Michael Marshall on the Roots and Fruits of the Arts & Crafts Movement, with particular reference to William Wordsworth
As I discovered in the course of writing the biography of Bishop Edward King, Wordsworth was the poet that King most admired and strongly recommended to his students, clergy and friends. ‘Wordsworth always seems to bring me into a wonderfully clear and healthy atmosphere, and to lift me up,’ King said. ‘I so wish people would read Wordsworth.’
One year, a friend had given eight volumes of Wordsworth’s poems to King for Christmas; ‘It is a most beautiful and usable Wordsworth, and I am particularly glad to have it, as he seems to suit me. His love of all nature, and his constant use of it are a link to higher things which I greatly love; so his poetry rests and refreshes me with new strength of head and heart, of thought and love. I shall often take a volume about with me.’
It’s not difficult to see why the writings of Wordsworth, and in particular his posthumously published autobiographical poem, The Prelude so attracted King. Both alike had a love and reverence for nature and the created world and both alike reacted against the harsh materialism of the industrial revolution with its sabotaging of beauty, its dehumanising forces, and all in the name of economic prosperity with its accompanying oppression of the poor.
In his old age, King wrote about his love of nature which had been with him since boyhood: ‘I still go on in my simple superficial way, loving flowers, and birds, and bright sunlight on the apples, and the sunset… The flowers and the birds, and angels and men, all things that are!’ (The interconnectedness and interdependence between humanity and the natural world, heaven and earth, for King were all of a piece; mystically symbolic of Christ’s cloak at Calvary, ‘woven from top to bottom without a seam’. But like that cloak, we have torn it and shredded it, alienating humankind from the natural world.)
For ‘The Roots’ of the Arts and Crafts Movement, we need to go further back to the eighteenth century, the time of the first Industrial Revolution and to none other than Oliver Goldsmith who wrote his long poem – The Deserted Village – in 1770. It forms a part of what is known as ‘pastoral literature’ which idealized rural life and landscapes, portraying them as being purer and therefore superior to city life. The poem’s title references the shift from rural life to urban life, as entire populations displaced from the land by economic shifts and wealthy landowners, leaving their agricultural lives and creative cottage industries behind. From 1760, increased industrial and mechanized production of iron and steel resulted in a move away from an agrarian and handicraft economy. Goldsmith wrote:
But times are altered; trade’s unfeeling train
Usurp the land and dispossess the swain;
Along the lawn, where scattered hamlets rose,
Unwieldly wealth and cumbrous pomp now repose.
The Deserted Village is a pastoral elegy and like all elegies laments a loss, analogous to the loss of a kind of innocence, evocative of a Paradise Lost, by three themes: the pollution of industrialization, the exploitation of natural resources, and the mistreatment of the working classes.
On April 23, 1850, the Poet Laureate William Wordsworth died, aged 80 and was buried in the churchyard at Grasmere. In July of the same year, his widow published the autobiographical poem entitled The Prelude. In effect it recounts how Nature became all-in-all to him. As in his other philosophical work, The Excursion, and along similar lines to that of Goldsmith, city life becomes synonymous with corruption. ‘Cities where the human heart is sick’ are contrasted with those small rural communities where there is still time ‘to stand and stare’ – time and space to listen to the diktats of that inner voice without which we lose all sense of virtue and the core of what makes us human. ‘Come forth into the light of things, Let nature be your teacher,’ he wrote on visiting Tintern Abbey and the Wye Valley.
A.N. Wilson in God’s Funeral comments on ‘the nature-mysticism of Wordsworth – that God was actually in his universe. This was not the pantheism of Spinoza, who quite openly spoke of ‘God, that is to say Nature’. Rather in Wordsworth we have ‘something much more deeply interfused.’ The Victorians and indeed the church today need to recognize that after ‘the Watchmaker-God of Deism of the eighteenth century was destroyed’ (Paley’s Evidences) ‘by the questions raised by Darwin and Huxley – the God out there,’ we needed to recapture the God of Christ and the New Testament who ‘breathes through his creation, lives within it’ as well as beyond it (panentheism), where the creation points beyond itself to the Christ of God who is ‘all in all’ to quote St. Paul.’
For Wordsworth there was the further vital issue of humanity itself. The process of industrialization, and the population explosion were not only in the process of destroying the natural world around us (something which Ruskin was to major on, along with William Morris) but also the way urban humanity viewed itself – as something of a cog in a machine – that ‘watchmaker’ view in which the whole creation is viewed in mechanistic terms with God as something of a disinterested engineer occasionally tinkering with the mechanism.
Wordsworth parallels in his poetry his own inner journey of loss from his earliest years as a boy in the countryside with the loss resulting from industrialization and the move from an intimacy with nature. But it is not a cry of despair, because in later life there is an increasing sense in which Wordsworth regains that first all-encompassing view of creation as a whole.
Later in life, Wordsworth came to see that the universe is not mechanical and dead, but alive and vitally connected with the human mind’s awakened consciousness which in turn leads to an awakened moral sense and ultimately leads to communion with the divine. In the profoundest sense, love of nature leads to love of humanity and a re-envisioned awareness of God both in all as well as beyond all: in a word – a reverence for humankind and for nature, the environment and all creation.
The turning point came in 1793 when Wordsworth went alone as a troubled young man of 23 to Tintern Abbey. Five years later, in July 1798, he was to come back in happier times with his sister Dorothy. After several days touring on foot and by boat, they boarded a return ferry to Bristol. It was on the homeward journey that Wordsworth committed to memory the finishing touches for his Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey. ‘No poem of mine,’ he was to say afterwards, ‘was composed under circumstances more pleasant for me to remember than this.’
Wordsworth felt that he owed to those ‘forms of beauty’ imprinted upon his mind from that visit to the Wye Valley, his deepest experience of all, that of the mystical vision ‘into the life of things’.
In all of this deep and formative experience, Wordsworth recalls how what he terms ‘the affections’ played an important, indeed, a decisive part, in ‘leading’ him to that moment of insight – ‘the deep power of joy’. And by ‘the affections’ he meant that intimate delight in the familiar objects of landscape which had been from early childhood so intense and so persistent – lost for a while, but now experienced as ‘Paradise regained.’
And what was that ‘life of things’ into which ‘he saw’? Surely, that unity of all creation in an infinitely joyous being which was the vision of his boyhood. So, in the ‘Prelude’, autobiographically he writes:
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity.
Two main themes become apparent: the need to reconnect with nature as itself a sacrament, pointing to the transcendent world beyond. As one writer puts it, Wordsworth shows, ‘how the contemplation of Nature can be made a revealing agency, like Love or Prayer, an opening into the transcendent.’ (The apostles of the Arts and Crafts Movement sought to redirect our gaze to the unifying source of everything which ultimately can bring us purpose and fulfilment).
Secondly, ‘Wordsworth saw the city as the place devoted to money-making at the expense of love of nature,’ says Bate.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
…………………………for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.
As life went on, he refused to turn this into a political ideology but rather as a true radical saw that the battle was within and so turned to a truly spiritual awakening, ending up as a committed worshipping Christian in his local parish church and as a church warden.
‘No one in the nineteenth century perceived the enervating and environmentally destructive dimensions of modernity more clearly than Wordsworth’s disciple, Ruskin’ (1819-1900) claims Bate. Towards the end of his life, he wrote a series of pamphlets and manifestos in the form of newsletters ‘to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain’.
Railing against the vitiation of ‘the air by your manner of life, and of death…with foul chemical exhalations’, he wrote ‘On the other hand, we have the ‘power of purifying the air, by dealing properly and swiftly with all substances in corruption; by absolutely forbidding noxious manufactures; and by planting in all soils the trees which cleanse and invigorate earth and atmosphere.’
For Ruskin, then, there was a direct line from the Wordsworthian notion of love of nature leading to love of mankind to the practice of what we would now call ‘sustainability.’ He believed that modern “political economy”, the science of getting and spending, was not a means to life but a recipe for the death of the planet.’
‘Long before the green movement of our generation,’ writes A.N. Wilson, ‘Ruskin perceived that life on this planet could only become sane when human beings recognized their rightful place within it; when they stopped trying to exploit Nature for gain or to explain it away in the name of physics and biology, and came instead to a submissive humility in relation to it, a true understanding.’
In his fascinating lecture, The Ethics of Dust, to a Girls’ School in 1865, he asked the girls to imagine walking on the outskirts of a manufacturing town, and picking up an ounce or two of the blackest slime, containing soot, sand, brick-dust, water and clay. Then he asks them to imagine the mud being allowed to rest a long age.
‘Let the clay begin’, he says. ‘Ridding itself of all foreign substance, it gradually becomes a white earth, already very beautiful, and fit, with help of congealing fire, to be made into the finest porcelain, and painted on, and be kept in kings’ palaces. But such artificial consistence is not its best. Leave it still, quiet to follow its own instinct of unity, and it becomes, not only white, but clear; not only clear, but hard; not only clear and hard, but so set that it can deal with light in a wonderful way, and gather out of it the loveliest blue rays only, refusing the rest. We call it a sapphire.’
‘The fact is, we are all, and always, asleep through our lives; and it is only by pinching ourselves very hard that we ever come to see, or understand anything.’
He had woken up himself in one of those ‘eye-opening moments’ we often speak of. He describes how, at the age of 24, he made a personal discovery giving us an exact location: ‘on the road to Norwood’. (Such moments are often associated with a definite location: the road to Damascus for Paul; at a street corner for Merton, or on a bus on the way to the Zoo for Lewis).
‘No one,’ he records, ‘had ever taught me to draw as a draughtsman and watercolourist of what was really there. All my time given to drawing as an art; of course I had the record of places, but had never seen the beauty of anything, not even of a stone – how much less of a leaf.
‘It was a moment of liberation akin to that experienced by John Stuart Mill,’ writes A.N. Wilson, ‘when he escaped the crushing materialism of his father’s world-view by reading Wordsworth. Ruskin ceased to be an evangelical Christian, ceased trying to be one and feeling guilty about not being one. It was an experience, this “UNCONVERSION” as he called it, which was to colour the whole of his life – his aesthetic life, as well as his ideas on political economy …bent on undoing the evils of capitalism.’
Ruskin went on to argue in his essay The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century that industrialized humankind was changing the climate. His darkly prophetic prose was a mirror of the gigantic shadow that the futurity of a carbon-warmed atmosphere cast upon his present. Wordsworth’s poetry, meanwhile, is the unacknowledged pre-legislation of an alternative vision for the future in which love of nature and love of human kind are enmeshed in a sacred web.
This all leads us straight into the full-blooded Arts and Crafts Movement, supremely established in Britain about 1862 by the artist and medievalist William Morris (1834-1896) in response to the negative social and aesthetic consequences of the Industrial Revolution. It stood for traditional craftsmanship and often used medieval, romantic folk styles. It advocated economic and social reform and was anti-industrial in its orientation – highly critical of the sprawling growth of cities and the treatment of the poor.
Many of the designers of the Arts & Crafts Movement were socialists, and not least William Morris. In the early 1880s Morris was spending much of his time on promoting socialism rather than on designing and making. Morris argued that ‘without dignified, creative occupation, people became disconnected from life’. Furthermore, Morris shared Ruskin’s critique of industrial society and attacked the modern factory, the use of machinery with its accompanying division of labour; capitalism and the loss of traditional craft methods. Morris in fact had no criticism of machinery per se, so long as they produced the quality he needed: ‘We do not reject the machine we welcome it. But we would desire to see it mastered’ – rather than it mastering us. (Mutatis mutandis, much the same could be said of the tools of technology useful as ‘servants’ but addictively destructive as ‘masters’, enslaving their users).
Morris believed factory-made works to be “dishonest” while contrariwise, handiwork and craftsmanship merged dignity with labour: his followers favoured craft production over industrial manufacture.
Yet by 1833 something took Morris over and directed his energies in the direction of political revolution: he turned from radical liberalism to being a socialist revolutionary. It was as though an inner hankering drew Morris on. He confided to his friend Georgie Burne-Jones, wife of the painter, “You see, my dear, I can’t help it. The ideas which have taken hold of me will not let me rest; nor can I see anything else worth thinking of…..One must turn to hope, and only in one direction do I see it – on the road to Revolution: everything else is gone now. And now at least when the corruption of society seems complete, there is arising a definite conception of a new order.”
Later in his life he embraced Marxism and was influenced by anarchism in the 1880s, increasingly becoming a committed revolutionary Socialist activist, taking part in violent protest marches, even occasionally arrested, and in 1884 he founded the Socialist League.
Somehow by the end of his life Morris had lost the larger plot of Wordsworth and also Ruskin, trapped in a political ideology which sought to change the system without changing human perception, hearts and lives.
Two fruits, in particular were to blossom at the end of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth, drawing on sap from the roots of the Arts and Crafts Movement which though of an earlier age were implicit in the works of earlier poets and in particular most explicitly in the writings of William Wordsworth
The first of such fruits was a sacramental, theological awakening rooted in the Incarnation holding the spiritual and the material together. In 1877, Stewart Headlam, a student of F.D. Maurice, formed The Guild of St. Matthew. Headlam’s objective was to combine the tradition of Christian socialism which he took from F.D. Maurice and Charles Kingsley with the sacramental doctrine of High Anglicanism. At about the same time, the Christian Social Union was formed in Oxford by two Anglo-Catholic clergymen: Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918) and Charles Gore. It was the largest Christian socialist organisation which had 27 branches and a membership of approximately 3,000 by 1898. Unfortunately, although several of the bishops were members of the Union, it lacked members from the working class. One of the significant achievements of the CSU was the implementation of the university settlements, which were Christian missions established in slum areas of London and other big cities. Both Scott-Holland and Charles Gore were close friends of Bishop Edward King but, coming a little later than King, followed through the theological and spiritual working of the Tractarians and the Oxford Movement, with particular reference to the burgeoning cities of the Industrial Revolution, associated as they were with pollution and the oppression of workers. Scott-Holland’s ‘Judge Eternal’ hymn features a powerful entreaty to ‘purge this realm of bitter things’ as suffered by the victims of industrial oppression:
Still the weary folk are pining
For the hour that brings release;
And the city’s crowded clangour
Cries aloud for sin to cease;
And the homesteads and the woodlands
Plead in silence for their peace.
Wordsworth had a great admiration for Milton and his works, and at one time uttered with reference to the woes of the age: ‘Milton, thou should’st be living at this hour’. Perhaps for our age we might adapt this remark by saying: ‘Wordsworth, thou should’st be living at this hour’. For surely it is not too difficult to see some striking parallels between the various issues which confronted the wisdom of the past with those that confront the world today.
Perhaps the most obvious is the whole issue of care for the environment in the face of climate change. Secondly, there is a striking parallel between those dehumanising forces of the industrial Revolution and the technological revolution of today, not totally dissimilar to what appalled Wordsworth, Ruskin and Morris, crying out for justice and a respect for the dignity of every human being in the appalling slums occasioned by the industrial barons.
So for us, as for an earlier generation, there is a compelling and urgent need to recover a reverence for creation and the natural world, if we are not to destroy ‘The pristine earth,/ The planet in its nakedness….Man’s only dwelling’.
In contrast with Wordsworth and to some extent with Ruskin, regrettably everything for William Morris became part of an ideological-political manifesto without a spiritual and theological undergirding. Whenever that happens, every issue becomes vicious and polarised.
Such, however, was not the case so much with F.D. Maurice, Charles Gore, Scott Holland and the Anglo-Catholic parish priests working in the slums of the large industrial cities. They had a sacramental view of creation and a re-envisioned view of humanity in which every human being contains a spark of God and a seed of the divine. With such a vision, respect both for creation and for neighbour automatically follows: As Jonathan Bate puts it: ‘Love of nature can lead to love of mankind.’
However, it is not enough to urge a respect for nature and our environment motivated only from an informed knowledge of the fatal consequences of our destructive consumerism. Rather, there is an urgent need to recapture something of that re-awakening of Wordsworth and others who so clearly perceived our interdependence with the natural order as being part of God’s plan for his creation, reflecting the beauty of its creator in like manner to that of the artist whose image is in, through and beyond his or her works. For the whole created order, rightly perceived points us to the creator, similarly to how a sacrament points us to the invisible through the visible, so that, in the words of Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, we can claim ‘the world as sacrament.’
In the light of such an insight, is it too much to claim that we might yet recover, even at this late stage, something of that same vision of Goldsmith, Wordsworth and Ruskin, and the pioneers of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which bore fruit so abundantly in the lives and ministries of the Anglo-Catholic parish clergy, with such robust incarnational theology and spirituality which in turn can so powerfully inform and transform every aspect of life and order?
Could we go further? Could we, even in our day, own afresh that same conviction of a radical interdependence between nature and human kind, between spirit and matter, ‘entangled’ and inextricably woven into a divine web, analogous to Christ’s ‘ seamless inner garment’ so powerfully symbolic of the Incarnation, and all alike pointing to the ‘beyondness’ of everything with purpose and a fresh significance? For it could well be claimed that nothing less than such a re-envisioning with its promise of a ‘Paradise Regained’ in that garden-city of the new Jerusalem where the leaves of the trees are for ‘the healing of the nations’ will be sufficiently convincing to arrest the tragic procession towards the self-destruction of all that we should cherish. For both nature and an enriched humanity originate from nothing less than the infinite imagination and heart of that same Love which, in the concluding words of Dante’s Divine Comedy, ‘ moves the sun and the other stars’.
Bishop Michael Marshall was the eighth Bishop of Woolwich in the Church of England from 1975 to 1984. Based at Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, he is honorary assistant bishop in the Diocese of London and the Diocese of Chichester.
Footnote: Many of the insights of this lecture are indebted to a new book on Wordsworth: Jonathan Bate, Radical Wordsworth: The Poet who Changed the World, published by William Collins in 2020. +MM.
Bishop Michael celebrated the diamond jubilee of his ordination to the priesthood in October. New Directions sends him many congratulations. Ad multos annos, Father!