‘Forsooth, brothers, fellowship is heaven, and lack of fellowship is hell: fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death …
[H]e that waketh in hell and feeleth his heart fail him, shall have memory of the merry days of earth, and how that when his heart failed him there, he cried on his fellow, were it his wife or his son or his brother or his gossip or his brother sworn in arms, and how that his fellow heard him and came and they mourned together under the sun, till again they laughed together and were but half sorry between them.
This shall he think on in hell, and cry on his fellow to help him, and shall find that therein is no help because there is no fellowship, but every man for himself.
Therefore, I tell you that the proud, despiteous rich man, though he knoweth it not, is in hell already, because he hath no fellow; and he that hath so hardy a heart that in sorrow he thinketh of fellowship, his sorrow is soon but a story of sorrow—a little change in the life that knows not ill.’[i]
These are the words Morris puts into the mouth of John Ball, central character in Morris’s novella A Dream of John Ball, written between 1886 and 1887, when Morris was at the height of his Socialist fervour. Ball was, of course, a real person, the revolutionary priest central to the struggles of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, and famous for another speech delivered at Blackheath on the way to London[ii], as illustrated by Edward Burne Jones above for the first book edition of A Dream in 1888[iii].
Meanwhile, my country tears itself apart. Not content with imposing an impossible question on the nations of the United (!) Kingdom, the government flings itself into a happy round of backstabbing to punish itself and the opposition wheels a pre-meditated coup into place (some say!). Moreover, and more importantly in the long term, there is appalling treatment of people perceived to be non-British by people who feel legitimised in their racism. No fellowship here in the United Kingdom? No fellowship with our fellow nations? No fellowship with our fellow humans – let alone that with our wildlife and environment?
Only three weeks ago an MP died because of the lack of fellowship that now seems rife in our country. Are we in hell already?
Morris would have been horrified and deeply disappointed – put probably not surprised.
For him, fellowship was at the heart of everything he did, everything he wrote and said. From his youthful friendships at Oxford – many of which would last his entire life – where he and his friends dreamed of setting up a monastery together, to the artistic fellowship painting the Oxford Union, and decorating his Red House and his dreams of a commune of his artist friends living there, to the hopeful gathering of artists to create Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company, to the international fellowship represented through the sharing of stories in his poem The Earthly Paradise, to the formation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, to his embracing the Socialist cause and his hopes for a future, after the revolution, in which all men and women would be fellows to each other, as seen in the communal living in his utopian novel News from Nowhere.
But he was no stranger to the breaking of fellowships. His little circle of Oxford friends held fast, but his other ventures were more fraught with dissent. Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company ended acrimoniously with an internal dispute about company shares. Morris dissolved the company and started again – but the only friend from the previous incarnation to go with him into the new company was Edward Burne Jones, the artist, who had been one of his university friends. Furthermore, his friend Rossetti famously started an affair with his wife.
Politically, too, he was disillusioned at an early stage. Morris held himself aloof from politics at first – and when he waded in the fray in the 1870s (Eastern Question – foreign policy and the treatment of the other again…) he was hopeful then felt betrayed by Gladstone when he appeared to go back on his promises (nothing new etc. etc.) He lost all sense of enfranchisement. He never again trusted in parliamentary process. But even his Socialist life was charged with division. Only two years after joining the Socialist cause in 1883, he was part of a breakaway group from the Democratic Federation. He and others who opposed the leadership of Henry Hyndman split and formed the Socialist League in 1885. In 1890 Morris split from them and plowed his own furrow with the Hammersmith Socialist Society. All of these divisions were for complex reasons, of course, but they, and the failure of the revolution to start, left Morris disillusioned.
I, and many of my friends, feel disillusioned too. We see in the referendum result the breakup of something that was meaningful to us, that, in my case, is something that we have been part of all my life, and on top of that we see an unrecognisable country, and are fearful for the future both economically and ideologically. When Morris was disillusioned he did turn slightly away from politics and went back to his art, his first love. And he wrote of all his hopes and dreams in News from Nowhere – which, arguably, has inspired more people than any of his other writings!
But he never stopped his fellowships. There was always a Socialist society in Hammersmith, and there were, once more, gatherings for art and music and more. On the day after the referendum result a good friend of mine gathered a group of friends together for a unity gathering, to share our thoughts and feelings about what had happened. That night was the best I’ve felt since the result – because of fellowship, despite opposing views, we were ‘but half sorry’ between us.
As Morris said, ‘he that hath so hardy a heart that in sorrow he thinketh of fellowship, his sorrow is soon but a story of sorrow.’ So, even if our parliamentary representatives can’t achieve fellowship, nonetheless we can still strive … and maybe that story of sorrow will become another story altogether.
Frontispiece illustration to the Reeves & Turner edition of A Dream of John Ball, 1888 by Edward Burne Jones. Photogravure. Taken from: http://morrisedition.lib.uiowa.edu/dream.html
[i] Morris, William A Dream of John Ball and A King’s Lesson (Longmans, Green & Co., 1913), pp. 36–38
[ii] John Ball is often credited with inventing the phrase ‘When Adam delved and Eve span’, but it was already in common parlance by 1381.
[iii] First edition by Reeves & Turner, 1888.