Many critics are made somewhat uncomfortable when members of the artistic community take an active part in political affairs. Artists are not expected to embarrass their patrons with radical views of a political nature. Those creators who do venture into the world of politics are often harshly dealt with by the general public, or their activities are either dismissed or ridiculed.
E. P. Thompson’s biography of William Morris is a study of one of Victorian England’s better known poet-painters and his involvement in the development of socialism during the final decades of the nineteenth century. Thompson, unlike many of Morris’ critics, does not apologize for his subject’s political views, nor does he believe Morris was a naïve artist whose interest in socialism and Marx was superficial. On the contrary, Thompson sees Morris as a gifted political thinker whose commitment to the socialist cause was a carefully planned and deliberate act. Politics was not a fashionable adventure for Morris, but he made a moral choice in the face of an increasingly commercialized and exploitive society. Thompson’s study traces the growth of Morris’ socialist ideas within Victorian England. And in support of his conclusions regarding Morris’ political beliefs, he closely examines the man’s literary projects, personal life, and social commitments.
William Morris is perhaps better known as a narrative poet with a flair for intense and concentrated storytelling. But he was also a painter, businessman, designer of furniture and interiors, printer and publisher, and weaver. He was born into a wealthy family in Walthamstow, a suburb of London, in March of 1834. And it was his father’s intent to prepare his son for life in the Victorian manner. William attended Exeter College, Oxford, and soon came under the influence of medieval and Renaissance artists. Before graduating from Oxford, he cultivated a great passion for the past, along with its wonders in art, literature, and architecture. This enthusiasm also embodied a respect for crafts no longer practiced in the nineteenth century, as well as for the artisans skilled in those crafts. By the mid-1850’s, industrial capitalism was advancing and the articles once made by hand were being mass-produced by machine. Yet there remained the residual effects of the Romantic spirit, the world of Byron, Shelley, and Keats, which had a greater influence on Morris than that of the Victorian world he was being prepared to inherit. Later in his life he would hold capitalism responsible for more than merely dispossessing artisans of their livelihood—he would blame it as accountable for inflicting upon the modern world the worst kind of squalor and social misery imaginable. As Thompson observes, Morris was but a young man when he first sensed the disquieting effects of capitalism. And before he left Oxford, he was looking back nostalgically to the craftsmanship of pre-capitalist forms of production.
For the next ten years of his life, Morris led something of a dual existence. He pursued his intense interest in art, became a follower of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, joined the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and produced some of his most effective narrative poems, namely The Defense of Guenevere and The Earthly Paradise. Counterpointing this artistic activity was his position with the Devon Great Consols Company, the mining firm which had made his father rich. In 1876 he broke with the social class which had so comfortably provided for him and declared “holy warfare” against commerce and industry, the chief bulwarks of Victorianism. According to Thompson, the break was inevitable; and for the rest of his life,...
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