On trips to Iceland in the 1870s, William Morris fell in love with its strange, ever-changing landscape and its traditions of craftsmanship. Fiona MacCarthy on how his travels inspired a new work by composer Ian McQueen

William Morris’s textiles draw on easy English images: hedgerow flowers, thrushes, strawberries and daisies. But in his own mind he was a man of the north, drawn to harsh scenery and storms and confrontations. His rugged appearance was part of this self-image. “Beg pardon, Sir, were you ever captain of the Sea Swallow?” a passing fireman asked Morris as he rollicked along a street in Kensington, dressed in his blue seaman’s jacket. He had an almost childlike openness to adventure and a yen for the heroic. When he travelled to Iceland, land of the sagas, in the 1870s he felt he had come home.

Morris’s Icelandic journeys are a recurring theme in composer Ian McQueen’s new work for chorus and orchestra. Earthly Paradise, a four-part sequence based on the sayings, songs and poems of William Morris, has its first performance by the BBC Chorus and Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis at the Barbican in London next month. McQueen is a man of the north, too, born and brought up in Scotland. Earlier operatic works such as Beggarman-Thief and Fortunato have drawn on Scandinavian poetry and folktale. McQueen feels a close affinity with Morris’s ferocious defence of the environment and visionary politics of fellowship.

In July 1871 Morris and three companions, one of them the Icelandic scholar Eiríkr Magnússon, travelled by Danish mailboat from Edinburgh’s Granton harbour to Reykjavík, a four-day journey. Unusually for him, Morris kept a diary of his travels and the early entries are alive with hopefulness; he is awed and excited by the wild new northern landscape which he describes in “Iceland First Seen”, one of the poems featured in McQueen’s new work. “Ah! What came we forth to see that our hearts are so hot with desire? … / … Why do we long to wend forth through the length and breadth of a land, / Dreadful with grinding of ice, and record of scarce hidden fire?”

Partly the journey was escapism. Morris’s marriage was in disarray. The wife he had married 13 years before, the dark, statuesque Jane Burden, daughter of an Oxford stablehand, had virtually left him for his friend and brother artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Morris felt this as a double blow. In the weeks before his departure he had taken a house, Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, in a joint tenancy with Rossetti. He had now left Janey and Rossetti in residence together. But the journey was not as grief-stricken as it might well have been. Morris was a designer and a craftsman. It was in his deeply practical, resilient nature to reconfigure and reconstruct. His discovery of Iceland, “most romantic of all deserts”, was to give him a new stimulus that lasted all his life.

They took a criss-cross route from Reykjavík around the main sites of the Icelandic sagas, travelling on sturdy Icelandic ponies, hiring local guides. They first went westwards along the bottom coast, then struggled their way north-east across the wilderness to the fjords on the northern sea. They circled round the Snæfellsnes peninsular, returning via the mysterious and marvellous Geysir hot springs. In a sense this was familiar territory to Morris, attuned as he was to the sagas, epic stories of intrepid Icelandic warriors originally passed down orally and then, from the 13th century onwards, appearing in written form. Morris had learned Icelandic. With Magnússon he had by this time translated several of these sagas into English prose. He could not help seeing himself as the successor to these ancient heroes of unvanquishable spirit. Morris even began to look like the chieftain-poet Snorri Sturluson, his London friends complained.

But although he was steeped in Icelandic literature, the country in reality amazed him. Morris was by no means the first English traveller in Iceland which had been opening up to antiquarians and tourists in search of curiosities since the 18th century. But his journals of this journey, and another made in 1873 when he crossed the central wastelands of the island, are precious and unique because they are so simply and beautifully written with the informed sense of wonder of a deeply learned and sophisticated man. These journals were not meant for publication. They are more a long, informal letter, packed full with glowing detail, for his friend and confidante Georgiana Burne-Jones.

They show us how affected he was by the strange and ever-changing Nordic landscape. The man we almost automatically associate with willows and rivulets, English village churches, stone-built barns, was equally responsive to the craggy rock formations he came upon in Iceland, which he compared to great medieval ramparts; Hekla, the still-active volcano with its ominous red rim; the dismal black drama of the endless lava fields.

Morris travels around Iceland with a designer’s eye, alert for triple rainbows, the “wonderful fiery and green sunsets”, swirling rivers, clashing colours, cascading waterfalls. Riding near the seashore he is suddenly aware of “a huge waste of black sand all powdered over with tufts of sea-pink and bladder-campion at regular intervals, like a Persian carpet”. These peculiar, barren vistas would stay in his mind forever. The moonscapes of his magic novels of the 1890s are Iceland yet again.

Iceland itself became a kind of yardstick against which Morris measured the follies and iniquities of Victorian Britain. The Icelanders lived hard lives, but they never lost their dignity or sense of true priorities. The important things survived. Morris admired the strong literary traditions, noting how oral storytelling continued through the generations, keeping families transfixed through the long winter nights. He responded to the practical simplicity of Icelandic farmers’ houses. These single-storey turf-walled structures, their rounded roofs blanketed with grass and flowers, had a minimalist beauty that showed up the self-indulgence of the “ordinary style of bourgeois comfort” in which Morris, a financier’s son, had been brought up.

By the time he came to Iceland, Morris had founded his decorating firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co with the idea of reforming Britain’s debased taste in the design of household products. From his own experience, he was already painfully aware of the economic pressures towards short cuts and shoddiness, the negation of the basic human instinct to perfect one’s skills. In Iceland’s more rudimentary economy craftsmanship still flourished within a living tradition of folk art. Morris’s delight in discovering a country where design was directed only at supplying basic human needs fuelled his future diatribes against the Victorian culture of excess. He was to say he had “never been in any rich men’s houses which would not have looked better for having a bonfire made outside of it of nine-tenths of all it held”.

As he travelled he became aware of how Icelandic society was held together almost in defiance of the elements. It was a society that took care of its own. Unquestioningly, the sick and frail would be looked after by their families at home. Morris would think back to the humanity of Iceland when his daughter Jenny developed epilepsy while still in her mid-teens. Such a condition made her virtually ostracised in middle-class England in the 19th century.

‘O Dwellers on the Lovely Earth.” This, the second text in Ian McQueen’s new composition, comes from “The Earthly Paradise” itself, the long, narrative poem written by Morris in the 1860s, just before he went to Iceland. It was the work that brought him real fame. In this poem he develops one of his great themes: the ruination of the land. Morris had been watching with increasing horror the rampant industrialisation of Britain and the damage caused to the environment by uncontrolled factory production: poisoned air, polluted rivers, tracts of industrial waste. Iceland, by contrast, was purity itself, and his travels through the mountains braced him and inspired him for the years of environmental campaigning ahead.

Morris believed in the Nordic version of inevitable fate he called the “Weird”. It was the Weird that had brought him to Iceland at the time of his life when he most needed to be there. He returned to England more able to accept the limitations of his marriage. His attitude to Janey was generous and stoic. He believed we are not one another’s keepers. He endured her defection as best he could. Morris also came back with a new radical awareness. Reading the journals you can see the processes of revelation dawning. He came home politicised, convinced that “the most grinding poverty is a trifling evil compared with the inequality of classes”.

Back in England Morris embarked on Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs, a four-part Icelandic epic in long, swinging, rhyming couplets. Morris’s version of what he considered “the most glorious of stories” has the structural ambitiousness of a Victorian gothic cathedral on the grandest scale, and it helped enthuse the English reading public with the histrionic lives and loves of Sigmund and Signy, Sigurd, Brynbuild and Gudrun, the daughter of the Niblungs. The poem was published in 1876, the year of the first production in Bayreuth of Wagner’s complete Ring. Morris disapproved strongly of an operatic staging of a subject he regarded as his sacred property. The idea of “a sandy haired German tenor tweedledeeing over the unspeakable woes of Sigurd” was more than he could bear.

Early in 1883 Morris crossed the “river of fire” and became a revolutionary socialist. Note the image of the river: the journey across water was always a potent metaphor for Morris, as we’ll be reminded in McQueen’s setting of those wonderful lines “The Doomed Ship”. This final transformation of the cosseted son of the capitalist classes, whose family fortunes derived from copper mining in the valley of the Tamar, was described by EP Thompson, the historian of the English working classes, as “among the great conversions of the world”. Morris joined the Democratic Federation, a small and, at the time, relatively unknown party committed to bringing about a total social revolution, creating a society without rich and poor, without masters and men; a new world in which art could flourish. Art for Morris was the test of a true civilisation.

By now Morris had come to the conclusion that books without political purpose were flatulent and lifeless. For a decade he became totally embroiled in the literature of conflict. Everything he wrote – poetry and stories, journalism, lectures – was dedicated to what he called “the Cause”. Not everybody noticed. In many people’s eyes Morris was still the author of the relatively innocuous “Earthly Paradise”, and he was seriously considered for the post of Poet Laureate in 1892 after the death of Tennyson. As a revolutionary socialist he could not possibly accept.

News From Nowhere is the book in which Morris’s visionary politics find their ultimate expression. It is a novel of an ideal post-revolution future set in 2012, a date which now seems curiously imminent. Though it reads with the directness of a children’s story, it has deep, underlying subversiveness, a total upturning of accepted values. News From Nowhere became a kind of handbook for the romantic-intellectual English socialism that has only just ended with the death of Michael Foot. Towards the end of this dream novel comes a haymakers’ feast – a community gathering in a flower-decked church with a crowd of handsome, happy, well-dressed men and women looking “like a bed of tulips in the sun”. The truly democratic village scene described by Morris reminds one of Iceland, but with better weather. Ideals of community he formed on those journeys of the 1870s stayed with him all his life.

The poet Lavinia Greenlaw is now working on a book containing her own selection from Morris’s Icelandic journals and “a longish essay about questions of travel”. Ian McQueen thinks of his new composition as “an exploration of Morris’s own psychological territory expressed in musical terms”. Why this sudden surge of interest in Morris’s ideas and writings as opposed to merely his wallpaper designs? It has something to do with his peculiar, irascible, enchanting personality, still vivid in our age of triviality and blandness. At a time of endless half-truths and moral shilly-shallying, Morris’s eccentric integrity shines out. He was, for instance, committed to de-government and to the dismantling of a parliamentary system he regarded as inherently corrupting. Who can fail to love a writer who, in News From Nowhere, transforms the parliament building into a market for manure?

There is also the matter of beauty, the thing that in Morris’s view made life worth living. No one except Ruskin has ever put the case for beauty with such vehemence and clarity. Beauty as a concept used to seem a little suspect, but there are signs that we are beginning to come round to it. McQueen certainly believes so. Beauty was what drew him to Morris in the first place. As he sees it, “this poet, designer and socialist has had an incalculable effect on our attitude to what constitutes a fulfilled and well-led life”.

• Ian McQueen’s Earthly Paradise has its first performance at the Barbican in London on 10 April 2010 and will be broadcast on 14 April on Radio 3. A new edition of Fiona MacCarthy’s book, William Morris, will be published by Faber in July.

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