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William Morris

(1834—1896) designer, author, and visionary socialist

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was articled to the architect G. E. Street, and in 1858 worked with Rossetti, Burne‐Jones, and others on the frescoes in the Oxford Union. He was one of the originators of the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine (1856). In 1858 he published The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems, which includes ‘The Haystack in the Floods’, ‘Concerning Geffray Teste Noire’, ‘Shameful Death’, and ‘Golden Wings’, poems marked by a striking mixture of beauty and brutality, all with medieval settings. In 1859 he married Jane Burden, one of the most painted Pre‐Raphaelite ‘stunners’; their home, Red House at Bexley, was designed by Philip Webb, and was an important landmark in domestic architecture. The failure to find suitable furniture for it strengthened Morris's growing hatred of industrial ‘shoddy’, and led to the founding, together with Rossetti, Burne‐Jones, Webb, Madox Brown, and others, of the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkener and Co. This firm produced furniture, printed textiles, tapestries, wallpapers, and stained glass; its designs brought about a complete revolution in public taste. In 1867 he published The Life and Death of Jason, a poem in heroic couplets, and in 1868–70 appeared The Earthly Paradise, which established him as one of the most popular poets of the day. In 1871 he took a joint tenancy of Kelmscott Manor with Rossetti, wrote the poem Love is Enough (1872), and visited Iceland, which stimulated his interest in the heroic themes of Icelandic literature. His epic Sigurd the Volsung appeared in 1876.

From this time on he turned increasingly towards political activity; in 1883 he joined the Social Democratic Federation, the doctrine of which, largely under his leadership, developed into socialism. On its disruption in 1884 he became head of the seceders, who organized themselves as the Socialist League. His later works, with the exception of Poems by the Way (1891) and Chants for Socialists (1884–5), were mainly in prose, and most remarkable among them were A Dream of John Ball (1888) and News from Nowhere (1891), both socialist fantasies cast in a dream setting. He also wrote several historical romances set in the distant past of northern Europe. These include The House of the Wolfings (1889), The Roots of the Mountains (1890), The Story of the Glittering Plain (1890), The Wood beyond the World (1894), and The Sundering Flood (1898). All were published by the Kelmscott Press, which he had founded at Hammersmith in 1890, and for which he designed founts of type and ornamental letters and borders. The Press also published other works by Morris, reprints of English classics (including Caxton's The Golden Legend and the Kelmscott Chaucer), and various smaller books by other authors. Morris's view that ‘the true incentive to useful and happy labour is, and must be, pleasure in the work itself’ links his political and artistic aspirations, both of which have remained profoundly influential. Morris published many other works, including translations of the Aeneid (1875) and the Odyssey (1887); he collaborated with E. Magnusson in translations from the Icelandic. His letters were edited by P. Henderson (1950).


Subjects: Literature

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