Saturday 25 November 2017

Ruskin and his Critics

Nick Shrimpton’s recent Mikimoto lecture of this title was a knowledgeable and entertaining account of John Ruskin’s contemporary critics: William de Morgan, Henry James, Anthony Trollope, among many others.  I particularly enjoyed the parodist whose jaunty verses spoke of Ruskin aggressively putting his ‘tusk in’ throughout his copious writings.   And as Shrimpton spoke, my mind sometimes drifted off to wider theoretical and political issues implicit in his witty discourse at the lectern.  

For I was struck by how often the Victorian critiques of Ruskin as ‘savage’, excessive, vituperative, recalled those directed at F.R. Leavis after his attack on C.P. Snow in the ‘two cultures’ Richmond lecture of 1962; and here surely is the clue to the matter.  For liberal middle-class English culture, aesthetic and social debate should be conducted within parameters that Matthew Arnold evoked in a series of memorable slogans.  It should be ‘disinterested’, characterised by urbanity, the ‘tone of the centre’, ‘sweetness and light’; it should proceed in an ‘Attic style’ and be, like Arnoldian Culture itself, ondoyant et divers.  In his Criticism in the Wilderness (1980), literary theorist Geoffrey Hartman has written well of this ‘Arnoldian Concordat’ which governs – which is to say, cripples – English cultural discourse.

But for Carlyle, Dickens, Ruskin, Morris, D.H. Lawrence, Leavis himself and Raymond Williams, things are quite otherwise.  When fundamental issues of the cultural health and economic direction of a society are at stake, the writing subject is passionately interested, constituted by interests, not disinterested.  His discourse mutates accordingly, from the Attic to the Asiatic in Arnold’s terms, becoming metaphorically dense, forceful in its rhythms, tones and vocabulary, using all the resources of poetry and invective to get across the death-dealing nature of what Leavis termed ‘technologico-Benthamism’, but which we Morrisians will be content to call capitalism.  Ruskinian linguistic ‘violence’ (as its targets and enemies would see it) is a measure of his increasing desperation about the directions of his culture; and in the neo-liberalism of the last thirty years, the technologico-Benthamites have been even more in control than formerly. 

Lancaster’s Ruskin programme, under its new Director Sandra Kemp, will have to live up to the romantic anticapitalist passion of its subject, rather than retreat to Victorian scholarship, if it wants to be relevant to the multiple crises of our own period, the Anthropocene.

Thursday 2 November 2017

Eagleton on Lenin and Luther

After delivering his lecture on ‘Art and Socialism’ in Leicester in 1884, Morris was introduced to the local clergyman Rev. Page Hopps who, in Fiona MacCarthy’s retelling of this well-known anecdote, ‘said that the Socialist society that Morris was envisaging would need God Almighty himself to manage it.  “Alright, man, you catch your God Almighty, we’ll have him,” cried Morris, jumping up, ruffling his hair and shaking his fist close to Page Hopps’s face’.

One of the figures who has done most to capture God for left-wing politics in our own time is Terry Eagleton, whose talk on ‘Lenin after 100 Years, Luther after 500 Years’ I chaired in the Storey Institute, Lancaster, on Monday evening.  In a series of brilliant comparisons and contrasts which probably only he could pull off, Terry offered us a sweeping account of both Lutheran Protestantism and Leninist Communism as intellectual, cultural and socially transformative projects.  Tackling one crucial political misconception, he argued in some detail that Lenin’s vanguard notion of the party is not as transcendent of (and therefore potentially domineering over) the working class as Luther’s ‘hidden God’ - to borrow Lucien Goldmann’s old term - is over fallen humanity.

A follow-up event yesterday, in which Terry spoke alongside author Sara Maitland on the idea of ‘Creation’, was more single-mindedly theological, though the odd political implication did peep out now and again.  I must say that, as a lifelong atheist whose attitude to formal religion is probably best summed up by Matthew Arnold’s great poem ‘Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse’, I’m still not sure what I make of the ‘theological turn’ of some recent thinkers on the Left.

‘Never look a gifthorse in the mouth’ might be one’s immediate, pragmatic response; anything that can tip people leftwards, in dark political times, should probably be seized at.  But when it comes to longer-term and more principled thinking about the relation of religion to Left politics, well, for me personally, at least, the jury is still out.   Terry Eagleton  has a new book, Radical Sacrifice, coming out from Yale University Press next Spring; it looks, on the evidence of the publisher’s blurb, like one of the most ambitious syntheses of radical politics and theology that he has attempted for some years.  So I await this volume eagerly, and hope that it may resolve some of the issues here for us.

Sunday 8 October 2017

100 Political Classics

The Observer newspaper has today given us just what we need in such politically troubled times with its sixteen-page supplement of ‘100 Political Classics that Shaped the Modern World’.  These seminal texts, from Plato’s Republic all the way to Richard Seymour’s recent book about Jeremy Corbyn, are reduced to handy digests of 100-120 words each, which are usually lively enough to prompt us to further reading and investigation.

I had hoped that Morris’s News from Nowhere might feature, but didn’t really expect that it would.  But I was definitely surprised that Thomas More’s Utopia didn’t, since that is the foundational text of one of the most politically important literary genres of all.  There are sections on drama and fiction in this supplement, so the question of the literary is given some recognition; but while dystopia features readily enough - The Handmaid’s Tale, say, on the back of its recent Channel 4 version - utopia is a blank for the Observer, apparently.  The supplement doesn’t have a distinct section on Green politics (though it mentions Rachel Carson), so Ernest Callenbach’s marvellous Ecotopia doesn’t get a look in either.

One other political domain that fares badly here is communism.  There are decent synopses of The Communist Manifesto and Lenin’s What is to be Done?, but Will Hutton’s paragraph on Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, is a farrago of Cold War rhetoric: “the inspiration for the savageries of the cultural revolution … amoral savagery”.   Important attempts by Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek and Jodi Dean are in fact under way to rehabilitate the name and notion of communism; I give a brief account of them in my article in the current issue of the Journal of William Morris Studies.  So we must be grateful to the Observer for what it’s given us, but to Morrisians the absence of utopia – communist utopia, in News from Nowhere itself – is a weighty one.

Thursday 28 September 2017

Morris in Ancient Greek

We know that Morris himself translated from ancient Greek and Latin – Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, among other things  – and some of us may even have actually read his versions of these weighty epics.  But what would Morris’s own writings read like when translated into those languages?  Since even fewer of us could perform that linguistic task for ourselves, we shall have to turn to the Oxford classicists of an earlier age when such curious pursuits seemed worth the time and effort.

For in 1899 – so, sadly, Morris himself did not see this volume – two Oxford scholars, Robinson Ellis and A.D. Godley, published Nova Anthologia Oxoniensis, a substantial collection of English poems made over into Latin or Greek by various Oxonian hands.  Turn to pages 228-9 and you can have the pleasure of seeing a couple of stanzas from Matthew Arnold’s ‘The Scholar-Gipsy’ (that most Oxonian poem of them all) put into Latin by J.S. Phillimore.  Or turn back to pages 160-61 and you come across nineteen lines from Morris’s ‘The Doom of King Acrisius’ in The Earthly Paradise done into Greek by J.Y. Sargent, M.A., Fellow of Hertford College.  They look visually very impressive on the page in their new guise, even if – like me – you can’t actually read a word of them.

A major cultural aim of Morris’s was to orient us away from this Mediterranean frame of reference towards a more Teutonic and Nordic inheritance, with his own Sigurd the Volsung very much at its centre.  But he remained enough of a residual Oxford classicist for us to feel that he might have turned to pages 160 and 161 of the Ellis and Godley volume with eager anticipation if he had lived three years longer.  The book is available online at, so we can share at least some of that pleasure too.

Wednesday 23 August 2017

The Beguiling of Merlin

 Despite having lived in the North-West of England for thirty years, I made my first-ever visit to Port Sunlight only the other day.  And what a spacious and architecturally inspiring village it is, though Morris, I imagine, would have scornfully seen it as merely an instance of benevolent capitalist paternalism, an attempt to buy off genuine workers’ democracy by throwing them a few ‘palliative’ crumbs.

In the middle of Port Sunlight is the wonderful Lady Lever Art Gallery, with its fine collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, including Edward Burne-Jones’s ‘The Beguiling of Merlin’ (c.1877).  Looking at that painting, in which the elderly and entrapped Merlin glares dolefully out at the young woman Nimue, who has seduced the secrets of his magic out of him and turned his own powers against him, I found myself instantly thinking of Old Hammond’s words to William Guest in News from Nowhere: ‘the inexplicable desire that comes on a man of riper years to be the all-in-all to some one woman, whose ordinary human kindness and human beauty he has idealized into superhuman perfection, and made the one object of his desire’ (ch. IX).

Those words in turn look proleptically forward in the book to Guest’s own fixation on Ellen in the last third of the text, as he, Dick and Clara travel up the Thames to Kelmscott; ‘riper’ is certainly the correct adjective for Guest in relation to the young Nowherian, since he is no less than 36 years older than she is (56 to her 20).  May it not be, then, if we bear the Burne-Jones painting in mind, that Ellen is ‘beguiling’ her Victorian visitor, draining his magical powers  (which in this case means his firsthand knowledge of history) from him, to the point where - having achieved the upper hand over his besotted self - she can then so painfully expel him from paradise in the Kelmscott church feast at the close of the book?  So whether ‘The Beguiling of Merlin’ was or was not any sort of direct influence on Morris’s conception of the Guest-Ellen relationship, it vividly sketches out a sexual and narrative model that can sensitise us to darker possibilities in the love interest at the very heart of his utopia. 

Wednesday 26 July 2017

William Morris's Tennyson Obituary

One of the founding impulses of this blog way back in 2007 was a sense of the unfinishedness of Morris’s oeuvre, both literary and political – the former entailing further creative writing on our part, the latter new projects of social involvement.  However, I’ve perhaps lost sight of that literary unfinishedness in recent years, so a minor example comes opportunely to hand to remind me of it. On 7 October 1892, the day after Tennyson’s death, Morris wrote to George Bernard Shaw: ‘Just think if I were still Editor of Commonweal I should have had to write something about Tennyson.  As it is I needn’t and flatly, as you have guessed, I won’t’ (Kelvin, III, 453).

Well, he won’t, but we could.  Would it be worth an effort at drafting this Tennyson obituary that never happened?  We have the three articles on Tennyson which William Fulford contributed to the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine in 1856 to give us a pretty good idea of what Morris and his set made of his verse in those early days.  But what of the later, socialist Morris?  Can we speculate and set out at some length how his views of Tennyson might have developed?  And if we accept Norman Kelvin’s editorial suggestion here that ‘Apparently Shaw wanted to interview Morris about Tennyson’, we might even cast our creative writing project into that particular format, which will require us to ventriloquise the nimble wit of Shaw’s questions as well as the ponderous content of Morris’s answers.

Monday 3 July 2017

Gestures in Literature

In what has over the years become my favourite Roland Barthes book, his theoretical autobiography Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (1975), the great French critic notes his fondness for a phrase from Charles Baudelaire: ‘la vérité emphatique du geste dans les grandes circonstances de la vie’ (p.121).  It is a formulation that might make us tot up some of the most memorable gestures across Morris’s literary works, from Guenevere’s ‘passionate twisting’ in the early poetry onwards.

I’m particularly taken by Ellen’s unusual gesture as she stands on a bank of the upper Thames in News from Nowhere, ‘one hand laid on her bosom, the other arm stretched downward and clenched in its earnestness’ (ch.XXIX); for that clenched fist is a powerful statement of how much reforming political passion there may still be at work in Morris’s apparently settled utopia.

But the most spectacular gesture – or rather, series of gestures – in all Morris must surely be that enacted by Ralph in The Well at the World’s End, which thoroughly lives up to what Barthes terms an ‘excès de pose’: ‘he drew himself up, and his brows were knit a little ... He half drew the sword from the scabbard, and sent it back rattling ... he upreared his head and looked around him on this and that one of the warriors of the aliens, and he sniffed the air into his nostrils as he stood alone amongst them, and set his foot down hard on the floor of the King’s hall, and his armour rattled upon him’ (Bk 4, ch.9).  'Excès de pose' indeed: I shall have to try this myself next time I attend a William Morris Society AGM.