Nowadays, William Morris (1834-1896) is remembered as the Victorian artist famous for tapestry, furniture, and stained glass designs. But in his lifetime, he was chiefly known as a poet. He also has a certain fame since the 1970’s as one of the first fantasists who engaged in worldcraft (being an important precursor of J. R. R. Tolkien) with works like his novel The Well at the World’s End. The strand that draws all the facets of Morris’s art together is his identity as an avid medievalist. The other important facet of Morris was his political activity as a prominent socialist, but that piece we’ll save for another discussion about a different book at another time.
Love is Enough is a long poem fashioned as a medieval morality play. It is a frame story, the core of which is about a king who abdicates his throne for love. Morris gives full vent to his archaic impulses. The language is flowery, the sentiments lofty, the form medieval. Of course, Morris could not have known that his poem would play out in real life in 1936 with the abdication of King Edward VIII to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Morris had a certain disdain for the monarchy, so he would probably not have been a modern Royal follower, but one suspects that he would have applauded such an abdication for love. While his poetry is dense and old-fashioned and given to mimicking Malory, Morris was so highly regarded as a poet in his day that he was entertained for Poet Laureate upon the death of Tennyson in 1892. He turned down the position because of its close association with the monarchy.
Love is Enough cannot be accused of displaying one of the chief attributes of good poetry, which is compression of ideas. Instead, it is rather dilatory. The book is 134 pages to tell a story in verse that could have been more compactly versified in less than five pages. Morris’s medievalist fantasy novels are guilty of the same flaw. They go on and on and are more about the language than what is actually transpiring in the story. The greatest fascination in Morris’s books today has more to do with the Art of the Book than the actual texts upon the page. In the latter part of his life, Morris created a small publishing house called The Kelmscott Press. This was a private press out of his own home that employed the finest of book-making techniques to produce beautiful volumes. They were expensive to make, had a limited audience, and are now rare artifacts. Thankfully, Britain’s Folio Society has done a number of remarkable facsimiles that are available for purchase. They are also expensive by typical book standards, but they are at least obtainable, whereas the original Kelmscott books are in rich private collections or museums. There were 53 original Kelmscott volumes produced between 1891 and 1898 totalling about 18,000 copies. One of the books produced by Kelmscott was Love is Enough. However, Folio Society has chosen to release a facsimile of an even rarer volume: the original publication of Love is Enough issued by Morris’s friend Frederick Startridge Ellis, with a binding by English Arts and Crafts movement artist and bookbinder T.J.Cobden-Sanderson and floral illustrations on every page by Beatrice Pagden (Ellis’s niece.) The facsimile is a wonder to behold, down to the gold leaf edging and protective green slipcase.
William Morris epitomizes the type of author I love to feature in The Dalenberg Library of Antique Popular Literature. His style was antique even in his own day. He is not well remembered today as an author (but his textile designs are still available commercially). And his books are as fascinating to handle as they are to read. I actually read Love is Enough cover to cover, but if The Dalenberg Library of Antique Popular Literature is going to surround me with thousands of books I have not yet read, what better books to have gracing the shelves than beautiful books like this?
–Dale D. Dalenberg MD (Ottawa, Kansas–2nd October, 2019)