A Musing: William Morris, Romantic to Revolutionary

Watts painting of William Morris

E. P. Thompson has written not so much a biography of Morris (I still don’t know what he ate for breakfast, anything much about his relationship with Jane Burden, or the details I crave about the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood) but rather a study of his political life. He argues that Morris’s love of the Romantic movement (Truth, Beauty) laid the groundwork to his future Socialism.  His work in the decorative arts and the creation of Morris and Co. only added fuel to the Socialist fire, so to speak.

Once I realized that I wasn’t in for the traditional biography I thought I signed up for, I went along for the ride. Did you know Morris worked with Engels?! Did you know he was a member in multiple Socialist leagues, writing for their papers, standing on street corners and makeshift stages all across England speaking for the cause? When I read tiny blurbs about Morris, I always see “decorative artist” as his defining contribution to society, but I couldn’t disagree more. Sure, I swoon over the Strawberry Thief and his Acanthus leaves like anyone else in love with Morris’s aesthetic, but I feel that his real gift to us was his insights into the relationship between art and labor.

The last section of the book, Part IV Necessity and Desire, is the finest summary of Morris’s beliefs I’ve come across. It made slogging through the minutia of each socialist meeting worth it 🙂 Thompson weaves Morris’s writings from essays, speeches, novels, newspaper articles, and other sources into a coherent and compelling manifesto. I found myself clutching my heart and thinking, “Yes, this is exactly what I think!” over and over. Are these not words to live by?

Art is Man’s expression of his joy in labour. Nothing should be made by man’s labor which is not worth making, or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers.

An art which is made by the people and for the people as a happiness to the maker and the user.

Any one who professes to think that the question of art and cultivation must go before that of the knife and fork . . . does not understand what art means.

…the best artist was a workman still, the humblest workman was an artist. This is not the case now –“

This section also offered the most personal glimpse into Morris — here I see the growling, furious lion-man who loses it over a bad, unfaithful renovation to a church. The sadness of a person who never found the love he craved and the change in the world he hoped to see. The guy who scoffs at teetotalers and back to nature-ites. I’ll admit it — I do want more of this. I will certainly be reading another biography to understand the person, but I am grateful to have met the thinker.

image: I love all of the paintings Watts did of Morris. Ah!

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One comment

  1. S.C. Hickman

    I remember reading Behind the North Wind long ago… one of those books that left a weft of wordhorde in me that even now comes back… and, he was definitely one of those socialists that truly lived it.

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