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2.13: William Morris (1834-1894)

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  • William Morris was born into a wealthy family, with his father William owning a tin mine. At the age of twenty-one, Morris received an annual income of 900 pounds. In 1853, he entered Exeter College at Oxford, where he met Edward Burne-Jones. They founded the Brotherhood, the second generation of Pre-Raphaelites. Morris especially espoused the social aspects of Pre-Raphaelite medievalism, admiring what he saw as its organic quality with each human being having responsibility towards the other and individuals realizing their full self through their occupation. Although Morris seemed to idealize the Middle Ages, his poetry evinces a clear-eyed view of its brutality, hypocrisy, and inequalities (particularly between the sexes).

    clipboard_e8cdf02effd10af60468459dc57a0f0b6.pngMorris’s first collection of poetry, The Defence of Guenevere (1858), reflects these qualities and may have been influenced by his troubled relationship with his wife, Jane Burden, who conducted an affair with his friend, D. G. Rossetti. He also wrote a utopian novel, News from Nowhere (1889); fantasies and prose romances, including The House of the Wolfings (1888) and The Wood Beyond the Wood (1894); and an epic-length poem combining Greek and Norse myths, The Earthly Paradise (1868-70).

    Besides writing, Morris supported art and craftsmanship by founding a company that eventually became Morris and Co. Using machinery and factories, Morris’s company produced textiles, ceramics, stained glass, tapestries, and wallpaper that maintained the medieval aesthetic. He founded the Arts and Crafts Movement that promoted hand-made pottery, textiles, furniture, and books as a moral and social corrective to the inequalities within the factory system.

    His social concerns developed into serious involvement with leftist politics. He ultimately became an outspoken socialist at a time when social change, especially a concern for laborers, gained momentum in England. He lectured, wrote pamphlets, and participated in demonstrations, twice being arrested and once fined.

    In the last years of his life, Morris suffered from debilitating gout, eventually becoming a complete invalid before dying in 1896.

     

    2.13.1: “The Defence of Guenevere”

    But, knowing now that they would have her speak,

    She threw her wet hair backward from her brow,

    Her hand close to her mouth touching her cheek,

     

    As though she had had there a shameful blow,

    And feeling it shameful to feel ought but shame

    All through her heart, yet felt her cheek burned so,

     

    She must a little touch it; like one lame

    She walked away from Gauwaine, with her head

    Still lifted up; and on her cheek of flame

     

    The tears dried quick; she stopped at last and said:

    “O knights and lords, it seems but little skill

    To talk of well-known things past now and dead.

     

    “God wot I ought to say, I have done ill,

    And pray you all forgiveness heartily!

    Because you must be right such great lords—still

     

    “Listen, suppose your time were come to die,

    And you were quite alone and very weak;

    Yea, laid a dying while very mightily

     

    “The wind was ruffling up the narrow streak

    Of river through your broad lands running well:

    Suppose a hush should come, then some one speak:

     

    “'One of these cloths is heaven, and one is hell,

    Now choose one cloth for ever, which they be,

    I will not tell you, you must somehow tell

     

    “'Of your own strength and mightiness; here, see!’

    Yea, yea, my lord, and you to ope your eyes,

    At foot of your familiar bed to see

     

    “A great God’s angel standing, with such dyes,

    Not known on earth, on his great wings, and hands,

    Held out two ways, light from the inner skies

     

    “Showing him well, and making his commands

    Seem to be God’s commands, moreover, too,

    Holding within his hands the cloths on wands;

     

    “And one of these strange choosing cloths was blue,

    Wavy and long, and one cut short and red;

    No man could tell the better of the two.

     

    “After a shivering half-hour you said,

    ‘God help! heaven’s colour, the blue;’ and he said, ‘hell.’

    Perhaps you then would roll upon your bed,

     

    “And cry to all good men that loved you well,

    ‘Ah Christ! if only I had known, known, known;’

    Launcelot went away, then I could tell,

     

    “Like wisest man how all things would be, moan,

    And roll and hurt myself, and long to die,

    And yet fear much to die for what was sown.

     

    “Nevertheless you, O Sir Gauwaine, lie,

    Whatever may have happened through these years,

    God knows I speak truth, saying that you lie.”

     

    Her voice was low at first, being full of tears,

    But as it cleared, it grew full loud and shrill,

    Growing a windy shriek in all men’s ears,

     

    A ringing in their startled brains, until

    She said that Gauwaine lied, then her voice sunk,

    And her great eyes began again to fill,

     

    Though still she stood right up, and never shrunk,

    But spoke on bravely, glorious lady fair!

    Whatever tears her full lips may have drunk,

     

    She stood, and seemed to think, and wrung her hair,

    Spoke out at last with no more trace of shame,

    With passionate twisting of her body there:

     

    “It chanced upon a day that Launcelot came

    To dwell at Arthur’s court: at Christmas-time

    This happened; when the heralds sung his name,

     

    “'Son of King Ban of Benwick,’ seemed to chime

    Along with all the bells that rang that day,

    O’er the white roofs, with little change of rhyme.

     

    “Christmas and whitened winter passed away,

    And over me the April sunshine came,

    Made very awful with black hail-clouds, yea

     

    “And in Summer I grew white with flame,

    And bowed my head down—Autumn, and the sick

    Sure knowledge things would never be the same,

     

    “However often Spring might be most thick

    Of blossoms and buds, smote on me, and

    I grew Careless of most things, let the clock tick, tick,

     

    “To my unhappy pulse, that beat right through

    My eager body; while I laughed out loud,

    And let my lips curl up at false or true,

     

    “Seemed cold and shallow without any cloud.

    Behold my judges, then the cloths were brought:

    While I was dizzied thus, old thoughts would crowd,

     

    “Belonging to the time ere I was bought

    By Arthur’s great name and his little love,

    Must I give up for ever then, I thought,

     

    “That which I deemed would ever round me move

    Glorifying all things; for a little word,

    Scarce ever meant at all, must I now prove

     

    “Stone-cold for ever? Pray you, does the Lord

    Will that all folks should be quite happy and good?

    I love God now a little, if this cord

     

    “Were broken, once for all what striving could

    Make me love anything in earth or heaven.

    So day by day it grew, as if one should

     

    “Slip slowly down some path worn smooth and even,

    Down to a cool sea on a summer day;

    Yet still in slipping there was some small leaven

     

    “Of stretched hands catching small stones by the way,

    Until one surely reached the sea at last,

    And felt strange new joy as the worn head lay

     

    “Back, with the hair like sea-weed; yea all past

    Sweat of the forehead, dryness of the lips,

    Washed utterly out by the dear waves o’ercast

     

    “In the lone sea, far off from any ships!

    Do I not know now of a day in Spring?

    No minute of that wild day ever slips

     

    “From out my memory; I hear thrushes sing,

    And wheresoever I may be, straightway

    Thoughts of it all come up with most fresh sting;

     

    “I was half mad with beauty on that day,

    And went without my ladies all alone,

    In a quiet garden walled round every way;

     

    “I was right joyful of that wall of stone,

    That shut the flowers and trees up with the sky,

    And trebled all the beauty: to the bone,

     

    “Yea right through to my heart, grown very shy

    With weary thoughts, it pierced, and made me glad;

    Exceedingly glad, and I knew verily,

     

    “A little thing just then had made me mad;

    I dared not think, as I was wont to do,

    Sometimes, upon my beauty; if I had

     

    “Held out my long hand up against the blue,

    And, looking on the tenderly darken’d fingers,

    Thought that by rights one ought to see quite through,

     

    “There, see you, where the soft still light yet lingers,

    Round by the edges; what should I have done,

    If this had joined with yellow spotted singers,

     

    “And startling green drawn upward by the sun?

    But shouting, loosed out, see now! all my hair,

    And trancedly stood watching the west wind run

     

    “With faintest half-heard breathing sound—why there

    I lose my head e’en now in doing this;

    But shortly listen—In that garden fair

     

    “Came Launcelot walking; this is true, the kiss

    Wherewith we kissed in meeting that spring day,

    I scarce dare talk of the remember’d bliss,

     

    “When both our mouths went wandering in one way,

    And aching sorely, met among the leaves;

    Our hands being left behind strained far away.

     

    “Never within a yard of my bright sleeves

    Had Launcelot come before—and now, so nigh!

    After that day why is it Guenevere grieves?

     

    “Nevertheless you, O Sir Gauwaine, lie,

    Whatever happened on through all those years,

    God knows I speak truth, saying that you lie.

     

    “Being such a lady could I weep these tears

    If this were true? A great queen such as I

    Having sinn’d this way, straight her conscience sears;

     

    “And afterwards she liveth hatefully,

    Slaying and poisoning, certes never weeps,—

    Gauwaine be friends now, speak me lovingly.

     

    “Do I not see how God’s dear pity creeps

    All through your frame, and trembles in your mouth?

    Remember in what grave your mother sleeps,

     

    “Buried in some place far down in the south,

    Men are forgetting as I speak to you;

    By her head sever’d in that awful drouth

     

    “Of pity that drew Agravaine’s fell blow,

    I pray your pity! let me not scream out

    For ever after, when the shrill winds blow

     

    “Through half your castle-locks! let me not shout

    For ever after in the winter night

    When you ride out alone! in battle-rout

     

    “Let not my rusting tears make your sword light!

    Ah! God of mercy how he turns away!

    So, ever must I dress me to the fight,

     

    “So—let God’s justice work! Gauwaine, I say,

    See me hew down your proofs: yea all men know

    Even as you said how Mellyagraunce one day,

     

    “One bitter day in la Fausse Garde, for so

    All good knights held it after, saw—

    Yea, sirs, by cursed unknightly outrage; though

     

    “You, Gauwaine, held his word without a flaw,

    This Mellyagraunce saw blood upon my bed—

    Whose blood then pray you? is there any law

     

    “To make a queen say why some spots of red

    Lie on her coverlet? or will you say,

    ‘Your hands are white, lady, as when you wed,

     

    “'Where did you bleed?’ and must I stammer out—

    Nay, I blush indeed, fair lord, only to rend

    My sleeve up to my shoulder, where there lay

     

    “'A knife-point last night:’ so must I defend

    The honour of the lady Guenevere?

    Not so, fair lords, even if the world should end

     

    “This very day, and you were judges here

    Instead of God. Did you see Mellyagraunce

    When Launcelot stood by him? what white fear

     

    “Curdled his blood, and how his teeth did dance,

    His side sink in? as my knight cried and said,

    ‘Slayer of unarm’d men, here is a chance!

     

    “'Setter of traps, I pray you guard your head,

    By God I am so glad to fight with you,

    Stripper of ladies, that my hand feels lead

     

    “'For driving weight; hurrah now! draw and do,

    For all my wounds are moving in my breast,

    And I am getting mad with waiting so.’

     

    “He struck his hands together o’er the beast,

    Who fell down flat, and grovell’d at his feet,

    And groan’d at being slain so young—’at least,’

     

    “My knight said, ‘Rise you, sir, who are so fleet

    At catching ladies, half-arm’d will I fight,

    My left side all uncovered!’ then I weet,

     

    “Up sprang Sir Mellyagraunce with great delight

    Upon his knave’s face; not until just then

    Did I quite hate him, as I saw my knight

     

    “Along the lists look to my stake and pen

    With such a joyous smile, it made me sigh

    From agony beneath my waist-chain, when

     

    “The fight began, and to me they drew nigh;

    Ever Sir Launcelot kept him on the right,

    And traversed warily, and ever high

     

    “And fast leapt caitiff’s sword, until my knight

    Sudden threw up his sword to his left hand,

    Caught it, and swung it; that was all the fight,

     

    “Except a spout of blood on the hot land;

    For it was hottest summer; and I know

    I wonder’d how the fire, while I should stand

     

    “And burn, against the heat, would quiver so,

    Yards above my head; thus these matters went;

    Which things were only warnings of the woe

     

    “That fell on me. Yet Mellyagraunce was shent,

    For Mellyagraunce had fought against the Lord;

    Therefore, my lords, take heed lest you be blent

     

    “With all this wickedness; say no rash word

    Against me, being so beautiful; my eyes,

    Wept all away to grey, may bring some sword

     

    “To drown you in your blood; see my breast rise,

    Like waves of purple sea, as here I stand;

    And how my arms are moved in wonderful wise,

     

    “Yea also at my full heart’s strong command,

    See through my long throat how the words go up

    In ripples to my mouth; how in my hand

     

    clipboard_e4337301507977f3fd508be6b1769a15a.png“The shadow likes like wine within a cup

    Of marvellously colour’d gold; yea now

    This little wind is rising, look you up,

     

    “And wonder how the light is falling so

    Within my moving tresses: will you dare,

    When you have looked a little on my brow,

     

    “To say this thing is vile? or will you care

    For any plausible lies of cunning woof,

    When you can see my face with no lie there

     

    “For ever? am I not a gracious proof—

    ‘But in your chamber Launcelot was found’—

    Is there a good knight then would stand aloof,

     

    “When a queen says with gentle queenly sound:

    ‘O true as steel come now and talk with me,

    I love to see your step upon the ground

     

    “’Unwavering, also well I love to see

    That gracious smile light up your face, and hear

    Your wonderful words, that all mean verily

     

    “'The thing they seem to mean: good friend, so dear

    To me in everything, come here to-night,

    Or else the hours will pass most dull and drear;

     

    “'If you come not, I fear this time I might

    Get thinking over much of times gone by,

    When I was young, and green hope was in sight;

     

    “'For no man cares now to know why I sigh;

    And no man comes to sing me pleasant songs,

    Nor any brings me the sweet flowers that lie

     

    “'So thick in the gardens; therefore one so longs

    To see you, Launcelot; that we may be

    Like children once again, free from all wrongs

     

    “'Just for one night.’ Did he not come to me?

    What thing could keep true Launcelot away

    If I said ‘come?’ there was one less than three

     

    “In my quiet room that night, and we were gay;

    Till sudden I rose up, weak, pale, and sick,

    Because a bawling broke our dream up, yea

     

    “I looked at Launcelot’s face and could not speak,

    For he looked helpless too, for a little while;

    Then I remember how I tried to shriek,

     

    “And could not, but fell down; from tile to tile

    The stones they threw up rattled o’er my head,

    And made me dizzier; till within a while

     

    “My maids were all about me, and my head

    On Launcelot’s breast was being soothed away

    From its white chattering, until Launcelot said—

     

    “By God! I will not tell you more to-day,

    Judge any way you will—what matters it?

    You know quite well the story of that fray,

     

    “How Launcelot still’d their bawling, the mad fit

    That caught up Gauwaine—all, all, verily,

    But just that which would save me; these things flit.

     

    “Nevertheless you, O Sir Gauwaine, lie,

    Whatever may have happen’d these long years,

    God knows I speak truth, saying that you lie!

     

    “All I have said is truth, by Christ’s dear tears.”

    She would not speak another word, but stood

    Turn’d sideways; listening, like a man who hears

     

    His brother’s trumpet sounding through the wood

    Of his foes’ lances. She lean’d eagerly,

    And gave a slight spring sometimes, as she could

     

    At last hear something really; joyfully

    Her cheek grew crimson, as the headlong speed

    Of the roan charger drew all men to see,

     

    The knight who came was Launcelot at good need.

     

    2.13.2: “The Haystack in the Floods”

    HAD she come all the way for this,

    To part at last without a kiss?

    Yea, had she borne the dirt and rain

    That her own eyes might see him slain

    Beside the haystack in the floods?

    Along the dripping leafless woods,

    The stirrup touching either shoe,

    She rode astride as troopers do;

    With kirtle kilted to her knee,

    To which the mud splash’d wretchedly;

    And the wet dripp’d from every tree

    Upon her head and heavy hair,

    And on her eyelids broad and fair;

    The tears and rain ran down her face.

     

    By fits and starts they rode apace,

    And very often was his place

    Far off from her; he had to ride

    Ahead, to see what might betide

    When the roads cross’d; and sometimes, when

    There rose a murmuring from his men,

    Had to turn back with promises;

    Ah me! she had but little ease;

    And often for pure doubt and dread

    She sobb’d, made giddy in the head

    By the swift riding; while, for cold,

    Her slender fingers scarce could hold

    The wet reins; yea, and scarcely, too,

    She felt the foot within her shoe

    Against the stirrup: all for this,

    To part at last without a kiss

    Beside the haystack in the floods.

     

    For when they near’d that old soak’d hay,

    They saw across the only way

    That Judas, Godmar, and the three.

    Red running lions dismally

    Grinn’d from his pennon, under which,

    In one straight line along the ditch,

    They counted thirty heads.

     

    So then,

    While Robert turn’d round to his men,

    She saw at once the wretched end,

    And, stooping down, tried hard to rend

    Her coif the wrong way from her head,

    And hid her eyes; while Robert said:

    Nay, love, ‘tis scarcely two to one,

    At Poictiers where we made them run

    So fast: why, sweet my love, good cheer,

    The Gascon frontier is so near,

    Nought after this.

     

    But, O, she said,

    My God! my God! I have to tread

    The long way back without you; then

    The court at Paris; those six men;

    The gratings of the Chatelet;

    The swift Seine on some rainy day

    Like this, and people standing by,

    And laughing, while my weak hands try

    To recollect how strong men swim.

    All this, or else a life with him,

    For which I should be damned at last,

    Would God that this next hour were past!

     

    He answer’d not, but cried his cry,

    St. George for Marny! cheerily;

    And laid his hand upon her rein.

    Alas! no man of all his train

    Gave back that cheery cry again;

    And, while for rage his thumb beat fast

    Upon his sword-hilts, some one cast

    About his neck a kerchief long,

    And bound him.

     

    Then they went along

    To Godmar; who said: Now, Jehane,

    Your lover’s life is on the wane

    So fast, that, if this very hour

    You yield not as my paramour,

    He will not see the rain leave off:

    Nay, keep your tongue from gibe and scoff,

    Sir Robert, or I slay you now.

    She laid her hand upon her brow,

    Then gazed upon the palm, as though

    She thought her forehead bled, and—No.

    She said, and turn’d her head away,

    As there were nothing else to say,

    And everything were settled: red

    Grew Godmar’s face from chin to head:

    Jehane, on yonder hill there stands

    My castle, guarding well my lands:

    What hinders me from taking you,

    And doing that I list to do

    To your fair wilful body, while

    Your knight lies dead?

     

    A wicked smile

    Wrinkled her face, her lips grew thin,

    A long way out she thrust her chin: go

    You know that I should strangle you

    While you were sleeping; or bite through

    Your throat, by God’s help: ah! she said,

    Lord Jesus, pity your poor maid!

    For in such wise they hem me in,

    I cannot choose but sin and sin,

    Whatever happens: yet I think

    They could not make me eat or drink,

    And so should I just reach my rest.

    Nay, if you do not my behest,

    O Jehane! though I love you well,

    Said Godmar, would I fail to tell

    All that I know. Foul lies,’ she said.

    Eh? lies my Jehane? by God’s head,

    At Paris folks would deem them true!

    Do you know, Jehane, they cry for you,

    “Jehane the brown! Jehane the brown!

    Give us Jehane to burn or drown!”—

    Eh—gag me Robert!—sweet my friend,

    This were indeed a piteous end no

    For those long fingers, and long feet,

    And long neck, and smooth shoulders sweet;

    An end that few men would forget

    That saw it—So, an hour yet:

    Consider, Jehane, which to take

    Of life or death!

     

    So, scarce awake,

    Dismounting, did she leave that place,

    And totter some yards: with her face

    Turn’d upward to the sky she lay,

    Her head on a wet heap of hay,

    And fell asleep: and while she slept,

    And did not dream, the minutes crept

    Round to the twelve again; but she,

    Being waked at last, sigh’d quietly,

    And strangely childlike came, and said: I will not.

    Straightway Godmar’s head,

    As though it hung on strong wires, turn’d

    Most sharply round, and his face burn’d.

     

    For Robert—both his eyes were dry,

    He could not weep, but gloomily

    He seem’d to watch the rain; yea, too,

    His lips were firm; he tried once more

    To touch her lips; she reach’d out, sore

    And vain desire so tortured them,

    The poor grey lips, and now the hem

    Of his sleeve brush’d them.

     

    With a start

    Up Godmar rose, thrust them apart;

    From Robert’s throat he loosed the bands

    Of silk and mail; with empty hands

    Held out, she stood and gazed, and saw,

    The long bright blade without a flaw

    Glide out from Godmar’s sheath, his hand

    In Robert’s hair; she saw him bend

    Back Robert’s head; she saw him send

    The thin steel down; the blow told well,

    Right backward the knight Robert fell,

    And moan’d as dogs do, being half dead,

    Unwitting, as I deem: so then

    Godmar turn’d grinning to his men,

    Who ran, some five or six, and beat

    His head to pieces at their feet.

     

    Then Godmar turn’d again and said:

    So, Jehane, the first fitte is read!

    Take note, my lady, that your way

    Lies backward to the Chatelet!

    She shook her head and gazed awhile

    At her cold hands with a rueful smile,

    As though this thing had made her mad.

     

    This was the parting that they had

    Beside the haystack in the floods.

    clipboard_eed1a3d896a79623c86849f9fa19bb299.png

     

    2.13.3: “How I Became a Socialist”

    I am asked by the Editor to give some sort of a history of the above conversion, and I feel that it may be of some use to do so, if my readers will look upon me as a type of a certain group of people, but not so easy to do clearly, briefly and truly. Let me, however, try. But first, I will say what I mean by being a Socialist, since I am told that the word no longer expresses definitely and with certainty what it did ten years ago. Well, what I mean by Socialism is a condition of society in which there should be neither rich nor poor, neither master nor master’s man, neither idle nor overworked, neither brain-sick brain workers, nor heart-sick hand workers, in a word, in which all men would be living in equality of condition, and would manage their affairs unwastefully, and with the full consciousness that harm to one would mean harm to all—the realization at last of the meaning of the word COMMONWEALTH.

    Now this view of Socialism which I hold to-day, and hope to die holding, is what I began with; I had no transitional period, unless you may call such a brief period of political radicalism during which I saw my ideal clear enough, but had no hope of any realization of it. That came to an end some months before I joined the (then) Democratic Federation, and the meaning of my joining that body was that I had conceived a hope of the realization of my ideal. If you ask me how much of a hope, or what I thought we Socialists then living and working would accomplish towards it, or when there would be effected any change in the face of society, I must say, I do not know. I can only say that I did not measure my hope, nor the joy that it brought me at the time. For the rest, when I took that step I was blankly ignorant of economics; I had never so much as opened Adam Smith, or heard of Ricardo, or of Karl Marx. Oddly enough, I had read some of Mill, to wit, those posthumous papers of his (published, was it in the Westminster Review or the Fortnightly?) in which he attacks Socialism in its Fourierist guise. In those papers he put the arguments, as far as they go, clearly and honestly, and the result, so far as I was concerned, was to convince me that Socialism was a necessary change, and that it was possible to bring it about in our own days. Those papers put the finishing touch to my conversion to Socialism. Well, having joined a Socialist body (for the Federation soon became definitely Socialist), I put some conscience into trying to learn the economical side of Socialism, and even tackled Marx, though I must confess that, whereas I thoroughly enjoyed the historical part of Capital, I suffered agonies of confusion of the brain over reading the pure economics of that great work. Anyhow, I read what I could, and will hope that some information stuck to me from my reading; but more, I must think, from continuous conversation with such friends as Bax and Hyndman and Scheu, and the brisk course of propaganda meetings which were going on at the time, and in which I took my share. Such finish to what of education in practical Socialism as I am capable of I received afterwards from some of my Anarchist friends, from whom I learned, quite against their intention, that Anarchism was impossible, much as I learned from Mill against his intention that Socialism was necessary.

    But in this telling how I fell into practical Socialism I have begun, as I perceive, in the middle, for in my position of a well-to-do man, not suffering from the disabilities which oppress a working man at every step, I feel that I might never have been drawn into the practical side of the question if an ideal had not forced me to seek towards it. For politics as politics, i.e., not regarded as a necessary if cumbersome and disgustful means to an end, would never have attracted me, nor when I had become conscious of the wrongs of society as it now is, and the oppression of poor people, could I have ever believed in the possibility of a partial setting right of those wrongs. In other words, I could never have been such a fool as to believe in the happy and “respectable” poor.

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    If, therefore, my ideal forced me to look for practical Socialism, what was it that forced me to conceive of an ideal? Now, here comes in what I said of my being (in this paper) a type of a certain group of mind.

    Before the uprising of modern Socialism almost all intelligent people either were, or professed themselves to be, quite contented with the civilization of this century. Again, almost all of these really were thus contented, and saw nothing to do but to perfect the said civilization by getting rid of a few ridiculous survivals of the barbarous ages. To be short, this was the Whig frame of mind, natural to the modern prosperous middle-class men, who, in fact, as far as mechanical progress is concerned, have nothing to ask for, if only Socialism would leave them alone to enjoy their plentiful style.

    But besides these contented ones there were others who were not really contented, but had a vague sentiment of repulsion to the triumph of civilization, but were coerced into silence by the measureless power of Whiggery. Lastly, there were a few who were in open rebellion against the said Whiggery—a few, say two, Carlyle and Ruskin. The latter, before my days of practical Socialism, was my master towards the ideal aforesaid, and, looking backward, I cannot help saying, by the way, how deadly dull the world would have been twenty years ago but for Ruskin! It was through him that I learned to give form to my discontent, which I must say was not by any means vague. Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization. What shall I say of it now, when the words are put into my mouth, my hope of its destruction—what shall I say of its supplanting by Socialism?

    What shall I say concerning its mastery of and its waste of mechanical power, its commonwealth so poor, its enemies of the commonwealth so rich, its stupendous organization—for the misery of life! Its contempt of simple pleasures which everyone could enjoy but for its folly? Its eyeless vulgarity which has destroyed art, the one certain solace of labour? All this I felt then as now, but I did not know why it was so. The hope of the past times was gone, the struggles of mankind for many ages had produced nothing but this sordid, aimless, ugly confusion; the immediate future seemed to me likely to intensify all the present evils by sweeping away the last survivals of the days before the dull squalor of civilization had settled down on the world. This was a bad look-out indeed, and, if I may mention myself as a personality and not as a mere type, especially so to a man of my disposition, careless of metaphysics and religion, as well as of scientific analysis, but with a deep love of the earth and the life on it, and a passion for the history of the past of mankind. Think of it! Was it all to end in a counting-house on the top of a cinder-heap, with Podsnap’s drawing-room in the offing, and a Whig committee dealing out champagne to the rich and margarine to the poor in such convenient proportions as would make all men contented together, though the pleasure of the eyes was gone from the world, and the place of Homer was to be taken by Huxley? Yet, believe me, in my heart, when I really forced myself to look towards the future, that is what I saw in it, and, as far as I could tell, scarce anyone seemed to think it worth while to struggle against such a consummation of civilization. So there I was in for a fine pessimistic end of life, if it had not somehow dawned on me that amidst all this filth of civilization the seeds of a great change, what we others call Social-Revolution, were beginning to germinate. The whole face of things was changed to me by that discovery, and all I had to do then in order to become a Socialist was to hook myself on to the practical movement, which, as before said, I have tried to do as well as I could.

    To sum up, then the study of history and the love and practice of art forced me into a hatred of the civilization which, if things were to stop as they are, would turn history into inconsequent nonsense, and make art a collection of the curiosities of the past, which would have no serious relation to the life of the present.

    But the consciousness of revolution stirring amidst our hateful modern society prevented me, luckier than many others of artistic perceptions, from crystallizing into a mere railer against “progress” on the one hand, and on the other from wasting time and energy in any of the numerous schemes by which the quasi-artistic of the middle classes hope to make art grow when it has no longer any root, and thus I became a practical Socialist.

    A last word or two. Perhaps some of our friends will say, what have we to do with these matters of history and art? We want by means of Social-Democracy to win a decent livelihood, we want in some sort to live, and that at once. Surely any one who professes to think that the question of art and cultivation must go before that of the knife and fork (and there are some who do propose that) does not understand what art means, or how that its roots must have a soil of a thriving and unanxious life. Yet it must be remembered that civilization has reduced the workman to such a skinny and pitiful existence, that he scarcely knows how to frame a desire for any life much better than that which he now endures perforce. It is the province of art to set the true ideal of a full and reasonable life before him, a life to which the perception and creation of beauty, the enjoyment of real pleasure that is, shall be felt to be as necessary to man as his daily bread, and that no man, and no set of men, can be deprived of this except by mere opposition, which should be resisted to the utmost.

     

    2.13.4: Reading and Review Questions

    1. What, if any, visual effects do these poems use, and why? How do they affect your understanding of the poems’ meaning?
    2. What moral, or ethical, situations do the poems’ characters face, and why? What comment, if any, do their actions make on morality in general?
    3. Do these poems address the social and cultural position of women? Are they sympathetic to women’s issues? How do you know?
    4. Considering their focus on the past, might these works be considered escapist? Why, or why not?
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