Reading Matters


This issue was inspired by a wish that two intellectual communities might be brought together: Æ’s regular readers and an international set of William Morris scholars, less familiar with this aesthetics journal. For the former, the encounter with Morris may introduce a shift in their philosophical preoccupations. For the latter, the possibility that Morris’s ideas could constitute a philosophy of art might be equally unexpected. Such estranging moments could unsettle established assumptions, but they will hopefully also widen the parameters of theoretical discussion, both in Morris studies and in the current field of aesthetics.


            In the 1990s, when post-modernism and post-colonialism still governed the literary academe, Morris studies were treated as specialized spheres of scholarly interest, sequestered in the darker recesses of intellectual debate. In 2000, when the canonical seventh edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature (NAEL) only included three of his poems in its thousand pages, and this amid a plethora of works by heavily represented Victorian writers, the stamp of Morris’s marginality in mainstream scholarship was sealed. Ironically, in the same thrust, the NAEL featured Morris’s 1883 “Sketch for Windrush” as the cover design of its media (CD Rom) companion.

            Being a wallpaper pattern, “Sketch for Windrush” foregrounded Morris’s achievements as a Victorian designer of domestic furnishings and as a pioneer of the Arts and Crafts Movement, but it also obscured the depth and breadth of his literary, political, and philosophical writings. Though he authored the longest poem in the English language (The Earthly Paradise), Morris, for many, remains a minor poet, overshadowed by his multifaceted prowess as a craftsman (a designer of wallpapers, fabrics, typography, tapestries, etc.), as well as by his political activism. Politics and the heavily manual character of his artistic achievements have predisposed some to see him as a practical artist, less inclined towards theorizing aesthetics, politics or economics than simply creating works of beauty. If naive simplicity has been associated with his artisanal works, it is an assumption that has also coloured the popular perception of his literary writings and lectures on aesthetics. Indeed, a misguided contempt for craft by modern philosophers of art has undermined the appreciation of Morris’s cultural import. His protean and wide-ranging achievements have also strangely complicated his celebrity. Forming an awesome web of disciplinary strands, his versatile accomplishments win him praise, but complicate classification, barring him from occupying a comfortable space in any one major field of study.  In fact, his polyvalent oeuvre is quietly disturbing, for it calls into question the rigid walls of the academe, the artificial divisions in bureaucracy and educational thought that polarize art and science, aesthetics and politics, and not least, mental and manual activity. In a world where knowledge is rationalized into discrete units and severed into many ‘solitudes,’ Morris’s inter-disciplinarity baffles conventional thinking; he remains a figure on the fringe of the institutional canon.

Vindications as Appropriations

            These preliminary remarks clearly echo the discourse of a long line of admirers and critics who have lamented the misreading and marginalization of Morris’s oeuvre; these followers have advanced their own views as correctives to a consensus that has relegated Morris’s ideas to the penumbra of dimly-lit library stacks; each has sought to annul the misapprehensions that have shaped the fraught reception of Morris’s writings, from re-evaluations of his first major publication (The Defence of Guenevere), initially the object of hostility and misunderstanding,[1] through 20th-century vindications of Morris’s socialist thought,[2] to 20th- and 21st-century re-examinations of his late romances,[3] originally dismissed as escapist creative fantasy [4] through to a striking reversal in reading Morris’s ‘antiquarian’ Kelmscott typography as the crucible of a novel and trend-setting political aesthetic. [5]

            One consistent strand of the reception history of Morris’s work is that of ‘protest’—now strident and polemical, now sober and scholarly—against his unjust exclusion from the arena of significant debate, whether in politics, literature, art or philosophy. If 19th-century reactions to his writings chiefly concerned matters of poetics and literary taste, the question of his politico-cultural contribution to society dominated reactions from the 20th century.[6] In 1934, on the occasion of centenary celebrations marking Morris’s birth, historian Robin Page Arnot excoriated the canonization of Morris as a conservative Englishman. For Arnot, the ‘authentic’ Morris profile—the revolutionary Marxist—had been defaced. Through a seminal pamphlet (William Morris: a Vindication), Arnot challenged the conservative co-option of Morris’s legacy, stressing instead his Marxist persuasion, and spawning a series of comparable responses from other Communists. [7] Defenses of Morris’s political vision culminated in E.P. Thompson’s watershed study, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. While also emphasizing Morris’s Marxist thinking and fervent activism, Thompson wove the legacy of Romantic sublimity into a discussion of Morris’s political strivings. In this, Thompson gestured towards a synthesis of Morris’s artistic (implicitly, romantic) and revolutionary impulses—two complementary energies that had hitherto been polarized by competing ideological claimants alike. Sectarian representations of Morris from ideologues, such as Stanley Baldwin, eclipsed the Victorian’s subversive thinking, lest it provoke social discontent; equally selective portraits of Morris from Communists muted discussion of his ties to literary, romantic and utopian traditions lest these appeared to undermine his iconic embodiment of revolutionary praxis and scientific reason. In his 1976 postscript to Romantic to Revolutionary, Thompson by contrast unrestrainedly declared that “in their influence upon Morris in the fifties, Ruskin’s writings were perhaps of greatest importance in helping towards his choice of art as the central battleground in the ‘Holy warfare against the age.’ ” [8] Through Ruskin, he claimed, Morris’s path to Marx had been paved. Politics and aesthetics (and other antinomies: science and utopia, art and social praxis, critical reason and contemplative feeling, etc.) were at last being construed in their dialectical unity rather than as two irreconcilable horns of Morris’s public countenance.

            Like Thompson, who sought to foreground “Morris’s independent derivation of Communism out of the logic of the Romantic tradition; upon the character of his Utopianism; and upon the relations in which moral sensibility stands to political consciousness,” [9] the late Canadian scholar John Lang argued that Morris’s aesthetic philosophy transcends the divisions established by his admirers’ fervent judgments. Their penchant for tendentiousness in representing Morris’s oeuvre contrasts with the variety but also unifying fullness of his work, which resists neat classification and categorical separation into two (or more) discrete camps. Lang saw a higher unity in Morris’s otherwise fractured corpus of work, a convergence of political and aesthetic concerns that come to light most poignantly during the 1870s and 1880s when Morris delivered a series of lectures to a wide spectrum of audiences on the relation between art and labour. During those years, Morris formulated his theory of aesthetics in conjunction with a critique of society’s class cleavage, challenging not only his own contemporaries but today’s literary critics and philosophers who persistently strain to comprehend his embrace of ornate aesthetics and socialist propaganda. At pains to show that Morris’s radical thought emanated from a diverse array of sources, conservative, liberal, as well as Marxist, Lang concluded that no intellectual or ideological movement has been able to circumscribe Morris fully under its own aegis or banner; the Victorian figure remains independent, in a sphere quite beyond his claimants.[10]

Strivings for Authenticity

            Lang’s deep preoccupation with Morris’s fractious legacy reminds us that Morris’s views have been appropriated for instrumental ends and that this appropriation has severed the man’s views into a frustrating dichotomy overshadowing his dialectical sensibility. Both in the sphere of scholarship, as well as in the ideological arena, the battle over Morris’s ‘veritable’ identity has been a battle for ‘truth,’ a striving to assert authenticity. Yet the authenticity has not necessarily reflected the true Morris, but rather the ideology to which he has been attached. In the case of conservatives, the ‘authentic’ Morris was forged out of biographical ‘verities’ (often merging with anecdotal narratives); these constituted a selection of Morris’s artistic and humanist virtues, shaped into an idealized (and thus sanitized) icon of Victorian Englishness. In parallel fashion, Communists showcased Morris as authentically communist to foreground his radicalism, but also to strengthen their own ideological posture. In each case, Morris’s particular qualities were selectively extracted to promote a specific notion of authenticity, inflected and defined to suit the claimants in question. [11]

            These quests for Morris’s authenticity constitute evaluative judgments involving a process of ‘correspondence’ work; they define Morris’s genuine identity in function of a given template or paradigm (be it a nationalist narrative claiming a pure pedigree or a scientific doctrine claiming rational truth). Both quests presuppose that authenticity is about the original thing, or person, and that this uniquely genuine original is counter-posed to the counterfeit, the illusory or the mythical.  Such approaches to authenticity also imply that a given object or person is true to its/his roots or conforms to an established orthodoxy. [12]  But the judgment of Morris’s authenticity does not necessarily depend on what is ultimately a positivistic test: factual and reasoned evidence demonstrating that he corresponds to a primary narrative of origins, or to this or that doctrine. An alternative perspective is in order, such as that offered by Adorno in his discussion of the authenticity of (musical) works of art. Moving away from the validation of authenticity through some pre-established narrative (Urgeschichte), Adorno presents a view based on the formal integrity of an aesthetic object and its relation to its historical moment.“He identifies authenticity with the concept of consistency [Stimmigkeit] in connection with the way a work of art is structured. A work is structurally consistent [stimmig] to the extent that its structure is the full realization of its dominating idea.”[13] Its authenticity also resides in its inherent critique of society’s flaws and blindspots. In a general way, Adorno’s theory coincides with Michaela Braesel’s reading of Morris’s notion of authenticity as exemplified in his medievalism: “fitness to material production” (consistency and integrity of production) and “fitness to time.” Debunking the idea that Morris was a slavish copier of the past, Braesel stresses the adaptive character of his art; the styles that he developed were inspired by medieval forms, but configured to meet material and temporal contingencies of his 19th-century public. Authenticity for him did not therefore reside in replicating the past as it was, were that possible, but in reconciling past forms with contemporary realities. Simultaneously, authenticity was defined by the material and social aspect of artistic production: the harmony of materials and tools, and the cooperative nature of artistic work; together these constituted the indices of ‘genuine’ art as well as a critique of his own Victorian world that was predicated on an asymmetrical division of labour. [14]

Mabb’s Rhythm 69


            In a striking way, David Mabb’s Rhythm 69, an exhibit fusing elements of Morris, Hans Richter and Kazimir Malevich (for which Mabb’s own introduction and Colin Darke’s commentary below provide illuminating connections with Russian and German Constructivism) concretizes the two facets of Morrisian authenticity as advanced by Braesel: integrity of material production and fitness to time. Materially, the wallpaper designs which Mabb merges with Malevich’s formalism produce an inherently consistent aesthetic arising out of the exhibit’s narrative movement. Drawing the eye across a series of panels, the sequential display generates an overall integrity and unity of colour schemes and techniques: in several instances, the Soviet colour combination of red and black repeatedly set against Morris’s more varied, but subdued, palette of hues conveys the work’s two competing aesthetic drives, eventually coexisting in an exciting and eccentric blend. Consistency of aesthetic is not immediately felt; it is grasped across the temporal and spatial unfolding of the exhibit’s 69 frames. The eye must labour to capture the integrity of the whole.


            Targeting today’s 21st-century audience, Rhythm 69 engages in a novel reworking (and thus re-appropriation) of Morrisian patterns and motifs. In this, it foregrounds Morris’s second criterion of authenticity — the work of art’s relevance to the artist’s contemporary era. As Braesel explains, Morris insisted that models drawn from the past had to be adapted and arranged in function of the artist’s present, not as blind rehearsals or reflexive reproductions of tradition. This, in essence, is what Mabb’s artistic rendering of Morris achieves; it satisfies the criterion of artistic timeliness, appropriating the Victorian wallpaper designs, yet pictorially embodying a 20th- and 21st-century debate that has severed Morris’s public profile in two: the poet/artist versus the political reformer. Mabb’s use of Morrisian art (emblematic of a rural English utopia) and Soviet modernist aesthetics, implicitly referring to intellectual developments of the Russian Revolution (see Colin Darke’s poignant commentary) rehearses the dilemma around which polemical vindications and scholarly writings on Morris have revolved: i.e., whether floral aesthetics can be reconciled with the formalist graphics, scientificity and cataclysm of revolutionary politics, but also whether Morris’s aesthetic appeal to a market of fashion designers and upper-class consumers contradicts his socialist commitments.[15] Through its own visual medium, Rhythm 69 intervenes in this debate, giving primacy to its own historical moment and to its self-conscious technique of appropriation and adaptation.


            As a modernist, Mabb is preoccupied with the commodification of Morris’s art. The disruptive aesthetic force of his exhibit lies in its reaction against the colonization of Morris’s oeuvre by mainstream culture and against the erasure of Morris’s transformative politics. [16] Although Mabb’s exhibit has been on tour, its target audience appears to be an English public, conversant (and almost exclusively so) with the commercialized Morris aesthetic, stereotypically represented by the wallpaper designs that pervade the greeting cards of art gallery bookshops, and the Victorian-style furnishings at London’s Liberty’s. Mabb reworks precisely those images that have been commodified into a signature of fashionable English taste—seen as pleasingly organized patterns, replete with flowers, foliage, and entangled vines, apparently remote from Morris’s controversial politics. But as a dramatic montage of two converging styles (decorative arts and constructivism), Mabb’s exhibit strikes a note of dissonance into any complacent assumption that subsumes Morris’s work under the category of “homegrown” English art. Taken apart, the term releases its ideological scent: “home” and “grown” capture the double significance of Morris’s commercialized profile: an intuitively felt sense of Englishness, popularly associated with Morris himself, as well as an organicism of floral patterns, which, to the undiscriminating viewer, loosely, but misleadingly, evokes a Burkean conservative social order—jealously guarded as natural and politically unshakeable, yet anathema to Morris’s dissenting political ethos.


            In what appears to be a gesture of defiance, shattering the lens through which Morris is popularly perceived, Mabb’s exhibit displays an agitational shock effect, consonant with its modernist aesthetic. To those admirers that lovingly embrace Morris’s wallpapers, cherishing each work of art as an object of sentimental affection, Rhythm 69 may come as a desecration of a ‘sacred’ cultural heritage.  To the connoisseur or Morris fan, the images, recalled by name (Acanthus, Pimpernel, Chrysanthemum, Daisy, Honeysuckle, Willow, etc.) are transfigured here, estranged by their convergence with European constructivism. Morrisian authenticity has, they might say, been marred. An established English aesthetic (predicated on a ‘native’ English knowledge of botany) has been grafted to another (foreign) specimen of art. Contrary to the traditionalist concept of authenticity that probes roots and origins (digging in biography and archival artifacts for the Ur Morris), Mabb’s substantially Morrisian quest for authenticity arises out of a creative hybridization of stark formalism and voluptuous organicism; the initial effect is to dislodge entrenched presuppositions: i.e., that Morris’s art, grounded as it is in the motifs of a pastoral world, with its resonances of a bucolic Englishness, offers easy viewing, wholly incompatible with the cerebral character of Soviet formalist design—and by extension, that Morris’s aesthetics of organicism cannot merge with the politics of (Soviet) revolution. But Mabb’s exhibit (and Colin Darke’s commentary on it) suggests that through a paradoxical convergence they can, and that the encounter of these apparently opposed styles provokes both the viewer’s initially bristling response (an intolerance of this hybridizing artistry) as well as a subsequent moment of deepening appreciation. In its own graphic and symbolic terms, Rhythm 69 wrenches mainstream viewers out of their dualist preconceptions, compelling them to complicate and reconsider their blithe readings of Morris’s wallpaper art. For, just as Mabb’s artistic technique entails stripping and refinishing material surfaces (dismantling and reconstructing Morris’s wallpaper book), so it involves stripping prejudicial standpoints defined by the commercially fetishized Morrisian aesthetic.


            The perceptual shift that arises from Mabb’s montage, in which geometric shapes slice into Morris’s patterns of fecundity and recursive movement, is one where the status of wallpaper as subliminal background or mere external furnishing is transformed; it morphs from flat exterior décor to an object of intense scrutiny and eventually into a multi-leveled space, seducing the viewer into its depths. Here, the initial opposition between the curvaceous organic motif and the rigid scientificity of the formalist design dissolves. Morris’s floral patterns are inherently wrought of geometric grids and they are abstractions from nature, not a mimetic reproduction of nature’s every speck and hue. The wallpaper’s ‘decorative’ structures are thus the beginnings of ‘form’ and their embryonic trace of formalist abstraction becomes decidedly more visible thanks to the bold geometrical shapes that Mabb imposes on the Morrisian foliage. The repetition but also the enormous variety in Morris’s patterns surface more prominently when the Malevich squares and circles are introduced as lenses that magnify the inherently complex geometry of Morris’s original frames. And while the intended flatness of the wallpaper precludes any naturalistic portrait of nature, the two-dimensionality of the design paradoxically harbours several spatial depths. The insertion of Malevich-type squares and circles serves to accentuate the presence of perspective already manifest in the wallpaper’s stylized shadings and curled acanthus leaves.


            Mabb’s use of colour alters the original Morris palette, but in so doing, brings out the wallpaper’s visual density and inherently serious content, calling attention to the physiologically regenerative (and thus political) value of the decorative form, with its graphic reference to an alternative social existence based on creative labour and salutary human pleasures. While this decorative style of the Arts and Crafts Movement (which Morris pioneered) has been the object of formalist contempt, here the convergence of formalist shapes and decorative art dispels the latter’s imputed naivete. Clearly, there is more to Morris than meets the eye. For behind the visual dynamic that Mabb creates in joining Morris and Malevich resides a political message, central to Morris’s wallpaper art, and repeatedly disseminated in his lectures of the 1870s and 80s. These addresses reinforce the significance of art in everyday life, the infusion of aesthetic consciousness in the domestic world, and the reconfiguration of labour into artistic praxis. [17] Morris’s precepts for artistic production and reception assume concrete shape in his wallpaper frames: each becomes the site in which restful contemplation, inspired by the visual rhythms of repetition and variation, offers a therapeutic antidote to the intensity of modern life. [18] No longer to be seen as mere backdrop, the wallpaper is a ‘domesticated’ natural environment that enables the individual to make sense of the external world under conditions of physical peace and mental clarity. As a site of repose, the wallpaper equally precludes dull rest; the intricacy of floral designs forecloses reflexive thinking. In fact, the densely wrought patterns are a constant reminder that much of Morris’s art and its internal political critique still elude our visual and mental grasp, still beg our ongoing inquiry. To know Morris authentically is to recognize that his value lies in a richness that proliferates beyond our theoretical presuppositions, and that each of our appropriations of his oeuvre will always be an unstable and evolving relationship between a history of readings and the historicity (and subjectivity) of each reader.

Reading as Appropriation

            Tony Pinkney’s modernist and postmodernist reading of News from Nowhere confronts this very question. Deploying a Jamesonian (but also somewhat Kantian) paradigm to underscore the invariably subjective investments which frame our reading practices, his discussion of Morris’s utopian romance throws into doubt the objectivity that other critics have innocently assigned their own, inexorably subjective, readings. Pinkey’s interpretation is not only a novel appraisal of Morris’s highly commented text, it is also a commentary on the multitude of previous readings that have vied for some absolute truth, unwitting of, or reluctant to admit, their predispositions – ideological or other. In this sense, his discussion relaxes the taut strings of past polemical debates that have tethered the reading of News from Nowhere to a familiar conundrum: how to imagine the viability of Morris’s revolutionary politics alongside the idealism and seeming quietism of his pastoral utopia? In moving beyond that dilemma, Pinkney’s hermeneutic turn, from convinced ideological jockeying to a self-conscious interpretative stance, alters our scholarly treatment of Morris. More than a textual or historical artifact from which we might extract some empirically visible and stable truth, Morris becomes a subject like ourselves, facing the same dilemmas of interpretation, the same qualms over language (i.e., that it might yield dreadful misapprehensions), the same fluidity and contradictoriness of being that forbid easy circumscription. Pinkney’s appraisal of Morris’s utopian romance reveals how much of our interpretation is about appropriating texts for ourselves and making our objects conform to our contemporary needs and values; and in a political sense, this is precisely what Morris underlines in News from Nowhere when his beloved heroine, Ellen, counsels the protagonist, William Guest, to take the experience of Nowhere and transport it back home, back to the Victorian age where it might be appropriated and rendered meaningful in its own 19th-century terms.

            As an artist who drew models from the past and from other national cultures (e.g., Nordic sagas, Persian carpets, medieval literary genres of romance and dream visions, etc.), Morris, himself, was the appropriator par excellence. A translator of old English and old French tales, a reviver of Gothic aesthetics, an adaptor of Ruskinian theories, a styliser of nature’s biological shapes, he culled from multiple sources, recognizing his debt to tradition, yet also marking his individual signature. Appropriation for him was an ethical, hermeneutical and political act;[19] it was driven by creative appetite, but curbed by social responsibility. It signified a type of cognitive apprehension, a dialectical grasp of knowledge exhibiting sensitivity to history and tradition, but also an occasion for autonomous agency.  As a materialist, Morris’s cultural appropriations embraced the mental and manual facets of human experience. Reading, for one, was not an exclusively cerebral act but a moment of sensual and sensuous consumption. His Kelmscott Press works are, as Phillippa Bennett explains, creations of wonder that break the membrane of mundane thinking and through their textured pages and ornamented letters, redefine the reader’s appreciation of the written form. Here, unity of physical and intellectual appropriation is paramount. Gently held, and leisurely consumed against the accelerating pace of modern life, Morris’s beautiful books alter not only the reading of ornamented texts, but the reader’s world outlook. Bennett’s discussion of wonder in the production and reception of Morris’s Kelmscott editions (notably, his late romances) brings out the revolutionary nature of his aesthetics. For his novelty was not only in proposing a society where alienated labour would be expunged and superseded by art; his originality lay in recognizing wonder’s life-enhancing value, an aesthetic attitude that extends the individual’s selfhood, showing how delight in the unexpected is not a passive, but an active expansion of human capability and contentment. Wonder is also essential to Morris’s dialectics of appropriation in creative activity; in this, the individual recognizes the limits of his own appropriative acts, the resistances imposed by sensuous matter, but also the joys of invention and the enlarged aesthetic consciousness arising from the overcoming of necessity.

            Bennett’s approach to the Kelmscott publications hints at Morris’s phenomenology of creative and receptive aesthetic experience. The pleasure of craft experienced mutually by user and maker encapsulates the essence of Morris’s philosophy of art—one so embodied in the plasticity of his creations, in his writings on design and colour, and in political lectures on labour, that to many, it has scarcely been discerned. The late John Lang was among the first to have made inroads into the discussion of Morris’s aesthetics. Included in this issue is an excerpted chapter from his doctoral dissertation. Focusing on Ruskin’s theories of art, and noting their Schillerian and Hegelian resonances, Lang’s chapter lays the foundation for grasping the origins of Morris’s morally and politically informed views on aesthetics.

            Although apparently removed from 19th-century art theories, Colin Darke’s analysis of Mabb’s exhibit manages to embrace both the contrasts and continuities between Morris and the European Constructivists/Suprematists (notably, Malevich), while intersecting with Lang’s discussion of Ruskin’s Stones of Venice on the enslaving perfectionism imposed on the worker by machine work. In a similar spirit, Malevich sees excessive emphasis on skill as a measure of human alienation from nature. Here Morris meets Malevich through Ruskin’s celebrated critique of the tyranny of machine-governed technique, but he also encounters the Soviet artist in the geometry of aesthetics; the latter is starkly evident in Malevich’s formalist squares, but is also emphatically present in Morris’s lectures on design. Darke’s discussion draws parallels from contrary perspectives, implicitly urging us to adopt a dialectical approach in holding together such apparently different artists in one mental thrust. Thus, Constructivist ideals of industrialization—perceived by pre-Stalinist revolutionaries as sites in which manual and mental labour could be fused—and Morris’s posited coalescence of intellectual and physical dimensions of medieval craft are at once distinct and intimately related manifestoes for a Communist commonweal.

            My own essay seeks to elucidate Morris’s theory of materialist aesthetics, which challenges (at a price) the presuppositions of Kantian idealism and early modernism.   Bringing Morrisian thought into the company of eighteenth-century philosophy may appear highly unorthodox, but it serves to dispel the commonplace view that Morris’s artisanal work was without theoretical sophistication. In this sense, Lang’s chapter and my own intervention constitute further acts of reclamation, vindications not dissimilar to past writings that have unearthed and eagerly restored some buried aspect of Morris’s rich cultural bequest.


            Entitled Reading Matters, this special issue focuses on the questions of reading and appropriation from a variety of perspectives, each stemming (directly or indirectly) from the 20th-century ideological drives to claim and reclaim Morris’s legacy. The reincarnation of this ‘appropriative’ phenomenon can be seen in Mabb’s material re-workings of Morris’s wallpaper book, Colin Darke’s re-viewing of Rhythm 69’s dialogue with German and Russian constructivism, Braesel’s re-consideration of Morris’s medievalist aesthetic, Pinkney’s Jamesonian re-evaluation of News from Nowhere, Bennett’s re-affirmation of the Kelmscott editions of Morris’s late romances, Lang’s inclusion of Morris’s philosophical ideas within the pantheon of 18th- and 19th-century thought, and my own resuscitation of Morris’s philosophy of art. Like all scholarly texts, each of these essays offers a re-reading of past readings and implicitly a contestation of perceived mis-readings. Tacitly or explicitly referring to the layers of representation and critical analyses that have grown around Morris’s now mossy legacy, each essay is a dialogue with the ghosts of past scholarship and with Morris’s own prevailing spirit. Each, despite disavowals and distancing from former readings, remains a search for the authentic Morris, whose absence leaves one groping in the dark, discerning his silhouette through traces, graphics, and linguistic runes. In the midst of this still uncertain grasp of Morris’s oeuvre, it is at least clear that every hermeneutical enterprise is an instance of appropriation, at once receptive (pertaining to apprehension) and creative (pertaining to judgment), at once subjective and objective, indeed, as sensuous and affective as it is abstract and cerebral. Reading and appropriation necessarily embrace the materiality of intellectual activity. This, more certainly, we can argue is Morris’s genuine legacy, for it is consistent with his materialist theory of art and its emphasis on the cooperation of mental and manual faculties made possible by an alternative commonweal. In his typically sensuous response to the world of art, politics and ethics, Morris’s artistic and humanist integrity falls under Adorno’s concept of authenticity: the immanently purposive yet historically engaged work of art or artist, internally coherent, yet critical of, and at odds with, the surrounding social world. Morris’s dialogue with culture and society then is twofold; his works of art and writings are beautiful in their aesthetic shapeliness, yet subtly and not so subtly disruptive of the norms and values that govern his Victorian era. In this lies Morris’s typically dialectical disposition, one which often eluded the dualist and tendentious thinking of his early admirers.

            It is the purpose of this special issue to bring together essays whose perspectives match Morris’s dialectical penchant and whose theoretical interventions echo his own efforts to supersede the classic rift of politics and aesthetics, so deeply entrenched in the landscape of modernity.


            I wish to thank the following institutions and persons for kindly granting Æ copyright permission to reproduce images and material pertaining to William Morris: Dover Publications Inc., the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tate Gallery, the William Morris Gallery, Sotheby’s, the Wormsley Library (Bucks.), the Society of Antiquaries (Kelmscott Manor, London), the Bernisches Historisches Museum, the British Library, the National Trust Photography Library, the Golden Thread Gallery (Belfast), and most especially, David Mabb and Marisa Lang.

            Finally, I owe thanks to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for financing and facilitating the production of this issue and to George Browne, Paul Leduc Browne and Olivier Roy for their web-mastering work.

Michelle Weinroth

[1]As Peter Faulkner notes, Morris bore the brunt of adverse reaction to the Pre-Raphaelite innovations, having published The Defence of Guenevere before Swinburne and the Rossettis had stepped into the fray. “Thus, the widespread suspicion from which the Pre-Raphaelite painters were only gradually emerging readily transferred itself to Morris’s poetry. Rossetti led his poetic army from the rear, while Morris paid the price of being in the van.” Peter Faulkner (ed.), William Morris: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.,1973, 6.

[2] See Michelle Weinroth, Reclaiming William Morris. Englishness, Sublimity, and the Rhetoric of Dissent. Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996.

[3]See Carole Silver, The Romance of William Morris. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1982; Amanda Hodgson, The Romances of William Morris. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987; Phillippa Bennett.“Rediscovering the Topography of Wonder: Morris, Iceland and the Last Romances.” The Journal of William Morris Studies. Volume XVI, nos. 2 & 3. (Summer-Winter 2005): 31-48.

[4] Morris’s Kelmscott Press work was construed for years as the domain of privileged antiquarian interest and by May Morris as “holiday work.” See May Morris, ed. The Collected Works of William Morris. New York: Russell & Russell, 1966, Vol. XVII, xvi-xvii.  Others saw the typographical enterprise as a sign that Morris had stoically abandoned political proselytizing, his ebullient spirit having ceded to the ravages of old age. See E.P. Thompson. William Morris. Romantic to Revolutionary. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976, 580-83.

[5] See Jerome McGann, Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993; Elizabeth Helsinger. “William Morris before Kelmscott.” The Victorian Illustrated Book. Ed. Richard Maxwell. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002, 209-238; Jeffrey Skoblow “Beyond Reading, Kelmscott and the Modern.” The Victorian Illustrated Book. Ed. Richard Maxwell. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002, 239-258.

[6] See Faulkner’s remark that “it is as social critic rather than designer or poet that Morris is most recognized today [the 20th century]. G.D.H. Cole’s centenary selection from Morris’s writings in 1934 already showed this emphasis. Cole printed only two long narrative poems (one of them the Socialist ‘Pilgrims of Hope’), but eleven of the lectures.” Faulkner. Op. cit., 23. Although part of a wave of studies on Morris that emphasized the social critic as much as the poet, E.P. Thompson’s postscript to his  1976 edition of Romantic to Revolutionary identifies (for its own era) a significant dearth of critical writings on Morris’s poetry and prose.  See Thompson, op.cit., 764.

[7] Weinroth. Op. cit., 84-118.

[8] Thompson. Op. cit., 40.

[9]  Ibid., 802.

[10] John Lang presents these ideas in an unpublished conference paper to which Marisa Lang kindly granted me access.

[11] Weinroth. Op. cit. See chapters 2 & 3.

[12] See Max Paddison, “Authenticity and Failure in Adorno’s Aesthetics of Music.” The Cambridge Companion to Adorno. Ed. Tom Huhn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 201.

[13] Ibid., 205.

[14] Note that Max Paddison emphasizes the work of art’s internal critique of society as a feature of Adorno’s notion of authenticity.

[15] See Mabb’s introduction on this.

[16] A more vigorous instance of this modernist reaction can be seen in Mabb’s earlier work that Steve Edwards discusses in his “The Trouble with Morris.” The Journal of William Morris Studies.  Volume XV, no.1 (Winter  2002): 4-10.

[17] See, in this issue, Michelle Weinroth, “William Morris’s Philosophy of Art.”

[18] Helsinger. Op. cit., 209-210.

[19] For a discussion of Morris’s epitome of ideal labour (i.e., architectural art as cooperative, ethical and aesthetic production), see, in this issue, Michelle Weinroth, “William Morris’s Philosophy of Art.”

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