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“With the North-West Wind”

William Morris: the man with a dream of Britain as it might have been and might yet be

VICTORIAN culture was an enigma. In an age of rapid industrialisation, it was an unashamed celebration of nostalgia. Nowhere was this more exemplified than in the work of William Morris, an aptly entitled biography of whom appeared last year [1].

Morris was a true Nordic in both appearance and character. A French writer described Morris in the 1890s:

"The complexion is ruddy, the hair, greyish in hue, short and curly. He is of medium height but powerfully built, a true northern physique, and there is about him the attractiveness of those heroic conquerors of whom northern legends tell, and of whom he is so fond. He is a mixture of that hesitating brusqueness peculiar to the timid, of that reticence and coldness of the man who is intensively reserved and opposed to all display of personal feelings. These traits are interspersed with sudden transports of kindness, fits of enthusiasm which seem to kindle his whole being, to lift him to heights beyond, and to transfigure him."

Morris was also a gifted individual with exceptionally wide interests and talents. He was poet, artist, designer, novelist, publisher and political speaker. Above all, he brought the quality of craftsmanship to all he did. He advanced the idea of simple beauty and clearness of outline in opposition to the over-ornate clutter popular at the time. His work was a celebration of beauty and grace in a world shortly to be deluged in alien anti-art.

Nature and history

Morris drew his inspiration from nature and from the history, first of the Middle Ages, and then of the Viking world of the Icelandic sagas. In this Morris was not alone as Faulkner points out:

"From the first he felt an intuitive sympathy with Icelandic literature and history ― a sympathy based on respect for the courage and fortitude of a people making a life in such an inhospitable setting as the frozen North. We can see this as part of a larger movement in Victorian culture to see England as part of northern Europe rather than the south, which found expression at various levels in such things as Kingsley's anti-Spanish sentiment in Westward Ho!, the founding of the Early English Text Society in 1864, R. C. Trench's English Past and Present of 1855 with its discussion of 'English as it might have been' had there been no Norman Conquest, and Gerard Manley Hopkins's use of Teutonic diction."

Opposed urban life

Morris also seems to have been impelled to immerse himself in the past of the barbaric North by his opposition to modern urban life. His poem, The Earthly Paradise, begins:

Forget six counties overhung with smoke,

Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke,

Forget the spreading of the hideous town;

Think rather of the pack-horse on the down

And dream of London, small, and white and clean,

The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green ...

The same sentiments about life in London are echoed in a letter: "Surely if people lived five hundred years instead of threescore and ten they would find some better way of living than in such a sordid loathsome place ... suppose people lived in little communities among gardens and green fields, so that you could be in the country in five minutes' walk ..."

Faulkner concludes: "The image of the land and the lives of endurance of its people suggested an alternative to Victorian industrial England which appealed deeply to Morris's imagination. The people of the island (Iceland), it seemed to him, had a dignity and self-respect which were rapidly being destroyed in his own country by the profound and uncontrolled changes which were part of the Industrial Revolution. He could at least show his respect for Iceland by making some of its great stories available in English."

Another link with the barbaric North was the pagan spirit which animated his poetry. A review of his poetry in 1868 pointed out "the continual suggestion, pensive or passionate, of the shortness of life; this is contrasted with the bloom of the world and gives new seductions to it; the sense of death and the desire of beauty; the desire of beauty quickened by the sense of death."

Above all, however, Morris was linked to the world of the sagas by sharing in common an heroic view of life: "His preference had always been for something like the romance form of narrative, in which heroes and heroines set out on quests which suggest archetypal human needs in an imaginative world remote from the present."

Besides being a Nordicist, a Ruralist and a Neo-Pagan, Morris also became a committed Socialist and even considered himself to be a Marxian Communist. Friedrich Engels, Marx's crony, however, regarded Morris as a political innocent. Like many other early Socialists such as Hyndman (whom Morris first followed and then opposed) and Morris's friend, Bruce Glasier, Morris was a very different man from Engels's wily Jewish mentor.

Morris's Socialism was born out of an understandable, justifiable and commendable reaction to the appalling social conditions of Victorian urban life, a reaction shared and inspired by Dickens and others.

Ethical Socialism

Notwithstanding his pretensions to Marxism, Morris advocated, in effect, a form of Utopian or Ethical Socialism as opposed to the allegedly Scientific (economic and materialistic) Socialism of Karl Marx. After the Socialist movement had been hijacked by racial aliens, this Ethical Socialism was to find its Twentieth Century form in the ideology of the Radical Right rather than the Left.

All the great movements of history have been inspired and led by visionaries pursuing dreams, and Morris is not to be discounted for being a dreamer.

The flaw in Morris's idealism, a flaw shared with modern Socialists, was his failure to recognize the biological basis of inequality, and the Utopian assumption flowing from it that if only the System were changed then a perfect and perfectly egalitarian society could be created.

Free men are not equal, and equal men are not free. The pursuit of freedom and equality has always created a dilemma. As a theorist rather than a man of action, Morris escaped the problem of solving the dilemma by abandoning one or the other objective.

Morris never lived to see how the problem was resolved by the Bolsheviks, but there is every reason to believe that a man of Morris's humanity would have been horrified. His friend, Bruce Glasier, and his opponent, H. M. Hyndman, were certainly not impressed with the anti-human tyranny of Marxism-Leninism, and it would be unfair to associate Morris with it.

Morris as a precursor

Emotionally, Morris sought to merge his remarkable individual genius in the community of the folk, an urge that was at least as Nationalist and Racialist as it was Socialist. Although any eulogy of him would be flawed by his naive egalitarianism, there is much in his outlook that is in keeping with our own Racial-Nationalist worldview.

Radical Racial-Nationalists have a good claim to Morris as a precursor, and would do well to recognize the inspiration of such a positive, constructive, accomplished and idealistic person.

If we genuinely seek a new synthesis that cuts across the old divisions of 'Left' and 'Right' then we must come to terms with precursors from all parts of the political spectrum, without fear of being labelled as 'Racial Bolsheviks' by people who are themselves nothing more than 'Racial Tories'.

Some modern Socialists may also lay claim to Morris as a precursor, but in so doing they must feel far more uncomfortable than any Racial-Nationalist.

It is significant that Morris's images of ideal, egalitarian, societies should be racially homogeneous Nordic/Germanic ones. Two novels spring to mind in this context.

His novel, A Tale of the House of the Wolfings (1889), was reviewed in our last issue. A novel with a similar theme was The Roots of the Mountains (1890), in which the men of the Burgdale ― a Germanic community under threat from the Huns ― defeat "the Dusky Men partly by their own determination and partly by being reunited with long-divided kinsmen."

The only real equality is, of course, biological equality, and although this is only enjoyed by identical twins (or clones) a racially homogeneous society will obviously approach nearer to a state of equality than a heterogeneous one. Although Morris failed to recognize the biological basis of inequality, he nevertheless subconsciously adopted genetic homogeneity as the basis of equality.

Morris's dedication to craftsmanship which could and can only be obtained by small-scale labour-intensive production not only stands opposed to the mass-production-for-profit techniques of modern Capitalism, but also to the equally soulless materialism of modern Socialist utilitarianism.

Morris's hatred of urban life and his desire to return to a pre-industrial society was another current to become more obvious on the Radical Right than on the Left.

As an artist and a poet, Morris must be judged by the spirit of his work, rather than by his commitment to any particular political programme.

In a tribute to Morris, R. B. Cunning-hame Graham wrote of the funeral "under the heading 'With the North-West Wind' ― the rain and the gale seeming in keeping with Morris's Viking personality."

Graham's account conjured up Morris's own vision: "John Ball stood by the grave, with him a band of archers all in Lincoln Green, birds twittered in the trees, and in the air the scent of apple-blossom and white hawthorn hung. All was fairer than I had ever seen the country look, fair with a fairness that was never seen in England but by the poet, and yet a fairness with which he laboured to endue it. Once more the mist descended, and my sight grew dimmer; the England of the Fellowship was gone. John Ball now vanished, and with him the order, and in their place remained the knot of countrymen, plough-galled and bent with toil; the little church turned greyer, as if a reformation had passed over it. I looked again, the bluff bold kindly face had faded into the north-west wind."

  1. Against the Age: An Introduction to William Morris by Peter Faulkner (George Allen & Unwin, 1980)