As I Was Saying/Essay XXI

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Essay XX As I Was Saying
Essay XXI
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XXII

Essay XXI: About Morris

I CONFESS that to me the celebration of the Centenary of William Morris seems to have been both inadequate and inappropriate. The world seems to be divided in this respect into two very unequal sections. The first are those who owe everything to Morris and have forgotten him. The second are those who owe nothing to Morris but still desire to claim him. They claim him mostly on the excuse of the word "Socialist"; a word which was not really very applicable to him, and is now pretty well applicable or inapplicable to anybody. Morris certainly called himself a Socialist; but that hardly seems sufficient reason for people of a totally opposite type calling him a Communist; in the face of the quite different and quite definite modern meaning of Communism. Mr. Middleton Murry makes what I cannot but think a delicate insinuation that the conversion of a literary man like himself to Communism is more or less comparable to the conversion of the older literary man to Socialism. But it is precisely by the test of literature, that is the test of imagination, that it is quite impossible to get the two things into the same picture. It would be difficult to maintain that Milton was a belated mediaeval ballad-monger, caring only for the rude old rhymed ballads and loathing the influence of classical dignity and a stately style. It would be difficult to maintain that Coleridge was a cold and mechanical imitator of Pope, concentrated on wit and reason and utterly hostile to vision and imagination. It would be hard to represent Walt Whitman as caring for nothing except the classical cameos of Landor. But it would be much harder than any of these, as an effort of imagination, to imagine William Morris worshipping modern machinery as the highest form of "rhythm," in accordance with the ugly Proletarian art of the modern Bolshevists. Of course, when once a man is dead, you can say anything you choose about what he would have done if he were alive. Dead men tell no tales and contradict no tales; and there is nothing to prevent the tale-bearers from writing a post-mortem sequel full of amazing conversions and contradictions. But a man has just as much right to say that Shelley would have become a True Blue Tory and High Churchman, or that Hurrell Froude, of the Oxford Movement, would soon have turned into a Radical secularist of the Manchester School, as to say that the human, historical William Morris, as he really was, would have tolerated for ten seconds the vast industrial materialism of the Five-Year Plan.

The great achievement of William Morris was this: that he nearly convinced a whole generation that the nineteenth century was not normal. In this he was years and years ahead of the Communists of the twentieth century, who still really believe that the nineteenth century was normal. Otherwise, they would not believe that all this nightmare of machinery is normal; still less that it is new. When the Bolshevist of to-day tells us that through the impersonal power and massed material force of machinery we shall reach a more rational civilization, he is talking exactly as Mr. Gradgrind, Mr. Bounderby, Mr. Podsnap, and Mr. Bottles talked in fiction; and exactly as Sir Robert Peel, Mr. Roebuck, Mr. Bright, and Mr. Brown, of Victoria Villas, West Brixton, talked in real life. Both existed under the superstition or delusion that machines and machine-made goods are a part of the necessities of a humane culture or a common comfortable life. The Marxians, of course, have got all these notions, partly from Marx, who was a nineteenth-century man if ever there was one, and partly from the accident by which Russia was necessarily nearly a century behind the other nations, and was still looking for a panacea in what the rest of us have already found to be a quack medicine. But Morris was far ahead of Marx. Morris was not a nineteenth-century man; or he was the one nineteenth-century man who really saw through the nineteenth century.

It is true that the most widespread effect of his revolution was in the comparatively superficial matter of domestic ornament or personal adornment. But precisely because the example is simple, or even because it is superficial, it serves as a very clear and popular example to prove the fact. What was the matter with the nineteenth century, at the height of its commercial triumph, was precisely this illusion of normality in a thing thoroughly abnormal. The satirists of the Victorian merchant said that he was commonplace. But the satirists were even more kind to him than his flatterers. What was the matter with the Victorian merchant was, not that he was commonplace, but that he thought he was commonplace. And in this he was totally in error. He had got it fixed in his mind that wearing a chimney-pot hat, an ugly pair of trousers, an ugly pair of whiskers was sane and sensible and even ordinary. Compared with these, he thought that wearing a cocked hat or a cloak or a turban or a sombrero, or a neat pair of knee-breeches or a fierce pair of moustaches were all various eccentricities, like the fancies of a fancy-dress ball. He did not realize that he looked much funnier to the fantastic foreigners than the fantastic foreigners looked to him. And, as it was with his dress, so it was with his furniture and even his architecture; with the repp curtains and red plush sofas and bad pictures in heavy gilded frames. It would have been all right if he had said, "This is my taste"; but what he did say was, "This is everybody's common sense." Now, to upset a public prejudice like that is much more difficult than to murder an emperor or seize the government offices of a republic.

Morris is still occasionally reproached with the fact that he largely selected, as his counter-example of a more common and human background, the stretch of centuries that we call the Middle Ages. But in truth, one does not need even to be a mediaevalist in order to see that he was right to choose the mediaeval. If, for instance, he had tried to make his revolution a return to the classic freedom of Greek and Pagan antiquity, his revolution would have been no revolution at all. It was precisely from the too-crushing convention derived from classic antiquity that art in his time had suffered most. For him it was not only the antique, but the antiquated; even in the ordinary recent sense of the old-fashioned. It was already the mere conventionalism of the Academy and the Academy School. It could not be really the Renaissance of the Hellenic at the very moment when it was the death and dregs of the Renaissance. But there is a further subtlety not sufficiently noticed. Few have really looked quite straight at the Greek beauty of the Gorgon; and most of them have been turned to stone. The Renaissance of the sixteenth century saw it, quite as much as did the Pre-Raphaelitism of the nineteenth century, in the mirror of its own mood. Morris did deal with Jason as well as John Ball; but he saw Jason through a mediaeval medium. So did the Victorian classicists see Jason through a modern medium. A Renaissance style, filtered through Rubens and Reynolds, was no more Greek than a classical theme rendered by Botticelli or Burne-Jones. Both were modern versions; but the mediaeval version had this advantage: that mediaevalism marked a period really noted for forms of craftsmanship needed to correct the mechanism of the nineteenth century. Thus William Morris stands between two mechanical heresies; testifying that true art is always manual labour. In spite of the Victorians, it is not normal that work should be mass production. In spite of the Bolshevists, their imitators, it is not normal that it should be mass possession.