William Morris! The Noble Knight/In Defence of Guenevere
Updated: Feb 27
"Give me love and work - these two only."
William Morris was one of the most famous and popular poets of the Victorian era, but the famous English writer did not stop there; architect, painter, decorator, novelist, publisher, essayist, translator, lecturer, craftsman, pedagogue, socialist activist... Morris was a creative visionary who dedicated his entire life to work and art. In this week ZiNger we will take a closer look at the life and work of this multi-talented artist-craftsman whose revolutionary work has had a far-reaching impact.
William Morris (March 24, 1834 - October 3, 1896) was an English author, artist, designer, and socialist who wrote and published poetry, fiction, and translations of ancient and medieval texts throughout his life. Through his work, Morris advocated for worker's rights and an equal society, and, among other things, he founded the Socialist League and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. His most famous works are The Earthly Paradise, A Dream of John Ball, News from Nowhere and The Well at the World's End.
He was born in Walthamstow to a wealthy family. His mother Emma came from a wealthy bourgeois family, and his father William was a senior partner in a brokerage firm. The family even had to move to Essex at one point because of the company’s business success. William had a total of seven siblings who lived to adulthood which was atypical of the Victorian era; a time when children lived short and had to do hard and dangerous jobs. But the Morris family was wealthy, so William and his siblings did not have to work, which was not the case in the life of another Victorian-era great; Charles Dickens, who as a child had to drop out of school and work in a shoe polish factory to be able to support his family.
Unlike Dickens's difficult childhood, William had a rather pleasant and idyllic upbringing. After his father’s death, the family moved back to Walthamstow, and William spent his days playing with his siblings, horseback riding, gardening, fishing, and reading books. From an early age he showed an interest in storytelling, and his love of nature and everything in it later influenced his work. LAter in his life, Morris made textiles, wallpaper, stained glass and furniture in his factory, and he drew inspiration directly from nature. In his designs, he used wild flowers, leaves, fruits and animals and chose natural, plant colors over industrial, chemical ones. He also expressed his love for nature through poetry, which is evident in a poem dedicated to Flora, the Roman goddess of spring and flowers:
am the handmaid of the earth,
I broider fair her glorious gown,
And deck her on her days of mirth
With many a garland of renown.
And while Earth's little ones are fain And play about the Mother's hem, I scatter every gift I gain From sun and wind to gladden them.
Morris was privately educated, and while studying at Oxford he met painter Edward Burne-Jones and the two men became longtime friends and later partners in the world-famous decorative arts company Morris & Co. He also began writing poetry that was influenced by medieval history and art, and his first poems were published in The Defense of Guenevere and Other Poems. Exactly how much medieval art shaped his work becomes clear in songs such as Knight Aagen And The Maiden Else, King Arthur's Tomb, A Good Knight In Prison and In Arthur's House:
"In Arthur's house whileome was I When happily the time went by In midmost glory of his days. He held his court then in a place Whereof ye shall not find the name In any story of his fame: Caerliel good sooth men called it not, Nor London Town, nor Camelot; Yet therein had we bliss enow. --Ah, far off was the overthrow Of all that Britain praised and loved; And though among us lightly moved A love that could but lead to death, Smooth-skinned he seemed, of rosy breath, A fear to sting a lady's lip, No ruin of goodly fellowship, No shame and death of all things good."
After graduating, Morris worked for a short time as an architect in London and then met Philip Webb. Morris and Webb became lifelong friends and together designed Morris's house called the Red house, which is considered the first manifestation of what would later be known as the Arts and Crafts Movement; a movement for the renewal of the artistic craft whose most prominent representatives are considered to be precisely Morris and Webb. Two friends and architects also connected with the Brotherhood of the Pre-Raphaelites.
The Victorian era was a time of flourishing English economy, but also art, and the greatest artistic achievements were achieved in architecture and painting, which was marked by the work of a group of Pre-Raphaelite painters. The Pre-Raphaelites or the Brotherhood of the Pre-Raphaelites was an association of painters founded in 1848, its main members being William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It existed for just over a decade, but had a major impact on Victorian art. Until then, British art was strongly influenced by the Royal Academy and the style of painting followed the style of the old masters. The Pre-Raphaelites rebelled against the status quo, painted straight from nature, showing a pronounced penchant for medieval art and values, and rejected everything brought about by the Industrial Revolution; characteristics they shared with Morris.
Initially, many, including Dickens, were very critical of the Brotherhood, but due to the British writer and critic John Ruskin who supported them, they soon gained fans, including Morris. Burne-Jones and Morris joined the Brotherhood of the Pre-Raphaelites, and Morris's most famous painting, La Belle Iseult (also known as Queen Guenevere) was created under Rossetti’s guidance. Morris's model was Jane Burden, a Pre-Raphaelite muse who became the poet’s wife. The marriage proved unhappy for both, but they remained together until Morris's death and had two daughters, Jane Alice "Jenny" and Mary "May" who edited his collection of poems in 24 volumes after the poet's death.
Rossetti was in love with Jane who inspired him to write poetry and create some of his best paintings, and the painter and his muse are believed to have been in a love affair. Morris, anticipating what was happening between his wife and friends, retired to himself and devoted himself to work. He expressed his emotions about the broken marriage and emotional isolation in the epic poems The Earthly Paradise and The Life and Death of Jason that brought him fame and the title of one of the most prominent poets of his time.
"Still pondering over times and things he knew, While now the sun had sunk behind the hill, And from a white-thorn nigh a thrush did fill The balmy air with echoing minstrelsy, And cool the night-wind blew across the sea, And round about the soft-winged bats did sweep. SO 'midst all this at last he fell asleep, Nor did his eyes behold another day, For Argo, slowly rotting all away, Had dropped a timber here, and there an oar, All through that year, but people of the shore Set all again in order as if fell. But now the stempost, that had carried well, The second rafter in King Pelias’ hall, Began at last to quiver towards its fall, And whether it were loosed by God’s own hand, Or that the rising sea-wind smote the land And drave full on it, surely I know not… But, when the day dawned, still on the same spot, Beneath the ruined stem did Jason lie Crushed, and all dead of him that here can die." After visiting Iceland in 1871, he became interested in Nordic sagas and worked on numerous translations of ancient legends. His novels and translations are thought to have greatly influenced the work of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien who stated that he was inspired by Morris’s works The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains (you can read more about the famous writers in ZiNgers: https://www.zvonainari.hr/single-post/2018/11/30/Weekly-ZiNgers-Hodo%C4%8Dasnik-u-drugom-svijetu-The-Inklings-were-here and https://www.zvonainari.hr/single-post/2019/01/04/weekly-zingers-beren-i-l%C3%BAthien).
He founded the Kelmscott Press in 1891 and devoted the last years of his life to publishing illustrated books. The Kelmscott Chaucer, the printing house’s most famous book, was completed just before his death. Towards the end of his life, he was exhausted from the multitude of jobs he performed, epilepsy and gout tied him to his house and made him disabled. He died of tuberculosis in 1896 and was buried in the cemetery of the St. George's Church in Kelmscott. His tombstone was designed by Philip Webb.
William Morris was a creative revolutionary who glorified work in his life, be it mental or physical, as an activity that gives man pleasure, and in poetry he nurtured and emphasized values that were lacking in his time; chivalry, heroism, love, honesty... Through life and work he was guided by a noble idea and desire to make the world a better, fairer and a little more magical place for all, and judging by what he left behind after leaving this world tired, it seems that his efforts were not in vain.
"So with this Earthly Paradise it is, If ye will read aright, and pardon me, Who strive to build a shadowy isle of bliss Midmost the beating of the steely sea, Where tossed about all hearts of men must be; Whose ravening monsters mighty men shall slay, Not the poor singer of an empty day."