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To Build a Shadowy Isle of Bliss

To Build a Shadowy Isle of Bliss: William Morris's Radicalism and the Embodiment of Dreams

Michelle Weinroth
Paul Leduc Browne
Copyright Date: 2015
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  • Book Info
    To Build a Shadowy Isle of Bliss
    Book Description:

    To Build a Shadowy Isle of Bliss casts new light on the political radicalism and social thought of nineteenth-century artist, author, and revolutionary, William Morris. Standing on the cusp of a new wave of scholarship, this book presents an exciting convergence of views among internationally renowned scholars in the field of Victorian Studies. Balancing variety and unity, this collection reappraises Morris’s concept of social change and asks how we might think beyond the institutions and epistemologies of our time. Though the political significance of Morris’s creative work is often underestimated, the essays in this volume showcase its subtlety and sophistication. Each chapter discerns the power and novelty of Morris’s radicalism within his aesthetic creations and demonstrates how his most compelling political ideas bloomed wherever his dexterous hand had been at work - in wallpapers, floral borders, medievalist romances, and verse. Morris's theory and practice of aesthetic creation can be seen as the crucible of his entire philosophy of social change. In situating Morris's radicalism at the heart of his creative legacy, and in reanimating debates about nineteenth-century art and politics, To Build a Shadowy Isle of Bliss challenges and expands received notions of the radical, the aesthetic, and the political.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-9697-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. vii-ix)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. x-x)
  5. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-2)
    Michelle Weinroth and Paul Leduc Browne
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 3-34)

    Though he authored one of the longest poems in the English language (The Earthly Paradise), William Morris, for many, remains a minor poet, overshadowed by his prowess as a craftsman (a designer of wallpapers, fabrics, typography, tapestries, etc.), as well as by his political activism. Politics and the manual character of his creative achievements have predisposed some to view him as a marginally reputable poet, “contaminated” and “compromised” by his socialist beliefs, or as a merelypracticalartist, ill-equipped to pursue finer theoretical considerations. If naïveté has been associated with his artisanal works, it is an assumption that has also...

  7. ONE William Morris’s “Lesser Arts” and “The Commercial War”
    (pp. 35-55)

    William Morris defended the “lesser arts” as peaceful sources of solace and inner fulfillment, but several of his better-known literary works –The Defence of Guenevere, “Scenes from the Fall of Troy,” some of his later prose romances, and most conspicuously his sanguinary tragic epicSigurd the Volsung, for example – were agonistic in the extreme. In this essay I will examine the apparent paradox of Morris’s representations of violence, interpret them as sublimated expressions of personal and political conflicts, and argue that his increasingly explicit abhorrence of “commercial war” and British imperialism found resonances in his literary representations of warfare and...

  8. TWO Illuminating Divergences: Morris, Burne-Jones, and the Two Aeneids
    (pp. 56-84)

    The Pre-RaphaeliteAeneidillumination is an enigma. Its place as the crowning achievement of Morris’s calligraphic quill, the shadowy handwritten counterpart to the KelmscottChaucer, has never been seriously questioned. Yet, unlike the famousChaucer, this precious book has been opened by only a handful of scholars, it has rarely been displayed, and no substantial part of it has ever been reproduced. There have been virtually no critical articles devoted to the manuscript, which is surprising considering that Morris has received well over a century of multidisciplinary scholarly attention,3 but the text’s unfinished state4 and private ownership have made it...

  9. THREE Radical Tales: Rethinking the Politics of William Morris’s Last Romances
    (pp. 85-105)

    In June 1872, William Morris sent his “abortive novel” to Louisa Baldwin, apologizing: “It is just a specimen of how not to do it, and there is no more to be said thereof: ’tis nothing but landscape and sentiment: which thing won’t do.” This was to be Morris’s first and last attempt at writing a novel, for he concluded his letter: “So there’s an end of my novel writing I fancy, unless the world turns topsides under some day.”¹ It may seem surprising that a man with such literary ability, who, in other areas of his life, demonstrated such commitment...

  10. FOUR Telling Time: Song’s Rhythms in Morris’s Late Work
    (pp. 106-123)

    Morris largely abandoned lyric for prose in the last decades of his life. Or did he? Certainly in the 1880s Morris devoted enormous energies to speaking and writing prose for the Cause. After 1886 his major literary works were prose romances. Romance, as John Goode argued in a seminal 1971 essay, became Morris’s “power for seeing the future in the present,” effecting through art “the transformation of individual epistemology” into “revolutionary consciousness.”¹ I shall argue, however, that this transformation was also a lyric project for Morris – indeed, that song played a crucial role in the transformational political work of Morris’s...

  11. FIVE The Pre-Raphaelite Tongue: The Politics of Antiquarian Poetics
    (pp. 124-148)

    There are two clear signs of disruption in the pattern of William Morris’s busy life. In 1858 he started working on “Scenes from the Fall of Troy,” but he did not get far with it. That is not a phrase we associate with Morris: he rarely ever started a project without finishing it. This series of dramatic monologues was intended to be his second book of poetry, but he fell in love, married, started a family, and founded a decorative arts firm. For anyone but Morris, those preoccupations would serve well enough to explain an aborted book. But thirty years...

  12. Colour plates
    (pp. None)
  13. SIX Translation, Collaboration, and Reception: Editing Caxton for the Kelmscott Press
    (pp. 149-171)

    Although several critics have now acknowledged the equal importance of text and decoration in the formation of the Kelmscott canon,² few have discussed the content of Kelmscott books, preferring to discuss the books’ aesthetic qualities. And yet Morris himself felt the textual importance of these works strongly enough to print them, sometimes as rarities and sometimes as canonical necessities; Kelmscott books were certainly meant to be understood for their literary content as well as appreciated for their merit as exemplars of perhaps the most popular of the “lesser arts of life.” After all, the mandate of the Press was in...

  14. SEVEN Morris’s Road to Nowhere: New Pathways in Political Persuasion
    (pp. 172-194)

    It is 7 October 1890. Morris approaches the end of hisCommonwealphase. He writes to his friend, John Bruce Glasier: “I shall now presently begin to touch up N from N [News from Nowhere] for its book form, & will publish [sic] for Is/o. It has amused me very much writing it: but you may depend upon it, it wont [sic] sell. This of course is my own fault – or my own misfortunes.”¹ Some decades later, May Morris contests her father’s views, insisting on “the abiding place [that the book] has in the affections of those who care for...

  15. EIGHT A Dream of William Morris: Communism, History, Revolution
    (pp. 195-217)

    Disgust with a world of “filth” and ugliness¹ bred in Morris a “hatred of modern civilization.” Yet, his radicalism might simply have led into the blind alley of a romantic anti-capitalist² “railing” against modernity had the rise of socialism not shown him a way forward.³ In his own eyes, then, Morris was always a radical, but his radicalism deepened, changing into socialism (or communism – for Morris the two words were synonymous).

    Morris illustrated some principles of communism in his most famous work,News from Nowhere, but also outlined them in a series of shorter lectures and articles. He fashioned these...

  16. NINE News from Nowhere Two: Principles of a Sequel
    (pp. 218-240)

    How do we think with Morris about the future, both the future we are likely to get on current trends and the future we would ideally want to have? The very phrase “thinking with Morris about the future” perhaps sounds a little too neighbourly, to borrow a favourite term fromNews from Nowhere, a little too comfortable or even complacent. To “think with him” is to accept some of his key values and judgments – no doubt about that – but it may also be to extend them, to problematize them, to rework and on occasion reject them, in the light of...

  17. TEN Redesigning the Beautiful: Morris, Mabb, and the Politics of Wallpaper
    (pp. 241-273)

    Having rethought Morris’s radicalism from a number of perspectives, we may now revisit the vexed question of beautiful art and radical politics¹ that underlies Morris’s legacy. I see this central concern as linked to eighteenth-century idealist aesthetics and buttressed by mainstream assumptions that beauty is sensual, voluptuous, and feminine, that it is represented in art executed by a gifted, privileged few, and that it is commodified for the benefit of an elite. In British modernist or avantgarde circles (but elsewhere, too), such art is perceived as the emblem of middle-class propriety or the symbol of a conservative social order,² wholly...

  18. Conclusion
    (pp. 274-288)

    Throughout his public life, Morris strove tirelessly “to build a shadowy isle of bliss.” His was a daunting, at times intractable, project. For how shall one build an isle? An isle of bliss ? A shadowy isle? The phrase is a reminder thatMorris’s utopia was no pre-lapsarian state of Edenic peace; it was a silhouette of political desire, frustrated by setback and sustained by undying hope. The “happy poet,” as Yeats dubbed him, was under no illusion: bliss could not be achieved under capitalism’s condition of commercial war. The task was to build a place for it, not just to...

  19. Notes
    (pp. 289-338)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 339-360)
  21. Contributors
    (pp. 361-362)
  22. Index
    (pp. 363-372)