Saturday, June 2, 2018

William Morris: A Life for Our Time VI

I've finally finished this biography and will sum up the remainder. Morris became extremely political from the 1880's to about 1890. He joined two early socialist organizations, the Democratic Federation, in 1883, and the Socialist League, in 1884, and he financed the socialist publication The Commonweal. His business continued to flourish, but he became less involved in its day-to-day operations. Socialism was a new idea then, well before the Bolshevik Revolution, and Morris became acquainted with Engels and Kropotkin and other socialists and anarchists. He spoke widely both to ordinary workers and to educated audiences but did not achieve much as a political leader. It is difficult to piece together his activities, which were related to civil strife among miners and other groups under economic conditions which remain unfamiliar to me. Most educated Englishmen at the time were either conservative or liberal, and Morris's views were not popular among them. This included Burne-Jones, who had become financially successful as an artist and had adopted conservative political views. Ultimately, raucous internal dissent within the radical groups rendered Morris ineffectual and frustrated, and he withdrew from politics almost entirely.

As in his earlier years, Morris managed to pursue a mind-boggling range of activities from the late 1880's up until his death at age sixty-two in 1896. He began to write novels while continuing to write poems. He translated Homer's Odyssey and Beowulf. Finally, he set up Kelmscott Press, designed his own typeface and printed a special edition of Chaucer's works. During this period, though he was not actively involved in it himself, many of his ideas related to craftsmen and how they should be distinguished from ordinary workers by forming artistic communities took root in what became the Arts and Crafts movement. Indirectly, Morris provided some of the ideas behind what later became artists' colonies and, unfortunately, writers' workshops.

Rossetti, obese and in poor health, died at the ripe old age of fifty-three in 1882. This left Jane Morris, at the age of forty-two, available for a new lover, and a matchmaker, Rosalind Howard, set her up with Wilfred Scawen Blunt, a second-rate poet who was a year younger than Jane and had a reputation as a lady's man and adventurer. Blunt fancied himself a Byronic figure and it is said that he married Byron's granddaughter to solidify the connection. He was also an admirer of Rossetti, and the idea of seducing Rossetti's lover probably appealed to him. Apparently, his life consisted of orchestrating various intrigues with his mistresses and befriending their husbands, particularly if they were famous. By the summer of 1893, when Jane was fifty-three, Blunt no longer found her sexually attractive, but they remained friends. May, Morris's younger daughter, became Morris's assistant in his later years. She was infatuated with George Bernard Shaw, but he wouldn't marry her or anyone, and she married someone else. She had a scandalous affair with Shaw and later divorced her husband.

There are various questions that arise in my mind about Morris. Though MacCarthy attempts to capture his psychodynamics without being heavy-handed, I feel that something is missing. The primary peculiarity is that although Morris had a short temper on occasion, he was completely tolerant of Jane's adultery and bore no open grudge against Rossetti or Blunt. Even allowing for the fact that divorces were difficult to arrange in those days, Morris seems remarkably passive throughout all of this while in other aspects of his life he remained passionate and active. For all we know, Morris was celibate from the conception of May in 1861, when he was twenty-seven, to his death in 1896. It is possible, though unlikely, that Morris was gay or asexual, but MacCarthy doesn't weigh in on this. It seems to me that at some level Morris must have been lacking in self-confidence, and perhaps he buried his insecurities with an excessive workload. Looking at this from the present, I don't think that Jane was worth all the trouble. She was modestly attractive and good at posing with a melancholy, pensive expression on her face, but she was conversationally dull and, within the environment in which she lived, a social climber. To me, the situation with Jane would have seemed like a festering wound, and I would have done something more decisive to address it.

I haven't assessed all of Morris's work, and I don't intend to. Overall, he seems to have followed a craftsmanlike process in everything that he did. His strength seems to have been in design. His poems are probably adequate for the period, but I am not interested in them or his novels. His translations apparently aren't that great. MacCarthy seems to want to make him out as a visionary, but I don't think he quite deserves that label. He was an instinctive, honest person who had the courage of his convictions in aspects of his life other than his personal relationships, and rather than expressing himself as a seminal thinker or artist, he demonstrated basic human values that are still relevant today. Those include an emphasis on equality, protection of the environment and the encouragement of people to meet their artistic potential. The class structure in England weighed heavily on him, and, unlike his peers, he tried to do something about it. Thus, though I think he would have been an interesting person to know, he was trapped by the Victorian culture which he inhabited, and his life was constrained accordingly, as is everyone's by their environment. Other than in his inhibitions regarding Jane and his friends, he stands out as forthright and honest compared to most intellectuals, then and now.

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