William Morris Essay

William Morris (1834–1896) was one of the leading poets and prose writers of late Victorian England, an artist and craftsman, a translator of Norse sagas, a businessman, and one of the most important printers of his time. He was also a revolutionary communist who left behind him a rich and extensive legacy of libertarian socialist thought and practice. Morris’s most original and lasting contributions to political thought were his critique of useless toil under capitalism and his utopian vision of a world in which all forms of labor, even the commonest, might be made attractive.

The most carefully considered and argued of Morris’s indictments of capitalist society is that it promotes the treatment of labor as a commodity, and hence denies the greater part of humanity any pleasure in their work. According to his argument, artistic beauty and the pleasure of creation were natural and necessary accompaniments of certain forms of craft labor in the Middle Ages. Only with the evolution of specifically capitalist institutions were art and work separated. As capitalism has grown, the divide has deepened, and most people are now surrounded by ugliness and work and live in pain. The situation will be reversed only when artificial obstacles to pleasurable labor are removed, and all have the opportunity to make their innate senses of beauty and value an integral part of their lives.

Morris developed his vision of a society in which work and art—and nature—blend harmoniously in a range of utopian writings, the best known of which is his socialist romance News from Nowhere (1891). “Nowhere,” in this work, is a moneyless and stateless craft utopia, the most distinctive feature of which is the fact that nearly all the work done in it is pleasurable, either because of the hope of social honor, which causes pleasurable excitement; because it has grown into a pleasurable habit, as in the case of mechanical work; or, most important of all, because all people are artists insofar as they are able to take some conscious sensuous pleasure in the work itself. Unlike most literary works about utopias, News from Nowhere features a detailed and largely plausible account of how the changes it describes came about. The verisimilitude of this aspect of the narrative is no doubt due in large part to Morris’s exceptionally active engagement in the English revolutionary socialist movement of the 1880s.

The most common criticism leveled against Morris by socialists and nonsocialists alike is that he was a backward-looking thinker who failed to appreciate the labor-saving potential of modern machine technology. However, while Morris did indeed look back to premodern social and cultural values, he viewed them only as a source of inspiration for his utopian vision of the socialist future. And while he believed that the reunification of work, art, and nature in communist society would ultimately entail a resurgence of handicraft labor, he also recognized that the invention of modern factory machinery in the nineteenth century opened up tremendous opportunities for minimizing intrinsically unpleasant and painful labor—opportunities he felt were squandered by profit-driven manufacturers who used the new technology to save the cost of labor rather than labor itself.

Morris was for many years effectively dismissed as a sentimental and eccentric dreamer, but by the early twenty-first century, he had become widely acknowledged as a figure of major political importance. Over a century after his death, both his political writings and his personal example continue to inspire participants in a range of radical social movements, among them democratic socialism, anarchism, and radical ecology.

Bibliography:

  1. Cole, G. D. H., ed.. William Morris: Stories in Prose, Stories in Verse, Shorter Poems, Lectures and Essays. London: Nonesuch Press, 1948.
  2. Kinna, Ruth. William Morris: The Art of Socialism. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000.
  3. Macdonald, Bradley. William Morris and the Aesthetic Constitution of Politics. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 1999.
  4. Morton, A. L., ed. Political Writings of William Morris. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1973.
  5. Thompson, E. P. William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976.

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