah, the joys of charity bookshops – those sweet moments of serendipity that Amazon, with everything you’ve ever wanted just an effortless click or two away, can never match! So it was that, after handing over 50p in the Salvation Army charity shop in Carnforth the other day, I came home with a slightly battered but eminently readable paperback copy of George Steiner’s Poem into Poem: World Poetry in Modern Verse Translation (1970).

The first delightful discovery on opening my new acquisition was that p.49 gives us ‘The Sleep of Palinurus’, a twenty-three line snippet from Morris’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid (Book V, lines 847-71), in which Palinurus falls asleep at the helm of Aeneas’s ship and then falls overboard. That prompted the chastening thought that, despite thinking myself reasonably well read in Morris, I’ve never actually tackled his Virgil translation. Whether it can match John Dryden’s renowned 1697 version of The Aeneid in heroic couplets, which I have read and of which I’m very fond, I don’t know; but I must certainly make a point of finding time for it in the near future.

Second delightful discovery: pp.190-1 of Steiner’s anthology gives us another ‘The Sleep of Palinurus’, this time by Cecil Day Lewis, translating the same stretch from Virgil’s Book V, so we have the pleasure of comparing a twentieth-century rendering with Morris’s nineteenth-century version. And this prompts a wider thought. We could certainly do with a full-length study of Morris’s practice as translator, across all the languages that he worked with: ancient Greek, Latin, Icelandic, Anglo-Saxon and Old French. That’s a truly daunting task if you feel you have to master those five languages to do it. But Steiner’s Morris/Day Lewis comparison suggests it could be done otherwise: not ‘vertically’ by delving down into the original language, but ‘horizontally’ by looking at a range of other English versions so as to distil, by comparison and contrast, the unique qualities of Morris’s text. We’ve had local, specialist studies of some of Morris’s translations, but the opportunity still remains for a bold, overall study of the lot of them – someone should certainly go for it.