Useful Work Vs. Useless Toil: Northrop Frye on William Morris

Useful Work Vs. Useless Toil: Northrop Frye on William Morris

A revealing interview with influential literary critic and theorist, Northrop Frye, about the thought and industry of William Morris (1834-1896), the great 19th century craftsman, textile designer, writer and social activist. The interview was conducted by Chris Lowry when he was the Senior Editor of The Journal of Wild Culture in 1988, three years before Frye's death.

'Willow Boughs' by William Morris, wallpaper designed in 1887. [o]


If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.
           — William Morris, The Beauty of Life (1880)1


Many of us come upon traces of William Morris’s legacy by accident, while pursuing an aesthetic, technical or literary interest. I first heard of him when I found a reference to his ideas in Northrop Frye’s collection of essays, Divisions on a Ground. Frye spoke highly of Morris — a person completely unfamiliar to me, despite my humanities education — and went so far as to say that Morris’s influence on his own social attitude had remained central. This acknowledgement was striking to me; Frye’s reading had been so broad over so many years, and yet he singled out Morris as having a profound impact on his own “social attitude”, his way of being in the world.

As I learned more about Morris, his friends and the British Arts and Crafts Movement, I wasn't sure what fascinated me more: the compassionate social ideas, the elegant designs, the layers of embodied desire in the pre-Raphaelite pictures, or the juicy biographical details.

The interview touches a few chords that can be pursued through a deeper reading of both Frye and Morris. There is, for example, the implication that Frye’s concept of the 'educated imagination' (the title of one of his more accessible books on literary theory) may have been inspired by Morris’s notion of 'the art of knowledge' and the vision of fully realized imaginative life depicted in News From Nowhere.

As well, Frye's thoughts on Morris may remind us of the kinder, gentler and more ecologically sustainable tradition of English social thought that pre-dates Marx — that could inspire us to imagine how the world might have been if the message of Morris, not Marx, had held the day.5

— Chris Lowry

Morris & Co. workers printing textiles in Merton Abbey, c. 1890. [o]


CHRIS LOWRY:  Can you recall your first introduction to Morris? Was it as a literary figure or a political figure?

NORTHROP FRYE:  It was more as a literary figure. I was interested in Blake because it was the subject of my first book and, of course, one of Blake’s main interests was the democratizing of art, of making it a general possession. Morris carried that a good deal further, from the study of Carlyle and Ruskin, and he felt that the difference between the major and the minor arts — painting, music, literature on the one hand; and pottery, ceramics, and textiles on the other — was a class distinction of the kind to get rid of. He concentrated on what were then called the minor arts as a kind of index of social stability, and that led him to the second thing which is interesting about him: the feeling that the index of social stability has a great deal to do with the relation of man to nature. That is, that the exploiting of men by other men was something that Morris as a socialist knew was wrong. But he also realized as a socialist what they did not realize: that the exploiting of nature by men was equally bad.

LOWRY:  That is striking: the cross-over that he was able to achieve, because most socialists weren’t particularly ecologists, or necessarily artists.

FRYE:  Of course Morris lived before the days of Stalinism and putting industry in front of everything else. But certainly the general Marxist thrust was in the direction of exploiting nature as much as possible, which is very different from the way that Morris wanted it.

He felt that when a person had found his work, or what his vocation was, then he had defined himself as an individual. 

LOWRY:  Asa Briggs describes Morris as being “too active and exuberant . . . and too much aware as a working craftsman of the sense of the honest and the genuine” to be a cynic2. This is a marvellous connection which I’ve never seen made in that way: the idea that you wouldn’t be a victim of what may be considered the disease of the decadent culture, which is cynicism, if you worked with your hands.

FRYE:  That’s right. [Morris was] an Oxford graduate, and, in 19th century terms, a ‘gentleman’ who didn’t work with his hands, and then [he] had to give all that up and did work with his hands.

LOWRY:  In his utopian fiction, News from Nowhere, Morris describes his vision of the future as communism with a large C. You’ve already referred to a distinction in his ecological vision between him and Marx. According to his essays he seems to have gotten his socialism through social exchanges, more through conversation with other socialists, thinkers, and friends than through reading. He claims he didn’t get very far with Marx’s economics.

FRYE:  I don’t think he read twenty pages of Das Kapital. Not everybody agrees with that, but I just don’t think he got anywhere with it.

LOWRY:  So it comes more out of a tradition of English socialism, which is much broader and in some crucial ways different from orthodox Marxism.

FRYE:  Very different. It’s the Carlyle-Ruskin tradition, which is concerned not with asking the question of ‘Who are the workers?’, but the question, ‘What is work?’

LOWRY:  Morris’s emphasis on individuation is also very contrary to Marx.

FRYE:  Yes, very much so. He hadn’t any feeling for a mass movement as such; and felt that when a person had found his work, or what his vocation was, then he had defined himself as an individual. But he thought in terms of people and not in terms of masses.

William Morris, 'La Belle Iseult', 1858, oil on canvas, Tate Museum, London. The only completed easel painting that William Morris produced. [o


LOWRY:  How do you think that he would have reconciled his own religious convictions with the Marxist idea that religion is 'the opiate of the masses'?

FRYE:  He didn’t have any religious convictions.

LOWRY:  How would you say he responded to religion then?

FRYE:  I don’t think he responded to religion at all. He was very deeply interested in the Middle Ages, but he thought of the Middle Ages as a time of respect for craftsmanship. The whole theological apparatus he didn’t react to at all.

LOWRY:  Maybe I’m thinking more in terms of what Jung would have called the religious instinct. When reading Morris I perceived an affinity even with William Blake, and Blake’s idea that ‘All Gods reside in the human breast.’

FRYE:  That, I think, was in his mind all right, but it was something he didn’t very often haul to the surface. In The Earthly Paradise you’ll get a group of old men who are shipwrecked on an island in the North Atlantic, telling the great stories of classical and Northern culture, and he obviously thought of these stories as the shaping elements of human civilization, which is a very Blakean view. But he was rather defensive about that, and sort of blacked it out and repressed it. He kept saying, ‘I’m the idle singer of an empty day.’ Well, nobody could call Morris idle.

LOWRY:  Morris declared that “the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization” (“How I Became a Socialist,” 381).3 News From Nowhere seems to be a vision of supplanting that; that is, what he called civilization was socialism — a society of equality. Do you think this dream was viable then in some way, at the end of the 19th century?

FRYE:  Morris simply applied a different sort of criteria to society, which he got mainly through Ruskin. He looked at 19th century England and decided it was ugly, and he looked at what 19th century restorers did to medieval cathedrals and he thought it was totally destructive. In other words, certain ages have a sense of beauty and a sense of craftsmanship, and other ages just lack them entirely [because] he saw the industrialization, the decay, the degeneration of craftsmanship and an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. It’s the same thing as Ezra Pound picked up later: the perception of misery as something that industrialized civilization is cursed with.

LOWRY:  Morris envisioned supplanting this corruption that passes for civilization with a new society where there are no rich, no poor, where there’s no waste, which is the true meaning of commonwealth. Do you think that there’s any potential to integrate that in the future, or is something going on towards that now?

FRYE:  People are beginning to wake up to the fact that the unlimited exploitation of nature will not work and is very dangerous. And, after we’ve used up everything, there won’t be very much to go on with — and Morris certainly told them that one hundred years ago.

Never an ideologically harmonious group, by the 1890s the Socialist League had turned from socialism to anarchism and disbanded in 1901. [o]


LOWRY:  This gets back to the tradition of Ruskin and Carlyle. Morris rails against private property as a basic evil and suggests that from it all other inequities arise. The argument is that if there was no private property there would be no conflicts based on power and money. But this has always seemed to me to be false consciousness, or contrary to both history and experience. I wonder if Morris understood a viable way to do away with property that escapes me?

FRYE:  I don’t know if he did. In Ruskin there is an attack not so much on property in itself as on the extraordinary inequities of rich and poor, and the exploiting of one class by another. Carlyle talked about the Dandies and the Drudges. The Dandies being what he called the unworking aristocracy and the Drudges being the exploited workers. I think it was more the sense of the general injustice inherent in the class system that bothered Morris rather than the existence of property itself. That view of private property, as in itself evil, was anarchist but not really socialist, and of course many of Ruskin’s friends and associates weren’t really anarchists.

LOWRY:  Morris makes a very telling remark about his political education. He says that his anarchist friends convinced him, against their intention, that anarchism was impossible. And he learned from reading the anti-socialist tracts of Mill that socialism was necessary.

FRYE:  I think that Mill’s essays on socialism were of course looked over and revised a good deal by his wife, who was a much more militant socialist than Mill himself was, and I imagine that Morris saw the implications in those essays that Mill didn’t see.

LOWRY:  Morris insists in News from Nowhere that the reward for labour is life. I wonder how one might raise children to understand that the reward for labour is life?

FRYE:  Of course you know that the children in News form Nowhere are not getting much education anyway. They’re not being put in school to learn how to read books. They’re trained to be active in practical ways as much as possible. Morris is not afraid of child labour as long as the social conditions are right for it and it’s not exploited labour.

The wood beyond the world, designed by William Morris, published by Kelmscott Press, 1894, England. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. [o]


LOWRY:  He seems to think that they would absorb culture and ideas, or have a natural inclination to study.

FRYE:  Yes, he thinks that they pick things up very quickly, and much more quickly than if they were taught them in school.

LOWRY:  And they would turn to their elders and ask for instruction.

FRYE:  Yes, or get it out of a kind of apprentice system.

LOWRY:  Maybe this comes out of his own experience, because in his autobiographical sketch he says that he had read a great many books by the age of seven.

FRYE:  Yes, but he wouldn’t have read those at school.

LOWRY:  No, so he had this idea that children would spontaneously be drawn to knowledge if they were given the freedom.

FRYE:  Yes.

LOWRY:  If he were a child today, do you think he would be a reader or do you think he would be seduced by a television?

FRYE:  It would be difficult to say. I suppose everybody gets seduced by television now, and the passivity of mind that that builds up, staring at a tube, would produce a very different kind of William Morris.

LOWRY:  Morris says that happiness arises from taking pleasure in work, and pleasure of work arises if a worker approaches it creatively. Could you elaborate on how it might be possible for children to learn this?

FRYE:  For Morris there was a very keen pleasure in creative work, and, as I say, he was interested in the question of what work is rather than who the workers are. And he defines, well, I guess he doesn’t define, but he assumes that work means really creative action, and he feels that nothing gives a greater sense of self-satisfaction than to be released to do that kind of creative work. It’s the sort of thing you get in kindergarten teaching-theory as far as children are concerned.

LOWRY:  Montessori and Waldorf . . .

FRYE:  Yes, they’re all sprawled out on their tummies doing things.

William Morris, photograph, by Frederick Hollyer, 1884. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. [o]


LOWRY:  Yes, he suggested that making art is joy and contentment, and happy daily work or art equals a kind of hybrid notion of work/pleasure. How do you think Morris would view the condition of the artist in the twentieth century, which is more often defined by commercial art, stardom, and/or by sensual excess, suffering, and despair?

FRYE:  I don’t think he would have very much good to say about most of the contemporary trends in the arts. The feeling for nature in his leaf and floral patterns — on his book designs and his wallpaper designs and that kind of thing, and the textiles he did — that’s very different; and his whole feeling for taste, from what you get now. I think he would have had a horror of that kind of Bauhaus functionalism that came in the twentieth century, but I think he would have approved of certain things, such as the rather benevolent attitude of the government towards the arts in the form of subsidies.

LOWRY:  Do you think he would have seen the whole movement of modernism — and the sort of anguish, irony and the grotesque in modern art — as a kind of sign of the ones who are suffering from what’s wrong with the culture?

FRYE:  Well, no doubt he would.

LOWRY:  He says in News From Nowhere that in the old days these things — disappointment, ruin, misery, despair — were felt by those who worked for change because they could see further than other people. He disparages pettiness and meanness in the 19th century, as such, as retained by commercial morality; and he implies that it is a meager century in comparison with the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. What did the Middle Ages and the Renaissance have that the 19th century didn’t have?

FRYE:  The Middle Ages had a sense of craftsmanship. The carving and the cathedrals and the painting and the sculpture and the architecture of the Middle Ages was an age of craftsmanship, and so was the literature, and he just didn’t see any of that kind of thing being produced in his own time at all.

LOWRY:  As we’re talking about craftsmanship, a man named Arthur Pendennis wrote a critique of Morris charging that he talked about arts for the people and beautiful books for mankind but he created very ornate and costly, and therefore elitist, art objects.

FRYE:  I’m sure that’s so easy to say, but it’s a paradox that everybody gets involved in, and if you want to democratize art you do get involved with well-to-do patrons. That was the same paradox that Blake was in. He wanted his art to be for all the patrons, but in practice he had to keep alive by doing these engraved poems for the people who could afford to buy them. But that was a matter of coming to terms with social conditions of which he didn’t approve. [At] Morris’s business firm he paid very small salaries, it’s true, but he at least gave an honest product for an honest price.

LOWRY:  There’s something else I found as a bit of a tangent to Morris. He repeatedly places a very strong emphasis on the value of good looks physically, and in a strange way our youth-worshipping, beauty-obsessed society is kind of a grotesque parody of Morris’s values in this respect. But he had a very interesting theory about it in New from Nowhere. He said pleasure begets pleasure, freedom and good sense make natural and healthy love, which breeds beautiful children. Do you think he meant it literally as an opinion about evolution, or as a metaphor for consciousness?

FRYE:  Not so much about evolution, but he thought that the natural beauty of the human body would have a chance to emerge under equalized social conditions. Even as late as the First World War, if you looked at the officers and the enlisted men in the British Army, they were just two different races of people. The officers had been brought up on protein foods, and they were all big and handsome, and the enlisted men had starved and were kept alive on very inferior foods, and they were all stunted and warped; Morris saw all this around him and realised how much beauty there could be in the world if there were more good health, and how much more good health there would be if social conditions were equalized.

Sketch for 'Trellis' wallpaper. Morris came to design his own wallpapers because he could not find any that he liked well enough to use in his own home. [o]


LOWRY:  Morris criticizes the 19th century university as an institution of pretence and hypocrisy, a place of commercial learning, in the main, devoted to producing cultivated parasites and handing out meal tickets called degrees. He contrasts this with his vision of the art of knowledge. Do you share his misgivings about contemporary education?

FRYE:  I imagine what he said about Oxford was true in his day. The curriculum at Oxford was centuries out of date, and essentially the public schools and the universities were used for training what was essentially a military upper class. That was why there was so much emphasis on flogging and Spartan discipline and compulsory games, and that sort of thing. It was really a military training for an upper class which would form an old-boy network; so, once you made your social contacts, of course you were in. That was really what Morris was thinking about, and I think that was really what the educational set-up was like in his day, pretty well. You notice that he spent a good deal of his time talking to the new Working Men’s College, mechanic institutes, and that kind of thing for the working-class people.

LOWRY:  What do you think Morris meant by the art of knowledge?

FRYE:  I suppose what he meant was the teaching of principles of thinking rather than stuffing the people’s heads with obsolete facts and misinformation.

LOWRY:  In News From Nowhere, Morris writes that “The spirit of the new days, of our days, was to be delight in the life of the world; intense and overweening love of the very skin and surface of the earth on which man dwells, such as a lover has in the fair flesh of the woman he loves; this, I say, was to be the new spirit in time” (158). It seems to me that many people are now beginning to absorb and express this idea and this dream from many sources and in many ways. Would you agree with that?

FRYE:  I certainly agree that the awareness of nature as man’s habitat, and as a kind of complement to human life, is much more intense than it has been, and in a way the relation of man and nature takes up a great deal of what used to be sexual games, which, again, were an upper-class amusement.

LOWRY:  Do you think there’s any potential for the realization of this kind of new spirit of the age through some kind of long-range, morphic resonance?

FRYE:  Yes, trends start with a very small minority, and they gradually grow; if the conditions are right, they begin to turn into mass movements.

LOWRY:  Morris believed, with Ruskin, that beauty was unattainable except as the expression of man’s joy in every-day work. His company, the firm, was a group of artists producing together what most interested them. Is this ideal relevant for artists today?

FRYE:  Yes. That is the sense of craftsmanship as linked with creativity and, secondly, with social function you learn from Ruskin: that, where you have gross inequalities in the leisure class and an exploited class, the result is more and more useless and ugly products made for the benefit of the leisure class. And so that’s why Morris says, ‘Have nothing in your house which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’, and that kind of sharpened sensitivity to the things around you and the things that you use and handle all the time.


1. From a lecture before the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design (19 February 1880), later published in Hopes and Fears for Art: Five Lectures Delivered in Birmingham, London, and Nottingham, 1878-1881 (1882).

2. Briggs, Asa. “Introduction.” William Morris: Selected Writings and Designs. Editor, Asa Briggs. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962.

Morris, William. “How I Became a Socialist.” In News from Nowhere and Other Writings. Editor, Clive Wilmer. London: Penguin, 1993.

4. Pendennis, Arthur. [Pen name of Arthur L. Humphries]. A Letter to William Morris. Toronto: Aliquando Press, 1979.

5. The book, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (2011), by E. P. Thompson, underlines how Morris and "a kinder, gentler and more ecologically sustainable tradition of English social thought" was sidelined by Marxism.



Northrop Frye, 1912-1991. {Photo: Vancouver Sun; photographer unknown.]





CHRIS LOWRY is a media producer and educator. From 1998 to 2004 he worked in the field of child rights and health, consulting for the Canadian government with UN agencies, and served as a program director at Médecins sans Frontières-Canada. He is currently working on a documentary film on literary critic Ross Woodman. Chris lives in Toronto where he regularly performs concerts as a singer.

First published in The Journal of Pre-Raphalite Studies, Spring 2001, and reprinted in the Northrop Frye Newsletter, Vol. 10, May 2004.




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