Thursday, 5 July 2018

In Our Time

On the 70th birthday of the National Health Service, we had a lively four-way discussion of Morris and his work on Melvyn Bragg’s weekly Radio 4 programme this morning.  Much basic exposition had to be done for the radio audience, but there were also some interesting and sharper angles coming through which alas could not get fully developed.  Bragg himself clearly didn’t think much of Morris’s medievalism as expressed in A Dream of John Ball.  Presumably his views here are shaped by his own researches on the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt for his 2015 novel Now is the Time, but, dutifully remembering that he is the programme’s host rather than an actual discussant, he didn’t really develop his own critique.

Ingrid Hanson boldly spoke up for Morris’s fascination with violence, a topic to which she has devoted a fine book.  This is a crucial emphasis, which breaks us away from a stereotypical image of gentle Morrisian rural Englishness, all willow trees and reed warblers chirruping on the upper Thames.  She also valuably stressed Morris’s Marxism, though I personally would have preferred the term Communism here.  Marcus Waithe shrewdly noted how central, yet how radically undefined, the term ‘beauty’ is in Morris’s aesthetic thought, and gave us an important insight that we should follow up further in his poetry: ‘the strengths of Morris’s poetry are very intimate with its weaknesses’.  At a time when the Morris Society does so very little in relation to its hero’s poetry, we should explore this paradox further.

Jane Thomas had a powerful leitmotif to her own contributions on Morris: ‘He’s so compromised all the way through’, ‘a deeply compromised man’, News from Nowhere is ‘as compromised as his poetry’.  This stress on self-contradiction in all facets of Morris – his personal life, his business practices, his politics – again welcomely gets us away from too easy praise of his endeavours.  I should want to give it a more literary inflection, I think, picking up Marcus Waithe’s stress on the poetry.  For it seems to me that the anxieties and self-doubts which afflict Morris constantly come through in the ghosts and monsters who so numerously populate his literary works, where they attain dream-like intensity and concretion.  Hauntology and teratology – these should be the next major directions in Morris studies, surely. 

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