Early life 1853-70
In 1853 Morris entered Exeter College, Oxford, where he began associations which affected his entire life. The closest of his new friends was the aesthetically gifted Edward Burne-Jones (then Edward Jones), who remained a lifelong friend and artistic and business associate. Burne-Jones had been raised in Birmingham and introduced Morris to many of his former Birmingham friends, including Cormell Price, William Fulford and R. W. Dixon. Morris and his friends were influenced by early Victorian respect for the putative values of the medieval period, though in his case this interest was to become a motivating force in all his artistic endeavors. In boyhood he had read all of Walter Scott's novels, preferring The Antiquary. In 1829 Southey's Colloquies had proclaimed a common view: "Bad as the feudal times were, they were far less injurious than these commercial ones to the kindly and generous feelings of human nature, and far, far more favorable to the principles of honor and integrity."
In part as a critique of industrialism and modernity, the sense of moral values latent in medieval architecture was promoted by John Ruskin's "The Nature of Gothic," a chapter of his 1853-56 Stones of Venice. As "Gothic" became fashionable, the Houses of Parliament, railroad stations, churches, private houses and even advertisements were constructed on medieval models. Thomas Carlyle's Past and Present (1847) proclaimed the need to insert allegedly medieval ideals of leadership and respect for vocation into the present-day world of commerce.
Morris's many activities during this period were remarked on by all. Among other things, he was energetically active at single stick--and his coach, Maclaren, reported that Morris's bill for broken sticks and foils equaled that of all of his other pupils together. One wonders whether this demonstrated energy of character, fervor, or restlessness. Was Morris simply clumsy? Discontent? Angry? He and Burne-Jones also sung plain-song at the morning services at St. Thomas, and belonged to the Music Room in Holywell.
In 1855 Morris began reading a series of his poems to his friends, the earliest known record of his composition of poetry. R. W. Dixon, his college friend and later Pre-Raphaelite poet, was an enthusiastic admirer of Morris's "The Willow and the Red Cliff," a poem in which a deserted, distressed woman dies. Dixon noted Morris's wonderful facility of composition; and although manuscript evidence shows that he made many efforts for each published poem, the assumption that Morris was facilely gifted was to hurt his reputation.These early poems also show the influence of the then-popular "Spasmodic poets," among them Alexander Smith (57).
Morris' Oxford period was characterized by some concern with social issues of the day, an interest to be taken up in later life. This was the period of Crimean War, and the young men were concerned with reports of the war. Edward Burne-Jones attempted to obtain a commission but was rejected as unfit, "I wanted to go and get killed" (compare the hero of Tennyson's 1855 Maud).
The fact that they were written during or shortly after the Crimean War may have contributed to some military elements of Morris's early romances and poems, such as the figures of the soldiers in "The Wind." But in all, considering the importance of the war to national life, Morris's circle seems not to have been very directly affected.
He and Burne-Jones visited the Royal Academy and saw Pre-Raphaelite paintings, including Brown's "The Last of England." He met Georgiana Macdonald, Burne-Jones future wife, at the Royal Academy, and she described Morris respectfully (his eyes seemed to take in rather than give out). Also in this period they encountered the Pre-Raphaelite journal, The Germ, published in 1850, with D. G. Rossetti's "The Blessed Damozel." They decided Rossetti was the chief of the Pre-Raphaelites, and read Ruskin's essay on Pre-Raphaelitism as well as his other writings. Later Burne-Jones and Morris were to become friends with Rossetti, a somewhat older painter and poet who became an important influence on their artistic tastes. The Germ would also inspire Morris and his friends to their first communal endeavor, the periodical The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine.
In the summer of 1855, Morris, Burne-Jones and William Fulford started a walking tour of France, carrying no books with them except a copy of Keats. Morris disliked Paris, although he did see seven Pre-Raphaelite pictures at the Musee des Beaux Artes. Of the countryside by Bruges Morris wrote, they were "the most beautiful fields I ever saw yet, . . . looking as if they belonged to no man." Characteristically he hated the railway.
By the quay at Havre Burne-Jones and Morris together made an important resolve, to live a life dedicated to art. As Burne-Jones described it, "after that night's talk we never hesitated more. That was the most memorable night of my life." This decision represented a shift away from church and religion; Morris's mother wanted her son to become a clergyman, and presumably art represented an impractical choice for both.
After their return, Morris visited Birmingham, a visit described with enthusiasm in the diary of Cormell Price's sisters (68). While there they bought a copy of the Morte d'Arthur, then a relatively obscure book. Morris wanted to start right away at being an architect, and wrote letters to Cormell Price and his mother explaining his decision (see Kelvin); in these he claims he has no ability to set the world to rights, temporarily renounces the social and political aspects of the Brotherhood, but affirms the happiness he feels when making things and his hope that such work will be pleasant to others.
In 1855 Morris came of age and inherited a large fortune, estimated as about 900 pounds a year for ten years (when the mining stocks in which it was invested failed). At the same time, during this period he seems to have suffered some form of emotional frustration (56). On Palm Sunday he sent a poem to a friend, and remarked of Shelley's "The Skylark": 'Most beautiful poetry, and indeed all beautiful writing, makes one feel sad, or indignant, or--do you understand, for I can't make it any clearer; but The Skylark makes one feel happy only; I suppose because it is nearly all music, and that doesn't bring up any thoughts of humanity; but I don't know either." He seems to have undergone anxiety over what the future course of his life should be; drawn to many things, he found it difficult to settle on one. The early stories and poems which he wrote for The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine reflect this tension.
The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine appeared throughout 1856, printed by Bell and Dalby with 12 monthly numbers of 60-72 pages each. The Magazine contained essays, tales, poetry, and book reviews, and was financed entirely by Morris, who paid William Fulford 100 pounds per annum to serve as editor. According to Burne-Jones, Dixon was the first to think of starting a magazine in conjunction with some Cambridge men, and they discussed calling it "The Brotherhood" after the PRB.
The periodical reflected an interest in social concerns as well as in art and poetry, and Morris indicated something of the range of his interests by the fact that he at least intended to review Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, a novel which discusses labor-management relations in the context of a strike. He also reviewed Browning's Men and Women, and the review reveals his preference for Browning's themes of chivalric conflict and romantic love over theological disquisition ("Cleon," "Bishop Bloughram's Apology")--a characteristic Morrisian lack of interest in theology or doctrine--or even Browning's portrayals of crafty villains.
He also wrote an article on Amiens Cathedral based on his trip to France.The periodical contained illustrations of medallion portraits by Thomas Woolner of Carlyle and Tennyson, the sole result of a larger planned illustration project. One thousand copies of the first issue were printed, but many were used as presentation copies and circulation fell off. Over the journal's life Morris contributed five poems, and Rossetti reprinted "The Blessed Damozel" and published "The Staff and the Scrip" and "The Burden of Nineveh." The Magazine contained discussion of Alexander Smith, Charles Kingsley, the Crimean War, John Ruskin, Sir Philip Sidney, Thomas Carlyle, and Currer Bell. Cormell Price revealed his social interests in writing on Lancashire and Mary Barton as well as "The Work of Young Men in the Present Age," in which he praises J. S. Mill and Ruskin's "The Nature of Gothic," but censures escapist varieties of medievalism.
Morris's poems for The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine were all relatively short lyrics; four of these were later reprinted in The Defence of Guenevere. Although there are drafts for narrative poems among his juvenilia, they weren't completed; his dramatic poems were published later. Morris also wrote early prose romances for the Magazine, exhibiting some motifs similar to those of his juvenile poems. In "Svend and His Brethren," a woman marries a foreign king in order to save her homeland, passing by the attentions of her true lover to do so. The former lover journeys to the house of the king, now her husband, and seeks the task of carving her tomb, but refuses to carve a companion one for the king. The king responds that he himself will perhaps be his own stature, and the lover dies devotedly clasping the effigy.
In "Gertha's Lovers" a king and his close friend both love a beautiful peasant girl. She chooses the king, who after his death in battle returns from the tree-ring where he has been buried to embrace his wife. They sit among flowers until sunset, when she mysteriously dies. (Compare "The Wind" of The Defence of Guenevere.)
Repeatedly throughout these early tales love seems thwarted by female misprison or choice, competition between men, or the omnipresence of death, to be redeemed only through sublimation, artistic gifts and personal devotion. Often a paradisial garden is associated with a love embrace, and the theme of death merges with medieval commemorative art. The romances also contain allusions to social themes, such as to suffering toilers. They seem to exhibit some preoccupation with the problem of maintaining or choosing a stable identity, as artists, warriors, monks, and lovers experience inexplicable dislocations or confusions of identity, and merge unexpectedly into each other.
Two years after entering Oxford, in 1855 Morris gained a pass degree and entered the architectural firm of the Oxford Gothic revivalist Gilbert B. Street. His haste in leaving may indicate his disaffection with his formal studies, and his eagerness to pursue training in his new line of work. In Street's firm he was to meet his perhaps second-closest friend and life-long associate, Philip Webb, later a major Victorian architect as well as member of the Firm. Though Morris did not become an architect per se, much that he absorbed in Street's firm was valuable to him in designing for Morris and Co.
During this period Morris modeled in wood and attempted sculpture from stone, a sign of his eagerness to try as many arts and crafts as possible. About this time Burne-Jones visited the Working-Men's College to meet Rossetti, and all three became friends. Rossetti visited them Sundays in London at their residence in Red Lion Square, from which Morris commuted to Oxford Monday morning (around this time he met W. H. H. Hunt). As a gesture to his new friends, during this period Morris also used his new income to buy pictures from Rossetti, Brown, Hughes and others.
G. B. Street's conception of architecture included interior design--painting, fabric working, stained-glass design, and blacksmithing--nd this inclusiveness was doubtless an influence on the conception of the Firm. Webb and Morris began embroidery, and met Agnes Blencowe, one of the founders of the Ladies Ecclesiastical Embroidery Society. Morris had an embroidery frame made and used worsted dyed by an old French couple. His first experimental piece done with Jane Morris hung in Red House, with a repeating pattern of flowering trees with birds and scrolls, and the motto, "If I Can" ("als ich kann"/"si je puis") (Janey's later account). Under Rossetti's influence he decided he wanted to become a painter and (perhaps imprudently!) quit Street's office.
Rossetti may also have been an influence against socially reformist engagement during this period; he encouraged Morris's poetry, however, proclaiming "Rapunzel" equal to Tennyson, and illuminated "Guendolen" and illustrated several Morris poems with water colours on commission. Meanwhile Burne-Jones had become engaged to Georginana Macdonald.
Morris had large furniture on a medieval model made for himself and his friends in Red Lion Square--Rossetti called them "tables and chairs like incubi and succubi." These were covered with medieval designs; furniture existed as a space to decorate. Burne-Jones painted a wardrobe with designs from Chaucer's "Prioress's Tale," Morris worked at illumination and wood-carving, and Rossetti and Burne-Jones began to make designs for manufacture--something Morris was to do only later.
A book on Ancient Glass by Charles Winston would have been known at Street's, prescribing that designs were to be built up by areas of pure color, and defined by leading with a minimum of shading or stippling--a description which strongly suggests the Firm's first designs (such as the Bradford series on Tristram and Iseult). Winston also stressed the need to use the nature of one's material, as Pugin and Ruskin had done, a concept very important in Morris's thought. The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine ended with the December 1856 issue.
His family was disturbed as Morris's inconstancy in pursuit of a career. During this period, according to Mackail [whose source was most probably Burne-Jones mediated through Georgiana], he remained "moody and irritable; brooded much by himself, and lost for a time a good deal of his old sweetnes and affectionateness of manner." Contemporary reports describe his bohemian and unkept dress and splenetic, sudden temper. Perhaps he was worried about being a good painter, finding something to stick at, and his approching marriage. He also expressed a strong desire to imitate Rossetti, hard to believe in context of their later relationship; and under Rossetti's direction began a picture on Tristram ["La Belle Iseult"].
In 1857 occured the well-known and only partially successful Oxford Union Project. Benjamin Wooodward's plans for a mixed Rhenish and Venetian Gothic Union had been accepted. The Union's debating hall held books, and above the sheles ten bays were pierced by twenty six-foil circular windows. Rossetti persuaded Woodward to have the open space covered with tempura, and obtained permission for materials and lodging to be supplied while he and others volunteered their services as painters. The artists who participated were Arthur Hughes; Hungerford Pollen; Spencer Stanhope; Valentine Prinsep; Alexander Munro, a sculptor; Morris; Burne-Jones, and Rossetti. Unfortunately the surface had not been adequately prepared for tempura--due to the ignorance of fresco-painting techniques of the time--the whitewashed walls were not damp-proof, and the designs began to decay while they were still painting. Rossetti painted Launcelot and Guenevere, and Morris "How Sir Palomydes loved La Belle Iseult with exceeding great love out of measure, and how she loved not him again but Sir Tristram," possibly an ominous motif. Morris designed a profusion of flowers for the foreground and painted runners elsewhere on the walls; the proportion of his figures wasn't right, however, as the figures were very large, and the bold sunflowers nearly covered all. In the end, the painters managed to complete six wall paintings, leaving fourteen unfinished.
During this period, in October 1857 Morris met Jane Burden, whom he was to marry a year and a half later. Her family origins are partly obscure, but her father kept a stables, and her family did not keep up with her after her marriage. Jane was quiet and shy, perhaps an aid to Morris who found it difficult to approach women. Rossetti had introduced her to him as a great beauty, and his courtship of her would have fitted into a fantasy of ideal love after the King-Cophetua-and-the-peasant maiden fantasy. Her air of melancholy may have appealed to his sympathy; his early poetry reveals an identification of desire and shared sadness. See, for example, the poet's sense of the lady's vague dissatisfaction in his "Praise of My Lady," as well as his premonitory sense that his love was not that which could satisfy her.
His marriage was contrary to Morris's financial interest, and affected his need to earn a large income in the1860s and 70s, yet the later tensions caused by his choice of partner were never the subject of complaint or resentment. The late adolescent Jane was described as a simple, unaffected, kindly person, who liked practical jokes. Most descriptions of the period center on her appearance, so perhaps she did not make many close friends.
The Oxford Union project seemed to release Morris for other schemes besides oil painting--he carved a block, modeled clay, designed stained glass windows, and continued illuminating (during this period Ruskin recommended him to the Keeper of the British Museum as an illuminator). He designed a bastinet and coat of ringed mail, and was horrified when he was trapped inside.
During late 1856 and 57, Morris wrote his Defence of Guenevere poems, by all accounts among his best. These were characterized by an energetically expressed sense of failure and sexual frustration, an expressed need for heroic effort in the face of potential defeat; and an eroticism associated with reserved and entrapped women. The poems display an unusual empathy for female frustration, and a pervasive fear of entrapment or imprisonment.
In March 1858 Morris brought out The Defence of Guenevere, which received markedly hostile reviews, attacking Morris as a representative of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and embodiment of their supposed affectations, including medievalism and lack of clarity. It has been since argued that Morris was caught in the cross-fire of critical attacks between Rossetti’s brother William Michael Rossetti, Swinburne and others, a quarrel of which he was of course innocent, and since Morris was scarcely a leader of Pre-Raphaelitism, the direction of so much hostile attention toward him as its standardbearer was unfair. Probably this episode encouraged his sense of failure and discouraged him from publishing more poetry in his early intense, medieval style, or indeed, publishing any poetry at all until The Life and Death of Jason appeared in 1867.
For the occasion of his marriage, Morris planned to build a house, providing Philip Webb with his first commission as its architect, an act which encouraged Webb to leave Street’s office. A site was chosen south of London at Bexley Heath, near Upton, Kent, two miles from the railroad station, and plans were completed by the time of the wedding in April, 1859. After a six week honeymoon in Paris, Belgium and Germany, the young couple lived in furnished rooms on Ormond Street in Bloomsbury until the house was completed.
During this period Morris also began to plan an epic, “Scenes from the Fall of Troy,” conceived as a prologue to a larger work--and soon afterwards to begin rudimentary drafts for the prologue and early tales of what would become his verse epic The Earthly Paradise. The “Scenes from the Fall of Troy” are still, like the Defence, preoccupied with the close juxtaposition of eroticism and defeat; told from the point of view of Paris and Helen, the poem is a kind of heightened “Sir Peter Harpdon’s End.” After a parting of great intensity Paris leaves Helen for what he assumes will be his death in war.
On its completion the couple moved to Red House, a striking red brick house of a new and bold design surrounded by box gardens. Morris believed that the house was close to the route of Chaucer’s pilgrims, and he made the home a center of hospitality for all his friends as long as he could live there. Morris and Webb had included in the house only what they believed to be functional ornaments, giving it a rather stark and arresting appearance, and the need to design appropriately original and medieval/modern furnishings provided the focus of the group’s decorative energies for the next couple years, and prompted the expansion of their activities in the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co.
During his six year residence at Red House, Morris seems to have been idyllically happy with his physical surroundings, but to have written less than in the preceding and succeeding period of his life, perhaps because the two hour commute to the Firm’s premises in Queen Square was so tiring and time-consuming. In fact the nine years between the publication of The Defence of Guenevere and the Life and Death of Jason were to be the longest period of literary silence of his lifetime. In the interval, however, he built up the Firm’s clientele and range of services and began work on classical and medieval tales for the Earthly Paradise (one of which became so long that it was published separately as Jason).
Difficulties in maintaining Red House--his own and his friends’ health problems, and the expense of upkeep and commutation--forced Morris to sell the house and return to London with his wife and two daughters Jenny (born 1861) and May (born 1862) in 1865, but the change was a bitter disappointment to him, intensified by his distaste for the city and the progressive decay of his marriage. In a way he had modeled a glimpse of what was, granted human limits, the closest approach to an “earthly paradise,” and his later literary writings repeat the theme of an envisioned ideal order, its loss, and the sublimated hope of return.
In any case, Morris turned to revising the prologue and early tales of his Earthly Paradise epic, conceived on the Chaucerian model as a series of twenty-four tales within a frame, presented as the fulfillment of a journey from Norway to Greece to escape the Black Death, where Scandinavian and Greek story-tellers exchange their respective cultures’ accounts of their heroes travels and struggles in search of worthy ambitions and love.
Since the cycles “Wanderers” can never hope to return home, the epic may be seen as a collective memory of lost hopes, confronting the wider problem of how to attain a durable “earthly paradise” or to understand its loss; and the possible social and psychological values of art, concerns which were to underlie all the literary, artistic and political activities of his later life.
Burne-Jones and Morris:
When first at Oxford: “they literally talked together day and night of the things that lay near to their hearts.” (Memorials, I)
Burne-Jones held similar views to those of Morris on romanticism and the eighteenth-century. He remarked of Horace Walpole: “He lived in a horrid set of years and people; all the century through is like a wet Saturday afternoon to me, and the word eighteenth century sinks me down into despair. When Blake comes I begin to revive, and when Coleridge comes I am wide awake, and have been happily staring and seeing ever since.” (M, 319)
Like Morris Burne-Jones admired Walter Scott’s The Antiquary, claiming to have read it 27 times!
When Morris died, Burne-Jones said, “I am quite alone now, quite, quite.” Whilst his friend still lived he said, “The things that in thought are most to me, most dear and necessary, are dear and necessary to no one except Morris only.” (M II, 289)
Burne-Jones despaired of art in the present as he aged: “He had believed for some time that the sense of beauty was steadily diminishing in the world, both amongst artists and the ordinary public.” (M 291-92) “[I] never cared for a travelling picture, though mine are all that, never really cared for anything but architecture and the arts that connect with it.” (M 333-34)
A somewhat cranky side of the elderly Burne-Jones is shown by his remark on the occasion of a dinner given by a hundred women for a hundred men: “I wish they hadn’t thought of it! I don’t mind them ruling and governing us or taking all the finances into their hands, or assaulting and beating us and blackening our eyes and our characters--but if they take to inviting us to dinner, old as I am I’ll turn into the streets with a rifle.” (M II, 313)
On their political differences: M II, 96-98; on Scott, 329; Burne-Jones’ anti-women’s-movement sentiments, 313