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ten men.” So, what can such a compulsive overachiever with a nice line in chintz offer as inspiration for those of us concerned with dropping out, downshifting and kicking our tawdry, dull culture into touch? Quite a lot, as it turns out.
TRUE IDLERS, of course, aren’t lazy; they just work differently. Morris understood this instinctively. To him, all useful work (which he distinguished from “use less toil”) was really a form of play:
I think that to all living things there is a pleasure in the exercise of their energies, and that even beasts rejoice in being lithe and swift and strong. But a man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body. Memory and imagination help him as he works. Not only his own thoughts, but the thoughts of the men of past ages guide his hands; and, as a part of the human race, he creates. If we work thus we shall be men, and our days will be happy and eventful.
¶Work that satisfies and ennobles is hardly a new idea. Confucius said much the same thing 2,500 years earlier (“choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work again”) but few have articulated as thoroughly or lived it as completely as Morris. ¶He was born into a reasonably well-off family. His father was a city broker who died young, but shares in a Devon copper mine ensured the family enjoyed a
90 comfortable life. A certain guilt at this haunted Morris throughout his life, and he was endlessly generous to his friends as a result, entertaining royally and bank-rolling all their artistic joint-ventures. It also left him with a class-defying recklessness which is one of the many reasons he’s still so much fun to read: “How often it consoles me to think of barbarism once more flooding the world and real feelings and passions, however, rudimentary, taking the place of our hypocrisies.” In a letter to a friend he writes: “I am a boor and the son of a boor”. You don’t get much of this cocksure honesty in the high-flown prose of his Victorian contemporaries. ¶Morris’s “dog-at-broth” quality could make him both lovable and exasperating. Edward Burne-Jones, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, and Morris’s closest friend, catches the roller-coaster nature of Morris’s life perfectly:
When I first knew Morris nothing would content him but being a monk, and getting to Rome, and then he must be an architect, and apprenticed himself to Street [the Gothic revival architect], and worked for two years, but when I came to London and began to paint he threw it all up, and must paint too, and then he must give it up and make poems, and then he must give it up and make window hangings and pretty things, and when he had achieved that, he must be a poet again, and then after two or three years of Earthly Paradise time, he must learn dyeing, and lived in a vat, and learned weaving, and knew all about looms, and then made more books, and learned tapestry, and then wanted to smash everything up and begin the