William Morris Archive

(An earlier version of this biographical notice appeared in Victorian Britain, ed. Sally Mitchell, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988.)

William Morris (1834-96) was a major Victorian poet, author of prose romances, pioneering designer, and leader of the early British socialist movement. He was also a cofounder of Morris and Co., founder of the Kelmscott Press and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and writer of many essays on social issues, book design, and the decorative arts. His literary gifts, social compassion, and love of organic forms informed this immense range of accomplishments and activities.

Morris was the third child and eldest son of Emma Shelton Morris and William Morris, a wealthy London bill broker who died when Morris was fourteen. He attended Marlborough College (1848-51) and Exeter College, Oxford (1853-56). At Exeter, he made several close friends, among them Edward Burne-Jones, and began the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine (1856), the first of many cooperative projects in which Morris took an active role. In 1856 he was apprenticed briefly to the Gothic revival architect G. B. Street.

In 1858 he published The Defence of Guenevere, a brilliantly innovative volume of lyric and dramatic verse. The following year he married Jane Burden, the daughter of an Oxford stableman, and commissioned his friend Philip Webb to design the neo-medieval Red House in Upton, Kent; Morris and his friends designed the furniture an decorations. In 1861 he and several friends founded “The Firm” (Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co.; after 1874 Morris and Co.). With his collaborators, Morris designed and produced furniture, wallpapers, textiles, glassware, stained glass, tapestries, and carpets, and made Morris and Co. the leading English decorating firm and supplier of stained-glass church windows.

In 1865 Morris moved to London with his wife and two daughters, Jane Alice (“Jenny,” born 1861) and Mary (“May,” born 1862). The success of The Life and Death of Jason (1867), a long narrative poem, encouraged him to complete The Earthly Paradise (1868-70), a tapestry of twenty-four poetic narratives derived from classical and medieval tales. These swift-moving, lucid, and highly pictorial tales made Morris one of the most popular poets of his age.

In the early 1870s Morris wrote the intensely introspective poetic “masque” Love Is Enough (1873) and other poems later included in Poems by the Way (1891). He also co-translated the Volsunga Saga with the Icelander Eirikur Magnusson, and published his epic The Story of Sigurd the Volsung (1876), based on the saga. In 1877 he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient buildings, which preserved hundreds of English churches and other buildings from mutilation disguised as "restoration."

In 1883 Morris joined England's first socialist organization, H. M. Hyndman's Democratic Federation, later renamed the Socialist Democratic Federation, and in 1884 he led a large faction which seceded to form the Socialist League. For the rest of the decade, Morris was a tireless activist for the cause; he met several times each week with his comrades and delivered hundreds of lectures. He suffered arrest in 1885, edited the Commonweal and wrote prolifically for its columns, and added to his canon a long series of socialist literary works, inclduing the song collection Chants for Socialists (1884); a narrative poem, The Pilgrims of Hope (1885); the historical meditation A Dream of John Ball (1887); and his most influential work, News from Nowhere (1890), a pastoral utopian communist vision of England in the twenty-first century as a truly "green and pleasant land."

Morris's health failed in 1890, and divisions between anarchists and socialist brought an end to his leadership of the Socialist League. He cofounded with Emery Walker in 1891 the Kelmscott Press, the first English fine art press. The press's great masterpiece was The Works of Chaucer Newly Imprinted, with inset drawings by Burne-Jones and ornamental designs by Morris.

Different aspects of Morris's extensive life-work have found favor in various literary and political climates since his death. In the early twentieth century, he was perhaps most widely known as the designer whose work inspired what came to be known as the Arts and Crafts movement. Smaller groups have always admired him as the foster-father of British socialism, foster-grandfather of the ecological movement, a pioneering preservationist, and perhaps the most significant English book designer since Caxton. His poetic reputation suffered for a time from the critical disparagement of romantic narrative poetry, though his prose romances have continued to attract interest as exemplars of a non-realist, fantasy tradition.

In the end, perhaps, what is most impressive about Morris's lifework is the energy and skill with which he held in creative suspension tendencies that might seem dialectically opposed: literary romanticism and a marxist view of history; tireless social activism and introspective art; zealous preservation of the environment and ancient buildings and influential innovation of modern design; the creation of complex forms of decorative art and simple evocation of natural emotion; blunt anger at human greed or inequality and faith in the redemptive value of communal effort; and a dreamlike talent at poetic fantasy and passionate belief in the pleasure and dignity of work.

Some Biographical Sources:

Burne-Jones, Georgiana. Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones. 2 vols. London: 1904.

Kelvin, Norman. The Collected Letters of William Morris. 4 vols. Princeton University Press, 1984-96.

MacCarthy, Fiona. William Morris: A Life for Our Time. London: Faber and Faber, 1995.

Lindsay, Jack. William Morris: His Life and Work. London: Constable, 1975.

Mackail, J. W. The Life of William Morris. London, 1899.

Morris, May. William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist. 2 vols. Oxford: Blackwell, 1936.

Pinkney, Tony, ed. We Met Morris: Interviews with William Morris, 1885-96. Reading: Spire Books, 2005.

Salmon, Nicholas with Derek Baker. The William Morris Chronology. Bristol: Thoemmes, 1996.

Thompson, E. P. William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. 2nd ed. New York: Pantheon, 1976.