Useful Work versus Useless Toil by William Morris (1884)

To sum up, then, concerning the manner of work in civilized States, these States are composed of three classes – a class which does not even pretend to work, a class which pretends to works but which produces nothing, and a class which works, but is compelled by the other two classes to do work which is often unproductive. Civilization therefore wastes its own resources, and will do so as long as the present system lasts.

In January 1883 Morris joined the tiny Democratic Federation, the only socialist organisation in England. The move crystallised the sentiments he had been publicly expressing in lectures for years, that something was seriously wrong with English society. Here we were, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, commanding the most advanced technology the world had ever seen and yet the majority of the population lived in grinding poverty and misery, either altogether unemployed or employed as slave labour in nightmareish factories producing horrible tat.

This lecture was written and delivered in 1884, in Morris’s new socialist phase. As in his previous lectures he seeks to analyse the causes of the problem, but for the first time he inserts explicitly Marxist analysis of how Capital works to distort and exploit human effort, and in the peroration for the first time states that it may take a violent conflict to bring about the revolutionary overthrow of the established order.  His argument goes:

Defining types of work

Man must work; we must wrest our livelihood from Nature. But work need not be a curse, it could be a blessing, it should be the way humans express themselves, freely and creatively. More precisely, Morris analysis three aspects of productive labour: ‘hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure in the work itself’ ie that it should last a reasonable period and leave enough time to recover and rest; that it should be engaged on making useful and beautiful things; and that the work itself should give pleasure, as an animal feels pleasure in the exercise of its animal abilities.

To all living things there is a pleasure in the exercise of their energies, and that even beasts rejoice in being lithe and swift and strong. But a man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body. Memory and imagination help him as he works. Not only his own thoughts, but the thoughts of the men of past ages guide his hands; and, as a part of the human race, he creates. If we work thus we shall be men, and our days will be happy and eventful.

The class system analysed by its relationship with work

Having defined useful work, who in Victorian society actually does or is able to do it? Morris defines three classes: the aristocracy who make a point of ostentatiously doing nothing; the middle classes who bustle about a lot claiming to work but their work is either marketing and selling products made by others, or servicing the aristocracy (lawyers, doctors) and the great majority of the population who work like slaves to support the rest.

The upper class (does no work)

As to the class of rich people doing no work, we all know that they consume a great deal while they produce nothing. Therefore, clearly, they have to be kept at the expense of those who do work, just as paupers have, and are a mere burden on the community.

The middle class (busies itself servicing the upper class, doing no productive work)

As to the middle class, including the trading, manufacturing, and professional people of our society, they do, as a rule, seem to work quite hard enough, and so at first sight might be thought to help the community, and not burden it. But by far the greater part of them, though they work, do not produce, and even when they do produce, as in the case of those engaged (wastefully indeed) in the distribution of goods, or doctors, or (genuine) artists and literary men, they consume out of all proportion to their due share. The commercial and manufacturing part of them, the most powerful part, spent their lives and energies in fighting amongst themselves for their respective shares of the wealth which they force the genuine workers to provide for them; the others are almost wholly the hangers-on of these; they do not work for the public, but a privileged class: they are the parasites of property, sometimes, as in the case of lawyers, undisguisedly so; sometimes, as the doctors and others above mentioned, professing to be useful, but too often of no use save as supporters of the system of folly, fraud, and tyranny of which they form a part.

The working classes produce everything in a state of slavery

In fact Morris’s analysis goes deeper than the traditional three classes to look closely into the kinds of employment there are for the labouring classes. It is striking how unchanged society is from his analysis.

The class that remains to be considered produces all that is produced, and supports both itself and the other classes, though it is placed in a position of inferiority to them; real inferiority, mind you, involving a degradation both of mind and body. But it is a necessary consequence of this tyranny and folly that again many of these workers are not producers. A vast number of them once more are merely parasites of property, some of them openly so, as the soldiers by land and sea who are kept on foot for the perpetuating of national rivalries and enmities, and for the purposes of the national struggle for the share of the product of unpaid labour. But besides this obvious burden on the producers and the scarcely less obvious one of domestic servants, there is first the army of clerks, shop-assistants, and so forth, who are engaged in the service of the private war for wealth, which, as above said, is the real occupation of the well-to-do middle class.

Working lives wasted producing rubbish

A horrible irony of the system is that a large proportion of the working class spends and wastes their lives producing tat, so-called luxury items which Morris, with his keen aesthetic sensibilities, considers anything but.

The mass of people employed in making all those articles of folly and luxury, the demand for which is the outcome of the existence of the rich non-producing classes; things which people leading a manly and uncorrupted life would not ask for or dream of. These things, whoever may gainsay me, I will for ever refuse to call wealth: they are not wealth, but waste. Wealth is what Nature gives us and what a reasonable man can make out of the gifts of Nature for his reasonable use. The sunlight, the fresh air, the unspoiled face of the earth, food, raiment and housing necessary and decent; the storing up of knowledge of all kinds, and the power of disseminating it; means of free communication between man and man; works of art, the beauty which man creates when he is most a man, most aspiring and thoughtful – all things which serve the pleasure of people, free, manly, and uncorrupted. This is wealth. Nor can I think of anything worth having which does not come under one or other of these heads. But think, I beseech you, of the product of England, the workshop of the world, and will you not be bewildered, as I am, at the thought of the mass of things which no sane man could desire, but which our useless toil makes – and sells?

The logic of exploitation

If the men who labour are forced to do so to support the (admittedly small) upper class, and the much larger varieties of non-productive middle class, it follows that only a minority of their labour effort is left over to produce goods for themselves and that, because their labour is controlled by their masters, they will be forced to produce and consume only the most inferior produce possible.

For if many men live without producing, nay, must live lives so empty and foolish that they force a great part of the workers to produce wares which no one needs, not even the rich, it follows that most men must be poor; and, living as they do on wages from those whom they support, cannot get for their use the goods which men naturally desire, but must put up with miserable makeshifts for them, with coarse food that does not nourish, with rotten raiment which does not shelter, with wretched houses which may well make a town-dweller in civilization look back with regret to the tent of the nomad tribe, or the cave of the prehistoric savage. Nay, the workers must even lend a hand to the great industrial invention of the age – adulteration, and by its help produce for their own use shams and mockeries of the luxury of the rich; for the wage-earners must always live as the wage-payers bid them, and their very habits of life are forced on them by their masters.

This cheapness is necessary to the system of exploiting on which modern manufacture rests. In other words, our society includes a great mass of slaves, who must be fed, clothed, housed and amused as slaves, and that their daily necessity compels them to make the slave-wares whose use is the perpetuation of their slavery.

Is this civilisation?

Can this appalling situation really be the climax of thousands of years of history and so-called civilisation?

Men urged by their necessities and desires have laboured for many thousands of years at the task of subjugating the forces of Nature and of making the natural material useful to them. To our eyes, since we cannot see into the future, that struggle with Nature seems nearly over, and the victory of the human race over her nearly complete. And, looking backwards to the time when history first began, we note that the progress of that victory has been far swifter and more startling within the last two hundred years than ever before. Surely, therefore, we moderns ought to be in all ways vastly better off than any who have gone before us. Surely we ought, one and all of us, to be wealthy, to be well furnished with the good things which our victory over Nature has won for us.

But what is the real fact? Who will dare to deny that the great mass of civilized men are poor? So poor are they that it is mere childishness troubling ourselves to discuss whether perhaps they are in some ways a little better off than their forefathers. They are poor; nor can their poverty be measured by the poverty of a resourceless savage, for he knows of nothing else than his poverty; that he should be cold, hungry, houseless, dirty, ignorant, all that is to him as natural as that he should have a skin. But for us, for the most of us, civilization has bred desires which she forbids us to satisfy, and so is not merely a niggard but a torturer also.

Thus then have the fruits of our victory over Nature been stolen from us.

It is this robbery and waste on the part of the minority which keeps the majority poor.

The way forward

Abolish the unproductive classes. Make everyone do productive work.

The first step to be taken then is to abolish a class of men privileged to shirk their duties as men, thus forcing others to do the work which they refuse to do. All must work according to their ability, and so produce what they consume. hus, at last, would true Society be founded. It would rest on equality of condition. No man would be tormented for the benefit of another – nay, no one man would be tormented for the benefit of Society. Nor, indeed, can that order be called Society which is not upheld for the benefit of every one of its members.

By simple maths, if twice the number of people did the work which is currently done to produce X, then it will take half the time. Enough work will be done to maintain Society and also guarantee the workers enough leisure time to enjoy their lives.

When class-robbery is abolished, every man will reap the fruits of his labour, every man will have due rest – leisure, that is.

As things are now, between the waste of labour-power in mere idleness and its waste in unproductive work, it is clear that the world of civilization is supported by a small part of its people; when all were working usefully for its support, the share of work which each would have to do would be but small, if our standard of life were about on the footing of what well-to-do and refined people now think desirable. We shall have labour-power to spare, and shall, in short, be as wealthy as we please. It will be easy to live.

But Morris wants to go beyond this, beyond the workers reaping the fruits of their labour, to insist on one more condition: that everyone’s labour be pleasurable.

As long as the work is repulsive it will still be a burden which must be taken up daily, and even so would mar our life, even though the hours of labour were short. What we want to do is to add to our wealth without diminishing our pleasure. Nature will not be finally conquered till our work becomes a part of the pleasure of our lives.

After the revolution

But when revolution has made it ‘easy to live,’ when all are working harmoniously together and there is no one to rob the worker of his time, that is to say, his life; in those coming days there will be no compulsion on us to go on producing things we do not want, no compulsion on us to labour for nothing; we shall be able calmly and thoughtfully to consider what we shall do with our wealth of labour-power. Now, for my part, I think the first use we ought to make of that wealth, of that freedom, should be to make all our labour, even the commonest and most necessary, pleasant to everybody.

Part two – pleasurable work

All the above is only the preamble, accepted by most socialists, to the section which interests Morris. How, after the revolution, can we ensure that work is pleasurable.

  1. All work will be socially useful, unlike current work most of which is socially useless and thus waste
  2. The working day will be short, since a) everyone will now be doing the work which only half the population did before b) the great burden of pointless work, producing tat or pointless luxuries, will be abolished
  3. We will be able to vary the work we do: ‘A man might easily learn and practise at least three crafts, varying sedentary occupation with outdoor – occupation calling for the exercise of strong bodily energy for work in which the mind had more to do.’
  4. Education will be completely reformed to support this utopia:

At present all education is directed towards the end of fitting people to take their places in the hierarchy of commerce – these as masters, those as workmen. The education of the masters is more ornamental than that of the workmen, but it is commercial still; and even at the ancient universities learning is but little regarded, unless it can in the long run be made to pay. Due education is a totally different thing from this, and concerns itself in finding out what different people are fit for, and helping them along the road which they are inclined to take. In a duly ordered society, therefore, young people would be taught such handicrafts as they had a turn for as a part of their education, the discipline of their minds and bodies; and adults would also have opportunities of learning in the same schools, for the development of individual capacities would be of all things chiefly aimed at by education, instead, as now, the subordination of all capacities to the great end of “money-making” for oneself – or one’s master. The amount of talent, and even genius, which the present system crushes, and which would be drawn out by such a system, would make our daily work easy and interesting.

6. Popular art, which has been crushed and destroyed by commercial Capitalism, will be restored.

The craftsman, as he fashioned the thing he had under his hand, ornamented it so naturally and so entirely without conscious effort, that it is often difficult to distinguish where the mere utilitarian part of his work ended and the ornamental began. Now the origin of this art was the necessity that the workman felt for variety in his work, and though the beauty produced by this desire was a great gift to the world, yet the obtaining variety and pleasure in the work by the workman was a matter of more importance still, for it stamped all labour with the impress of pleasure. All this has now quite disappeared from the work of civilization.

7. Decent housing and pleasant surroundings. Once luxury and the parasite classes are abolished and the capitalists incessant drive to make a profit, to ‘make money’, then we can get ride of the squalid rabbit hutches we call houses and build homes worthy of the name, and not all cramped into slum quarters but spread out so as to allow for trees and greenery, for Nature to adorn our lives.

Capitalistic manufacture, capitalistic land-owning, and capitalistic exchange force men into big cities in order to manipulate them in the interests of capital; the same tyranny contracts the due space of the factory so much that (for instance) the interior of a great weaving-shed is almost as ridiculous a spectacle as it is a horrible one. There is no other necessity for all this, save the necessity for grinding profits out of men’s lives, and of producing cheap goods for the use (and subjection) of the slaves who grind. All labour is not yet driven into factories; often where it is there is no necessity for it, save again the profit-tyranny. People engaged in all such labour need by no means be compelled to pig together in close city quarters. There is no reason why they should not follow their occupations in quiet country homes, in industrial colleges, in small towns, or, in short, where they find it happiest for them to live.

[Regarding factories, where they are necessary] Science duly applied would enable the workers to get rid of refuse, to minimize, if not wholly to destroy, all the inconveniences which at present attend the use of elaborate machinery, such as smoke, stench, and noise; nor would they endure that the buildings in which they worked or lived should be ugly blots on the fair face of the earth. Beginning by making their factories, buildings, and sheds decent and convenient like their homes, they would infallibly go on to make them not merely negatively good, inoffensive merely, but even beautiful, so that the glorious art of architecture, now for some time slain by commercial greed, would be born again and flourish.

A new art

Some of his artistic colleagues complain that what we currently call Art (ie luxury) will almost certainly disappear in this new utilitarian society. a) It will be worth it, says Morris, but also b) genuine art is irrepressibly intrinsic to human nature and will reappear, but in new forms.

If the cripple and the starveling disappear from our streets, if the earth nourish us all alike, if the sun shines for all of us alike, if to one and all of us the glorious drama of the earth – day and night, summer and winter – can be presented as a thing to understand and love, we can afford to wait awhile till we are purified from the shame of the past corruption, and till art arises again amongst people freed from the terror of the slave and the shame of the robber.

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William Morris by Christine Poulson

I don’t have many rules of reading. One of them is: always go back to the source text, never read a summary or biography – read the thing itself. Every element of an original text, its spelling, its title page, the chapter headings and sidenotes and footnotes, the entire way it is presented, tell you reams about the author, their purpose, and the times they wrote in, or when the edition was printed. And all that’s before you get to the text itself…

This breaks my rule by being a biography, a large-format coffee table book by Christine Poulson who was, at the time of writing it, Curator of the William Morris Society in London. It tells the story of Morris’s life clearly and authoritatively in chapters which cover:

  • childhood, Oxford and the pre-Raphaelites
  • 1857 published poems in The Defence of Guenevere, little noticed, discouraged him from writing
  • 1861 setting up the Firm – Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. the start of 30 years of creating stained glass, murals, wallpaper, furniture, fabrics, curtains and tapestries incorporating intricate designs from nature
  • marriage to Jane Burden and happy life at the Red House in Bexley from 1859
  • 1865 forced through his wife’s illness to move to Bloomsbury central London – Jane’s affair with Rossetti
  • 1868 publishes The Earthly Paradise
  • the romantic chivalric ideals of the Morte d’Arthur no longer sufficed and Morris was drawn to the hard, bleak courage of the Icelanders depicted in the sagas: in 1868 he published the first of what was to be a series of translations of the great sagas
  • 1871 took lease on Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire with Rossetti: fled abroad to Iceland leaving Rossetti and Jane to their adulterous affair
  • late 1870s and thru the 1880s host of lectures to art schools and workingmen’s institutes
  • 1878 moved to Kelmscott House, Hammersmith: continued experiments with colouring weaving and tapestries
  • 1881 Morris took over works at Merton Abbey on the river Wandle south of London to produce carpets, tapestries and cottons, a glass studio and dye-house
  • 1883 revolted by Gladstone’s Liberals’ imperialism, Morris committed himself to socialism and joined the Democratic Federation, which became the Social Democratic Federation in 1884, the first British socialist party. At the end of that year Morris leads a breakaway faction to found the Socialist League, and for the rest of the 80s threw himself into political agitation, making speeches up and down the land in all weathers
  • from 1885 writes and edits the Commonweal the journal of the Socialist League
  • 13 November 1887 ‘Bloody Sunday’, police break up a massive demonstration in favour of free speech in Trafalgar Square, killing 2 and injuring 200. On 18 December Morris was pall-bearer to Alfred Linnell, run down and killed by a police horse: at the grave Morris called for ‘a holy war’ to prevent London being turned into a vast prison
  • 1890 publishes News from Nowhere, a vision of post-revolutionary communist England, just as the Socialist League fell apart into those prepared to compromise with Parliament and diehard anarchists. Morris withdrew his support.
  • 1891 his daughter ill with epilepsy, Morris ill with gout, possibly diabetes, told to stop working so hard and focused his energies into founding the Kelmscott Press to produce high quality books
  • 1892, upon Tennyson’s death Morris was offered the Poet Laureateship (!), being still best known to the wider public as a poet. He turned it down and it was eventually given to the Tory propagandist Alfred Austin in 1896.
  • 1896 the Kelmscott Chaucer published: over three years in the typesetting and over a year in the printing & binding, it was put into Morris’s hands only months before he died.

But the joy of this book and the reason I borrowed it from the library is the liberal use of full-page, full-colour illustrations – of paintings by the pre-Raphaelites, homes and houses, friends and lovers, furniture, tiles and stained glass etc – and above all the large double-page spreads of Morris’s wonderful fabrics and designs, such as these:


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Strawberry thief, design for printed cotton by William Morris (1883)

Strawberry thief, a design for printed cotton by William Morris (1883)

News from Nowhere by William Morris (1890)

Reading William Morris’s fiction is difficult for two reasons:

  • his prose is poor, his characterisation and plotting non-existent
  • every cause he believed in and hoped for, and which his prose exists to champion, has been defeated

Morris’s life

Clive Wilmer’s introduction to this Penguin edition paints a handy overview of Morris’s life. Number one, he was rich. He inherited money from his father, who was a successful financier. He inherited an interest in a copper company, becoming familiar with the practicalities of business at the young age of 21. Hence his later business ventures, namely William Morris and Co. – unlike most artists’ ventures into business – were efficiently run and profitable. He died leaving some £60,000, which Wilmer calculates to be £12 million in 1990s money, even more today.

The trajectory of his life is clear enough:

  • involvement at Oxford with the pre-Raphaelite group round the charismatic Dante Gabriel Rossetti with their passionate interest in medieval life, architecture, poetry, art
  • the powerful impact of John Ruskin, art and social critic, with his belief that Art should be incorporated into everyday life, that Work should be made useful and rewarding instead of the slave labour of the factory
  • unsatisfactory attempts at painting which quickly gave way to interests in the decorative arts which came to include fabrics, wallpaper, furniture, stained glass window and book-making
  • as a young man he married the ‘stunner’ Jane Burden, a working class girl who married to escape her poverty, but the marriage was unhappy and eventually Jane became mistress of Rossetti, plunging Morris into decades of personal unhappiness

Communism

As his arts & crafts business thrived, Morris worried that the works his company were making were only affordable by the rich. It was his lifelong concern to make beautifully-made things more accessible to everyone. Alongside this, the growing conviction that society as a whole needed a wholescale revolution to abolish the crushing poverty of the Victorian age, to liberate the great mass of the labouring poor, to remove the ugliness of Victorian industrialism, to make work rewarding, free people from the capitalist cash-nexus, and restore Nature to pristine beauty unspoilt by factories and pollution.

  • In 1883 Morris joined the Democratic Foundation, a socialist group, but left the following year to found the Socialist League (SL), disagreeing with DF support for Britain’s Imperalist foreign policy and its readiness to accept a Parliamentary route to reform. Morris thought Parliament hopelessly corrupt. What was needed was a Revolution.
  • For the remainder of his life Morris poured immense energy into giving speeches, organising meetings, writing socialist poems and chants and songs, promoting his uncompromising Marxist beliefs in the necessity of an international communist revolution. He was introduced to Friedrich Engels and worked with Marx’s daughter, Eleanor. He was arrested a number of times when police broke up meetings or marches led to scuffles, but escaped prison due to his impeccable middle class credentials.
  • Morris edited, wrote and subsidised the Socialist League’s newspaper, Commonweal. From November 1886 to January 1887 Morris’s novel, A Dream of John Ball, was serialised in it. From  January to October 1890, Morris serialised his most famous novel, News from Nowhere.

News from Nowhere

The authors of utopias tend to adopt the form in order to make polemical points, resulting in many utopias being strangely monotonous books which unravel into shopping lists of the author’s obsessions. Compare and contrast the success and popularity of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) a fully dramatised vision of future worlds, with his much more preachy A Modern Utopia (1905), which no-one reads. This, Morris’s most famous book, is no exception to the rule.

‘Plot’

In News from Nowhere a man in his fifites like Morris wakes up in Morris’s house in Hammersmith to find it is a hundred years in the future, England has gone through a Revolution and become an earthly paradise in which there is no private property, no big cities, no authority, no money, no divorce, no courts, no prisons and no class systems. People work freely for the joy of it. Everything they do, because it is freely done with joy, results in objects which are beautiful.

The plot, if it can be called that, starts with Morris – renamed William Guest – meeting the folk who now live around his Hammersmith home. This home is no longer crammed among smokey factories, iron bridges and bustling Londoners and the neighbouring buildings are now just a handful of cottages standing in open fields next to a magically unpolluted river Thames.

Perceiving his bewilderment these friendly strangers take Morris in a horse and cart across what was once London and is now a series of picturesque villages thinly populated with beautiful, healthy, artistically-dressed men and women, to meet an old man living next to what was once the British Museum who – in a long chapter – retells in detail the leadup to ‘the Great Change’ i.e. the Revolution which brought about this communist paradise.

Then they go back to Hammersmith and get in a boat and row up the Thames, now pure and clean and sparkling, denuded of horrible factories and the vulgar houses of Victorian nouveaux riches, until they reach Morris’s country house, Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire.

Along the way they pick up a laughing young woman Ellen, who falls in love with Guest. Then he wakes up and it was all a dream.

Psychological power

The journey up the Thames represents a journey through an idyllic, prelapsarian world to Home, which is also a journey back to Morris’s boyhood memories of a happier, simpler world and a journey towards the mutual, loving fulfilment he so miserably failed to have with his wife, Jane.

As I stood there Ellen detached herself from our happy friends who still stood on the little strand and came up to me. She took me by the hand, and said softly, ‘Take me on to the house at once; we need not wait for the others: I had rather not.’ (Ch XXXI)

It is a basket of deeply personal wishes expressed as a fable and I think what power it has comes from these psychological sources rather than any socialist ideas or doctrine. It is an adult’s powerful dream of returning to the golden summers of his boyhood.

…the garden between the wall and the house was redolent of the June flowers, and the roses were rolling over one another with that delicious superabundance of small well-tended gardens which at first sight takes away all thought from the beholder save that of beauty. The blackbirds were singing their loudest, the doves were cooing on the roof-ridge, the rooks in the high elm-trees beyond were garrulous among the young leaves, and the swifts wheeled whining about the gables. And the house itself was a fit guardian for all the beauty of this heart of summer. (XXXI)

Issues

For the serious-minded, News from Nowhere also contains a shopping list of the usual issues which crop up in utopias and, presumably, it was the touching on these hot topics which helped the book become a classic not only here but among socialists and communists across Europe.

In Morris’s post-revolutionary, communist paradise:

  • work- work is Art because it is free and unforced, done for its own joy and benefit
  • economics – there isn’t any economics because there is no money, no buying and selling, no capitalism
  • education – is not compulsory, children are left to find their own way to express themselves, not force fed in ‘boy-farms’
  • women – are free equals of men, not given or ‘owned’ in marriage
  • government – there is none – the Houses of Parliament have been converted into a large communal Dung store 🙂
  • Nature – has been liberated from factories, steam engines and all the dirt and stink of industralism, reverting to pristine beauty – ‘As we went, the folk on the bank talked indeed, mingling their kind voices with the cuckoo’s song, the sweet strong whistle of the blackbirds, and the ceaseless note of the corn-crake as he crept through the long grass of the mowing-field; whence came waves of fragrance from the flowering clover amidst of the ripe grass.’ (Ch XXXI)
  • technology – there doesn’t seem to be any at all, no steam engines or factories, let alone electric lights or telephones or motor cars, ‘so that the most obviously useful works looked beautiful and natural also.’ (Ch XXX)
  • communism – is the name given to this ideal unspoilt world of equality and freedom

Almost none of these ‘ideas’ are really worthy of serious consideration.

No-one would disagree that work for many is a grinding drudgery, that soul-less economics is the ruling ideology of our time, that education has become more regimented than ever and yet still seems to fail millions of children, that woman are still not equal or free, that the government is inept and political parties are just different flavours of yes-men fronting for banks and big business, that Nature has been ruined and despoiled, that a lot of technology is poisonous and destructive – and that it would be lovely if all this could be swept away and replaced by an eternal summer of beautiful men and women living lives of simplicity and rural leisure.

By framing the issues in such a vividly romantic vision of a world born again, Morris certainly in his own day, and maybe still in ours, gives a kind of psychological power to his vision of how the world could and should be if only we could get rid of ‘capitalism’, the ‘system’, ‘pollution’. But this nostalgia for a better world doesn’t find any practical solutions in the book, because Morris has no solutions except a mysterious and sweeping change to human nature, which transforms everyone into tall graceful characters from a medieval romance.

Style

Beguiling as this vision may be, and long into the night though the arguments about any of these perennial topics of conversation could last, a novel is made out of words and Morris, although he has the fluency and confidence of a man of his age and class (Marlborough public school, Oxford) seems to be incapable of writing an interesting sentence.

Bland and energyless and utterly predictable is every sentence in this long book.

So on we went, Dick rowing in an easy tireless way, and Clara sitting by my side admiring his manly beauty and heartily good-natured face, and thinking, I fancy, of nothing else. As we went higher up the river, there was less difference between the Thames of that day and Thames as I remembered it; for setting aside the hideous vulgarity of the cockney villas of the well-to-do, stockbrokers and other such, which in older time marred the beauty of the bough-hung banks, even this beginning of the country Thames was always beautiful; and as we slipped between the lovely summer greenery, I almost felt my youth come back to me, and as if I were on one of those water excursions which I used to enjoy so much in days when I was too happy to think that there could be much amiss anywhere. (Chapter XXII)

The book’s sub-title says it all: ‘An Epoch of Rest’.

Old-fashioned diction

Morris thought returning to the decorative motifs and subjects of medieval tapestries would result in better design and this may well be true of his famous and successful wallpapers, curtains, furniture coverings and so on.

However, it was not a successful strategy for his prose. Merely writing ‘quoth’ and ‘said I’ and ‘methinks’ and chucking in a few archaisms like ‘sele’ and ‘mamelon’ does not medievalise or beautify his style. It simply becomes standard Victorian with irritatingly anachronistic phraseology and vocabulary.

Around the time of the Great War English prose underwent a revolution which had many streams, many authors and styles, but nearly all of them led towards a Modernist rejection of all old-fashioned diction and an emphasis on modern words assembled in shorter, stripped-down sentences, reflecting, say, the move towards Art Deco in the decorative arts or neo-classicism in music.

In one short generation, by, say, the mid-twenties, Morris’s entire style and the endeavours of everyone like him who hoped to recapture and restore something of medieval beauty by using medieval words, looked ludicrous.

In the 1900s Wells and Bennett and Galsworthy had created a kind of suburban English style; by the end of the War writers like Aldous Huxley were creating a slick, spiffy style to reflect the Roaring Twenties. And then, of course, there were the Americans.

A short generation after his death, Morris’s prose, like his dark fussy wallpapers and fabrics, looked unbearably stuffy, a relic from a prehistoric age, tired faded books from an era become completely irrelevant to the permanent crises of the twentieth century. Why dream about lazy boating trips down the Thames when the Bolshevik army was invading Poland, or the Italian fascists were marching on Rome?

Today, a hundred and twenty-eight years later, in a society and a world completely dominated by the triumph of Finance Capitalism, throwaway consumerism and environmental destruction, it is hard to read News from Nowhere because its vision seems too naive and personal, because all the causes Morris fought for have been comprehensively defeated, and because it is written in a prose which offers almost no rewards, apart from the lulling, drowsy soporific of a lazy summer afternoon.

We came just here on a gang of men road-mending which delayed us a little; but I was not sorry for it; for all I had seen hitherto seemed a mere part of a summer holiday; and I wanted to see how this folk would set to on a piece of real necessary work. They had been resting, and had only just begun work again as we came up; so that the rattle of the picks was what woke me from my musing. There were about a dozen of them, strong young men, looking much like a boating party at Oxford would have looked in the days I remembered, and not more troubled with their work: their outer raiment lay on the road-side in an orderly pile under the guardianship of a six-year-old boy, who had his arm thrown over the neck of a big mastiff, who was as happily lazy as if the summer-day had been made for him alone. (Chapter VII)

The whole book is like the lapping of small waves against the sides of a punt on his beloved river Thames, pleasant, relaxing, utterly without impact.

History

News from Nowhere was published in book form in 1891. One hundred years later, in 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed. For that hundred years the book was part of the continuum of socialist or communist texts which helped to support and justify communist regimes around the world. Now it has lived on into the ideological vacuum of the post-communist era. Much of what it says about the misery and exploitation of the capitalist system, about the importance of fulfilling work and well-designed surroundings and the despoliation of nature, remain true today.

The difference is no-one believes anything can be done. Most people have abandoned any engagement with politics and live as atomised units connected only by their smartphones and Facebook.

Seems to me what impact News from Nowhere possesses comes from two sources:

  • the psychological or imaginative power of its sustained dream of the long lazy summers of childhood
  • and a nostalgia for a time when people gave a damn about politics and believed they really could change the world

These two strands, I think, overlap and combine to give the book its sad nostalgic feeling.

News from Nowhere, Kelmscott edition frontispiece

News from Nowhere, Kelmscott edition frontispiece


Related links

Reviews of other William Morris articles and essays

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