Victorian Literature William Morris
by
Anna Vaninskaya
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0089

Introduction

William Morris, poet, romancer, translator, designer, businessman, printer, and socialist pioneer, was the ultimate Renaissance man of the 19th century. Born in 1834 in Walthamstow, England, he soon developed a precocious historical sensibility, which was to characterize his endeavors for the rest of his life. His interest in the Middle Ages blossomed during his time at Exeter College, Oxford, where he met his closest friend and collaborator, the future painter Edward Burne-Jones, as well as the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It was also in Oxford that he met his wife, Jane Morris, who was immortalized by Rossetti as a Pre-Raphaelite muse (and later became his lover). Morris trained as an architect and then set up his own design firm (the “Firm”), ultimately known as Morris and Co. Over the following decades he revived a number of medieval crafts, partially succeeded in reforming Victorian taste in interior decoration, and inspired the international arts and crafts movement. He also founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in order to campaign against the destruction and “restoration” of ancient monuments. Morris’s public literary career had begun with the publication of a volume of lyric verse, The Defence of Guenevere (1858), but it was the epic-length The Earthly Paradise (1868–1870) that secured his reputation as a narrative poet: a reputation that held strong until the 1890s, when he was offered the poet laureateship upon Tennyson’s death (he declined it). His literary output was prolific and included, besides poetry, a series of medievalist prose romances published in the late 1880s and 1890s and many collaborative translations from the Norse, Greek, French, Old English, and other languages. In the 1880s Morris plunged into political activism and joined the fledgling British socialist movement. His political ideas were shaped by the twin influences of Ruskin and Marx, and after forming his own Socialist League, he devoted his life to the “Cause,” crisscrossing the country to deliver hundreds of lectures and writing hundreds of articles for the Socialist League newspaper the Commonweal. It was for his socialist audiences that he composed what is now his most famous work, the utopia News from Nowhere (1890), as well as a series of songs and shorter prose pieces. In his later years Morris turned to book collecting, and in 1891 he established the Kelmscott Press in order to revive the art of printing. The press became an inspiration for book designers on both sides of the Atlantic. By the time Morris died in 1896, he was said to have done the work of ten men, and though his literary reputation dipped in the 20th century, it has been significantly reappraised in the past several decades. His designs, of course, have never lost their popularity, and his political legacy still remains a bone of contention.

General Overviews

Because of Morris’s cross-disciplinary appeal and mass marketability, there is a wealth of short pictorial introductions for the general reader, represented here by Bradley 1978 and Coote 1990. Fiell and Fiell 1999 is another specimen, but with its parallel texts in English, French, and German and its map, it is aimed more directly at the international market. Though well researched, the appeal of these overviews lies largely in their visual dimension; for a more academic introduction aimed at student and scholarly audiences, one can turn in the first instance to MacCarthy 2009, and for a more extended treatment to Faulkner 1980 and Thompson 1991. The latter two complement each other, focusing, respectively, on Morris’s literary and artistic output. In terms of ease of accessibility, however, the best place to turn for a first acquaintance with Morris is the William Morris Society website, which also includes the full text of all issues (uploaded online two to three years after their first print appearance) of the Journal of William Morris Studies, featuring articles on every conceivable aspect of Morris’s life, work, and legacy.

  • Bradley, Ian. William Morris and His World. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.

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    An in-depth and well-written (though opinionated) introduction. Very generously illustrated in black and white, it covers all aspects of Morris’s life and influence and includes a chronology and select bibliography. Not divided into chapters.

  • Coote, Stephen. William Morris: His Life and Work. London: Garamond, 1990.

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    Lavishly illustrated overview of Morris’s life and thought, with generous quotations from his works and numerous color and black-and-white plates. Includes a chapter devoted to the influence of Morris’s ideas in the arts and crafts movement, and a useful annotated bibliography.

  • Faulkner, Peter. Against the Age: An Introduction to William Morris. London: Allen and Unwin, 1980.

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    Short introduction to Morris’s life and work, with a brief epilogue on his influence and many quotes from his writings, by an important Morris scholar. Faulkner is particularly strong on Morris as a writer and is therefore an important supplement to Thompson 1991. Includes important and original interpretations of Morris’s poetry.

  • Fiell, Charlotte, and Peter Fiell. William Morris (1834–1896). Cologne: Taschen, 1999.

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    One of many lavishly illustrated large-format coffee-table books, it stands out for offering the text in three languages. Brief chapters are devoted to Morris’s biography, his various houses, examples of his interior design and public commissions, and the various decorative arts in which he engaged. The appendix contains a map of places of interest related to Morris, a chronology, and a bibliography including French and German sources.

  • Journal of William Morris Studies.

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    Formerly the Journal of the William Morris Society. Biennial peer-reviewed publication of the William Morris Society, in print since 1961. Includes a book review section and biannual installments of David and Sheila Latham’s unrivaled annotated bibliography of Morris studies for the years 1978–2007 (which supersedes their 1991 print edition). The journal also publishes special issues.

  • MacCarthy, Fiona. “Morris, William (1834–1896).” In The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Lawrence Goldman. 2009.

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    A comprehensive and authoritative résumé of Morris’s life by his most recent biographer. Includes sections on Morris’s literary, artistic, business, and political activities, as well as his family and private life, reputation, and legacy; also includes a helpful list of archival holdings and likenesses. Print ed. edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Howard Harrison (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

  • Thompson, Paul. The Work of William Morris. 3d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

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    A clearly written and illustrated overview of Morris’s many activities (first published in 1967). Thompson is particularly good on the decorative arts and on politics, much less so on the literature. After an introductory chapter on Morris’s life, Thompson focuses on architecture, furniture, textiles and wallpapers, stained glass, book design, socialism, and Morris’s historical writing. Includes a gazetteer listing the primary locations of Morris’s works.

  • William Morris Society.

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    Contains a number of general Morris resources, as well as listings of events, a blog, regular newsletters, and links to the websites of Morris societies in Canada and the United Kingdom. The UK Morris Society hosts and publishes the Kelmscott Lectures by international experts on topics ranging from the arts and crafts, printing, architecture, utopias, romances, biography, women, and the environment to Morris’s historical and political thought.

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