Wednesday, February 15, 2017

many Morrises

Yes, that's the Cambridge Library Edition of William Morris — a nicely-produced, print-on-demand reprint of the twenty-four volume Collected Works his daughter May Morris edited early in the last century.

I will admit that I was hoping for something rather more sumptuous in this edition; something more like the Ruskin Library Edition, with its endlessly informative introductions and its scrupulous footnotes. May Morris contents herself with reprinting the final versions of each of her father's texts, making note of some (but by no means all) of the variants in her intros. There are no footnotes, no illustrations to speak of. The typography is gorgeous, it's true, but this is a reading edition, not a state-of-the-art scholarly edition — as the Ruskin, over a hundred years after its publication, still remains.

It's taken me a long time to come around to reading Morris, I'll admit, and I wonder why. He's always been there in the background of my consciousness. Maybe, I reflect, it's because there are so many Morrises — a different William Morris for every interest.

•For those of us with radical tendencies, there's Morris the socialist. I'm also reading EP Thompson's biography of WM, in its second, revised 1977 edition. Thompson notes that he's ratcheted down the Marxism of the first 1950s edition, and has shortened the book, cutting out some of the details of Morris's socialist activities. But it's still over 800 pages long, jam-packed with analyses of Morris's readings of Marx, of how his work with the "anti-scrape" preservation society dovetails with his reading of Ruskin's socially-inflected work, etc. Morris is a foundational figure in English leftism, and there's no getting around that.

•Morris the socialist bleeds into Morris the proto-alternative-history novelist, author of News from Nowhere, the one text of his that remains in print in the most editions. This one I happened to have read a few years back, with some enjoyment, though it's a book that's frankly rather devoid of tension or incident.

•For readers of Architectural Digest, "Morris" means a kind of chair, or a family of wallpaper and fabric patterns — Morris the designer. That's probably the most widely known Morris. His design firm, founded in part to put into practice the craft-oriented principles of Ruskin's "The Nature of Gothic," ended up producing a kind of ubiquitous late-Victorian environmental decor.

•There's Morris the rather interesting poet: the poems of The Defence of Guenevere, his first book, are quite excellent, tense exercises in Victorian medievalism. He's no Tennyson in music, and no Browning in psychological penetration, but there are some really wonderful moments throughout these poems. The longer narrative things — I've just embarked on Jason, volume 2 of the set — are far more languid, so far as I can tell, but still highly readable.

•And then there's Morris the fantasist. My friends in the fantasy scholarship world recognize this Morris first and foremost: the guy who wrote these long prose romances like The Waters of the Wondrous Isle and The Wood Beyond the World. Thompson spends about six pages on these books, which take up several volumes in the Cambridge edition, but which loom far larger in the imagination of fantasy buffs (thanks largely I think to JRR Tolkien's enthusiasm for them).

•Morris the translator: When he wasn't writing epic poems or vast prose romances, or designing furniture or weaving tapestries, Morris translated the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and a stack of Icelandic sagas — in the process introducing the sagas to the English-speaking world. The classical translations are no better than okay (LZ cites some in A Test of Poetry), but the sagas are quite impressive.

In short, at least 6 overlapping Morrises, one it seems for almost any audience. I've known about each of them for ages, but they've never quite coalesced in my imagination into a single figure. Now they're beginning to, and I'm becoming more and more impressed with the man's energy and breadth.

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