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Morris, William

Entry updated 18 March 2024. Tagged: Author, Artist.

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(1834-1896) UK designer, artist, publisher, poet and author whose greatest fame rests on his work as a designer of furniture and fabrics; his efforts to reform the prevalent vulgarity of mid-Victorian taste and to preserve standards of craftsmanship placed him in radical and irresolvable conflict with the basic tendencies of the industrial era, then in the first vigour of its youth. This conflict was variously expressed in his writing. In his early poems, collected in The Defence of Guenevere (coll 1858) and The Earthly Paradise (coll 1868-1870 3vols), Morris created the literary equivalent of Pre-Raphaelite paintings: romances of febrile charm and phthisic delicacy. The relation of these poems to their own time is one of studied and disdainful avoidance. In life such avoidance was to be denied him. He was – at least emotionally – cuckolded on an Arthurian scale by his friend and mentor, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). He became involved in Politics through his efforts, beginning in 1878, to save historical buildings from demolition and unwise "restoration". This involvement led him, remarkably quickly, to an active and enduring commitment to socialism.

It was from this unusual (for its day) perspective of Marxism – however unorthodox in its fierce distrust of industrial Technology – that Morris wrote his Utopia, News from Nowhere; Or, an Epoch of Rest: Being Some Chapters from a Utopian Romance (11 January-4 October 1890 Commonweal; 1890; rev 1891). Composed in immediate response to the highly organized future envisioned in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888), the novel propels its dreaming narrator from the class-ridden, consumption-obsessed England of Morris's day first into a London that initially seems transformed, but is in fact simply evacuated, an airy repudiation of Malthus and a bad augur of the incompetence of utopian thinking when it came to dealing with the City in the twentieth century; the tale then moves further afield through a perfected England from which all traces of poverty, squalor and industrial unsightliness have been effaced, an England that bears notable similarities to the bucolic dream-landscapes of his early poetry. As a work of fiction, this most translucent of utopias exhibits all the clarity, grace – and narrative force – of Morris's best wallpaper designs. Where the book is most visibly Marxist in inspiration, as in the capsule history of a proletarian revolution in Chapter XVII, densely and compellingly imagined over the two years required before victory: "the world was being brought to its second birth; how could that take place without a tragedy." Despite – or perhaps because – of its recognition of the cost of change, Nowhere's influence on later utopian writing has been negligible, except in the negative sense that H G Wells's The Time Machine (1895) can be seen as a counterblast. Its influence on later Genre SF was still less, since Morris's vision has been distortingly understood as a Pastoral for free, looking back to an idealized Middle Ages – which is the literal setting, via Timeslip, for the earlier and structurally related socialist romance, the title story of A Dream of John Ball, and A King's Lesson (coll 1888; cut containing title story only, vt A Dream of John Ball 1915) – rather than to the urban, technologically advanced "future" of common consensus. There is little room for melodrama in an Epoch of Rest.

During the composition of News from Nowhere the Socialist League, which Morris had founded in 1884 and funded thereafter, dissolved as a result of an excess of democracy. This event encouraged, by reaction, Morris's tendency to make his later writing into a species of highly ornamented wish-fulfilment from which the less savoury odours of daily life were artfully exorcized. The prose romances of his last years – such as The Wood Beyond the World (1894), The Well at the World's End (1896) and The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897), the last touring an Archipelago in an enchanted lake – have the same reluctantly valedictory air as his most defiantly escapist poetry but little of the poetry's hypnotic harmony. He had become, once more, "the idle singer of an empty day". It is these late romances, however, through their acknowledged influence on C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien and lesser writers of Sword-and-Sorcery, and their occupancy of something closely prefiguring a full Secondary World [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] that have most impinged on sf.

Morris also translated Icelandic sagas and several Greek and Roman classics, including Virgil's Aeneid (1876). We do not list them below. [TMD]

see also: Arts; History of SF; Sleeper Awakes.

William Morris

born London: 24 March 1834

died London: 2 October 1896


works of sf interest

other works (fiction and poetry only; selected)

nonfiction (highly selected)

about the author

Much has been written about Morris. Studies of interest include:


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