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Full Online Book HomeEssaysThe Art Of Letters - 15. The Personality Of Morris
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The Art Of Letters - 15. The Personality Of Morris Post by :sbeard Category :Essays Author :Robert Lynd Date :May 2012 Read :2031

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The Art Of Letters - 15. The Personality Of Morris


One thinks of William Morris as a man who wished to make the world as beautiful as an illuminated manuscript. He loved the bright colours, the gold, the little strange insets of landscape, the exquisite craftsmanship of decoration, in which the genius of the medieval illuminators expressed itself. His Utopia meant the restoration, not so much of the soul of man, as of the selected delights of the arts and crafts of the Middle Ages. His passion for trappings--and what fine trappings!--is admirably suggested by Mr. Cunninghame Graham in his preface to Mr. Compton-Rickett's _William Morris: a Study in Personality_. Morris he declares, was in his opinion "no mystic, but a sort of symbolist set in a medieval frame, and it appeared to me that all his love of the old times of which he wrote was chiefly of the setting; of tapestries well wrought; of needlework, rich colours of stained glass falling upon old monuments, and of fine work not scamped." To emphasize the preoccupation of Morris with the very handiwork, rather than with the mystic secrets, of beauty is not necessarily to diminish his name. He was essentially a man for whom the visible world existed, and in the manner in which he wore himself out in his efforts to reshape the visible world he proved himself one of the great men of his century. His life was, in its own way, devotional ever since those years in which Burne-Jones, his fellow-undergraduate at Oxford, wrote to him: "We must enlist you in this Crusade and Holy Warfare against the age." Like all revolutions, of course, the Morris revolution was a prophecy rather than an achievement. But, perhaps, a prophecy of Utopia is itself one of the greatest achievements of which humanity is capable.

It is odd that one who spilled out his genius for the world of men should have been so self-sufficing, so little dependent on friendships and ordinary human relationships as Morris is depicted both in Mr. Mackail's biography and Mr. Compton-Rickett's study. Obviously, he was a man with whom generosity was a second nature. When he became a Socialist, he sold the greater part of his precious library in order to help the cause. On the other hand, to balance this, we have Rossetti's famous assertion: "Top"--the general nickname for Morris--"never gives money to a beggar." Mr. Mackail, if I remember right, accepted Rossetti's statement as expressive of Morris's indifference to men as compared with causes. Mr. Compton-Rickett, however, challenges the truth of the observation. "The number of 'beggars,'" he affirms, "who called at his house and went away rewarded were legion."

Mr. Belfort Bax declares that he kept a drawerful of half-crowns for foreign anarchists, because, as he explained apologetically: "They always wanted half-a-crown, and it saved time to have a stock ready."

But this is no real contradiction of Rossetti. Morris's anarchists represented his life's work to him. He did not help them from that personal and irrational charity which made Rossetti want to give a penny to a beggar in the street. This may be regarded as a supersubtle distinction; but it is necessary if we are to understand the important fact about Morris that--to quote Mr. Compton-Rickett--"human nature in the concrete never profoundly interested him." Enthusiastic as were the friendships of his youth--when he gushed into "dearests" in his letters--we could imagine him as living without friends and yet being tolerably happy. He was, as Mr. Compton-Rickett suggests, like a child with a new toy in his discovery of ever-fresh pursuits in the three worlds of Politics, Literature and Art. He was a person to whom even duties were Pleasures. Mr. Mackail has spoken of him as "the rare distance of a man who, without ever once swerving from truth or duty, knew what he liked and did what he liked, all his life long." One thinks of him in his work as a child with a box of paints--an inspired child with wonderful paints and the skill to use them. He was such a child as accepts companions with pleasure, but also accepts the absence of companions with pleasure. He could absorb himself in his games of genius anywhere and everywhere. "Much of his literary work was done on buses and in trains." His poetry is often, as it were, the delightful nursery-work of a grown man. "His best work," as Mr. Compton-Rickett says, "reads like happy improvisations." He had a child's sudden and impulsive temper, too. Once, having come into his studio in a rage, he "took a flying kick at the door, and smashed in a panel." "It's all right," he assured the scared model, who was preparing to fly; "it's all right--_something had to give way." The same violence of impulse is seen in the story of how, on one occasion, when he was staying in the country, he took an artistic dislike to his hostess's curtains, and tore them down during the night. His judgments were often much the same kind of untempered emotions as he showed in the matter of the curtains--his complaint, for example, that a Greek temple was "like a table on four legs: a damned dull thing!" He was a creature of whims: so much so that, as a boy, he used to have the curse, "Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel," flung at him. He enjoyed the expression of knock-out opinions such as: "I always bless God for making anything so strong as an onion!" He laughed easily, not from humour so much as from a romping playfulness. He took a young boy's pleasure in showing off the strength of his mane of dark brown hair. He would get a child to get hold of it, and lift him off the ground by it "with no apparent inconvenience." He was at the same time nervous and restless. He was given to talking to himself; his hands were never at peace; "if he read aloud, he punched his own head in the exuberance of his emotions." Possibly there was something high-strung even about his play, as when, Mr. Mackail tells us, "he would imitate an eagle with considerable skill and humour, climbing on to a chair and, after a sullen pause, coming down with a soft, heavy flop." It seems odd that Mr. John Burns could say of this sensitive and capricious man of genius, as we find him saying in Mr. Compton-Rickett's book, that "William Morris was a chunk of humanity in the rough; he was a piece of good, strong, unvarnished oak--nothing of the elm about him." But we can forgive Mr. Burns's imperfect judgment in gratitude for the sentences that follow:

There is no side of modern life which he has not touched
for good. I am sure he would have endorsed heartily the
House and Town Planning Act for which I am responsible.

Morris, by the way, would have appreciated Mr. Burns's reference to him as a fellow-craftsman: did he not once himself boast of being "a master artisan, if I may claim that dignity"?

The buoyant life of this craftsman-preacher--whose craftsmanship, indeed, was the chief part of his preaching--who taught the labourers of his age, both by precept and example, that the difference between success and failure in life was the difference between being artisans of loveliness and poor hackworkers of profitable but hideous things--has a unique attractiveness in the history of the latter half of the nineteenth century. He is a figure of whom we cannot be too constantly and vividly reminded. When I took up Mr. Compton-Rickett's book I was full of hope that it would reinterpret for a new generation Morris's evangelistic personality and ideals. Unfortunately, it contains very little of importance that has not already appeared in Mr. Mackail's distinguished biography; and the only interpretation of first-rate interest in the book occurs in the bold imaginative prose of Mr. Cunninghame Graham's introduction. More than once the author tells us the same things as Mr. Mackail, only in a less life-like way. For example, where Mr. Mackail says of Morris that "by the time he was seven years old he had read all the Waverley novels, and many of Marryat's," Mr. Compton-Rickett vaguely writes: "He was suckled on Romance, and knew his Scott and Marryat almost before he could lisp their names." That is typical of Mr. Compton-Rickett's method. Instead of contenting himself with simple and realistic sentences like Mr. Mackail's, he aims at--and certainly achieves--a kind of imitative picturesqueness. We again see his taste for the high-flown in such a paragraph as that which tells us that "a common bond unites all these men--Dickens, Carlyle, Ruskin and Morris. They differed in much; but, like great mountains lying apart in the base, they converge high up in the air." The landscape suggested in these sentences is more topsy-turvy than the imagination likes to dwell upon. And the criticisms in the book are seldom lightning-flashes of revelation. For instance:

A more polished artistry we find in Tennyson; a greater
intellectual grip in Browning; a more haunting magic in
Rossetti; but for easy mastery over his material and
general diffusion of beauty Morris has no superior.

That, apart from the excellent "general diffusion of beauty," is the kind of conventional criticism that might pass in a paper read to a literary society. But somehow, in a critic who deliberately writes a book, we look for a greater and more personal mastery of his authors than Mr. Compton-Rickett gives evidence of in the too facile eloquence of these pages.

The most interesting part of the book is that which is devoted to personalia. But even in the matter of personalia Mr. Cunninghame Graham tells us more vital things in a page of his introduction than Mr. Compton-Rickett scatters through a chapter. His description of Morris's appearance, if not a piece of heroic painting, gives us a fine grotesque design of the man:

His face was ruddy, and his hair inclined to red, and grew in waves like water just before it breaks over a fall. His beard was of the same colour as his hair. His eyes were blue and fiery. His teeth, small and irregular, but white except upon the side on which he hew his pipe, where they were stained with brown. When he walked he swayed a little, not like (_sic_) a sailor sways, but as a man who lives a sedentary life toddles a little in his gait. His ears were small, his nose high and well-made, his hands and feet small for a man of his considerable bulk. His speech and address were fitting the man; bold, bluff, and hearty.... He was quick-tempered and irritable, swift to anger and swift to reconciliation, and I should think never bore malice in his life.

When he talked he seldom looked at you, and his hands were always twisting, as if they wished to be at work.

Such was the front the man bore. The ideal for which he lived may be summed up, in Mr. Compton-Rickett's expressive phrase, as "the democratization of beauty." Or it may be stated more humanly in the words which Morris himself spoke at the grave of a young man who died of injuries received at the hands of the police in Trafalgar Square on "Bloody Sunday." "Our friend," he then said:

Our friend who lies here has had a hard life, and met with a hard death; and, if society had been differently constituted, his life might have been a delightful, a beautiful, and a happy one. It is our business to begin to organize for the purpose of seeing that such things shall not happen; to try and make this earth a beautiful and happy place.

There you have the sum of all Morris's teaching. Like so many fine artists since Plato, he dreamed of a society which would be as beautiful as a work of art. He saw the future of society as a radiant picture, full of the bright light of hope, as he saw the past of society as a picture steeped in the charming lights of fancy. He once explained Rossetti's indifference to politics by saying that he supposed "it needs a person of hopeful mind to take disinterested notice of politics, and Rossetti was certainly not hopeful." Morris was the very illuminator of hope. He was as hopeful a man as ever set out with words and colours to bring back the innocent splendours of the Golden Age.

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