A Dream of John Ball: History as Fellowship

Morris joined England's first socialist party, the Democratic Federation, in 1883. During the next thirteen years of his life he devoted much of his enormous energy to the advocacy of socialism.  A Dream of John Ball embodied one of Morris's attempts to educate himself and his literate working class audiences about their common history, expose the sources and mechanisms of economic injustice, and explore historical antecedents which might provide models for pride and emulation. A Dream first appeared in 1886-87 in installments in Commonweal, the socialist newspaper Morris edited, interspersed between chapters of "Socialism From the Root Up," a brief survey of economic history and the rise of socialism by Morris and his collaborator Ernest Belfort Bax. In context, A Dream provided a fuller and much more eloquent literary parallel to the economic arguments with which it was juxtaposed.

The active British socialist movement in the late 1880's was fragmented and small, consisting of only about 600 members, and worked under constant threat of repression or arrest. This tiny band of socialists and anarchists could not look back on any successful or completed revolutions, and the ruthless suppression of the 1870 Paris Commune loomed as a warning of the likely consequences of isolated revolt. Against this background, A Dream of John Ball asked an obvious question: Can there be any hope for future attempts to effect social change, when so many heroic efforts have failed?" In contrast to the "Editor" of Thomas Carlyle’s 1843 Past and Present, which offered a precedent for historical time travel, Morris's  narrative voice presents a much clearer and more accessible image of the imagined  past;  above  all  it invites  a dialogue between reader and narrator, as both interpret their shared historical epiphany.

A Dream's analogue of Carlyle's Editor is an autobiographical narrator, a struggling nineteenth­century socialist who is "sometimes... rewarded for fretting myself so much about present matters by a quite unasked-for pleasant dream." When his stirring dream ends, he must return to the "row of wretched-looking blue-slated houses," harsh winds, polluted air and river, and "that sense of dirty discomfort which one is never quit of in London,” where he hears the factory whistles which call his fellows inexorably to their repellent and underpaid machine labor.

The dream-past of Morris's narrator is a place of apparent peace, beauty and near-preternatural clarity, a much more sensuously appealing environment than the regulated monastery idealized by the Editor in Past and Present:

I see some beautiful and noble building new made as it were for the occasion, as clearly as if I were  awake;  not vaguely or absurdly, as often happens in dreams, but with all the detail clear and reasonable. (215)1

... [In] the village... I did not see... a single modern building, although many of them were nearly new, notably the church, which was large, and quite ravished my heart with its extreme beauty, elegance, and fitness. The chancel . . . was so new that the dust of the stone still lay white on the midsummer grass beneath the carvings of the windows. (218)

The grace of Morris’s careful descriptions of the medieval environment has often been remarked, but equally important in A Dream are his descriptions of people. The narrator describes the inhabitants of late-fourteenth-century Kent, as first they repair tools, eat and drink, congregate at the marketplace, and greet friends and family; and later as they gather for battle, fight, and mourn their dead.

All his descriptions are suffused with emotion. When the narrator sits with his friend Will Green and mourns several yeomen who have been killed in the conflict with their overlords, he feels again a kinship with the people and scenes around him:

Thus we sat awhile, and once again came that feeling over me of wonder and pleasure at the strange and beautiful sights, mingled with the sights and sounds and scents beautiful indeed, yet not strange, but rather long familiar to me. (259)

Later, shortly before he leaves, he takes a last look back at the now long-vanished Kentish village:

. . . as we passed up the street again I was once again smitten with the great beauty of the scene; the house, the church with its new chancel and tower, snow-white in the moonbeams now; the dresses and arms of people, men and women. . . ; their grave sonorous language, and the quaint and measured forms of speech, were again become a wonder to me and affected me almost to tears. (257)

As the dream begins, Morris’s autobiographical narrator shyly approaches his fourteenth-century comrades in the guise of a plainly attired, itinerant Essex “scholar” and poet. His language is tentative, and reflects the double consciousness of his “sending” from the remote future:

“I knew somehow, but I know not how. . . .” (222)

“My mind was at strain to remember something forgotten, which yet had left its mark on it. . . .” (252)

“I . . . looked back. . . with a grief and longing that I could not give myself a reason for, since I was [presumably] to come back so soon. . . . ”(26)

“I felt strangely, as though I had more things to say than the words I knew could make clear: as if I wanted to get from other people a new set of words.” (257)

One measure of the townspeople’s perceptiveness is the degree to which they recognize his displacement; some recognize that the “scholar” is clearly not from their region, but only John Ball is fully aware that the visitor is a literal revenant—a “sending from other times.”

The narrator is greeted with cordiality by all the townspeople he meets, but feels closest to two of them: the artisan, Will Green, for whom he comes to feel “no little love” (252); and the revolutionary priest John Ball, whose “face [is] not very noteworthy but for his grey eyes,” which “look as if they were gazing at something a long way off, . . . the eyes of the poet or enthusiast” (228)--a description which might have fit Morris himself. Together Morris’s nineteenth-century narrator and fourteenth-century visionary will struggle to understand and reconcile the paradoxical patterns of their shared past and future.

Midway through the work, Ball delivers a memorial sermon for his slain “brothers” at the village cross in one of the great set pieces of late nineteenth-century literature:

Forsooth, brothers. . . fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death: and the deeds that ye do upon the earth, it is for fellowship’s sake that ye do them, and the life that is in it, that shall live on and on for ever, and each one of you part of it, while many a man’s life upon the earth from the earth shall wane. . . .

Therefore, I tell you that the proud, despiteous rich man, though he knoweth it not, is in hell already, because he hath no fellow; and he that hath so hardy a heart that in sorrow he thinketh of fellowship, his sorrow is soon but a story of sorrow. . . . (230-31)

The tale’s climax, “Betwixt the Living and the Dead,” is a conversation between Ball and the “scholar” set in the village church, which lasts through the night before Ball’s departure for London and death. The cadences of their language resonate with echoes of Christ’s farewell supper and speech on the road to Emmaus. Ball asks the strange “sending” what is to happen to him and his followers, and the narrator tells him, with sadness and deep respect: “If I know more than thou, I do far less; therefore thou art my captain and I thy minstrel” (268). They have already confronted the difference between the narrator’s secular faith and Ball’s orthodox Catholic one, in their quiet conversation about those of Ball’s comrades who have died:

[John Ball] said, “Yea, forsooth, and that is what the Church meaneth by death, and even that I look for; . . . that hereafter I shall see all the deeds that I have done in the body, and what they really were, and what shall come of them; and ever shall I be a member of the Church, and that is the Fellowship; then, even as now.”

I sighed as he spoke; then I said, “Yea, somewhat in this fashion have most of men thought, since no man that is can conceive of not being; and I mind me that in those stories of the old Danes, their common word for a man dying is to say, ‘He changed his life.’”

“And so deemest thou?”

I shook my head and said nothing.

“What hast thou to say hereon?” said he, “for there seemeth something betwixt us twain as it were a wall that parteth us.”

“This,” said I, “that though I die and end, yet mankind yet liveth, therefore I end not, since I am a man . . . Is the wall betwixt us gone, friend?”

He smiled as he looked at me, kindly, but sadly and shamefast, and shook his head. (265)

Further apprised of his coming death and the failure of his movement, the saddened Ball responds with dignity and courage, confident that the justice of the cause will eventually prevail.

Harder for Ball to understand is the stranger’s yet-grimmer message from the future, that greater production will paradoxically bring even greater misery and inequity. To the news of successive forms of alleged “progress”—enclosures, industrialism, the use of machinery to sequester wealth, “freedom” which brings wage slavery, the helplessness of the workers thus “freed”—he responds with a mingled incredulity, anger, and grief which is more urgent and intense than his sadness at the “sending”’s disbelief in the fellowship of the true Church. Morris clearly expects his audience to share the narrator’s “shamefast” response to Ball’s aggrieved astonishment that workers of 1887, unlike those of 1381, have not yet risen up to rebel against these new, infernally subtle and barely comprehensible forms of oppression and poverty.

When the priest finally learns the ignominy that nineteenth-century capitalists will make a “principle” of setting people against their fellows (“competition”), he can bear no more:

“Now am I sorrier than thou has yet made me,” said he, “for when once this is established, how then can it be changed? Strong shall be the tyranny of the latter days. . . . Woe’s me, brother, for thy sad and wary foretelling!. . . Canst thou not tell me, brother, what that remedy shall be, lest the sun rise upon me made hopeless by thy tale of what is to be?” (284)

As the last night of Ball’s life wanes, the narrator struggles to answer Ball’s anguished question. Can he offer no adequate comfort to him as he goes to his death, no assurance that the point of his crushed uprising will not be dissipated by political and technological changes beyond his comprehension? Does he himself truly believe that failed revolutions have served a purpose?

In effect, the narrator must clarify his earlier response to the priest’s sermon at the market cross: his insight that

. . . men fight and lose the battle, and the things that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. . . . (231-32)

He begins with a lyrical image of changing light in the darkened church, which suggests the processive complexity of their shared hopes:

“Look you, . . . when the moonlight waned and died, and there was but a little glimmer in place of the bright light, yet was the world glad because all things knew that the glimmer was of day and not of night. . . . Yet forsooth, it may well be that this . . . dawn [shall] be cold and grey and surly; and yet by its light shall men see things as they verily are, and no longer enchanted by the gleam of the moon and the glamour of the dream-tide. By such grey light shall wise men and valiant souls see the remedy, and deal with it, a real thing that may be touched and handled, and no glory of the heavens to be worshipped from afar off.” (285)

This, then, is the narrator’s central response. History is not without collective purpose, but that purpose is manifold and contingent, and the victories and defeats of one epoch may be more subtly recapitulated in the next. There will be many dawns and many dusks. The only consolations he can offer are that kindred souls will honor the memory of Ball’s movement (a self-referential prophecy), struggle toward the essential ideals for which he had died, and preserve their common hope that liberation and social justice will someday prevail: in effect, that “We shall overcome. . . ":

“The time will come, John Ball, when that dream of thine that this shall one day be, shall be a thing that men shall talk of soberly, and as a thing soon to come about, [Morris’s own day] . . . therefore, hast thou done well to hope it; and, if thou heedest this also as I suppose thou heedest it little, thy name shall abide by thy hope in those days to come, and thou shalt not be forgotten.” (285)

Oppression will always win most battles. But the spirit of his movement will not fail, because it is the resilient spirit of all human beings at their most humane:

Yet shall all bring about the end, till thy deeming of folly and ours shall be one, and thy hope and our hope; and then—the Day will have come.” (286)

Ultimately this projection of faith becomes a secular counterpart of Ball’s hope that he will rejoin his “fellows” in death—the “religion of socialism.” As the deeds of future generations have vindicated John Ball’s sacrifice, so must nineteenth-century and future audiences redeem that faith. Indeed, the priest finally understands that his visitor maintains a secular counterpart of his own vision—“secular” also in the literal sense of extending across centuries and cultural divides—which he earlier expressed in the haunting analogy of his sermon at the market cross:

“Yea, forsooth, once again I saw as of old, the great treading down the little, and the strong beating down the weak, and cruel men fearing not, and kind men daring not, and wise men caring not; and the saints in heaven forbearing and yet bidding me not to forbear; forsooth I know once more that he who doeth well in fellowship, and because of fellowship, shall not fail though he seems to fail to-day, but in days hereafter shall he and his work yet be alive, and men be holpen by them, to strive again and yet again; and yet indeed even that was little, since, forsooth, to strive was my pleasure and my life.” (233)

John Ball’s final farewell to his strange friend across the divide of centuries suggests a “greatness” of shared purpose deeper than anything Past and Present’s concluding appeal to seek a “new Duke of Weimar” might offer:

“I go to life and death, and leave thee; and scarce do I know whether to wish thee some dream of the days beyond thine to tell what shall be, as thou has told me [i. e., News from Nowhere], for I know not if that shall help or hinder thee; but since we have been kind and very friends, I will not leave thee without a wish of goodwill, so at least I wish thee what thou thyself wishest for thyself, and that is hopeful strife and blameless peace, which is to say in one word, life. Farewell, friend.” (286)

A Dream’s conclusion is more participatory and inviting than earlier nineteenth-century historicist recreations of the past. In Morris’s vision, the power to effect social change derives not only from a sense of one’s own just cause, but from a loyalty to those who have struggled for other such causes, and may have to struggle again—solidarity, in effect, with a community of secular saints. This is essentially a vision of counterfactual dialogue and invitation, which affirms John Ball’s insight that we should sustain an ideal of communitarian “fellowship,” because its realization may be indefinitely deferred.

A Dream of John Ball thus reclaims for a more secular age some of the images of continuity provided for Ball by his religion. Morris’s participatory narrator subtly enacts the central conviction of his life, that history can be rendered meaningful by a counterfactual “friendship” and communion of persons across time. A Dream’s complexly loving interchange with the past is one of his century’s fuller expressions of a genuinely empathetic and imaginative historicism, which witnesses its narrator’s belief in the continuity and coherence of human emotions, and his faith in a bonding of often unrecognized social and artistic saints, across changes of language, culture, and the collective silence of individual deaths. The priest’s sermon once again best conveys Morris’s testimony to his audience, and to us:

. . . it is for him that is lonely or in prison to dream of fellowship, but for him that is of a fellowship to do and not to dream. (234)      

                                                                                           Florence S. Boos

 

 

 

1Page numbers in parentheses refer to The Collected Works of William Morris, ed. May Morris, London: Longmans, 1910-1915. A Dream of John Ball appears in volume 16.

This introduction is excerpted and adapted from “Alternative Victorian Futures: Historicism, Past and Present, and A Dream of John Ball," in History and Community: Essays in Victorian Medievalism, New York: Garland Publishing, 1992.