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William Morris’s Utopian Optics

Owen Holland (University of Cambridge)


This article studies Morris’s development and cultivation of an optical rhetoric in his political lectures and journalism, as well as his utopian fiction, of the 1880s and 1890s. I begin by tracing its discursive base in the social and aesthetic criticism of Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, and by contrasting the contradictory ideological inflections of visual rhetoric in the writing of Matthew Arnold and James McNeill Whistler. Through an examination of his political journalism and lectures on art and society, I show how Morris’s inheritance and secularisation of Carlyle’s discourse of spiritual optics sets him apart from other figures associated with the fin de siècle socialist movement, at the same time as it produced important ideological contradictions in Morris’s socialist writing. I conclude with an examination of the extension and differentiation of Morris’s optics in his utopian romance News from Nowhere (1890).

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