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British poet, author, thinker and publisher William Morris was born in 1834 in Walthamstow, Essex. The eldest son of wealthy Londoners Emma Shelton Morris and William Morris, the younger Morris would become one of the most influential people in the cultural landscape of Victorian England.
Educated at home and at a nearby preparatory school, Morris’s childhood was one of privilege, with books, leisurely excursions and ponies for personal use. The idyll ended (to an extent) with the sudden death of Morris Senior in 1847 when the younger Morris was just 14 years old. The next year, Morris began his formal studies at Marlborough College in Wiltshire. After three years of bullying and homesickness, Morris returned to his family home and was thereafter privately tutored. In 1852, Morris entered Oxford University to study the Classics. While there he also became interested in medieval-era history and architecture. Morris would come to identify with medievalist ideals, as did a growing socio-political movement in England that rejected the values of the prevailing Victorian capitalist system. Morris would become even more politically active later in life, embracing the socialist values that he had recognized in medievalism as an undergraduate. Morris made several important and life-long friends while at Exeter College at Oxford, most notably the artist and designer Edward Burne-Jones. Morris and Burne-Jones became part of a group of Oxford thinkers (most of them from the industrial city of Birmingham) who would be known historically as “The Birmingham Set.” The group included divinity student William Fulford, poet and theologian Richard Watson Dixon, mathematician Charles Faulkner and scholar Cormell Price – internally they called themselves “The Brotherhood.” The members of the group shared literary interests as well as values and were huge fans of Alfred Lord Tennyson, art critic John Ruskin, the Arthurian legends and William Shakespeare.
In 1856, Morris helped fund and start up the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, the first of many cooperative projects in which he took an active role. Twelve issues were published. Also in 1856 – upon completion of his Bachelor of Arts degree - Morris was apprenticed briefly to the Oxford based Gothic revival architect George Edmund Street. Morris would use lessons learned from Street, and supervising architect Philip Webb, during the design process for his own Red House in Kent. Morris lived there with his new family – wife Jane Burdon, who he married in 1859, and daughters Jenny and Mary – until 1865.
In 1858 Morris published The Defence of Guenvere, an innovative volume of lyric and dramatic verse, which nonetheless was not well received critically. Morris would not publish again until 1867 when Bell and Dandy published the epic romantic poem The Life and Death of Jason. The printing was financed by Morris himself; happily, the book was well received and Morris received a fee for the second edition.
From 1861 Morris commuted from The Red House to London where he had opened a decorative arts firm with Burne-Jones, Webb, Faulkner and other friends: the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and Peter Paul Marshall. The company – known publicly as Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. and privately as “The Firm” – specialized in locally produced fabrics, furniture, tapestries, wallpaper, architectural carving and stained glass windows. In 1875, Morris assumed total control of the company, now named Morris & Co. Though known in his lifetime chiefly for being a poet, Morris would also achieve posthumous acclaim as a chief architect of the “Arts and Crafts” British design movement.
In 1865, Morris sold The Red House and moved to Bloomsbury in London with his family. By 1870, he was a cultural fixture in that city and a celebrity of some stature.
From 1865 to 1870, Morris worked on another epic poem, The Earthly Paradise. Designed as homage to Chaucer, it consists of 24 stories, each with a different narrator from a different cultural background. Set in the late 14th century, it is about a group of Norsemen who flee the Black Death by sailing away from Europe, on the way discovering an island where the inhabitants continue to venerate an ancient Greek god. Published in four parts by F. S. Ellis, the epic gained a cult following and established Morris' reputation as a major poet.
Greatly influenced by his friendship with Icelandic theologian Eiríkr Magnússon and several visits to Iceland, Morris produced a series of English-language translations of the Icelandic Eddas and Sagas (old Norse poems and stories). Morris also taught himself calligraphy and created hand written copies of Nordic tales in translation, including Frithiof the Bold and Halfden the Black. It was the continuation of a life-long devotion to craft, a feature of many of his subsequent works, including the poetic drama Love is Enough, published in 1872 with woodcut illustrations by Burne-Jones.
Though leading a rich life in London, Morris did find the city unhealthy for his young family. He came across and fell in love with a 16th century manor house in Oxfordshire. The Morris family would share Kelmscott Manor with Morris’ friend Rossetti (who, it is said, had developed a close relationship with Morris’ wife Jane) until their friendship eventually disintegrated. Kelmscott also lent its name to another of Morris’ achievements – the Kelmscott Press, which he co-founded, with Emery Walker, in 1891. The bespoke publishing house was dedicated to publishing limited edition, illuminated style fine art books, in keeping with Morris’ devotion to the craft of making books as beautiful objects. The Press dovetailed with Morris’ continuing design work with Morris & Co. Over the next seven years, it would publish 66 volumes, the first of which was Morris' own novel, The Story of the Glittering Plain, in 1891. The Kelmscott Press would go on to publish 23 of Morris' books, but also editions of works by Keats, Shelley, Ruskin, and Swinburne, as well as copies of various Medieval texts. Kelmscott’s magnum opus would turn out to be the Kelmscott Chaucer, published in 1896; it took several years to complete and included 87 illustrations and decorative borders from Burne-Jones.
In 1883, Morris joined England's first socialist organization, the Democratic Federation, later renamed the Socialist Democratic Federation (SDF). This was the beginning of years of overt activism on behalf of workers and the poor. In 1884, Morris and a large group of SDF members seceded in order to form the brand new Socialist League (SL). For the rest of the decade, Morris worked tirelessly for the cause; he met several times each week with his comrades from the SL and delivered hundreds of lectures. He was arrested in 1885 for disorderly conduct at the trial of several Socialist protesters, wrote for and edited SL’s newspaper, The Commonweal and wrote a long series of socialist literary works, including the song collection Chants for Socialists (1884); a narrative poem, The Pilgrims of Hope (1885); the historical meditation A Dream of John Ball (1887); and his most influential work, News from Nowhere (1890), a pastoral utopian communist vision of England in the twenty-first century.
Morris also continued as a poet and prose writer. In December 1888, the Chiswick Press published his The House of the Wolfings, a fantasy story set in Iron Age Europe, which provides a reconstructed portrait of the lives of Germanic-speaking Gothic tribes. The book contains both prose and poetic verse and was followed by a two-volume sequel, The Roots of the Mountains, in 1899.
Morris also embarked on a translation of the quintessential Anglo-Saxon tale, Beowulf. Because he could not fully understand Old English, his poetic translation was based largely on that already produced by A.J. Watts. The Tale of Beowulf was not well received.
In the last nine years of his life, Morris wrote a series of imaginative fictions usually referred to as the "prose romances." These novels – including The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World's End (1896) – have been credited as important milestones in the history of fantasy fiction, because, while other writers wrote of foreign lands, or of dream worlds, or the future (as Morris had already done in the utopian News from Nowhere), Morris's works were the first to be set in an entirely invented neo-medieval fantasy world.
By 1896, Morris was an invalid, not working much but being visited by friends and family at his home. The great man died of tuberculosis on October 4th, 1896. Morris’ funeral was held on October 6th, his corpse carried from Kelmscott House, his home in Hammersmith, to Paddington rail station, where it was transported to Oxford, then to Kelmscott, where it was buried in the churchyard of St. George's Church.
Morris lives on with the legacy of the Arts and Crafts movement, in his many fine literary works, essays and translations and through his homes, which have been preserved by the UK’s National Trust and the William Morris Society as monuments to the man and the epic period of cultural history in which he flourished.