William Morris and the joy of work

by Terence MacNamee

March 24 is William Morris’s birthday. He certainly was an Aries type. Always trying new things. Full of activity. Characteristically, he said once: “If a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he’s weaving tapestry, he had better shut up, he’ll never do any good at all.” Morris the man of every art and craft was also a combative individual, politically involved in Victorian England. And here the bewildering contradictions arise. Like the other Pre-Raphaelites he worked with, he loved the Middle Ages and the whole world of Gothic romance. He loathed the “dark Satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution. Yet he was also a Socialist, fighting to give power to the industrial workers. From today’s point of view, these two things seem incompatible.

Yet labels can be misleading. They can even mislead the people who espouse them. Morris himself was aware of this. He said: “I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes, turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”

When you read Morris’s writings, whether verse or prose, you notice the constant recurrence of the word “clean”. He wants clean air, a clean countryside again. He dreams of the Middle Ages, when the polluted London where he lives had been “small, and white, and clean”.  Today he would have been an environmentalist – but the word did not exist then.

Morris glorified pre-industrial work, and perhaps idealised it, something Marx did not do. For Marx, work belonged to the kingdom of necessity; it was the chore that had to be done before the kingdom of freedom could begin. Morris thought that work should be a source of joy, a joy that is bound to express itself in beauty. Was he wrong? It may sound idealistic, but it came from his own personal approach to work – writing an epic while weaving tapestry. Another time he declared:  “A good way to rid one’s self of a sense of discomfort is to do something. That uneasy, dissatisfied feeling is actual force vibrating out of order; it may be turned to practical account by giving proper expression to its creative character.” As a psychological observation, as a philosophy of work, I think it can hardly be bettered.