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The House Journal   | November 1902

William Morris and his approach to life, poetry, wallpaper, business

In this series, continued from September and October articles, when a portrait of William Morris was published, it is intended to set before students of art some account from authoritative sources of the great modern teachers, their life and doctrine. This first article is republished from a lecture delivered by Mr. F. S. Allis before the Applied Art Section of the Society of Arts, in -whose journal it subsequently appeared.

Apostles of Art

Since writing the foregoing passage, I have had the pleasure of reading Mr. Lewis Day's most valuable and interesting paper on the "Making of a Stained-Glass Window. " He tells us therein how the modern science of chemistry has enabled artists to come at all the component parts of ancient stained-glass. In like manner a chemist can analyse the finest wine, and set out all its component parts, but putting them together will not make the wine, sun and soil and atmosphere are left out of account, and so in like manner when we have every material and method that a Mediaeval glass-painter used, we lack the simple, unquestioning belief and unhesitating assertion which imparted life and spirit to the work of men in the Middle Ages—the body we may have, but the soul will be wanting—it is but imitative work. Though I suppose the Applied Arts Section does not include poetry, it is impossible to speak of the lifework of William Morris without mentioning his poetry and other literary work.

It is true, on the other hand, that I can speak of no part of his work or of his doings without speaking of his poetry, for verily his whole life was a poem in its highest sense; his aspiration for the good and beautiful in art, his love of and entire devotion to nature, his abounding hatred of cruelty, injustice, robbery and wrong, his whole-hearted identification of himself with the cause of the oppressed, his recklessness of the consequences to himself in his endeavour to carry out his ideals, his contempt for worldly honours—all this made his life a poem in itself, and as such I feel confident it will come to be understood when the mists that envelop us are cleared away, and he and his work are viewed by unbiassed eyes in clear perspective.

But to speak specially of his literary work, when we call to mind that his metrical writings amount, at a rough computation, to more than 15,000 lines, and add to them those wonderful prose poems which were the product of his later years, we can scarcely fail to be altogether astounded, not only at the fecundity, but also at the untiring industry of the great genius who gave to the world this glorious treasure of poetry of the highest order amidst the distractions of commercial business, the study of a dozen different handicrafts, the production of innumerable designs for wall-papers, tiles, textile fabrics and carpets, the direction of a printing press, and the carrying on of a political propaganda.

Yet I venture to aver that none of his verse bears signs of haste or carelessness. I have in my possession a large mass of his original MSS., which bears witness to the care with which he would try his wings until he got fairly into flight; he would freely correct, alter, and rewrite, till he had satisfied himself with his work. That done and fairly copied, he rarely made any further alteration, and I should doubt if any poet returned cleaner proofs to the printers. His revision of succeeding editions was of the slightest, rarely did he alter a single word. But this did not arise from indolence but from his faculty of seizing the aptest word or most felicitous phrase with little effort, and once adopted he was ultimately satisfied with it. Morris’s wealth of diction can scarcely fail to strike any reader of his works who knows what that phrase means. So completely was he master of his mother tongue, that he had not an English dictionary among his many books until, about a year before his death, he was induced from curiosity to buy "Skeat's Etymological Dictionary." Words seemed to well up in his mind as he wrote as water bubbles from a spring. So great was his facility of composition on occasions, that when the tide once flowed it seemed to rush on irresistibly.

It is not unusual thing to hear people affect the opinion that quantity comes before quality in Morris's poetry, an allegation that I do not hesitate to traverse. I never yet put one of these cavillers through his facings as to how much he knew of the work he was carping at, that I did not succeed in running him down to the confession that his knowledge of the poet he criticised was confined to reviews and extracts. Someone, as rash as he was ignorant, lately ventured to say in print, somewhere, that the author himself held but lightly by his work of "The Earthly Paradise." Never was a more unfounded statement. Had there been any ground for it, the production of the sumptuous edition of the book printed at the Kelmscott Press would assuredly not have been one of the author's cares during the last months of his life. The great northern epic of "Sigurd the Volsung" must, I think, be looked upon as Morris’s supreme poetic triumph, and he certainly regarded it in that light himself. It is not only the masterly way in which he has evolved the grand and stately story from the ancient legend, but the pathos, passion and nobility thrown into it make the reader feel that here he is truly face to face with one of the world’s great poets. The splendid roll of the rhythm, which never for a moment flags, and the masterly manner in which the language is handled, cause one now and again to pause in admiration, and to wonder at the unexpectedness yet perfect aptitude of the phraseology; the words seem to spring forth, as it were, by magic, and every line palpitates with vigour, life, and light. Morris, in this great poem, seems to wield the English language as Sigurd wielded the Light of the Branstock, the gift of Odin, every word and sentence coming home with irresistible power and might. When the book was published, in 1878, though the grandeur of it was acknowledged and recognised by most of the reviewers of the day, the critic, whoever he may have been, who at that moment was powerful at the Times office, put a studied insult upon it by coupling it with a volume of verse by a poetaster which had appeared about the same period. It mattered not; the book was, and will remain, a glorious contribution to the mainstream of

Poesy's unfailing river,
Which through Albion winds for ever.

Where, in the whole range of English verse, shall we light upon nobler numbers than in the pathetic description of Sigmund delivering the dead body of his son, Sigmund, to Odin, after he had been poisoned by his stepmother Borghild?

Then he lifted him up from the hall floor and bore him on his breast,
And men who saw Sinfiotli deemed his heart had gotten rest,
And his eyes were no more dreadful. Forth fared the Volsung child
With Signy's son through the doorway ; and the wind was great and wild.
And the moon rode high in the heavens, and whiles it shone out bright.
And whiles the clouds drew over. So went he through the night.
Until the dwellings of man folk were a long while left behind.
Then came he unto the thicket and the houses of the wind,
And the feet of the hoary mountains, and the dwellings of the deer,
And the heaths without a shepherd, and the houseless dales and drear.
Then lo, a mighty water, a rushing flood and ide.
And no ferry for the shipless; so he went along us side,
As a man that seeketh somewhat ; but it widened toward the sea.
And the moon sank down in the west, and he went o’er a desert lea.
But lo, in that dusk ere the dawning a glimmering over the flood
And the sound of the cleaving of waters, and Sigmund the Volsung stood
By the edge of the swirling eddy, and a white sailed boat he saw,
And its keel ran light on the strand with the last of the dying flaw.
But therein was a man most mighty, grey-clad like the mountain-cloud,
One-eyed and seeming ancient, and he spake and hailed him aloud:
"Now whither away King Sigmund, for thou farest far tonight?"
Spake the King: "I would cross this water, for my life hath lost its light.
And, mayhap, there be deeds fora king to be found on the further shore."
"My senders," quoth the shipman, "bade me waft a great king o’er,
So set thy burden a ship-board, for the night’s face looks towards day."
So betwixt the earth and the water Hs son did Sigmund lay;
But lo, when he fain would follow, there was neither ship nor man,
For aught but his empty bosom beside that water van.
That whitened by little and little as the night’s face looked to the day.
So he stood a long while gazing and then turned and gat him away;
And ere the sun of the noon-tide across the meadows shone
Sigmund the King of the Volsungs was set in his father's throne,
And he hearkened and doomed and portioned, and did all the deeds of a king.
So the autumn waned and perished, and the winter brought the spring.

Never did any poet write more genuinely and spontaneously from inspiration, without giving one moment's consideration to the question whether what he thought of writing would be likely to find acceptance with the public, or, in other words, whether it would sell. He wrote for art's sake, and for art's sake only.

I well remember that in early days, some thirty years ago, that is, he used to be curious as to how his verse would be received, but of later years he was wisely impervious to hostile criticism, though he was always grateful for intelligent appreciation. He was, in truth, an able critic of his own work, and was happily confident of future fame.

Inwoven, as it were, with Morris's life-work was a happy circumstance which for twenty-five years helped to give to it colour, vigour, and happiness, and contributed in no small measure, I venture to think, to the value and beauty of all he set his hand to. This was the acquisition, as a dwelling, of the ancient manor-house at Kelmscott, in Oxfordshire. Scarce could the wand of a magician have called into being a home more suited to his tastes and sympathies than this secluded spot, close to the stream whose gently sloping uplands, flower-bearing banks, willowy nooks, rush or reed-grown reaches, clear shallows and swirling eddies are so exquisitely pictured in his poems. The grey-weathered walls of the stone-built gabled house surrounded by an old garden with a moss-grown orchard and a meadow-close hard by, made it the very place of retreat he had longed for. He once told me that when be first went to look at it he found that it exactly resembled a house he once had a vision of in a dream. To escape to Kelmscott from the smoke and turmoil of London when he had any special work, literary or graphic, on hand, was of the greatest benefit to its successful accomplishment, or to go thither and throw off work altogether for a short season occasionally was the most grateful refreshment to his mind.

But even while his spirit was filled with the great epic of the North, his eyes had been pasturing on the rich colour and inimitable designs of the East. So far as my memory serves me, it was about 1875 that his mind was specially fired by the magnificence of the ancient Oriental carpets which were just then imported in large quantities. He bought a great number of choice examples and set himself to study not only the scheme of design and colour, but also the method of manufacture.

His study of design, whether in this or anything else, did not mean crude and ineffective copying of original patterns; but as in literature his style is no servile following of ancient form, but an assimilation of so much as is good and valuable in it, so did he assimilate the manner of the ancient traditional patterns of the East, and thence produce thoroughly original and harmonious work, graceful in line and beautiful in colour. It was no light matter to begin such an undertaking. There was no warehouse whither he could go to buy such wools as he needed ready to hand; he must dye them himself, and with an enterprise and unwearied determination rarely equalled—never certainly by one who was also a great master in song—he set himself to learn the craft and practice of dyeing, first carrying it on in the cellars of his dwelling-house at Queen Square, and subsequently at the works which he established at Merton.

Having thoroughly mastered the art himself, he soon set others to work, with a result that had but one fault, namely that the work he produced was too absolutely good and perfect to meet with general acceptance in the more costly forms, but nevertheless the Buller's Wood and the Peterhouse carpets and many another will for long years to come testify to the success and excellence of the manufacture, while the simpler webs have been distributed far and wide to the brightening of many hundreds of homes. Another great project which he carried out to its fulfilment with perfect success, as you may see by the splendid examples still to be seen, was the restoration of the manufacture of tapestry as a fine art in England, where in old days it had rivalled the work of our neighbours overseas, but had latterly died out altogether. To make himself a master of this art he set up a loom in his bedroom at Hammersmith and there worked a panel with his own hands. The difference between Morris’s work and the most costly kind of tapestry made elsewhere is not, I believe, so much technical as aesthetical. The art has unfortunately been diverted from its true decorative character to the copying of pictures which do not properly lend themselves to such reproduction, and were never intended for it.

Morris worked from designs made specially for the purpose, for the most part. Those who have had the good fortune to see the magnificent hangings in the dining-hall of Mr. Darcy’s house at Stanmore, representing the "Quest of the Holy Grail" will understand how great a triumph has been achieved, where the designs of Sir E. Burne-Jones are worthily worked out under the great craftsman's personal superintendence. The piece of the "Four Seasons" which has been exhibited by the authorities of the Science and Art Department of South Kensington, was designed by Morris himself, and I think will be allowed to be no mean witness to his power of drawing the human figure when he was put to it by necessity, as happened on this occasion.

Further reading

Apostle of Art William Morris

Apostle of Art
William Morris

Architecture, wallpaper and good houses

William Morris on
architecture & textiles

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