The Life of William Morris/Chapter 2
Between Oxford of the early fifties and Oxford of the present day there lies a gap which is imperfectly measured by the change, vast as that is, which forty-five years have brought over the whole of England. The home of lost causes and impossible loyalties was on the eve of startling revolutions; but it still clung to the past with obstinate tenacity, and prided itself on keeping behind the material and intellectual movement of the age. The long struggle which the University had carried on against the intrusion of a railway within ten miles of their sacred precinct typifies a contest which was being carried on, perhaps on neither side with a full understanding of the issues involved, in a much wider and more various field. The opening of the railway line between Oxford and Didcot in June, 1844, and the announcement by Lord John Russell's Government, in May, 1850, of the appointment of the University Commission, are the two great landmarks which separate the old Oxford, the stronghold or sleeping-place of a belated yet still living mediævalism, from the new Oxford, which, for good or bad, has plunged into the modern movement and ranged itself alongside of the modern world.
The Oxford in which Morris and Burne-Jones began their residence at the end of January, 1853, was still in all its main aspect a mediæval city, and the name (in Morris's own beautiful words) roused, as it might have done at any time within the four centuries then ended, "a vision of grey-roofed houses and a long winding street, and the sound of many bells." The railway was there, but had not yet produced its farreaching effects. From all other sides: down the plunging slope of Headington; along the sevenbridged Bath and Gloucester Road, where it trails through the marshes from the skirts of Cumnor; across the Yarnton meadows; over the low stone hills, with their grey villages, that enfold the valley of the Cherwell, one still approached it as travellers had done for hundreds of years, and saw its towers rise among masses of foliage straight out of the girdle of meadow or orchard. "On all sides except where it touched the railway," writes Sir Edward Burne-Jones, "the city came to an end abruptly as if a wall had been about it, and you came suddenly upon the meadows. There was little brick in the city; it was either grey with stone, or yellow with the wash of the pebble-cast in the poorer streets, where there were still many old houses with wood carving, and a little sculpture here and there." Instead of all the meshes of suburb, hideous in gaunt brickwork and blue slate, that now envelop three sides of Oxford, there were but two outlying portions. These still remain distinguishable among the environing changes: the little faubourgs of St. Clement's beyond Magdalen Bridge, and St. Thomas's beyond the bailey-gate of the Castle, each with its tiny High Street and its inconspicuous corporate life. A few streets of small houses had grown up round the Clarendon Press since its establishment in the remote meadows beyond Worcester. Children gathered violets on the Iffley Road within sight of Magdalen. Within the city the modern rage of building had barely begun. The colleges stood much as they had done since the great building epoch of last century, which enriched Oxford with the church of All Saints, the new buildings of Magdalen, and the façade of Queen's. The University Museum was projected, but not yet begun; beyond the grey garden walls of St. John's and Wadham all was unbroken country, and the large residential suburb and the immense pleasure ground that take their name from Fairfax's artillery parks were meadows and market gardens. The Taylorian Institute and Galleries in Beaumont Street, not then overshadowed by the sprawling bulk of the Randolph Hotel, were the only new buildings in Oxford of any importance. The common street architecture was still largely that of the fifteenth century.
Nor in its inner life did Oxford retain less of an old-world air, and of fashions and ideas that had lingered out of an earlier day. But the continuity of life and thought is measured by decades where that of buildings is by centuries; and the furthest tradition that survived in the colleges was that of the stagnant sterility of the eighteenth century. Routh, who had known Dr. Johnson, still retained the presidency of Magdalen, to which he had been elected before the French monarchy had been abolished by the Revolution. During the second half of his long headship the Oxford movement had come and gone. Reaching its climax about the year 1840, it had begun its decline after the secession of Newman in October, 1845, and though it still continued a force of prodigious importance, other movements were ranging up alongside of it, and it was suffering the law of all mutable things. The very life and expansive force of the movement, which made Oxford a missionary centre for the whole country, had laid Oxford itself open to invasion by the outer world and by new ideas. Reform was everywhere in the air. A formidable Liberal reaction had set in, directed almost equally against the pretensions of the Anglo-Catholic school and the privileges of the old-established system. Congreve had founded a small but ardent school of Comtists at Wadham. Jowett had become the leading force at Balliol, and was thought certain of the reversion of the mastership. The younger fellows of Oriel were nearly all advanced Liberals. Oxford had at a thousand points become inextricably attached to the outer world. The railway mania of 1846, when gambling in shares became more exciting than theological controversy, is said to have completed the work begun by the shock of Newman's secession. Left to itself, Oxford would have slipped back into the lethargy out of which it had been so unwillingly awakened by the Tractarian movement. But it was too late. The ferment struck roots deep. The modern city, with its tramways and electric lighting, its whirlwind of building up and pulling down, its tragi-comedies of extension and modernization, is the realized effect of a vast and complex body of influences which were then seething under the surface. Still the Oxford of 1853 breathed from its towers the last enchantments of the Middle Ages; and still it offered to its most ardent disciples, who came to it as to some miraculous place, full of youthful enthusiasm, thirsting after knowledge and beauty, the stony welcome that Gibbon had found at Magdalen, that Shelley had found at University, in the days of the ancient order.
The year which had elapsed since Morris left Marlborough had not only loosened his connexion, slight as that in any case was, with the society of his schoolfellows and the common routine through which the schoolboy passes into the undergraduate, but had matured his mind and widened his knowledge to a degree which represents the normal growth of many years in an ordinary mind. "I arrived at Oxford," says Gibbon in the Autobiography, "with a stock of erudition that might have puzzled a doctor, and a degree of ignorance of which a schoolboy would have been ashamed." Morris's book-knowledge, born of extraordinary swiftness in reading and an amazing memory, was almost as portentous and no doubt as incomplete. "Just as in after years, in the thick of his work," Sir Edward Burne-Jones says, "it was noticeable how he never seemed to be particularly busy, and how he had plenty of leisure for expeditions, for fishing, for amusement, if it amused him; he never seemed to read much, but always knew, and accurately; and he had a great instinct at all times for knowing what would not amuse him, and what not to read."
For such a self-centred nature, already accustomed to take its own views of things, the ordinary college life, the ordinary undergraduate society, had little attraction. The numbers of Exeter were then about one hundred and twenty, and the college buildings were over-full. Even when Morris and Burne-Jones were allowed to come up they had to go into lodgings for their first two terms. No undergraduate was then allowed to spend the night out of college in any circumstances: and the over-crowding was met by making freshmen lodge out during the day, and sleep in the third room of sets belonging to seniors, on whom they were billeted for this purpose. This curious and cumbrous arrangement was of course equally distasteful to senior and freshman, and threw the latter still more on himself, if he had any tendency that way.
Notwithstanding its popularity and its increasing numbers, the internal condition of the college was far from satisfactory. "There was neither teaching nor discipline," is the sweeping verdict of a contemporary of Morris who afterwards rose to high academic distinction. The rector, Dr. Richards, was ill and non-resident. The only one of the fellows who was at all friendly or encouraging was Ridding, the present Bishop of Southwell, who had brought a more energetic tradition with him from Balliol. Morris's own tutor contented himself with seeing that he attended lectures on the prescribed books for the schools, and noted him in his pupil-book as "a rather rough and unpolished youth, who exhibited no special literary tastes or capacity, but had no difficulty in mastering the usual subjects of examination." It is proper to add that this vague supervision was then regarded as sufficient fulfilment of a college tutor's duty, and that his college tutor is the last person in the world to whom an undergraduate thinks of communicating his inner thoughts or his literary enthusiasms.
The undergraduates at Exeter were divided, more sharply than is now the case at any college, into two classes. On the one hand were the reading men, immersed in the details of classical scholarship or scholastic theology; the rest of the college rowed, hunted, ate and drank largely, and often sank at Oxford into a coarseness of manners and morals distasteful and distressing in the highest degree to a boy whose instinctive delicacy and purity of mind were untouched by any of the flaws of youth. Of the average college lecture some notion may be formed from a letter written early in 1854 by one of Morris's intimate friends, who shared many of his tastes.
"As for lectures, I have long since ceased to hope that I should learn anything at them which I did not know before. Imagine yourself ushered into a large room comfortably provided with chairs and a large centre table. The men take their places round it, and the lecturer, looking up from his easy chair by the fireside, exclaims, 'Will you go on, Mr. ——?' The approved crib version is then faithfully given, and meanwhile most other men are getting, by heart or otherwise, Bonn's translation of the next piece. When No. 1 has concluded, the lecturer asks benignly, 'Dum governs two moods, doesn't it?' 'Yes.' 'It governs the subjunctive sometimes, doesn't it?' 'Yes.' 'Is qui ever used with the subjunctive? It is, isn't it?' 'Yes.' 'Very well, very well, Mr. ——. Will you go on, Mr. ——?' 'Haven't read it.' 'Oh, never mind then; you go on, Mr. ——, will you?' and when the crib has been deposited in the hands of a neighbour, in order that any requisite emendations may be whispered into the man's ear, the lecture proceeds. At some awful blunder, up jumps the lecturer, and after a long yawning pause, mildly breaks forth, 'Well, yer know, I should hardly think you'd take it in that way, yer know. Mr. ——, will you just translate that passage? ' (Another crib version is given.) 'Precisely so, precisely so; quite right, quite right, Mr. ——.' And so we gradually limp through a page or two which none of the men has bestowed ten minutes upon, and leave the room for another exhibition of crib-repetition."
The wit here is not untouched with malice; but the sketch shows the impression made by the routine of college lectures on a sensitive, enthusiastic boy who had come to Oxford full of hopes and longings, and prepared to find in it the realization of all his school dreams. The effect was such as Morris himself at all events never got over: to the end of his life the educational system and the intellectual life of modern Oxford were matters as to which he remained bitterly prejudiced, and the name of "Don" was used by him as a synonym for all that was narrow, ignorant, and pedantic.
Morris and Burne-Jones made each other's acquaintance within the first two or three days of their first term. At first sight each found in the other a kindred and complemental spirit. Within a week they were inseparable friends, with that complete and unreserved friendship which is the greatest of all the privileges that Oxford life has to bestow. "We went almost daily walks together," Sir Edward writes. "Gloomy disappointment and disillusion were settling down on me in this first term's experience of Oxford. The place was languid and indifferent; scarcely anything was left to shew that it had passed through such an excited time as ended with the secession of Newman. So we compared our thoughts together upon these things and went angry walks together in the afternoons and sat together in the evenings reading. From the first I knew how different he was from all the men I had ever met. He talked with vehemence, and sometimes with violence. I never knew him languid or tired. He was slight in figure in those days; his heir was dark brown and very thick, his nose straight, his eyes hazel-coloured, his mouth exceedingly delicate and beautiful. Before many weeks were past in our first term there were but three or four men in the whole college whom we visited or spoke to. But at Pembroke there was a little Birmingham colony, and with them we consorted when we wanted more company than our own. In a corner of the old quadrangle there, on the ground floor, were the rooms of Faulkner, learned in mathematics and the physical sciences, not so learned in theology, since, in spite of great distinction and University scholarships, he was once plucked because he included Isaiah in the number of the twelve apostles. Dixon, an old schoolfellow of mine and the only poet in our school, had rooms at the top of the same staircase, and upon the opposite side of the quadrangle lived Fulford, our senior by about two years, a man then full of energy and enthusiasm. But our common room was invariably Faulkner's, where about nine of the evening Morris and I would often stroll down together, and settle once for all how all people should think."
It was among this Birmingham group, Fulford, Burne-Jones, Faulkner, and Dixon, together with Cormell Price and Harry Macdonald, who came up to Oxford from King Edward's School a little later, that Morris mainly spent his time: and it was they who, together with Godfrey Lushington of Balliol, and Vernon Lushington and Wilfred Heeley of Trinity College, Cambridge, joined him three years later in originating and carrying on the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. The two Lushingtons were a few years senior to the rest of the group: the acquaintance with them was formed through Heeley, who was also a King Edward's School boy. He was a man of brilliant parts and amiable nature, whose career in India was cut short by an early death. With this Birmingham group Morris, from his first term at Oxford, was much more closely intimate than with his old Marlborough acquaintance. Such of these last as were at Exeter were, with the exception of W.F. Adams, now Vicar of Little Faringdon, and for many years a neighbour of Morris at Kelmscott, in completely different sets; and for the others, the isolation of one college from another was too great for ordinary school acquaintance to be long kept up without some farther attachment of congenial tastes. Mr. Bliss, Morris's fellow-pupil at Walthamstow, tells me that he dined with him at Magdalen now and then, and that they used to play fives together at the racquet-courts. But this was almost a solitary exception to the self-centred isolation in which the small group habitually lived. Within the group, Fulford, from his two years' seniority, and his superabundant volubility and energy, at first took a position of some dominance. He was one of those minds which reach a precocious maturity and quickly exhaust themselves. He had left King Edward's School with an immense reputation among his schoolfellows, which his subsequent performances did little to justify. By the time he left Oxford his friends had already taken his measure, and sighed over an extinct brilliance. But in this circle of undergraduates, distracted among a thousand divergent interests of theology, social problems, art, literature, and history, his and exclusive devotion to pure literature powerfully helped to keep that interest prominent; and Morris's own first essays, both in prose and verse, though from the first moment he far outstripped his model, to some degree owed their origin to Fulford's influence.
Within, and yet above or apart from the rest of this group, the two Exeter undergraduates lived in undivided intimacy and unremitting intellectual tension. In the Michaelmas term of 1853 they moved into rooms in college. Morris's rooms were in the little quadrangle affectionately known among Exeter men as Hell Quad, with windows overlooking the small but beautiful Fellows' garden, the immense chestnut tree that overspreads Brasenose Lane, and the grey masses of the Bodleian Library. There the long nights set in to crown the long days. On the first night of one of their terms in college, after BurneJones had arrived late from Birmingham, and had supper, " presently Morris came tumbling in," he wrote home next day, " and talked incessantly for the next seven hours or longer." The two read together omnivorously. At first it was chiefly in theology, ecclesiastical history, and ecclesiastical archaeology. Morris early started the habit of reading aloud to Burne-Jones—he could not bear to be read aloud to himself—which continued throughout their lives. Among the works thus read through were Neale's "History of the Eastern Church," Milman's "Latin Christianity," great portions of the "Acta Sanctorum," and of the "Tracts for the Times," Gibbon, Sismondi, and masses of mediaeval chronicles and ecclesiastical Latin poetry. Kenelm Digby's "Mores Catholici" was another book which both read independently; their admiration for it was a thing of which they felt a little ashamed, and which for a time they concealed from each other. Archdeacon Wilberforce's treatises on the Eucharist, Baptism, and the Incarnation, were deeply studied, and Morris was within a little of following Wilberforce's example when he joined the Roman communion in 1854. But alongside of this course of reading, which might be regarded as professional in young men destined for the Church, grew up more and more overpoweringly a wider interest in history, mythology, poetry, and art. Morris arrived at Oxford already familiar with Tennyson and with the two volumes then published of "Modern Painters."
One of Burne-Jones's earliest recollections of his first term was of Morris reading aloud "The Lady of Shalott" in the curious half-chanting voice, with immense stress laid on the rhymes, which always remained his method of reading poetry, whether his own or that of others. Ruskin became for both 01 them a hero and a prophet, and his position was more than ever secured by the appearance of "The Stones of Venice" in 1853. The famous chapter "Of the Nature of Gothic," long afterwards lovingly reprinted by Morris as one of the earliest productions of the Kelmscott Press, was a new gospel and a fixed creed. Curiously enough, in the case of passionate AngloCatholics, Kingsley was read much more than Newman, and Carlyle's "Past and Present" stood alongside of "Modern Painters" as inspired and absolute truth. Before Morris had been a year at Oxford the acquiescence of unquestioning faith was being exchanged for a turmoil of new enthusiasms. Burne-Jones had come to Oxford already saturated with Shakespeare and Keats, and full of the fascination of the Celtic and Scandinavian mythologies. The Pembroke group, together with the rest of their college, which throughout the Anglo-Catholic revival had remained steadfast to the older Evangelicalism, stood apart from the Tractarian movement, and were full of enthusiasm for modern and secular literature . Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, in poetry; Carlyle, De Quincey, Thackeray, Dickens, in prose. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," to which he was introduced by Burne-Jones, opened to Morris a new world, which in later life became, perhaps, his deepest love, that of the great Scandinavian Epic. His other lifelong passion, that for the thirteenth century in all its works and ways, grew not only on the unremitting study of mediaeval architecture, but on a rapid and prodigious assimilation of mediaeval chronicles and romances. But the two books which afterwards stood with him high and apart beyond all others, Chaucer and Malory, were as yet unknown to him; nor, until it was first brought within their knowledge by the appearance, in 1854, of Ruskin's "Edinburgh Lectures," had either he or Bume-Jones heard of the name of Rossetti, or of the existence of that Pre-Raphaelite school from which they received, and to which they imparted, so profound an influence.
Before this, however, art was taking a place alongside of literature in Morris's daily life, under the combined influence of his delight in architecture, his natural dexterity of hand, and the companionship of Bume-Jones, whose drawings, then chiefly of a fantastic nature, had already made him a reputation among his schoolfellows at Birmingham. "There was not a boy in the school," one of them writes, "who did not possess at least one of 'Jones's devils.'" Merton Chapel, one of Morris's special haunts, had lately been renovated by Butterfield; and the beautiful painted roof had been executed by Hungerford Pollen, a former fellow of the college. The application of colour to architecture was then a startling novelty, and young architects were making it their business to learn painting. Morris's study of "The Builder" newspaper, which he took in regularly, alternated with the study of mediaeval design and colouring in the painted manuscripts displayed in the Bodleian. One of these, a splendid Apocalypse of the thirteenth century, became his ideal book. Forty years later he went to Oxford to spend a day in studying it, and looked over it with greater knowledge but unimpaired satisfaction. He was constantly drawing windows, arches, and gables in his books; and even in his letters of this time, where the pen had paused, there comes a half-unconscious scribble of floriated ornament. Burne-Jones had already found in drawing from nature a relief from the burden of theological perplexities, and spent whole days in Bagley Wood making minute and elaborate studies of flowers and foliage. Morris's rooms were full of rubbings which he had taken from mediæval brasses. But the great pictorial art of Italy and Flanders was as yet unknown to either. "Of painting," writes Sir Edward Burne-Jones, "we knew nothing. It was before the time when photographs made all the galleries of Europe accessible, and what would have been better a thousand times for us, the wall paintings of Italy. Indeed it would be difficult to make any one understand the dearth of things dear to us in which we lived; and matters that are now well known to cultivated people, and commonplaces in talk, were then impossible for us to know." Giotto, Angelico, Van Eyck, Dürer, names which a little later became of capital importance to Morris, were then wholly unknown to him. The reproductions of the Arundel Society were just beginning to be issued; but at present all that he knew of Pre-Raphaelite Italian art was from one or two pictures in the Taylorian Museum, and the rude woodcuts in Ruskin's Handbook to the Arena Chapel at Padua. Among the most immediately stimulating of the books which he and Burne-Jones fell in with at Oxford was a translation of Fouqué's "Sintram," prefixed to which was a woodcut copy of Dürer's engraving of the Knight and Death. Poorly executed as it was, this fired their imagination, and hours were spent in poring over it.
The romances of Fouqué, which supplied Morris with the germ of his own early tales, became known to him through another book which exercised an extraordinary fascination over the whole of the group, and in which much of the spiritual history of those years may be found prefigured, "The Heir of Redclyffe."
In this book, more than in any other, may be traced the religious ideals and social enthusiasms which were stirring in the years between the decline of Tractarianism and the Crimean War. The young hero of the novel, with his overstrained conscientiousness, his chivalrous courtesy, his intense earnestness, his eagerness for all such social reforms as might be effected from above downwards, his high-strung notions of love, friendship, and honour, his premature gravity, his almost deliquescent piety, was adopted by them as a pattern for actual life: and more strongly perhaps by Morris than by the rest, from his own greater wealth and more aristocratic temper. Yet Canon Dixon, in mentioning this book as the first which seemed to him greatly to influence Morris, pronounces it, after nearly half a century's reflection and experience, as "unquestionably one of the finest books in the world."
The following reminiscences, contributed by Canon Dixon, of the early years of the "set" as they then called themselves, before this name was replaced by that of the "brotherhood," draw a vivid picture of the life lived among them.
"I matriculated at Pembroke College, Oxford, in June, 1851, and began residence in the October term following, leaving behind me in the Birmingham School Edward Burne-Jones, Edwin Hatch, and Cormell Price.
"At Pembroke I found two Birmingham School men, whom I had known distantly at the school, Richard Whitehouse and William Fulford. As soon as I came up, Fulford called on me, after I had been solitary two or three days. I can still hear his step running up the stairs: and his greeting as he came in. He was a very little fellow, very strong and active, very clever, and immensely vivacious. We immediately fell upon poetry: and he read me a poem, 'In Youth I died,' which afterwards appeared in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. He asked me to breakfast next morning: and at his rooms then I met another man of Birmingham, though not of Birmingham School, Charles Joseph Faulkner. We three became very intimate. Faulkner was rather younger than I, though he had been in residence at least one term when I first knew him. His rooms were on the same staircase as mine: his at the bottom on one side, mine at the top on the other, in the north-east corner of Pembroke old quad.
"Fulford this term and after became extremely intimate with me. He was at least a year beyond my standing: but I could not find that he had any intimates before I came. He seemed to have had no set. However, he, Faulkner, and I soon made up a small set, and were constantly together. Fulford had great critical insight, and extraordinary power of conversation. His literary principles were early fixed. He was absolutely devoured with admiration for Tennyson. Shakespeare he knew, and could speak of as few could. Keats the same. (I introduced Keats to him: he had never heard of him before.) Shelley the same. He never changed much from the first three of these.
"Faulkner was, of course, wholly different. A great mathematician, who carried everything in Oxford. I suppose he must have had an original mind in mathematics, though he never made a noted discovery. He was not particularly of literary taste, I think, except so far as it must belong to a powerful mind.
"Next term, I think it was, Burne-Jones came up to Exeter: and William Morris was a freshman of the same term and college. Calling on Burne-Jones, we all became directly acquainted with Morris; and in no long time, composed one set. Jones and Morris were both meant for Holy Orders: and the same may be said of the rest of us, except Faulkner: but this could not be called the bond of alliance. The bond was poetry and indefinite artistic and literary aspiration: but not of a selfish character, or rather, not of a self-seeking character. We all had the notion of doing great things for man: in our own way, however: according to our own will and bent.
"At first Morris was regarded by the Pembroke men simply as a very pleasant boy (the least of us was senior by a term to him) who was fond of talking, which he did in a husky shout, and fond of going down the river with Faulkner, who was a good boating man. He was very fond of sailing a boat. He was also extremely fond of singlestick, and a good fencer. In no long time, however, the great characters of his nature began to impress us. His fire and impetuosity, great bodily strength, and high temper were soon manifested: and were sometimes astonishing. As, e.g., his habit of beating his own head, dealing himself vigorous blows, to take it out of himself. I think it was he who brought in singlestick. I remember him offering to 'teach the cuts and guards.' But his mental qualities, his intellect, also began to be perceived and acknowledged. I remember Faulkner remarking to me, 'How Morris seems to know things, doesn't he?' And then it struck me that it was so. I observed how decisive he was: how accurate, without any effort or formality: what an extraordinary power of observation lay at the base of many of his casual or incidental remarks, and how many things he knew that were quite out of our way; as, e.g., architecture. One of the first things he ever said to me was to ask me to go with him to look at Merton tower.
"At this time Fulford had a sort of leadership among us. This was partly due to his seniority: partly to his intense vivacity: partly to his Tennysonianism, in which we shared with greater moderation, and in different ways. It is difficult to the present generation to understand the Tennysonian enthusiasm which then prevailed both in Oxford and the world. All reading men were Tennysonians: all sets of reading men talked poetry. Poetry was the thing: and it was felt with justice that this was due to Tennyson. Tennyson had invented a new poetry, a new poetic English: his use of words was new, and every piece that he wrote was a conquest of a new region. This lasted till 'Maud,' in 1855; which was his last poem that mattered. I am told that in this generation no University man cares for poetry. This is almost inconceivable to one who remembers Tennyson's reign and his reception in the Sheldonian in '55. There was the general conviction that Tennyson was the greatest poet of the century: some held him the greatest of all poets, or at least of all modern poets. In my time at Oxford there were two other men who, without touching him, obtained an immense momentary vogue, which has never been equalled since, perhaps, unless by Swinburne, or by Morris himself. These were Alexander Smith, whose 'Life Drama' was in every one's hands, and caused an immense sensation; and Owen Meredith (Lytton), in the 'Clytemnestra' volume containing 'The Earl's Return.' Morris was delighted with this, especially with the incident of the Earl draining a flagon of wine, and then flinging it at the head of him that brought it.
"Now Fulford was absorbed in Tennyson. He had a very fine deep voice, and was a splendid reader of poetry. I have listened entranced to his reading of 'In Memoriam.' He read Milton even better: I suppose because there was more to read. His reading of 'Paradise Lost,' Book I., I shall never forget. He had a fine metrical ear, which helped it. No one can tell how Milton lends himself to a good reader. He was also writing much at this time, and would often read his pieces to us. No doubt many of them had a Tennysonian ring, but they were not mere imitation, they were too sincere for that. I should like to add here, as my friend is dead, and in his life never gained fame or profit from literature, that Fulford's influence was for good. He loved moral beauty first of all things, and would not have it put second in poetry or art.
"I have said that we accepted Tennyson in our own ways. The attitude of Morris I should describe as defiant admiration. This was apparent from the first. He perceived Tennyson's limitations, as I think, in a remarkable manner for a man of twenty or so. He said once, 'Tennyson's Sir Galahad is rather a mild youth.' Of 'Locksley Hall' he said, apostrophising the hero, 'My dear fellow, if you are going to make that row, get out of the room, that's all.' Thus he perceived a certain rowdy, or bullying, element that runs through much of Tennyson's work: runs through 'The Princess,' 'Lady Clara Vere,' or 'Amphion.' On the other hand, he understood Tennyson's greatness in a manner that we, who were mostly absorbed by the language, could not share. He understood it as if the poems represented substantial things that were to be considered out of the poems as well as in them. Of the. worlds that Tennyson opened in his fragments, he selected one, as I think the finest and most epical, for special admiration, namely, 'Oriana.' He offered the suggestion, and with great force, that the scenery of that matchless 'ballad' is not of Western Europe, but South Russian, or Crimean. He held that 'the Norland whirlwinds' shewed this: and he had other reasons. It was this substantial view of value that afterwards led him to admire ballads, real ballads, so highly. As to Tennyson, I would add that we all had the feeling that after him no farther development was possible: that we were at the end of all things in poetry. In this fallacy Morris shared.
"I spoke of a leadership by Fulford. In reality, neither he nor any one else in the world could lead Morris or Burne-Jones.
"At this time, Morris was an aristocrat, and a High Churchman. His manners and tastes and sympathies were all aristocratic. His countenance was beautiful in features and expression, particularly in the expression of purity. Occasionally it had a melancholy look. He had a finely cut mouth, the short upper lip adding greatly to the purity of expression. I have a vivid recollection of the splendid beauty of his presence at this time.
"It was when the Exeter men, Burne-Jones and he, got at Ruskin, that strong direction was given to a true vocation—'The Seven Lamps,' 'Modern Painters,' and 'The Stones of Venice.' It was some little time before I and others could enter into this: but we soon saw the greatness and importance of it. Morris would often read Ruskin aloud. He had a mighty singing voice, and chanted rather than read those weltering oceans of eloquence as they have never been given before or since, it is most certain. The description of the Slave Ship, or of Turner's skies, with the burden, 'Has Claude given this?' were declaimed by him in a manner that made them seem as if they had been written for no end but that he should hurl them in thunder on the head of the base criminal who had never seen what Turner saw in the sky.
"About this time, 1854-5, we started weekly Shakespearean readings in one another's rooms. Fulfoid, Burne-Jones, and Morris were all fine readers: so was Crom Price, who had come up three or four terms after us, to Brasenose. We used to draw lots for the parts. I remember Morris's Macbeth, and his Touchstone particularly; but most of all his Claudio, in the scene with Isabel. He suddenly raised his voice to a loud and horrified cry at the word 'Isabel,' and declaimed the awful following speech, 'Aye, but to die, and go we know not where,' in the same pitch. I never heard anything more overpowering. As an incident not in Shakespeare, I may mention that in the reading of 'Troilus and Cressida,' when Thersites ends his catalogue of fools with the remark, 'And Patroclus is a fool positive,' and Patroclus asks, 'Why am I a fool?' Morris exclaimed, with intense delight, 'Patroclus wants to know why he is a fool!'
"Among those of the set who took part in these readings I would mention two other Birmingham School and Pembroke men; the Rev. James Merrick Guest, still happily surviving in retirement near the School which has been the scene of his life; and the late deeply lamented Dr. Hatch, the theologian, whose noble spirit was not fully known among us."
Morris's first Long Vacation, that of 1853, was spent in England, largely in going about visiting churches. It included a short visit from Burne-Jones at Walthamstow: it is characteristic of Morris himself and of the terms on which undergraduates live, in a world almost wholly of their own, that Burne-Jones up till then had no idea whether Morris was rich or poor, and whether he lived in a little house or a big one. In the Long Vacation of 1854 he made his first journey abroad, to Belgium and Northern France. This journey was one of profound interest: it introduced him to the painting of Van Eyck and Memling, who remained to him ever after absolute and unapproached masters of painting, and to what he considered the noblest works of human invention, the churches of Amiens, Beauvais, and Chartres. From this Long Vacation also he brought back to Oxford photographs of Albert Dürer's engravings, and an increased hatred of the classicists and (for their sake) of the classics. In Paris the Musée Cluny and the galleries of the Louvre enriched his knowledge of mediaeval art in its noblest forms. At Rouen his desires were satisfied to the full.
"Less than forty years ago," he writes in one of the frankly and beautifully autobiographic passages of "The Aims of Art," "I first saw the city of Rouen, then still in its outward aspect a piece of the Middle Ages: no words can tell you how its mingled beauty, history, and romance took hold on me; I can only say that, looking back on my past life, I find it was the greatest pleasure I have ever had: and now it is a pleasure which no one can ever have again: it is lost to the world for ever. At that time I was an undergraduate of Oxford, Though not so astounding, so romantic, or at first sight so mediaeval as the Norman city, Oxford in those days still kept a great deal of its earlier loveliness: and the memory of its grey streets as they then were has been an abiding influence and pleasure in my life, and would be greater still if I could only forget what they are now—a matter of far more importance than the so-called learning of the place could have been to me in any case, but which, as it was, no one tried to teach me, and I did not try to learn."
As deep a love, and one that to the end of his life kept all its first freshness and passion, he felt for the common country of Northern France, the soil out of which sprang those radiant cities and glorious churches. The very smell "of beeswax, wood-smoke, and onions" that greets a traveller on landing, gave intense pleasure to his senses; and more than his own Essex lowlands, more than the "glittering Kentish fields" or the long rolling ridges of the Wiltshire downs, he loved "the French poplar meadows and the little villages and the waters about the Somme, and the long roads among them I longed to be following up more than I can tell."
The year which followed was one of even increased moral and imaginative tension, and launched him on the paths which he followed throughout his life. In March he came of age, and came into the uncontrolled disposition of something like ₤900 a year. This control over great wealth—for such it was for the Oxford circle in which he moved and to his own simple habits — brought with it at once an increased sense of anxious responsibility and a greater boldness in choosing his own course and following it. The Crimean War was in progress, and the awakening effect it had on English public life—eloquently attested by Tennyson's "Maud," by Kingsley's "Two Years Ago," and by the whole general tendency for years afterwards of English poetry and fiction—made the younger generation feel all the excitement of a new era beginning. Socialism in a hundred forms—monastic, or industrial, or aristocratic—was in the air. The aspirations of "The Heir of Redclyffe," which two years before had been so vague and elusory, took definite shape in schemes of elaborate self-culture and social regeneration. The terrible cholera autumn of 1854 seemed the climax of a period of physical and moral stagnation from which the world was awaking to something like a new birth.
"Till late that night I ministered to the sick in that hospital; but when I went away, I walked down to the sea, and paced there to and fro over the hard sand: and the moon showed bloody with the hot mist, which the sea would not take on its bosom, though the dull east wind blew it onward continually. I walked there pondering till a noise from over the sea made me turn and look that way; what was that coming over the sea? Laus Deo! the WEST WIND: Hurrah! I feel the joy I felt then over again now, in all its intensity. How came it over the sea? first far out to sea, so that it was only just visible under the red-gleaming moonlight, far out to sea, while the mists above grew troubled, and wavered, a long level bar of white; it grew nearer quickly, it rushed on toward me fearfully fast, it gathered form, strange, misty, intricate form—the ravelled foam of the green sea; then oh! hurrah! I was wrapped in it,—the cold salt spray — drenched with it, blinded by it, and when I could see again, I saw the great green waves rising, nodding and breaking, all coming on together; and over them from wave to wave leaped the joyous WEST WIND: and the mist and the plague clouds were sweeping back eastward in wild swirls; and right away were they swept at last, till they brooded over the face of the dismal stagnant meres, many miles away from our fair city."
So Morris wrote, with some vague but hardly concealed second meaning, in the first of the series of prose romances which were the outcome of this year. It was the discovery, sudden and seemingly unlooked for, of creative power in himself, a natural outlet in words for all his inward thoughts, loves, aspirations, which lifted the cloud away.
That winter Morris and Burne-Jones had moved to new sets ot rooms, next to one another, in the Old Buildings of Exeter, then overlooking Broad Street across a little open space with trees, and not long afterwards pulled down and replaced by the dreary modern front towards Broad Street, which opened the disastrous era of rebuilding among the Oxford colleges.
"They were tumbly old buildings," Sir Edward Burne-Jones says, "gable-roofed and pebble-dashed. Little dark passages led from the staircase to the sitting rooms, a couple of steps to go down, a pace or two, and then three steps to go up: your face was banged by the door, and then inside the room a couple of steps up to a seat in the window, and a couple of steps down into the bedroom. Here one morning, just after breakfast, he brought me in the first poem he ever made. After that, no week went by without some poem." The story may be continued in Canon Dixon's words.
"One night," he writes, "Crom Price and I went to Exeter, and found him with Burne-Jones. As soon as we entered the room, Burne-Jones exclaimed wildly, 'He's a big poet.' 'Who is?' asked we. 'Why, Topsy'—the name which he had given him." This name, given from his mass of dark curly hair, and generally unkempt appearance, stuck to Morris among the circle of his intimate friends all his life. It was frequently shortened into "Top."
"We sat down," Canon Dixon continues, "and heard Morris read his first poem, the first that he had ever written in his life. It was called 'The Willow and the Red Cliff.' As he read it, I felt that it was something the like of which had never been heard before. It was a thing entirely new: founded on nothing previous: perfectly original, whatever its value, and sounding truly striking and beautiful, extremely decisive and powerful in execution. It must be remembered particularly that it was the first piece of verse that he had ever written: there was no novitiate: and not a trace of influence; and then it will be acknowledged that this was an unprecedented thing. He reached his perfection at once; nothing could have been altered in 'The Willow and the Red Cliff'; and in my judgment, he can scarcely be said to have much exceeded it afterwards in anything that he did. I cannot recollect what took place afterwards, but I expressed my admiration in some way, as we all did; and I remember his remark, 'Well, if this is poetry, it is very easy to write.' From that time onward, for a term or two, he came to my rooms almost every day with a new poem."
This first poem, which produced so profound an impression on its hearers, never went beyond the circle of its earliest audience. Morris destroyed his own manuscript of it in a general massacre which he made, soon after the publication of "The Defence of Guenevere," of the early poems which he did not choose to be included in that volume. "It was a dreadful mistake to destroy them," Canon Djxon says. "But he had no notion whatever of correcting a poem, and very little power to do so." This incapacity or impatience of correction remained characteristic of Morris as a literary artist. The manuscripts of his longer poems show little alteration from the first drafts. When he was dissatisfied with a poem, he wrote it afresh, or wrote another instead of it. The Prologue to "The Earthly Paradise," "The Story of the Wanderers," was originally written, and still exists, in a four-lined stanza. Something in the detail or proportion of the narrative dissatisfied him, and instead of remodelling the poem he deliberately wrote the whole tale anew in couplets, so as not to be fettered by the earlier version.
The loss of the poems thus committed to the flames in 1858 is one never wholly to be replaced. Like the poems in "The Defence of Guenevere," and in some cases even more strongly, they appear to have had that evanescent and intangible grace of a new beginning in art, the keen scent and frail beauty of the first blossoms of spring, which is more moving and more penetrating than even the full flower of a mature summer. Such, in their time, had been the troubled and piercing charm of the Virgilian Eclogues, of the early Florentine or Sienese paintings, of Tennyson's marvellous volumes of 1830 and 1832. Since the "old Butcher's Book torn up in Spedding's rooms in 1842 when the Press went to work with, I think, the last of old Alfred's best," so long and so vainly lamented by FitzGerald, there has perhaps not been a loss more to be deplored. One fragment is preserved by a precious chance in a letter written from home to Cormell Price, the youngest and the best-beloved among the brotherhood, in the Easter Vacation of 1855.
"Tuesday in Holy Week.
"My dearest Crom,
"Yes, it's quite true, I ought to be ashamed of myself, I am ashamed of myself: I won't make any excuses: please forgive me. As the train went away from the station, I saw you standing in your scholar's gown, and looking for me. If I hadn't been on the other side, I think I should have got out of the window to say good-bye again . . . Ted will shew something to criticize, or stop, I may as well write it for you myself; it is exceedingly seedy. Here it is.
'Twas in Church on Palm Sunday,
Listening what the priest did say
Of the kiss that did betray,
That the thought did come to me,
How the olives used to be
Growing in Gethsemane.
That the thoughts upon me came
Of the lantern's steady flame,
Of the softly whispered name.
Of how kiss and words did sound
While the olives stood around,
While the robe lay on the ground.
Then the words the Lord did speak
And that kiss in Holy Week
Dreams of many a kiss did make:
Lover's kiss beneath the moon,
With it sorrow cometh soon:
Juliet's within the tomb:
Angelico's in quiet light
'Mid the aureoles very bright
God is looking from the height.
There the monk his love doth meet :
Once he fell before her feet
Ere within the Abbey sweet
He, while music rose alway
From the Church, to God did pray
That his life might pass away.
There between the angel rows
With the light flame on his brows,
With his friend, the deacon goes:
Hand in hand they go together,
Loving hearts they go together
Where the Presence shineth ever.
Kiss upon the death-bed given,
Kiss on dying forehead given
When the soul goes up to Heaven.
Many thoughts beneath the sun
Thought together ; Life is done,
Yet for ever love doth run.
Willow standing 'gainst the blue,
Where the light clouds come and go,
Mindeth me of kiss untrue.
Christ, thine awful cross is thrown
Round the whole world, and thy Sun
Woful kisses looks upon.
Eastward slope the shadows now,
Very light the wind does blow,
Scarce it lifts the laurels low ;
I cannot say the things I would,
I cannot think the things I would,
How the Cross at evening stood.
Very blue the sky above,
Very sweet the faint clouds move,
Yet I cannot think of love.
"There, dear, perhaps I ought to be ashamed of it, don't spare me. I have begun a good many other things, I don't know if I shall ever finish them, I shall have to show them to Ted and to you first: you know my failing. I have been in a horrible state of mind about my writing; for I seem to get more and more imbecile as I go on. Do you know, I don't know what to write to you about; there are no facts here to write about; I have no one to talk to, except to ask for things to eat and drink and clothe myself withal; I have read no new books since I saw you, in fact no books at all.
"The other day I went 'a-brassing' near the Thames on the Essex side; I got two remarkable brasses and three or four others that were not remarkable: one was a Flemish brass of a knight, date 1370, very small; another a brass (very small, with the legend gone) of a priest in his shroud; I think there are only two other shrouded brasses in England. The Church that this last brass came from was I think one of the prettiest Churches (for a small village Church) that I have ever seen; the consecration crosses (some of them) were visible, red in a red circle; and there was some very pretty colouring on a corbel, in very good preservation: the parson of the parish shewed us over this Church; he was very civil and very, very dirty and snuffy, inexpressibly so, I can't give you an idea of his dirt and snuffiness."
[The rest of the letter is lost.]
A week later he writes again, with reference to some criticism which Price had made on the poem.
"It was not at sermon-time that I thought of the 'Kisses,' but as the second lesson was being read: you know the second lesson for Palm Sunday has in it the history of the Betrayal. I say, isn't tomb a veryfair rhyme for soon by the way? the rhymes you call shady, I should like to be able to defend: I think I could do it viva voce but can't by letter.... It is very foolish, but I have a tenderness for that thing, I was so happy writing it, which I did on Good Friday: it was a lovely day, with a soft warm wind instead of the bitter north east wind we had had for so long. For those bad rhymes, I don't like them, though perhaps I don't feel them hurt me so much as they seem to do you; they are makeshifts, dear Crom: it is incompetency; you see I must lose the thought, or sacrifice the rhyme to it, I had rather do the latter and take my chance about the music of it; perhaps I may be able in the course of time to rhyme better, if my stock of thoughts are not exhausted, and I sometimes think they mayn't all be gone for some time.
"I have read a little Shelley since I saw you last; I like it very much what I have read; 'The Skylark' was one: WHAT a gorgeous thing it is! utterly different to anything else I ever read: it makes one feel so different from anything else: I hope I shall be able to make you understand what I mean, for I am a sad muddlehead: I mean that most beautiful poetry, and indeed almost all beautiful writing makes one feel sad, or indignant, or—do you understand, for I can't make it any clearer; but 'The Skylark' makes one feel happy only; I suppose because it is nearly all music, and that it doesn't bring up any thoughts of humanity: but I don't know either.
"I am going a-brassing again some time soon: to Rochester and thereabouts, also to Stoke D'Abernon in Surrey."
With the letter from which these extracts are given were sent two other newly-written poems, mainly noticeable as showing an influence that might not be otherwise suspected in him, that of Mrs. Browning. She was then at the height of her popularity, and ranked by many critics as the first of living English poets. That noble passion for truth, purity, and freedom which burns through all her writings, which even now lightens and kindles the tangled wildernesses of "Aurora Leigh," was enough then to excuse all her shortcomings. It even threw a positive fascination over her extraordinary mannerisms and floundering technique. Less than a month before his death, when talking of early days, Morris said that his first poems were imitations of Mrs. Browning. This was, perhaps, a little over-stated, but it expressed a real truth. The slovenly rhymes of his earlier poetry may probably be traced to her influence: and it was through her poetry that he became acquainted a little later with that of her husband, to whom he frankly owned his obligations, and of whom in succeeding years he wrote as "high among the poets of all time, and I scarce know whether first or second in our own."
One other unpublished poem of this year survives. It is of a higher technical quality than those just mentioned, and of the same delicate and refined spiritual beauty. It is here transcribed textually from his own manuscript: in the second line of the first stanza the word leaves is obviously a slip of the pen for some other word, probably ground.
Bread leaves that I do not know
Grow upon the leaves full low
Over them the wind does blow.
Hemlock leaves I know full well
And about me is the smell
That doth in the spring woods dwell.
And the finch sings cheerily,
And the wren sings merrily,
But the lark sings trancedly.
Silv'ry birch-trunks rise in air
And beneath the birch-tree there
Grows a yellow flower fair.
Many flowers grow around
And about me is the sound
Of the dead leaves on the ground.
Yea, I fell asleep last night
When the moon at her full height
Was a lovely, lovely sight.
I have had a troubled dream
As I lay there in the beam
Of the moon a sudden gleam
Of a white dress shot by me
Yea the white dress frighted me
Flitting by the aspen tree.
Suddenly it turned round
With a weary moaning sound
Lay the white dress on the ground
There she knelt upon her knees
There, between the aspen trees
O! the dream right dreary is.
With her sweet face turned to me
Low she moaned unto me
That she might forgiven be.
O! my lost love moaned there
And her low moans in the air
Sleepy startled birds did hear
O! my dream it makes me weep,
That drear dream I had in sleep
At the thought my pulses leap
For she lay there moaning low
While the solemn wind did sough
While the clouds did over go
Then I lifted up her head
And I softly to her said
Blanche, we twain will soon be dead
Let us pray that we may die
Let us pray that we may lie
Where the softening wind does sigh
That in heaven amid the bliss
Of the blessed where God is
Mid the angels we may kiss.
We may stand with joined hands
Face to face with angel bands
They too stand with joined hands.
Yea, she said, but kiss me now
Ere my sinning spirit go
To the place no man doth know
There I kissed her as she lay
! her spirit passed away
'Mid the flowers her body lay.
What a dream is this of mine
1 am almost like to pine
For this dreary dream of mine.
O dead love thy hand is here
dead Blanche thy golden hair
Lies along the flowers fair.
I am all aweary love
Of the bright blue sky above
I will lie beside thee love.
So over them over them ever
The long long wind swept on
And lovingly lovingly ever
The birds sang on their song.
Such were the first beginnings. But his discovery that he could write prose came hard on the heels of his discovery that he could write poetry, and for some little time prose was the vehicle in which he could express his thoughts and imaginations with greater freedom. The prose romances which he began to write in the summer of 1855, and went on writing for about a year, are as remarkable as his early poetry, and have a strength and beauty which is quite as rare. But during this year he and Burne-Jones read through Chaucer. He found, in the poet whom he afterwards took for his special master, not merely the wider and sweeter view of life which was needed to correct the harsh or mystical elements of his own medievalism, but the conquest of English verse as a medium boundless in its range and perfect in its flexibility. Thenceforth prose was abandoned, and, with the exception of one curious and unsuccessful experiment, verse remained for thirty years the single form of his production in pure literature.
The secularization of mind, the widening of interest and outlook beyond the limits prescribed by Anglo-Catholic ideals, towards which the influence of Chaucer and Browning, like two great windows letting in the air and the day, contributed so potently, was coming fast over him in this third year at Oxford—the time in the lives of so many men which is decisive of their whole future. Art and literature were no longer thought of as handmaids to religion, but as ends to be pursued for their own sake, not indeed as a means of gaining livelihood, but as a means of realizing life. More and more it became evident that the taking of Orders, with a direct view to which both Morris and Burne-Jones had gone up to Oxford, was irreconcilable with such a life as they now proposed to themselves. And the idea of common organized effort by the whole group towards a higher life, which for long had been eagerly planned, gradually shifted from the form of a monastic to that of a social brotherhood.
There was a time, early in Morris's undergraduate days, when he had seriously thought of devoting the whole of his fortune to the foundation of a monastery. Such ideas were widely in the air. The community at Littlemore was a centre of influence and a place of pilgrimage, as familiar to all Oxford as the spire of St. Mary's. Similar communities had sprung up in other parts of the country. Some seven years before, Street, the great architect of the revived Gothic, then a young man of twenty-six, had been deeply engaged with a scheme for the foundation of an institution, combining the characters of a college, a monastery, and a workshop, for students of the theory and practice of religious art. Such a community had been actually founded in Rome, a generation earlier, by the German painters Cornelius and Overbeck. That group of religious artists, a curious anticipation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, had lived in a Roman palace under a sort of monastic rule; and though the community had ceased to exist about the time when the Tractarian movement in England began, some tradition of it survived to kindle the imagination of younger men. Street had been living in Oxford since 1852 as architect to the diocese, had restored many of the Oxford churches, and was building the great church of SS. Philip and James in the northern outskirts of the city, one of the earliest and purest examples of a return to the architecture of the thirteenth century. Morris did not yet know him personally: but this early project of his, and similar schemes of others, had obtained a large currency.
The earliest distinct allusion to the scheme which, never realized in its original intention, bore fruit of unexpected growth in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine and the firm of Morris & Company, comes in a letter from Burne-Jones, dated 1st of May, 1853, to a schoolfellow still in Birmingham, but preparing to go up to Oxford. The time-honoured observances which still make May-Day morning hideous in Oxford with the blare of countless whistles and horns seem then to have been resumed with added spirit in the evening, and wound up in scenes resembling those of the Fifth of November. "Ten o'clock, evening," he writes.
"I have just been pouring basons of water on the crowd below from Dixon's garret—such fun, by Jove:" and then goes on, "I have set my heart on our founding a Brotherhood. Learn 'Sir Galahad' by heart; he is to be the patron of our Order. I have enlisted one in the project up here, heart and soul." A few months later he writes again, "We must enlist you in this Crusade and Holy Warfare against the age;" the crusade then definitely including celibacy and conventual life.
The last allusion to this scheme in its original conception is in another letter written by Burne-Jones to the same correspondent from Birmingham on the 16th of October, 1854, at the end of the Long Vacation. Term had been postponed for a week on account of the cholera epidemic. "You were surprised no doubt," he writes, "at the postponement of term. It made me very angry, for I was sick of home and idleness and longed with an ardent longing to be back with Morris and his glorious little company of martyrs—the monastery stands a fairer chance than ever of being founded; I know that it will be some day."
But this assurance lacks its old ring of conviction. By the end of that year the religious struggle which seemed for a while likely to land both Morris and Burne-Jones in the Roman Church was practically over, and with this clearing of the air social ideals rose to a more important place, and the monastic element began to fade away from the ideas of the Brotherhood. Price and Faulkner brought to Oxford actual knowledge of the inhuman conditions of human life in the great industrial areas; their special enthusiasms were for sanitation, for Factory Acts, for the bare elements of a possible life among the mass of their fellowcitizens. "Things were at their worst," the former writes, "in the forties and fifties. There was no protection for the mill-hand or miner—no amusements but prize-fighting, dog-fighting, cock-fighting, and drinking. When a little boy I saw many prize-fights, bestial scenes: at one a combatant was killed. The country was going to hell apace. At Birmingham School a considerable section of the upper boys were quite awake to the crying evils of the period; social reform was a common topic of conversation. We were nearly all day-boys, and we could not make short cuts to school without passing through slums of shocking squalor and misery, and often coming across incredible scenes of debauchery and brutality. I remember one Saturday night walking five miles from Birmingham into the Black Country, and in the last three miles I counted more than thirty lying dead drunk on the ground, nearly half of them women."
Such surroundings impressed indelibly on those who lived in them the ground truth that all true freedom, all living art, all real morality, even among the limited class who are raised out of the common level by wealth or circumstance, finally depend upon the physical and social conditions of life which exist for (the mass of their fellow-creatures. It was not till long afterwards that this view of the matter took full hold of Morris, the country-bred boy, the easy liver and born aristocrat. But its influence was already sufficient to insure him against the belief that salvation lay in dreams of the past or in isolation from the common life of the world.
Another influence during this year tended in the same direction. Morris and several others of his set used to go pretty regularly to fence, box, and play singlestick at Maclaren's Gymnasium in Oriel Lane. Singlestick was Morris's own chief delight. "In defence," writes a friend, "he was unskilful, vehement and iron-handed in attack. I bore for years after discolorations that were due to his relentless onsets."
Maclaren once said that Morris's bills for broken sticks and foils equalled those of all the rest of his pupils put together. Between them and Maclaren himself, a man in the prime of life, cultivated and full of enthusiasm, a mutual intimacy and liking sprang up, and grew into a warm friendship. Three or four times in the term they would go and dine with him at Summertown, where they saw their own enthusiasms combined with the charm of a simple family life. There could be no better corrective for the narrowing influence of college monasticism. This larger life was reinforced by their outdoor tastes and their remoteness from the little circle of occupations in which so many Oxford men become hopelessly shut up. For men who did not spend their afternoons in rowing or cricket, a walk in cap and gown up Headington or round Christ Church meadows, discussing questions of theology, would seem from records of Oxford life in that period to have been the normal occupation of an undergraduate's afternoon. Morris's daily pursuits had a range which would not now be remarkable, but was then almost unexampled. The Tractarian impulse survived in the practice, to which he and Burne-Jones adhered for a long time, of going to sing plain-song at the daily morning services in St. Thomas's Church. With Dixon and Price, they belonged to the Plain-Song Society, which practised regularly in the Music-Room in Holywell. It included among its members men of very varied tastes and ideals: zealous churchmen and freethinking antiquarians; moderate Anglicans like Liddon and Oakley, votaries of the Eastern Church like Neale and Palmer; Street and Woodward the architects, Dyce the painter. Long afternoons were passed on the upper river and among the ruins (more extensive then) of Godstow, or in expeditions to old churches, ranging from Dorchester to Woodstock, or in the glades of the Wytham woods. Evenings of excited talk and reading slid into the long nights in which Morris poured forth the results in prose and verse of his newly-discovered creative power; and all the while, as the old ideals melted away before larger enthusiasms, the mistress art of architecture, with all else—music, painting, the whole range of forms and colours and sounds—swept up into its train, took a continually deeper and more dominating hold. So passed the spring and summer days of 1855, while Tennyson at Farringford was putting the last touches to "Maud," and the English cannon thundered before Sebastopol.