A blog about the famous Victorian poet, designer, and Socialist, William Morris.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Passion Without Vocation

Morris's leading passion:  a "hatred of modern civilization"
Coalbrookdale by Night, Phillippe de Loutherbourg

Was William Morris possessed of that magical trait we hear so much about: passion? To understand the most popular definition of "passion" today, one needs only to read a cover letter. When a candidate writes, for example, “Good administrative practices are my passion”, or even “the study of history is my passion”, she wants to tell her potential employers that a specific thing is her vocation: don't worry, I will never get bored of the job and run off to start my own business or become a lobster fisherman in the Bahamas. If that's what passion is in the modern sense—a specific, directed, and reliable sort of vocation—then Morris was about as passionate as a piece of moldy bread.

But if by passion we mean a theme to one's life, a broad goal towards which all the many vocations are merely different paths, then Morris was passionate indeed. Later in his life Morris once said, “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.” Hypothetically, if he'd written this in a cover letter in late 1855 when he was applying to work at the office of G.E. Street, an architecture firm in Oxford, then he would never have gotten the job.

Indeed, perhaps they shouldn't have given it to him, as he'd only settled on architecture months before the beginning of the apprenticeship. For years previous to that, he'd been planning and training to enter the church. But he was so convincing about his new choice that he had many people in his life believing that architecture was his one true vocation. He wrote to his mother along those lines:

“If I were not to follow this occupation I in truth know not what I should follow with any chance of success, or hope of happiness in my work ... Perhaps you think that people will laugh at me, and call me purposeless and changeable; I have no doubt they will, but I in my turn will try to shame them, God being my helper, by steadiness and hard work. … but … I will by no means give up things I have thought of for the bettering of the world in so far as lies in me.”

Alas, architecture turned out to involve too much drudgery and exact drawing, so he switched to painting within a year, leaving G.E. Street in the dust. Was this a sign that Morris was changeable and purposeless, or was he simply seeking different types of work that suited his life's general theme, his life's passion? The latter seems most likely. After all, as he wrote to his mother, he had simple aims: “I do not hope to be great at all in anything, but perhaps I may reasonably hope to be happy in my work...”

After he failed to become a painter as well, this line from his mother's letter took on new meaning. He no longer wanted to work for decades at one thing, in order to become a decent architect or passable painter. He wanted to enjoy his work, and this he did, becoming eminently successful at many different things. He wrote poetry about the deep past, he wrote fantasy novels and Socialist lectures about the far future, and he designed fabrics and papers to beautify the present as much as possible. These projects seem scattered, but were in fact very focused. Every single one of them served one purpose: helping his fellow man to escape, or to improve, the ugliness and unfairness of Victorian civilization.  

Saturday, August 4, 2012

"the sorrow that changed and changes my life"

Charles Eliot Norton in 1903

When Morris returned from Iceland in the fall of 1871, he wrote a long letter to his accomplished American friend, Charles Eliot Norton. Norton, a well-known editor*, had been in Italy with his wife Susan, but was now traveling North. Morris wrote: “Please give my kindest remembrances to Mrs. Norton and the rest of your party … I hope, but don't expect that you will enjoy Berlin—” **

Indeed Norton did not enjoy Berlin at all. In fact he never reached it, because in Dresden his wife died in childbirth. From that moment onwards, he was a changed man: his happiest times would now belong to the past.

Returning to the United States without his wife, he saw his country in a new light. He took no pleasure in coming home: the steamer journey across the ocean had just increased the “material distance between me and the best part of my life”, he wrote. The memories of his time in Italy had become “the secret treasure” of his life; his lonely existence in the US, by contrast, was bare. Perhaps this emotional dichotomy was what allowed him to make a cool, critical analysis of his home country, at a time when so many others were blindly patriotic.

A year after Susan's death, Norton wrote to Henry James in a reflective mode. His letter touched on the subject of the United States, and its relative greatness when compared with the rest of the world:
No doubt there is great & restless vivacity of mind, much brightness of surface; & certainly there are many virtues to be found, even in the newest & roughest sets (at least Bret Harte, our latest immortal, so assures us,)—and Cambridge is no doubt as near the centre of the earth as any place so far north can possibly be. But it is a barren & solitary earth,—and it would be a wretched and unworthy patriotism, or a mere love of paradox, or an unmanly timidity and self distrust, that would hinder one who has known the best, from saying distinctly, “this is not the best & will not in our time be the best.”

Before the tragedy, Norton had been a dear friend to Morris and his circle, but he was sometimes a bit neglected. Edward Burne-Jones wrote to Norton just before the disaster, apologizing for forgetting to write, and pointing out that Morris was just as negligent in writing: “He behaves as badly to you as I do—fifty-two times a year we say to each other 'Have you written to Norton?' ” ***

Although Norton changed after the disaster, his friendship with the circle became closer than ever, and he was clearly less neglected. Georgiana, Burne-Jones's wife, explained the shift: “from that time [Susan's death] our sympathy with her husband changed affection into devotion.'There was no need for you to be dearer to your friends,' Edward wrote to him, 'but you will be.'

*  His distinguished career as a Harvard Professor had not yet begun.
**  From letter #154 in The Collected Letters of William Morris, Vol. I, edited by Norman Kelvin.
***  See page 23 of linked text. Georgiana's quote can be found on page 27.