Seeing the “Hope Unseen”: Socialism and William Morris’ “Pomona”

Since William Morris saw the production of art as integral to the creation of a socialist society, one can find in much of his writing an argument, implicit or explicit, in favor of socialism. I find a compelling comparison between the book Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome by Morris and Ernest Belfort Bax, and William Morris’ own poem “Pomona.” 

The relevant arguments I would like to highlight in Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome come from its first two chapters, where Morris and Bax argue that the freedom of prehistoric life gave way to a slavery inherent to life in cities. In the earliest known civilizations, built around mutual protection, “the land began to be accepted as the source of the wealth of the community, and…was recognised as the definite property of the community” (Morris and Bax). As soon, however, as “there was an excess of wealth over bare necessity, its distribution began to be unequal, and… class society began to appear.” (Morris and Bax). The development of the urban world led to “the change in the ownership of land which now made the citizen a representative and possessor of a portion of the city territory…in the earlier times the land belonged to the group; now the individual belonged to the land.” (Morris and Bax). For the two authors of Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome, urbanization severed humanity’s primordial connection to nature.

The figure of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and natural bounty, seems eminently suited to represent that argument against urban life. Pomona stresses her ancientness in the very first two lines of her namesake poem: “I am the ancient Apple-Queen,/As once I was so am I now” (lines 1-2). She is as prehistoric and unchanging as (according to Morris and Bax) the human desire to live freely in community. Elements of socialist thought then begin to make themselves clear: “For evermore a hope unseen,/Betwixt the blossom and the bough” (lines 3-4); hope, a concept with decidedly revolutionary implications in the 19th century, quite literally comes from within nature.

Pomona begins the second stanza by asking two locations: first, that of “the river’s hidden gold,” and second “the windy grave of Troy” (lines 5-6). While the second reference is obvious, the first may allude to the story of Decebalus, the Dacian king who hid his treasure a river to keep it from the Romans. If this is the correct interpretation, then these lines both seem to refer to signs of ancient social stratification: one to material possessions only accessible to those with wealth, the other to a powerful—and, as we have learned, inherently stratified—city. These questions remain unanswered. While the site of Troy and whereabouts of an ancient treasure hoard are thus unknowable, “yet come I,” Pomona says, “as I came of old,/From out the heart of Summer’s joy” (lines 7-8). Physical, material signs of political and economic domination have faded, but she, representative of nature, is completely unchanged. The resilience of nature—and the human freedom that comes with it—is the “hope unseen” which exists “for evermore.”

Works Cited

Morris, William, and E. Belfort Bax. Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome. 1893,

Morris, William. “Pomona.” The Penguin Book of Victorian Verse, Penguin Books, pp. 548-49.

The Labor Movement of Shalott

Typical readings of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” explore the depiction of female sexuality. I would like to offer an alternate interpretation: “The Lady of Shalott” as a double poem criticizing factory labor.

In the first section of the poem, Tennyson’s description of the island of Shalott evokes a nineteenth-century factory as much as it does a castle. The very first description of the building itself is thus: “Four gray walls, and four gray towers” (line 15); this monochromatic, monotonous description is especially jarring given the surrounding lines are laden with natural images. Her castle seems out of place and imposed on the environment. Even its location beside a river recalls the real-world mills which derived their power from running water.

The Lady’s curse bears an equal resemblance to factory work. “No time hath she to sport and play,” Tennyson writes (line 37), for her labor occupies her life. “No other care hath she” (line 44). She is entirely consumed by her weaving. Her actions as well as her home evoke the life of a textile worker.

The fact that she is not allowed to gaze directly upon Camelot recalls more generally the political situation of the nineteenth-century working class, who were shut out of direct representation in politics. She is only able to see the seat of political power through a mediating mirror. Her eventual decision to reject this subjugation ends in disaster: she loses her life in a one-woman revolution. Just as for real-world industrial workers, her choice is to do the work available or to die.

And it must be noted: the feminist and Marxist interpretations of this poem need not be separate. The poem in fact becomes a much stronger political statement if gender and politics are considered in tandem. After all, industrial labor often made explicit steps to suppress women’s sexuality so as to produce more devoted workers. (For a relevant fiction treatment of this topic, I would recommend “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” by Herman Melville.)