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.

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