Socialists at Play

May Morris, husband H. H. Sparling, Emery Walker, and George Bernard Shaw. 

Over a hundred years ago this month, Morris published his poem “Socialists at Play” in the July 1885 issue of The Commonweal. The Commonweal, edited by Morris, was the official newspaper of the Socialist League, and Morris published a good deal of original poetry and essays in its pages. While “Socialists at Play” is a little known, minor work of Morris’s, it captures his spirit of fun and camaraderie even amidst his sincere and robust political commitment. What I like most about the poem is that it shows the high value Morris put on pleasure. Pleasure was, for Morris, a political goal as well as an end in and of itself. The poem begins,

FRIENDS, we have met amidst our busy life
To rest an hour from turmoil and from strife,
To cast our care aside while song and verse
Touches our hearts, and lulls the ancient curse.

For Morris, literature’s capacity to produce rest and enjoyment was crucial; ideally, it was a means of creating pleasure for both the author and the reader. In the end, the poem suggests the essentially Morrisian idea that pleasure and work are interchangeable:

So through our play, as in our work, we see
The strife that is, the Peace that is to be.

At play, Morris and his fellow socialists can find enjoyment and rest as well as political meaning. The two are not mutually exclusive:

… Let the cause cling
About the book we read, the song we sing,
Cleave to our cup and hover o’er our plate,
And by our bed at morn and even wait.
Let the sun shine upon it; let the night
Weave happy tales of our fulfilled delight!

contributed by Elizabeth Carolyn Miller
(Photo via the Arts & Crafts Museum flickr feed)

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