William Morris

Interview for the Clarion


It was a dull night. Even the electric lights burned blue. Everybody knew or had heard of William Morris, yet I couldn't find his residence - Kelmscott House. I was directed down the Mall. I went down. I found a narrow murky passage, as directed. I turned to the left over the Creek bridge as per instructions; then turned to the right, and, after walking briskly for half an hour, found myself in the Hammersmith main thoroughfare, closely adjacent to my starting-place. This was not encouraging, but I took heart of grace, plunged into the Mall once more, but this time turned to the right, and in the fulness of time brought up on Hammersmith-bridge. Then I took a seat and moved the previous question.

I remembered me that someone had mentioned the river bank, so I tried the bank, and in due course found myself on the Creek bridge again, upon which I counted fifty, recited the doxology backwards, and pushed onwards, ever onwards. At last I found it, a fine old solid substantial brick: manse, abutting on what was once ,the towing path, its windows overlooking the frowning flood. The sullen river and the opposite shore were clothed in the drabness of desolation, made faintly visible by a dyspeptic gas jet. It was not as Morris has sung,

A nameless city in a distant sea,
White as the changing walls of faerie.

But one could not deny that

All about were dotted leafy trees —
The elm for shade, the linden for the bees;
The noble oak long ready for the steel.

But for all that the scene was unspeakably melancholy. Neither did the Manse appear to me the residence of a Poet. Rather it seemed in its solid substantial British way. to be the residence of some respectable and opulent British merchant, who keeps a cellar of rare old port, and does himself and his guests on Christmas and other holidays. Thus comforted, I rang the bell and entered hopefully.

I was immediately transported to the fifteenth century. Everything was mediaeval, and of sensible solidity. No modern gewgaws or gimcracks here; no veneer or unprofitable ornaments; evorything wrought to the highest point of the usefully-artistic. No pretentious shams, no morbid decadent fancy — everything wholesome, pleasing, and serviceable. The room was dimly ht by candles, but I could see that a long table by tho wall bore a row of old-fashioned plates, and that a broad piece of handsome tapestry, running up the wall and projecting half-way over the ceiling, had the appearance of a throne canopy. And when Mr. Morris appeared he seemed to me, with his square-set form and wind-blown beard, to strikingly resemble King Olaf,

As he leaned upon the railing,
And his ships went sailing, sailing
Northward unto Drontheim Fiord.

The Poet was rather pressed for time, but he took me into his workroom and we smoked the pipe of peace.

It is here that he designs most of his Art fabrics for his Oxford-street shop. To quote Mr. Morris's words: "I have tried to produce goods which should be genuine so far as their mere substances are concerned, and should have on that account the primary beauty in them which belongs to naturally-treated natural substances; I have tried, for instance, to make woollen substances as woollen as possible, cotton as cotton as possible, and so on; have used only the dyes which are natural and simple, because they produce beauty almost without the intervention of art; all this quite apart from the design in the stuffs or what not. Except with a small part of the more artistic side of the work, I could not do anything (or at least but little) to give this pleasure to the workmen, because I should have had to change their method of work so utterly that I should have disqualified them from earning their living elsewhere. You see I have got to understand thoroughly the manner of work under which the Art of the Middle Ages was done, and that that is the only manner of work which can turn out popular art, only to discover that it is impossible to work in that manner in this profit-grinding Society."

Furthermore the Poet, in his anti-shoddy campaign, has been severely injured by the unscrupulous shoddyites, who have actually imitated his true artistic designs and wholesome fabrics in the basest materials, "It is a shoddy age," he cried. "Shoddy is king. From the statesman to the shoemaker, all is shoddy!"

I concealed my boots under the table, for I was sensible that my last half-crown's worth "while you wait" had not been an unqualified success.

"Then you do not admire the commonsense John Bull, Mr. Morris?"

"John Bull is a STUPID UNPRACTICAL OAF," replied the Poet. "Do yon not think so?"

And I had to reply that to the best of my belief such a description was, if anything, favourable to the gentleman in question.

Mr. Morris's Poetry and "Convictions" aro too well known to need recapitulation. Still, I came determined to ask him one question, and I asked it.

"What do you think of Manchester, Mr. Morris?"

The Poet started as if he had been stung, drew his pipe from his month, blew a gargantuan cloud, and after a pause, as if he were seeking a fitting expression, exclaimed, "Manchester is a big —"

I ventured to observe that, barring the slums, Manchester and environs compared favourably with London, but he would not have it. I pointed out that the population of Manchester and its ten mile radius was not more than one-and-a-quarter millions, whereas London and its ten mile radius numbered six millions. but Mr. Morris would not be convinced. "Have you ever walked from Manchester to Oldham?" said he. And when I replied that I hadn't, he disabled my judgment, and bade me never do so. I promised him that I would not.

At this juncture Mr. Halliday Sparling entered and informed Mr. Morris that several Israelites wore waiting for him in the Discussion Hall, that they had brought au Israelitish Poet with them, and that they hoped Mr. Morris would aid them in getting the outcome of the Israelitish muse published.

"By the way," said I, rising to take my leave, "I see it was said in the Daily Chronicle that you had been offered the Laureateship."

"The very idea!" he replied. "As if I could possibly accept it. A PRETTY PICTURE I should cut: a Socialist Court Poet!" And his laugh was good—exceedingly good to hear.

He accompanied me to the garden gate, and there — easy retreat being secured, I spake that which I had to speak, uaburthened myself of that which — to be perfectly frank — was the object of my visit."

You see, Mr. Morris," said I, as my eye casually ranged over the dim, shadowy vista of the morbid flood, "you see the other Clarion men aro very able and excellent persons, but they are very diffident; they eat nothing, drink less, and cannot say bo to a Gosling."

The Poet stared in wonder. Of what might this be the prelude?"

Yes, "I continued casually, "I have to bear the brunt of the eating and the drinking, and the spokesmanship; and it struck me this evening quite casually, as I was walking down the Tottenham Court road, that if you had any unconsidered Poetic trifle by you, like the 'Earthly Paradise,' for instance - well, we are writing a Christmas number. Now. your description of Manchester would lend itself to Poetic treatment —"

"Yes, yes," interrupted the Poet with a twinkle, "but do you think your Artist could do full justice to the subject?"

"I have my doubts," I replied, "and, after all, what would one be amongst so many? At all events, if not for our Christmas, perhaps for our Summer Number?"

"Perhaps," replied the Poet with a smile. "We shall see."


Interview with William Morris


The Clarion, Saturday 19 November 1892, page 8


'Quinbus Flestrin' (a character from Lilliput) was a pseudonym of Edward Fay. He became a personal friend of Halliday Sparling and May Morris.

Transcription and HTML

Graham Seaman, May 2020.