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In Praise of Ancestors: William Morris.

I had intended to begin this article by calling William Morris one of my heroes. But, after hearing a talk by Malidoma Somé, the African writer on ritual, I feel it is better to call him one of my ancestors. Our ancestors are not only those from whom we are physically descended, but also those whose lives have influenced or inspired us. Also we tend to regard heroes as larger than life, without faults, and then to reject them when we discover faults; ancestors are more human, of value to us even with their faults. Anyway, Morris is someone special to me, one of three great British Williams — the other two are William Blake, of course, and the eighteenth and nineteenth century radical journalist William Cobbett.

Morris was born in 1834 and died in 1896. His doctor said of him that he died of simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men. This being the centenary of his death, there are exhibitions, talks, meetings, etc, devoted to his memory all over the country.

Morris is probably best known to us for his designs, especially of wallpaper and curtains and copies of those designs on notebook covers, cushions, tea towels, and other domestic items. They are sometimes made little of, because they are now so familiar, but I find them a delight to the eye; the curtains in my sitting room are a Morris design, as is one of my shirts.

Morris was also a poet. Again, the poetry is out of fashion, but still of interest. He wrote original poems, and also was one of the early translators of the Icelandic sagas and other Nordic tales including Njal's Saga and Sigurd the Volsung. Followers of Northern traditions would find much of interest in these books.

In his later years he wrote fantasy novels that were precursors and inspirers of Tolkien. These may not be in print at the moment, but have been republished a few years ago, so may be available. The titles include The Well at the World's End and The Sundering Flood. They are full of adventures and wonderful descriptions of landscape. Unlike Tolkien, desire is as much part of the relationship between characters as is love.

But it is for his politics, in action and writing, that I most admire Morris, and his generosity of spirit and critical awareness that we most need today. As he thought about the place of art in society, his criticism of that society increased, and he became a socialist. He was one of the founders of the socialist groups in the 1880s, giving lectures all over the country and writing for socialist journals. These talks provide a critique of capitalism that we seem to have lost; even the titles say much, Useful Work versus Useless Toil, How We Live and How We Might Live, and others. But it is also the greenness of his vision that makes him someone worth writing about in a pagan journal.

He opposed much of the Anarchism of his day, which he felt was too close to terrorism. But he was close to some of the intellectual Anarchists, such as Kropotkin, and his libertarian views were influenced by them. I think that today he would find himself more at home with anarchists, especially green ones, than with most socialists.

His great visionary book is News from Nowhere. Here he writes of an England of countryside and town, but without huge cities, a place where work is enjoyable, where people learn as they want to rather than being forced in schools (he referred to the schools of his day as boyfarms), a place where people respond to the natural world and feel a part of it. Here community decisions are taken by consensus. But he also speaks of how the change came about. He does not see it as easy, and he envisaged a general strike leading to civil war before a new society could be born.

Morris was not a feminist in the modern sense, though I suspect he would have been had he lived today. There are many strong women in his fantasy novels, and he takes for granted that women in the society he wishes for would have the same freedom as men, and the same opportunities. For instance, the principal carver decorating a new building in News from Nowhere is a woman, and this is in no way unusual. Sexual relationships are free, based on love and desire. But it still seems that most of the domestic and household tasks are done by women. Also, throughout his writings he uses "man", "he", and so on, when referring to human beings; this grates very much to readers now, but I hope he can be forgiven for being in this respect a man of his time.

But rather than talk more about Morris and why I admire him, I will let him speak for himself in a selection of quotations which I feel is a fair sample of his thought, and which I hope will lead others to his writing.

Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they mean under another name. A Dream of John Ball.

It is Peace, therefore, which we need in order that we may live in hope and with pleasure. Peace is so much desired, if we must trust men's words, but which has been so continually and steadily rejected by them in deeds. But for us, let us set our hearts on it and win it at whatever cost. But in any case, and whatever the nature of our strife for peace may be, if we only aim at it steadily and with singleness of heart, and ever keep it in view, a reflection from that peace of the future will illumine the turmoil and trouble of our lives, whether the trouble be seemingly petty, or obviously tragic; and we shall, in our hopes at least, live the lives of men: nor can the present times give us any reward greater than that. Useful Work versus Useless Toil.

Is money to be gathered cut down the pleasant trees among the houses, pull down ancient and venerable buildings for the money that a few square yards of London dirt will fetch; blacken rivers, hide the sun and poison the air with smoke and worse, and it's nobody's business to see to it or mend it: that is all that modern commerce, the countinghouse forgetful of the workshop, will do for us herein.

And Science we have loved her well, and followed her diligently, what will she do I fear she is so much in the pay of the countinghouse, the countinghouse and the drillsergeant, that she is too busy, and will for the moment do nothing. Yet there are matters that I should have thought easy for her; say for example teaching Manchester how to consume its own smoke, or Leeds how to get rid of its superfluous black dye without turning it into the river, which would be as much worth her attention as the production of the heaviest of heavy black silks, or the biggest of useless guns. The Lesser Arts.

Wealth is what Nature gives us and what a reasonable man can make out of the gifts of Nature for his reasonable use. The sunlight, the fresh air, the unspoilt face of the earth, food, raiment, and housing necessary and decent; the storing up of knowledge of all kinds, and the power of disseminating it; means of free communication between man and man; works of art, the beauty that man creates when he is most a man, most aspiring and thoughtful all things which serve the pleasure of people, free, manly, and uncorrupted. This is wealth. Nor can I think of anything worth having which does not come under one or other of these heads. Useful Work versus Useless Toil.

Some people will be apt to say you will never get your surroundings pleasant so long as you are surrounded by machinery. I don't quite admit that; it is the allowing machines to be our masters and not our servants that so injures the beauty of life nowadays. In other words, it is the token of the terrible crime we have fallen into of using our control of the powers of Nature for the purpose of enslaving people, we care less meantime of how much happiness we rob their lives of. How We Live and How We Might Live.

To keep the air pure and the rivers clean, to take some pains to keep the meadows and tillage as pleasant as reasonable use will allow them to be; to allow peaceable citizens freedom to wander where they will, so they do no hurt to garden or cornfield; nay, even to leave here and there some piece of waste or mountain sacredly free from fence or tillage as a memory of man's ruder struggles with nature in his earlier days: is it too much to ask civilization to be so far thoughtful of man's pleasure and rest, and to help so far as this her children to whom she has most often set such heavy tasks of grinding labour. Surely not an unreasonable asking. But not a whit of it shall we get under the present system of society. Art under Plutocracy.

The society of the future is a society conscious of a wish to keep life simple, to forgo some of the power over nature won by past ages, in order to be more human and less mechanical, and willing to sacrifice something to this end. The Society of the Future.

Suppose people lived in little communities among gardens and green fields and had few wants and studied the difficult arts of enjoying life, and finding out what they really wanted: then I think one might hope civilisation had already begun. From a letter.

So farreaching is this curse of commercial war that no country is safe from its ravages; the traditions of a thousand years fall before it in a month; it overruns a weak or semibarbarous country, and whatever romance or pleasure or art existed there is trodden down into a mire of sordidness and ugliness; the Indian or Javanese craftsman may no longer ply his craft leisurely the Asiatic worker, if he is not starved to death outright, as plentifully happens, is driven himself into a factory to lower the wages of his Manchester brother worker The South Sea Islander must leave his canoecarving, his sweet rest, and his graceful dances and become the slave of a slave: trousers, shoddy, rum, missionary, and fatal disease he must swallow all this civilisation in the lump, and neither himself nor we can help him now till social order replaces the hideous tyranny of commercial gambling that has ruined him. How We Live and How We Might Live.

Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. The Beauty of Life.

The spirit of the new days has to be delight in the life in the world; intense and overweening love of the very skin and surface of the earth on which man dwells. News from Nowhere.

I demand a free and unfettered animal life for man first of all: I demand the utter extinction of all asceticism. If we feel the least degradation in being amorous, or merry, or hungry, or sleepy, we are so far bad animals and therefore miserable men. The Society of the Future.

And I cling to the love of the past and the love of the day to be, And the present it is but the building of the man to be strong in me. The Pilgrim of Hope.

Our modern bourgeois propertymarriage would give place to kindly and human relations between the sexes. Marriage would become a matter of simple inclination. Women would share in the certainty of livelihood which would be the lot of all; and children would be treated from their birth as members of the community entitled to share in all its advantages. Socialist League Manifesto.

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. News from Nowhere.

Fellowship is heaven, and lack of fellowship is hell. A Dream of John Ball.

And, to end with, an extract from a speech by Clement Attlee, former Labour prime minister, in 1954. "There's nothing better than the motto we have in this borough Walthamstow, by our greatest citizen, William Morris — 'Fellowship is Life'. We believe in the kind of society where there's fellowship for all. You can't get that while there's grave inequalities in wealth. That is the hope of the world, and we offer fellowship with all other countries. "

A good selection of Morris's writings can be found in the Penguin edition of News from Nowhere which, unfortunately, abridges the novel itself; there are complete editions available. Several of his fantasy novels are or were until recently in print. Some new selections of his writings, political, aesthetic, and other, will be published this year by Sheffield Academic Press. Other publishers also have selections from the writings, and university and other libraries may have his collected works, though these omit many of his writings for Socialist journals.

Fiona MacCarthy's recent William Morris; a life for our time is a fascinating biography, which has been very helpful to me in writing this article and in choosing quotations. E. P. Thompson's William Morris; Romantic to Revolutionary, first published in 1955, was the book that showed that Morris's socialism was not the best forgotten aberration of an artist but the vision of a generous heart, still relevant today.

Wood and Water 55, Summer 1996
© Daniel Cohen

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