My recent visit to Kelmscott and Inglesham made it seem appropriate to post once again a sequence which looks at the significance Morris’s life has for me. It might help make sense of why I felt it worthwhile trudging across wide fields between crowds of cows to reach a small and simple church in the middle of nowhere – though I suppose that was the place from which Morris wrote one of his best loved and most popular works. This is the first of three: the second will appear tomorrow.
I felt, after the unsupported assertion I made in an earlier post of the relevance of Morris’s life to us now, I’d better return to that theme and explain some of my reasons for feeling this so strongly. I also have to acknowledge that a closer inspection of reality revealed a somewhat more complex and mixed picture even though the basic idea of it remained the same.
William Morris‘s life trajectory has a familiar feel to it, at least in my view. His move from indifference to activism, as plotted by Fiona MacCarthy in her excellent biography, is one that many of us have experienced in our own lives or vicariously in the lives of our close friends.
She summarises this on page 462:
At the beginning of 1883 Morris underwent what he was always to refer to as a ‘conversion.’ This was not, as has often been claimed, a blinding revelation. Morris himself understood, and explained very straightforwardly, the nature of a change of attitude which had been gradual and inevitable. The sequence of events of his whole life had led on logically to his espousal of the Socialist cause.
She goes on to list what the key events in that sequence were (ibid):
His pampered but solitary childhood; his edgy years at Malborough; his rejection of religion during Oxford; the emotional breakdown of his marriage; the severe epilepsy of the daughter he loved and had such hopes for; his accumulating doubts of the value of the work he had embarked on with such success and with such great enjoyment; Morris’s ‘conversion’ was a drama that had a built-in momentum and a quality of splendour. The New Testament word in Greek – metanoia, ‘mental reorientation’ – is more appropriate.
Her list gives the gist of the context but I would like to focus on some of the later elements as well as adding Iceland into the mix.
His love of craftsmanship started early and lasted all his life. It often entailed an altered state of consciousness, something modern psychology calls ‘flow‘ (page 269) and this was to be a key to the formation of his later attitude to debasing forms of work:
Morris, when illuminating and hand-lettering, entered what was almost an abstracted state, an enclosed serenity of manual activity, like the therapeutic net-making he used to do at school.
Sometimes he expressed his generosity in his most intimate personal relationships at extreme cost. Dante Gabriel Rosetti‘s long affair with Morris’ wife is well known. What is perhaps less well known are the sacrifices Morris made to ensure his wife’s happiness at the cost of his own (page 276):
He and Rosetti took Kelmscott Manor in a joint tenancy in June 1871. Early in June Janey (his wife), Rosetti and the children were installed. Morris visited frequently before setting off for Iceland . . . He was torn on departing. He wrote to Janey: ‘How beautiful the place looked last Monday: I grudged going away so; but I am very happy to think of you all happy there, and the children and you getting well.’ . . . He ended the letter ‘Live well and happy.’ It was for its time – and even in ours – a socially unusual solution and Morris’ generosity verged on sublime.
This has its roots in the Arthurian idealism of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood to which Rosetti also professed to subscribe but which Morris had more genuinely internalised.
Main Entrance to Kelmscott Manor (for source of image see link)
His developing consciousness had its roots in buildings as well as crafts (page 314):
Within a radius of five miles from Kelmscott [the first house incarnating that name in Oxfordshire], Morris claimed he could point to ‘some half-dozen tiny village churches, every one of which is a beautiful work of art.’ . . . . What Morris found moving in these buildings was their apparent spontaneity, arrived at because of their directness of intention. They were not put up to make money or impress but were built, in effect, by the people for the people . . . .
His sense of the community basis for the beauty of these structures was immensely strong.
His powerful drive to master the crafts that were the basis of the products he sold to generate his income brought him up against the harsh economic and class realities of his time. He spent months, for instance, in Staffordshire learning the vanishing art of dyeing with natural dyes (page 350):
[In Leek] Morris, the newcomer, was more sharply conscious of the social dynamics of the town and the hierarchies of the workers in the silk trade . . . . Even after the second spate of Factory Acts of the early 1870s the hours of work were long. Morris, who worked frantically, saw no harm in long hours when work itself was pleasure. Nor did he argue that unpleasant tasks could ever be eliminated totally, though in theory he insisted such tasks should be shared out. What he saw as iniquity – and after Leek attacked with a new insight of experience – was a system of production that relied on human beings carrying out tasks that by their nature were repetitive and arduous, often for longer than fifty hours a week.
The Icelandic experience was also crucial in my view, not only because of the sagas he loved so deeply and translated so devotedly and because the early history of the settlers there tracks the sturdy if rough and ready democracy of their parliament, but also for other more intensely personal things (page 371):
Jane Morris (The Blue Silk Dress) by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
In Iceland Morris had noticed how invalids and the mentally retarded were cared for in their families. This was the resort of poverty. But Morris, particularly after Jenny’s [his younger daughter's] epilepsy, pursued it as a principle, maintaining that the ill should not be marginalized and proposing that incapacity itself could cause development of special counter-qualities and skills. As so often, he was a century before his time. . . .
His concern for Jenny gave him new perceptions of wider social distress and injustices and the urge to move society on beyond the reach of them. It was another of the decisive stones in Morris’ socialistic cairn.
This was often a painful path to tread and, on top of that, his early activism, mobilised for the protection of the ancient buildings he loved from what he saw as the depredations of Victorian attempts at ‘restoration,’ pained him in a different way (page 375):
How far did Morris seem himself as a public figure? May [his elder daughter] gives us the impression that public work caused him agonies of boredom and frustration. It was work ‘for which no one knew better than himself he was unsuited.’ Early in 1876 he wrote Magnússon: “I was born not to be a chairman of anything.” Yet at this very period Morris was embarking on his long succession of chairmanships, treasurerships, enduring and even inviting the repetitive detail of committee work that went on until the weeks before his death. . . . The truth seems to be that Morris was prepared to school himself for tasks he instinctively found dislikeable, the long-drawn-out discussions,the grind of personalities, the aridities of minutes, the tedious scrounging for subscriptions, if the end was likely to justify the effort. It was a means of channelling his new idealistic energies.
Intriguingly there is a discussion that echoes these last ideas in Crystallizations, a book about Bahá’í artists and their work. There is an essay that addresses the challenges posed by the Bahá’í administration to those of an artistic persuasion. In this chapter Ross Woodman quotes the words of someone challenged in this way (page 154):
. . . I’m still not quite sure that when I lay all my affairs in Bahá’u’lláh’s hands that means the Administrative Order. I’m not fully grounded yet. I have this lingering sense that grounded means grinded, ground down. What I really need to understand is the Will of God present to us, present among us, in the actual day to day workings of the Administrative Order. There’s still a split in me. It’s like an open wound that won’t heal.
Morris would have known exactly what she meant. The variegated threads of personal pain, intense idealism, love of beautiful artefacts and architecture, experiences at close hand of how his own class exploited others and the apparent drudgery of striving for the betterment of the world, wove themselves into a pattern of action intended to lift his society to a higher level of caring. For all its flaws, one of his most appealing prose works, News from Nowhere, captures his vision brilliantly, a vision that, for him, made all the sweat and tears worthwhile. The closing words capture some of the spirit of it, words that come to him when he has returned to the grim reality of his contemporary world after a visionary glimpse of a brighter future:
All along, though those friends were so real to me, I had been feeling as if I had no business among them; as though the time would come when they would reject me, and say, as Ellen’s last mournful look seemed to say: ” No, it will not do; you cannot be of us; you belong so entirely to the unhappiness of the past that our happiness even would weary you. Go back again, now you have seen us, and your outward eyes have learned that in spite of all the infallible maxims of your day there is yet a time of rest in store for the world, when mastery has changed into fellowship — but not before. Go back again, then, and while you live you will see all round you people engaged in making others live lives which are not their own, while they themselves care nothing for their own real lives — men who hate life though they fear death. Go back and be the happier for having seen us, for having added a little hope to your struggle. Go on living while you may, striving, with whatsoever pain and labour needs must be, to build up little by little the new day of fellowship, and rest, and happiness.”
And of course that vital work is continuing to this very day and the responsibility for it rests upon no shoulders but our own, whatever the path we tread in peace and co-operation with our fellow human beings. In a strange kind of way, even though I had forgotten about him for so long, in this aspect of his history he has been standing behind me all this time in silent encouragement as I have struggled to follow my chosen path, albeit with less energy, determination and creativity.
I believe that this kind of work is not utopian, in the sense of hopelessly idealistic. I believe such labour can achieve its goals for reasons that I have elaborated elsewhere and are rooted in my faith that this is the purpose we are created for. I also believe there is a hidden power which underlies the all-too-visible distractions of the material world it transcends and which will work with us and through us to bring this into being if only we step with confidence into the field of action and cooperate together.
This work, though, is not without its complications. In the next two posts I will be looking at how Morris’s life highlights some of these and giving a brief sketch of the light the Bahá’í Faith sheds on how to handle them.