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William Morris By Elizabeth Luther Cary Characters: 28426

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By the latter part of 1884 the political agitations and internal differences in the Federation, now called The Social Democratic Federation, became so violent as to force Morris to leave the association in which he had had no desire to be a leader, but had been unable to keep the position of acquiescent follower. In his connection with this and other public organisations, the underlying gentleness and real humility of his nature was clearly to be seen. He learned patience through his conflict with unsympathetic minds. From the weary experience of working in constant intercourse with men whose temper and practice and many of whose theories were directly antagonistic to his own, although identified with them in the public mind by a common responsibility, he learned to subdue those elements of his temperament that worked against the success of what he had most loyally at heart. From self-confidence, a critical habit, an overbearing positiveness of assertion, he passed to comparative reticence, tolerance, even docility. To his equals it was painful to see ignorant men assign to him his task, but he never failed to comply instantly with their orders.



It could not, however, have been an education in which he could take conscious pleasure, and at this juncture he doubtless would have been happy indeed could he have gone quietly back to the weaving and dyeing and writing of poetry with which his new preoccupation had seriously interfered. His conscience, however, was too deeply involved to permit a desertion, which would, he said, be dastardly. The question now constantly in his mind was how he would have felt against the system under which he lived had he himself been poor. He was convinced that he would have found it unendurable. Therefore, with a longing glance at his chintz bleaching in the sunlight and pure air of Merton Abbey, he put his shoulder to the wheel again, and, gathering together a few of his sympathisers, inaugurated a new party, the Socialist League, with the famous little Commonweal for its organ, a monthly paper now the joy of collectors on account of the beautiful headings of Walter Crane and the remarkable quality of the contributions by Morris himself. In this new society, for which he was primarily responsible, Morris found his work redoubled. He was editor of the Commonweal as well as contributor to it. He continued his lecturing, often under the most depressing conditions, speaking to small and indifferent audiences in small and miserable quarters. At Hammersmith he instituted a branch of the League in the room previously given up to his carpet-weaving, and there he gave Sunday evening addresses. On Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings he spoke at the outdoor meetings which were to be the insidious foes of his health, and which more than once brought him into personal notoriety of a disagreeable kind.

The first of these occasions was on the 21st of September, 1885, when a number of people were arrested for gathering together that Sunday morning at the corner of Dod Street and Burdett Road against orders from the authorities to the effect that meetings at that place-a favourite spot with open-air speakers-must be stopped. Morris, with other members of the League, was present in court when the prisoners were brought up, and joined in the hisses and cries of "Shame!" when one prisoner was sentenced to two months' hard labour and the others were fined. Morris was arrested, subjected to a little questioning from the magistrate, and dismissed. The following Sunday another meeting, comprising many thousands of people, was held on the forbidden corner; nothing occurred, and they dispersed victoriously. The next year a Sunday-morning meeting in a street off Edgeware Road was interfered with by the police, and Morris was summoned to the police court and fined a shilling and costs for the offence of obstructing the highway.

Out of these experiences resulted, we may very well imagine, the farce entitled: The Tables Turned; or, Nupkins Awakened, given at an entertainment in the Hall of the Socialist League, at Farringdon Road, on October 15, 1887. Copies of it are still in existence-sorry little pamphlets in blue wrappers, bearing no kinship to the aristocratic products of the Kelmscott Press so soon to follow, but extremely entertaining as showing Morris in his least conventional and most aggressive public mood. As the pamphlet is quite rare, a brief description of its contents is not, perhaps, superfluous, although its literary merit amounts to as little as possible considering its authorship. It opens with a scene in a court of justice, Justice Nupkins presiding, in which a Mr. La-di-da is found guilty of swindling and of robbing the widow and the orphan. He is sentenced to imprisonment for the space of one calendar month. Next Mary Pinch, a poor woman (the part was taken by Morris's daughter May), is accused of stealing three loaves of bread, and, after absurd and contradictory testimony by witnesses for the prosecution (constables and sergeants), is sentenced to eighteen months of hard labour. Next, John Freeman, a Socialist, is accused of conspiracy, sedition, and obstruction of the highway. The Archbishop of Canterbury (this r?le enacted by Morris), Lord Tennyson, and Professor Tyndall are called as witnesses and give testimony, the manner and speech of the renowned originals being somewhat rudely parodied. After contradictory evidence by these witnesses and the former ones, the prisoner is sentenced to six years' penal servitude with a fine of one hundred pounds, his offence having been an open-air speech advocating the principles of Socialism. As his sentence is pronounced the Marseillaise is heard, and a Socialist ensign enters with news that the Revolution has begun.

It is in the second part that the tables are turned upon Nupkins. The scene this time is laid in the fields near a country village, with a copse close by. The time is after the Revolution. Justice Nupkins is found skulking in the copse, half mad with fear at the reversal of social conditions, his past cruelty giving him small reason to hope for gentle treatment at the hands of the former "lower classes," who are now running affairs to suit themselves. He meets Mary Pinch, who pities his deplorable aspect and invites him to her house, now a pleasant and prosperous home. He cannot believe in the sincerity of her apparent kindness, and flees from her in a panic, only to meet other of his former victims who further alarm him by pretending to arrest him and give him a mock trial, during which he thinks he is to be sentenced to death. He learns at last that under the beautiful new order he is free to do what he pleases, and may dig potatoes and earn his own living by such tilling of the soil. The citizens dance about him singing the following words to the tune of the Carmagnole:

What's this that the days and the days have done?

Man's lordship over man hath gone.

How fares it, then, with high and low?

Equal on earth they thrive and grow.

Bright is the sun for everyone;

Dance we, dance we the Carmagnole.

How deal ye, then, with pleasure and pain?

Alike we share and bear the twain.

And what's the craft whereby ye live?

Earth and man's work to all men give.

How crown ye excellence of worth?

With leave to serve all men on earth.

What gain that lordship's past and done?

World's wealth for all and everyone.

This somewhat childlike but not too bland revenge on the powers of the law met with an enthusiastic reception at the Hall of the Socialist League; Mr. Bernard Shaw, who was present, declaring that there had been no such successful "first night" within living memory.

The year 1887 was marked, however, by events much more serious than the acting of a little farce. On the 13th of November,-"Bloody Sunday" it was called,-the efforts of the Government to check open-air speaking culminated in an organised riot on the part of the Socialists in alliance with the extreme Radicals. Sir Charles Warren had prohibited by proclamation the holding of any meeting in Trafalgar Square,-a meeting having been announced to take place there to protest against the Irish policy of the Government. Thereupon it was agreed by the Socialist League, the Social Democratic Federation, the Irish National League, and certain Radical clubs that their members should assemble at various centres and march toward Trafalgar Square. Morris put himself at the head of the Clerkenwell contingent, first delivering a short speech mounted on a cart in company with Mrs. Besant and others. He declared that wherever it was attempted to put down free speech it was a bounden duty to resist the attempt by every possible means, and told his audience that he thought their business was to get to the Square by some means or other; that he intended to do his best to get there, whatever the consequences might be, and that they must press on like orderly people and good citizens. Thus pressing on, with flags flying and bands playing, they were met at the Bloomsbury end of St. Martin's Lane by the police, mounted and on foot, who charged in among them, striking right and left, and causing complete disorder in the ranks. The triumph of law and order over the various columns of the demonstrators was soon complete, and the outcome consisted of the arrest of three hundred men or more (many of whom were sent to prison and a few condemned to penal servitude) and the killing of three. The first to die was Alfred Linnell, for whom a public funeral was given-great masses of men marching in perfect and solemn order to Bow Cemetery, where he was buried, the service at the grave being read by the light of a lantern. Such an event would inevitably stir Morris to sympathetic rage, and the dirge written by him to be sung as poor Linnell was buried has an inflammatory sound despite the obvious effort at restraint:

We asked them for a life of toilsome earning,

They bade us bide their leisure for our bread;

We craved to speak to tell our woful learning,

We came back speechless, bearing back our dead!

Thus time was spent. Sometimes Morris was heading processions "with the face of a Crusader," says Joseph Pennell, describing one occasion on which he led a crowd, "among the red flags, singing with all his might the Marseillaise"-into Westminster Abbey to attend the Sunday services. Sometimes he was bailing out his friends who had been "run in" by the police. Sometimes he was tramping, whatever the weather, at the head of the workless workers of Hammersmith to interview the Guardians of the Poor. Sometimes he was delivering his lectures among woful hovels in tumbledown sheds to a score or so of people of whose comprehension he felt most doubtful. Always he was preaching "Education toward Revolution," but with an ever-increasing consciousness that a vast amount of education was needed before revolution could be effectively reforming. His imagination had formed great ideals and had pictured those ideals in triumphant practice, but his practical sense was sufficient to show him the futility of unintelligent action. He had spent much money, not in profit-sharing among his workmen (although this obtained to a certain extent in his business), but in bearing the various and heavy expenses imposed by the publication of the organs of Socialism, which he supported almost as largely by his purse as by his pen, and by a thousand other needs of the cause to which in 1882 he had also sacrificed the greater part of his valuable library. He had spent much time, which, to one so deeply interested in pursuits for which any one life is far too short, meant infinitely more than the expenditure of money or the relinquishing of property that, after all, may be got back again. And he had worked against the grain with all sorts and conditions of companions, from whom he was as widely separated as the east is from the west-never more widely than when he was marching by their side toward a goal that neither could see clearly. He was now longing more and more to get back to his own life and away from a life so foreign. As he had said in the first flush of his enthusiasm, "Art must go under," he was now prepared "to see all organised Socialism run into the sand for a while." It is not surprising that he "somehow did not seem to care much" when the Socialist League became disintegrated and insolvent. He had done his best for it, but its strongest members had drifted away from it, the executive control had been gained by a group of Anarchists, and Morris had been by these deposed from the editorship of the Commonweal. Before the society reached its lowest depths he resigned, giving expression in the Commonweal for the 15th of November, 1890, to his feeling in the form it then took toward the movement which so long had carried him out of his course and kept him in turbulent waters. This movement had then been going on for about seven years. Those concerned in it had made, he thought, "about as many mistakes as any other party in a similar space of time." When he first joined it he hoped that some leaders would turn up among the workingmen who "would push aside all middle-class help and become great historical figures." This hope he had pretty well relinquished. In the beginning there had been little said about anything save the great ideals of Socialism, but as the Socialist idea had become more and more impressed upon the epoch a somewhat vulgarised and partial realisation of these ideals had pressed upon the friends of the cause. They began to think of methods, and mostly of "methods of impatience," as Morris from his ripened and moderated point of view now designated them. "There are two tendencies in this matter of methods," he said; "on the one hand is our old acquaintance, palliation, elevated now into vastly greater importance than it used to have, because of the growing discontent, and the obvious advance of Socialism; on the other is the method of partial, necessarily futile, inconsequent re

volt, or riot rather, against the authorities, who are our absolute masters, and can easily put it down.

"With both these methods I disagree; and that the more because the palliatives have to be clamoured for, and the riots carried out by men who do not know what Socialism is, and have no idea what their next step is to be, if, contrary to all calculation, they should happen to be successful. Therefore, at the best, our masters would be our masters still, because there would be nothing to take their place. We are not ready for such a change as that!" The time was favourable, he thought, for preaching the simple principles of Socialism regardless of the policy of the passing hour, nor was any more active work desirable. "I say, for us to make Socialists," he concluded, "is the business at present, and at present I do not think we can have any other useful business. Those who are not really Socialists-who are Trades Unionists, disturbance-breeders, or what not-will do what they are impelled to do, and we cannot help it. At the worst there will be some good in what they do; but we need not and cannot heartily work with them, when we know that their methods are beside the right way.

"Our business, I repeat, is the making of Socialists, i.e., convincing people that Socialism is good for them and is possible. When we have enough people of that way of thinking, they will find out what action is necessary for putting their principles in practice. Therefore, I say, make Socialists. We Socialists can do nothing else that is useful."

This was practically the end of militant Socialism for Morris. Together with a handful of his true followers and sympathisers he did organise or reorganise under very simple rules a little society named the Hammersmith Socialist Society, which took the place of the Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist League. The manifesto explained that the separation had been made because the members of the new society did not hold the Anarchistic views of the majority of the old society's members, and would be likely to waste in bickering time "which should be spent in attacking capitalism." The business of the Hammersmith Society was to spread the principles of Socialism, the method so warmly recommended by Morris in his Commonweal article. But it was obvious that his interest was no longer keen in even this passive mode of advancing the cause for which he had laboured so long and, on the whole, so thanklessly. He set himself dutifully to work at writing the manifesto, but complained, "I would so much rather go on with my Saga work."

It cannot be said, however, that he was inconsistent. He had gone into militant Socialism as he went into everything, with a superabundant energy that must work itself off in activity. But there was more vehemence than narrowness in his partisanship. When his party forsook the principles for the sake of which he had joined it, he forsook the party. He learned of human nature much that was discouraging during his efforts to make many of his fellows work together in harmony, but he brought out of the fiery experience an unharmed ideal. And among the clashing of creeds and the warring of minds he played the part of peacemaker to an extent remarkable in so impulsive a nature. "It seemed as though he wanted to have all his own way," says one of his acquaintances, "yet put him in the chair at a meeting and he was as patient as the mildest of us." His inmost belief was much the same at the end as at the beginning,-matured by study and tempered by practical failures, but holding to the fundamental idea that art is the great source of pleasure in human life as well as pleasure's best result, and must be made possible for everyone to practise with a free mind and a body unwearied by hopeless toil. The letter to the Daily Chronicle of the 10th of November, 1893, on "Help for the Miners, the Deeper Meaning of the Struggle," sounds the familiar note as positively as ever, and contains all that is required to represent the creed of his later years. "I hold firmly to the opinion," he says in this letter, "that all worthy schools of art must be in the future, as they have been in the past, the outcome of the aspirations of the people towards the beauty and true pleasure of life. And, further, now that democracy is building up a new order, which is slowly emerging from the confusion of the commercial period, these aspirations of the people towards beauty can only be born from a condition of practical equality, of economical condition amongst the whole population. Lastly, I am so confident that this equality will be gained that I am prepared to accept, as a consequence of the process of that gain, the apparent disappearance of what art is now left us, because I am sure that that will be but a temporary loss, to be followed by a genuine new birth of art which will be the spontaneous expression of the pleasure of life innate in the whole people. This, I say, is the art which I look forward to, not as a vague dream, but as a practical certainty, founded on the general well-being of the people. It is true that the blossom of it I shall not see; therefore I may be excused if, in common with other artists, I try to express myself through the art of to-day, which seems to us to be only a survival of the organic art of the past, in which the people shared, whatever the other drawbacks of their condition might have been.... Yet if we shall not (those of us who are as old as I am) see the New Art, the expression of the general pleasure of life, we are even now seeing the seed of it beginning to germinate. For if genuine art be impossible without the help of the useful classes, how can these turn their attention to it if they are living amidst sordid cares which press upon them day in, day out? The first step, therefore, towards the new birth of art must be a definite rise in the condition of the workers; their livelihood must (to say the least of it) be less niggardly and less precarious, and their hours of labour shorter; and this improvement must be a general one and confirmed against the chances of the market by legislation. But, again, this change for the better can only be realised by the efforts of the workers themselves. 'By us, and not for us,' must be their motto.... What these staunch miners have been doing in the face of such tremendous odds other workmen can and will do; and when life is easier and fuller of pleasure people will have time to look around them and find out what they desire in the matter of art, and will also have time to compass their desires."

Just why Morris with his extreme independence stopped short of Anarchism is difficult to see unless it be attributed to an instinct for order inherited from the sturdy stock to which he belonged. The necessity of a public rule of action was always, however, quite clear to him. He contended that you have a right to do as you like so long as you do not interfere with your neighbour's right to do as he likes, a contention which not even a fairly conservative mind finds very difficult to uphold: he was not willing to admit the right of an individual to act "unsocially." Indeed all the charm of his pictures of the ideal life derives from the atmosphere of loving-kindness and mutual helpfulness with which he surrounds them. The Golden Rule was always in his mind as he built up in his imagination his Paradise on earth. He possessed the optimism of the kind-hearted, the faith in his fellow men that made him sure of their right acting could they only start afresh with a field clear of injury and abuse. He never dreamed in all his dreaming that these would again grow up and destroy the beautiful fabric of his new Society, so bright and unspotted in his mind. Of course there would be a social conscience "which, being social, is common to every man." Without that there could be no society; and "Man without society is not only impossible but inconceivable." Thus he argued and thus he believed. His militant Socialism had, while it lasted, a very dangerous side. His Socialist "principles" are easily torn to ribbons by the political economist in possession of facts showing the increasing prosperity of the working classes and their increasing interest under existing conditions in the arts and in education; but regarding his views merely as representing one aspect of his impressive personality, it is easy to find them attractive. To quote what the Pall Mall Gazette said of the Sunday evenings at the Hammersmith Hall, "They are patches of bright colour in the great drab, dreary, dull, and dirty world." They bring with them such thoughts as Arnold had of the repose that has fled "for ever the course of the river of Time." The spirit breathed through them in strong contrast to the spirit of many of his co-workers, ennobles all efforts toward true reform, diffuses the love of humanity among a cold people, and makes for the innocent and exquisite happiness which our human nature is so apt paradoxically to deny us. In Morris's world we should all be very happy if we were like Morris. He was not very happy in our world, yet perhaps he managed to get out of it as much of the joy of doing as it can be made to yield to any one man. His Socialism, from one point of view, was certainly a tremendous failure, but no other side of his life visible to the public at large showed so plainly his moral virtues, his generosity, his sincerity, his power of self-sacrifice, his effort toward self-control. It was significant that when, with a last rally of his forces to active work for the cause, he joined in a concerted effort to unite all Socialists into a single party, he was chosen as the best man for the purpose, all the societies having "a deep regard and respect for him." It is even more significant that his own employees in his large business also esteemed him highly, feeling the sincerity with which he tried to make his practices accord with his theories. If his business was a successful one it was not because he tried to get from his workmen the utmost he could claim in time and labour. The eight-hour working-day was in practice in the Merton factory, and the wages paid were the highest known in the trade. He was free from the self-complacency that gives to justice the name of charity, and he was not distinguished for civility toward the people under his direction, but he was, they said in their emphatic and expressive vernacular, "the sort of bloke you always could depend upon."

Toward the end of his activity for the cause of Socialism he became connected with a society which perhaps would not have existed without his influence, although he was not directly responsible for its formation. This was the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society [founded in 1888], the aims of which were described by one of its members in the following words: "To assert the possibilities of Art in design, applied even to the least pretentious purpose and in every kind of handicraft; to protest against the absolute subjection of Art in its applied form to the interests of that extravagant waste of human energy which is called economic production; to claim for the artist or handicraftsman, whose identity it has been the rule to hide and whose artistic impulse it has been the custom to curb (until he was really in danger of becoming, in fact as in name, a mere hand), some recognition and some measure of appreciation; to try and discover whether the public cared at all, or could be brought to care, for the Art which, good or bad, is continually under their eyes; and whether there might not be, in association with manufacture, or apart from it, if that were out of the question, some scope for handicraft, some hope for Art."

Morris's point of view is apparent in these aims, and the society was composed chiefly of young men who, says Mr. Mackail, "without following his principles to their logical issues or joining any Socialist organisation, were profoundly permeated with his ideas on their most fruitful side,-that of the regeneration, by continued and combined individual effort, of the decaying arts of life." The Art Workers' Guild, dating from 1884, was the source from which the new society sprang, the immediate purpose of the latter being to get the work of men who combined art with handicraft before the public by means of exhibitions, the committees of the Royal Academy and kindred associations refusing to accept examples of applied art for the exhibitions which they devoted to what they called "fine art proper." Mr. Mackail calls attention to the fact that Morris at this stage of his life was so thoroughly imbued with the idea that the general public were ignorant of and indifferent to decorative art, as to feel more sceptical of the success of the exhibitions than was justified by their outcome. He lent his aid, however, with his customary energy, guaranteeing a considerable sum of money, and contributing some valuable papers and lectures, the exhibitions being combined with instruction by acknowledged masters of handicraft. In 1891 he was elected President of the Society, holding that office until the time of his death, when he was succeeded by Walter Crane. He was a member of the Art Workers' Guild as well, and was elected Master of the Guild in 1892. He also belonged to the Bibliographical Society formed in that year, and in 1894 was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. The societies were all directly concerned with questions in which Morris had all his life been interested, and his connection with them was not only natural but almost inevitable. He was not a man to whom public business made a strong appeal. He undertook it with reluctance and relinquished it with delight. Nor did he care for the labels of distinction for which most men, even among the greatly distinguished, have a measure of regard. He was, however, gratified when, in 1882, he was unanimously elected Honorary Fellow of Exeter College at Oxford, an honour which is rarely conferred, and is generally reserved, says Mr. Mackail, "for old members who have attained the highest official rank in their profession."

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