Wednesday 19 June 2019

On Voting for Alice Oswald

With ten minutes to go before the poll closed at noon today, I found myself voting for Alice Oswald as Oxford’s next Professor of Poetry – despite having nominated one of her two rivals, Andrew McMillan, some weeks back.  It would obviously be good to have the first-ever woman in the post – all the more after the Ruth Padel fiasco of a few years back; and I know a little of Oswald’s environmental poetry and poetics too, so she’ll be a politically topical and correct choice in that respect as well.  But it was her description of herself as a ‘Homer fanatic’ in her supporting statement for the post that finally decided me, and I hope that in her four years in the role – if she does win – she will abundantly justify that self-description.

Morrisians are supposed to be anti-Classics, of course; for was not Morris attempting to displace the heritage of Greece and Rome by the literature of the North – Icelandic sagas in general and his own Sigurd the Volsung above all?  Well, perhaps, but he also translated Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, so presumably his attitude to his own public school-Oxbridge classicist formation was more conflictual than we often allow.  A similar ambivalence can perhaps be felt in the February 1877 letter in which he refuses to allow his name to go forward for the chair of poetry at Oxford: for all the plausible reasons he eventually offers James Thursfield for saying no, he also has to admit that he ‘found it hard to make up my mind what was right to do’. 

As a leftwing supporter of Brexit, I don’t want us throwing out the baby of our European intellectual heritage with the bathwater of that repulsive neo-liberal economic engine, the European Union, so if Alice Oswald can one day deliver on her ‘Homer fanaticism’ at Oxford, I shall be very glad, and will dust down my Morris classical translations and reread them for the occasion too.

Saturday 15 June 2019

John Ruskin and William Morris: Institutional Departures

We will be thinking closely about the relationship between Ruskin and Morris during this, the former’s bicentenary year; and such thought will mostly address the two men’s aesthetic and social positions.  Could Morris have been Morris without Ruskin-on-Gothic in the background?  Did he need Marx to sharpen up his thinking in ways that Ruskin alone couldn’t or, conversely, did his debt to Ruskin allow him to bring to Marxism things that that more explicitly political tradition had hitherto neglected?  Or, in the most contemporary formulation of all, can a new, bicentenary rethinking of Ruskin in our age of climate crisis, social media and rising rightwing populism, lead to new insights into Morris’s utopianism which might make it tell more, socially and politically?

Another way of thinking about the Ruskin-Morris relationship, though, is through the institutions which help to sustain both men’s reputations today – which I am taking here to be the Morris Society at work in the basement of Kelmscott House and the Ruskin Library at Lancaster University.  At the Society’s AGM a few weeks back, the former trade-unionist and Labour Party General Secretary Tom Sawyer eloquently launched an appeal for funds to strengthen the Society’s library and reading-room - the latter being a very pleasant, book-lined space which opens out into the stretch of back garden that the Society has available to it.

In referring to the Ruskin Library at Lancaster, however, I am being deliberately anachronistic, since that building has recently rebranded itself.  It has become ‘The Ruskin’, dropping what it seems to regard as the antiquated term ‘library’ just as it has ripped out its former, spacious and well-lit reading-room and turned this into a lecture- and performance-space as the building metamorphoses, under the energetic directorship of Sandra Kemp, into a ‘Museum of the Near Future’.  Its most recent seminar theme, in keeping with this new, contemporary focus, has been ‘Ruskin and Steampunk’.

There could hardly be two more different directions for these institutions to go in, with the Morris Society asserting the civilised value of the quiet, private reading of physical books, and The Ruskin shifting to bold, iconoclastic, collective explorations of early-twenty-first-century culture and politics instead.  I’m not here recommending one over the other.  Indeed, they strike me, in Theodor Adorno’s great phrase, as the ‘torn halves of an integral freedom to which, however, they do not add up’.

Saturday 1 June 2019

The Poetry of the Thames

In her section on ‘Likes and Dislikes’ in the second volume of Artist Writer Socialist, May Morris shows us her father ‘slashing at the eighteenth century in England’.  To sum up what she terms ‘Morris’s “annihilation” of the eighteenth century’, she cites a remark of his which includes a dismissive sweep at the poetry of Alexander Pope: ‘We have gone a long and weary way, certainly … from Beowulf to the Rape of the Lock’.

I wouldn’t disagree with any of this, of course, but it does strike me that there is one aspect of Pope’s verse which Morris might in fact have responded to rather more warmly than such reflections suggest.  For Pope wasn’t just a master of the heroic couplet, which Morris would certainly have regarded as a frigid verse form, he was also a poet of the Thames, that river which provides the main narrative and emotional thrust of Morris’s own utopia.  Even The Rape of the Lock itself, after all, contains Belinda’s invigorating boat trip upriver, and The Dunciad has those splendid satirical scenes in which Pope’s dunces dive down into the mud and filth of the Thames in the mock-heroic games, scenes which might have had a resonance for Morris as he contemplated the industrially polluted river of his own time.

But it is Pope’s Windsor Forest which may have had most impact on him.  The poem contains a fine vignette of a Thames fisherman and his catch which couldn’t but appeal to a fanatical angler like Morris, and it also evokes the Thames tributaries in a stirring passage which one might even see as a possible origin of Morris’s own later Thames tributary textile designs.  William Guest’s journey upriver to Windsor in News from Nowhere could then be viewed as a socialist rewriting of the imperial centre that Pope constructs his Windsor as being.

So there might be more to Morris’s relation to Alexander Pope than we have hitherto assumed.  And he would certainly have relished that wonderful couplet from Pope’s ‘Second Satire of the Second Book of Horace’, which runs: ‘Tis true, no turbot dignifies my boards,/But gudgeons, flounders, what my Thames affords’.  Morris pulled gudgeons without number from the upper Thames at Kelmscott, I pulled many flounders out of the Thames estuary in my teenage years, so we could both happily agree that there are poetic merits in Pope beyond his elegant versification and satiric venom.