Page images
[ocr errors]


MASTER OF MANY CRAFTS. Could that blithe old singer of the“ breathing morn from his pleasant “lodge within a park” come stepping briskly along our noisy nineteenth-century ways, bringing with him the scent of English fields, and notes of mavis and of merlecould Geoffrey Chaucer with ruddy cheeks, kindly eyes, and pointed beard, his flowing locks surmounted by a sheepskin cap, appear suddenly to our weary eyes with all the buoyancy of his own fresh day—even outwardly he might not differ greatly from that virile and sturdy figure which, to the present generation, has been known as William Morris. As storytellers Geoffrey Chaucer and William Morris are akin. Ancient Woodsteck and modern Kelmscott meet where these minstrels chant. Although in art Chaucer and Morris are closely related, in the products of their pens they are notably dissimilar.

William Morris was of Welsh extraction. He was the eldest son of his parents, and was born in the village of Walthamstow, Essex, on March 24, 1834. He himself says in News from Nowhere : “I was born and bred on the edge of Epping Forest, Walthamstow and Woodford, to wit. ... A pretty place, too, a very jolly place, now that the trees have had time to grow again since the great clearing of houses in 1855.” In the same work he speaks of the lovely river Lee," where old Izaak Walton used to fish about the places called Stratford and Old Ford.” In a letter to The Daily Chronicle he says of Epping Forest : “ When I was a boy and young man I knew it yard by yard from Wanstead to the Theydons, and from Hale End to Fairlop Oak. In those days it had no worse foes than the gravel stealer and the robbing fence-maker, and was always interesting and often very beautiful."

Morris's artistic sense developed early. It is recorded that as a boy of nine years, with a pony of his own, he rode half Essex over in search of old churches. So deep an impression did the results of these researches make upon his mind that, after an interval of many years, he could remember the

[ocr errors]

details of a building which he had not seen since his boyhood. It was from Sir Walter Scott that Morris imbibed his first taste for art and romance. At the early age of seven he had read nearly, if not quite, all of Scott's works; and it was the “Wizard of the North” who taught him the love of Gothic architecture. He says:

How well I remember as a boy my first acquaintance with a room hung with faded greenery at Queen Elizabeth's Lodge, by Chingford Hatch, in Epping Forest, and the impression of romance that it made


me! A feeling that always comes back on me when I read, as I often do, Sir Walter Scott's Antiquary, and come to the description of the green room at Monkbarns, amongst which the novelist has with such exquisite cunning of art imbedded the fresh and glittering verses of the summer poet Chaucer.

Morris was educated at Marlborough under clerical masters, against whom, he remarks, he naturally rebelled. The loose discipline of the place allowed him full scope for the cultivation of his individual tastes and pursuits. He was not more than fourteen years of age when the first general appearance took place, before the public, of the Preraphaelites, the radical doctrine of whom was naturalism as distinguished from realism. But the time was not yet ripe for Morris to come under their influence, nor was he ever formally enrolled in their ranks. Says Aymer Vallance:

It is, therefore, a supreme achievement of William Morris to have brought art, through the medium of the handicrafts, within reach of thousands who could never hope to obtain but a transitory view of Preraphaelite pictures; his distinction, by decorating the less pretending, but not less necessary, articles of household furnishing, to have done more than any other man in the present century to beautify the plain, everyday home life of the people.

On the second of June, 1852, Morris matriculated at Exeter College, Oxford. This was an event of first-rate importance in his life. Edward Burne-Jones matriculated on the same day at the same college. The two freshmen were drawn together by ties of sympathy and friendship that remained unbroken until the day of Morris's death. At this time Morris began to be conscious of the poise and strength of his own life, and to become intensely interested in the origin and characteristics of medieval art. Now, also, began to grow up

within his soul that uncompromising protest against the vulgar and tasteless commercialism ruling the present century.

He thus expresses himself:

It is a grievous thing to have to say, but say it I must, that the one most beautiful city in England, the city of Oxford, has been ravaged for many years past, not only by ignorant tradesmen, but by the university and college authorities. Those whose special business it is to direct the culture of the nation have treated the beauty of Oxford as if it were a matter of no moment, as if their commercial interests might thrust it aside without consideration. While still an undergraduate at Oxford he “first saw the city of Rouen, then still in its outward aspect a piece of the Middle Ages: no words can tell you how its mingled beauty, history, and romance took hold on me.” And he further adds : “I can only say that, looking back on my past life, I find it was the greatest pleasure I have ever had; and now it is a pleasure which no one can ever have again ; it is lost to the world forever;" that is, because of the injurious and ignorant restoration. Morris had come to Oxford with a warm admiration for the writings of Mrs. Browning. While in college he became acquainted, not only with the works of Browning and Tennyson, but also with certain older writers, with the Chronicles of Froissart, and with a book destined to exercise a far-reaching influence upon him and his circle, the Morte d Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory. About the time of Christinas, 1855, BurneJones relinquished his intention of entering the ministry, and proceeded to find Rossetti in London with the purpose of becoming his pupil. Ere long he presented his friend Morris to his chosen master, whom he then regarded as the greatest man in Europe. Without waiting to take his degree Burne-Jones began at once the systematic study and practice of painting. Morris, on the contrary, preferred to complete his university course, which he did, taking his degree of B.A. in 1856.

The first step in William Morris's artistic career was when he articled himself to George Edmund Street, then located in the university town as an architect to the diocese of Oxford. As fundamental to all art he elected an architect's training. He says of this pursuit:

I have spoken of the popular arts, but they might all be summed up in that one word “architecture;” they are all parts of that great whole,

[ocr errors]

and the art of house-building begins it all. If we did not know how to dye or to weave; if we had neither gold, nor silver, nor silk, and no pigments to paint with, but half a dozen ochers and umbers, we might yet frame a worthy art that would lead to everything, if we had but timber, stone, and lime, and a few cunning tools to make these common things not only shelter us from wind and weather, but also express the thoughts and aspirations that stir in us. Architecture would lead us to all the arts, as it did with earlier men; but if we despise it and take no note of how we are housed, the other arts will have a hard time of it indeed. Morris was possessed of a remarkable faculty of concentration, being able to wreak his whole soul without distraction upon the subject in hand, so that he mastered easily and quickly the things learned by others with difficulty or not at all. In 1856 Mr. Morris settled in lodgings with his friend BurneJones, at 17 Red Lion Square, where they shared a studio in common. In this same year appeared The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, which continued exactly twelve months. Among such contributors as Vernon Lushington, Jex-Blake, Burne-Jones, and D. G. Rossetti, Morris was not the least figure, being, indeed, the largest contributor, and causing his friends to prophesy for him a brilliant future in the world of letters. Rossetti introduced Morris to Ruskin and other noted artists and literary men. Early in 1857 Rossetti thus writes to Bell Scott:

Two young men, projectors of The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, have recently come to town from Oxford, and are now very intimate friends of mine. Their names are Morris and Jones. They have turned artists, instead of taking up any other career to which the university generally leads, and both are men of real genius. Jones's designs are marvels of finish and imaginative detail, unequaled by anything unless, perhaps, Albert Dürer's finest works; and Morris, though without practice as yet, has no less power, I fancy. He has written some really wonderful poetry, too. In 1858 Morris published his first volume of poems, The Defense of Guinevere. It was a remarkable work for a young man twenty-four years of age. At that time Tennyson's Idylls of the King had not yet appeared; nor had the published poems of Rossetti been other than a few occasional pieces con. tributed to periodicals. Mr. Arthur Symons writes thus of Morris's Defense of Guinevere : “ His first book-which in. vented a new movement, doing easily, with a certain appropriate quaintness, what Tennyson all his life had been trying to do—has all the exquisite trouble of his first awakening to the love of romance."

Burne-Jones delighted to portray upon canvas the identical subjects which Morris chose for his poems; these breathe a mediævai atmosphere, and are full of archaisms and quaintnesses which might easily have declined into mannerisms and as easily lent themselves to parody. To illustrate :

Across the empty garden beds,

When the Sword went out to sea
I scarcely saw my sisters' heads

Bowed each beside a tree.
I could not see the castle leads,

When the Sword went out to sea,


O, russet brown and scarlet bright,

When the Sword went out to sea,
My sisters wore; I wore but white:

Red, brown, and white, are three;
Three damozels; each had a knight

When the Sword went out to sea.

A golden gilliflower to-day
I wore upon my helm away,
And won the prize of this tourney.
Hah! hah! la belle jaune giroflee.

No one goes there now:

For what is left to fetch away
From the desolate battlements all arow,

And the lead roof heavy and gray ?

Therefore,said fair Yoland of the flowers, This is the tune of Seven Towers.

There was a lady lived in a hall,
Large in the eyes, and slim and tall;
And ever she sung from noon to noon,
Two red roses across the moon,

Yet the Defense of Guinevere was a notable production, and lovers of true poetry found in this volume much to impress and delight them. Anent the poems contained in this first venture Algernon Charles Swinburne says:

The figures here given have the blood and breath, the shape and step, of life; they can move and suffer; their repentance is as real as their

« PreviousContinue »