Morris as Author: Poet, Essayist, Journalist, Translator, and Utopian and Fantasy Writer

Florence Boos

Morris wrote constantly throughout his life. If a complete “collected works” were available, this would probably comprise about 50 volumes, so any account must be very selective.

His early writings were poems: his first volume, The Defence of Guenevere, containing highly dramatic and intense narrative lyrics, drew mixed reviews from early critics but has been highly esteemed by twentieth and twenty-first century audiences. The Earthly Paradise, Morris’s most popular work during his lifetime, is a Chaucer-like compendium of 24 poetic tales set in a frame describing refugees fleeing the Bubonic Plague, which demonstrates his gift at identifying the dramas of loss and courage inherent in classical and medieval stories. Other narrative poems include The Life and Death of Jason, a recasting of the legend of the Argonauts, Love Is Enough, his most introspective and musical poem in masque form, Sigurd the Volsung, an epic based on the tragic conflicts between two Scandinavian clans, and The Pilgrims of Hope, a feminist-communist poem set during the Paris Commune. In addition Morris composed many individual shorter lyrics, some of which were published in Poems by the Way and Chants for Socialists, a collection of lyrics written to be set to music and sung at Socialist gatherings.

Morris also published prose romances both early and late in his career. His symbolic, dreamlike early romances appeared in The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, a periodical he co-founded with several university friends, and during the late 1880s and 90s he composed a series of historical/futurist romances set in alternative worlds. The first two of these, the “Germanic Romances,” envision imaginary medieval tribal societies, and the final series, including The Wood Beyond the World, The Water of the Wondrous Isles, and The Well at the World’s End, present alternative temporal and spatial worlds. Two narratives feature time-travel; in A Dream of John Ball the present-day narrator catapults backwards into the time of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, and in News from Nowhere, Morris’s most famous work, the narrator visits a future utopian society organized on egalitarian and ecological principles.

Morris also wrote Icelandic Diaries based on his 1871 and 1873 visits to Iceland, and co-translated more than thirty Icelandic sagas. In addition, as editor of the socialist periodical Commonweal he wrote hundreds of articles and short commentaries, and as a writer and lecturer on historical, artistic, and political topics from 1878 onwards he authored some dozens of essays, including such titles as “Early England,” “The Beauty of Life,” “Art and Plutocracy,” and “How I Became a Socialist.” Written in an accessible, direct, and personal style, these political writings offered powerful, eloquent critiques of a society based on economic competition.

Morris’s writings show his capacity to reach many audiences: the more educated readers of his poetic epics, the specialized readers of his translations, and the working-class audiences for his socialist lectures. Several threads run through his imaginative writings: his love of medieval history, geography and travel; his interest in the physical artifacts of the past, especially those used by ordinary people; and his conviction that literature and memory, as conveyed in myths, legends, and stories, are a necessary compensation for the tragic losses embedded in history. Recurrent themes include the difficulties of attaining love, the importance of personal courage in a violent world, and the need to forgo greed and the lust for power in the service of higher loyalties. In accord with Morris’s Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic, such ethical principles are implied through action rather than overtly stated. A special feature of his poetry and much of his prose is its pictorial and musical quality, so that emotions are conveyed through verbal pictures, rhythm and cadence. If Morris’s early writings emphasized the need for resistance in the face of threats, his later literary works express hope that recognition of the enduring aspects of our past may help us create a more livable and enlightened future.