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WILLIAM*. MORRIS

Romantic to Revolutionary


William Morris


WILLIAM MORRIS

ROMANTIC

to

REVOLUTIONARY

by

E. P. THOMPSON




1955

LAWRENCE & WISHART LTD

LONDON


Printed in Great Britain by The Came&ot Press Ltd, London and Southampton

CONTENTS


CHAP PAGE

Foreword 7

List of Abbreviations i i

part I

WILLIAM MORRIS AND THE ROMANTIC REVOLT

  1. Sir Launcelot and Mr Gradgrind 15

  2. The Romantic Revolt 24

  3. Oxford—Carlyle and Ruskin 49

  4. Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites 70

  5. The First Joust with Victorianism 89

part 11

THE YEARS OF CONFLICT

I William Morris and the Decorative Arts i 17

IL The Poetry of Despair 140

  1. Only the Ledger Lives " 163

  2. Love is Enough*' 191

  3. Hope and Courage 209

  4. Action 230

  5. The “Anti-Scrape" 264

  6. The River of Fire 281

PART III

PRACTICAL SOCIALISM

  1. The First Two Hundred 315

  2. The First Propaganda 350

  3. The Split 384

  4. 7 he Socialist League, 1885-1886

Making Socialists" 422


6 WILLIAM MORRIS

*V The Socialists Make Contact with the Masses, 1887-1888 VI The Last Years of the Socialist League VII Towards a United Socialist Party, 1890-1896

PART IV

NECESSITY AND DESIRE Necessity and Desire

APPENDICES

I, The Manifesto of the Socialist League

II Correspondence Between J L Mahon and F Engfls, Eleanor Marx-Aveling and othfrs, 1884-1898

  1. Five Letters from William Morris to Fred Henderson

  2. William Morris, Bruce Glasier, and Marxism

Index

FOREWORD


T

HIS book is a study of William Moms rather than a
biography J W* Mackail's Life of Wtlltam Morns
, pub-
lished over fifty years ago, is likely to remain the standard

year-by-year narrative of the main events m Morris's life* But


many new sources have become available since Mackail wrote this
book, and, moreover, his account has serious defects* First, his
close connection with the family and intimate friends of Morris
inhibited frankness on certain matters Second, Mackail's dislike
of Morris's revolutionary convictions resulted m a totally
inadequate treatment of the political activities which absorbed
Morris's whole energy m the years of his full maturity For this
reason I have found it necessary to introduce a great deal of new
biographical material into this book, and m particular into the
treatment of the years of “practical Socialism"

It should be emphasized that the discussions in this book of the Romantic Movement, Pre-Raphaelitism, and of Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskm, have been introduced m an attempt to put William Moms within the context of his times and that the points brought into prominence have been selected accord­ingly Equally, the treatment of the Socialist movement m the 1880s must be read alongside other accounts of the Social- Democratic Federation and of the “New Unionism" if the Socialist League is not to be seen out of its true proportion William Morris's genius was so versatile that any overall judgement on his life must be the result of the collaboration of many specialist opinions While I am responsible for the judgements m this book, I could never have completed it without the most generous assistance of every kind from many people Graeme Shankland encouraged me to borrow ideas from his unpublished study of Moms; he has also criticized parts of the manuscript Dr* S Sokkary sent me his unpublished thesis on Morris's prose romances Professor G D H Cole kindly read a sketch of some of my conclusions and sent me his comments* Alick West, Douglas Garman, and Arnold Kettle all read and criticized parts of the manuscript, while Maurice Comforth has constantly encouraged me m the dual role of critic and publisher In my search for material I have met with equal generosity*


8^ WILLIAM MORRIS

Mr H* L Beales, Professor Guy Chapman, Ptofessor Oswald Doughty, Dr* H M Pellmg, Sir Sidney Cockerell, Mr Chimen Abramsky, and Mr H H Verstage are among those who have responded to my enquiries and helped me to find sources Mr J F* Horrabm put at my disposal for a year his interesting collection of handbills of the early Socialist movement Mr Fred Henderson entertained me for an afternoon with reminiscences of the Socialist League, and has given me permission to publish five letters to himself from Morris Dr Radford has kindly allowed me to quote from letters of Eleanor Marx m her possession Mr Derek Crossley undertook some research in London on my behalf Mr John Mahon gave me transcripts of letteis of F Engels to his father, John Lincoln Mahon * while I am indebted to the courtesy of the Society for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union and of Mr A Tushunov, Deputy Director of the Marx- Engels-Lenm Institute, Moscow, for photostats of Mahon's own letters Moreover, my enquiries led to two friendships of inestim­able value Mrs* Florence Mattison has given me access to all documents compiled by her late husband, Alf Mattison, which are still in her possession, and also to the wealth of her memories of her own and her husband's part m the movement while the late Mr Ambrose Barker, a Communist-Anarchist since 1879 and a founder-member of the Socialist League, gave me the benefit of his encouragement and of his recollections, and, since his death, his kindness has been continued by his close friend, Miss Ella Twynam*


To all these, and to many other people who have answered my enquiries or helped me m various ways, I am deeply indebted Great as these debts are, however, there is a further one which cannot be measured m any terms From the conception of this book until its completion, Dona Torr has given me her encourage­ment, her friendship, and her criticism She has repeatedly laid aside her own work m order to answer enquiries or to read drafts of my material, until I have felt that parts of the book were less my own than a collaboration m which her guiding ideas have the main part* It has been a privilege and an education to be asso­ciated so closely with a Communist scholar so versatile, so distinguished, and so generous with her gifts

Any student of Morris is under a debt to the late Miss May Moms for her Prefaces to the twenty-four volumes of her father's collected works, and for her two volumes, William Morns, Artist, Writer, Socialist (Blackwell, 1936), as well as to Mr* Philip


FOREWORD 9

Henderson for his edition of The Letters of William Morris (Long­mans, Green Sc Co , 1950)* In addition I am grateful to publishers for their permission to quote from the following From William Morris to Whistler, by Walter Crano(G* Bell Sc Sons), My Days and Dreams, by E Carpenter, and Reminiscences of a Mid and Late Victorian, by E B Bax (George Allen and Unwin), Journals of T. J Cobden-Sanderson (R Cobden-Sanderson), A /. Mundella, by W* H G Armytage (Ernest Benn); Time Was, by Graham Robertson (Hamish Hamilton), William Morris, by J B Glasier (Longmans, Green & Co Ltd)

For permission to draw upon unpublished material I am particularly indebted to the Society of Antiquaries of London, who hold the copyright of all unpublished writings of Morris, to the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, afid m particular to Dr F* de Jong, for allowing me to quote from the correspondence of the Socialist League and from other documents, and to the Borough of Walthamstow Public Library and Museum for permission to make use of extracts from unpub­lished letters of Morris to J Bruce Glasier I am also indebted to the authorities of the British Museum the Bishopsgate Institute the British Library of Political Science the Bodleian Library Sheffield University Library Norwich City Library and of the Brotherton Library, Leeds University, for granting me facilities to consult documents m their keeping, and, m certain cases, permitting me to draw upon them m my text* I should like to take this opportunity of thanking the Librarians and Staffs of all these Institutions for their ready assistance and response to all my requests

January, 19 JJ

LIST OF ABBREVIATIONS



The following abbreviations have been used m the footnotes

to the text

Brit* Mus Add MSS* * British Museum Additional Manuscripts, comprising letters of Morris to his family, lectures, diaries, and other documents

Glasier MSS Letters of Moms to J Bruce Glasier in the Moms Museum, Water House, Walthamstow

Hammersmith Minutes Minutes of the Hammersmith Branch of the Democratic Federation and S D F (until December, 1884), Hammersmith Branch, Socialist League (until December, 1890), and Hammersmith Socialist Society (until December, 1896) Preserved, with several gaps, among Brit Mus Add MSS 45891-4

Int Inst Soc* Hist International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam Documents collected by the historian of Anarchism, Dr M Nettlau, comprising correspondence of the Socialist League, 1885-8, and various letters of Joseph Lane, Frank Kitz, Ambrose Barker, and others Correspondence of Morris and G B Shaw with Andreas Scheu

Mattison MSS Correspondence and diaries of the late Mr Alf Mattison, m the possession of Mrs Florence Mattison

Works The Collected Works of William Morris in 24 Volumes (Longmans, 1910-15)

Letters The Letters of William Morns to his Family and Friends, Edited by Philip Henderson (Longmans, Green & Co 1950).

Unpublished Letters Unpublished Letters of William Morns to the Rev. John Glasse (Labour, Monthly, 1952)

Glasier: J Bruce Glasier, William Morris and the Early Days of the Socialist Movement (Longmans, 1921)*

MackaiL J W Mackail, The Life of William Morns, 2 Volumes, (Longmans, 1899)


12

WILLIAM MORRIS

Marx-Engels Sel Cor Selected Correspondence oj Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, translated and edited by Dona Torr (Lawrence & Wishart, 1936)

May Morris May Moms, William Morris, Artist, Writer, Socialist, 2 Volumes, with an introduction to Vol 2 by George Bernard Shaw (B Blackwell, 1936)

Memorials" G B[urne]-J[ones], Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, 2 Volumes (Macmillan, 1904)


PART I

WILLIAM MORRIS AND THE ROMANTIC REVOLT


CHAPTER I



SIR LAUNCELOT AND MR* GRADGRIND

I The First Revolt

W

ILLIAM MORRIS was born m March, 1834—ten
years after the death of Byron, twelve years after
Shelley's death, thirteen years after the death of Keats

As he grew to adolescence, the reputation and influence of the


last two poets was growing up beside him He was caught up tn
the last great eddies of that disturbance of the human spirit which
these poets had voiced—the Romantic Revolt Romanticism was
bred into his bones, and formed his early consciousness And some
of the last clear notes of this passionate revolt were sounded
when, in 1858, the young William Morris published The Defence
of Guenevere

Poor merry Dmadan, that with jape and scoff Kept us all merry, in a little wood

Was found all hack'd and dead Sir Lionel

And Gauwame have come back from the great quest, Just merely shamed, and Lauvame, who loved well Your father Launcelot, at the King's behest

Went out to seek him, but was almost slam,



Perhaps is dead now, everywhere The knights come foil'd from the great quest, m vam,

In vain they struggle for the vision fair f>1

Thereafter the impulse of revolt m English poetry was almost spent, and the currents set—m the poetry of Morris himself, as well as of Tennyson and their contemporaries—away from the mam channels of life, and towards ever-more-secluded creeks and backwaters. What had once been a passionate protest against an intolerable social reality was to become little more than a yearning nostalgia or a sweet complaint But, throughout all the years of his despair, between 1858 and 1878, the fire of Morris's first

1 "Sir Galahad, A Christmas Mystery ”

i6


WILLIAM MORRIS

revolt still burnt within him. The life of Victorian England was an intolerable life, and ought not to be borne by human beings. The values of industrial capitalism were vicious and beneath con­tempt, and made a mockery pf the past history of mankind It was this youthful protest, still burning within him, which brought him into contact, m 1882, with the first pioneers of Socialism m England. And when he found that these pioneers not only shared his hatred of modern civilization, but had an historical theory to explain its growth, and the will to change it to a new society, the old fire flared up afresh. Morris, the Roman­tic m revolt, became a realist and a revolutionary


That is why a study of William Morris, the revolutionary, must start with some mention of the Romantic revolt m poetry before his birth. But, first, let us summarize the mam events of his first twenty-five years Moms, in 1883 (the year in which he joined the Democratic Federation), described m a letter to the Austrian Socialist, Andreas Scheu, some of the events of his early life, as they appeared in importance from his new standpoint

I was born at Walthamstow a suburban village on the edge of Epping Forest, and once a pleasant place enough, but now terribly cock- nified and choked up by the jerry-builder

My Father was a business man m the city, and well-to-do, and we lived in the ordinary bourgeois style of comfort, and since we belonged to the evangelical section of the English Church I was brought up in what I should call rich establishmentarian puntamsm, a religion which even as a boy I never took to

I went to school at Marlborough College, which was then a new and very rough school As far as my school instruction went, I think I may fairly say I learned next to nothing there, for indeed next to nothing was taught; but the place is m very beautiful country, thickly scattered over with historical monuments, and I set myself eagerly to studying these and everything else that had any history m it, and so perhaps learned a good deal, especially as there was a good library at the school to which I sometimes had access I should mention that ever since I could remember I was a great devourer of books I don't remem­ber being taught to read, and by the time I was 7 years old I had read a very great many books good, bad and indifferent

My Father died m 1847 a few months before I went to Marl­borough, but as he had engaged m a fortunate mining speculation before his death, we were left very well off, rich m fact

I went to Oxford m 1853 as a member of Exeter College; I took very ill to the studies of the place; but fell to very vigorously on history


SIR LAUNCELOT AND MR. GRADGRIND IJ

and especially medieval history, all the more perhaps because at this time I fell under the influence of the High Church or Puseyite school, this latter phase however did not last me long, as it was corrected by the books of John Ruskm which were at the time a sort of revelation to me, I was also a good deal influenced by the works of Charles Kingsley, and got into my head therefrom some socio-political ideas which would have developed piobably but for the attractions of art and poetry While I was still an undergraduate, I discovered that I could write poetry, much to my own amazement, and about that time being very intimate with other young men of enthusiastic ideas, we got up a monthly papei which lasted (to my cost) for a year, it was called the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, and was very young indeed When I had gone through my schools at Oxford, I who had been originally intended for the Church111 made up my mind to take up art m some form, and so articled myself to G E Street who was then practicing m Oxford, I only stayed with him nine months however, when being ♦ introduced by Burne-Jones, the painter, who was my great college friend, to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the leader of the Pre-Raphaelite School, I made up my mind to turn painter, and studied the art but m a very desultory way for some time

Here, m Morris's matter-of-fact narrative, the first great crisis of his life is described The bill-broker's son, shielded m a prosperous middle-class home, sent to receive the stamp of the ruling class at a public school (which was still too disorganized and new to do its corrupting job effectively), doomed to a clerical career—suddenly taking the decision to throw the respectabilities to the winds, to turn his back on the recognized professions and careers, and to cast m his lot with Rossetti's circle of enthusiasts, Bohemians, and dedicated artists. It is true that the decision cost him no serious financial hardship* The toil, under appalling conditions, of the workers m the tin and copper mines of Devon and Cornwall shielded him from poverty, and gave him his freedom of choice—as he was later to understand only too well But it was a real decision none the less * a conscious rejection of the accepted values and ambitions of his class* His whole life was to provide testimony that it was dictated by no mere whim or passing desire for amusement* Why did he take it* Why—when he had shown no particular aptitude m his youth— did he decide to dedicate his life to painting as an art^


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