The Kelmscott Press

Introduction by Florence S. Boos

Morris’s Editorial Practice at the Kelmscott Press

Few of Morris’s endeavors might seem more remote from the ideals of his socialist engagement than his practices as the founder and manager of the Kelmscott Press. He himself, however, vigorously defended his undertaking as a utopian protest against capitalist practices which had destroyed the art of bookmaking, as they had destroyed—or corrupted—everything else. As William Peterson characterized this view in his introduction to The Ideal Book, “One cannot understand the moral intensity of Morris’s typographical writings without realizing that he [did] not merely wish to improve the printing of books: in fact . . . he want[ed] to alter the course of Western history.”1 In Jeffrey Skoblow’s view, “to make beautiful things, for Morris, [was] to make unalienated things, to reclaim the thing-ness of things from the dilutions, adulterations, and abstractions of commodification—a material act nevertheless also “the embodiment of dreams, a utopian vision that owe[d] as much to Keats as to Marx, the redemption of the senses.”2 And in Elizabeth C. Miller’s  analysis, “Morris’s print work hearken[ed] back to an idealist tradition in which art occupie[d] a higher plane and serve[d] as an ethical model, but also dr[ew] on Aestheticism and Marxism to complicate that tradition by continually insisting on the artificiality of this ideal . . . .”3

Morris set forth his own aims for the Press in a series of lectures and interviews in the early and mid-nineties. In 1893, for example, a reporter from the Daily Chronicle quoted Morris's conviction that “…a book is nowadays perhaps the most satisfactory work of art one can make or have. The best work of art of all to create is a house . . . . A book comes next, and between a house and a book a man can do very well.”4 In more direct terms he told an interviewer for Bookselling in 1895, “I felt that for the books I loved and cared for there might be attempted a presentation . . . which should be worthy of one’s feelings. That is all. The ideas we cherish are worth preserving, and I fail to see why a beautiful form should not be given to them, as well as an ugly one. . . . Why should not every book be ‘a thing of beauty’?"5 In “The Ideal Book,” he expressed a closely related conviction that “. . . [t]he picture-book is not, perhaps, absolutely necessary to man’s life, but it gives us such endless pleasure, and is so intimately connected with the other absolutely necessary art of imaginative literature that it must remain one of the very worthiest things towards the production of which reasonable men should strive.”6

At times, however, Morris acknowledged the looming presence of a deeper question: “How shall we set about giving people without traditions of art eyes with which to see works of art?”7 In what follows, I will ask whether Morris’s practices at the Kelmscott Press were principled acts of heartfelt defiance and/or attempts to offer partial answers to these searching questions, as well as subject ‘virtual’ twenty-first-century representations of his works to a brief ‘Morrisian’ critique.

Everyday Practices at the Kelmscott Press

Morris chose fifty-two works (in sixty-six volumes) for reprinting at his labor of love, the Kelmscott Press. The print runs ranged from two hundred (for The Life and Death of Jason) to fifteen hundred (for Gothic Architecture)8, and many of his choices—including the tributes to William Caxton embodied in reprinting the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, The Golden Legend, The History of Reynard the Foxe, The History of Godefrey of Boloyne, and of course, The Canterbury Tales—clearly reflected his personal preference for poetry and medieval texts.9

Free of orthodox Arnoldian prescriptions to single out “the best which has been thought and said,”10 Morris reprinted Aesop, for example, but not Plato or Sophocles; from the Renaissance and seventeenth century no Bunyan or Milton, but More’s Utopia, Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar, The Poems of William Shakespeare and Poems Chosen out of the Works of Robert Herrick; from the eighteenth only a translation of the Georgian Sulxan-Saba Orbeliana’s Book of Wisdom and Lies; and from the nineteenth The Poems of John Keats, The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Poems Chosen Out of the Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but nothing by Wordsworth or Byron.

By contrast, his generously idiosyncratic list of medieval works included Syr Perecyvelle of Gales, Syr Isambrace, The Floure and the Leafe, & the Boke of Cupid, Sire Degrevaunt, The Order of Chivalry, Psalmi Penitentiales, and Laudes Beatae Mariae Virginis, as well as Morris’s own translations of Beowulf, The Tale of King Florus and the Fair Jehane, The Tale of the Emperor Coustans, Of the Friendship of Amis and Amile, Child Christopher, and L’Ordre de Chevalerie. Scenes from Perecyvelle, Isambrace and Degrevaunt had appeared in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s Oxford Union Murals, and the legend of Amis and Amille may have formed the basis for an early draft of a tale for the Earthly Paradise.11

From the nineteenth century, Morris also reprinted Tennyson’s Maud: A Monodrama, a favorite of his Pre-Raphaelite youth, and six works of his own poetry, as well as A Dream of John Ball, News from Nowhere and four historical romances. He also found room for the poetry of several friends and collaborators—A. C. Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon, D. G. Rossetti’s Ballads and Narrative Poems and Sonnets and Lyrical Poems, and—less happily—Wilfred Scawen Blunt’s Love Lyrics and Songs of Proteus.  Prose choices also included Rossetti’s Hand and Soul, Ruskin’s “Nature of Gothic,” (with Morris’s own “Gothic Architecture” as a companion-piece), and Sidonia the Sorceress, a bodice-ripping favorite of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood he described to an interviewer as “Lady Wilde’s translation of that wonderful story of the German witch-fever by Meinhold.”12 Interestingly, in none of the series’ sixty-six volumes did he find any room for a ‘realist’ work of nineteenth-century fiction. 

As for his editorial practices, as Charles La Porte has observed, Morris was no editorial purist even by the latitudinarian standards of Victorian scholarly norms: “[His] design [for the Chaucer] entail[ed] a single, resonant text, while medieval manuscript culture afforded only fragmented and often contradictory Chaucer texts.”13 In this context, the following pre-publication exchange may be relevant

[Interviewer:] And now, Mr. Morris, tell me of your Chaucer. What is the edition you intend publishing to be like? Old English or modern, bowdlerized or uncorrupted, including the things of which the authorship is questionable, or strictly adhering to what is Chaucer’s beyond a doubt?

[Morris:] Old English, of course, and certainly not bowdlerized. I think I shall include the ‘Romaunt of the Rose,’ and in fact everything that is generally included in a good edition of Chaucer.”14

In the event, Morris and his editor F. S. Ellis used the newly minted scholarly edition by W. W. Skeat, Professor of Anglo Saxon at Cambridge, but omitted Skeat’s apparatus, which noted variations between existing texts and queried the authenticity of certain works traditionally ascribed to Chaucer. 15

Morris’s broad responses to his interviewers and potential critics arguably reflected a personal belief in an eclectic and changing process of textual transmission expressed  in his design of the Earthly Paradise, where Greek-speaking medieval Elders tell classical Mediterranean tales to shipwrecked northern Wanderers who reply with ‘Scandinavian and Germanic counterparts, refracted through medieval lenses and transmitted by a  nineteenth-century author. Literary palimpsests (such as the aforementioned “Lady Wilde’s translation of . . . [the] story of . . . German witch-fever by Meinhold”) had an intrinsic value for him, and he held the conviction that what reader-response-theorists now call “misreadings” and “misprisions” can have worthy lives of their own.16

Idiosyncratic 'Design'

In his role as director of the Press Morris insisted on firm, clear typefaces and an “architecture,” or harmoniously designed page, with relatively small upper margins, larger ones below, and slightly smaller ones at the side. The minuteness of some of his prescriptions reflected an intense response to detail:

[L]egibility is the first thing to be aimed at in the forms of the letters; this is best furthered by the avoidance of irrational swellings and spiky projections, and by the using of careful purity of line. Even the Caslon type when enlarged shows great shortcomings in this respect: the ends of many of the letters such as the t and e are hooked up in a vulgar and meaningless way, instead of ending in the sharp and clear stroke of Jenson’s letters; there is a grossness in the upper finishings of letters like the c, the a, and so on, an ugly pear-shaped swelling defacing the form of the letter . . . .17

He also rejected delicate contemporary typefaces and larger ‘leadings’ (or spaces between lines), and insisted on minimal letter-spacing, saturated black inks on white, crisp paper, and very bold typefaces, such as ‘Troy’ (Gothic), ‘Golden’ (Roman) and ‘Chaucer’ (a smaller Troy). No one who has ever looked at a Kelmscott book will forget the radiance of its paper and the sharp contrast of its dark letters. He also had firm things to say about an ‘ideal book’’s size.

I wish to make a protest against the superstition that only small books are comfortable to read; . . . . a small book seldom does lie quiet, and you have either to cramp your hand by holding it, or else to put it on the table with a paraphernalia of matters to keep it down, a table-spoon on one side, a knife on another, and so on, which things always tumble off at a critical moment . . . .18

Throughout his life, Morris sought to reconcile a kind of dialectical tension or coincidentia oppositorum between ideals of ‘simplicity’ and intricate ‘ornamention’.  The former was most evident in the ‘plainness’ and immediacy of his essays and poetic diction. He could be content, however, with relatively unornamented pages if they seemed to him structurally handsome, and he printed some longer works at the Press in this spirit.

In a few passages, he even warned against gratuitous ornamentation:

The essential point to be remembered is that the ornament, whatever it is, whether picture or pattern-work, should form part of the page, should be a part of the whole scheme of the book.

All the same, his enthusiasm for visual ornamentation was irrepressible, and many arabesques and flourishes found honored places as “part[s] of the whole scheme.”19 Indeed, ornament was one of Morris’s special passions—a dialectical antithesis, once again, to the synthesis of his remarkably direct and straightforward speech.  

In “The Ideal Book,” for example, he asserted that “no doubt from [good] craftsmanship definite ornament will arise, and will be used, sometimes with wise forbearance, sometimes with prodigality equally wise.”20 And in “Printing,” he praised woodcut-illustrated medieval books as amongst the most delightful works of art that have ever been produced,” and noted that if one “added really beautiful ornament and pictures, printed books might once again illustrate . . . that a work of utility might be also a work of art . . . .”21

Most tellingly of all, according to Sydney Cockerell he designed no less than three hundred eighty-four initials of various sizes and six hundred forty-four designs for the Press, ranging from frames, borders, half borders, and title pages to line endings, printer’s marks and decorative initial words.22

In early Kelmscott books, for example, paragraph-signs rather than spaces marked new beginnings. Like the heavy lead dividers of early Morris and Company stained glass windows, these divided their texts within pages and across openings [e. g., A Dream of John Ball, 86-87], before smaller and more graceful leaves in two varieties replaced them in 1893.

Many who have viewed Kelmscott designs in black and white reproductions may also be unaware of Morris’s pervasive use of rubrication for contrast and simple emphasis. Not only were titles set in red, but also glosses, refrains, footnotes, chapter-headings, brief summaries at the sides of pages, and instances of indirect discourse.

The profusion of Morris’ designs and devices also permitted him to vary the configurations from page to page. Readers encountered such echeloned devices as initial S’s in a column, or white-on-black and black-on-white initials on facing pages; or cascading leaves which set off a summary or “argument” from particular blocks of text.

Prose chapters and subdivisions were naturally graced with special titles and borders, but so also were tales, ‘books,’ and individual poems within larger units. In works such as the Kelmscott Chaucer, the fractal self-similarities become so complex that it becomes difficult if not impossible to discern whether they replicate each other.

All of this was broadly compatible with Ruskinian (or quasi-Ruskinian) principles of “savageness,” “changefulness,” “naturalism,” “rigidity” and “redundance,” as set out in “The Nature of Gothic,” a favorite text Morris reprinted for the Kelmscott Press. “Changefulness, or variety,” for example, according to Ruskin must include periods of “darkness” and “repetition,” for “monotony in a certain measure, used in order to give value to change . . . is as essential in architectural as in all other composition; . . . . those who will not submit to the temporary sameness, but rush from one change to another, gradually dull the edge of change itself . . . .”23

Ruskin’s principle of “naturalism”— the demand for natural forms tempered by respect for “fact”—also accorded well with Morris’s verdant designs modeled on stylized representations of natural forms. According to Cockerell, Morris designed one of his ‘new’ alphabets “with backgrounds of naturalesque grapes and vine leaves . . . [after] a visit to Beauvais, where the great porches are carved with vines.”24

The most unequivocally ‘Morrisian’ of Ruskin’s principles may have been “redundance,” which he defined as the uncalculating bestowal of the wealth of its labour. . . . . . . a magnificent enthusiasm, which feels as if it never could do enough to reach the fullness of its ideal; an unselfishness of sacrifice, . . .; and, finally, a profound sympathy with the fullness and wealth of the material universe. . . .”25

A spirit of such “redundance” animated designs such as the elaborate opening of The Earthly Paradise, set into double borders with an inlaid background for a title whose tracery recalls Morris’s earlier hand-illuminated manuscripts, and an assortment of line-ending designs and carefully placed leaves which intertwine to form a column page. Thirty-three especially luxuriant initial words—the stately “Whan,” for example, which opens the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales—appeared in the Press’s three final volumes: The Well at the World’s End (1896), The Works of Chaucer Newly Imprinted (1896), and the posthumous Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897), and in each case were apparently designed for a single use.26

A few of Morris’s ornaments—the emphatically arched “L” of “Long ago” and inset assurance that “help is to hand in the wood perilous,” for example, in the frontispiece design of The Well at the World’s End seem expressions of yearning from a man whose life-force waned with each passing month. Others, by contrast—such as the elegantly patterned “O Hatefull” in the Lawyer’s Prologue of The Canterbury Tales27—seem ironic or wryly humorous literary counterparts of the grotesquely and sardonic stone carings often found in late medieval gothic churches.  

In the first volume of his 1980 Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau praised patterns of “poaching” (braconnage) as decisions to cut across the prescribed preserves of everyday life. Reading, for de Certeau, was a prime example, as he remarked:

. . . readers are travelers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves. . . . reading [is] characterized . . . by advances and retreats, tactics and games played with the text. This process comes and goes, alternately captivated . . . playful, protesting, fugitive.28

Such acts of Schwejkian resistance may be rarer than de Certeau or Morris hoped, but his variations, flourishes and rubricated displays invited readers to ‘open the book and (re)write it in their own way’.29

Morris’s Revisions of His Own Works

Morris’s deepest preferences animated his designs for the Kelmscott editions of his own works. He began with  The Glittering Plain and Poems by the Way (1891), and later reprinted several of their predecessors in rough chronological order. The Kelmscott Sigurd the Volsung was uncompleted at his death, but he made initial plans for the House of the Wolfings (1889),30 and may have intended to follow it with a reprint of its successor, The Roots of the Mountains (1889).

Poems by the Way, an early Kelmscott volume, was 197 pages long in Golden type, and used—as Cockerell once again tells us—fifty-nine different initials. Letters in red typeface were used for the refrains of several of its Scandinavian ballads—“The Wooing of Hallbiorn,” “Hildebrand and Hellelil,” “The King of Denmark’s Sons,” and “Hafbur and Signy”—to  mark forebodings or sinister events.31

In “The Wooing of Hallbiorn,” for example—a tale from the Icelandic Landnámabók with many resemblances to The Earthly Paradise's “Lovers of Gudrun,”32 red highlights appeared in the fiddler Snaebiorn’s refrain, “So many times over comes summer again, / What healing in summer if winter be vain,” in which he foretells his bloody falling out with his brother Hallbiorn, Hallgerd’s husband, and Hallgerd's future suicide. 

Rubrication of the refrain “So fair upriseth the rim of the sun. / So grey is the  sea when day is done” played a similar role in “The King of Denmark’s Sons”, and rubrication-as-premonition appears in other non-Scandinavian works such as “Verses for Pictures,” “For the Briar Rose,” “Tapestry Trees,” and political parables such as “A Death Song” [pp. 38-39] and “The God of the Poor.”

By contrast, Morris used large, dignified black initials in the Kelmscott version for elegiac and love poems such as “Love Fulfilled,” “Meeting in Winter,” “A Garden by the Sea,” “From the Upland to the Sea” and “Thunder in the Garden,” which had previously appeared only in the early hand-illuminated “Book of Verse” (1870),33 as well as in the meditative narrative poems reprinted from the Commonweal versions of “The Pilgrims of Hope”: “The Message of the March Wind,” “Mother and Son,” and “The Half of Life Gone.”

Morris had just composed the first two works he printed at the Press—so that these Kelmscott versions were, in effect, first editions—and others followed in the rough order of composition mentioned earlier. The first page of The Defence of Guenevere (1892) was set entirely in full capital letters, and Guenevere’s soliloquy in terza rima appeared without the usual white space between stanzas. Oddly syncopated hyphenations at the ends of  lines (such as  [e. g., “burn-ed,” l. 6]—reinforce Guenevere’s agitated mental state as she confronts the possibility of death. Omissions of stanza breaks and idiosyncratic enjambments which are justified rather than indented created interesting superpositions of prose cadences and rhythmic free verse.

Red typeface again reinforced the urgency and dramatic intensity of particular passages and refrains in seventeen of the volume’s thirty poems as well as in the running notes and stage directions of “Galahad: A Christmas Mystery” and “Sir Peter Harpdon’s End.”  The ominous effects of such heightening are especially striking in the long refrains of “The Wind” (pp. 126-27) and “The Blue Closet,” so much so that the thirteen poems which appeared in black typeface—“The Defence of Guenevere” among them—seem sober, even stark by comparison.

Also in 1892, Morris (re)published his great political romances News from Nowhere and A Dream of John Ball. A Dream, relatively short at 126 pages, is graced by the elegant borders of the work's opening page and Edward Burne-Jones’s oft-reprinted frontispiece, “When Adam Delved and Eve Span.” Morris also employed the text’s many paragraph symbols to mark conversational shifts, arranging these into designs, and in three passages added large capitals for contrast. The first highlighted a coded password (“JOHN THE MILLER, THAT GROUND SMALL, SMALL, SMALL / THE KING’S SON OF HEAVEN SHALL PAY FOR ALL”).  The second served as the inscription on a cup (IN THE NAME OF THE TRINITY FILL THE CUP AND DRINK TO ME).  And the third, an end-marker, closed the work’s final lines (HERE ENDS A DREAM OF JOHN BALL).  

Morris also employed fairly complicated patterns of linked initials—large and small white and black letters chosen from different alphabet-sets and arranged in alternately symmetrical and asymmetrical designs. He abbreviated chapter titles in rubricated running letters, but reserved red typeface in the body for notes and indirect discourse, as appeared in three places: the banner of “When Adam delved and Eve span . . .” (p. 21), and scholarly glosses of a pennon in the left margin of page 41 and of the words “forestaller” and “regrater” on page 91.

At 305 pages, News from Nowhere was Morris’s longest Kelmscott Press edition of one of his own works to date, and in it he deployed the greater range of initial letters he had by this point designed. Even more widely reprinted than “When Adam delved . . .” has been C. M. Gere’s frontispiece-woodcut of Kelmscott Manor, Nowhere’s journey’s end, inscribed “THIS IS THE PICTURE OF THE OLD HOUSE BY THE THAMES / TO WHICH THE PEOPLE OF THIS STORY WENT . . . .” Flowers and a small leaf frame the inscription, and the text’s marginal headers provide glosses as well as chapter titles—in chapter fifteen alone, for example, “Of Nations,” “Politics of the district,” “The Politics of haymaking,” “Majority & minority,” “How the majority is found,” “Is democracy dead?” “Substitutes for democracy” and “Mutual gain & loss” appear in the margins. The volume’s most striking use of red typeface is in the inscription on the side of the Coach House (“Guests and neighbors . . . Drink a glass to the memory [of the Socialist League]! May 1962”),  but Morris also employed red letters to designate the speakers in an interpolated prose dialogue (“Hammond” and “I”);  in explanatory glosses—of “elegant” as opposed to “genteel,” for example (p. 143), and the once and future beauty of the Thames (p. 283); and to mark the transition to the speaker’s final vision in the passage which begins, “I lay in my bed in my house in dingy Hammersmith thinking about it all . . .” (p. 304).

The Wood Beyond the World (1894) opened with a Walter Crane frontispiece which depicted a tall graceful woman—presumably the “Maid”— in a forest, her head adorned with flowers, and each of The Wood’s thirty-six chapters began with a different border design of intertwined leaves. Morris’s new Troy Gothic type and set of graceful black initials gave him a new palette of ornaments to work with, and he began to use alternating leaf designs as graceful paragraph and quotation markers. Red typeface disappeared entirely from its text, but survived in the volume’s elaborate chapter-openings, whose borders, large initials and black Gothic-letter text were interspersed with more delicate leaves and initials.

The Life and Death of Jason (1895) was the last of Morris’s major poetic works to appear in his lifetime. Its handsome quarto volume in Troy type was again graced by a pair of  Burne-Jones woodcuts, the first a frontispiece, in which Jason seizes the Fleece while Medea diverts its guardian-dragon, and the second an end-piece in which Medea stands before the prophetess Circe as the latter reads from the book which presumably records her fate. Jason's final device was a new “Kelmscott” colophon, engraved in large Gothic letters [Jason, p. 354].

An interviewer for Bookselling praised the “noble-looking volume” as follows.

Mr. Morris allowed us to examine the volume, the pages of which glistened again with the beautiful black type on the choice white paper. We have seen many of Mr. Morris’s Kelmscott Press editions, but none to our mind that excelled this for nobility of appearance and beauty of effect.34

The volume’s seventeen internal “book”-numbers appeared in each page’s margin in red, and each such book began with a red title, large initial and elaborate border for the first page.  Especially large and detailed borders framed the volume’s first and last pages, and the first page’s line-divisions resembled those of the Kelmscott Guenevere [see fig. 13, frontispiece and p. 1]. Small leaves demarcated the poem’s stanzas, and its large pages provided space for more complicated designs. Morris’ Jason deepened and heightened the original role of Orpheus, whose songs heartened the fearful Argonauts and accompanied their quest. Morris designed special ornaments to pay homage to these poems within the poem [see fig. 14, 236-37]—special borders in the inner right margins, for example, to identify the antiphonal responses of Orpheus and the Sirens in book XIV (236-37).

The Earthly Paradise (1896-7) appeared posthumously in eight volumes, and one thousand four hundred and sixty seven pages. A notable feature of the Kelmscott edition is its omission of the famous (and often misinterpreted) "Apology" of the “idle singer,” present in earlier editions (“Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time / Why should I strive to set the crooked straight/ . . . .”).35The last four volumes were “Printed by the Trustees of the late William Morris at the Kelmscott Press,” but a final note informed readers that Morris himself had designed all the work’s borders but one, prepared at his direction by R. Catterson-Smith. In all likelihood, Morris had also corrected proofs for the first few volumes, and designed most of the work’s frontispieces and page designs as well as the arrangements of initials in the earlier sections.

Morris's longest work may briefly be characterized as a vast imbrication of frames within frames. An outermost ‘singer’ offers twelve ‘poems of the months,’ and each month has a prologue and two tales—one medieval and one classical—told by native Greek “Elders” and their guests, Scandinavian “Wanderers” in flight from the Black Death. Interspersed between the tales are passages in which the outer frame’s singer interprets the inner audience’s response, each month’s tales conclude with an epilogue, and the work ends with a valedictory “envoi.” 

As mentioned earlier, the work’s specially elaborate first opening, includes an ornamented border, an ‘argument’ in full capitals, a title framed by leaves, and an initial “F” (for “Forget”) which blends into the border’s other designs.  The first lines are divided by diagonally patterned leaves, and the ‘poems of the months’ are decorated by borders which isolate and separate them from the text (cf. “November”, vol. 6, p. 1). Each tale’s title is set in red typeface, as in previous volumes; red type returns once again from time to time, to mark names of speakers and the titles and refrains of songs (cf. “Outlanders, whence come ye last? / The snow in the street and the wind on the door.” in volume 5, pp. 75-77), and to signal the emotional charge of certain direct quotations—the missive ordering Michael’s death in “The Man Born to Be King,” for example, which Cecily reads and rewrites to save his life (I, p. 178-80).36  

Red type in the Bellerophon tales also highlights Proteus’s order to Bellerophon to undertake a lethal adventure and Philonoe’s letter in which she warns him of a secret plot and professes  her love. The latter is also decorated with the sole set of red leaves to appear in all of Morris’s published writings (vol. 7, 139-40; vol. 8, 19-20, 50).  

The last few Kelmscott volumes also incuded two of his prose romances, The Well at the World’s End (1896) and The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897).37

Morris reportedly prepared all the designs for the latter except two—large initials for “Whilom” and “Empty,” completed once again by R. Catterson-Smith. Both volumes employed borders and red typeface to accent chapter headings, but no red within the text.

Striking in both volumes is their use of large woodcut initial words (not letters) surrounded by ornamental borders. Each of The Well at the World’s End’s four ‘books’ begins with such a woodcut, an illustration by Edward Burne-Jones and a frontispiece with a woodblock for the caption underneath the illustration.  One of Morris’ best interspersed poems appeared in The Well at the World’s End (pp. 250-53), and each volume concludes with the new colophon used earlier in Jason.

Love Is Enough, Morris’ medieval masque of spiritual longing and the last volume of his poetry at the Press, appeared in octavo and Golden type in 1897.  Probably in accordance with Morris’s wishes, the printers used red highlighting for stage directions and speakers’ names, and subtle blends of black, white, blue and red [p. 43] to decorate the interventions of “Music”, the work’s internal narrator.

Nine months before his death, Morris wrote that

. . . a book which I am making ready for printing, and in which I shall put all I know, is my Sigurd. I don’t want to say much about it now, but of all my books, I want to have this one more especially embodied in the most beautiful form I can give it. Burne-Jones will illustrate it, and it will be printed in the Troy type, and on a folio sheet. I am even looking forward myself to seeing it finished.38 

He did not live to finish his plans for Sigurd, or for The House of the Wolfings, a work of poems linked by prose passages which might have offered  a generically eclectic literary miniature of Wagnerian Musikdrama.39

A ‘Virtual’  Ideal Book . . . ?

The exquisite intricacy of the Kelmscott Press’s designs raises an obvious question posed by Morris’s contemporary interviewers.  How—if at all—can one possibly construe these works as examples of “popular” art?

Most of Morris’s published works are available in some form via the Google, Kindle and the Gutenberg Project, as well as in reprints and on compact disks, and electronic “archives” of the works of other Victorian poets are in various stages of development in several countries. My own efforts to create the William Morris Archive ( have forced me to confront the limitations of such editions in general, and consider this one’s compatibility with Morris’s exacting views of the “lesser arts” in particular.

The best raisons d’être for such editions derive from their potential social value. Digital reproductions of scholarly texts sold by information-delivery corporations such as JSTOR, Project Muse, Google Books, and Kindle are profit-making ventures whose corporate owners are free to ignore the express desires and original intentions of their authors. The William Morris Archive and comparable sites would—or at least should—take authorial desires and intentions seriously, and make their texts and images available to all without elaborate licensing arrangements and fees.40

Here, I believe, the spirit of Morris would vigorously concur. The Kelmscott Press was an expensive bibliophilic undertaking, but Morris worked tirelessly to make his writings on art, architecture and socialism available at low cost, in many print formats, and in more than one language.41

He told an interviewer for the Daily Chronicle in 1893 with obvious regret that “I wish—I wish indeed that the cost of the books was less, only that is impossible if the printing and the decoration and the paper and binding are to be what they should be.”42

Much depended and depends on the modal nuances of what “should” be, and the boundary conditions of what is “possible.”  To an interviewer for the Pall Mall Gazette, who asked him about the production of ‘fine’ books beyond the means of ordinary people, he responded:   

. . . you see if we were all Socialists things would be different. We should have a public library at each street corner, where everybody should read all the best books, printed in the best and most beautiful type. I should not then have to buy all these old books, but they would be common property, and I could go and look at them whenever I wanted them, as would everybody else. Now I have to go to the British Museum, which is an excellent institution, but it is not enough.

[Reporter] It would give us a hundred British Museums instead of the one, you mean, Mr. Morris?

[Morris] Just so.43

Morris’s ‘utopian’ answer was forced in this context, but he knew that “a hundred British Museums” would hardly provide the “street corner”-access he envisioned. Jeffrey Skoblow has commented mordantly on the strait gate of scholarly access to Kelmscott books:

To engage the Kelmscott Press directly, to take the books in hand, one generally must go to one of the great plutocrat libraries—the British, say, the Morgan, or the Huntington . . . . I have sat with the books in these places, calling their weighty delicacies forth from hidden stacks, attended by instructions and prohibitions—a bit more carefully managed, perhaps, than Pleasure is pleased to be . . . . Such an encounter with the Kelmscott Press is itself a kind of activity beyond reading, though the materiality of the event is, as it were, extraneously somewhat clotted, fraught with questions that are hardly the books’ own.44

By contrast: capitalists and the Pentagon created and built the internet (as the “arpanet”), and capitalists and the Pentagon (or their counterparts elsewhere) can corrupt it or take it away. But until they do, a wider public with internet access will be able to encounter the visual splendor of Poems by the Way at any virtual “street corner” in the world.

Scholars will also be able to see and compare dozens of Morris’s lucidly written manuscripts as clearly as the original, and enlarge works and letters at will.  Nothing may replace the “aura” of the original—the spendor in the grass, the glory of the flower.  But we may well find strength in what remains behind—beautiful reproductions which may be consulted and collated without damage or harm to the original texts.

A case has been made that no one would actually want to read an entire book in its ‘excessively’ large and ornate Kelmscott format. Admittedly, I have no immediate plans to read through a Kelmscott edition of the Biblia Innocentium or The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye. But weightless and luminous pages of texts I do want to read, or have read and admire—A Dream of John Ball, say—fly beneath my cursor, free of the constraints of careful placement of large volumes in carefully watched locations.

All complex undertakings are of necessity cooperative projects which require the combination of many ‘artisans’—in the case of electronic editions, site designers, image editors and writers of code and assorted metadata, as well as the scholars who supervise them. Part of the enjoyment of working on such projects derives from the contributions of others and the serendipity of the unexpected—a communal process Morris deeply admired and readily acknowledged (“A work of art is always a matter of cooperation,” as he put it to the Daily Chronicle interviewer in 1893.)

Cooperation was deeply embedded in the praxis of Morris and Company and Morris's other endeavors, including the Kelmscott Press, with its paper-suppliers, font-makers, compositors, and press-workers, not to speak of its secretary, authors, editors, illustrators, and engravers. A partial portrait of the Kelmscott Press staff in 1895 showed Morris with a group of fifteen collaborators.

For Morris such skillful cooperation had been the essence of medieval labor, as well as the source of the finest books ever made. “A harmonious work of art,” for example, as described it in his lecture on “The Woodcuts of Gothic Books”, was the collective product of  the designer of the picture-blocks, the designer of the ornamental blocks, the wood-engraver, and the printer, all of them thoughtful, painstaking artists, and all working in harmonious cooperation for the production of a work of art.”45

The William Morris Archive—prepared with minimal resources, and dependent on the limited conventions of present-day web design—hardly exemplifies the revolutionary qualities Morris ascribed to true “art.” But is not (I hope) a utilitarian project “limited by commercial exigencies” of the sort Morris mocked in “The Ideal Book,” such as “a work on differential calculus [or] a treatise on manures. . . .”46 And it does, I believe, put in service to a good end some of the internet’s more striking attributes: its luminosity, potential for shading and shifts in scale, and the relative ease with which images and designs may be added to its “pages.”

At their best, these attributes provide for preliminary approximations to Morrisian ideals of simplicity, clarity and ornamentation, and recall Ruskin’s injunction to " [d]o what you can, and confess frankly what you are unable to do. . . . it is, perhaps, the principal admirableness of the Gothic schools . . . that they thus receive the results of the labour of inferior minds; and of fragments full of imperfection, and betraying that imperfection in every touch, indulgently raise up a stately and unaccusable whole.”47

For electronic editions, after all, are not books—the world’s best instruments for conveyance and retrieval of ideas and information for more than two millennia. Books are concise, durable and portable.  They require no special power-sources for access, are readable from front to back or in any other order which may be convenient, and are eminently ‘searchable’ (“The passage I’m looking for was about a third of the way through, on the left hand side toward the top.”). 

They also record in homely and moving ways the physical ravages and triumphs of passage—a folded page, smudge on the cover or long-dead reader’s annotations on the one hand; and the crispness of Kelmscott type impressed into a firm linen page on the other—in ways digital reproduction can only represent in mediated form.

There is also the danger digital reproduction might “murder to dissect.” For Morris, each book was an integral wholeand potential work of art—a “pocket cathedral,” as Burne Jones’ put it.48But the ninth symphony of Beethoven is currently advertised and sold on assorted commercial sites as an aggregate of snippet-length ‘songs,’ and mediocre electronic editions present individual poems and pages of text or as discrete pedantic “objects,” alienated from the larger works in which their authors arranged and embedded them.

Good electronic editions should therefore provide the chance to engage in genuine “browsing.” and “turn pages” of books and manuscripts from “cover” to “cover.” Offenses such as left-justified poetic line-numbers and site descriptions which foreground technology rather than content would evoke from Morris the sort of scorn he visited on the cluttered typographical practices of his day.49

Deeper problems may arise from the vulnerability, planned obsolescence and ephemeral nature of the electronic media themselves. Successors of the huge consortia which have purchased the rights to scan and disseminate the contents of entire natural libraries, for example, could easily suppress or distort these records in incremental ways (Think of the bank embezzler who diverts a single cent from every hundred dollars).

Less insidiously, the “world wide web” as we know it may soon become obsolete in its turn—unlike those books and manuscripts which have physically survived and (one hopes) will continue to survive for several centuries to come. If so, our endeavors will suffer in their turn the fate of Morris’s other “lesser arts,” “whereby men make the things which they intend shall be beautiful, and shall last [only] somewhat beyond the passing day.”

But before they vanish from the face of the earth, well-crafted ‘virtual’ reproductions of Morris’s books may encourage more readers than he ever imagined to set aside for a moment the “blank everyday,” contemplate his utopian artistic ideals, and hope with him “that real history . . . [may be] no dead thing, but the living bond of the hopes of the past, the present, and the future.”50


1. William S. Peterson, ed., The Ideal Book: Essays and Lectures on the Arts of the Book by William Morris, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982, xxiii. See also Peterson’s The Kelmscott Press: A History of William Morris’s Typographical Adventure, University of California Press, 1991.

2. Jeffrey Skoblow, “Beyond Reading: Kelmscott and the Modern,” in Richard Matthews, ed., The Victorian Illustrated Book, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002, 241-42.

3. Elizabeth C. Miller, “William Morris, Print Culture, and the Politics of Aestheticism,” Modernism/Modernity 15.3 (2008), 478.

4. “Art, Craft, and Life: A Chat with Mr. William Morris, Daily Chronicle, 9 October 1893, Tony Pinkney, We Met Morris: Interviews with William Morris, 1885-96, Reading: Spire Books, 78.

5. “The Kelmscott Press: An Interview with Mr. William Morris,” by I. H. I., Bookselling, Christmas, 1895, Pinkney, 114-15, 122.

6.  “The Ideal Book,” a lecture delivered in 1893, Peterson, The Ideal Book, 73.

7. “The Prospects of Architecture in Civilization,” William Morris on Art and Socialism, ed. Norman Kelvin, Mineola, New York: Dover Press, 1999, 60, 62, 64.

8. After Morris’s death Sigurd the Volsung was brought out in 150 volumes plus 6 in vellum. See W. S. Peterson, A Bibliography of the Kelmscott Press, Oxford University Press, 1984.  In addition to paper copies, 6 vellum copies of Jason were printed, and 45 vellum copies of Gothic Architecture.

9. See Joseph Dunlap, William Caxton and William Morris: Comparisons and Contrasts, Cambridge: University Printing House, 1976.

10. Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, ed. Samuel Lipman, Yale University Press, 1994, 48.

11. May Morris wrote: “Mr. Edmund Gosse mentions that “more than twenty years ago I heard the poet read in his full, slightly monotonous voice a long story of Amis and Amyllion (I think those were the names) which has never, to my knowledge, appeared in print.” (Collected Works, vol. 3, 1910-1915, xii-xiii)

12. Wilhelm Meinhold (1797-1851) was a German writer, theologian and pastor.

13. Charles LaPorte, “Morris’s Compromises: On Victorian Editorial Theory and the Kelmscott Chaucer,” Writing on the Image: Reading William Morris, ed. David Latham (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003). La Porte also observed that Morris reprinted Chaucer’s “Retraccioun” in a format which suggested that it was one of his minor poems (211), and illustrated it with a Burne-Jones engraving of “Poesis” as a virgin-mother. Morris also preserved aspects of the original spelling but not its capitalization, revealing therewith in La Porte’s view, “the limits of his willingness to present a medieval text in all its foreign oddness” (213).

14. “The Poet as Printer: An Interview with Mr. William Morris,” We Met Morris, 57.

15. LaPorte, “Morris’s Compromises,” 209-19.

16. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent Leitch (New York: Norton, 1995), 1466-70.

17. Morris, “Printing,” The Ideal Book, 63.


19. Morris, “Printing,” The Ideal Book, 65

20. Morris, “The Ideal Book,” The Ideal Book, 72.

21. Morris, “The Ideal Book,” The Ideal Book, 72.

22. Sydney C. Cockerell, “A Short History and Description of the Kelmscott Press,” Peterson, 85.

23. John Ruskin, “The Nature of Gothic,” in John Rosenberg, ed., The Genius of John Ruskin (London: George Allen, 1963), 188-89.

24. Sydney C. Cockerell, “A Short History and Description of the Kelmscott Press,” The Ideal Book, 85.

25. Ruskin, “The Nature of Gothic,” 194, 195.

26. Thorstein Veblen—a critic of the Arts and Crafts movement— singled out the “impossibility of more than a single use” as one of the features of excess practiced by a leisure class--but as there are many interpretations, so there are many ‘uses.’

27. Other word-initials in the Chaucer are “Whan,” “Whilom,” “There,” “In,” Noght,” “Among,” “Pro,” “At,” “The,” “Almighty,” “Many,” “Alas,” “I have,” “Little, “After,” “Glory,” “Thou,” “Now,” “By,” “God,” “Out,” “But,” and “Aprochen”; of these several are used more than once.

28. The Practice of Everyday Life (L’invention du quotidian: Arts de faire), trans. Steven Rendell, Berkeley: University of California, 1984, 174-75.

29. Paraphrasing Morris, “[S]hut the book and tell it again in your own way.” Collected Works 3, xxii.

30. Peter Stansky, Another Book That Never Was, San Francisco: The Book Club of California, 1998.

31. Other examples include “The Raven and the King’s Daughter,” “Agnes and the Hill-man,” “The Son’s Sorrow,” “The Lay of Christine,” and “Knight Aagen and Maiden Else,” though the latter lacks a refrain. “The Raven and the King’s Daughter” is the only one provided with a happy outcome, in which the king’s daughter and her lover Olaf are united, though after a period of separation and bloodshed.

32. Landnámabók, chapter 30.

33. Illustrated initials in “A Book of Verse” anticipate the placement of large ornamented initials in the Kelmscott Poems by the Way.

34. We Met Morris, 122.

35. One reason for the omission may have been a desire on Morris’ part to begin with the elaborate title page of the opening tale, “Prologue: The Wanderers.”

36. Other examples include vol. 1, pp. 173 and 178; vol. 3, p. 111; vol. 4, pp. 32-33, used for the fateful scroll read by the doomed king in “The Watching of the Falcon,” and p. 128.; vol. 5, pp. 143 and 169, where it is used for the voice of the oracle, “Acontius will I wed today,” p. 219 and p. 233, for the words on a tablet; vol. 6, for the subtitles in “The Lovers of Gudrun”; vol. 7, p. 177, to label a song.

37. Other titles published in 1895 were Syr Perceyvelle of Gales, D. G. Rossetti’s Hand and Soul, and Morris’s translations, Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair and The Tale of Beowulf. In 1896 appeared  Robert Herrick’s Poems, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Poems, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Newly Imprinted, Laudes Beatae Mariae, The Flour and the Leaf, and Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar.

38. Bookselling, Christmas 1895, We Met Morris, 121. The two designs by Burne-Jones appear in the 1898 Kelmscott Sigurd the Volsung, which was printed on folio pages as Morris intended.

39. Of Morris’ major original works, this would have left only The Roots of the Mountains, a natural sequel to The House of the Wolfings.

40. In addition is a non-profit volunteer organization which provides access to Morris’s published socialist works on-line.

41. Eugene LeMire’s A Bibliography of William Morris, London: Oak Knoll Press and the British Library, 2006, lists his publications in a wide variety of newspapers and periodicals in addition to Commonweal and the Hammersmith Socialist Society Record, among them To-Day, The English Illustrated Magazine, The Fortnightly, Justice, True Blue, Women’s Union Journal, Our Beautiful World, and the publications of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and several foreign translations appeared in his lifetime. His Chants for Socialists and essays in pamphlet form such as “True and False Society,” “Monopoly” and “How We Live and How We Might Live,” were widely distributed at cost.

42. We Met Morris, 71.

43. We Met Morris, 56.

44. Skoblow, “Beyond Reading,” 246.

45. Morris, “Woodcuts of Gothic Books,” The Ideal Book, 67.

46. Morris, “The Ideal Book,” The Ideal Book, 40.

47. Ruskin, “The Nature of Gothic,” 176-77. Morris reiterated a similar point in “Gothic Architecture”: “If material or skill fail, the rougher work shall so be wrought that it also shall please us with its inventive suggestion” (William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist, ed. May Morris, Vol. 1, Oxford: Blackwell, 1936, 275).

48. Burne-Jones to Charles Eliot Norton, 1894, quoted in Paul Needham, Joseph Dunlap and John Dreyfus, William Morris and the Art of the Book (London: Pierpont Morgan Library, 1976), 139. In a discussion after his talk, “Woodcuts of Gothic Books,” Morris is reported as responding: “But there was one thing in favour of the possibility of having beautiful books; they were self-contained” (Peterson, The Ideal Book, 43). 

49. Morris, “The Prospects of Architecture in Civilization,” 56.

50. Morris, “The Origins of Ornamental Art,” William Morris on Art and Socialism, 167.


About the William Morris Archive | About William Morris | About the William Morris Society | Site Map