William Morris – how a great thinker and poet was overlooked for wallpaper

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NS obituaries and memoirs Following the death of William Morris on October 3, 1896, he referred to him as a great poet, thinker, and tireless worker in the service of humanity, “19th century. secured his reputation as “the most talented man of the century”. It is perhaps ironic that he is remembered for designs that were largely only popular then for wallpaper, tea towels, and streetwear.

Morris’ doctor stated that the cause of death was “just being William Morris and doing more work than most ten men.” It was bred in a privileged way near London. Dressed in miniature armor, he was often found riding his pony while imitating medieval chivalry tales that he eagerly read. His childhood, followed by Marlborough School and Oxford, instilled in him a love of the English landscape, historical objects and stories, and this influenced his work throughout his life.

While his designs based on natural forms such as flowers and birds had established his business, Morris had his main job in mind.

Morris wolf Association for the Preservation of Old Buildings and Socialist League. But besides these public activities, Morris was a poet and was very popular. Even when offered the role of award-winning poet in 1891, he turned it down. For Morris, poetry was a natural result of his interests and desire to share his ideas with the world.

the poet Morris

earthly paradise (1868-1870) was very successful when it was first published and was responsible for solidifying his reputation as one of the leading poets of the time. However, it has recently fallen out of favor. This is perhaps because the length is uncomfortable for modern readers.

Written from 12 books – one for each month of the year – with an introduction and an epilogue, it is an epic poem inspired by earlier longer poetic works, including The Odyssey and The Canterbury Tales.

Medieval style painting of two women standing over a dead man.
Changing the Letter, 1908, Joseph Edward Southall is inspired by ‘The Man Born to be King’ from William Morris’ The Earthly Paradise.
Artocoloro / Alamy

The Earthly Paradise follows a group of Scandinavian warriors who set out to escape the plague in search of a new land where “none of them age”. On their journey, they arrive at a “nameless city in a distant sea” inhabited by the descendants of the ancient Greeks. But by this time, travelers are already old men. On the monthly feast days, they decide to settle there peacefully by telling stories with the notables of the city. The stories are drawn from Greek and Scandinavian myths, one for each book.

Morris’ writing process involved everyone around him, including family, friends, and colleagues, sharing his plans and sketches, until, as his friend and artist Georgiana Burne-Jones put it, Morris found himself a “biter.” [her] fingers and stabbing [herself] with needles to stay awake”.

Despite Burne-Jones’ complaints about her process, her writing is gripping. Morris’s poetry is expressive and imaginative, and not difficult, despite the occasional use of archaic words. He believed in accessible poetry and writes clearly and simply.

Portrait style photo of woman in Victorian dress.
William Morris’ wife, Jane.
incamerastock / Alamy

He draws on images and ideas from his own life, from memories of his childhood in the countryside to his views near his home on the Thames. Kelmscott Mansion in the Cotswolds. Biographers have suggested that the myths incorporated into the poem may also have personal repercussions. as a writer Fiona MacCarthy “The tales that are read up close are all stories of the failure of love,” he states, echoing his difficult relationship with his wife, Jane.

Escape and understanding

Morris’ preoccupation with poetry often seems far-sighted in contemporary culture when read today. The narrator describes himself as the “idle singer of an empty day,” as if the poem existed only to pass the time, and he explains it almost modestly:

I don’t have the strength to sing about Heaven or Hell,
I cannot lighten the burden of your fears,
Or make sudden death something small,
Or bring back the pleasure of past years

Yet in many ways the poem does just that, transporting the reader from the “six smoky towns” in the filthy 19th century environment to a beautiful, clean, ancient city. More than perhaps most, Morris knew the value and power of reading to distance us from the troubled world we live in, to change our views, and even to mobilize us.

Black and white profile photo of William Morris with dark hair and beard.
Morris often instilled socialist ideals into his writings.
National Portrait Gallery, London, CC BY-NC-ND

This is evident in his medieval novel. News from Nowhere (1890) combines utopian socialism and soft science fiction. In The Earthly Paradise, however, Morris uses a less didactic approach, aligning old and young, poor and rich, and urging us to understand the world around us.

The political messages of The Earthly Paradise have often been overlooked, probably because the beauty of the poem obscures the dark sexuality of myths, the concern about how the environment is treated, and Morris’s resounding call for equality and understanding.

Fairy tales are often brutal, but sexual equality, personal hope, and the possibility of a better world, and learning from “the world’s bitter lore,” humanity and the world itself, at the very least, reconcile us with the realities of life.

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