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WILLIAM MORRIS AND THE RELATION OF
T is told of a Tory peer, once prominent in British politics, that, discussing some literary question with
a friend in his library, he went to the shelves to look for a book; and as he searched his finger rested for a moment on his copy of The Odyssey of Homer, done into English Verse, by William Morris. "Ah!" he said, tapping the volume, "if I had known that that fellow Morris was going to become a Socialist, I wouldn't have had him bound in red morocco."
Doubtless the adherence of this distinguished artist and man of letters to communistic Socialism in the eighties of the nineteenth century, and his frequently very vehement assertion of its principles in the course of the agitations into which he threw himself, were surprising and not a little shocking to many who had known him only as a poet, a designer of beautiful patterns, and a maker of fine fabrics. What relation could there be between the author of The Earthly Paradise and the stoutish man in a blue suit and a red tie who trudged along in draggle-tailed processions to make a noise in Trafalgar Square? What had the friend of Burne Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti to do with the editor of the Commonweal and the brazen-throated cohort who spurted out their general denunciations at street corners? Truly there was a singular disparity between the artist who decorated mansions and the pamphleteer who asserted that in the modern world happiness in only possible to artists and thieves; between the creator of such a splendid epic as Sigurd the Volsung and the joint author (with H. M. Hyndman) of the pamphlet A Summary of the Principles of Socialism, and (with Belfort Bax) of the book Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome?
Yet perhaps the most interesting thing about the intellectual constitution of William Morris is that there was no inconsistency about his many activities. He was essentially, despite his great learning and his high accomplishments as an artist, much too simple a man to be inconsistent. His biographer states that "his principles changed very little when he became a declared Socialist," and they changed even less afterwards. He did a great variety of things-designing wall papers and chintzes, weaving tapestries, making stained-glass windows, dying fabrics of wool and silk, making furniture, printing books, as well as writing a very large quantity of poetry and prose, and translating works from the Icelandic, Greek, Latin and mediæval French. The deft cunning of his hands was extraordinary; the creative energy of his imagination, as revealed not only in his verse but also in his wonderful prose romances, was unexampled. In doing these things, and in agitating for a complete reconstitution of human society, he performed tasks which were seemingly unrelated. But in truth his activities were manifestations of a completely unified character, and in doing them he was acting on the same principles, working towards the same end. He would have thought anyone a fool who believed that it was not so, and in some of his moods he would have said so in an eminently explosive manner.
In the years when Morris was delighting lovers of English poetry with a succession of volumes full of the fresh and vivid pictures which were his peculiar gift to literature he was brooding over problems of industry, the creation and diffusion of wealth, the production of base and vulgar materials instead of good, honest, and beautiful work. The ferment which was going on in his mind is revealed in occasional passages in his narrative verse. In the Invocation to Chaucer, in his Life and Death of Jason, he cried:
"Would that I
Had but some portion of that mastery
That from the rose-hung lanes of woody Kent
Through these five hundred years such songs have sent
Of unrejoicing labour, love them yet."
The touch about "unrejoicing labour" in this early work adumbrates a point of view which in later years Morris
1 J. W. Mackail, "Life of William Morris." Vol. II., p. 164.
was to emphasise insistently. Even in Sigurd the Volsung he spoke of a country something like his mature ideal, where:
"Glad was the dawn's awakening, and the noontide fair and glad, There no great store had the franklin, and enough the hireling had, And a child might go unguarded the length and breadth of the land, With a purse of gold at his girdle, and gold rings on his hand; 'Twas a country of cunning craftsmen, and many a thing they wrought That the lands of storms desired and homes of warfare sought."
Though Morris threw himself furiously into the Socialist movement, his point of view was his own, and he arrived at it by a different road than was trod by all but a few of those who styled him "comrade." He was the artist-craftsman offended by the products "made to sell" under the system of competitive commerce; he was the humanist made sick at heart by the squalor, poverty and degradation which he witnessed in the great centres of industry. It was through his craftsmanship that he thought his way into his political philosophy. Like many of the Oxford men of his day, he had his period of Radicalism; but he was not long satisfied with this attitude, which seemed to him to fail to grapple with fundamentals.
There were two lines of approach which are distinctly traceable in Morris's writings on social questions, and if we understand what they were the reconciliation between his art and his Socialism becomes clear.
He saw around him a great amount of misery caused by lack of work, by underpaid work, and by work which stunted the mental and moral qualities of the worker; and he saw also, amongst those who were in employment, much discontent, occasioned largely by the weariness and monotony of their daily labour. He was a very hard worker himself, and he knew that his work did not fill him with disgust and discontent but with joy. "I try to think what would happen to me if I were forbidden my ordinary daily work," he said in his essay on "Architecture in Civilisation," "and I know that I should die of weariness and despair unless I could straightway take to something else which I could make my daily work." He spoke of himself in another paper as "a servant of the public" who earned his living "with abundant pleasure." Referring to his weaving work, he said, with a kind of chuckle very good to read, "to make something beautiful that will last, out of a
few threads of silken wool, seems to me a not unpleasant way of earning one's livelihood, so long as one lives and works in a pleasant place, with the workday not too long, and a book or two to be got at."
Similar references to the pleasure which Morris got out of his work are frequent in his writings. He dwelt also on times before the Industrial Revolution, when workmen. generally found pleasure in their labour. Political freedom they had not, but they found a satisfaction in pursuing their craft which the worker in a factory doing the same mechanical thing day after day can never find. Morris had an intimate knowledge of the history of craftsmanship, and in his many incursions into various kinds of production he made it his business to revive the best methods followed by artist workmen in the best periods. We now have machines for doing nearly everything, but a man who merely works a machine for so much a day can find no such pleasure in the output as the skilled craftsman found in the work of his hands and brain.
Morris did not rail against the use of all kinds of machinery as John Ruskin did. He recognised that the wonderful products of modern engineering skill minimised the drudgery that is incidental to the rough stages of all labour. "It is the allowing machines to be our masters and not our servants that so injures the beauty of life nowadays," he held. "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 careless meanwhile of how much happiness we rob their lives of." Consequently, though he did not condemn the use of machinery, and believed that a state of improved social order would probably lead at first to a great development of machinery for really useful purposes, he did desire to restore the popular arts, the craftsmanship, which made the labour of the workman of old a source of pleasure to him-of the kind of pleasure which the era of cheap mechanical production has largely destroyed.
"Those almost miraculous machines," Morris wrote, "which if orderly forethought had dealt with them might even now be speedily extinguishing all irksome and unintelligent labour, leaving us free to raise the skill of hand and energy of mind in our workmen, and to produce afresh that loveliness and order which only the hand of man guided