A Question of Ornament: Poetry and the (Lesser) Arts

Authored by: Elizabeth Helsinger

The Routledge Companion to William Morris

Print publication date:  October  2020
Online publication date:  October  2020

Print ISBN: 9780415347433
eBook ISBN: 9781315229416
Adobe ISBN:


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Nothing, surely, could be further from a description of William Morris’s aesthetics than his praise for the final scene between Sigurd and Brynhild in the Icelandic Völsunga Saga: “complete beauty without an ornament.” 1 Ornament, most scholars would agree, is central to Morris’s work. Morris was, after all, a tireless advocate for the “lesser” arts of ornament and decoration, “that great body of art, by means of which men have at all times more or less striven to beautify the familiar matters of everyday life.” 2 Indeed, he insisted, not only art intended for everyday life but also “all real art is ornamental”: including the “great arts,” the paintings and poems that offer “stories that tell of men’s aspirations for more than material life can give them, their struggles for the future welfare of their race, their unselfish love, their unrequited service.” 3 “It is only in latter times, and under the most intricate conditions of life,” Morris maintained, “that [the greater and lesser arts] have fallen apart from one another; and I hold that, when they are so parted, it is ill for the Arts altogether” (“Lesser Arts,” 3).

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