One issue that has divided critics of News from Nowhere over the years is whether William Guest returns as a more effective fighter for communism as a result of what he has experienced in Morris’s utopia. Norman Talbot had no doubt about this, informing us in 1990 that ‘Guest is back among us, more resolute than ever’. But there are dissenting voices too, for example Barbara Gribble, who in 1985 announced sternly that ‘one expects him to take up once again his former and ineffectual habits’. Closer inspection of the text won’t necessarily resolve this dispute. If Guest does indeed appear rejuvenated on the upper Thames (which lends itself to the Talbot reading), he also gets hopelessly infatuated with a girl 36 years younger than himself and still loses his temper – ‘damned flunkies ... damned thieves’ (ch.XXIII) – just as he did at the Socialist League meeting – factors which suggest that Gribble may be right after all.
Is it an appropriate interpretive procedure to turn to related moments in other Morris works for guidance here? In the 1857 poem ‘Spell-Bound’, for instance, the speaker tells us that ‘when the vision from me slips,/In colourless dawn I lie and moan,/And wander forth with fever’d blood,/That makes me start at little things’. One can be so traumatised by the loss of dream-vision, whether that be of a romantic or a political nature, that one stumbles round distraught and disconsolate thereafter. ‘Starting at little things’ isn’t entirely negative, since much of the strength of Morris’s early poetry comes from its attention to intense, fragmented perceptions and details. But it hardly sounds like a very effective way of organising a political movement, which is presumably what Guest ought to be doing when he gets back home. I’ve suggested in earlier posts that we might use material from Morris’s late romances to interpret details in News from Nowhere; and it may be that his early poetry can come to our assistance in this respect too.