William Morris Analysis

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

ph_0111205199-Morris_Wi.jpg William Morris Published by Salem Press, Inc.

William Morris’s first publication was a series of short prose romances and a review of Robert Browning’s Men and Women (1855) in The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine (1856). Except for his translations of several Icelandic sagas and his journal of two expeditions to Iceland (1871, 1873), Morris wrote no significant prose until 1877, when he began his career as a public lecturer. Some of his lectures were published as pamphlets; those he considered the more important were collected in Hopes and Fears for Art (1882) and Signs of Change: Seven Lectures Delivered on Various Occasions (1888). Other lectures appear in The Collected Works of William Morris (1910-1915, 1956; May Morris, editor); William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist (1936; May Morris, editor); and The Unpublished Lectures of William Morris (1969; Eugene D. LeMire, editor). During this period he also contributed to the Socialist journal Commonweal, which he edited from 1885 until 1890 and in which he published two utopian dream-visions: A Dream of John Ball (1888) and News from Nowhere: Or, An Epoch of Rest, Being Some Chapters from a Utopian Romance (1891). Icelandic Journals by William Morris (1969) are an important supplement to the Norse stories in The Earthly Paradise and The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs and, less directly, to Love Is Enough, written the year after his first visit to Iceland. His Socialist prose, both fiction and nonfiction, provides a necessary context for the Chants for Socialists and The Pilgrims of Hope, and should be of interest to anyone concerned with the relationship between the aesthetic earthly paradise of his poetry and the political earthly paradise of his socialism.

Morris’s Utopian fiction is closely related to the series of prose romances he wrote during the last dozen years of his life: The House of the Wolfings (1888), The Roots of the Mountains (1890), The Story of the Glittering Plain (1891), The Wood Beyond the World (1894), The Well at the World’s End (1896), The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897), and The Sundering Flood (1897). It is in these works that the thematic concerns of his earlier poetry reach their final development.

A selection of Morris’s letters appears in The Letters of William Morris to His Family and Friends (1950; Philip Henderson, editor). The complete edition of his letters, edited by Norman Kelvin, has been published under the title The Collected Letters of William Morris (1984-1987).


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

After the publication of The Earthly Paradise in 1868-1870, William Morris was acknowledged as a major poet and, two decades later, considered the logical successor to Alfred, Lord Tennyson as England’s poet laureate. His strength as a poet lies in his grasp of human psychology and his inventiveness with narrative forms. The dramatic monologues of The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems are remarkable for their daring psychosexual realism, and both for this reason and because they are short enough to anthologize, they have come to be the poetry for which Morris is most widely known. The longer narrative poems that followed, The Life and Death of Jason and The Earthly Paradise, experiment with techniques of distancing and so forgo the dramatic immediacy of his earliest work; however, they continue Morris’s exploration of sexuality and broaden it into a profound analysis of the relationship between erotic desire and the creative impulse.

The complexly structured Love Is Enough and the epic The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs, which Morris considered his poetic masterpiece, furthered his experiments with narration. Along with his prose fiction, his longer poems constitute a major exploration of narrative technique.

Today, Morris’s poetry has been partially overshadowed by his essays and prose fiction and by his accomplishments as a designer, typographer, and political activist. Instead of displacing Morris’s achievement as a poet, however, his other work should be judged with it as part of a total effort to transform the thought and lifestyle of Victorian England. Precisely because his interests extended beyond poetry, Morris exemplifies the bond between poetry and other forms of artistic and political expression.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Burdick, John. William Morris: Redesigning the World. New York: Todtri, 1997. This biography, illustrated with color and black-and-white photographs, examines the full range of Morris’s talents as designer, activist, businessperson, poet, and prose writer.

Helsinger, Elizabeth K. Poetry and the Pre-Raphaelite Arts: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008. Examines the relationship between poetry and visual art and design in the works of Morris and Rossetti. Stresses the importance of Pre-Raphaelitism in literature.

Kirchhoff, Frederick. William Morris. Boston: Twayne, 1979. This book provides an overview of Morris’s literary achievements, viewing them as “his central mode of self-discovery and expression.” Kirchhoff stresses the interdependence of theory, experience, and emotion, and of folk art and sophisticated literary traditions in Morris’s work. Includes a chronology, a select bibliography, and an index.

Latham, David, ed. Writing on the Image: Reading William Morris. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 2007. A collection of essays on Morris, focusing on all aspects of his life and works.

Le Bourgeois, John V. Art and Forbidden Fruit: Hidden Passion in the Life of William Morris. Cambridge, England: Lutterworth Press, 2006. A biography of Morris that examines his marriage to Jane Burden and finds him culpable in part, because of his close attachment to his sister Emma.

LeMire, Eugene D. A Bibliography of William Morris. Newcastle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 2006. A bibliography of works by and about Morris.

Mahamdallie, Hassan. Crossing the “River of Fire”: The Socialism of William Morris. London: Redwords, 2008. Examines the political views of Morris and how they affected his writings.

Salmon, Nicholas. The William Morris Chronology. Bristol, England: Thoemmes Press, 1996. This substantial reference (292 pages) contains more than two thousand entries, providing a nearly daily account of the life, along with stories and anecdotes told by contemporaries. A unique guide to Morris’s life and career. Bibliography.

Tompkins, J. M. S. William Morris: An Approach to the Poetry. London: Cecil Woolf, 1988. Tompkins fills in the gaps in previous criticism of Morris’s writings by discussing the narrative poems in detail, paying attention to the sources of the tales and the links with Morris’s daily life. Includes an index.