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   Chapter 1 BOYHOOD.

William Morris By Elizabeth Luther Cary Characters: 28018

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


There is, perhaps, no single work by William Morris that stands out as a masterpiece in evidence of his individual genius. He was not impelled to give peculiar expression to his own personality. His writing was seldom emotionally autobiographic as Rossetti's always was, his painting and designing were not the expression of a personal mood as was the case with Burne-Jones. But no one of his special time and group gave himself more fully or more freely for others. No one contributed more generously to the public pleasure and enlightenment. No one tried with more persistent effort first to create and then to satisfy a taste for the possible best in the lives and homes of the people. He worked toward this end in so many directions that a lesser energy than his must have been dissipated and a weaker purpose rendered impotent. His tremendous vitality saved him from the most humiliating of failures, the failure to make good extravagant promise. He never lost sight of the result in the endeavour, and his discontent with existing mediocrity was neither formless nor empty. It was the motive power of all his labour; he was always trying to make everything "something different from what it was," and this instinct was, alike for strength and weakness, says his chief biographer, "of the very essence of his nature." To tell the story of his life is to write down the record of dreams made real, of nebulous theories brought swiftly to the test of experiment, of the spirit of the distant past reincarnated in the present. But, as with most natures of similar mould, the man was greater than any part of his work, and even greater than the sum of it all. He remains one of the not-to-be-forgotten figures of the nineteenth century, so interesting was he, so impressive, so simple-hearted, so nearly adequate to the great tasks he set himself, so well beloved by his companions, so useful, despite his blunders, to society at large.

The unity that held together his manifold forms of expression was maintained through the different periods of his life, making him a "whole man" to a more than usual degree. From the earliest recorded incidents of his childhood we gain an impression not unlike that made by his latest years, and by all the interval between. The very opposite of Rossetti, with whose "school" he has been so long and so mistakenly identified, his nature was as single as his accomplishment was complex, and the only means by which it is possible to get a just idea of both the former and the latter is to regard him as a man of one preoccupation amounting to an obsession, the reconstruction of social and industrial life according to an ideal based upon the more poetic aspects of the Middle Ages. From first to last the early English world, the English world of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, was the world to which he belonged. "Born out of his due time," in truth, he began almost from his birth to accumulate associations with the time to which he should have been native and whose far off splendour lured him constantly back toward it.

The third of nine children, he was born at Walthamstow, in Essex, England, on the 24th of March, 1834. On the Morris side he came of Welsh ancestry, a fact accounting perhaps for the mingled gloom and romance of his temperament. His father was a discount broker in opulent circumstances, and his mother was descended from a family of prosperous merchants and landed proprietors. On the maternal side a strong talent for music existed, but in the Morris family no more artistic quality can be traced than a devotion to general excellence, to which William Morris certainly fell heir. For a time he was a sickly child, and used the opportunity to advance his reading, being "already deep in the Waverley novels" when four years old, and having gone through these and many others before he was seven.

In 1840 the family removed to Woodford Hall, a house belonging to the Georgian period, standing in about fifty acres of park, on the road from London to Epping, and here Morris led an outdoor life with the result of rapidly establishing his health, steeping mind and sense in the sights and sounds of nature dear to him forever after, and gaining intimate acquaintance with the romantic and medi?val surroundings by which his whole career was to be influenced. The county of Essex was well adapted to feed his prodigious appetite for antiquities. Its churches, in numbers of which Norman masonry is to be found, its ancient brasses (that of the schoolboy Thomas Heron being among many others within easy reach of Woodford), and its tapestry-hung houses, all stimulated his inborn love of the Middle Ages and started him fairly on that path through the thirteenth century which he followed deviously as long as he lived. Even in his own home, we are told, certain of the habits of medi?val England persisted, such as the brewing of beer, the meal of cakes and ale at "high prime," the keeping of Twelfth Night, and other such festivals. The places he lived in counted for much with him always, and the impressions of this childish period remained, like all his later impressions, keen and permanent. Toward the end of his life he printed at the Kelmscott Press the carol Good King Wenceslas, which begins with a lusty freshness:

Good King Wenceslas look'd out,

On the feast of Stephen,

When the snow lay round about,

Deep and crisp and even.

Brightly shone the moon that night,

Though the frost was cruel,

When a poor man came in sight

Gath'ring winter fuel.

"The legend itself," he comments, "is a pleasing and genuine one, and the Christmas-like quality of it, recalling the times of my boyhood, appeals to me at least as a memory of past days."

Beside angling, shooting, and riding, he very early occupied much of his time with visits to the old churches, a pursuit of which he was never to weary, studying their monuments and accumulating an amount of genuine erudition concerning them quite out of proportion to his rather moderate accomplishment along the ordinary lines of study. At an age when Scott was scouring his native heath in search of Border ballads and antiquities, this almost equally precocious boy was collecting rubbings from ancient inscriptions, and picturing to himself, as he wandered about the region of his home on foot or on horseback, the lovely face of England as it looked in the thirteenth or fourteenth century. In one of the earliest of the boyish romances that appeared in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, he imagines himself the master-mason of a church built more than six centuries before, and which has vanished from the face of the earth with nothing to indicate its existence save earth-covered ruins "heaving the yellow corn into glorious waves." His description of the carving on the bas-reliefs of the west front and on the tombs shows with what loving intensity he has studied the most minute details of the work of the ancient builders in whose footsteps he would have rejoiced much to tread. How far his family sympathised with his tastes it is impossible to say, but probably not deeply. We have few hints of the personal side of his home-life; we know that a visit to Canterbury Cathedral with his father was among the indelible experiences of his first decade, and that he possessed among his toys a little suit of armour in which he rode about the park after the manner of a Froissart knight, and that is about all we do know until we hear of the strong disapproval of his mother and one of his sisters for the career that finally diverted his interest from the Church for which they had designed him.

His formal education began when he was sent at the age of nine to a preparatory school kept by a couple of maiden ladies. There he remained until the death of his father in 1847. In February, 1848, he went to Marlborough College, a nomination to which his father had purchased for him. The best that can be said for this school seems to be that it was situated in a part of England ideally suited to a boy of arch?ological tastes, and was provided with an excellent arch?ological and architectural library. Here his eager mind browsed on the literature of English Gothic, and his restless feet carried him far afield among pre-Celtic barrows, stone circles, and Roman villas. Savernake Forest was close at hand and he spent many of his holidays within it. It was doubtless the familiarity with all aspects of the woods, due to his pilgrimages through Savernake and Epping Forests and the long roving days idled away among their shadows, that gave rise to the allusions in his books-early and late-to woodland life. The passage through the thick wood and the coming at last to the place where the trees thin out and the light begins to shimmer through them is a constantly recurring figure of his verse and of his prose. Frequently the important scene of a romance or of a long poem is laid in a wildwood, as in the story entitled The Wood beyond the World, or in Goldilocks and Goldilocks, the concluding poem of the volume of Poems by the Way, in which the great grey boles of the trees, the bramble bush, the "woodlawn clear," and the cherished oaks are as vivid as the human actors in the drama. His heroes seldom fail of being deft woodsmen, able to thread the tangle of underbrush by blind paths, and observant of all the common sights and sounds of the woodland, rabbits scuttling out of the grass, adders sunning themselves on stones in the cleared spaces, wild swine running grunting toward close covert, hart and hind bounding across the way. They know the musty savour of water dipped from a forest brook, they know how to go straight to the yew sticks that quarter best for bow-staves, they know the feeling of the boggy moss under their feet, and the sound of the "iron wind" through the branches in the depth of winter; there is no detail of wild wood life of which they are ignorant. This intimacy with Nature in her most secluded moments, in her shyest and most mysterious aspect, forms an element of inexpressible charm in the lovely backgrounds against which Morris delighted to place his visionary figures. He never tired of combining the impressions stored away in his mind on his boyish rambles into pictures the delicate beauty of which can hardly be overestimated.

While he was at school, his already highly developed imagination found an outlet in constant fable-making, his tales of knights and fairies and miraculous adventures having a considerable popularity among his comrades, with whom, however, he himself was not especially popular, making friends with them only in a superficial fashion. Judging from the autobiographic fragments occasionally found in his work, he was a boy of many moods, most of them tinged with the self-conscious melancholy of his early poetry. Sentiment was strong with him, and a peculiar reticence or detachment of temperament kept him independent of others during his school years, and apparently uninfluenced by the tastes or opinions of those about him, if we except the case of his Anglo-Catholic proclivities, which obviously were fed by the tendencies of the school, but which, so far from diverting him from the general scheme of his individual interests, fitted into them and served him as another link between the present and the much preferred past.

Outwardly he can hardly have seemed the typical dreamer he has described himself as being. Beautiful of feature, of sturdy build, with a shouting voice, extraordinary muscular strength, and a gusty temper, he impressed himself upon his comrades chiefly by his impetuosity in the energetic game of singlestick, by the surplus vigour that led him at times to punch his own head with all his might to "take it out of himself," and by the vehemence and enthusiasm of his argumentative talk.

He was little of a student along the orthodox lines, and Marlborough College was not calculated to increase his respect-never undue-for pedagogic methods. A letter written when he was sixteen to his eldest and favourite sister reflects quite fully his pre-occupations. It has none of the genuine wit and literary tone of the juvenile letter written by Stevenson to his father, presenting his claims for reimbursements. It shows no such zest for bookish pursuits as Rossetti's letters, written at the same age, reveal. But it is entirely free from the shallow flippancy that frequently characterises the correspondence of a young man's second decade-that characterised Lowell's, for example, to an almost painful degree; nor has it a shade of the self-magnification to which any amount of flippancy is preferable. It is straightforward and boyish, and remarkable only as showing the thorough and intelligent method with which its writer followed up whatever commanded his interest. Commencing with the description of an anthem sung at Easter by the trained choir of Blore's Chapel connected with his school, he passes on to an account of his arch?ological investigations, giving after his characteristic fashion all the small details necessary to enable his correspondent to form a definite picture of the places he had visited. After he had made one pilgrimage to the Druidical circle and Roman entrenchment at Avebury, he had learned of the peculiar method of placing the stones which, from the dislocated condition of the ruins, had not been obvious to him. Therefore he had returned on the following day to study it out and fix the original arrangement firmly in his imagination, and, at the time of writing the letter, was able to explain it quite clearly, a result, derived from the expenditure of two holidays, that was completely satisfactory to him. He winds up with a purely boyish plea for a "good large cake" and some biscuit in addition to a cheese that had been promised him, and for paper and postage stamps and his silkworm eggs and a pen box to be sent him from home.

At school he was "always thinking about ho

me," and when the family moved again to Walthamstow, within a short distance of his first home, and to a house boasting a moat and a wooded island, he was eagerly responsive to the poetic suggestions conveyed by these romantic accessories. When at the end of 1851 he left school to prepare under a private tutor for Oxford, he renewed his early familiarity with Epping Forest and spent most of his holidays among the trees that had not apparently changed since the time of Edward the Confessor. The great age of the wood and its peculiarly English character made a profound impression upon him, and it is easy to imagine the fury with which he must have received the suggestion, made forty years later by Mr. Alfred Wallace, that in place of "a hideous assemblage of stunted mop-like pollards rising from a thicket of scrubby bushes," North American trees should be planted and a part of the forest made into an "almost exact copy" of North American woodland. Indeed, a suppressed but unmistakable fury breathes from the letters written to the Daily Chronicle, as late as 1895, regarding the tree-felling that was going on ruthlessly in the forest, destroying its native character and individual charm. These letters, curiously recalling those written half a century before concerning boyish excursions through the same region, are well worth quoting here, where properly they belong, as they are inspired by the earliest of the associations and ideals cherished by Morris to the end of his life. They are fine examples of his own native character in argument, his humbly didactic tone early caught from Ruskin and never relinquished, his militant irony, his willingness to fortify his position by painstaking investigation, his moral attitude toward matters artistic, his superb rightness of taste in the special problem under discussion. They show also how closely his memory had held through his manifold interests the details that had appealed to him in his boyhood. The first letter is dated April 23rd, and addressed to the editor of the Daily Chronicle.

"Sir: I venture to ask you to allow me a few words on the subject of the present treatment of Epping Forest. I was born and bred in its neighbourhood (Walthamstow and Woodford), and when I was a boy and young man I knew it yard by yard from Wanstead to the Theydons, and from Hale End to the Fairlop Oak. In those days it had no worse foes than the gravel stealer and the rolling-fence maker, and was always interesting and often very beautiful. From what I can hear it is years since the greater part of it has been destroyed, and I fear, Sir, that in spite of your late optimistic note on the subject, what is left of it now runs the danger of further ruin.

"The special character of it was derived from the fact that by far the greater part was a wood of hornbeams, a tree not common save in Essex and Herts. It was certainly the biggest hornbeam wood in these islands, and I suppose in the world. The said hornbeams were all pollards, being shrouded every four or six years, and were interspersed in many places with holly thickets, and the result was a very curious and characteristic wood, such as can be seen nowhere else. And I submit that no treatment of it can be tolerable which does not maintain this hornbeam wood intact.

"But the hornbeam, though an interesting tree to an artist and reasonable person, is no favourite with the landscape gardener, and I very much fear that the intention of the authorities is to clear the forest of native trees, and to plant vile weeds like deodars and outlandish conifers instead. We are told that a committee of 'experts' has been formed to sit in judgment on Epping Forest; but, Sir, I decline to be gagged by the word 'expert,' and I call on the public generally to take the same position. An 'expert' may be a very dangerous person, because he is likely to narrow his views to the particular business (usually a commercial one) which he represents. In this case, for instance, we do not want to be under the thumb of either a wood bailiff whose business is to grow timber for the market, or of a botanist whose business is to collect specimens for a botanical garden; or of a landscape gardener whose business is to vulgarise a garden or landscape to the utmost extent that his patron's purse will allow of. What we want is reasonable men of real artistic taste to take into consideration what the essential needs of the case are, and to advise accordingly. Now it seems to me that the authorities who have Epping Forest in hand may have two intentions as to it. First, they may intend to landscape-garden it, or turn it into golf grounds (and I very much fear that even the latter nuisance may be in their minds); or second, they may really think it necessary (as you suggest) to thin the hornbeams, so as to give them a better chance of growing. The first alternative we Londoners should protest against to the utmost, for if it be carried out then Epping Forest is turned into a mere place of vulgarity, is destroyed in fact.

"As to the second, to put our minds at rest, we ought to be assured that the cleared spaces would be planted again, and that almost wholly with hornbeam. And, further, the greatest possible care should be taken that not a single tree should be felled unless it is necessary for the growth of its fellows. Because, mind you, with comparatively small trees, the really beautiful effect of them can only be got by their standing as close together as the emergencies of growth will allow. We want a thicket, not a park, from Epping Forest.

"In short, a great and practically irreparable mistake will be made if, under the shelter of the opinion of 'experts,' from mere carelessness and thoughtlessness, we let the matter slip out of the hands of the thoughtful part of the public; the essential character of one of the greatest ornaments of London will disappear, and no one will have even a sample left to show what the great north-eastern forest was like. I am, Sir, yours obediently,

"William Morris

"Kelmscott House, Hammersmith."

The second letter is written two or three weeks later, and shows Morris as characteristically prompt and thorough in action as he is positive in speech.

"Yesterday," he says, "I carried out my intention of visiting Epping Forest. I went to Loughton first, and saw the work that had been done about Clay Road, thence to Monk Wood, thence to Theydon Woods, and thence to the part about the Chingford Hotel, passing by Fair Mead Bottom and lastly to Bury Wood and the wood on the other side of the road thereby.

"I can verify closely your representative's account of the doings on the Clay Road, which is an ugly scar originally made by the lord of the manor when he contemplated handing over to the builder a part of what he thought was his property. The fellings here seem to me all pure damage to the forest, and in fact were quite unaccountable to me, and would surely be so to any unprejudiced person. I cannot see what could be pleaded for them either on the side of utility or taste.

"About Monk Wood there had been much, and I should say excessive, felling of trees apparently quite sound. This is a very beautiful spot, and I was informed that the trees there had not been polled for a period long before the acquisition of the forest for the public; and nothing could be more interesting and romantic than the effect of the long poles of the hornbeams rising from the trunks and seen against the mass of the wood behind. This wood should be guarded most jealously as a treasure of beauty so near to 'the Wen.' In the Theydon Woods, which are mainly of beech, a great deal of felling has gone on, to my mind quite unnecessary, and therefore harmful. On the road between the Wake Arms and the King's Oak Hotel there has been again much felling, obviously destructive.

"In Bury Wood (by Sewardstone Green) we saw the trunks of a great number of oak trees (not pollards), all of them sound, and a great number were yet standing in the wood marked for felling, which, however, we heard had been saved by a majority of the committee of experts. I can only say that it would have been a very great misfortune if they had been lost; in almost every case where the stumps of the felled trees showed there seemed to have been no reason for their destruction. The wood on the other side of the road to Bury Wood, called in the map Woodman's Glade, has not suffered from felling, and stands as an object lesson to show how unnecessary such felling is. It is one of the thickest parts of the forest, and looks in all respects like such woods were forty years ago, the growth of the heads of the hornbeams being but slow; but there is no difficulty in getting through it in all directions, and it has a peculiar charm of its own not to be found in any other forest; in short, it is thoroughly characteristic. I should mention that the whole of these woods are composed of pollard hornbeams and 'spear'-i.e., unpolled-oaks.

"I am compelled to say from what I saw in a long day's inspection, that, though no doubt acting with the best intentions, the management of the forest is going on the wrong tack; it is making war on the natural aspect of the forest, which the Act of Parliament that conferred it on the nation expressly stipulated was to be retained. The tendency of all these fellings is on the one hand to turn over London forest into a park, which would be more or less like other parks, and on the other hand to grow sizable trees, as if for the timber market. I must beg to be allowed a short quotation here from an excellent little guidebook to the forest by Mr. Edward North Buxton, verderer of the forest (Sanford, 1885). He says, p. 38: 'In the drier parts of the forest beeches to a great extent take the place of oaks. These "spear" trees will make fine timber for future generations, provided they receive timely attention by being relieved of the competing growth of the unpicturesque hornbeam pollards. Throughout the wood between Chingford and High Beech, this has been recently done, to the great advantage of the finer trees.'

"The italics are mine, and I ask, Sir, if we want any further evidence than this of one of the verderers as to the tendency of the fellings. Mr. Buxton declares in so many words that he wants to change the special character of the forest; to take away this strange, unexampled, and most romantic wood, and leave us nothing but a commonplace instead. I entirely deny his right to do so in the teeth of the Act of Parliament. I assert, as I did in my former letter, that the hornbeams are the most important trees in the forest, since they give it its special character. At the same time I would not encourage the hornbeams at the expense of the beeches, any more than I would the beeches at the expense of the hornbeams. I would leave them all to nature, which is not so niggard after all, even on Epping Forest gravel, as e. g., one can see in places where forest fires have denuded spaces, and where in a short time birches spring up self-sown.

"The committee of the Common Council has now had Epping Forest in hand for seventeen years, and has, I am told, in that time felled 100,000 trees. I think the public may now fairly ask for a rest on behalf of the woods, which, if the present system of felling goes on, will be ruined as a natural forest; and it is good and useful to make the claim at once, when, in spite of all disfigurements, the northern part of the forest, from Sewardstone Green to beyond Epping, is still left to us, not to be surpassed in interest by any other wood near a great capital. I am, Sir, yours obediently,

"William Morris."

These letters emphasise in a single instance what the close student of Morris will find emphasised at every turn in his career,-the persistent and strong influence over him of the tastes and occupations of his boyhood. Unless this is kept constantly in mind, it is easy to fall into the common error of regarding the various activities into which he threw himself as separate and dissociated instead of seeing them as they were, component parts of a perfectly simple purpose and unalterable ideal. With most men who are on the whole true to the analogy of the chambered nautilus and cast off the outworn shell of their successive phases of individuality as the seasons roll, the effect of early environment and tendency may easily be exaggerated, but Morris grew in the fashion of his beloved oaks, keeping the rings by which his advance in experience was marked; at the end all were visible. His education began and continued largely outside the domain of books and away from masters. His wanderings in the depths of the quaint and beautiful forest, his intimate acquaintance with the nature of Gothic architecture, his familiarity with Scott, his prompt adoption of Ruskin, all these formed the foundation on which he was to build his own theory of life, and all were his before he went up to Oxford. They prepared him for the many-sided profession, if profession it can be called, which was to absorb and at last to exhaust his mighty energy. It was the tangible surface of the world that most inspired him in boyhood and in maturity. Loving so much even as a child its aspects, its lights and shadows, the forms of trees and birds and beasts, the changes of season, the lives of men living close to "the kind soil" and in touch with it through hearty manual labour, it was but a step to the occupations that finally engrossed him. He never got so far away from the visions of his youth as to forget them. In one form or another he was constantly trying to embody them that others might see them with his eyes and worship them with his devotion. "The spirit of the new days, of our days," says the old man in News from Nowhere, "was to be delight in the life of the world, intense and almost overweening love of the very skin and surface of the earth on which man dwells."

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