Wednesday, 26 July 2017

William Morris's Tennyson Obituary

One of the founding impulses of this blog way back in 2007 was a sense of the unfinishedness of Morris’s oeuvre, both literary and political – the former entailing further creative writing on our part, the latter new projects of social involvement.  However, I’ve perhaps lost sight of that literary unfinishedness in recent years, so a minor example comes opportunely to hand to remind me of it. On 7 October 1892, the day after Tennyson’s death, Morris wrote to George Bernard Shaw: ‘Just think if I were still Editor of Commonweal I should have had to write something about Tennyson.  As it is I needn’t and flatly, as you have guessed, I won’t’ (Kelvin, III, 453).

Well, he won’t, but we could.  Would it be worth an effort at drafting this Tennyson obituary that never happened?  We have the three articles on Tennyson which William Fulford contributed to the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine in 1856 to give us a pretty good idea of what Morris and his set made of his verse in those early days.  But what of the later, socialist Morris?  Can we speculate and set out at some length how his views of Tennyson might have developed?  And if we accept Norman Kelvin’s editorial suggestion here that ‘Apparently Shaw wanted to interview Morris about Tennyson’, we might even cast our creative writing project into that particular format, which will require us to ventriloquise the nimble wit of Shaw’s questions as well as the ponderous content of Morris’s answers.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Gestures in Literature

In what has over the years become my favourite Roland Barthes book, his theoretical autobiography Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (1975), the great French critic notes his fondness for a phrase from Charles Baudelaire: ‘la vérité emphatique du geste dans les grandes circonstances de la vie’ (p.121).  It is a formulation that might make us tot up some of the most memorable gestures across Morris’s literary works, from Guenevere’s ‘passionate twisting’ in the early poetry onwards.

I’m particularly taken by Ellen’s unusual gesture as she stands on a bank of the upper Thames in News from Nowhere, ‘one hand laid on her bosom, the other arm stretched downward and clenched in its earnestness’ (ch.XXIX); for that clenched fist is a powerful statement of how much reforming political passion there may still be at work in Morris’s apparently settled utopia.

But the most spectacular gesture – or rather, series of gestures – in all Morris must surely be that enacted by Ralph in The Well at the World’s End, which thoroughly lives up to what Barthes terms an ‘excès de pose’: ‘he drew himself up, and his brows were knit a little ... He half drew the sword from the scabbard, and sent it back rattling ... he upreared his head and looked around him on this and that one of the warriors of the aliens, and he sniffed the air into his nostrils as he stood alone amongst them, and set his foot down hard on the floor of the King’s hall, and his armour rattled upon him’ (Bk 4, ch.9).  'Excès de pose' indeed: I shall have to try this myself next time I attend a William Morris Society AGM.