Sunday 20 January 2019

News from Atlantis

Morris’s utopia is not often related to Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), since the latter inaugurates those utopias which celebrate extreme technological inventiveness to satisfy ever-expanding human desires, while News from Nowhere seems rather to belong to that alternative tradition, deriving from Thomas More himself, in which human desires are simplified and a more sustainable, low-tech economy thereby comes into being.  However, perhaps we should constellate Morris and Bacon, however perverse that might seem, just to see what may happen. 

In News from Nowhere the Houses of Parliament have become a Dung-Market, a metamorphosis which we usually take as a satirical comment on the party politics of Morris’s own time.  But suppose we resituate that Morrisian detail within the scientific experiments so exuberantly outlined at the end of Bacon’s utopian fragment: ‘We also have furnaces of great diversities, and that keep great diversity of heats … Besides, we have heats of dungs … These divers heats we use, as the nature of the operation we intend requireth’.  So perhaps the parliamentary dung-heap is actually some kind of heat-generating scientific experiment, possibly being conducted by those invisible engineers who have also invented the ‘force’ that powers Morris’s new society.

If there is a possible Baconian derivation here, so too might there be in William Guest’s swimming in the Thames early in the book.  For during courtship in New Atlantis, ‘they have near every town a couple of pools … where it is permitted to one of the friends of the man, and another of the friends of the woman, to see them severally bathe naked’.  So Guest in the river may be demonstrating his rather faded 56-year-old physical charms to a female gaze that he is not actually aware of at this point in the book.  Perhaps the 42-year-old Annie is watching him from the Hammersmith Guest House to report on his physical prowess to a female friend of hers, or even just for her own satisfaction, since there is a faint flicker of erotic interest between these two figures before Guest heads up the Thames to his disastrous infatuation with the 20-year-old Ellen. 

So let’s not confine News from Nowhere too rigidly within the ‘ecotopian’ lineage.  It has sometimes been described as ‘soft science fiction’, and it is worth keeping that generic derivation open too.


Saturday 5 January 2019

Four Bicentenaries:1.Arthur Hugh Clough

This is a big year for Victorian bicentenaries, if you’re into that kind of thing: Arthur Hugh Clough on 1 January, John Ruskin 8 February, Charles Kingsley 12 June, George Eliot 22 November.  The last three of these figures are all important for Morris, though he certainly knew at least some of Clough’s work too.  In the February 1886 number of Commonweal, he cites ‘the eighth commandment in its Bourgeois development, as given us by A.H. Clough: “Thou shalt not steal: an empty feat/When it’s so lucrative to cheat!”’.  The couplet is from Clough’s splendidly satirical short poem ‘The Latest Decalogue’. 

There are certainly good reasons for remembering Clough.  From the narrow perspective of poetics, he shows us better than most other poets what a resourceful innovation the classical hexameter line can be in English verse.  Moreover, his fine narrative poems, such as The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich (1848) or Amours de Voyage (1858), are energetically immersed in contemporary history, in sharp contrast to those of his close Oxford friend Matthew Arnold, which always cut away from history to some lofty privileged perch of ‘disinterestedness’.  Clough’s is a politically engaged poetry, even if, as in Amours, that engagement can’t actually in the end come to very much.

Terry Eagleton has provocatively termed Clough ‘the greatest Victorian poet’.  Clough’s work, he writes, ‘scandalously estranges and disfigures the conventionally poetic, reviving the lucid, discursive, dialectical qualities of Enlightenment prose.  It is for this reason that, given the hegemony of a certain aesthetic ideology in Britain, he is at once the major Victorian poet and one of the least read’.  Bicentenaries only really matter, of course, if they can get beyond scholarly piety and define some new, contemporary edge and relevance for their subjects.  We shall see how these four work out in the weeks and months ahead.