William Morris

Eyes and No Eyes, as reported in the Islington Gazette



Mr. William Morris, who so dearly loves to be described in newspapers and double-crown bills as "the poet and Socialist,” delivered a characteristic lecture on Monday evening, before the Hornsey Young Men’s Society, at the Park Chapel Lecture-hall, Crouch-End. A year ago he promised the society a lecture, but at the time could not personally deliver it, and sent the manuscript to be read by a friend, who was a member of the society and a good elocutionist. But on Monday evening, the eccentric teacher of ethics presented himself, and lectured on "Eyes and No Eyes.”

The Rev. ALFRED ROWLAND, LL.B., B.A., in introducing Mr. Morris, dwelt at some length upon the influence of poets and great thinkers upon the national mind, and urged bis hearers to read poetry carefully, especially Virgil and Homer of antiquity, and, among the moderns, Mr. William Morris. (Hear, hear.)

Mr. Morris, who had a warm reception even from those who were not prepared to adopt all bis views, spoke for upwards of an hour in a conversational tone, his peculiarly brilliant eye, great shaggy head, and potent index finger emphasising with unconscious grace and almost automatic regularity the successive steps in the development of his thesis. From time to time a dry "aside” brought a smile to the faces of his auditors, but this did not seem to give him any special satisfaction. He went steadily forward towards what be calls "truth,” without regard to interruptions friendly or unfriendly.

To begin with he took a text from the gospel according to himself, "What gives me pleasure I love, and what gives me pain I hate.” He went on to say that pleasure was brought to his mind by the media of the senses; of all the senses the eye was pre-eminently the one which supplied the most frequent opportunity of pleasure. The eye connected our pleasure with our intellect; in other words, the intellectual pleasures were mostly fed by tho eye. This organ had two functions to perform, the first strictly utilitarian, the other pleasurable. Its pleasurable function was the one he wished to consider. If people wished to live happily, they ought to watch very carefully the relations they sustained to the wonderful sense of sight, and what it did for us in these modern and civilised times. Not only was sight intimately connected with intellectual pleasures; but to him it was of the all senses the one that gave him tho most pleasure and also the most pain.

The eye revealed the pleasures of civilisation. How numerous these were! How vast its advantages! If one wished to make a journey, they could do so now with greater ease and speed than formerly. But even this advantage had its disadvantage concurrent. For railways were sometimes inconvenient. especially when they took one where one did not want go. (Presumably a reference to his own difficulty in finding Crouch-end.) The electric telegraph was convenient, only sometimes it had an awkward side, as when a man received a message which ho would most rather be without. (Laughter.) The heavy frost stood on the same footing. At Hammersmith, where he lived, there were twelve deliveries daily. During the Jubilee be tried to start a movement to reduce them to one, but he did not succeed. Anything that people wanted now-a-days they could get from civilisation if they had money; or if they could not get what they wanted they could get a makeshift. Some of these makeshifts were so successful that they could be almost got for nothing; and he wondered that there were any poor people left seeing that these things were so cheap. He could only conclude that if people were so poor now things are so cheap, they must be worse off than they were when things were dear. This was indeed the fact. Civilisation tended to save trouble. It had saved trouble in walking, mowing, sailing, &c. He would not be surprised, by-and-by, if someone invented a machine to save us the trouble of eating. (Laughter.) There was also a tendency towards saving the trouble of seeing, and in course of time, if this sort of thing went on, people would not be able to see anything all.

If civilisation had given them a number of conveniences it had also deprived them o! a vast number of pleasures. In point of fact civilisation substituted conveniences for pleasures. The barbarian had but one wish, to be happy. The civilised person only wished to save trouble, not live, as he was about to say. like a vegetable, because a vegetable was ornamental, but like a machine. Put a civilised man into a groove and let him run in it, and he would be content. Therefore, he (the lecturer) desired to impress upon his hearers the great fact that their sense of sight would dulled if they did not take the trouble to see, and would ultimately disappear altogether. But even if it did disappear, he could not belp thinking that although they might thereby lose tho last remnant of pleasure, they would also be spared a great deal of pain. Modern society, in its mechanical life, instinctively felt that it did not want sight; it would rather be without sight. If they asked him why, he would answer, "Because whereas once upon a time the pleasure of the eyes was considered by everyone, now it was almost wholly neglected.” Nowadays people did not want to take pleasure with their eyes; and if they were to go on in a logical development from the place where they were now, they would cease to lead the life of men, and would begin to lead the life of a machine. This sad result he devoutly hoped would cut across that curious thing which some people called chance, and others but the historical development of things.

Mr. Morris went on to contrast the state of things with regard to the pleasures of the eye in mediaeval ages with the present day. The idea of pleasing tho eye originated thousands of years ago, when it became the custom of people to ornament and make beautiful the ordinary tools, dresses, and other articles of daily use. Not only was a thing made for utilitarian purposes, but it also served as an ornament. When the nations came under the domination of ancient Greece, although their civilisation had great disadvantages — the working classes, for instance, being in a state of degradation — they did very seriously consider the pleasures of the eye. The cities were made beautiful by the people, and the real reason of this was that the cities formed the real objects of the worship of the people. After dwelling upon the architecture of Greece and Rome, aud the succeeding era, during which period the people all worked for themselves, inasmuch as what they did was public property, Mr. Morris contrasted those times with the modern date.

In modern society, he contended, every article that was made was made ugly, unless there was some definite intention of making it beautiful, when, as a rule, it was made uglier than ever. (Laughter.) He criticised the modern method of manufacture, in which a work of art was made by a number of men, each taking separate parts in its construction, each caring nothing about the other or about the work, and only working himself for fear of starvation. (Hear, hear.) If people thought the present century was not uglier than its predecessors, let them go to the swampy dung heaps of Manchester or Liverpool, or any other great manufacturing centre. There they would see enough ugliness. In olden times, the ugliness of ruined towns was caused by war. In modern times, the ugliness of towns was caused by the war of classes. All the present misery and ugliness could only be changed when there had been organised a state of society in which all were at peace. (Applause.)

A vote of thanks was awarded Mr. Morris for his “characteristic talk.”


Eyes and No Eyes (as reported by the Islington Gazette


  1. Monday 19th January, 1891, to the Hornsey Young Mens' Society


Islington Gazette, Monday 26th January 1891

This lecture does not appear in published lists of Morris's talk..

Transcription and HTML

Graham Seaman, May 2020.