The Pilgrims of Hope: Introduction

Florence S. Boos

Many years later, May Morris recalled her father’s wry remark that ‘A man shouldn’t write poetry after fifty’ (Artist, Writer, Socialist, I, 496). Morris was fifty in 1884, the year he left the Social Democratic Federation to co-found the Socialist League. He continued to write poetry all the same, with a social and communal focus, and in more accessible forms, but he sought to write for a literate ‘popular’ audience, and speak to it about certain recurrent human needs – for social justice (‘fellowship’), and for a new aesthetic, one that might express the harmonies of a better social order, and encourage forms of affection wider than individual and familial ‘love’. As the newly appointed editor of Commonweal, he sought to make recent socialist history relevant to his readers through a fast-paced dramatic narrative, and to interpret the Paris Commune's legacy of mingled hope and failure anew for his own generation.

Pilgrims of Hope: Love’s Bloody Cup and the Religion of Socialism

The Pilgrims of Hope, which appeared serially from April to June, 1885, was the first poem Morris published in Commonweal after he became its editor in January of that year. He considered it too rough for republication in book form, but included its opening lyric (‘The Message of the March Wind’) and fourth section (‘Mother and Son’) in the 1891 volume Poems by the Way. The hero’s lifelong commitment to the cause of socialism and acceptance of his late wife’s preference for another man reflect personal and political aspects of wider egalitarian values Morris wanted to realize and diffuse, and I have elsewhere argued that linkage of these autobiographical concerns made Pilgrims a proto-feminist work – indeed, the only male-authored nineteenth century poem which set forth programmatic ‘socialist-feminist’ tenets about a woman’s right to sexual autonomy.*

I will not discuss the poem’s depictions of contemporary socialism or the fall of the Paris Commune here, but will focus instead on the poem’s qualities as an experimental verse-novel, its disrupted time-sequence, and its lyrical interludes of visionary emotion. Interesting resonances also emerged in Morris’s factually commonplace but politically unorthodox plot, in which a male hero survives his wife’s early death to raise alone their infant child.

The poem’s six-beat line is more balladic than Sigurd’s seven-beat anapaests, but it permitted rapid immediacy, colloquial informality, and credible evocations of the poem’s social ambiance. Consider the following sample, in which Morris’s narrator attends a gathering at which soldiers are sent off to an imperial war. Born and bred in a rural village, the hero Richard sadly describes a crowd of lost proletarian onlookers who ‘… never never never/ shall be slaves’:

And earth was foul with its squalor – that stream of every day,
The hurrying feet of labour, the faces worn and grey …
… these are the sons of the free,
Who shall bear our name triumphant o’er every land and sea.
(III, ‘Sending to the War’)

In Love Is Enough, Pharamond witnesses a Eucharist-like tableau, in which the figure of Love offers a blood-filled cup. Here, Morris refits popular Christian iconography to serve the cause of socialism: ‘I was born once long ago: I am born again tonight’ (V, ‘New Birth’).

Richard begins the poem as a twenty-five-year-old joiner-carpenter, the son of an unmarried village woman whom Richard’s father deserted before he was born. A small inheritance comes to him unexpectedly at his father’s death, and this enables Richard and his wife to rent a small cottage outside London. He and his wife share radical views, and his employer fires him shortly after his father’s lawyers have swindled him out of his money. Lower middle-class Victorian readers wisely feared such reversals, and all could identify with the
humiliations that attended them:

I take up fear with my chisel, fear lies ’twixt me and my plane,
And I wake in the merry morning to a new unwonted pain.

(‘The New Proletarian’)

The poem’s sections incorporate two interesting shifts of voice. In sections two, three, five, and six, Richard describes his youth, marriage, political radicalization, and unemployment. In section four, the anonymous wife sets forth her view of life in a wryly intelligent, soft-spoken monologue to her uncomprehending infant son, and she describes in section seven Richard’s arrest and imprisonment for political agitation. In section eight, ‘The Half of Life Gone’, the narrative suddenly flashes forward. Richard now grieves for his dead wife, and seems to see her working in a field, then admits to himself that

She is gone. She was and she is not; there is no such thing on the earth
But e’en as a picture painted; and for me there is void and dearth
That I cannot name or measure.

Richard recalls the intervening events in sections nine through thirteen. After Richard’s release from prison, a young middle-class socialist named Arthur has befriended them and visited their house. The three friends decide to leave the couple’s son in the care of friends – contrary to Victorian expectations – and join the Communards. Shortly before they leave for France, Richard learns that Arthur and his wife have fallen in love. The three young idealists leave together all the same, and they know when they find their way to the Commune that they have made the right decision:

… at last I knew indeed that our word of the coming day,
That so oft in grief and in sorrow I had preached, and scarcely knew
If it was but despair of the present or the hope of the day that was due –
I say that I saw it now, real, solid, and at hand.
(XI, ‘The Glimpse of the Coming Day’)

Later Richard, his now-estranged wife (‘A sister amidst of the strangers – and, alas! a sister to me’), and Arthur have become street-fighters as the siege tightens. In one engagement, Richard’s wife turns to see Arthur die, and is killed herself as she runs toward him across the path of an exploding artillery shell. Richard, who has run after her, is severely wounded by the same shell, but lives to remember that:

she never touched the man
Alive and she also alive; but thereafter as they lay
Both dead on one litter together, then folk who knew not us,
But were moved by seeing the twain so fair and so piteous,
Took them for husband and wife who were fated there to die,
Or, it may be lover and lover indeed – but what know I?
(XIII, ‘The Story’s Ending’)

In the final section, the now solitary and recovered ‘pilgrim of hope’ has managed to return to England, where he finds work, raises his son, and clings resolutely to ‘… the love of the past and the love of the day to be’.

Richard’s valedictory in section thirteen is very brief for a work filled with reflective flashbacks, descriptions of nature, and evocations of socialist ideals, and the poem would have benefited from more counterparts of the wife’s lovely dramatic monologues in four and seven, in which she gives her own view of Richard and Arthur, or describes her experiences in the Commune. There is something deeply beautiful, nonetheless, about the abrupt dissolve from the wife’s monologue in section seven, to the husband’s sorrowing elegy in section eight. Women often survived the deaths of male lovers in Morris’s literary writings, but Morris never again closed a tale in this way.

Some of the poem’s narrative discontinuities probably reflected the exigencies of its serial composition and appearance. This was Morris’s sole effort to bring out a poem in shorter units: even the four volume Earthly Paradise appeared in several-hundred page bound ‘parts’. Had Morris ever chosen to revise the poem, he might well have enlarged and reordered its final sections, and perhaps added a socialist lyric to supplement the opening ‘Message of the March Wind’.

The poem's disjunctions and discontinuities remain interesting, however, for they show in rough-cast the emergence of a verse-novel style that Morris might well have refined and developed had he not turned in the last decades of his life to prose. Problems of time-ellipsis are not peculiar to Morris, of course – they are conspicuously present in other first-person-narrated verse-novels, such as Aurora Leigh, in which the poet must balance narrative immediacy, absence of plausible foreknowledge, and the importance of retrospective self-knowledge. Pilgrims maintains this balance, and some of its hiatðs – like the abrupt dissolve mentioned above – actually heighten the poem’s effect, as do skillfully-managed cinematic flashforwards and flashbacks. Richard’s experiences – of familial disruption and social upheaval – are themselves fragmentary and disjointed, and the meditative hand-held camera of Morris’s poetry reflects them well.

Though she cannot compete with the iconic figures of Signy, Brynhild, and Gudrun, Pilgrims’ unnamed ‘wife’ is a brave woman of strong character, and Pilgrims is a good-faith first effort to explore in a contemporary context controversial questions of female sexual autonomy and participation in war. ‘Mother and Son’ has suffered unjust neglect in comparison with better-known, ‘canonical’ monologues of the period – Browning’s ‘Pompilia’, for example. Morris’s working-class heroine also has some strong socialist-feminist lines – among them the following, spoken to her son in section 4:

Prudence begets her thousands: ‘Good is a housekeeper’s life,
So shall I sell my body that I may be matron and wife.’
‘And I shall endure foul wedlock and bear the children of need.’

Whatever his possible deficiencies as a feminist, Morris did understand completely that ‘the personal is political’.

Pilgrims of Hope is the only long English poem of the period which presented political ideals and conflicts from any sort of socialist or communist perspective, and this surely has something to do with its neglect. This near-unique document in the social history of nineteenth-century poetry blended and recombined basic motifs from Love Is Enough and Sigurd the Volsung in a vastly different, near-contemporary setting, and its tone of mingled celebration and empathetic regret lingered in its two immediate prose successors, A Dream of John Ball and The House of the Wolfings. The poem’s colloquial flexibility, satiric precision, and utopian insight reappeared in News from Nowhere and The Roots of the Mountains, and some of Pilgrims’ lyrical passages – like other shorter poems Morris wrote for Commonweal and the Socialist League – anticipated the hymnlike vision of a transmuted world found in poetic interludes of the last prose romances.

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*Florence Boos, ‘Narrative Design in The Pilgrims of Hope’, Socialism and the Literary Artistry of William Morris, eds. Florence Boos and Carole Silver, Columbia, Missouri, 1990, 147-66.

See also Anne Janowitz, ‘The Pilgrims of Hope: William Morris and the dialectic of romanticism’, Cultural Politics at the Fin de Siècle, ed. Sally Ledger and Scott McCracken (Cambridge, 1995) and Nicholas Salmon, ‘The Serialisation of The Pilgrims of Hope’, William Morris Society Journal 12.2 (1997), 14-25.

Adapted from "'The Banners of the Spring to Be': The Dialectical Pattern of Morris's Later Poetry," 2000.