William Morris

Anna Vaninskaya

in Victorian Literature

ISBN: 9780199799558
Published online July 2012 | | DOI:
William Morris

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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.

Article.  12703 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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