The English Utopia

by A.L. Morton (Author) Antonis Balasopoulos (Editor)
©2023 Monographs LX, 242 Pages
Series: Ralahine Utopian Studies, Volume 30


«Antonis Balasopoulos is to be heartily thanked for bringing back into print A. L. Morton’s marvelous book The English Utopia – and for providing us with not only a useful and insightful Introduction, but also a comprehensive bibliography of Leslie Morton’s many writings. We definitely need such works in these difficult times when democracy is under siege by authoritarian forces. Morton’s chapters may well truly serve both to empower our critical thinking and to inspire our radical-democratic imaginations.»
(Harvey J Kaye, Professor Emeritus of Democracy & Justice, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay)
«Antonis Balasopoulos describes his job as an ‘exercise in historical reclamation.’ He is due much gratitude for both the scrupulousness and the expertise he brings to his task. The Introduction is a model of its kind, positioning Morton in his own milieu as a committed intellectual. Morton’s book more than deserves this careful attention. In this new Ralahine edition, The English Utopia appears as the seminal text in utopian studies it should have been. »
(Patricia McManus, Senior Lecturer, School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Brighton)
A. L. Morton’s classic 1952 study of utopias in the context of British social history constitutes one of the earliest sustained engagements with the social and ideological sources of the utopian imagination, the importance of the class struggle for literary production and of literary production for cultural, if not political hegemony. Traversing English literary history from the medieval poem on the Land of Cockaygne to Sir Thomas More, to William Morris’s News from Nowhere and the subsequent decline of the genre and the eventual rise of anti-utopian and dystopian strains in the early twentieth century, The English Utopia remains provocative and critically engaging more than seventy years after its original publication. In addition to charting its significance as an intervention, the present edition also brings to light Morton’s complex role as Left political activist, historian, scholarly catalyst and cultural critic – a paradigmatic instance of the engaged and public intellectual.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Poor Man’s Heaven
  • Chapter 2 The Island of the Saints
  • Chapter 3 Revolution and Counter-Revolution
  • Chapter 4 Reason in Despair
  • Chapter 5 Reason in Revolt
  • Chapter 6 The Dream of William Morris
  • Chapter 7 Yesterday and Tomorrow
  • Tailpiece: Cokaygne Fantasy
  • Appendix: The Land of Cokaygne
  • Bibliography
  • Index


The English Utopia

To Vivien

The land where the sun shines on both sides of the hedge.– West Country Proverb


This book is a story of two islands – the Island of Utopia and the Island of Britain. These islands have parallel histories which help to explain each other, and that is what I have tried to make them do. For Utopia is really the island which people thought or hoped or sometimes feared that the Britain of their day might presently become, and their thoughts are affected not only by the books they had read and the ideas with which they were familiar, but by what was going on in the real world about them, by the class they belonged to and by the part that class was playing and wanted to play in relation to other classes.

I have called it the English, and not the British, Utopia merely because the Utopias that have come my way have in fact been English and not Scottish, Irish or Welsh. Swift is only a partial exception to this generalisation. And I have been happy to confine myself to the Utopia of this one country because our literature is peculiarly rich in such books. This, I think, is mainly because of the very early development of bourgeois society here, and the classic form which that development took, so that English political thinkers had a peculiar pride in our history and felt a special duty to the world. This English pride sometimes takes the form of an odious smugness, and we shall discover that smugness is one of the vices which Utopia was least successful in eliminating, but sometimes it is large and generous, the desire of a man who is on to a good thing to share it with his neighbours. So here, one of the main motives of the makers of utopias is the desire to present their conceptions of democracy, of social living, of a true commonwealth, in the most popular, most acceptable way. I have “delivered my conception in a fiction, as a more mannerly way”, wrote Samuel Hartlib of his Macaria.

A second reason for the richness of the English Utopia is the simple one that England is an island. For it is always easier to imagine anything in proportion as it resembles what we are or know, and it is as an island that we always think of Utopia. The fact that an island is self-contained, finite, and may be remote, gives it just the qualities we require to set our imagination to work. True we shall find utopias underground, under the sea, surrounded by mountains in the heart of Africa or Asia, even on another planet or perhaps remote in time rather than space, nevertheless the vast majority of utopias are still to be found on islands.

The English Utopia is so vast a field that I have not often been tempted to stray beyond it. But here and there I have done so, when this seemed necessary in the interests of perspective. I could not, for example, discuss Morris properly without saying something of Bellamy, nor could the French Utopian Socialists be altogether ignored.

Similarly, I have not felt myself too strictly bound by my definition of Utopia as an imaginary country described in a work of fiction with the object of criticising existing society. Some such definition was necessary to keep my book within reasonable bounds, and it excludes from consideration both attempts to found Utopian communities and works in which the element of fiction is absent. Yet something had to be said of Godwin, Owen and Winstanley, and in some of the books I discuss the element of social criticism has been reduced to very small proportions. Samuel Butler once defined definition as “the enclosing of a wilderness of ideas within a wall of words”, and it would be a poor thing if I could not now and again turn my back on my wilderness to take a look over the wall at other men’s gardens. All the same, a discussion of such figures as Winstanley and Owen at a length at all proportionate to their importance would have turned this book into something quite different from either the thing I planned or the thing it has grown into. So I have contented myself with, in the one case, a bare reference, and, in the other, an outline cut down to the minimum, though I am fully aware that this course will satisfy nobody.

Perhaps a note on the word Utopia might be helpful. It comes from two Greek words meaning “No place” and was adopted by Sir Thomas More as the name of his ideal commonwealth. From this it has been extended to cover all imaginary countries as well as books written about them. Here I use Utopia when I refer to the book by More, Utopia when I am referring to an imaginary country, and utopia when I am referring to a book about such a country. The distinction between the second and third uses is convenient, but not always easy to draw in practice, and anyone who took the trouble to look for them would probably find inconsistencies on this matter in the following pages.

CLARE.          A. L. Morton.

March 1952.


Poor Man’s Heaven

O see ye not yon narrow road,

So thick beset wi’ thorns and briers?

That is the Path of Righteousness,

Though after it but few inquires.

And see ye not yon braid, braid road,

That lies across the lily leven?

That is the Path of Wickedness.

Though some call it the Road to Heaven.

And see ye not yon bonny road

That winds about the fernie brae?

That is the Road to fair Elfland

Where thou and I this night maun gae.

—Old Ballad: Thomas the Rhymer

1. The Land of Cokaygne

In the beginning Utopia is an image of desire. Later it grows more complex and various, and may become an elaborate means of expressing social criticism and satire, but it will always be based on something that somebody actually wants. The history of Utopia, therefore, will reflect the conditions of life and the social aspirations of classes and individuals at different times. The specific character of the land is reported varyingly according to the taste of the individual writer, but behind these variations is a continued modification that follows the normal course of historical development: the English Utopia is, as it were, a mirror image, more or less distorted, of the historical England. Poets, prophets and philosophers have made it a vehicle for delight and instruction, but before the poets, the prophets and the philosophers there were the common people, with their wrongs and their pleasures, their memories and their hopes. It is just, therefore, that the first chapter of this book should be given to the Utopia of the folk. It is the first in time, the most universally current and the most enduring, and it gives us a standard of values against which all its successors can be judged.

The Utopia of the folk has many names and disguises. It is the English Cokaygne and the French Coquaigne. It is Pomona and Hy Brasil, Venusberg and the Country of the Young. It is Lubberland and Schlaraffenland, Poor Man’s Heaven and the Rock Candy Mountains. Brueghel, who of all the world’s great artists comes nearest to the common mind, has even painted it in a picture that has many of the most characteristic features: the roof of cakes, the roast pig running round with a knife in its side, the mountain of dumpling and the citizens who lie at their ease waiting for all good things to drop into their mouths. The gingerbread house which Hansel and Gretel find in the enchanted wood belongs to the same country, and so, at the other end of the scale, does Rabelais’ Abbaye de Thélème, whose motto is “Do what you will”. It reaches back into myth, it colours romance, there is hardly a corner of Europe in which it does not appear. It would be idle, therefore, to attempt to look for its origins in any single place or period, much less in any one poem or story. Instead, I propose to discuss one version, the early fourteenth-century English poem The Land of Cokaygne, and to work backward and forward from that point, finding parallels in myth and romance and tracing the development of the Cokaygne theme towards our own time.

This treatment is all the more suitable because this folk Utopia has preserved through the ages a remarkably constant character and all its main features are to be found at their clearest in The Land of Cokaygne. It is a poem of nearly two hundred lines which describes an earthly and earthy paradise, an island of magical abundance, of eternal youth and eternal summer, of joy, fellowship and peace.

Literary textbooks, when they mention this poem at all, treat it either as an anti-clerical satire or as a pleasant joke at the expense of those who want everything for nothing. Anti-clerical it certainly is, and no doubt it does intend to ridicule monastic gluttony and evil-living. Perhaps it may even be that the writer set out to use a familiar theme as a means of attacking current abuses. But if so, the theme quickly got out of hand, and the satire was swallowed up in the Utopia. After opening with a comparison between Cokaygne and Paradise very much to the advantage of the former:

Though Paradis be miri and bright,

Cokaygne is of fairir sight.

What is ther in Paradis

Bot grasse and flure and grene ris? …

Ther nis halle, bure, no benche,

Bot watir, manis thurst to quenche,1

whereas in Cokaygne,

Watir servith ther to no thing

Bot to sight and to waiissing2

the poet is quickly carried away with the delights to be found. Only towards the end does he appear to remember his ostensible subject, in an amusing passage describing monastic sports, and even here one feels that condemnation is considerably tempered with something like admiration.


LX, 242
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2023 (November)
Utopia and Utopianism British History Literary History Literary Criticism Politics Ideology Marxism Cultural Studies British Left The English Utopia A.L. Morton Antonis Balasopoulos
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2023. LX, 242 pp.

Biographical notes

A.L. Morton (Author) Antonis Balasopoulos (Editor)

Author Bio: Arthur Leslie (A. L.) Morton was born in Hengrave, Suffolk in 1903. His first book, A People’s History of England (1938) became a resounding success and established him as a leading figure for a younger generation of Marxist British Historians. He is the author of Language of Men, The English Utopia, The Everlasting Gospel: A Study in the Sources of William Blake, Socialism in Britain, The Matter of Britain: Essays in a Living Culture and The World of the Ranters: Religious Radicalism in the English Revolution. His published work also comprises several edited volumes and dozens of essays and reviews. Editor Bio: Antonis Balasopoulos is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Cyprus. He has published extensively on utopian thought and literature, comparative literature, Marxism, political theory, and political philosophy in journals including Utopian Studies, Theory & Event, Postcolonial Studies and Cultural Critique and in several edited volumes. Most recently, he has co-edited Reading Texts on Sovereignty with Stella Achilleos (Bloomsbury Academic, 2021).


Title: The English Utopia