from A History of English Literature (1918)
by Robert Huntington Fletcher
William Morris, a man of remarkable versatility and tremendous energy, which expressed themselves in poetry and many other ways, was the son of a prosperous banker, and was born in London in 1834. At Oxford in 1853-55 he became interested in medieval life and art, was stimulated by the poetry of Mrs. Browning and Tennyson, became a friend of Burne-Jones, wrote verse and prose, and was a member of a group called 'The Brotherhood,' while a little later published for a year a monthly magazine not unlike 'The Germ.' He apprenticed himself to an architect, but at the same time also practised several decorative arts, such as woodcarving, illuminating manuscripts, and designing furniture, stained glass and embroidery. Together with Burne-Jones, moreover, he became an enthusiastic pupil of Rossetti in painting. His first volume of verse, 'The Defence of Guinevere and Other Poems,' put forth in 1858, shows the influence of Rossetti and Pre-Raphaelitism, but it mainly gives vivid presentation to the spirit of fourteenth-century French chivalry. In 1861 came the foundation of the decorative-art firm of Morris and Co., which after some years grew into a large business, continued to be Morris' main occupation to the end of his life, and has exercised a great influence, both in England and elsewhere, on the beautifying of the surroundings of domestic life.
Meanwhile Morris had turned to the writing of long narrative poems, which he composed with remarkable fluency. The most important is the series of versions of Greek and Norse myths and legends which appeared in 1868-70 as 'The Earthly Paradise.' Shortly after this he became especially interested in Icelandic literature and published versions of some of its stories; notably one of the Siegfried tale, 'Sigurd the Volsung.' In the decade from 1880 to 1890 he devoted most of his energy to work for the Socialist party, of which he became a leader. His ideals were largely identical with those of Ruskin; in particular he wished to restore (or create) in the lives of workingmen conditions which should make of each of them an independent artist. The practical result of his experience was bitter disappointment, he was deposed from his leadership, finally abandoned the party, and returned to art and literature. He now published a succession of prose romances largely inspired by the Icelandic sagas and composed in a strange half-archaic style. He also established the 'Kelmscott Press,' which he made famous for its production of elaborate artistic editions of great books. He died in 1896.
Morris' shorter poems are strikingly dramatic and picturesque, and his longer narrations are remarkably facile and often highly pleasing. His facility, however, is his undoing. He sometimes wrote as much as eight hundred lines in a day, and he once declared: '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.' In reading his work one always feels that there is the material of greatness, but perhaps nothing that he wrote is strictly great. His prose will certainly prove less permanent than his verse.
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