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William Morris : a study in personality online

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OUT of the number of the greyhounds
I comes the destruction of the hare, a
proverb says, and it may well be
that in a multitude of memoirs, all
recollection of a man is lost.

The object of the present work is to endeavour
above all things to reconstruct the man just as
he spoke and worked.

To do this all his friends still living, simple
and learned, have been approached. Into which
category I fall I am sure I do not know, though
I know well enough I am not learned at all.

Most of the striking descriptions of celebrated
men that have come down to us have come
from those who could put in no claim to being
learned. Few such, in my estimation, are
better than the pages in which Bernal Diaz del
Castillo describes Cortes, painting him so that


we could know him, if by chance, standing at
an angle of the Plaza in the town of Medellin,
he passed across the square. The man is not
so much depicted as preserved, as it were by
an embalmer. If his coffin were to be opened
and his body found intact, all readers of the
Conquest of New Spain would cry at once,
" Cortes ! " The writer did not labour his de-
scription, but just set down all that had struck
him in his hero, physically in the first place ;
for after all the mind must have a body in
which to live, and show its qualities.

It all looks easy, as easy as when with red
and white and blue and black — I think that was
his palette with slight variety — Velasquez set
down Philip for all time, so easily, that one
feels that the King's hand was light upon the
long branched bridle with which he rides.

Quel facile . . . !

Well, well

Morris was of the middle height and very
strongly built, not the least athletic looking ;
but still a stout carle for the nones.

His face was ruddy, and his hair inclined to
red and grew in waves like water just before it


breaks over a fall. His beard was of the same
colour as his hair. His eyes were blue and
fiery. His teeth small and irregular, but white
except upon the side on which he held his pipe,
where they were stained with brown. When
he walked he swayed a little, not hke a sailor
sways, but as a man who lives a sedentary life,
toddles a little in his gait. His ears were small,
his nose high and well made, his hands and
feet small for a man of his considerable bulk.

His speech and his address were fitting to
the man ; bold, bluff and hearty. " None of
your damned poets about me ! " he might have
said — perhaps he did ; I almost fancy that he did.

He was quick-tempered and irritable, swift
to anger and swift to reconciliation, and I
should think never bore malice in his life.

When he talked he seldom looked long at
you, and his hands were always twisting, as if
they wished to be at work. Argument he
brooked but hardly, and was apt to break out
into a loud tone, which in him somehow or
another was just what you expected, and per-
sonally, always reminded me of Njal or Bere-


With a broad-edged battle-axe in his hand,
standing up in a Viking galley, he would have
looked just in his place, or with a narwhal's
tusk hollowed into a cup he would have been
equally at home carousing with the sea rovers,
when the fight was done.

However, when he spoke in pubhc, his rela-
tively weak voice and halting speech astonished
one, and you felt, perhaps, his place would
have been, then as now, beside the harpers in
the hall.

When others spoke or lectured, he drew in-
tricate patterns on a sheet of paper. I often
wish I had preserved a few of those loose sheets
of notes ; but then he looked built to defy all
time ; even if it had come into my head.

His speech was not convincing, but most
enthusiastic in its quality. You felt when hear-
ing it : this man is right, although you half
suspected he was wrong. That kind of speech
befits the kind of man that Morris was, for
those who speak in order to convince, most
commonly speak to advance a cause, and not
unusually their own.

Morris most certainly wanted nothing from


mankind. His was the nature that has all to
give — his art, his genius, ideas, and himself ;
to hear him was to feel all this — and more.
On listening to him it seemed he should have
been an orator and yet he was not ; but he was
better than an orator, for you felt he was a man.

I think he had no humour, for he loved fun,
broad, mediaeval fun and jokes.

Now fun and humour cannot exist together
in one man, any more than profit goes with
honour in one bag.

Quibbles on words he loved, and Huckleberry
Finn seemed to him exquisite fooling ; but
keen French wit, or the subtle humour of the
Italian mind, would have appeared to him
either not funny in the least, or not perceivable.

Criticism did not, I fancy, bother him greatly,
and for it he used to substitute that hearty
hatred of forms of art that did not interest him,
an attitude which minds, strongly creative in
themselves, are prone to fall into. " The hot
and greasy daubs of Sir Joshua Reynolds," was
said by him to me. Perhaps he may have
said it first to someone else ; but he delivered
it with so much unction, that if he was not


saying it for the first time in all his life, his
credit is the more, for certainly the fury of his
phrase left little to desire.

Poets there have been who, when one has
read their works, all that we have to do with
them is done ; but to read Morris and never
to have known the man is to lose half of him.
Something there was so simple and direct, so
faith-inspiring and whole-souled about him,
that all his verse and all his many-sided life
seem to me incomplete unless one knew him
and had felt his charm.

For me, he was no mystic, but a sort of
symbolist set in a mediaeval frame, and it
appeared to me that all his love of the old times
of which he wrote was chiefly of the setting ; of
tapestries well wrought ; of needlework, rich
colours of stained glass falling upon old monu-
ments, and of fine work not scamped. I can-
not find a trace of mediaevalism in the inside of
his work, although perhaps there are influences
here and there of the time when Thor swung
his hammer, and in the Orkneys people passed
their heads through the round hole hewn in
the stone of Woden.


Quietly enough he sleeps in the churchyard
in Gloucestershire, beside the straggling elm
hedge where I saw him laid to rest.

The seasons come and go ; in spring the
elms are dressed in that light Lincoln green he
loved ; in summer nightingales sing above his
head ; in autumn all is turned to gold ; and
in the winter nights the owls hoot, answering
one another from the tall trees to the church

He fought his fight and now is resting, and

when the time comes it will not matter much

to him, I take it, if he awakens to the sound of

the last Trump, or a shrill blast on Odin's




SINCE William Morris died in 1896,
there have been many studies of his
life and work, from the authoritative
and scholarly biography by Professor
Mackail, to the finely-written appraisement of
Mr. John Drinkwater, himself a poet of note.
But perhaps there is still an opening for a
volume that shall deal more particularly with
the personal equation of Morris.

Few men of our time had so vivid and chal-
lenging a personality. He was a gifted poet, a
distinguished proseman, a superb craftsman
and a vigorous social force. Yet first and fore-
most he was a great personality. For this
reason, while attention has been given to a
critical consideration of the purely literary
aspects of Morris's work, the present book is
primarily a study in personality and tempera-
ment. The writer has sought to present the
amazingly various activities of Morris through
his personality, rather than to view them as


something apart from the man. For though
these activities were legion, the impelhng spirit
and controlHng method were always the same.

In order to present a clear and vital picture
of the man, the writer has sought the firsthand
impressions of as many, as possible, of Morris's
intimates and acquaintances, for whereas X
may see certain traits clearly, Z will see other
points more vividly. A great man, like a great
mountain, must be viewed from diverse sides
in order that his characteristics may be pro-
perly rated.

To say that Morris's circle of acquaintances
was wide, his ring of intimate friends con-
stricted, is only to reiterate what is equally
true of many another public man. But in
Morris's case the implication carries with it more
significance. For all his outward geniality he
was a man of considerable reserve ; and while
some of his qualities are obvious enough to any
passing acquaintance, the real heart of the man
was revealed only to one or two intimates.
Thus his simplicity and hearty directness of
manner proved an unconscious snare to the
hasty observer. When a mountain has its head
in the clouds it is easy to mistake its propor-
tions : you must see it under many and various
conditions, to adjudge its size. How far the


present writer has succeeded in drawing a live
and recognizable figure of Morris must be left
for others to determine. If he has failed, the
fault lies entirely at his doors and not at those
of the many friends who have so generously
placed much entirely fresh personalia at his

For most of the personal matter the writer
is indebted to Morris's friends and acquaint-
ances, and he acknowledges gratefully his vary-
ing obligations to Morris's sister Mrs. Gilmore,
to Mr. Belfort Bax, Mr. Wilfrid Scawen Blunt,
Dr. Stopford Brooke, Sir Philip Burne- Jones, Bt.,
the Rt. Hon. John Burns, m.p., Mr. Walter
Crane, Mr. Jack Edwards of Liverpool, Mr.
R. B. Cunninghame Graham, Sir William Blake
Richmond, k.c.b., Mr. W. M. Rossetti, Mr.
Tochatti, Mr. Thackeray Turner, Mr. Emery
Walker, and Mr. Theodore Watts-Dunton, also
to a few who prefer to be nameless. Especially
is he grateful to Mr. Wilfrid Scawen Blunt for
placing at his disposal the interesting reminis-
cence of Morris's last visit, and to Mr. R. B.
Cunninghame Graham for his unfailing kind-
ness and courtesy on all matters connected with
the work. When the book was in proof, Mr.
Cunninghame Graham kindly read through the
opening chapters, and at the suggestion of the



writer generously consented to contribute a
pen sketch by way of introduction, giving his
own impression of Morris's personaHty and

Finally, for helpful information on certain
points, he wishes to acknowledge the courtesy
of Mr. Warwick Draper (the present tenant of
Kelmscott House), Mr. Buxton Forman, Miss
EHzabeth Lee, Mr. H. C. Marillier (of Morris
& Co.), and Mr. Robert Ross, while he has
been fortunate in having throughout, the sym-
pathetic interest and stimulating co-operation
of his publisher, Mr. Herbert Jenkins.

It is hoped that the comparative chrono-
logical table at the end of the work will prove
useful in indicating the general social history of
the period during which Morris lived, as well
as serving as a reference to the biographical
facts of his life.


24 Dryburgh Road, Putney, S.W.




I. "Captain of the Sea Swallow" . . 3

II. Some Characteristics . . . -23

III. Literary Idiosyncrasies . . . -45


IV. Some General Considerations . . -69
V. The Early Work . . . . -78

VI. The Middle Period . . . ■ 9-

VII. The Later Work . . . . .106


VIII. ........ 123



IX. The Why and Wherefore . . . i57

X. Some Comparisons . . . . .169

XI. The Time and the Place . . . .178




XII. Beauty and Sociology .... 209

XIII. Art for Life's Sake .... 224

XIV. Morris, Carlyle, and Dickens . . . 258

Analytical Biography ..... 268

Index ........ 319


William Morris, circa 1893 . . . Frontispiece

Mrs. William Morris, from a Painting by D. G.

ROSSETTI . .... To face page 158

Permission to make certain quotations from
Prof. Mackail's Life of William Morris has been
kindly accorded by Messrs. Longmans & Co. ;
from his pubHshed writings by the Trustees
and Executors of Morris, to whom also I am
indebted for allowing me to publish certain
letters to Sir Philip Burne- Jones and Mr.
Tochatti ; from Theodore Watts-Dunton by
James Douglas to Messrs. Hodder & Stoughton
and Mr. James Douglas ; from the Ipane
by R. B. Cunninghame Graham to Mr. Fisher
Unwin, the Editor of the Saturday Review
and Mr. Cunninghame Graham ; from John
Ruskin by J. A. Hobson to Messrs. James
Nisbet & Co. ; and from reviews and notices
in the AthencBum by T. Watts-Dunton to the
Editor of the Athenceum and Mr. Watts-





" Before man made us citizens,
Great Nature made us men."

/. R. Lo7vell.

SWINGING along the roadway comes a
burly, broad - backed man of medium
height, clad in a comfortable suit of
navy blue, with his plentiful hair, grey-
flecked and obtrusive, under a soft wide-
brimmed hat. The whole build of the man
radiates restless activity, from the aggressive
vitality of his head of hair and the wrinkled
exuberance of the flannel collar to the emphatic
tap of the big walking-stick.

The face is strong and weather-beaten ; and
over his sturdy shoulders is slung a dun-
coloured canvas bag, wherein reposes a miscel-
lany of treasures, not the least valuable being


a wealth of stray pipes for any friend at some
out-of-the-way meeting who might need one.
The voice that greets you is pleasant and
musical in tone, the manner heart}^ and direct.
An honest Autolycus — if such a possibility does
not strain the imagination unduly — with all
that genial vagabond's love of the open air and
vigorous, primal life ; his indifference to ap-
pearance and regard for unconventional ways.
Such is the rough general impression of William
Morris in the later years of his life. Regarded
at closer quarters, the physical characteristics
of the man made a more definite and detailed
impression. The most striking features were
the brow and nose. The brow was splendid, and
set in a framework of magnificent wavy hair.
Often the hair would stand away from his
head, falling into large rhythmic curves, and
surmounting it like an aureole. The eyes were
rather small and not specially notable ; but
the nose was finely moulded, Greek in shape ;
while the mouth, beautiful in his youth, was
somewhat spoilt later by tricks of twisting and
biting. Chin and jaw were not remarkable ;
the lower part of the face suggesting the artist
rather than the man of affairs.

The body, sturdily fashioned, was set upon
unusually short legs. The arms, contrary to


expectation, were thin and lacking in muscular
development ; the hands small but thick, the
hands of a craftsman rather than an artist.

When chatting with him indoors you noticed
his favourite gestures— the peculiar twitch to his
beard, the restless hands, the shifting position.

If you chanced to touch on some topic in
which Morris was not interested, or did not
care to discuss, some point in philosophy, per-
haps, he would shrug his body in a curious way,
scratch himself vehemently, or go yp to a door
and rub his back against it as a sheep might,
as if trying to get rid of the question.

Having filled his black wooden pipe with his
usual mixture of " Latakia," he would allow it
to go out time after time, and required a per-
fect storehouse of matches. Occasionally he
would refresh himself with a pinch of snuff, but
rarely did you see him with a cigar.

Talk to him on social matters, mark the
flame of anger flashing into his grey eyes ;
listen to the muttered objurgations, to the
sudden tempestuous outburst, to the equally
sudden subsidence of the storm ; note the
shrewd sense of some casual remark, the blunt
outspokenness, and you would certainly find
it hard to realise that here was the wistful
dreamer of The Earthly Paradise, the Utopian


visionary of News from Nowhere. But let some
problem of decorative art spring up, or, better
still, show Morris some rare mediaeval manu-
script, and then — what a change ! — the rapt
enthusiasm, the utter self-absorption in the
artistic beauty of the treasure ; the fine, fas-
tidious appraisement of its excellences. Now,
indeed, it was equally hard to believe that
Morris had ever given straight, vigorous talks
at street corners.

The arresting magnetism of the man lay in
the piquant juxtaposition of two widely diver-
gent personalities. On the one side he was an
artist throughout, with the artist's tastes, his
eclecticism, his whole-hearted devotion to the
spirit of beauty ; a dreamer of dreams ; one
who lived in a world of his own fashioning. On
the other side, he was a bluff, direct, downright
man interested in concrete realities ; a man of
shrewd common sense and practical sagacity.
The dreamer imagined The Earthly Paradise ;
the practical man devised for it a ground
plan. The dreamer passed through the drab
wilderness of Victorian London, and with his
gift of beauty warmed its bleakness into radi-
ance. The practical man, seeing that the gift
of beauty was a good thing, turned it into a
limited company.


There is the well-known legend that a man
stopped him one day in the street with : " Beg
pardon, sir, were you ever captain of the Sea
Swallow ? ' ' The enquirer condensed, unwit-
tingly, into this suggestive query the whole
problem of Morris's personality.

For the Sea Swallow was a venturesome craft
that none would confuse with a routine ocean
liner, something other than the average sea-
worthy boat ; one that might boast acquaint-
ance with the waters of Romance, navigable
only by the magic compass of fantasy.

A pleasant name — the Sea Swallow ; one that
suits the dreamer. But he was no mere pas-
senger on the craft, he was Captain, Master,
Controller. An incorrigible dreamer if you like,
but master of his dreams ; not drifting hither
and thither on the tide of his emotions, but navi-
gating his imagination with a port in view. No
visionary this ; no mild-eyed Alcott, enveloped
in an atmosphere of vague idealism, but a sane,
level-headed man, if ever there was one !

He is not the only Victorian man of letters
whom the casual passer-by might have mis-
taken for a sea captain. There was the look of
the sea captain also about Dickens and, to a
lesser extent, about Robert Browning ; Dickens
had made a jauntier sea captain, with his love


of bright colours ; and Browning, with his
dapper ways, a sprucer one. This chance re-
semblance may serve to connect three men in
many respects widely divergent in disposition
and the bent of their genius. It symbolises,
agreeably, a common psychological character-
istic. All these men were both dreamers and
men of action ; artists and men of the world.
It needed all Dickens' simple homeliness and
vivid sense of actuality to curb and restrain
the fantastic extravagance of his dream self.
As it is, his riotous imagination often broke
bounds ; and from one point of view The
Christmas Carol is as Utopian a romance as
The Dream of John Ball.

Tennyson once jokingly warned Browning,
a propos of his liking for social functions, that
he would die in a white tie. No one would have
accused Morris of this. Moreover, Browning's
southern tastes, his intellectual subtleties, found
no counterpart in Morris. Yet in the elemental
vigour and passion of the man, the fine auda-
city, the hearty love of the Earth, the contempt
for the trifier and mere dilettante, the two men
had no little in common.

Had it been possible to put Morris, Dickens,
and Browning on the Underground Railway,
and afterwards to have compared their impres-


sions, interesting variation of comment would
have resulted, Dickens could have told us of
the crowd of passengers and differentiated each
one with his wonderful eye for external pecu-
liarities. Browning would have found some
psychological drama to his hand ; and Morris,
after declaiming on the hideousness of it all,
would have seemed the most keenly alive to
the minutest points of railway organisation,
which always interested him.

Veins of likeness and unlikeness to one
another, cross and recross with startling vivid-
ness the personalities of these three great Vic-
torians. In unlikeness assuredly, for each was
a man of highly distinctive and assertive indi-
viduality ; but in likeness also, for each was a
blend of contradictory selves, each enjoyed
taking the middle-class Englishman by the
scruff of his neck and shaking him with the best
will in the world. Belonging to the middle class
themselves, they knew all the family peculiari-
ties, and the fact that none of them ever freed
himself entirely of the conventions of his class,
merely serves as another bond in common.

Morris was a shrewd observer in his own
special way, though he gave the opposite im-
pression to the casual onlooker. He never
seemed to be on the watch, yet little escaped


him. Without any apparent effort of observa-
tion, he would come into a room and take in all
the people there, their appearance and charac-
teristics, with swift insight and acumen. There
was no better companion on a railway journey,
for he would give a running commentary on
all the passing scenes, the architecture of the
towns and villages, the history and charm of
some old house or ruin, the character of the
country, the hills and valleys, the crops and
verdure, and the possibilities of the soil.

His mind was of the observant rather than
the reflective order. In his rare moments of
passivity, he enjoyed looking at beautiful
things. In his far more frequent dynamic
moods, he enjoyed making them.

Yet the grey eyes of Morris looked strangely
unseeing at times ; often and often, while you
were speaking to him, he would plunge into a
train of thought, and late in life he developed
a habit of talking to himself whenever he was

Sleeping next door to a friend on one occa-
sion, he kept up a continual booming as if
arguing some point earnestly with a disputant.
On the friend enquiring what was the matter,
Morris replied, " Oh, it's all right, I'm only
talking to myself about the weather." On


another occasion he was muttering so loudly to
himself in the dining-room, that the maid who
was laying the dinner asked if he wanted any-
thing. Morris made no reply. He was far
too engrossed in his outspoken thoughts. More-
over, he had the dreamer's love of old customs,
and with the same friend never failed for many
years to see the New Year in, though there was
a faintly apologetic atmosphere about him when
he did so. " After all, one day in the year is
much the same as another," he would say.
But he did not forgo the practice despite that.
Not that the love of old customs appealed
merely to his artistic side. He had a boyish
relish for festivals of all kinds, and delighted
in bright genial company.

He enjoyed certain games, but excelled in
none. Backgammon he played constantly with
his wife, and was as constantly beaten. He
was an indifferent hand at whist, and a bad
chess player. Perhaps it was as an angler that
he is most noteworthy, and even there his
patience was more remarkable than his prowess.
Strong and vigorous in frame, and loving the
open air as he did, there was a physical awk-
wardness about him that precluded athletic
skill. He was a good walker none the less, and
a vigorous man with the oar.


It was curious, however, to note how in the
midst of some youthful prank or ebuUition of
high spirits, a dreamy look would come into
the face, a look George Frederick Watts used

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Online LibraryArthur Compton-RickettWilliam Morris : a study in personality → online text (page 1 of 16)