William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary

William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary

by E. P. Thompson

View All Available Formats & Editions

This biographical study is a window into 19th-century British society and the life of William Morris—the great craftsman, architect, designer, poet, and writer—who remains a monumental and influential figure to this day. This account chronicles how his concern with artistic and human values led him to cross what he called the “river of fire”


This biographical study is a window into 19th-century British society and the life of William Morris—the great craftsman, architect, designer, poet, and writer—who remains a monumental and influential figure to this day. This account chronicles how his concern with artistic and human values led him to cross what he called the “river of fire” and become a committed socialist—committed not only to the theory of socialism but also to the practice of it in the day-to-day struggle of working women and men in Victorian England. While both the British Labor Movement and the Marxists have venerated Morris, this legacy of his life proves that many of his ideas did not accord with the dominant reforming tendencies, providing a unique perspective on Morris scholarship.

Editorial Reviews

Saturday Review

An absorbing biographical study. . . . A glittering quarry of marvelous quotes from Morris and others, many taken from heretofore inaccessible or unpublished sources.

Time Magazine

Thompson's is the first biography to do justice to Morris's political thought and so assemble the man whole. . . . It is not only the standard biography of Morris; it makes us realize, as no other writer has done, how completely admirable a man this Victorian was—how consistent and honest to himself and others, how incapable of cruelty or jargon and, above all, how free.

From the Publisher

“Two impressive figures, William Morris as subject and E. P. Thompson as author, are conjoined in this immense biographical-historical-critical study.”  —Peter Stansky, New York Times

“An absorbing biographical study. . . . A glittering quarry of marvelous quotes from Morris and others, many taken from heretofore inaccessible or unpublished sources.”  Walter Arnold, Saturday Review

"Thompson’s is the first biography to do justice to Morris’s political thought and so assemble the man whole. . . . It is not only the standard biography of Morris; it makes us realize, as no other writer has done, how completely admirable a man this Victorian was—how consistent and honest to himself and others, how incapable of cruelty or jargon and, above all, how free."  —Robert Hughes, Time magazine

"The massive text of this volume, which revolutionized Morris studies and outraged conservative (and purely literary) specialists, compels the reader to take on complicated matters bit by bit, almost day to day, sinking into Morris' life, letters, and milieu. Reading the book can be overwhelming but will be rewarding, not only for the subject but also for the author himself, as we read him through the study of his favorite romantic." —www.RainTaxi.com

Product Details

PM Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.50(h) x 2.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

William Morris

Romantic to Revolutionary

By E.P. Thompson

PM Press

Copyright © 2011 PM Press and Merlin Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60486-841-8



I. The First Revolt

WILLIAM MORRIS was born in 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 of the last two poets was growing up beside him. He was caught up in 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 Dinadan, that with jape and scoff
Kept us all merry, in a little wood

"Was found all hack'd and dead: Sir Lionel
And Gauwaine have come back from the great quest,
Just merely shamed; and Lauvaine, who loved well
Your father Launcelot, at the King's behest

"Went out to seek him, but was almost slain,
Perhaps is dead now; everywhere
The knights come foil'd from the great quest, in vain,
In vain they struggle for the vision fair."

Thereafter the impulse of revolt in English poetry was almost spent, and the current set — in the poetry of Morris himself, as well as of Tennyson and their contemporaries — away from the main 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 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 of the past history of mankind. It was this youthful protest, still burning within him, which brought him into contact, in 1882, with the first pioneers of Socialism in 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 in revolt, became a realist and a revolutionary.

That is why a study of William Morris, the revolutionary, must start with some consideration of the Romantic revolt in poetry before his birth. But, first, let us summarize the main events of his first twenty-five years. Morris, in 1883 (the year in which he joined the Democratic Federation), described in 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 in Walthamstow ... a surburban village on the edge of Epping Forest, and once a pleasant place enough, but now terribly cocknified and choked up by the jerry-builder.

"My Father was a business man in 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 puritanism; 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 in very beautiful country, thickly scattered over with historical monuments, and I set myself eagerly to studying these and everything else that had any history in 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 in 1847 a few months before I went to Marlborough; but as he had engaged in a fortunate mining speculation before his death, we were left very well off, rich in fact.

"I went to Oxford in 1853 as a member of Exeter College; I took very ill to the studies of the place; but fell to very vigorously on history 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 Ruskin 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 probably 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 paper 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 school at Oxford, I who had been originally intended for the Church!!! made up my mind to take up art in some form, and so articled myself to G.E. Street ... who was then practising in 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 in a very desultory way for some time ..."

Here, in Morris's matter-of-fact narrative, the first great crisis of his life is described. The bill-broker's son, shielded in a prosperous middle-class home, sent to receive the stamp of the ruling class at a public school (which was still too disorganised 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 in 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 in 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 nonetheless. 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 in his youth — did he decide to dedicate his life to painting as an art?

II. History and Romance

It is easy enough to point to the leading passion of William Morris's life at Marlborough and at Oxford. He himself described it often enough in later life. At one time he recalled his journeys to France in these years:

"Less than forty years ago I first saw the city of Rouen, then still in its outward aspect a piece of the Middle Ages: no words can tell you how its mingled beauty, history, and romance took hold on me; I can only say that, looking back on my past life, I find it was the greatest pleasure I have ever had ..."

Medievalism was not a new discovery in his adolescence. He had read Scott's novels before he was seven: had ridden the glades of Epping Forest in a toy suit of armour. From his childhood his eye and visual memory were sharp for the architecture and art of the Middle Ages: and his games were those of knights, barons and fairies. His father took him on occasion to see the old churches in their neighbourhood, and once they visited Canterbury and the Church of Minster in Thanet: fifty years later — having never returned in the interval — he described the church from memory. In a lecture on The Lesser Arts of Life delivered in 1882, he recalled another early impression:

"How well I remember as a boy my first acquaintance with a room hung with faded greenery at Queen Elizabeth's Lodge, by Chingford Hatch, in Epping Forest ... and the impression of romance that it made upon me: a feeling that always comes back on me when I read, as I often do, Sir Walter Scott's Antiquary, and come to the description of the green room at Monkbarns, amongst which the novelist has with such exquisite cunning of art imbedded the fresh and glittering verses of the summer poet Chaucer; yes, that was more than upholstery, believe me."

At Marlborough he was rather solitary, and thought to be eccentric, spending much of his time taking rubbings of brasses, visiting historical sites, and still in his teens storing in his imagination "endless stories of knights and chivalry."

But, for all this, he was not cut to the pattern of the romantic hero of late Victorian aestheticism — pale, nervous and sensitive, scorned and misunderstood by his fellows and the world. He was self-sufficient, it is true, and absorbed in a world of "romance": but the world of "romance" was not incompatible with the closest observation and study wherever his interest directed him:

"On Monday I went to Silbury Hill which I think I have told you before is an artificial hill made by the Britons but first I went to a place called Avebury where there is a Druidical circle and a Roman entrenchment ... T think the biggest stone I could see was about 16 feet out of the ground in height and about 10 feet thick and 12 feet broad, the circle and entrenchment altogether is about half a mile",

he wrote in a letter from Marlborough to his sister. By the time he went up to Oxford he had assumed the forthright, assertive manner that springs to mind with the first mention of his name. His friend, Dixon (the same Canon Dixon with whom the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, was later to become intimate in correspondence) set down his memories of Morris at this time:

"At first Morris was regarded by the Pembroke men simply as a very pleasant boy ... who was fond of talking, which he did in a husky shout, and fond of going down the river with Faulkner ... He was also extremely fond of singlestick, and a good fencer. In no long time, however, the great characters of his nature began to impress us. His fire and impetuosity, great bodily strength, and high temper were soon manifested: and were sometimes astonishing. As ... his habit of beating his own head, dealing himself vigorous blows, to take it out of himself ... But his mental qualities, his intellect, also began to be perceived and acknowledged. I remember Faulkner remarking to me, 'How Morris seems to know things, doesn't he?' And then it struck me that it was so. I observed how decisive he was: how accurate, without any effort or formality: what an extraordinary power of observation lay at the base of many of his casual or incidental remarks ..."

This accurate grasp of detail persisted in all his medieval studies, and not only in his chief interest, in architecture and the architectural arts. He fell enthusiastically upon the collection of illuminated manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, and founded the store of knowledge which so astonished H.M. Hyndman, the Socialist leader, when, in the days of the Democratic Federation, they visited Oxford together, and the Curator at the Bodleian asked Morris to help in the identification of some recent acquisitions:

"Morris ... taking them up one by one, looked, very quickly but very closely and carefully at each in turn, pushing it aside after inspection with 'Monastery So and So, date Such and Such', 'Abbey this in such a year', until he had finished the whole number; his decision being written down as he gave it. There seemed not to be the slightest doubt in the librarian's mind that Morris's judgment was correct and final, and though Morris hesitated here and there ... eventually his verdict was given with the utmost certainty."

Amiens and Rouen: the grey, medieval streets of Oxford itself: illuminated manuscripts, brasses and carvings, already revealing their influence in the leaf patterns which he worked on the edges of his letters: the ballads, Chaucer, Froissart, Malory's Morte d'Arthur, and all that was written of the Arthurian cycle — these were the things which quickened his pulse and roused him to heights of enthusiasm in his youth. This enthusiasm for medievalism coloured all his contributions to the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, and culminated in his first great achievement, The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems. It imparted that special flavour of idealized chivalric romance blended with closely-wrought detail which is distinctive of his early Story of the Unknown Church, and which is marked in such a passage as this, from his adolescent romance, A Dream:

"She saw him walking down toward the gateway tower, clad in his mail coat, with a bright, crestless helmet on his head, and his trenchant sword newly grinded, girt to his side; and she watched him going between the yew-trees, which began to throw shadows from the shining of the harvest moon. She stood there in the porch, and round by the corners of the eaves of it looked down toward her and the inside of the porch two serpent-dragons, carved in stone; and on their scales, and about their leering eyes, grew the yellow lichen; she shuddered as she saw them stare at her, and drew closer toward the half-open door; she, standing there, clothed in white from her throat till over her feet, altogether ungirdled; and her long yellow hair, without plait or band, fell down behind and lay along her shoulders, quietly, because the night was without wind ..."

III. Mr. Gradgrind

A Dream was written when Morris was twenty-one: the year, 1855. On every side industrial capitalism was advancing triumphantly. The challenge of Chartism had receded. Four years before, the Great Exhibition of 1851 had ushered in twenty-five years of British industrial supremacy. The most humane and intelligent men and women of the middle class were concerned with the practical problems involved in clearing up the worst squalor and muddles left by the speculators of the previous decades: sewerage and paving, municipal government, the regulation of industrial conditions and the elimination of its worst abuses — these were among the concerns of enlightened minds. What did Sir Launcelot and maidens in white ungirdled drapery have to do with such a time?

The answer (or a part of it) is implicit in the question. In 1854, when Morris had just gone up to Oxford, Dickens published in Hard Times one of his most angry attacks upon Victorian utilitarianism:

"Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only found the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts ..."

So Mr. Gradgrind orders the schoolmaster at the opening of the book. The scene of the action, Coketown, is dedicated to Fact:

"You saw nothing in Coketown but what was severely workful. If the members of a religious persuasion built a chapel there ... they made it a pious warehouse of red brick with sometimes (but this only in highly ornamented examples) a bell in a bird-cage on the top of it. The solitary exception was the New Church; a stuccoed edifice with a square steeple over' the door, terminating in four short pinnacles like florid wooden legs. All the public inscriptions in the town were painted alike, in severe characters of black and white. The jail might have been the infirmary, the infirmary might have been the jail, the town-hall might have been either, or both, or anything else, for anything that appeared to the contrary in the graces of their construction. Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the material aspect of the town; fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial. The ... school was all fact, and the school of design was all fact, and the relations between master and man were all fact, and everything was fact between the lying-in hospital and the cemetery, and what you couldn't state in figures, or show to be purchaseable in the cheapest market and saleable in the dearest, was not, and never should be, world without end, Amen."


Excerpted from William Morris by E.P. Thompson. Copyright © 2011 PM Press and Merlin Press. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

Peter Stansky

Two impressive figures, William Morris as subject and E. P. Thompson as author, are conjoined in this immense biographical-historical-critical study. (Peter Stansky, New York Times)

Meet the Author

E. P. Thompson was an English historian, socialist, and author of Making of the English Working Class. Peter Linebaugh is a social historian and a professor at the University of Toledo. He is the author of London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century. He lives in Toledo, Ohio.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >