Monday, 24 December 2012

This Wild Christmas-Eve

In Morris’s early poem ‘The Blue Closet’ Lady Alice informs us that ‘They give us leave,/Once every year on Christmas-eve,/To sing in the Closet Blue one song’, so those four enigmatic women - two queens and two damozels - are presumably at their eerie song even as I write.

The motif of female imprisonment in a tower comes to Morris from Tennyson, from ‘The Lady of Shalott’ above all, though that motif is part of a broader cluster of poems concerned with imprisonment and breakout in Tennyson (‘Mariana’, ‘Kraken’, ‘Palace of Art’, ‘Ulysses’). A quick structural analysis reveals the deep ambivalences at work here: imprisonment is stifling (obviously) but also protective (external dangers cannot get at you), while break-out is the jubilant emergence of an authentic self (obviously) but also, more unexpectedly, lethal, as for the Lady of Shalott, the Kraken and Ulysses.

I’ve sometimes felt that for every poet you could knock up a little analytic machine comprising a founding binary opposition with profound ambivalences on either side of it which would, at the level of deep structure, generate poem after poem on the surface. I try to show how this works around issues of higher versus lower reality in my undergraduate lecture on W.B. Yeats, for example. So could Morris’s early poetry, so close anyway to Tennyson’s in thematic content, be subject to a similar analysis? To some extent, yes: his ‘Golden Wings’ works exactly like ‘The Lady of Shalott’ or ‘The Kraken’ (you break out but die in the process).

Yet what is novel about Morris’s treatment of these issues is that there is typically not one but two imprisoned consciousnesses (one male, one female, as in ‘Spell-Bound’ or even ‘The Blue Closet’ itself), which strain longingly towards each other across an impossible distance: ‘Yet now I wait, and you wait too,/For what perchance may never come’.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Jane Morris on my Grandad

2012 has been the centenary of the great miners’ strike of 1912, the biggest strike the world had seen at that point in history, with around a million workers taking part. My paternal grandfather, Henry Smith Pinkney, was born into a mining family in the north-east of England in 1894, so in 1912 he was 18 years old and a miner himself. It seems highly likely (particularly in view of his later membership of the Communist Party) that he was an eager participant in that strike, though I have no documentary proof of this.

So I’m glad to find Jane Morris writing on 4 March 1912: ‘miners ought to be paid at least twice as much as they seem to get, and all the owners & Jews & financiers & idle rich people generally ought to work in the mines at least one day a week, perhaps by this means a little sympathy might be produced between the different classes’ (p.451). Her comment is certainly not as radical as Morris himself on the 1893 miners’ strike, and rather more in the spirit of that class-collaborationist handshake between foreman and boss at the end of Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis. But even so, I’m delighted that Jane Morris broadly sympathised with my Grandad’s political activities in the early years of the twentieth century.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Friend of Engels

It is good that we have Members of Parliament participating in debates about the contemporary cultural relevance of Ruskin and Morris: Caroline Lucas for the Greens on Morris, Tristram Hunt (pictured) for Labour on Ruskin here at Lancaster the other day. His lively talk on ‘Ruskin, Engels and the City’ explored the thinking of both men about the city’s spatial dynamics under capitalism, and the shapes of its possible regeneration beyond that exploitative economic system.

During Hunt’s talk I occasionally found my mind drifting off to E.P. Thompson’s provocative 1976 description of Morris as ‘the friend of Engels’ (p.818). As a way of emphasising Morris’s intellectual and political importance, that is certainly an effective slogan; but how accurate is it? After all, I can’t quite imagine William and Friedrich having a quiet, matey afternoon together fishing for pike and perch at Kelmscott. They certainly had close consultations as Morris and his allies planned their break from the SDF in late 1884, and during these the two men discovered their shared love for old Norse literature, which might have become the basis of a genuine friendship. But Engels’s later dismissive phrases about Morris – ‘settled sentimental socialist’ – quickly come to mind at this point.

This is not just a scholarly issue, but also, I think, a problem of form, of mode of writing – and perhaps more an opportunity than a problem. Academic expository prose has probably reached its limits here, and we might now be able to learn more about the Engels-Morris relationship by dramatising it, by writing a play based on and heuristically exploring those tense months as the project for the Socialist League took shape. After all, at a socialist entertainment on 21 November 1884 Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx, themselves key participants in the SDF break-up, acted in a play based on their own colourful lives, so we do have some warrant for this approach from the period itself. Any creative writing volunteers out there?

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Limericks in Utopia

2012 is not just the bi-centenary of Robert Browning (whose poetic relationship to Morris Peter Faulkner and I will be exploring in the Coach House on Saturday), but of Edward Lear too, whose great contribution to English literature is, of course, the limerick. Dante Gabriel Rossetti had quite a flair for limericks too, usually a good deal more malicious in nature than Lear’s genially nonsensical ones, and even Morris tried his hand at one or two as well.

Will the limerick survive in utopia? Who knows: utopia will be such a profound transvaluation of values (and genres) that we cannot legislate on this in advance. But I found that, on a recent re-reading of Morris’s utopia, some scenes were shaping themselves into the form of limericks in my mind, so I offer them here as my own small contribution to the Edward Lear bi-centenary.


There was an old man in utopia
Who said to the Guest, ‘I hope you are
Not disappointed, though
Society goes so slow’,
That grumbling old man in utopia.


The Obstinate Refusers
Thought all other utopians were losers;
They worked with obsession
And refused all digression,
Did Phillippa and her Refusers.

Is it just accident that it is two of the more dissonant moments in Morris’s Nowhere that seem to lend themselves to this curious literary form? I don’t know. Try inventing some of your own and we might find out.