William Morris was born in Walthamstow, Essex, on 24 March 1834. The son of a wealthy businessman, he enjoyed a comfortable childhood before going to Marlborough and Exeter College, Oxford.
He originally intended to take holy orders, but his reading of the social criticism of Carlyle, Kingsley and Ruskin led him to reconsider the Church and devote his life to art.
After leaving Oxford, Morris was briefly articled to G. E. Street, the Gothic Revival architect, but he soon left, having determined to become a painter. His admiration for the Pre-Raphaelites led him to be introduced to Dante Gabriel Rossetti whose influence can be seen on Morris’s only surviving painting La Belle Iseult.
In the 1860s Morris decided that his creative future lay in the field of the decorative arts. His career as a designer began when he decorated the Red House, Bexleyheath, which had been built for him by Philip Webb.
The success of this venture led to the formation of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. in 1861. The ‘Firm’ (later renamed Morris & Co) was particularly well-known for its stained glass, examples of which can be seen in churches throughout Britain. Morris produced some 150 designs which are often characterized by their delightful foliage patterns.
His greatest achievement as a designer was in the field of textiles and wallpapers. The designs for these were influenced by his knowledge of the medieval works held at the South Kensington Museum and his own observation of natural forms.
Morris was well-known in his own time for his literature. His first volume of poetry – The Defense of Guenevere – received a mixed reception, but his reputation as a poet was established with the publication of The Earthly Paradise (1868-70).
Among his many other works were Icelandic and classical translations, Sigurd the Volsung, The Pilgrims of Hope, and a series of prose romances which included A Dream of John Ball, News from Nowhere, and The Well at the World’s End.
Morris entered national politics in 1876 as treasurer of the Eastern Question Association. This was a post he was to occupy in two further radical organizations: the National Liberal League and the Radical Union.
He soon became disillusioned with the Liberals and in 1883 joined the socialist Democratic Federation. After disagreements with the Federation’s leader, H M. Hyndman, he formed the Socialist League, and later the Hammersmith Socialist Society.
During the 1880s he was probably the most active propagandist for the socialist cause, giving hundreds of lectures and speeches throughout the country.
The Kelmscott Press
In 1890 Morris founded the Kelmscott Press in premises near his last home at Kelmscott House in Hammersmith (now the headquarters of the William Morris Society). Morris designed three typefaces for the Press: Golden, Chaucer, and Troy. These were inspired respectively by fifteenth-century Italian and German typography. In all, sixty-six volumes were printed by the Kelmscott Press, the most impressive of which was its magnificent edition of Chaucer which was published in 1896. Morris died at Kelmscott House on 3 October 1896.
SIR GALAHAD – A CHRISTMAS MYSTERY
It is the longest night in all the year,
Near on the day when the Lord Christ was born;
Six hours ago I came and sat down here,
And ponder’d sadly, wearied and forlorn.
The winter wind that pass’d the chapel door,
Sang out a moody tune, that went right well
With mine own thoughts: I look’d down on the floor,
Between my feet, until I heard a bell
Sound a long way off through the forest deep,
And toll on steadily; a drowsiness
Came on me, so that I fell half asleep,
As I sat there not moving: less and less
I saw the melted snow that hung in beads
Upon my steel-shoes; less and less I saw
Between the tiles the bunches of small weeds:
Heartless and stupid, with no touch of awe
Upon me, half-shut eyes upon the ground,
I thought: O Galahad! the days go by,
Stop and cast up now that which you have found,
So sorely you have wrought and painfully.
Night after night your horse treads down alone
The sere damp fern, night after night you sit
Holding the bridle like a man of stone,
Dismal, unfriended: what thing comes of it?
And what if Palomydes also ride,
And over many a mountain and bare heath
Follow the questing beast with none beside?
Is he not able still to hold his breath
With thoughts of Insult? doth he not grow pale
With weary striving, to seem best of all
To her, “as she is best,” he saith? to fail
Is nothing to him, he can never fall.
For unto such a man love-sorrow is
So dear a thing unto his constant heart,
That even if he never win one kiss,
Or touch from Insult, it will never part.
And he will never know her to be worse
Than in his happiest dreams he thinks she is:
Good knight, and faithful, you have ‘scalped the curse
In wonderful-wise; you have great store of bliss.
Yea, what if Father Lancelot ride out,
Can he not think of Genevieve’s arms, round
Warm and lithe, about his neck, and shout
Till all the place grows joyful with the sound?
And when he lists can often see her face,
And think, “Next month I kiss you, or next week,
And still you think of me”: therefore the place
Grows very pleasant, whatsoever he seek.
But me, who ride alone, some Carle shall find
Dead in my arms in the half-melted snow,
When all unkindly with the shifting wind,
The thaw comes on at Candlemas: I know
Indeed that they will say: “This Galahad
If he had lived had been a right good knight;
Ah! poor chaste body!” but they will be glad,
Not most alone, but all, when in their sight
That very evening in their scarlet sleeves
The gay-dress’d minstrels sing; no maid will talk
Of sitting on my tomb, until the leaves,
Grown big upon the bushes of the walk,
East of the Palace-pleasance, make it hard
To see the minster there from: well-a-day!
Before the trees by autumn were well bared,
I saw a damozel with gentle play,
Within that very walk say last farewell
To her dear knight, just riding out to find
(Why should I choke to say it?) the Sangreal,
And their last kisses sunk into my mind,
Yea, for she stood lean’d forward on his breast,
Rather, scarce stood; the back of one dear hand,
That it might well be kiss’d, she held and press’d
Against his lips; long time they stood there, fann’d
By gentle gusts of quiet frosty wind,
Till Mador de la porte a-going by,
And my own horse hoofs roused them; they untwined,
And parted like a dream. In this way I,
With sleepy face bent to the chapel floor,
Kept musing half asleep, till suddenly
A sharp bell rang from close beside the door,
And I leapt up when something pass’d me by,
Shrill ringing going with it, still half blind
I stagger’d after, a great sense of awe
At every step kept gathering on my mind,
Thereat I have no marvel, for I saw
One sitting on the altar as a throne,
Whose face no man could say he did not know,
And though the bell still rang, he sat alone,
With raiment half blood-red, half white as snow.
Right so I fell upon the floor and knelt,
Not as one kneels in church when mass is said,
But in a heap, quite nerveless, for I felt
The first time what a thing was perfect dread.
But mightily the gentle voice came down:
“Rise up, and look and listen, Galahad,
Good knight of God, for you will see no frown
Upon my face; I come to make you glad.
“For that you say that you are all alone,
I will be with you always, and fear not
You are uncared for, though no maiden moan
Above your empty tomb; for Launcelot,
“He in good time shall be my servant too,
Meantime, take note whose sword first made him knight,
And who has loved him always, yea, and who
Still trusts him always, though in all men’s sight,
“He is just what you know, O Galahad,
This love is happy even as you say,
But would you for a little time be glad,
To make ME sorry long, day after day?
“Her warm arms round his neck half throttle ME,
The hot love-tears burn deep like spots of lead,
Yea, and the years pass quick: right dismally
Will Launcelot at one time hang his head;
“Yea, old and shriveled he shall win my love.
Poor Palomydes fretting out his soul!
Not always is he able, son, to move
His love, and do it honour: needs must roll
“The proudest destrier sometimes in the dust,
And then ’tis weary work; he strives beside
Seem better than he is, so that his trust
Is always on what chances may betide;
“And so he wears away, my servant, too,
When all these things are gone, and wretchedly
He sits and longs to moan for Insult, who
Is no care now to Palomydes: see,
“O good son, Galahad, upon this day,
Now even, all these things are on your side,
But these you fight not for; look up, I say,
And see how I can love you, for no pride
“Closes your eyes, no vain lust keeps them down.
See now you have ME always; following
That holy vision, Galahad, go on,
Until at last you come to ME to sing
“In Heaven always, and to walk around
The garden where I am.” He ceased, my face
And wretched body fell upon the ground;
And when I look’d again, the holy place
Was empty; but right so the bell again
Came to the chapel-door, there entered
Two angels first, in white, without a stain,
And scarlet wings, then, after them, a bed
Four ladies bore, and set it down beneath
The very altar-step, and while for fear
I scarcely dared to move or draw my breath,
Those holy ladies gently came a-near,
And quite unarm’d me, saying: “Galahad,
Rest here awhile and sleep, and take no thought
Of any other thing than being glad;
Hither the Sangreal will be shortly brought,
“Yet must you sleep the while it stayeth here.”
Right so they went away, and I, being weary,
Slept long and dream’d of Heaven: the bell comes near,
I doubt it grows to morning. Miserere!
Enter Two Angels in white, with scarlet wings; also, Four Ladies in gowns of red and green; also an Angel, bearing in his hands a surcoat of white, with a red cross.
O servant of the high God, Galahad!
Rise and be arm’d: the Sangreal is gone forth
Through the great forest, and you must be had
Unto the sea that lieth on the north:
There shall you find the wondrous ship wherein
The spindles of King Solomon are laid,
And the sword that no man draweth without sin,
But if he be most pure: and there is stay’d,
Hard by, Sir Launcelot, whom you will meet
In some short space upon that ship: first, though,
Will come here presently that lady sweet,
Sister of Percival, whom you well know,
And with her Bors and Percival: stand now,
These ladies will to arm you.
FIRST LADY, putting on the hauberk Galahad,
That I may stand so close beneath your brow,
Margaret of Antioch, am glad.
SECOND LADY, girding him with the sword.
That I may stand and touch you with my hand,
O Galahad, I, Cecily, am glad.
THIRD LADY, buckling on the spurs.
That I may kneel while up above you stand,
And gaze at me, O holy Galahad,
I, Lucy, am most glad.
FOURTH LADY, putting on the basnet.
O gentle knight,
That you bow down to us in reverence,
We are most glad, I, Katherine, with delight
Must needs fall trembling.
ANGEL, putting on the crossed surcoat.
Galahad, we go hence,
For here, amid the straying of the snow,
Come Percival’s sister, Bors, and Percival.
[The Four Ladies carry out the bed,
and all go but Galahad.
How still and quiet everything seems now:
They come, too, for I hear the horse hoofs fall.
Enter Sir Bors, Sir Percival and his Sister.
Fair friends and gentle lady, God you save!
A many marvels have been here to-night;
Tell me what news of Launcelot you have,
And has God’s body ever been in sight?
Why, as for seeing that same holy thing,
As we were riding slowly side by side,
An hour ago, we heard a sweet voice sing,
And through the bare twigs saw a great light glide,
With many-colour’d raiment, but far off;
And so pass’d quickly: from the court naught good;
Poor merry Dinadan, that with jape and scoff
Kept us all merry, in a little wood
Was found all hack’d and dead: Sir Lionel
And Gauwaine have come back from the great quest,
Just merely shamed; and Lauvaine, who loved well
Your father Launcelot, at the king’s behest
Went out to seek him, but was almost slain,
Perhaps is dead now; everywhere
The knights come foil’d from the great quest, in vain;
In vain they struggle for the vision fair.
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