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William Morris woodengraving by Barry Moser

October 3, 1896
William Morris   (1834 - 1896)
Being William Morris
by Steve King

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On this day in 1896, William Morris died, at the age of sixty-two. Morris was one of the most talented and respected figures in the Victorian Era, but the superhuman range and pace of his vocations -- painter, architect, designer (stained glass, wallpaper, textiles, furniture ...), craftsman, writer, book-maker, socialist crusader -- caused one physician attending his last days to say that he was dying of "simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men." This industry continued through the last months, as much as diabetes, tuberculosis and exhaustion allowed. Morris's last open-air speech was outside Waterloo Station, as one of what The Times described as an "assemblage of Socialists, Nihilists, Anarchists, and outlaws of every European country"; his last public meeting was in support of the Society for Checking Abuses of Public Advertising; his last production for the Kelmscott Press was the famous edition of Chaucer, the first bound copy delivered to him just four months before he died; his last evening at Kelmscott Manor was spent examining a just-purchased 12th century English Bestiary, before retiring to his 17th century carved oak bed, adorned with Morris & Co. hangings and curtains, the valance embroidered with his own verse:
    ...Rest then and rest,
    And think of the best
    Twixt summer and spring
    When all birds sing
    In the town of the tree,
    As ye lie in me
    And scarce dare move
    Lest earth and its love
    Should fade away
    Ere the full of the day.

    I am old and have seen
    Many things that have been,
    Both grief and peace,
    And wane and increase.
    No tale I tell
    Of ill or well,
    But this I say,
    Night treadeth on day,
    And for worst and best
    Right good is rest.
Most of the obituaries described Morris as primarily a writer-"A poet," wrote The Times, "and one of our half dozen best poets, even when Tennyson and Browning were still alive." (When Tennyson had died four years earlier, Morris refused to accept the offer of the poet laureateship, seeing it as an expression of privilege and royal favor.)

The same Times obituary scoffed at Morris's politics for drawing him "without much regard for logic, or for the facts of life, into a sentimental Socialism." Such separations of poetry and politics, art and life, class and class always got Morris going, and even his funeral combated them. He was so horrified by Tennyson's funeral -- at the design of the Abbey tombs as well as the pomp of an Empire interment -- that his was calculated to go as far the other way as possible. The arrangements included a simple coffin laid on a bed of moss, pulled by a harvest-cart hung in willow boughs and vines, draped in one of Morris's most precious textiles, and carried to the Kelmscott village churchyard by local laborers. According to Fiona MacCarthy's 1994 biography, from which much of the above is taken, one of Morris's last recorded sentences was, "I want to get Mumbo Jumbo out of the world."

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Related authors:  Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, Geoffrey Chaucer, George Bernard Shaw, John Ball, Sir Thomas Malory, T. H. White, William Caxton
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