A Legacy of “Great Wonders”:

The Last Romances of William Morris and the Kelmscott Press

Phillippa Bennett

i Books of Wonder

And in that book were pictures of many things, as flaming mountains, and castles of war, and ships upon the sea, but chiefly of fair women, and queens, and warriors and kings; and it was done in gold and azure and cinnabar and minium.[1]

Figure 1. Illustration of the Princess’s Book by Walter Crane for The Story of the Glittering Plain.
Courtesy of Dover Publications Inc.

            This is the description of the wondrous book of the Princess in William Morris’s romance The Story of the Glittering Plain (1891), illustrated in its 1894 edition by Walter Crane (see figure 1), but it could be a description of one of Morris’s very own last romances.[2] With its mountains, castles, fair women and warriors, it is potently suggestive of the life of questing adventure that characterizes Morris’s final narratives, and its captivating pictorial narrative twice attracts the rapturous attention of the protagonist Hallblithe as he recognizes his own destiny traced in its pages. But just as importantly, the thrills and delights of the book’s content are both reflected and enhanced by the nature of its material presentation: painted in rich and vibrant colours and “covered outside with gold and gems” it is a book, we are told, “most lovely to behold”.[3] In printing his last romances at his own Kelmscott Press, William Morris intended these books to be similarly “lovely to behold,” and it is a happy coincidence that The Story of the Glittering Plain, the first of the narratives that constitute the last romances, was also the very first title to be issued from the Press in 1891.[4] In their Kelmscott Press editions, with their meticulously designed typography, handmade paper, vellum covers and coloured silk ties, these narratives stand as a triumphant testimony to Morris’s idea of the book beautiful: a book “not limited by the commercial exigencies of price,” “handsomely and well printed” in which the ornamentation is “as much a part of the page as the type itself”; a book “positively beautiful” and “architecturally good”.[5] To read the last romances in this form is to enter into a sensory as well as an intellectual relationship with them, to derive visual and tactile pleasure in addition to imaginative satisfaction from their pages.

            Morris’s last romances were not of course the only books to be printed at the Kelmscott Press, indeed they are only a small part of its overall output―six books out of a total of fifty three―but there is a particularly apt and significant relationship between these narratives and their material manifestation in the Kelmscott Press editions. There are some immediately evident links: the writing of the last romances and the founding of the Kelmscott Press were contemporaneous activities, undertaken in the last seven years of Morris’s life; both activities were experimental and clearly defined themselves against prevailing tastes and practices, and both the Kelmscott Press and the last romances have attracted more than their fair share of criticism.[6] George Bernard Shaw, for example, made his own characteristically caustic connection, deciding that in order to “fill the maw of the Kelmscott Press,” Morris “began to pour out tale after tale” of “knights in armour,” “lovely ladies,” “haunted woods” and “quests after impossibilities”; in short, Shaw concluded, to keep the Kelmscott Press functioning Morris resurrected “all the troubadour romance of chivalry and love which Cervantes had consigned to the flames as pernicious trash” in Don Quixote.[7]

            I would like to suggest, however, a more constructive and appreciative means of understanding the special relationship between the last romances and the Kelmscott Press by considering again that image of the Princess’s beautiful book in The Story of the Glittering Plain.  This is a veritable book of wonders: wonderfully constructed and telling all manner of wondrous things. In the same way, The Story of the Glittering Plain is itself a tale of wonders, with its land of immortality, its mountainous wastes, its perilous sea voyages and its central quest for a lost beloved. But it is also a tale of wonder, as well as of wonders―that is, it is a tale that celebrates the very act and art of wonder, placing it at the centre of human existence. And that is why it is so appropriate that The Story of the Glittering Plain was the Kelmscott Press’s inaugural book, because Morris’s Press is also an overt celebration of the art of wonder―an attempt to give wondrous shape to wonderful books through achieving a symbiotic relationship between content and construction. This is the achievement of the imagined “big folio” in Morris’s lecture “The Ideal Book,” a book which:

lies quiet and majestic on the table, waiting kindly till you please to come to it, with its leaves flat and peaceful, giving you no trouble of body, so that your mind is free to enjoy the literature which its beauty enshrines.[8] 

The wondrous book for Morris is one which appears effortlessly to combine material and psychological pleasure―a book in which appropriate size and proportion facilitate the physical act of reading whilst ornamentation and decoration enhance the reader’s imaginative engagement with the text.

            It is this focus on wonder that will direct my discussion of the last romances and the Kelmscott Press in this article. I will briefly discuss the idea of wonder as a fundamental aspect of human existence, before considering its primary role in the writing and printing activities of Morris’s final years. In doing so, I wish to suggest that a re-evaluation of the nature and importance of wonder can offer a new understanding and more profound appreciation, not only of the last romances and the Kelmscott Press, but of William Morris himself.

ii. Wonder and the Last Romances

            “The capacity to wonder is among man’s greatest gifts,” Joseph Pieper claims, and many writers and philosophers have emphasized humanity’s “inextinguishable” need and desire for wonder.[9] To understand the significance of wonder in human existence, however, demands our recognition of wonder as a multifaceted concept. We can experience a sense of wonder when we encounter something admirable or unusual, we can direct our wonder at an object or a person, we can conceive other people, objects or landscapes as wondrous, and we can engage consciously in the act of wondering. These are essentially related elements of the same process: to find someone or something wonderful, for example, is to engage in a process of wondering about that person or that thing. Thus, as Mark Kingwell identifies, “wonder […] exposes a threefold structure,” for it involves a “wonderer,” the “wonderful” and a “wondering”.[10] To recognize this relationship is to begin to understand that the experience of wonder is neither escapist nor passive in its essential nature; on the contrary, it is the means by which we engage more fully with the realities of our existence. This is because our sense of wonder leads to essentially life-enhancing experiences; it can be central to our appreciation of the world and each other, and it can also be a powerful creative force. Consequently, wonder is best defined less as a response than as an attitude towards the world. To wonder is not so much the ability to experience the occasional spontaneous epiphany as the willingness to be perceptive and receptive to the opportunities for wonder that present themselves to us on a daily basis. And, just as importantly, it is the willingness to allow those opportunities and experiences to affect, and perhaps even transform usto allow them to challenge our preconceptions and renew our vision.

            The sense of wonder was integral to William Morris’s aesthetic and political vision, and to read Morris’s letters, lectures, poems and romances is to recognize the primary significance of wonder in his own response to the world.  Whether he is talking about books or buildings, the details of a landscape or the possibilities of social reconstruction, his ability to find something worthy of wonder in even the smallest details of human existence is remarkable. His colleague Theodore Watts-Dunton understood this when he remarked on Morris’s “marvellously youthful way of confronting the universe,” and May Morris observed how her father seemed to have preserved within him “something of the ‘eternal child’ that weaves his wonders with everyday things”.[11] To be able to wonder was, for Morris, one of the fundamental needs of men and women―a primary and instinctive way of inhabiting the earth and of interacting with others.

            The last romances are, I believe, Morris’s most comprehensive and memorable celebration of this sense of wonder. The protagonists of these narratives are, to borrow a phrase from Thomas Carlyle, “wonder-loving and wonder-seeking” men and women; vital and enthusiastic, they are motivated primarily by the “zest for living” that Cornelis Verhoeven identifies as central to an attitude of wonder.[12] Admittedly, within the wonderlands of the last romances, there are plenty of extraordinary characters and incidents to stimulate even the dullest imagination, and it is hardly unusual that Morris’s protagonists find themselves awe-struck when confronted with shape-shifting witches, enchanted islands and dwarves with a disturbing ability to sever and then replace their own heads. But it is not in the fantastic or magical elements of these stories that the sense of wonder truly lies―instead, it is the human and the natural that generate the most sustained and enriching experiences of wonder for Morris’s protagonists, ensuring that wonder is consistently a dynamic and constructive force throughout these narratives.

            The attitude of wonder Morris’s protagonists adopt towards the world thus manifests itself in a variety of situations. In Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair (1895), for example, an openly admiring Christopher tells Goldilind “thou art a wonder,” whilst in The Well at the World’s End (1896) the protagonist Ralph is equally enraptured by a prospect of English countryside.[13] Surveying the downland before him as he leaves Upmeads, listening to the wind playing “a strange tune on the innumerable stems of the bents and the hard-stalked blossoms” Ralph cries with elation, “Now, welcome world, and be thou blessed from one end to the other, from the ocean sea to the uttermost mountains!” [14] Like Morris himself, the protagonists of the last romances are able to find something wondrous in the simple as well as the magnificent, in the human form and in the natural environment. Hence their attitude of wonder is consistently inclusive rather than selective, meaning Osberne in The Sundering Flood (1898) can be “ravished with joy at the great pillars and arches” of the Church of Eastcheaping whilst also regarding a simple row of well-built houses as “a great wonder”.[15] Furthermore, the wondering attitude of the characters in these narratives extends beyond their relationships with other people and with their environment to incorporate a sense of wonder at their own potential and possibilities as individuals. It is a wonder demonstrated by Walter in The Wood Beyond the World (1894), who, feeling “refreshed with the life of the earth’ at a critical point in his quest, ‘knew that there was might and longing in him, and the world seemed open unto him”.[16] This opening and expanding of vision and conception is central to the operation of wonder whose etymological roots link it to the word wound, for the experience of wonder presents itself, as Howard Parsons observes, as a “sudden breach in the membrane of our awareness”.[17] In each of the last romances the quests of Morris’s protagonists lead to new modes of awareness and a broadening of understanding which engenders a sense of personal fulfilment and a deep sense of joy at their existence.

iii. Wonder and the Kelmscott Press

            This necessarily brief discussion of the last romances does at least, I hope, offer some insight into the central role that wonder plays in Morris’s final narratives, and I now wish to consider how this same dynamic of wonder equally informed and shaped the other major achievement of Morris’s final years―the Kelmscott Press.

            Morris’s primary motivation in founding the Kelmscott Press was his desire to produce beautiful books. Indeed the importance of beautiful books to Morris can hardly be overestimated. In an unfinished essay on medieval ornamented manuscripts written in the early 1890s he attempted to convey the immense significance they held for him, declaring:

If I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of Art and the thing most to be longed for, I should answer, A beautiful House; and if I were further asked to name the production next in importance and the thing next to be longed for, I should answer, A beautiful Book.[18]        

In the final years of his life Morris invested considerable time and money in collecting examples of such beautiful books, one of the most striking of which was the thirteenth century “Windmill” Psalter which he purchased from Lord Aldenham in 1896.[19] When Lord Aldenham’s letter accepting Morris’s sizeable offer of £1,000 arrived on the morning of Monday, 6 July, Morris wrote in his diary: “Sent Cockerell after it with cheque in afternoon and it came back at 4. A great wonder.”[20]

            It was as great wonders that Morris admired, wrote about and, when he was able, purchased his early books and manuscripts. Having obtained these books, Aymer Vallance notes that Morris “treated them with loving, and something near akin to reverential care,” and that he honoured them as “the constant companions amongst which the later years of his life were spent”.[21]  But these books were never show-pieces: to experience fully the wondrous nature of a beautiful book meant, for Morris, engaging with it physically and mentally, touching and holding it, turning its pages and marvelling at it again and again, for “to cosset and hug it up as a material piece of goods,” he wrote, “is surely natural to a man who cares about the ideas that lie betwixt its boards”.[22] In the last six years of his life, Morris undertook to perpetuate that experience by enshrining both his own works and the literature he most admired in beauty, to give these texts a physical form that would reflect appropriately the pleasure they repeatedly provided. When asked by an interviewer from the journal Bookselling why he had started the Kelmscott Press, he responded: “simply because I felt that for the books one loved and cared for there might be attempted a presentation, both as to print and paper, which should be worthy of one’s feelings”.[23] The Kelmscott Press was Morris’s attempt to reclaim the act of reading as a material as well as an imaginative delight in an era in which, he argued, commercial constraints and the lack of both care and skill had led to the production of “ugly books”―books that reflected the wider aesthetic and architectural ugliness of an age which, Morris suggested to one audience, indicated “a determination to put our eyes in our pockets whenever we can”.[24] In contrast, Morris aimed through the Kelmscott Press to produce books whose readers would want to “hug” them up, and in doing so to offer his own great wonders to the world.

            The Press’s most spectacular and certainly its best known wonder is the Kelmscott Chaucer, completed only a few months before Morris’s death. Those close to Morris expressed themselves in overtly rapturous terms at this achievement: “Chaucer must be dancing with delight round the Elysian fields,” Swinburne wrote to him on receiving his copy, reporting that Theodore Watts-Dunton thought it “the most beautiful book ever printed”.[25] May Morris recalled the “sheer excitement” she felt on being given her own copy by her father and her desperate attempt to express “something of the wonder and pleasure of it,” whilst Henry Buxton Forman later wrote of how the first “fortunate possessors” of the Kelmscott Chaucer would be “turning in wonder the pages of one of the noblest books ever printed” even as Morris was being laid in his grave.[26]

            The aura of wonder that surrounded the finished Kelmscott Chaucer was also integral to the process of its creation. Whilst he was preparing the illustrations to fit the ornamentation provided by Morris, Edward Burne-Jones admitted to the American scholar Charles Eliot Norton: “I am beside myself with delight over it […] if we live to finish it, it will be like a pocket cathedral”.[27] Burne-Jones enthused about how he delighted in drawing “to fit the ornament and printing” of Morris’s page: “I love to be snugly cased in the borders and buttressed up by the vast initials,” he exulted, “and once or twice when I have no letter under me, I feel tottery and weak”.[28] Indeed, the very act of producing the designs and illustrations for the Kelmscott Press generated a shared interest and delight for both Burne-Jones and Morris. W.R. Lethaby recalled watching Morris designing borders for the Kelmscott Press one day and noted how “the actual drawing was an agreeable sensation to him,” describing how the forms “were stroked into place as it were with a sensation like that of smoothing a cat”.[29] Morris and Burne-Jones in this way shared a profound emotional and psychological response to beautiful books and experienced a visceral delight in their construction,

            But whilst the sheer quantity of work and skill of craftsmanship that went into producing the Chaucer, in addition to the simple fact of its substantial size, might suitably earn it the appellation “cathedral,” it was surrounded in the list of Kelmscott publications by a whole host of quieter wonders. For each book issued from the Press was, as William Peterson writes, “at least a parish church,” and each was “constructed of sound materials and inspired by the Ruskinian vision of craftsmanship as an act of worship”.[30] The thrill and excitement involved in the design and publication of each Kelmscott Press book, church or cathedral, are clearly captured in Morris’s response to the interviewer from the English Illustrated Magazine who visited the Press in 1895. Asked which of his publications had most interested him so far, Morris replied: “Whichever I had in hand at any given moment. You see each of them has its own individuality, and one was interested in all of them from one point of view or another.”[31] If the Kelmscott Press was, as Morris described it, his own “typographical adventure,” then as Henry Halliday Sparling emphasizes, “each and every book” was “a high adventure” in its own right, and brought its own “renewed excitement”.[32] Each allowed Morris to experiment, to test his theories of what constituted the ideal book in a range of contexts, to find the best way of presenting a text in all its individuality in terms of type, page layout, ornamentation and illustration.

iv. The Last Romances and the Kelmscott Press

            As all Morris’s last romances were eventually printed at the Kelmscott Press, they in turn made their own significant contribution to the overall “adventure” of its activities and achievements. Indeed, the term is particularly appropriate in view of the exuberant spirit of adventure that infuses Morris’s final narratives, and it is intriguing to consider the process of their physical construction as similarly compelling and exciting―to contemplate their wondrousness as both a material and psychological phenomenon.

            The Story of the Glittering Plain, as already noted, has particular significance in this respect and Buxton Forman hints at a certain appropriateness in the fact that the first book to issue from the Kelmscott Press was Morris’s “own wonderful romance”.[33] But The Story of the Glittering Plain is notable not only because it was the Press’s very first book, but also because it was the only book to be issued twice. The original intention was to print it with illustrations by Walter Crane, but Crane describes how Morris was “so eager to get his first book out that he could not wait for the pictures, and so The Glittering Plain first appeared simply with his own initials and ornaments”.[34] There was inevitably a heightened sense of excitement and anticipation surrounding this first typographical experiment, and Sydney Cockerell captured this in his diary entry for the day of his first visit to the Kelmscott Press in April 1891. Presented with a room filled with Glittering Plain pages, Cockerell noted: “Exceeding interesting. […] Printed sheets, one on vellum, lying about―all most beautiful, especially the first page with its elaborately designed border”.[35] On sending a trial page to Frederick Ellis two months earlier, Morris had barely been able to conceal his delight: “I don’t know what you will think of it,” he confided, “but I think it precious good”.[36] In William Scawen Blunt’s opinion, the completed book certainly lived up to the promise of this first printed sheet; having bought the first bound copy of The Story of the Glittering Plain from Morris across the dinner table at Kelmscott House on 7 May 1891, the day before its official publication, Blunt noted in his diary that it was “a very wonderful production”.[37]

            It was another three years before the illustrated edition of The Story of the Glittering Plain was issued from the Kelmscott Press, and Peterson notes that “after such a long delay, the result was anticlimactic”; indeed, Peterson argues that the illustrations are “the most feeble that appeared in any Kelmscott Book,” suggesting that Crane “found Morris’s dark medieval page uncongenial” for the natural style of his own drawings (see Figure 2).[38]

Figure 2. Illustration of the Ship of the Warriors of the Raven by Walter Crane for The Story of the Glittering Plain.
Courtesy of Dover Publications Inc.

And whilst Morris told Crane that he thought his woodcuts looked “delightful” in the final edition, it seems he was in truth far less pleased with them than he cared to reveal to his friend.[39]  The illustration of the Kelmscott Press books is, in fact, a story in its own right―a story of extensive negotiations, disappointments and altered plans―and two of the illustrated versions of the last romances have their own tale to tell in this respect. Morris’s negotiations with Arthur Gaskin over his illustrations for The Well at the World’s End, for example, demonstrate the pervasive dissatisfaction Morris often felt with the drawings of his commissioned illustrators, although he clearly attempted to be as encouraging as possible in his response to the young artist’s work. The tension is already perceptible in an early letter from Morris in July 1893, in which, after telling Gaskin he is “much pleased” with one of his drawings, he proceeds to identify details that he wants adjusting, including the hem of Ursula’s skirt which looked “a little stiff,” and grass “which might be made a little darker”.[40] By January 1895, after months of work, Gaskin was still failing to satisfy Morris’s requirements: “I think the marriage improved,” Morris writes of the scene depicting the wedding of Ralph and Ursula, “but there is something wrong with [Ursula’s] other foot now; only 4 toes for one thing; also the garlands round her arm look too like tattooing,” and in regard to another sketch Gaskin is told he needs to “make Ursula pretty”; “you must consider all this,” Morris exhorted him in summary.[41] Gaskin’s repeated revisions suggest he did his very best, in fact, to “consider all this,” but to no avail: “Sent letter to Gaskin crying off illustrating Well,” Morris recorded in his diary for 26 February 1895.[42]

            It was to Burne-Jones that Morris eventually turned for the illustrations for the Kelmscott edition of The Well at the World’s End, for as Peterson notes, “Burne-Jones’s illustrations were the only ones that satisfied him,” and “his visual imagination […] matched perfectly the typography and design of Morris’s books”.[43] And to compare the illustrations provided by Gaskin and Burne-Jones for The Well at the World’s End is, I think, to conceive a difference in spirit as much as in skill. The standard of Gaskin’s designs is, understandably for a less experienced artist, uneven in comparison with Burne-Jones’s, but his work also lacks both the palpable vitality of Burne-Jones’s drawings and their sensitive contribution to the visual effect of the book as a whole. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, there is something more intimately related to the quality of Morris’s own writing in Burne-Jones’s illustrations. The designs each artist prepared for the meeting of Ralph and Ursula in the wildwood clearly demonstrate this difference.

Figure 3. Illustration by Arthur Gaskin for The Well at the World’s End
pending copyright permission.

There is an abundance of pleasing Morrisian-style detail in Gaskin’s sketch (see Figure 3), and Ursula has, it appears, finally been made “pretty,” but in Burne-Jones’s drawing Ralph and Ursula overtly gaze at each other with the mutual sense of wonder that characterizes their relationship throughout the narrative, their bodies drawing towards each other in marvelling contemplation against the backdrop of a starlit sky that heightens the wondrous quality of this unexpected encounter (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Illustration by Edward Burne-Jones for The Well at the World’s End

 It is a difference of response which lies at the heart of Morris’s emphasis in his lecture “The Ideal Book,” in which he declares that:

A mere black and white picture, however interesting it may be as a picture, may be far from an ornament in a book; while, on the other hand, a book ornamented with pictures that are suitable for that, and that only, may become a work of art second to none, save a fine building duly decorated, or a fine piece of literature.[44] 

Gaskin’s pictures, however interesting, were ultimately unsuitable in both technical and imaginative terms for Morris. In contrast, he lauded the “magnificent and inimitable woodcuts” provided by Burne-Jones for the Kelmscott Press as not only providing “a series of most beautiful and imaginative pictures” but as contributing “the most harmonious decoration possible” to satisfy the particular requirements of each individual book.[45]

            It was this recognition of the different individual demands of every book, and the tremendous pains taken to meet those demands, that renders each of the books issued from the Kelmscott Press unique. Peterson observes that “everyone knows (or thinks he knows) what a Kelmscott Press book looks like: it is a massive folio printed in dense black type with large, overpowering wood-engraved initials, borders and illustrations”.[46] But as Peterson proceeds to demonstrate, this is simply the popular stereotype of the standard Kelmscott Press book, and one which fails to reflect the range and diversity of its productions. Indeed, each of the last romances has its own distinctive style and its own decorative beauty in its Kelmscott Press edition: The Wood Beyond the World, for example, has a beautiful wood-engraved frontispiece designed by Burne-Jones (see Figure 5);


Figure 5. Frontispiece by Edward Burne-Jones for The Wood Beyond the World.
Courtesy of Dover Publications Inc.

The Well at the World’s End, so long in writing and printing that Morris nicknamed it “The Interminable,” was, as Buxton Forman notes, a “new departure” for the Press, being printed in double columns with ornament in-between (see Figure 6); and The Sundering Flood has a delightful line-block map designed by H. Cribb which is appropriately suggestive of the narrative’s fascinating topography.[47]

Figure 6. Decorated page from the Kelmscott Press edition of The Well at the World’s End.
Courtesy of the British Library.

 As with all the Kelmscott Press books, each romance thus offered its own challenges and opportunities in addition to providing its own rewards.

            But there is another aspect of the particular relationship between the last romances and the Kelmscott Press which has to be addressed here, and that is the fact that both have attracted the very same criticism―that of unreadability. As Peterson notes, “the visual richness” of the Kelmscott Press books has proved “a stumbling block” to many later readers, who regard Morris’s pages as being “as cluttered as a Victorian parlour,” and Jerome McGann observes that scholars of the book frequently see “the extreme physicality” of Morris’s typographical work as interfering with the text’s “readability”.[48] Critics of Morris’s last romances have directed the same complaint of unreadability at these narratives in linguistic and narrative terms. Paul Thompson, for example, argues that the longer romances in particular are “almost unreadable” due to a combination of obscure subject matter and language, whilst Colin Franklin registers his “unrepentant distaste for Morris’s romantic prose,”asking why, when Morris could write so clearly and directly, he was “screwing language into [...] odd grimaces” for these final narratives.[49] Amanda Hodgson, though generally a sympathetic reader of Morris’s last romances and willing to admit that the Kelmscott Press books are “beautiful” in themselves, combines these separate criticisms in a strikingly censorious judgment, claiming that in their Kelmscott Press editions, Morris’s romances “are literally unreadable”; “it is not just the archaic vocabulary and wilfully unusual sentence-construction that cause difficulty for the reader,” she argues, but “the glaring black-on-white print, the Gothic font, the decorative capital letters in which the letter itself is indistinguishable from the border, the way the text is laid out in narrow columns so that the reader has difficulty recognising where sentences end”. For Hodgson, the perceived linguistic difficulties of the prose romances and the visual difficulties of the Kelmscott Press printing methods are evidently mutually exacerbating, so much so, she suggests, that “the reader is forced to slow the process of reading to such an extent that the meaning of the sentences becomes secondary to their external appearance”.[50] It is an argument supported by Lorraine Kooistra’s specific comments on the Kelmscott edition of The Well at the World’s End which, she claims, forces us to respond to this romance in terms of the book’s anachronistic and lavish design rather than its narrative content; indeed, Kooistra goes so far as to assert that it is only by reading a modern reprint, in which the narrative is detached from “the material conditions of its […] production as Kelmscott book,” that we can properly appreciate Morris’s story.[51]

            I would argue that to approach the Kelmscott Press editions of the last romances in this way is itself a wilful act―an act of both misrepresentation and misreading. As Peterson observes, readers’ preconceptions that Kelmscott Press pages are cluttered and difficult to read are frequently based on “the innumerable photographs of the most heavily ornamented pages of the Chaucer that seem inevitably to appear in every history of printing and book-design”; in the same way, as Norman Talbot emphasizes, criticisms of Morris’s language and sentence structure in the last romances as archaic and convoluted are often based on the selective extraction of particular sentences, or parts of sentences, which are then discussed disapprovingly out of context.[52] Hodgson’s discussion in particular conflates these highly selective criticisms of the Press’s typographical style and the literary style of the romances, and in so doing presents a convenient stereotype rather than an accurate image of these narratives in their Kelmscott Press editions.

            Ultimately, however, there is a more important issue involved here than the correction of factual inaccuracies. In regard to the typography of the Kelmscott Press books, John Dreyfus rightly asserts that “readability is very largely a question of habit. The basic truth is that we read most easily the types that we read most frequently”.[53] The very same claim might be made in terms of the last romances; certain words and grammatical constructions will inevitably be unfamiliar to the modern reader, as indeed they were for Morris’s contemporaries, and undoubtedly these are not the type of narratives ”we read most frequently” in terms of either style or content. But neither unfamiliarity nor unusualness are reasons to dismiss either a mode of typography or a work of literature. To read a Kelmscott Press book or to read one of Morris’s last romances admittedly means making some adjustment in our reading habits and expectations, but if we are willing to make that adjustment the rewards in each case are considerable. And to combine these experiences by reading one of Morris’s romances in its Kelmscott Press edition, offers, I would argue, the greatest reward of all.

v. Conclusion

            W.B. Yeats famously remarked that he found Morris’s last romances “so great a joy that they were the only books I was ever to read slowly that I might not come too quickly to the end”.[54] In accordance with Yeats’s desire, the Kelmscott Press editions of the last romances extend and enhance the pleasure of reading these narratives. From the moment we begin to untie the silk threads that bind the outer covers of these narratives we are engaged in an experience of tactile and visual pleasure that cannot be hurried. The texture and substance of the hand-made paper means we necessarily turn the pages more slowly, whilst the typography and ornamentation encourage the reader to linger a little longer than usual on each page in order to trace the twists of a border, to delight in a well-crafted letter or word, to enjoy the detail of a single leaf used as punctuation or a pair of small flowers trailing the end of a chapter heading. To complain that Morris’s typography and page layout slow the reading process, is, therefore, to miss the point― the slowing down is part of the delight, part of the wonder of reading these narratives in this form. For as Cornelis Verhoeven emphasizes, the experience of wonder involves a “pausing,” and thus operates in direct contrast to haste, which is “a passing-by which misses everything”.[55] The Kelmscott Press editions of the last romances thus deliberately encourage us to be absorbed in what Verhoeven describes as the “enthusiastic contemplation” of wonder, a contemplation which is neither passive nor restrained, but which engages actively with both the subject matter and its material presentation.[56]

            It is thus hard to imagine a more appropriate way of materially presenting Morris’s last romances than in their Kelmscott Press editions. In attempting to articulate the delights of Morris’s final narratives, Margaret Grennan adopts a wonderfully apt simile, describing them as being “like a medieval Book of the Hours, coloured in green and gold and cinnabar, figured with flowers, birds and beasts”―a description that immediately recalls the Princess’s book in The Story of the Glittering Plain.[57] The image captures perfectly the wondrous quality of Morris’s stories by invoking the material qualities of the archetypal book beautiful, and in their Kelmscott Press editions the last romances translate and confirm that image by becoming beautiful books themselves. To read them in this form is to partake actively of the wonder they celebrate. As the protagonists of the romances freely express their inexhaustible sense of wonder at a well-fashioned body, a striking landscape or a beautiful building, acknowledging and honouring these things as an enrichment of human existence, so we as readers engage in our own acts of wonder by holding these books, untying their silk ties, feeling the texture of their handmade paper and turning their decorated pages. Narratives which teach us how to re-discover our sense of wonder through revitalizing our sensory engagement with our physical environment thus make their own direct contribution to the pleasures of that process, presenting themselves as material wonders in their own right.


            Figure 1.  Illustration by Walter Crane for The Story of the Glittering Plain

            Figure 2.  Illustration by Walter Crane for The Story of the Glittering Plain

            Figure 3.  Illustration by Arthur Gaskin for The Well at the World’s End

            Figure 4.  Illustration by Edward Burne-Jones for The Well at the World’s End

            Figure 5.  Frontispiece by Edward Burne-Jones for The Wood Beyond the World

            Figure 6.  William Morris. Decorated page from The Well at the World’s End

[1] May Morris, ed. The Collected Works of William Morris. 24 vols. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1910-15. Vol.XIV, 265-66.

[2] Morris’s last romances include: The Story of the Glittering Plain (1891); The Wood Beyond the World (1894); Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair (1895); The Well at the World’s End (1896); The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897) and The Sundering Flood (1898).

[3] May Morris. Op. cit., 1910-15. Vol. XIV, 292-93.

[4] Morris had originally intended to print The Golden Legend first, but the initial batch of hand-made paper sent to him by Joseph Batchelor, a papermaker from Kent, was too small. Eager to see the Press’s first book in print, Morris decided to embark on The Story of the Glittering Plain which was better suited to the size of Batchelor’s paper. (See William Peterson, The Kelmscott Press: A History of William Morris’s Typographical Adventure. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1991. 102.)  

[5] “The Ideal Book” (1893). May Morris, ed. William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist. 2 vols. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1936. Vol.I, 310; 317; 311.

[6] The Last Romances, with their medieval quest narratives and stylistic archaisms, stand in clear opposition to those ‘novels relating the troubles of a middle-class couple in their struggle towards social uselessness’ which Morris bemoaned as the staple of contemporary literature in his 1888 lecture “The Society of the Future” (May Morris, 1936. Vol.II, 465). In founding the Kelmscott Press, Morris similarly sought to challenge contemporary practices in mass-market publishing by printing books which paid due attention to “the paper, the form of the type, the relative spacing of the letters, the words, and the lines” and “the position of the printed matter on the page” (William Morris. A Note by William Morris on his Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press together with a Short Description of the Press by S.C. Cockerell, and an Annotated List of the Books Printed thereat. London: Kelmscott Press, 1898. 1.). In contrast, Morris claimed, modern books were notable for “the characterless quality of the letters” and “ugly meandering white lines” caused by poor letter spacing, whilst the lack of care in terms of positioning the text meant that “the page looks as if it is being driven off the paper” (May Morris, 1936. Vol.I, 257; 258).

[7] May Morris. Op. cit., 1936. Vol. II, xxviii.

[8] May Morris. Op. cit., 1936. Vol. I, 317.

[9] Josef Pieper. Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Trans. Alexander Dru. London: Faber and Faber, 1952, 133; William Sutton. “Wonder.” Irish Monthly 12 (1884): 365-67, 366.

[10] Mark Kingwell. “Husserl’s Sense of Wonder.” Philosophical Forum 31 (2000): 85-107. 97.

[11] Theodore Watts-Dunton. “The Wood Beyond the World.” Athenaeum (January-June 1895): 273-74. 273; May Morris.1910-15. Vol. XVIII, xxi.

[12] Thomas Carlyle. Sartor Resartus (1833-4). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987, 157; Verhoeven, Cornelis. The Philosophy of Wonder. Translated by Mary Foran. New York: Macmillan, 1972, 182.

[13] May Morris. Op. cit., 1910-15. Vol. XVII, 179.

[14] May Morris. Op. cit., 1910-15. Vol. XVIII, 19-20.

[15] May Morris. Op. cit., 1910-15. Vol. XXI, 73.

[16] May Morris. Op. cit., 1910-15. Vol. XVIII,137.

[17] Howard Parsons. ‘A Philosophy of Wonder.’ Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 30 (1969-70): 84-101. 85.

[18] William Peterson, ed. The Ideal Book: Essays and Lectures on the Art of the Book by William Morris.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982,1.

[19] The “Windmill” appellation was Morris’s own and related to a prominent windmill design in the Psalter. (See J.W. Mackail. The Life of William Morris. 2 vols. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1899. Vol.II, 327-28.)

[20] British Library. William Morris Papers (The Robert Steele Gift – Supplementary Volumes). Add. MS 45409. Sydney Carlyle Cockerell had been employed by Morris to catalogue his library prior to his becoming Secretary to the Kelmscott Press in the summer of 1894.

[21] Aymer Vallance. The Art of William Morris. London: George Bell and Sons, 1897. 167.

[22] Peterson. Op. cit. 1982,1.

[23] “The Kelmscott Press: An Illustrated Interview with Mr. William Morris.” Bookselling (Christmas 1895): 2-14. 2.

[24] May Morris. Op. cit., 1936. Vol I, 311.

[25] Cecil Y. Lang. ed. The Swinburne Letters. 6 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959-62. Vol.VI, 102.

[26] May Morris. Op. cit., 1910-15. Vol. XXIV, x; H. Buxton Forman.The Books of William Morris. London: Frank Hollings, 1897, xiv-xv.

[27] Martin Harrison and Bill Waters. Burne-Jones. Second Edition. London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1989, 164.

[28] Ibid.

[29] W.R. Lethaby. Morris as Work-Master. London: John Hogg, 1902, 21.

[30] Peterson. Op. cit., 1982, xvi.

[31] “William Morris at the Kelmscott Press.” English Illustrated Magazine 13 (1895): 47-55. 54.

[32] Norman Kelvin, ed. The Collected Letters of William Morris. 4 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984-96. Vol. III, 252; Henry Halliday Sparling. The Kelmscott Press and William Morris Master-Craftsman. London: Macmillan, 1924. 80.

[33] Forman. Op. cit. 1897. 155.

[34] Walter Crane. An Artist’s Reminiscences. London: Methuen and Co., 1907, 328.

[35] British Library. The Cockerell Papers. Add. MS 5267.

[36] Kelvin. Op. cit., 1984-96. Vol.III, 267.

[37] Cited in Peterson. Op. cit., 1991, 104.

[38] Peterson. Op. cit., 1991, 154, 156.

[39] Kelvin. Op. cit., 1984-96, Vol. IV, 130.

[40] Ibid., 60.

[41] Ibid., 247.

[42] William Morris Papers. Add. MS 45410.

[43] Peterson. Op. cit., 1991, 159.

[44] May Morris. Op. cit., 1936. Vol. I. 317-18.

[45] William Morris. A Note by William Morris on his Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press together with a Short Description of the Press by S.C. Cockerell, and an Annotated List of the Books Printed thereat. London: Kelmscott Press, 1898. 6.

[46] Peterson. Op. cit., 1991, 105.

[47] For Morris’s reference to The Well at the World’s End as “The Interminable,” see May Morris. Op. cit.,1936. Vol. I, 511-12; Forman. Op. cit.1897, 187.

[48] Peterson. Op. cit., 1982, xxxi; Jerome McGann. Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. 75.

[49] Paul Thompson. The Work of William Morris. London: Quartet Books, 1977, 178; Colin Franklin. Printing and the Mind of Morris: Three Paths to the Kelmscott Press. Cambridge: Rampant Lions Press, 1986, 7, 50.

[50] Amanda Hodgson.The Witch in the Wood: William Morris’s Romance Heroines and the Late-Victorian ‘New Woman’. London: William Morris Society, 2000, 23.

[51] Lorraine Janzen Kooistra.The Artist as Critic: Bitextuality in Fin-de-Siècle Illustrated Books. Hampshire: Scolar Press, 1995, 175.

[52] Peterson. Op. cit., 1991, 105. Norman Talbot makes this point particularly well when discussing Philip Henderson’s artful quotation of only the first part of the opening sentence of The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897) to justify an unfavourable criticism of Morris’s style when, as Talbot demonstrates, “there is far less archaism” in the remainder of the sentence. See Norman Talbot. “‘Whilom, as tells the tale’: the Language of the Prose Romances.” Journal of William Morris Studies  8 (Spring 1989): 16-26. 16.

[53] John Dreyfus. “William Morris: Typographer.” William Morris and the Art of the Book. Paul Needham et al. New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, 1976, 71-94; 79.

[54] W.B. Yeats. Autobiographies. London: Macmillan, 1926, 174.

[55] Verhoeven. Op. cit., 1972, 186.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Grennan, Margaret. William Morris: Medievalist and Revolutionary. New York: King’s Crown Press, 1945, 133.

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