Thursday 31 December 2020

Routledge Companion to William Morris

The Routledge Companion to William Morris, which will be published in 2021, is a spectacular work.  Handsomely produced and richly illustrated, it encompasses pretty well all facets of Morris’s complex and many-sided life in its five hundred and thirty pages.  Familiar topics like interior design, poetry, Iceland, socialism, the late romances and printing are well represented; but less predictable ones, like Morris biographies, the Culture Industry and the Classical Tradition, feature strongly too. 

I must at once declare an interest in the volume, having a piece in it on News from Nowhere, but I think that I am being objective rather than subjective in declaring the book as a whole a marvellous tribute to its editor Florence Boos.  No one but Florence, surely, could have pulled off the massive feat of organisation and sheer hard work which such a mighty tome represents; and the book is an outstanding monument of her lifelong dedication to William Morris studies.

That being said, there are still areas of Morris’s life that would bear further examination.  One that has always intrigued me is the topic of angling, which comes up here and there in the Routledge Companion, but not in a systematic way.  It would be a mistake, I think, to regard fishing as some minor, private hobby separate from the main public concerns of Morris’s life.  He always aspires, after all, to undo such rigid dualisms as private/public, serious/frivolous, work/pleasure. 

I did once have the notion of writing a fullscale study of Morris and Victorian angling, and indeed, in retirement, may now take it up again.  So I offer the proposed chapter headings of that book as an illustration of how the theme might be approached.

1.      The Mania of Fishing: Boyhood to Bad Ems, 1834-69

2.      The Hook in his Behind: Fishing in Iceland

3.      Study to be Quiet: The Victorian Cult of Izaak Walton

4.      The Brotherhood of the Angle: Fishing at Kelmscott, 1871-1896

5.      The Merton Abbey Fishery and William de Morgan

6.      Cooking the Catch and Catching the Cook

7.      A Literary Piscatory: Fish and Fishing in Morris's Literary Works (a: Early Writings; b: Middle Period Writings; c: Socialism and Angling; d: Late Romances)

For, as T. Westwood and T. Satchell flamboyantly declared in their Bibliotheca Piscatoria of 1883, ‘angling has become a force in literature, greater far than that of its kindred sports’. 



Friday 18 December 2020

Towards the Proletarocene: New Initiatives for the Left

It’s good, in a variously dark time, to see the new Left initiatives that are under way all around us.  Salvage Magazine announces itself as a ‘journal of revolutionary arts and letters’, and features leading weird fiction writer China MiĆ©ville on its editorial board.  It is devoted to what it enigmatically terms ‘a communism of the ruins’, and its full manifesto (from which I have pinched the title of this post) appears from Verso in July 2021: The Tragedy of the Worker: Towards the Proletarocene, edited by Rosie Warren and others.

Meantime, the Cambridge Marx Reading Group continues its good work and has, like so many other such projects, gone online during the Covid lockdowns.  You can, for example, chase up Cat Moir discussing Ernst Bloch’s utopian mode of Marxism on Youtube, under the aegis of this group.  Ruth Levitas has for a long time tried to make Bloch’s work count in William Morris circles, so the more we learn of it, the better.

And Jeremy Corbyn is launching a new online Peace and Justice movement in January 2021.  This initiative, of course, at once bears upon much wider political questions.  Whether there is any way back for Corbyn to the Labour Party whip, one may doubt.  Keir Starmer’s purge of the Left means that the conditions for a return of the whip to Corbyn are likely to be so onerous and humiliating that he couldn’t possibly accept them, which neatly gets rid of him (from a rightwing Starmeresque viewpoint, that is).

But getting rid of him thus might open opportunities to the rest of us – ‘us’ here being those who, like me, left Labour as the extent of the Starmer purge became clear (his early move against Rebecca Long-Bailey was the flashpoint in my case).  There appear to be something like fifty or sixty thousand of us now.  Corbyn’s leadership qualities are certainly mixed, but he is enough of a national figurehead to be probably the only person who could start a new political party to the left of Labour - an ‘Independent Labour Party’, to borrow Tariq Ali’s phrase here.  If a new formation of this kind could pull some existing leftwing MPs away from Starmer’s Labour and sign up most of the recently lapsed membership, it might well be a viable organisation for Left ideas and values.  As the Covid darkness of 2020 begins to cede to a hopefully brighter 2021, one can only hope, and, if Corbyn makes such a move, pitch in.


Saturday 28 November 2020

Radicalising the Troops?

What, the Times newspaper sending excerpts from a communist utopia to British frontline troops during the First World War?  One could well imagine the Bolsheviks smuggling out such extracts to Russian troops on the Eastern front in the run-up to October 1917, but that pillar of the English Establishment, the Times?

But, yes, a section from Morris’s News from Nowhere did indeed form part of Broadsheet XXVIII for the troops (who included my paternal grandfather, Henry Smith Pinkney).  These Times­-sponsored publications were, according to their historian Geoffrey Dawson, ‘printed during the autumn of the year 1915 in the form of a “broadsheet” – a single page of thin paper suitable for inclusion in a letter – and distributed in hundreds of thousands to the forces in the field or at sea’.  Broadsheet XXVIII contained both material from News from Nowhere and Morris’s poem ‘O June’ from The Earthly Paradise.

Needless to say, however, and as the attached poem indicated, it was not the most energizingly revolutionary sections of Morris’s utopia which got posted out to the troops - ‘How the Change Came’, say - but rather an excerpt entitled ‘The Upper Thames’, which thus fits into a conservative vision of settled rural Englishness promoted by other broadsheets in the series.  Broadsheet I contained ‘A Choir Practice’ from early in Thomas Hardy’s novel Two on a Tower, and Broadsheet IV featured ‘On Birds and Trouts’ from Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, and so on.

Given that the later pages of News from Nowhere were seen by the Times as lending themselves to such nostalgic, politically pacifying purposes, we ought perhaps to look at these closing chapters set in the upper Thames valley and at Kelmscott Manor with a rather more sceptical eye ourselves.  My Grandad, I’m glad to say, was not pacified in this manner, but – more in the spirit of the first page of Morris’s utopia, with its Socialist League meeting – joined the Communist Party of Great Britain some years after his return from service with the Royal Artillery in France.

Wednesday 18 November 2020

A Singing Lesson: A.C. Swinburne

Prompted partly by Thomas Hardy’s fine elegy ‘A Singer Asleep’, I’ve been seriously delving into Swinburne’s poetry for the first time.  Trained as I was in what was possibly the last Leavisite English department in the country (Bristol), I’m not a natural Swinburne reader, being still by instinct committed to those modernist poetic values – concretion, trenchancy, wit, irony, ambiguity – that Swinburne so flagrantly falls foul of. 

But none the less, for all the wearing prolixity, the sameness of imagery and predictable intoxications of rhythm, there is something compelling about the Swinburne poetic world: the powerful appeal back to a Sapphic tradition of Greek lyricism, the obsessive exploration of non-standard modes of sexuality, the vigorous republicanism, the fine evocations of cliffs and seascapes throughout the verse.  I like Harold Bloom’s description of him as ‘a Shelleyan intellectual skeptic whose polemic against Christianity is compelling’, and can see more clearly now why Hardy felt himself part of a radical poetic tradition to which Swinburne also belonged.

I don’t recall much activity over here for the centenary of Swinburne’s death in 2009 (perhaps there was more in the USA), but given his close early connections with Morris and Burne-Jones the Morris Society could and should be making more of him and his work.  As I’ve noted before in this blog Morris-as-poet is something of a blindspot for the Society, so I wonder whether, in the post-Covid epoch that is hopefully now getting close, it might run a sustained seminar on Victorian poetry culminating, say, in a symposium on Isobel Armstrong’s superb magnum opus on this topic which will be thirty years old in 2023. 

The Society certainly has to hand the talented personnel who could make this project happen, as with Journal Reviews editor Rosie Miles, whose splendid study of Victorian Poetry in Context was published just a few years back.  Till such a seminar gets under way, I shall continue immersing myself in such claustrophobic but curiously energising masterpieces as the ‘Hymn to Proserpine’, ‘Anactoria’ and ‘On the Cliffs’.


Saturday 31 October 2020

The Eagleton Era

In his television programme on ‘Terry Eagleton at Oxford’, made at some point after Eagleton’s accession to the Thomas Warton Chair of English Literature in 1992, John Sutherland remarks of his subject that ‘the last thirty years will, I think, be known as his era’.  This is a provocative and suggestive statement, even if not quite on the scale of Michel Foucault announcing that the twentieth century would one day be described as ‘Deleuzian’.  But does it stack up?  Can we plausibly think of an ‘Eagleton era’ in English literary criticism and theory?

Many problems of definition at once pose themselves.  What is an ‘era’ in any field, particularly when a personal name is attached to the concept?  How might its beginning, range and end be specified?  What counts as relevant empirical evidence for such a speculative hypothesis?  How, in particular, does one detect (or construct) the point where, in Hegelian terms, quantity gives way to quality, so that Terry Eagleton is not just an increasingly influential critic and theorist among others but suddenly becomes – for John Sutherland at least – the name of an era in that cultural domain?

What might the relevant markers be here?  The spectacular intellectual and commercial success of Eagleton’s 1983 volume Literary Theory would be one telling moment, as, indirectly, might the death of Raymond Williams in 1988.  So too would be the Thomas Warton Chair itself, for there was always an intense cultural frisson, in both Left and traditionalist circles, about the ‘Marxist at Oxford’ idea.  Eagleton’s own phenomenal publishing record is a sine qua non of the whole process, and his emergence as general editor of the Blackwells ‘Re-Reading Literature’ series from 1985 onwards is also an important landmark.  I first came across Terry on radio, as he expounded Pierre Macherey on a Radio 4 broadcast in 1978, so media and conference appearances are important here too.  As also is the building of a cadre of combative postgraduates, as in the ‘Oxford English Limited’ group of 1980-92, many of whom later went into academic teaching themselves.

Whether Sutherland’s notion of an ‘Eagleton era’ finally holds up, I’m not yet sure.  But it is a powerful heuristic notion, which can prompt us towards some new sociology of literary-critical influence and celebrity.  Someone should surely explore this hypothesis at book length.



Friday 16 October 2020

The Oxford School of Fantasy

Oxford University is now vigorously promoting the notion of an ‘Oxford School of Fantasy’.  If you go to the webpage of its Faculty of English Language and Literature, you will find a section devoted to the genre of fantasy – hyper-popular at the moment after the television version of George Martin’s Game of Thrones.  We there learn that ‘Oxford is a natural home to fantasy literature with those who have worked or studied here having written so many famous and influential texts’; and a list of names follows which includes Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R.Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, Alan Garner and Philip Pullman.

Well, yes, perhaps; but there is one rather blindingly obvious gap in that list, coming right between its first and second names.   For William Morris in the 1890s gave us a whole series of spectacular fantasy texts, from The Wood beyond the World onwards, which – quite apart from their own substantial merits - had a major impact on both Tolkien and Lewis in the early twentieth century.  Historians of the genre have regularly seen Morris as a, or perhaps even the, major figure in its invention.  Lin Carter terms Morris ‘the man who invented fantasy’ and describes The Wood beyond the World as ‘the first great fantasy novel ever written: the first of them all’.  Morris’s The Well at the World’s End, which his family affectionately nicknamed ‘The Interminable’, is certainly the major achievement in the genre before Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. 

So the Oxford English Faculty should urgently update its webpages to include Morris’s fantasy works.  For Morris not only studied at Oxford, but, as I argued in William Morris in Oxford: The Campaigning Years, 1879-1895, the city remained central to his cultural and political imagination thereafter.


Wednesday 30 September 2020

Surgery for Utopia

The Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis once had a plan to boldly reorganise George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda.  Not thinking much of the Derondian and Jewish dimensions of the book, he proposed to junk them all and instead rebuild it around its central female character Gwendolen Harleth (to whom Deronda becomes a kind of spiritual mentor during her disastrous marriage to Grandcourt).  Leavis even, apparently, took this drastic proposal to a publisher and planned to bring out a new, slimmed-down novel called, precisely, Gwendolen Harleth.

That dramatic editorial project comes to mind when a colleague writes to me, in disconsolate mode, to announce that when he’s recommended News from Nowhere to his friends they ‘simply failed to see the revolutionary wood for the utopian trees: they never got as far as ‘How the Change Came’ or the upriver journey, because they were turned off by the opening horse-and-cart journey’.  At which point, some Leavisian surgery on Morris’s utopia might surely be in order to give it renewed currency in our own time.

Suppose we produced an edition of News from Nowhere which started with ‘How the Change Came’, which is certainly far and away the most politically complex and narratively gripping portion of the book in its account of a revolutionary civil war – and only then went back to William Guest’s dream-like arrival in the Hammersmith Guest House.  The more socially expository discussions between Guest and old Hammond could still take place later in the British Museum, but the history and politics of Nowhere’s violent coming into being would have been shunted back to the very beginning of the text.  I think that this could be plausibly done, and, since I am retiring from Lancaster University on this very day, I might now have ‘world enough and time’ to have a stab at the necessary editorial work.

This would also be an occasion, as I suggested some years ago (see my post for 16 November 2014), to remove all those self-belittling adjectives – quaint, dainty, pretty, little, and so on – which Morris so unfortunately wove into the verbal texture of his utopia.  With revolution and civil war breaking out on the text’s very first page, and those ubiquitous self-diminishing epithets gone, a leaner, meaner, more muscular News from Nowhere would surely emerge.



Saturday 19 September 2020

J.W. Mackail: Imagist

One of the minor thematic strands of this blog has been to develop a case that Morris’s official biographer J. W Mackail is a figure who demands some – perhaps not a great deal, but at least some – literary attention in his own right.  So I am glad to come across this mention of him in George Sampson’s Concise Cambridge History of English Literature (1943), one of those admirable old-fashioned histories of the subject that nobody writes any more: ‘John William Mackail has to his credit excellent biographies of William Morris (1899) and George Wyndham (1925) as well as some equally excellent critical essays, including the delightful and illuminating Latin Literature (1895), The Springs of Helicon (1909), Lectures on Poetry (1911), and Studies of English Poets (1926); but his fame is perhaps most firmly established by his translations, especially Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (1890).  Mackail’s classical scholarship is of the exquisite kind’. 

Used in critical parlance today, the adjective ‘exquisite’ would no doubt damn with faint praise; we want our classical scholarship to be robust rather than lapidary, Dionysian rather than Apollonian, in Nietzsche’s terms.  But for Sampson himself, it is presumably wholeheartedly positive.  And that he is right to thus use the word of Mackail is shown by the curious literary-historical fact that the Select Epigrams was a significant book for the Imagist poets of the early twentieth century.  Turning as they did to far-flung literary sources which would help them renew what they saw as the abstract verbiage of the late-Victorian poetic tradition, they found Mackail’s versions of the Greek epigram as relevant to them as that other exotic miniature form, the Japanese haiku.  So Morris’s culturally conservative biographer paradoxically plays at least some small role in enabling one of the avantgarde literary movements of the twentieth century.