William Morris 1834-1896
English poet, novelist, essayist, short story writer, and translator.
The following entry provides information on Morris's life and career from 1858 through 2000.
Morris was a member of the Pre-Raphaelite circle of artists and poets that included Charles Algernon Swinburne, Edward Burne-Jones, Canon Dixon, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, their inspirational leader. Nineteenth-century English life, radically altered by the rise of industrial capitalism, was intolerable to Morris and his circle. In their rejection of this way of life, the Pre-Raphaelites looked to an era whose values were deeper than profit and production—the age of medievalism with its tradition of romance and craftsmanship. The love of things medieval is apparent in all Morris's works: his architecture, painting, graphics, and furniture design, as well as his literary efforts.
Morris was born on March 24, 1834 in Walthamstow, Essex, England. He entered Exeter College, Oxford, with the intention of joining the ministry. However, after meeting Burne-Jones and reading the works of John Ruskin, he became interested in the Gothic revival in art and architecture. He began writing romances and poetry and turned his attention to architecture, taking a position with an architectural firm upon his graduation. After meeting Rossetti, however, he abandoned his architectural career for painting. Later, he formed his own design company and pioneered the modern movement toward functional simplicity in furniture and design. Morris's devotion to aesthetics and opposition to machine-aided industry contributed to his interest in socialism. In the 1880s he was an active member of the Democratic Federation and then the Socialist League, editor of the Socialist organ Commonweal, and a tireless lecturer on the relationship of art to society and industry. In 1890, he founded the Kelmscott Press, which published books similar to the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. Morris's research into typography and medieval printing techniques spurred a revival of the art of fine book production in England. He was offered the post of poet laureate in 1892, but he refused the invitation and spent his last years writing prose romances. He died on October 3, 1896.
Morris's poetry is marked by several distinct influences. The Defence of Guenevere (1858) echoes Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur in its adaptation of medieval material, and borrows many of its images from the paintings of Rossetti. The romantic poetry of the volume revives the splendor of the Middle Ages as well as the haunting qualities of Gothic fantasy. Though at the time of publication reviewers took little notice of the work, several later critics regretted that Morris never returned to the style of the collection with its dramatic narratives and dream poems. Morris's next work, The Life and Death of Jason (1867), is a departure from his earlier style. In Jason as well as in his following work, The Earthly Paradise (1868-70), Morris clearly follows his avowed master, Geoffrey Chaucer. With Jason, Morris was hailed for restoring an art of narrative nearly forgotten since Chaucer's time. In retelling the Greek legend of Jason and his quest for the golden fleece, Morris regarded the heroic age from a medieval viewpoint. Critics liken his scenes of crowds, processions, and battles to tapestries that portray the romance of the human race.
The theme that Morris first treated in Jason—the desire to escape death and celebrate beauty and life—was elaborated in The Earthly Paradise. Critics hailed this work for its execution and masterly poetic design, in which the months of a year provide the framework for the retelling of two tales, one from Greek mythology and one from Norse and medieval sources. The Earthly Paradise signaled a change in Morris's style. Influenced by his visit to Iceland in 1869 and by his experience translating Völsunga Saga, Morris turned from Chaucer to the Norse eddas, and from the narrative to the epic form. His grand epic venture is Sigurd the Volsung (1876), a “magnificent chant” which recounts the story of Sigurd. While some reviewers found the work inordinately long and marred with verbal archaisms, to many it was Morris's most important contribution.
Morris's narrative and epic poetry no longer command the attention they attracted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Moreover, his poetic works have always drawn mixed reviews. Some commentators feel his works lack action and feeling, and are no more than lovely pictures conveyed in tedious, sterile verse. To others Morris was a master storyteller with a supreme gift of invention, who recreated the worlds of garden, court, and battlefield in a clear, expressive style. He was devoted to the belief that to find meaning one must create beauty and he sought to convey his artistic ideals in all of his work. He is viewed as an important figure in the Pre-Raphaelite movement and a prolific contributor in several genres, including political writing, fantasy, short fiction, furniture design, architecture, and book printing. Several critical studies have investigated his noteworthy role in nineteenth-century literature, politics, and art.