s an avid supporter of the Socialist Movement, William Morris believed that he had been "born out of his due time," as he constantly expressed deep nostalgia for the values and lifestyles of England's Medieval past (Cody). Advocating the "radical rejection of the ideologies of progress," Morris' stance on capitalism and industrialization ringed similar to Swinburne's critique and stance on Puritanism: both men felt that capitalism and Puritanism, respectively, neutralized natural human emotions and tendencies, and thus rejected the most tragic and beautiful aspects of human existence. Revealing the foundation for Morris' affinity for all things Medieval, this primitivist stance appears throughout the majority of his artistic endeavors, reflecting itself through such Medieval themes as heroism, love, chivalry, beauty, and so on. Medieval themes, especially in terms of everything "that his own grotesque age was not — organic, communal, pre-capitalistic, and pre-industrial," appear within "The Voice of Toil," a distinct call for the reevaluation of the capitalist doctrine.
The work opens with the hopelessness of the industrial society and its inhabitants, which Morris then contrasts with the previous glory of the Medieval era:
I heard men saying, Leave hope and praying,
All days shall be as all have been;
To-day and to-morrow bring fear and sorrow,
The never-ending toil between.
When Earth was younger mid toil and hunger,
In hope we strove, and our hands were strong;
Then great men led us, with words they fed us,
And bade us right the earthly wrong.
Go read in story their deeds and glory,
Their names amidst the nameless dead;
Turn then from lying to us slow-dying
In that good world to which they led;
Exemplified through such words as "younger," "strong," "glory," and "good," Morris presents the idea that, although life "when earth was younger" was still wrought by "toil and hunger," man worked strongly and diligently to achieve peace, prosperity and happiness. Communal living, while not easy, allocates dignity and strength from its participants. However, with the advent of the industrialized nation and the stratification of the classes, man then became a tool of the powerful, thus awakening the "spiritually dead society" (Cody) of the Victorian era:
Where fast and faster our iron master,
The thing we made, for ever drives,
Bids us grind treasure and fashion pleasure
For other hopes and other lives.
Where home is a hovel and dull we grovel,
Forgetting that the world is fair;
Where no babe we cherish, lest its very soul perish;
Where mirth is crime, and love a snare.
Who now shall lead us, what god shall heed us
As we lie in the hell our hands have won?
For us are no rulers but fools and befoolers,
The great are fallen, the wise men gone.
Vehemently revealing his "hatred of modern civilization," Morris concludes "The Voice of Toil" with one of hope, as he calls for man gather hope and unite in the recreation of a human society within this simple ode to social justice:
I heard men saying, Leave tears and praying,
The sharp knife heedeth not the sheep;
Are we not stronger than the rich and the wronger,
When day breaks over dreams and sleep?
Come, shoulder to shoulder ere the world grows older!
Help lies in nought but thee and me;
Hope is before us, the long years that bore us
Bore leaders more than men may be.
Let dead hearts tarry and trade and marry,
And trembling nurse their dreams of mirth,
While we the living our lives are giving
To bring the bright new world to birth.
Come, shoulder to shoulder ere earth grows older!
The Cause spreads over land and sea;
Now the world shaketh, and fear awaketh,
And joy at last for thee and me.
David Cody states that Morris' "many creative works were attempts either to avoid or to escape from that (modern) civilization — he would find refuges in the idealized medieval past." What other Pre-Raphaelite artists or associates delved into their creative, imaginary worlds? How does this constitute Pre-Raphaelitism? How is social criticism realized in other PRB works? Based on the assumptions made by Cody's statement, and the content of Morris' other artistic endeavors, would you describe Morris as a (hard-edge) realist or a primitivist?
"The Voice of Toil" was published alongside 55 other works in Poems by the Way in 1891. Comment on Morris's repetition of the phrase "Come, shoulder to shoulder ere earth grows older!" and "I heard men saying, Leave tears and praying" (tears was replaced by hope after the first mention of the phrase). Compare this to his work "A Death Song," also published in Poems by the Way. Morris reveals similar socialist tendencies within the thematic structure of this work which are emphasized by the repetition of the phrase "Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay/But one and all if they would dusk the day." What do these repetitions and the content of the phrases reveal about Morris' political agenda? With the knowledge that Morris was at one point of militant socialist, how do these ideas connect to the artistic side of his personality?
Comment on the structure and form of the poem. For example, is it strictly visual in nature? Does he employ the same poetic techniques in "The Voice of Toil" as he does in "The Haystack in the Floods" in terms of the intensity of the language and the response felt by the reader? How do the later works in Poems by the Way differ from his earlier works? Do his uses of medieval themes and imagery change over time?
Cody, David. "Morris' Medievalism." Accessed 9 Nov 2004
Last modified 9 November 2004