British and Irish Literature William Morris
David Latham
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0108


The more we read about William Morris (b. 1834–d. 1896) the more we are overwhelmed by the range and depth of his achievements. A master of all the trades he tackled, Morris is a Victorian poet and novelist, painter and designer, calligrapher and printer, manufacturer and socialist who stands remarkably at the forefront of six historic movements in Western culture: the Pre-Raphaelite, Arts and Crafts, heritage preservation, socialist, prose romance, and private press movements. As the author of The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems in 1858, Morris became a leading figure of the Pre-Raphaelite movement with the first published book of Pre-Raphaelite poetry. As the co-founder of Morris & Co. in 1861, he was the leading force in the Arts and Crafts movement, designing tiles, textiles, stained glass, wallpapers, carpets, and furniture. As the founder in 1877 of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, Morris was an early and most effective advocate for the preservation of the architectural heritage of Britain, with his society still active today. As the editor of The Commonweal for the Socialist League in the 1880s, he was the leader of the socialist movement for revolution in Britain, lecturing several times a week at political rallies for more than a decade. As the innovative author of eight prose romances in the 1890s, he became the leading force in shifting the genre of fiction from the novel to the romance, providing the primary influence for the popular romances by C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. As the founder of the Kelmscott Press in 1891, he was the leading force of the private-press movement in the book industry, with his Kelmscott Chaucer now considered among the most beautiful books ever printed. “Morris knows things,” his friends would say when he was a young student at Oxford, and it should not surprise us that his most talented friends were the source of myths, with Dante Rossetti joking about a cupboard stuffed full of Morris’s poems alleged to have been dashed off with ease, and Edward Burne-Jones drawing comical caricatures of Morris in an exaggerated rage of temper. Morris’s sense of humor provided the means for these friends to humanize his Olympian genius as a competitor in art or literature or politics whom they held in awe. Famous for explaining his mastery of many arts with the dismissive “if a chap cannot compose an epic poem while he’s weaving tapestry, he had better shut up, he’ll never do good at all,” Morris thus makes it difficult to categorize the scholarly studies of his work.

General Overviews

Overviews of a master of such diverse skills as Morris, whose doctor diagnosed his death as the result of simply being William Morris and living the life of ten men, is a monumental challenge. The eight overviews listed here are divided in two: the first half are works that mark earlier efforts by individual critics and the second half are edited works of essay collections by critics from the different disciplines of art, literature, printing, and politics. The first half begins with volumes by two eyewitness contemporaries—Vallance 1897 and Mackail 1899—who interviewed Morris and his family and friends. Of the next two, Thompson 1977 is by the scholar who remains the best source for the political context of Morris’s life, while MacCarthy 1994 is by the professional biographer who writes a polished narrative with the observant eye of a novelist. The last four overviews are recent collections of scholarly essays by a variety of academics. Faulkner and Preston 1999, Latham 2007, and Bennett and Miles 2010 were inspired by international conferences that brought together experts from the different fields of Morris’s interests, each book emerging from the communal effort of shared ideas. Miles 2007 is a collection of articles solicited for an issue of the Journal of William Morris Studies devoted to successful ways of teaching Morris in the classroom.

  • Bennett, Phillippa, and Rosie Miles, eds. William Morris in the Twenty-first Century. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010.

    Essays by Phillippa Bennett on prose romances, Maria I. D. Botto on Morris’s urban planning, Piers J. Hale on Utopian science, David Latham on A Dream of John Ball, David Mabb on post-modernizing designs, Jan Marsh on Red House, Rosie Miles on the Online Edition, Tony Pinkney on News from Nowhere, Peter Smith on Marxist critics, Thomas J. Tobin on the Internet, and Anna Vaninskaya on the Germanic romances.

  • Faulkner, Peter, and Peter Preston, eds. William Morris: Centenary Essays: Papers from the Morris Centenary Conference Organized by the William Morris Society at Exeter College, Oxford, 30 June–3 July 1996. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1999.

    Essays by William Blissett on The Earthly Paradise; Florence S. Boos on ecology; Adrianna Corrado, Norman Kelvin, and Ady Mineo on News from Nowhere; Simon Dentith and Amanda Hodgson on Sigurd the Volsung; Ruth Kinna on anti-anarchism; Lindsay Leard-Coolidge and Ian Lochhead on decorative arts in Boston and New Zealand; Jan Marsh on manly violence; Rosie Miles on A Book of Verse; Christine Poulson on Arthurian murals and tapestries; and Norman Talbot on prose romances.

  • Latham, David, ed. Writing on the Image: Reading William Morris. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

    Essays by Matthew Beaumont, Karen Herbert, and Wanda Campbell on News from Nowhere, D.M.R. Bentley on “King Arthur’s Tomb” and wallpaper, Florence S. Boos on Jason, Yuri Cowan on A Dream of John Ball, Janet Wright Frieson on “Sir Peter Harpdon’s End,” Chris Jones on translating Beowulf, Ruth Kinna and Frederick Kirchhoff on prose romances, Charles LaPorte on the Kelmscott Chaucer, David Latham on The Earthly Paradise and on socialism, and Jane Thomas on The Earthly Paradise.

  • MacCarthy, Fiona. William Morris: A Life for Our Time. London: Faber, 1994.

    This comprehensive and eloquent biography takes its place alongside Mackail 1899 and Thompson 1977. First, MacCarthy foregrounds the importance of geographical and domestic places in Morris’s life; second, she provides a contextual perspective on both the historical period and the technical aspects of dyeing textiles or of inking type; and third, she vividly refreshes our understanding of a design and a poem with telling details.

  • Mackail, J. W. The Life of William Morris. 2 vols. London: Longmans, 1899.

    Commissioned by Burne-Jones, Mackail based his classic on his access to Morris’s manuscripts and letters and on interviews with family, friends, and colleagues. Though reticent but suggestive about personal troubles and a cautious apologist for socialism, Mackail still brings the many sides of Morris fully to life. So wise and thorough is this source that its occasional errors persist as engraved truths.

  • Miles, Rosie, ed. Special Issue: Teaching Morris. Journal of William Morris Studies 17 (Summer 2007).

    Essays by David Latham, Kathleen Maloney, Rosie Miles, and Philippe Vervaecke focus on teaching News from Nowhere, by Elizabeth Carolyn Miller and by Susan Jaret McKinstry on teaching his book design and the Kelmscott Press, and by Todd O. Williams on teaching The Defence of Guenevere poems.

  • Thompson, E. P. William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. London: Merlin, 1977.

    The best study of the political Morris, Thompson probes the motives of the rebellious youth hating the shoddy and of the mature designer with a craftsman’s mastery of all details. The poetry documented the crosscurrents of an age torn between utilitarian and escapist sentiments until Morris emerged to “cross the river of fire” and commit his life to socialism, becoming the pioneer theorist of the organization of social life. Weak on the Kelmscott Press and the prose romances, Thompson reveals the revolutionary theorist “whom history will never overtake.”

  • Vallance, Aymer. William Morris: His Art, His Writing, and His Public Life. London: George Bell, 1897.

    Vallance benefited from Morris’s own Kelmscott Press ornaments, illuminated manuscripts, and decorative designs. He analyzes chintz patterns, includes quotes by contemporaries, and ranges from recognizing the spurious “Sir Galahad” as “an unauthorized and later reprint” to discussing the epithets of The Earthly Paradise and its delineation of the fantastic borderland of the twilight phase of religion.

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