decorated initial 'R'uskin, without question, exerted the greatest influence on Morris's work and thought. As a young poet, he was stongly influenced by Browning, Rossetti, Ruskin, Poe, and Tennyson (and by mediaeval poets like his beloved Chaucer): later in his career, as he developed his own voice, he was influenced by the Icelandic sagas and Germanic myths and legends which he translated. Politically, he came under the influence of contemporaries as diverse as Carlyle, whom he also, for a time, claimed as a mentor, Rossetti, with whom he had a long and complex relationship, and Marx and Engels, whose economic theories he would adopt in 1884. He retained his great admiration for Ruskin all his life, though he would outgrow his influence; he would find much to admire, too, in Carlyle's indictments of contemporary society and in his emphasis on Mediaevalism, but he differed sharply with Carlyle's attempt to substitute, in his political system, the heroic modern industrialist for the heroic feudal ruler, suggesting that both shared "mere brute force" and that the ideal society would not be organized in terms of a hierarchical Class structure but would instead be communal.

The extent and variety of Morris's own influence is at once an indication his widespread interests, of the depth and quality of his thought, and of his dedication to his causes. Following Ruskin, he affirmed the importance of the "lesser" decorative arts and handicrafts when industrialization had all but obliterated the concept of the craftsman: this emphasis helped bring about the birth of the Arts and Crafts movement both in Britain and in America. His Kelmscott Press, which produced the most beautiful books of his day — or of ours — set new standards of design which we have yet to surpass.

His poems never lacked an audience, and after the publication of The Earthly Paradise (read by good Victorians as a means of relaxation or escape from daily cares) became enormously popular — he was offered the poet laureateship upon the death of Tennyson, but refused it. They seized the imaginations of many young literary men (and women) of his own day and after. Mary Howitt wrote that she derived enormous pleasure from his work, and that she saw him as standing "not before Tennyson. . . but very near him." Andrew Lang, by then a famous author, would comment, many years later, on the influence which Morris's mediaevalism and Pre-Raphaelitism exerted upon himself and his friends in their University days: "In Mr. Morris's poems," he wrote, "the splendour of the Middle Ages, its gold and steel, its curiousness in armour and martial gear, lived again, and its inner sadness, doubt, and wonder, its fantastic passions, were reborn." Both his poetry and his late prose fantasies were greatly admired by Oscar Wilde, and were major influences on the youthful Swinburne and William Butler Yeats, as they would be on twentieth-century fantasists like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, though a more mature Yeats, like T. S. Eliot, would react against the poetry as being, from an intellectual point of view, insufficiently demanding. Poetry flowed freely from Morris's pen — perhaps too freely, as his critics would occasionally point out.

His Socialist doctrines were also influential, though his latter-day insistence upon the necessity of a social revolution proved too extreme for the more reformist Fabian Society. George Bernard Shaw, however — with H. G. Wells, a prominent Fabian — would call him "a prophet and a saint." Morris's concerns with functionalism and simplicity of design were enormously influential on modern architecture — Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius, among others, acknowledged his influence, revered him as a man, and adopted (and adapted) his assumption that the artist should function as part of a community. As a founder of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, he was a pioneer, too, both in the environmentalist and in the preservationist movements.


W Morris

Written 1987; last modified 15 December 2002