William Morris as Poet Laureate?

William Morris

William Morris

With the publication of Earthly Paradise in 1870, William Morris became an acclaimed poet throughout England. After the death of Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1892, Morris was reportedly in contention for the post of Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. The works of Poet Laureates are recognized as having national significance, an honor bestowed by the monarch at the recommendation of the prime minister. There was just one problem. By the 1890s, Morris had become an avid and well-known socialist and political agitator. He was particularly critical of British imperialism and the violent suppression of free speech by government authorities.  And he was not shy about his expressing his opinions.  In 1887, Morris was arrested for his participation in the Bloody Sunday protests in Trafalgar Square.  Morris reportedly declined to even be considered as a candidate for Poet Laureate.

In fact, claims of Morris’s potential Poet Laureateship remain questionable.  Morris made no mention of an official offer, but alluded to the laureateship in several letters.   In an 1892 letter to James Bryce, he remarked “I could not accept a post which would give me even the appearance of serving a court for compliance sake.”  However, rumors continued to spread that Morris was a viable contender, much to Morris’s agitation.  In 1892, Morris wrote to the the Daily Chronicle, “Will you kindly contradict the report that I have been offered the Laureateship, as it is not true.” Alfred Austin was eventually offered the post and became the Poet Laureate in 1896.

Read an excerpt from Morris’s “Earthly Paradise”:
Of Heaven or Hell I have no power to sing,
I cannot ease the burden of your fears,
Or make quick-coming death a little thing,
Or bring again the pleasure of past years,
Nor for my words shall ye forget your tears,
Or hope again for aught that I can say,
The idle singer of an empty day

But rather, when aweary of your mirth,
From full hearts still unsatisfied ye sigh,
And, feeling kindly unto all the earth,
Grudge every minute as it passes by,
Made the more mindful that the sweet days die—
Remember me a little then I pray,
The idle singer of an empty day.

Now read Austin’s “A Dream of England”
I had a dream of England. Wild and weird,
The billows ravened round her, and the wrack,
Darkening and dwindling, blotted out the track,
Then flashed on her a bolt that scorched and seared.
She, writhing in her ruin, rolled, and reared,
Then headlonged unto doom, that drove her back
To welter on the waters, blind and black,
A homeless hulk, a derelict unsteered.
Wailing I woke, and through the dawn descried,
Throned on the waves that threatened to o’erwhelm,
The England of my dream resplendent ride,
And armoured Wisdom, sovran at the helm,
Through foaming furrows of the future guide
To wider empire a majestic Realm.

How does Morris’s work compare to Austin’s? Do you think Morris’s political views have been compromised if he accepted the Poet Laureateship? Visit the Maryland Room Gallery and evaluate Morris’s poetry and prose featured in the exhibit How We Might Live: The Vision of William Morris.

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