Thanks for yours received to-day, and for all you say with so much more kind solicitousness than the matter deserved, about the opening of the Keats sonnet. I have now realized that the new form is a gain in every way; and am therefore glad that, though arising in accident, I was led to make the change.... All you say of Keats shows that you have been reading up the subject with good results. I fancy it would hardly be desirable to add the sonnets you speak of (as being worthless) at this date, though they might be valuable for quotation as to the course of his mental and physical state. I do not myself think that any poems now included should be removed, but the reckless and tasteless plan of the gatherings hitherto (in which the Nightingale and other such masterpieces are jostled indiscriminately, with such wretched juvenile trash as Lines to some Ladies on receiving a Shelly etc), should of course be amended, and the rubbish (of which there is a fair quantity), removed to a "Juvenile" or other such section. It is a curious fact that among a poet's early writings, some will really be juvenile in this sense, while others, written at the same time, will perhaps take rank at last with his best efforts. This, however, was not substantially the case with Keats.
As to Leigh Hunt's friendship for Keats, I think the points you mention look equivocal; but Hunt was a many-laboured and much belaboured man, and as much allowance as may be made on this score is perhaps due to him—no more than that much. His own powers stand high in various ways—poetically higher perhaps than is I at present admitted, despite his detestable flutter and airiness for the most part. But assuredly by no means could he have stood so high in the long-run, as by a loud and earnest defence of Keats. Perhaps the best excuse for him is the remaining possibility of an idea on his part, that any defence coming from one who had himself so many powerful enemies might seem to Keats rather to! damage than improve his position.
I have this minute (at last) read the first instalment of your Keats paper, and return it.... One of the most marked points in the early recognition of Keats's claims, as compared with the recognition given to other poets, is the fact that he was the only one who secured almost at once a great poet as a close and obvious imitator—viz., Hood, whose first volume is more identical with Keats's work than could be said of any other similar parallel. You quote some of Keats's sayings. One of the most characteristic I think is in a letter to Haydon:—
"I value more the privilege of seeing great things in loneliness, than the fame of a prophet." I had not in mind the quotations you give from Keats as bearing on the poetic (or prophetic) mission of "doing good." I must say that I should not have thought a longer career thrown away upon him (as you intimate) if he had continued to the age of anything only to give joy. Nor would he ever have done any "good" at all. Shelley did good, and perhaps some harm with it. Keats's joy was after all a flawless gift.
Keats wrote to Shelley:—"You, I am sure, will forgive me for sincerely remarking that you might curb your magnanimity and be more of an artist, and load every rift of your subject with ore." Cheeky!—but not so much amiss. Poetry, and no prophecy however, must come of that mood,—and no pulpit would have held Keats's wings,—the body and mind together were not heavy enough for a counterweight.... Did you ever meet with
AN EXCELLENT FANCY FIRST COMPOSED IN FRENCH
By Monsieur GOMBAULD
AND NOW ELEGANTLY INTERPRETED
By RICHARD HURST, Gentleman
It has very finely engraved plates of the late Flemish type. There is a poem of Vaughan's on Gombauld's Endimion, which might make one think it more fascinating than it really is. Though rather prolix, however, it has attractions as a somewhat devious romantic treatment of the subject. The little book is one of the first I remember in this world, and I used to dip into it again and again as a child, but never yet read it through. I still possess it. I dare say it is not easily met with, and should suppose Keats had probably never seen it. If he had, he might really have taken a hint or two for his scheme, which is hardly so clear even as Gombauld's, though its endless digressions teem with beauty.... I do not think you would benefit at all by seeing Gombauld's Endimion. Vaughan's poem on it might be worth quoting as showing what attention the subject had received before Keats. I have the poem in Gilfillan's Less-Known Poets.
Rossetti took a great interest in the fund started for the relief of Mme. de Llanos, Keats's sister, whose circumstances were seriously reduced. He wrote:
By the bye, I don't know whether the subscription for Keats's old and only surviving sister (Madme de Llanos) has been at all ventilated in Liverpool. It flags sorely. Do you think there would be any chance in your neighbourhood? If so, prospectuses, etc., could be sent.
I did not view the prospect of subscriptions as very hopeful, and so conceived the idea of a lecture in the interests of the fund. On this project, Rossetti wrote:
I enclose prospectuses as to the Keats subscription. I may say that I did not know the list would accompany them—still less that contributions would be so low generally as to leave me near the head of the list—an unenviable sort of parade.... My own opinion about the lecture question is this. You know best whether such a lecture could be turned to the purposes of your Keats article (now in progress), or rather be so much deduction from the freshness of its resources: and this should be the absolute test of its being done or not done.... I think, if it can be done without impoverishing your materials, the method of getting Lord Houghton to preside and so raising as much from it as possible is doubtless the right one. Of course I view it as far more hopeful than mere distribution of any number of prospectuses.... Even L25 would be a great contribution to the fund.
The lecture project was not found feasible, and hence it was abandoned. Meantime the kindness of friends enabled me to add to the list a good number of subscriptions, but feeling scarcely satisfied with any such success as I might be likely to have in that direction, I opened, by the help of a friend, a correspondence with Lord Houghton with a view to inducing him to apply for a pension for the lady. It then transpired that Lord Houghton had already applied to Lord Beaconsfield for a pension for Mme. Llanos, and would doubtless have got it, had not Mr. Buxton Forman applied for a grant from the Royal Bounty, which was easier to give. I told Rossetti of this fact and he said:
I am not surprised about Lord H., and feel sure it is a pity he was not left to try Beaconsfield, but I judge the projectors on the other side knew nothing of his intentions. However, I was in no way a projector.
In the end Lord Houghton repeated to Mr. Gladstone the application he had made to Lord Beaconsfield, and succeeded.
Rossetti must have been among the earliest admirers of Keats. I remarked on one occasion that it was very natural that Lord Houghton should consider himself in a sense the first among men now living to champion the poet and establish his name, and Rossetti admitted that this was so, and was ungrudging in his tribute to Lord Houghton's services towards the better appreciation of Keats; but he contended, nevertheless, that he had himself been one of the first writers of the generation succeeding the poet's own to admire and uphold him, and that this was at a time when it made demand of some courage to class him among the immortals, when an original edition of any of his books could be bought for sixpence on a bookstall, and when only Leigh Hunt, Cowden Clarke, Hood, Benjamin Haydon, and perhaps a few others, were still living of those who recognised his great gifts.
Rossetti's primary interest in Chatterton dates back to an early period, as I find by the date, 1848, in the copy he possessed of the poet's works. But throughout a long interval he neglected Chatterton, and it was not until his friend Theodore Watts, who had made Chatterton a special study, had undertaken to select from and write upon him in Ward's English Poets, that he revived his old acquaintance. Whatever Rossetti did he did thoroughly, and hence he became as intimate perhaps with the Rowley antiques as any other man had ever been. His letters written during the course of his Chatterton researches must, I think, prove extremely interesting. He says:
Glancing at your Keats MS., I notice (in a series of parallels) the names of Marlowe and Savage; but not the less "marvellous" than absolutely miraculous Chatterton. Are you up in his work? He is in the very first rank! Theod. Watts is "doing him" for the new selection of poets by Arnold and Ward, and I have contributed a sonnet to Watts's article.... I assure you Chatterton's name must come in somewhere in the parallel passage. He was as great as any English poet whatever, and might absolutely, had he lived, have proved the only man in England's theatre of imagination who could have bandied parts with Shakspeare. The best way of getting at him is in Skeat's Aldine edition (G. Bell and Co., 1875). Read him carefully, and you will find his acknowledged work essentially as powerful as his antiques, though less evenly successful—the Rowley work having been produced in Bristol leisure, however indigent, and the modern poetry in the very fangs of London struggle. Strong derivative points are to be found in Keats and Coleridge from the study of Chatterton. I feel much inclined to send the sonnet (on Chatterton) as you wish, but really think it is better not to ventilate these things till in print. I have since written one on Blake. Not to know Chatterton is to be ignorant of the true day- spring of modern romantic poetry.... I believe the 3d vol. of Ward's Selections of English Poetry, for which Watts is selecting from Chatterton, will soon be out,—but these excerpts are very brief, as are the notices. The rendering from the Rowley antique will be much better than anything formerly done. Skeat is a thorough philologist, but no hand at all when substitution becomes unavoidable in the text.... Read the Ballad of Charity, the Eclogues, the songs in AElla, as a first taste. Among the modern poems Narva and Mared, and the other African Eclogues. These are alone in that section poetry absolute, and though they are very unequal, it has been most truly said by Malone that to throw the African Eclogues into the Rowley dialect would be at once a satisfactory key to the question whether Chatterton showed in his own person the same powers as in the person of Rowley. Among the satirical and light modern pieces there are many of a first-. rate order, though generally unequal. Perfect specimens, however, are The Revenge, a Burletta, Skeat, vol i; Verses to a Lady, p. 84; Journal Sixth, p. 33; The Prophecy, p. 193; and opening of Fragment, p. 132. I would advise you to consult the original text.
Mr. Watts, it seems, with all his admiration of Chatterton, finding that he could not go to Rossetti's length in comparing him with Shakspeare, did not in the result consider the sonnet on Chatterton referred to in the foregoing letter, and given below, suitable to be embodied in his essay:
With Shakspeare's manhood at a boy's wild heart,— Through Hamlet's doubt to Shakspeare near allied, And kin to Milton through his Satan's pride,— At Death's sole door he stooped, and craved a dart; And to the dear new bower of England's art,— Even to that shrine Time else had deified, The unuttered heart that soared against his side,— Drove the fell point, and smote life's seals apart.
Thy nested home-loves, noble Chatterton, The angel-trodden stair thy soul could trace Up Redcliffe's spire; and in the world's armed space Thy gallant sword-play:—these to many an one Are sweet for ever; as thy grave unknown, And love-dream of thine unrecorded face.
Some mention was made in this connection of Rossetti's young connection, Oliver Madox Brown, who wrote Gabriel Denver (otherwise The Black Swan) at seventeen years of age. I mentioned the indiscreet remark of a friend who said that Oliver had enough genius to stock a good few Chattertons, and thereupon Rossetti sent me the following outburst:
You must take care to be on the right tack about Chatterton. I am very glad to find the gifted Oliver M. B. already an embryo classic, as I always said he would be; but those who compare net results in such cases as his and Chatterton's cannot know what criticism means. The nett results of advancing epochs, however permanent on accumulated foundation-work, are the poorest of all tests as to relative values. Oliver was the product of the most teeming hot-beds of art and literature, and even of compulsory addiction to the art of painting, in which nevertheless he was rapidly becoming as much a proficient as in literature. What he would have been if, like the ardent and heroic Chatterton, he had had to fight a single-handed battle for art and bread together against merciless mediocrity in high places,—what he would then have become, I cannot in the least calculate; but we know what Chatterton became. Moreover, C. at his death, was two years younger than Oliver—a whole lifetime of advancement at that age frequently—indeed always I believe in leading cases. There are few indeed whom the facile enthusiasm for contemporary models does not deaden to the truly balanced claims of successful efforts in art. However, look at Watts's remodelled extracts when the vol comes out, and also at what he says in detail as to Chatterton, Coleridge, and Keats.
Of course Rossetti was right in what he said of comparative criticism when brought to bear in such cases as those of Chatterton and Oliver Madox Brown. Net results are certainly the poorest tests of relative values where the work done belongs to periods of development. We cannot, however, see or know any man except through and in his work, and net results must usually be accepted as the only concrete foundation for judging of the quality of his genius. Such judgment will always be influenced, nevertheless, by considerations such as Rossetti mentions. Touching Chatterton's development, it were hardly rash to say that it appears incredible that the African Eclogues should have been written by a boy of seventeen, and, in judging of their place in poetry, one is apt to be influenced by one's first feeling of amazement. Is it possible that the Rowley poems may owe much of their present distinction to the early astonishment that a boy should have written them, albeit they have great intrinsic excellencies such as may insure them a high place when the romance, intertwined with their history, has been long forgotten? But Chatterton is more talked of than read, and this has been so from the first. The antiques are all but unknown; certain of the acknowledged poems are remembered, and regarded as fervid and vigorous, and many of the lesser pieces are thought slight, weak, and valueless. People do not measure the poorer things in Chatterton with his time and opportunities, or they would see only amazing strength and knowledge of the world in all he did. Those lesser pieces were many of them dashed off to answer the calls of necessity, to flatter the egotism of a troublesome friend, or to wile away a moment of vacancy. Certainly they must not be set against his best efforts. As for Chatterton's life, the tragedy of it is perhaps the most moving example of what Coleridge might have termed the material pathetic. Pathetic, however, as his life was, and marvellous as was his genius, I miss in him the note of personal purity and majesty of character. I told Rossetti that, in my view, Chatterton lacked sincerity, and on this point he wrote:
I must protest finally about Chatterton, that he lacks nothing because lacking the gradual growth of the emotional in literature which becomes evident in Keats—still less its excess, which would of course have been pruned, in Oliver. The finest of the Rowley poems—Eclogues, Ballad of Charity, etc., rank absolutely with the finest poetry in the language, and gain (not lose) by moderation. As to what you say of C.'s want of political sincerity (for I cannot see to what other want you can allude), surely a boy up to eighteen may be pardoned for exercising his faculty if he happens to be the one among millions who can use grown men as his toys. He was an absolute and untarnished hero, but for that reckless defying vaunt. Certainly that most vigorous passage commencing—
"Interest, thou universal God of men," etc.
reads startlingly, and comes in a questionable shape. What is the answer to its enigmatical aspect? Why, that he meant it, and that all would mean it at his age, who had his power, his daring, and his hunger. Still it does, perhaps, make one doubt whether his early death were well or ill for him. In the matter of Oliver (whom no one appreciates more than I do), remember that it was impossible to have more opportunities than he had, or on the other side fewer than Chatterton had. Chatterton at seventeen or less said—
"Flattery's a cloak, and I will put it on."
Blake (probably late in life) said—
"Innocence is a winter gown."
... I have read the Chatterton article in the review mentioned. If Watts had done it, it would have been immeasurably better. There seems to me, who am very well up in Chatterton, no point whatever made in the article. Why does no one ever even allude to the two attributed portraits of Chatterton—one belonging to Sir H. Taylor, and the other in the Salford Museum? Both seem to be the same person clearly, and a good find for Chatterton, but not conceivably done from him. Nevertheless, I suspect there may be a sidelong genuineness in them. Chatterton was acquainted with one Alcock, a miniature painter at Bristol, to whom he addressed a poem. Had A. painted C. it would be among the many recorded facts; but it would be singular even if, in C.'s rapid posthumous fame, A. had never been asked to make a reminiscent likeness of him. Prom such likeness by the miniature painter these portraits might derive—both being life-sized oil heads. There is a savour of Keats in them, though a friend, taking up the younger-looking of the two, said it reminded him of Jack Sheppard! And not such a bad Chatterton-compound either! But I begin to think I have said all this before.... Oliver, or "Nolly," as he was always called, was a sort of spread-eagle likeness of his handsome father, with a conical head like Walter Scott. I must confess to you, that, in this world of books, the only one of his I have read, is Gabriel Denver, afterwards reprinted in its original and superior form as The Black Swan, but published with the former title in his lifetime.
Rossetti formed no such philosophic estimate of Chatterton's contribution to the romantic movement in English poetry as has been formulated in the essay in Ward's Poets. A critic, in the sense of one possessed of a natural gift of analysis, Rossetti assuredly! was not. No man's instinct for what is good in poetry was ever swifter or surer than that of Rossetti. You might always distrust your judgment if you found it at variance with his where abstract power and beauty were in question. Sooner or later you would inevitably find yourself gravitating to his view. But here Rossetti's function as a critic ended. His was at best only the criticism of the creator. Of the gift of ultimate classification he had none, and never claimed to have any, although now and again (as where he says that Chatterton was the day-spring of modern romantic poetry), he seems to give sign of a power of critical synthesis.
Rossetti's interest in Blake, both as poet and painter, dates back to an early period of his life. I have heard him say that at sixteen or seventeen years of age he was already one of Blake's warmest admirers, and at the time in question, 1845, the author of the Songs of Innocence had not many readers to uphold him. About four years later, Rossetti made an exceptionally lucky discovery, for he then found in the possession of Mr. Palmer, an attendant at the British Museum, an original manuscript scrap-book of Blake's, containing a great body of unpublished poetry and many interesting designs, as well as three or four remarkably effective profile sketches of the author himself. The Mr. Palmer who held the little book was a relative of the landscape painter of the same name, who was Blake's friend, and hence the authenticity of the manuscript was ascertainable on other grounds than the indisputable ones of its internal evidences. The book was offered to Rossetti for ten shillings, but the young enthusiast was at the time a student of art, and not much in the way of getting or spending even so inconsiderable a sum. He told me, however, that at this period his brother William, who was, unlike himself, engaged in some reasonably profitable occupation, was at all times nothing loath to advance small sums for the purchase of such literary or other treasures as he used to hunt up out of obscure corners: by his help the Blake manuscript was bought, and proved for years a source of infinite pleasure and profit, resulting, as it did, in many very important additions to Blake literature when Gilchrist's Life and Works of that author came to be published. It is an interesting fact, mention of which ought not to be omitted, that at the sale of Rossetti's library, which took place a little while after his decease, the scrap-book acquired in the way I describe was sold for one hundred and five guineas.
The sum was a large one, but the little book was undoubtedly the most valuable literary relic of Blake then extant. About the time when a new edition of Gilchrist's Life was in the press, Rossetti wrote:
My evenings have been rather trenched upon lately by helping Mrs. Gilchrist with a new edition of the Life of Blake.... I don't know if you go in much for him. The new edition of the Life will include a good number of additional letters (from Blake to Hayley), and some addition (though not great) to my own share in the work; as well as much important carrying-on of my brother's catalogue of Blake's works. The illustrations will, I trust, receive valuable additions also, but publishers are apt to be cautious in such expenses. I am writing late at night, to fill up a fag-end of bedtime, and shall write again on this head.
Rossetti's "own share" in this work consisted of the writing of the supplementary chapter (left by Gilchrist, with one or two unimportant passages merely, at the beginning), and the editing of the poems. When there arose, subsequently, some idea of my reviewing the book, Rossetti wrote me the following letter, full of disinterested solicitude:
You will be quite delighted with an essay on Blake by Jas. Smetham, which occurs in vol ii.; it is a noble thing; and at the stupendous design called Plague (vol. i.). I have extracted a passage properly belonging to the same essay, which is as fine as English can be, and which I am sorry to perceive (I think) that Mrs. G. has omitted from the body of the essay because quoted in another place. This essay is no less than a masterpiece. I wrote the supplementary chapter (vol. i.), except a few opening paragraphs by Gilchrist,—and in it have now made some mention of Smetham, an old and dear friend of mine.
You will admire Shields's paper on the wonderful series of Young's Night Thoughts. My brother and I both helped in this new edition, but I added little to what I had done before. I brought forward a portentous series of passages about one "Scofield" in Blake's Jerusalem, but did not otherwise write that chapter, except as regards the illustrations. However, don't mention what I have done (in case you write on the subject) except so far as the indices show it, and of course I don't wish to be put forward at all. What I do wish is, that you should say everything that can be gratifying to Mrs. G. as to her husband's work. There is a plate of Blake's Cottage by young Gilchrist which is truly excellent.
As I have already said, Rossetti traversed the bypaths of English literature (particularly of English poetry) as few can ever have traversed them. A favourite work with him was Gilfillan's Less-Read British Poets, a copy of which had been presented by Miss Boyd. He says:
Did you ever read Christopher Smart's Song to David, the only great accomplished poem of the last century? The accomplished ones are Chatterton's,—of course I mean earlier than Blake or Coleridge, and without reckoning so exceptional a genius as Burns.... You will find Smart's poem a masterpiece of rich imagery, exhaustive resources, and reverberant sound. It is to be met with in Gilfillan's Specimens of the Less-Read British Poets (3 vols. Nichol, Edin., 1860)....
I remember your mentioning Gilfillan as having encouraged your first efforts. He was powerful, though sometimes rather "tall" as a writer, generally most just as a critic, and lastly, a much better man, intellectually and morally, than Aytoun, who tried to "do for" him. His notice of Swift, in the volume in question, has very great force and eloquence. His whole edition of the British Poets is the best of any to read, being such fine type and convenient bulk and weight (a great thing for an arm-chair reader). Unfortunately, he now and then (in the Less-Read Poets) cuts down the extracts almost to nothing, and in some cases excises objectionabilities, which is unpardonable. Much better leave the whole out. Also, the edition includes the usual array of nobodies—Addison, Akenside, and the whole alphabet down to Zany and Zero; whereas a great many of the less-read would have been much-read by every worthy reader if they had only been printed in full. So well printed an edition of Donne (for instance) would have been a great boon; but from him Gilfillan only gives (among the less-read) the admirable Progress of the Soul and some of the pregnant Holy Sonnets. Do you know Donne? There is hardly an English poet better worth a thorough knowledge, in spite of his provoking conceits and occasional jagged jargon.
The following paragraph on Whitehead is valuable:
Charles Whitehead's principal poem is The Solitary, which in its day had admirers. It perhaps most recalls Goldsmith. He also wrote a supernatural poem called Ippolito. There was a volume of his poems published about 1848, or perhaps a little later, by Bentley. It is disappointing, on the whole, from the decided superiority of its best points to the rest.... But the novel of Richard Savage is very remarkable,—a real character really worked out.
To aid me in certain researches I was at the time engaged in making in the back-numbers of almost forgotten periodicals, Rossetti wrote:
The old Monthly Mag. was the precursor of the New Monthly, which started about 1830, or thereabouts I think, after which the old one ailed, but went on till fatal old Heraud finished it off by editing it, and fairly massacred that elderly innocent. You speak, in a former letter (touching the continuation of Christabel), of "a certain European magazine." Are you aware that it was as old a thing as The Gentleman's, and went on ad infinitum? Other such were the Universal Magazine, the Scots' Magazine—all endless in extent and beginning time out of mind,—to say nothing of the Ladies' Magazine and Wits' Magazine. Then there was the Annual Register. All these are quarters in which you might prosecute researches, and might happen to find something about Keats. The Monthly Magazine must have commenced almost as early, I believe. I cannot help thinking there was a similar Imperial Magazine.
The following letter possesses an interest independent of its subject, which to me, however, is interest enough. Mr. William Watson had sent Rossetti a copy of a volume of poems he had just published, and had received a letter in acknowledgment, wherein our friend, with characteristic appreciativeness, said many cordial words of it:
Your young friend Watson [he said in a subsequent letter] wrote me in a very modest mood for one who can do as he can at his age. I think I must have hurriedly mis-expressed myself in writing to him, as he seems to think I wished to dissuade him from following narrative poetry. Not in the least—I only wished him to try his hand at clearer dramatic life. The dreamy romantic really hardly needs more than one vast Morris in a literature—at any rate in a century. Not that I think him derivable from Morris—he goes straight back to Keats with a little modification. The narrative, whether condensed or developed, is at any rate a far better impersonal form to work in than declamatory harangue, whether calling on the stars or the Styx. I don't know in the least how Watson is faring with the critics. He must not be discouraged, in any case, with his real and high gifts.
The young poet, in whom Rossetti saw so much to applaud, can scarcely be said to have fared at all at the hands of the critics.
Here is a pleasant piece of literary portraiture, as valuable from the peep it affords into Rossetti's own character as from the description it gives of the rustic poet:
The other evening I had the pleasant experience of meeting one to whom I have for about two years looked with interest as a poet of the native rustic kind, but often of quite a superior order. I don't know if you noticed, somewhere about the date referred to, in The Athenaeum, a review of poems by Joseph Skipsey. Skip-sey has exquisite—though, as in all such cases (except of course Burns's) not equal—powers in several directions, but his pictures of humble life are the best. He is a working miner, and describes rustic loves and sports, and the perils and pathos of pit-life with great charm, having a quiet humour too when needed. His more ambitious pieces have solid merit of feeling, but are much less artistic. The other night, as I say, he came here, and I found him a stalwart son of toil, and every inch a gentleman. In cast of face he recalls Tennyson somewhat, though more bronzed and brawned. He is as sweet and gentle as a woman in manner, and recited some beautiful things of his own with a special freshness to which one is quite unaccustomed.
Mr. Skipsey was a miner of North Shields, and in the review referred to much was made, in a delicate way, of his stern environments. His volume of lyrics is marked by the quiet humour. Rossetti speaks of, as well as by a rather exasperating inequality. Perhaps the best piece in it is a poem entitled Thistle and Nettle, treating with peculiar freshness of a country courtship. The coming together of two such entirely opposite natures was certainly curious, and only to be accounted for on the ground of Rossetti's breadth of poetic sympathy. It would be interesting to hear what the impressions were of such a rude son of toil upon meeting with one whose life must have seemed the incarnation of artistic luxury and indulgence. Later on I received the following:
Poor Skipsey! He has lost the friend who brought him to London only the other day (T. Dixon), and who was his only hold on intellectual life in his district. Dixon died immediately on his return to the North, of a violent attack of asthma to which he was subject. He was a rarely pure and simple soul, and is doubtless gone to higher uses, though few could have reached, with his small opportunities, to such usefulness as he compassed here. He was Ruskin's correspondent in a little book called (I think) Work by Tyne and Wear. I got a very touching note from Skipsey on the subject.
From Mr. Skipsey he received a letter only a little while before his death, and to him he addressed one of the last epistles he penned.
The following letter explains itself, and is introduced as much for the sake of the real humour which it displays, as because it affords an excellent idea of Rossetti's view of the true function of prose:
I don't like your Shakspeare article quite as well as the first Supernatural one, or rather I should say it does not greatly add to it in my (first) view, though both might gain by embodiment in one. I think there is some truth in the charge of metaphysical involution—the German element as I should call it—and surely you are strong enough to be English pure and simple. I am sure I could write 100 essays, on all possible subjects (I once did project a series under the title, Essays written in the intervals of Elephantiasis, Hydro-phobia, and Penal Servitude), without once experiencing the "aching void" which is filled by such words as "mythopoeic," and "anthropomorphism." I do not find life long enough to know in the least what they mean. They are both very long and very ugly indeed—the latter only suggesting to me a Vampire or Somnambulant Cannibal. (To speak rationally, would not "man-evolved Godhead" be an English equivalent?) "Euhemeristic" also found me somewhat on my beam-ends, though explanation is here given; yet I felt I could do without Euhemerus; and you perhaps without the humerous. You can pardon me now; for so bad a pun places me at your mercy indeed. But seriously, simple English in prose writing and in all narrative poetry (however monumental language may become in abstract verse) seems to me a treasure not to be foregone in favour of German innovations. I know Coleridge went in latterly for as much Germanism as his time could master; but his best genius had then left him.
It seems necessary to mention that I lectured in 1880, on the relation of politics to art, and in printing the lecture I asked Rossetti to accept the dedication of it, but this he declined to do in the generous terms I have already referred to. The letter that accompanied his graceful refusal is, however, so full of interesting personal matter that I offer it in this place, with no further explanation than that my essay was designed to show that just as great artists in past ages had participated in political struggles, so now they should not hold themselves aloof from controversies which immediately concern them:
I must admit, at all hazards, that my friends here consider me exceptionally averse to politics; and I suppose I must be, for I never read a parliamentary debate in my life! At the same time I will add that, among those whose opinions I most value, some think me not altogether wrong when I venture to speak of the momentary momentousness and eternal futility of many noisiest questions. However, you must simply view me as a nonentity in any practical relation to such matters. You have spoken but too generously of a sonnet of mine in your lecture just received. I have written a few others of the sort (which by-the-bye would not prove me a Tory), but felt no vocation—perhaps no right—-to print them. I have always reproached myself as sorely amenable to the condemnations of a very fine poem by Barberino, On Sloth against Sin, which I translated in the Dante volume. Sloth, alas! has but too much to answer for with me; and is one of the reasons (though I will not say the only one), why I have always fallen back on quality instead of quantity in the little I have ever done. I think often with Coleridge:
Sloth jaundiced all: and from my graspless hand Drop friendship's precious pearls like hour-glass sand. I weep, yet stoop not: the faint anguish flows, A dreamy pang in morning's feverish doze.
However, for all I might desire in the direction spoken of, volition is vain without vocation; and I had better really stick to knowing how to mix vermilion and ultramarine for a flesh-grey, and how to manage their equivalents in verse. To speak without sparing myself,—my mind is a childish one, if to be isolated in Art is child's-play; at any rate I feel that I do not attain to the more active and practical of the mental functions of manhood. I can say this to you, because I know you will make the best and not the worst of me; and better than such feasible best I do not wish to appear. Thus you see I don't think my name ought to head your introductory paragraph—and there an end. And now of your new lecture, and of the long letter I lately had from you. At some moment I should like to know which pieces among the translations are specially your favourites. Of the three names you leash together as somewhat those of sensualists, Cecco Angiolieri is really the only one—as for the respectable Cino, he would be shocked indeed, though certainly there are a few oddities bearing that way in the sonnets between him and Dante (who is again similarly reproached by his friend Cavalcanti), but I really do suspect that in some cases similar to the one in question about Cino (though not Guido and Dante) politics were really meant where love was used as a metaphor.... I assure you, you cannot say too much to me of this or any other work of yours; in fact, I wish that we should communicate about them. I have been thinking yet more on the relations of politics and art. I do think seriously on consideration that not only my own sluggishness, but vital fact itself, must set to a great extent a veto against the absolute participation of artists in politics. When has it ever been effected? True, Cellini was a bravo and David a good deal like a murderer, and in these capacities they were not without their political use in very turbulent times. But when the attempt was made to turn Michael Angelo into a "utility man" of that kind, he did (it is true) some patriotic duty in the fortification of Florence; but it is no less a fact that, when he had done all that he thought became him, he retired to a certain trackless and forgotten tower, and there stayed in some sort of peace (though much in request) till he could lead his own life again; nor should we forget the occasion on which he did not hesitate even to betake himself to Venice as a refuge. Yet M. Angelo was in every way a patriot, a philosopher, and a hero. I do not say this to undervalue the scope of your theory. I think possibilities are generally so much behind desirabilities that there is no harm in any degree of incitement in the right direction; and that is assuredly mental activity of all kinds. I judge you cannot suspect me of thinking the apotheosis of the early Italian poets (though surely spiritual beauty, and not sensuality, was their general aim) of more importance than the "unity of a great nation." But it is in my minute power to deal successfully (I feel) with the one, while no such entity, as I am, can advance or retard the other; and thus mine must needs be the poorer part. Nor (with alas, and again alas!) will Italy or another twice have her day in its fulness.
I happened to have said in speaking of self-indulgence among artists, that there probably existed those to whom it seemed more important to preserve such a pitiful possession as the poetical remains of Cecco Angiolieri than to secure the unity of a great nation. Rossetti half suspected I meant this for a playful backhanded blow at himself (for Cecco was a great favourite with him), and protested that no such individual could exist. I defended my charge by quoting Keats's—
... the silver flow Of Hero's tears, the swoon of Imogen, Fair Pastorella in the bandit's den, Are things to brood on with more ardency Than the death-day of empires.
But Rossetti grew weary of the jest:
I must protest that what you quote from Keats about "Hero's tears," etc., fails to meet the text. Neither Shakspeare nor Spenser assuredly was a Cecco; Marlowe may be most meant as to "Hero," and he perhaps affords the shadow of a parallel in career though not in work.
The extract from Rosetti's letters with which I shall close this chapter is perhaps the most interesting yet made:
One point I must still raise, viz., that I, for one, cannot conceive, even as the Ghost of a Flea, the ideal individual who considers the Poetical Remains of Cecco Angiolieri of more importance than the unity of a great nation! I think this would have been better if much modified. Say for instance—"A thing of some moment even while the contest is waging for the political unity of a great nation." This is the utmost reach surely of human comparative valuation. I think you have brought in Benvenuto and Michael much to the purpose. Shall I give you a parallel in your own style?
During the months for which poet Coleridge became private Cumberback (a name in which he said his horse would have concurred), it seems strange that, in such stirring times, his regiment should not have been ordered off on foreign service. In such case that pre-eminent member of the awkward squad would assuredly have been the very first man killed. Should we have been more the gainers by his patriotism or the losers by his poetry? The very last man killed in the last sortie from Paris during the Prussian siege (he would go behind a buttress to "pot" a Prussian after orders were given to retire, and so got "potted" himself) was Henri Regnault, a painter, whose brilliant work was a guiding beacon on the road of improvement in French methods of art, if not in intellectual force. Who shall fail to honour the noble ardour which drew him from the security of his studies in Tunis to partake his country's danger? Yet who shall forbear to sigh in thinking that, but for this, his progressing work might still yearly be an element in art-progress for Europe? Gerome and others betook themselves to England instead, and are still benefiting the cause for which they were before all things born. It was David who said, "Si on tirait a mitraille sur les artistes, on n'y tuerait pas un seul patriote!" He was a patriot homicide, and spoke probably what was true in the sense in which he meant it. As I said, I am glad you turned Ben and Mike to account, but the above is in some respects an open question.
I have, as I say, a further batch of letters to introduce, but as these were, for the most part, written after an event which forms a land-mark in our acquaintance (I mean the occasion of our first meeting), I judge it is best to reserve them for a later section of this book. There are two forms, and, so far as I know, two only, in which a body of letters can be published with justice to the writer. Of these the first and most obvious form is to offer them chronologically in extenso or with only such eliminations as seem inevitable, and the second is to tabulate them according to subject-matter, and print them in the order not of date but substance. There are advantages attending each method, and corresponding disadvantages also. The temptation to adopt the first of these was, in this case of Rossetti's letters, almost insurmountable, for nothing can be more charming in epistolary style than the easy grace with which the writer passes from point to point, evolving one idea out of another, interlinking subject with subject, and building up a fabric of which the meaning is everywhere inwoven. In this respect Rossetti's letters are almost as perfect as anything that ever left his hand; and, in freedom of phrase, in power of throwing off parenthetical reflections always faultlessly enunciated, in play of humour, often in eloquence (never becoming declamatory, and calling on "Styx or Stars"), sometimes in pathos, Rossetti's letters are, in a word, admirable. They are comparable in these respects with the best things yet done in English,—as pleasing and graceful as Cowper's letters, broader in range of subject than the letters of Keats, easier and more colloquial than those of Coleridge, and with less appearance of being intended for the public eye than is the case with the letters of Byron and of Shelley. Rossetti's letters have, moreover, a value quite apart from the merits of their epistolary style, in so far as they contain almost the only expression extant of his opinions on literary questions. And this is the circumstance that has chiefly weighed with me to offer them in fragmentary form interspersed with elucidatory comment bearing principally upon the occasions that called them forth.
Such then as I have described was the nature of my intercourse with Rossetti during the first year and a half of our correspondence, and now the time had come when I was to meet my friend for the first time face to face. The elasticity of sympathy by which a man of genius, surrounded by constant friends, could yet bend to a new-comer who was a stranger and twenty-five years his junior, and think and feel with him; the generous appreciativeness by which he could bring himself to consider the first efforts of one quite unknown; and then the unselfishness that seemed always to prefer the claims of others to his own great claims, could command only the return of unqualified allegiance. Such were the feelings with which I went forth to my first meeting with Rossetti, and if at any later date, the ardour of my regard for him in any measure suffered modification, be sure when the time comes to touch upon it I shall make no more concealment of the causes that led to such a change than I have made of those circumstances, however personal in primary interest, that generated a friendship so unusual and to me so serious and important.
It was in the autumn of 1880 that I saw Rossetti for the first time. Being then rather reduced in health I contemplated a visit to the sea-side and wrote saying that in passing through London I should avail myself of his oft-repeated invitation to visit him. I gave him this warning of my intention, remembering his declared dread of being taken unawares, but I came to know at a subsequent period that for one who was within the inner circle of his friends the necessity to advise him of a visit was by no means binding. His reception of my intimation of an intention to call upon him was received with an amount of epistolary ceremony which I recognise now by the light of further acquaintance as eminently characteristic of the man, although curiously contradictory of his unceremonious habits of daily life. The fact is that Rossetti was of an excessively nervous temperament, and rarely if ever underwent an ordeal more trying than a first meeting with any one to whom for some time previously he had looked forward with interest. Hence by return of the post that bore him my missive came two letters, the one obviously written and posted within an hour or two of the other. In the first of these he expressed courteously his pleasure at the prospect of seeing me, and appointed 8.30 p.m. the following evening as his dinner hour at his house in Cheyne Walk. The second letter begged me to come at 5.30 or 6 p.m., so that we might have a long evening. "You will, I repeat," he says, "recognise the hole-and-cornerest of all existences in this big barn of mine; but come early and I shall read you some ballads, and we can talk of many things." An hour later than the arrival of these letters came a third epistle, which ran: "Of course when I speak of your dining with me, I mean tete-a-tete and without ceremony of any kind. I usually dine in my studio and in my painting coat!" I had before me a five hours' journey to London, so that in order to reach Chelsea at 6 P.M., I must needs set out at mid-day, but oblivious of this necessity, Rossetti had actually posted a fourth letter on the morning of the day on which we were to meet begging me not on any account to talk, in the course of our interview, of a certain personal matter upon which we had corresponded. This fourth and final message came to hand the morning after the meeting, when I had the satisfaction to reflect that (owing more perhaps to the plethora of other subjects of interest than to any suspicion of its being tabooed) I had luckily eschewed the proscribed topic.
Cheyne Walk was unknown to me at the time in question, except as the locality in and near which many men and women eminent in literature resided. It seems hard to realise that this was the case as recently as two years ago, now that so short an interval has associated it in one's mind with memories which seem to cover a large part of one's life. The Walk is not now exactly as picturesque as it appears in certain familiar old engravings; the new embankment and the gardens that separate it from the main thoroughfare have taken something from its beauty, but it still possesses many attractions, and among them a look of age which contrasts agreeably with the spic-and-span newness of neighbouring places. I found Rossetti's house, No. 16, answering in external appearances to the frank description he gave of it. It stands about mid-way between the Chelsea pier and the new redbrick mansions erected on the Chelsea embankment. It seems to be the oldest house in the Walk, and the exceptional proportions of its gate-piers, and the weight and mass of its gate and railings, suggests that probably at some period it stood alone, and commanded as grounds a large part of the space now occupied by the adjoining residences. Behind the house, during eighteen years of Rossetti's occupancy, there was a garden of almost an acre in extent, covering by much the larger part of the space enclosed by a block of four streets forming a square. At No. 4 Maclise had lived and died; at the same house George Eliot, after her marriage with Mr. Cross, had come to live; at No. 5, in the second street to the westward, Thomas Carlyle was still living, and a little beyond Cheyne Row stood the modest cottage wherein Turner died. Rossetti's house had to me the appearance of a plain Queen Anne erection, much mutilated by the introduction of unsightly bay-windows; the brickwork seemed to be falling into decay; the paint to be in serious need of renewal; the windows to be dull with the accumulation of the dust of years; the sills to bear the suspicion of cobwebs; the angles of the steps and the untrodden flags of the courtyard to be here and there overgrown with moss and weeds; and round the walls and up the reveals of doors and windows were creeping the tangled branches of the wildest ivy that ever grew untouched by shears. Such was the exterior of the home of the poet-painter when I walked up to it on the autumn evening of my first visit, and the interior of the house was at once like and unlike the exterior. The hall had a puzzling look of equal nobility and shabbiness. The floor was paved with beautiful white marble, which however, was partly covered with a strip of worn cocoa-nut matting; the ceiling was in one of its sections gracefully groined, and in each of the walls, which were lofty, there was an arched recess containing a piece of sculpture; an old inlaid rosewood clock filled a bulkhead on one side facing the door, and on the corresponding side stood a massive gas branch. A mezzotint lithograph by Legros was the only pictorial decoration of the walls, which were plain, and seemed not to have been distempered for many years. Three doors led out of the hall, one at each side, and one in front, and two corridors opened into it, but there was no sign of staircase, nor had it any light except such as was borrowed from the fanlight that looked into the porch. These facts I noted in the few minutes I stood waiting in the hall, but during the many months in which subsequently that house was my own home as well as Rossetti's, I came to see that the changes which the building must have undergone since the period of its erection, had so filled it with crooks and corners as to bewilder the most ingenious observer to account for its peculiarities.
Very soon Rossetti came to me through the doorway in front, which proved to be the entrance to his studio. Holding forth both hands and crying 'Hulloa,' he gave me that cheery, hearty greeting which I came to recognise as his alone, perhaps, in warmth and unfailing geniality among all the men of our circle. It was Italian in its spontaneity, and yet it was English in its manly reserve, and I remember with much tenderness of feeling that never to the last (not even when sickness saddened him, or after an absence of a few days or even hours) did it fail him when meeting with those friends to whom to the last he was really attached. Leading the way into the studio, he introduced me to his brother, who was there upon one of the evening visits, which at intervals of a week he was at that time making, with unfailing regularity. I should have described Rossetti, at this time, as a man who looked quite ten years older than his actual age, which was fifty-two, of full middle height and inclining to corpulence, with a round face that ought, one thought, to be ruddy but was pale, large grey eyes with a steady introspecting look, surmounted by broad protrusive brows and a clearly-pencilled ridge over the nose, which was well cut and had large breathing nostrils. The mouth and chin were hidden beneath a heavy moustache and abundant beard, which grew up to the ears, and had been of a mixed black-brown and auburn, and were now streaked with grey. The forehead was large, round, without protuberances, and very gently receding to where thin black curls, that had once been redundant, began to tumble down to the ears. The entire configuration of the head and face seemed to me singularly noble, and from the eyes upwards, full of beauty. He wore a pair of spectacles, and, in reading, a second pair over the first: but these took little from the sense of power conveyed by those steady eyes, and that "bar of Michael Angelo." His dress was not conspicuous, being however rather negligent than otherwise, and noticeable, if at all, only for a straight sack-coat buttoned at the throat, descending at least to the knees, and having large pockets cut into it perpendicularly at the sides. This garment was, I afterwards found, one of the articles of various kinds made to the author's own design. When he spoke, even in exchanging the preliminary courtesies of an opening conversation, I thought his voice the richest I had ever known any one to possess. It was a full deep barytone, capable of easy modulation, and with undertones of infinite softness and sweetness, yet, as I afterwards found, with almost illimitable compass, and with every gradation of tone at command, for the recitation or reading of poetry. The studio was a large room probably measuring thirty feet by twenty, and structurally as puzzling as the other parts of the house. A series of columns and arches on one side suggested that the room had almost certainly been at some period the site of an important staircase with a wide well, and on the other side a broad mullioned window reaching to the ceiling, seemed certainly to bear record of the occupant's own contribution to the peculiarities of the edifice. The fireplace was at an end of the room, and over and at each side of it were hung a number of fine drawings in chalk, chiefly studies of heads, with here and there a water-colour figure piece, all from Rossetti's hand. At the opposite end of the room hung some symbolic designs in chalk, Pandora and Proserpina being among the number, and easels of various sizes, some very large, bearing pictures in differing stages of completion, occupied positions on all sides of the floor, leaving room only for a sofa, with a bookcase behind, two old cabinets, two large low easy chairs, and a writing desk and chair at a window at the side, which was heavily darkened by the thick foliage of the trees that grew in the garden beyond.
Dropping down on the sofa with his head laid low and his feet thrown up in a favourite attitude on the back, which must, I imagine, have been at least as easy as it was elegant, he began the conversation by bantering me upon what he called my "robustious" appearance compared with what he had been led to expect from gloomy reports of uncertain health. After a series of playful touches (all done in the easiest conceivable way, and conveying any impression on earth save the right one, that a first meeting with any man, however young and harmless, was little less than a tragic event to Rossetti) he glanced one by one at certain of the topics that had arisen in the course of our correspondence. I perceived that he was a ready, fluent, and graceful talker, with a remarkable incisiveness of speech, and a trick of dignifying ordinary topics in words which, without rising above conversation, were so exactly, though freely enunciated, as would have admitted of their being reported exactly as they fell from his lips. In some of these respects I found his brother William resemble him, though, if I may describe the talk of a dead friend by contrasting it with that of a living one bearing a natural affinity to it, I will say that Gabriel's conversation was perhaps more spontaneous, and had more variety of tone with less range of subject, together with the same precision and perspicuity. Very soon the talk became general, and then Rossetti spoke without appearance of reserve of his two or three intimate friends, telling me, among other things, of Theodore Watts, that he "had a head exactly like that of Napoleon I., whom Watts," he said with a chuckle, "detests more than any character in history; depend upon it," he added, "such a head was not given to him for nothing;" that Frederick Shields was as emotional as Shelley, and Ford Madox Brown, whom I had met, as sententious as Dr. Johnson. I kept no sort of record of what passed upon the occasion in question, but I remember that Rossetti seemed to be playfully battering his friends in their absence in the assured consciousness that he was doing so in the presence of a well-wisher; and it was amusing to observe that, after any particularly lively sally, he would pause to say something in a sobered tone that was meant to convey the idea that he was really very jealous of his friends' reputation, and was merely for the sake of amusement giving rein to a sportive fancy. During dinner (and contrary to his declared habit, we did not dine in the studio) he talked a good deal about Oliver Madox Brown, for whom I had conceived a warm admiration, and to whom I had about that time addressed a sonnet.
"You had a sincere admiration of the boy's gifts?" I asked.
"Assuredly. I have always said that twenty years after his death his name will be a familiar one. The Black Swan is a powerful story, although I must honestly say that it displays in its central incident a certain torpidity that to me is painful. Undoubtedly Oliver had genius, and must have done great things had he lived. His death was a grievous blow to his father. I'm glad you've written that sonnet; I wanted you to toss up your cap for Nolly." He spoke of Oliver's father as indisputably one of the greatest of living colourists, inquired earnestly into the progress of his frescoes at Manchester, for one of the figures in which I had sat, and showed me a little water-colour drawing made by Oliver himself when very young. Dinner being now over, I asked Rossetti to redeem his promise to read one of his new ballads; and as his brother, who had often heard it before, expressed his readiness to hear it again, he responded readily, and, taking a small manuscript volume out of a section of the bookcase that had been locked, read us The White Ship. I have spoken of the ballad as a poem at an earlier stage, but it remains to me, in this place, to describe the effect produced upon me by the author's reading. It seemed to me that I never heard anything at all matchable with Rossetti's elocution; his rich deep voice lent an added music to the music of the verse: it rose and fell in the passages descriptive of the wreck with something of the surge and sibilation of the sea itself; in the tenderer passages it was soft as a woman's, and in the pathetic stanzas with which the ballad closes it was profoundly moving. Effective as the reading sounded in that studio, I remember at the moment to have doubted if it would prove quite so effective from a public platform. Perhaps there seemed to be so much insistence on the rhythm, and so prolonged a tension of the rhyme sounds, as would run the risk of a charge of monotony if falling on ears less concerned with points of metrical beauty than with fundamental substance. Personally, however, I found the reading in the very highest degree enjoyable and inspiring.
The evening was gone by the time the ballad was ended; and it was arranged that upon my return to London from the house of a friend at the sea-side I should again dine with Rossetti, and sleep the night at Cheyne Walk. I was invited to come early in order to see certain pictures by day-light, and it was then I saw the painter's most important work,—the Dantes Dream, which finally (and before Rossetti was made aware of any steps being taken to that end) I had prevailed with Alderman Samuelson to purchase for the public gallery at Liverpool. At my request, though only after some importunity, Rossetti read again his White Ship, and afterwards Rose Mary, the latter of which he told me had been written in the country shortly after the appearance of the first volume of poems. He remarked that it had occupied three weeks in the writing, and that the physical prostration ensuing had been more than he would care to go through again. I observed on this head, that though highly finished in every stanza, the ballad had an impetuous rush of emotion, and swift current of diction, suggesting speed in its composition, as contrasted with the laboured deliberation which the sonnets, for example, appeared to denote. I asked if his work usually took much out of him in physical energy.
"Not my painting, certainly," he replied, "though in early years it tormented me more than enough. Now I paint by a set of unwritten but clearly-defined rules, which I could teach to any man as systematically as you could teach arithmetic; indeed, quite recently I sat all day for that very purpose with Shields, who is not so great a colourist as he is a draughtsman: he is a great draughtsman—none better now living, unless it is Leighton or Sir Noel Paton."
"Still," I said, "there's usually a good deal in a picture of yours beside what you can do by rule."
"Fundamental conception, no doubt, but beyond that not much. In painting, after all, there is in the less important details something of the craft of a superior carpenter, and the part of a picture that is not mechanical is often trivial enough. I don't wonder, now," he added, with a suspicion of a twinkle in the eye, "if you imagine that one comes down here in a fine frenzy every morning to daub canvas?"
"I certainly imagine," I replied, "that a superior carpenter would find it hard to paint another Dante's Dream, which some people consider the best example yet seen of the English school."
"That is friendly nonsense," rejoined my frank host, "there is now no English school whatever."
"Well," I said, "if you deny the name to others who lay more claim to it, will you not at least allow it to the three or four painters who started with you in life?"
"Not at all, unless it is to Brown, and he's more French than English; Hunt and Jones have no more claim to the name than I have. As for all the prattle about pre-Raphaelitism, I confess to you I am weary of it, and long have been. Why should we go on talking about the visionary vanities of half-a-dozen boys? We've all grown out of them, I hope, by now."
I remarked that the pre-Raphaelite movement was no doubt a serious one at the beginning.
"What you call the movement was serious enough, but the banding together under that title was all a joke. We had at that time a phenomenal antipathy to the Academy, and in sheer love of being outlawed signed our pictures with the well-known initials." I have preserved the substance of what Rossetti said on this point, and, as far as possible, the actual words have been given. On many subsequent occasions he expressed himself in the same way: assuredly with as much seeming depreciation of the painter's "craft," although certain examples of modern art called forth his warmest eulogies. In serious moods he would speak of pictures by Millais, Watts, Leighton, Burne Jones, and others, as works of the highest genius.
Reverting to my inquiry as to whether his work took much out of him, he remarked that his poetry usually did. "In that respect," he said, "I am the reverse of Swinburne. For his method of production inspiration is indeed the word. With me the case is different. I lie on the couch, the racked and tortured medium, never permitted an instant's surcease of agony until the thing on hand is finished."
It was obvious that what Rossetti meant by being racked and tortured, was that his subject possessed him; that he was enslaved by his own "shaping imagination." Assuredly he was the reverse of a costive poet: impulse was, to use his own phrase, fully developed in his muse.
I made some playful allusion, assuredly not meant to involve Mr. Swinburne, to Sheridan's epigram on easy writing and hard reading; and to the Abbe de Marolles, who exultingly told some poet that his verses cost no trouble: "They cost you what they are worth," replied the bard.
"One benefit I do derive," Rossetti added, "as a result of my method of composition; my work becomes condensed. Probably the man does not live who could write what I have written more briefly than I have done."
Emphasis and condensation, I remarked, were indubitably the characteristics of his muse. He then read me a great body of the new sonnets of The House of Life. Sitting in that studio listening to his reading and looking up meantime at the chalk-drawings that hung on the walls, I realised how truly he had said, in correspondence, that the feeling pervading his pictures was such as his poetry ought to suggest. The affinity between the two seemed to me at that moment to be complete: the same half-sad, half-resigned view of life, the same glimpses of hope, the same foreshadowings of gloom.
"You doubtless think it odd," he said at one moment, "to hear an old fellow read such love-poetry as much of this is, but I may tell you that the larger part of it, though still unpublished, was written when I was as young as you are. When I print these sonnets, I shall probably affix a note saying, that though many of them are of recent production, not a few are obviously the work of earlier years."
I expressed admiration of the pathetic sonnet entitled Without Her.
"I cannot tell you," he said, "at what terrible moment it was wrung from me."
He had read it with tears of voice, subsiding at length into suppressed sobs and intervals of silence. As though to explain away this emotion he said:
"All poetry, that is really poetry, affects me deeply and often to tears. It does not need to be pathetic or yet tender to produce such a result. I have known in my life two men, and two only, who are similarly sensitive—Tennyson, and my old friend and neighbour William Bell Scott. I once heard Tennyson read Maud, and whilst the fiery passages were delivered with a voice and vehemence which he alone of living men can compass, the softer passages and the songs made the tears course down his cheeks. Morris is a fine reader, and so, of his kind, though a little prone to sing-song, is Swinburne. Browning both reads and talks well—at least he did so when I knew him intimately as a young man."
Rossetti went on to say that he had been among Browning's earliest admirers. As a boy he had seen something signed by the then unknown name of the author of Paracelsus, and wrote to him. The result was an intimacy. He spoke with warmest admiration of Child Roland; and referred to Elizabeth Barrett Browning in terms of regard, and, I think I may say, of reverence.
I asked if he had ever heard Ruskin read. He replied:
"I must have done so, but remember nothing clearly. On one occasion, however, I heard him deliver a speech, and that was something never to forget. When we were young, we helped Frederick Denison Maurice by taking classes at the Working Men's College, and there Charles Kingsley and others made speeches and delivered lectures. Ruskin was asked to do something of the kind and at length consented. He made no sort of preparation for the occasion: I know he did not; we were together at his father's house the whole of the day in question. At night we drove down to the College, and then he made the finest speech I ever heard. I doubted at the time if any written words of his were equal to it! such flaming diction! such emphasis! such appeal!—yet he had written his first and second volumes of Modern Painters by that time." I have reproduced the substance of what Rossetti said on the occasion of my return visit, and, by help of letters written at the time to a friend, I have in many cases recalled his exact words. A certain incisiveness of speech which distinguished his conversation, I confess myself scarcely able to convey more than a suggestion of; as Mr. Watts has said in The Athenaeum, his talk showed an incisiveness so perfect that it had often the pleasurable surprise of wit. Rossetti had both wit and humour, but these, during the time that I knew him, were only occasionally present in his conversation, while the incisiveness was always conspicuous. A certain quiet play of sportive fancy, developing at intervals into banter, was sometimes observable in his talk with the younger and more familiar of his acquaintances, but for the most part his conversation was serious, and, during the time I knew him, often sad. I speedily observed that he was not of the number of those who lead or sustain conversation. He required to be constantly interrogated, but as a negative talker, if I may so describe him, he was by much the best I had heard. Catching one's drift before one had revealed it, and anticipating one's objections, he would go on from point to point, almost removing the necessity for more than occasional words. Nevertheless, as I say, he was not, in the conversations I have heard, a leading conversationalist; his talk was never more than talk, and in saying that it was uniformly sustained yet never declamatory, I think I convey an idea both of its merits and limitations.
I understood that Rossetti had never at any period of his life been an early riser, and at the time of the interview in question he was more than ever before prone to reverse the natural order of waking and sleeping hours. I am convinced that during the time I was with him only the necessity of securing a certain short interval of daylight, by which it was possible to paint, prevailed with him to rise before noon. Alluding to this idiosyncrasy, he said: "I lie as long, or say as late, as Dr. Johnson used to do. You shall never know, until you discover it for yourself, at what hour I rise." He sat up until four A.M. on this night of my second visit,—no unaccustomed thing, as I afterwards learned. I must not omit the mention of one feature of the conversation, revealing to me a new side of his character, or, more properly, a new phase of his mind, which gave me subsequently an infinity of anxiety and distress. Branching off at a late hour from some entirely foreign topic, he begged me to tell him the facts of some unlucky debate in which I had long before been engaged on a public platform with some one who had attacked him. He had heard a report of what passed at a time when my name was unknown to him, as also was that of his assailant. Being forewarned by William Rossetti of his brother's peculiar sensitiveness to critical attack, and having, moreover, observed something of the kind myself, I tried to avoid a circumstantial statement of what passed. But Rossetti was, as has been said by one who knew him well, "of imagination all compact," and my obvious desire to shelve the subject suggested to his mind a thousand inferences infinitely more damaging than the fact. To avoid such a result I told him all, and there was little in the way of attack to repeat beyond a few unwelcome strictures on his poem Jenny. He listened but too eagerly to what I was saying, and then in a voice slower, softer, and more charged, perhaps, with emotion than I had heard before, said it was the old story, which began ten years before, and would go on until he had been hunted and hounded to his grave. Startled, and indeed, appalled by so grave a view of what to me had seemed no more than an error of critical judgment, coupled perhaps, with some intemperance of condemnation, I prayed of him to think no more of the matter, reproached myself with having yielded to his importunity, and begged him to remember that if one man held the opinions I had repeated, many men held contrary ones.
"It was right of you to tell me when I asked you," he said, "though my friends usually keep such facts from my knowledge. As to Jenny, it is a sermon, nothing less. As I say, it is a sermon, and on a great world, to most men unknown, though few consider themselves ignorant of it. But of this conspiracy to persecute me—what remains to say but that it is widespread and remorseless—one cannot but feel it."
I assured him there existed no conspiracy to persecute him: that he had ardent upholders everywhere, though it was true that few men had found crueller critics. He shook his head, and said I knew that what he had alleged was true, namely that an organised conspiracy existed, having for its object to annoy and injure him. Growing a little impatient of this delusion, so tenaciously held, against all show of reason, I told him that it was no more than the fever of an oppressed brain brought about by his reclusive habits of life, by shunning intercourse with all save some half dozen or more friends. "You tell me," I said, "that you have rarely been outside these walls for some years, and your brain has meanwhile been breeding a host of hallucinations, like cobwebs in a dark corner. You have only to go abroad, and the fresh air will blow these things away." But continuing for some moments longer in the same strain, he came to closer quarters and distressed me by naming as enemies three or four men who had throughout life been his friends, who have spoken of him since his death in words of admiration and even affection, and who had for a time fallen away from him or called on him but rarely, from contingencies due to any cause but alienated friendship.
At length the time had arrived when it was considered prudent to retire. "You are to sleep in Watts's room to-night," he said: and then in reply to a look of inquiry he added, "He comes here at least twice a week, talking until four o'clock in the morning upon everything from poetry to the Pleiades, and driving away the bogies, and as he lives at Putney Hill, it is necessary to have a bed for him." Before going into my room he suggested that I should go and look, at his. It was entered from another and smaller room which he said that he used as a breakfast room. The outer room was made fairly bright and cheerful by a glittering chandelier (the property once, he told me, of David Garrick), and from the rustle of trees against the window-pane one perceived that it overlooked the garden; but the inner room was dark with heavy hangings around the walls as well as the bed, and thick velvet curtains before the windows, so that the candles in our hands seemed unable to light it, and our voices sounded thick and muffled. An enormous black oak chimney-piece of curious design, having an ivory crucifix on the largest of its ledges, covered a part of one side and reached to the ceiling. Cabinets, and the usual furniture of a bedroom, occupied places about the floor: and in the middle of it, and before a little couch, stood a small table on which was a wire lantern containing a candle which Rossetti lit from the open one in his hand—another candle meantime lying by its side. I remarked that he probably burned a light all night. He said that was so. "My curse," he added, "is insomnia. Two or three hours hence I shall get up and lie on the couch, and, to pass away a weary hour, read this book"—a volume of Boswell's Johnson which I noticed he took out of the bookcase as we left the studio. It did not escape me that on the table stood two small bottles sealed and labelled, together with a little measuring-glass. Without looking further at it, but with a terrible suspicion growing over me, I asked if that were his medicine.
"They say there is a skeleton in every cupboard," he said in a low voice, "and that's mine; it is chloral."
When I reached the room that I was to occupy during the night, I found it, like Rossetti's bedroom, heavy with hangings, and black with antique picture panels, with a ceiling (unlike that of the other rooms in the house), out of all reach or sight, and so dark from various causes, that the candle seemed only to glimmer in it—indeed to add to the darkness by making it felt. Mr. Watts, as Rossetti told me, was entirely indifferent to these eerie surroundings, even if his fine subjective intellect, more prone to meditate than to observe, was ever for an instant conscious of them; but on myself I fear they weighed heavily, and augmented the feeling of closeness and gloom which had been creeping upon me since I entered the house. Scattered about the room in most admired disorder were some outlandish and unheard-of books, and all kinds of antiquarian and Oriental oddities, which books and oddities I afterwards learnt had been picked up at various times by the occupant in his ramblings about Chelsea and elsewhere, and never yet taken away by him, but left there apparently to scare the chambermaid: such as old carved heads and gargoyles of the most grinning and ghastly expression, Burmese and Chinese Buddhas in soapstone of every degree of placid ugliness, together, I am bound by force of truth to admit, with one piece of carved Italian marble in bas-relief, of great interest and beauty. Such was my bed-chamber for the night, and little wonder if it threatened to murder the innocent sleep. But it was later than 4 A.M., and wearied nature must needs assert herself, and so I lay down amidst the odour of bygone ages.
Presently Rossetti came in, for no purpose that I can remember, except to say that he had enjoyed my visit I replied that I should never forget it. "If you decide to settle in London," he said, "I trust you 'll come and live with me, and then many such evenings must remove the memory of this one." I laughed, for I thought what he hinted at to be of the remotest likelihood. "I have just taken sixty grains of chloral," he said, as he was going out; "in four hours I take sixty more, and in four hours after that yet another sixty."
"Does not the dose increase with you?"
"It has not done so perceptibly in recent years. I judge I've taken more chloral than any man whatever: Marshall says if I were put into a Turkish bath I should sweat it at every pore."
There was something in his tone suggesting that he was even proud of the accomplishment. To me it was a frightful revelation, accounting entirely for what had puzzled and distressed me in his delusions already referred to. And now let me say that whilst it would have been on my part the most pitiful weakness (because the most foolish tearfulness of injuring a great man who was strong enough to suffer a good deal to be discounted from his strength), to attempt to conceal this painful side of Rossetti's mind, I shall not again allude to those delusions, unless it be to show that, coming to him with the drug which blighted half his life, they disappeared when it had been removed.
None may rightly say to what the use of that drug was due, or what was due to it; the sadder side of his life was ever under its shadow; his occasional distrust of friends: his fear of enemies: his broken health and shattered spirits, all came of his indulgence in the pernicious thing. When I remember this I am more than willing to put by all thought of the little annoyances, which to me, as to other immediate friends, were constantly occurring through that cause, which seemed at the moment so vexatious and often so insupportable, but which are now forgotten.
Next morning—(a clear autumn morning)—I strolled through the large garden at the back of the house, and of course I found it of a piece with what I had previously seen. A beautiful avenue of lime-trees opened into a grass plot of nearly an acre in extent. The trees were just as nature made them, and so was the grass, which in places was lying long, dry and withered under the sun, weeds creeping up in damp places, and the gravel of the pathway scattered upon the verges. This neglected condition of the garden was, I afterwards found, humorously charged upon Mr. Watts's "reluctance to interfere with nature in her clever scheme of the survival of the fittest," but I suspect it was due at least equally to the owner's personal indifference to everything of the kind.
Before leaving I glanced over the bookcase. Rossetti's library was by no means a large one. It consisted, perhaps, of 1000 volumes, scarcely more; and though this was not large as comprising the library of one whose reading must have been in two arts pursued as special studies, and each involving research and minute original inquiry, it cannot be considered noticeably small, and it must have been sufficient. Rossetti differed strangely as a reader from the man to whom in bias of genius he was most nearly related. Coleridge was an omnivorous general reader: Rossetti was eclectic rather than desultory. His library contained a number of valuable old works of more interest to him from their plates than letterpress. Of this kind were Gerard's Herbal (1626), supposed to be the source of many a hint utilised by the Morris firm, of which Rossetti was a member; Poliphili Hypnerotomachia (1467); Heywood's History of Women (1624); Songe de Poliphile (1561); Bonnard's Costumes of 12th, 13th, and l4th Centuries; Habiti Antichi (of which the designs are said to be by Titian)—printed Venice, (1664); Cosmographia, a history of the peoples of the world (1572); Ciceronis Officia (1534), a blackletter folio, with woodcuts by Burgkmaier; Jost Amman's Costumes, with woodcuts coloured by hand; Cento Novelle (Venice, 1598); Francesco Barberino's Documenti (d'Amore (Rome, 1640); Decoda de Titolivio, a Spanish blackletter, without date, but probably belonging to the 16th century. Besides these were various vellum-bound works relating to Greek and Roman allegorical and mythological subjects, and a number of scrap-books and portfolios containing photographs from nearly all the picture-galleries of Europe, but chiefly of the pictures of the early Florentine and Venetian schools, with an admixture of Spanish art. Of Michael Angelo's designs for the Sistine Chapel there was a fine set of photographs.
These did not make up a very complete ancient artistic library, but Rossetti's collection of the poets was more full and valuable. There was a pretty little early edition of Petrarch, which appeared to have been presented first by John Philip Kemble to Polidori (Rossetti's grandfather) in 1812; then in 1853 by Polidori to his daughter, Rossetti's mother, Frances Rossetti; and by her in 1870 to her son. A splendid edition (1552) of Boccaccio's Decamerone contained a number of valuable marginal notes, chiefly by Rossetti, the first being as follows:
This volume contains 40 woodcuts besides many initial letters. The greater number, if not the whole, must certainly be by Holbein. I am in doubt as to the pictures heading the chapters, but think these most probably his, only following the usual style of such illustrations to Boccaccio, and consequently more Italianised than the others. The initial letters present for the most part games of strength or skill.
There were various editions of Dante, including a very large folio edition of the Commedia, dated Florence, 1481, and the works of a number of Dante's contemporaries. Besides two or three editions of Shakspeare (the best being Dyce's, in 9 vols.), there were some of the Elizabethan dramatists. Coming to later poetry, I found a complete set of Gilfillan's Poets, in 45 vols. There was the curious little manuscript quarto (much like a shilling school-exercise book) labelled Blake, and this was, perhaps, by far the most valuable volume in the library. The contents and history of this book have already been given.
There were two editions of Gilchrist's Blake; complete (or almost complete) sets of the works of William Morris and A. C. Swinburne, inscribed in the authors' autographs—the copy of Atalanta in Calydon being marked by the poet, "First copy; printed off before the dedication was in type." It may be remembered that Robert Brough translated Beranger's songs, and dedicated his volume in affectionate terms to Rossetti. The presentation copy of this book bore the following inscription:—"To D. G. Rossetti, meaning in my heart what I have tried to say in print. Et. B. Brough. 1856." There were also several presentation copies from Robert Browning, Coventry Patmore, W. B. Scott, Sir Henry Taylor, Aubrey de Vere, Tom Taylor, Westland Marston, F. Locker, A. O'Shaughnessy, Sir Theodore Martin; besides volumes bearing the names of nearly every well-known younger writer of prose or verse.
Five volumes of Modern Painters, together with The Seven Lamps of Architecture and the tract on Pre-Raphaelitism, bore the author's name and Rossetti's in Mr. Ruskin's autograph. There was a fine copy in ten volumes of Violet-le-Duc's Dictionnaire de l'Architecture, and also of the Biographie Generale in forty-six volumes, besides several dictionaries, concordances, and the like. There was also a copy of Fitzgerald's Calderon. Rossetti seemed to be a reader of Swedenborg, as White's book on the great mystic testified; also to have been at one time interested in the investigation of the phenomena of Spiritualism. Of one writer of fiction he must have been an ardent reader, for there were at least 100 volumes by Alexandre Dumas. German writers were conspicuously absent, Goethe's Faust and Carlyle's translation of Wilhelm, Meister, being about the only notable German works in the library. Rossetti did not appear to be a collector of first editions, nor did it seem that he attached much importance to the mere outsides of his books, but of the insides he was master indeed. The impression left upon the mind after a rapid survey of the poet-painter's library was that he was a careful, but slow and thorough reader (as was seen by the marginal annotations which nearly every volume contained), and that, though very far from affected by bibliomania, he was not without pride in the possession of rare and valuable books.
When I left the house at a late hour that morning Rossetti was not yet stirring, and so some months passed before I saw him again. If I had tried to formulate the idea—or say sensation—that possessed me at the moment, I think I should have said, in a word or two, that outside the air breathed freely. Within, the gloom, the mediaeval furniture, the brass censers, sacramental cups, lamps; and crucifixes conspired, I thought, to make the atmosphere heavy and unwholesome. As for the man himself who was the central spirit amidst these anachronistic environments, he had, if possible, attached me yet closer to himself by contact. Before this I had been attracted to him in admiration of his gifts: but now I was drawn to him, in something very like pity, for his isolation and suffering. Not that at this time he consciously made demand of much compassion, and least of all from me. Health was apparently whole with him, his spirits were good, and his energies were at their best. He had not yet known the full bitterness of the shadowed valley: not yet learned what it was to hunger for any cheerful society that would relieve him of the burden of the flesh. All that came later. Rossetti was one of the most magnetic of men, but it was not more his genius than his unhappiness that held certain of his friends by a spell.
It was characteristic of Rossetti that he addressed me in the following terms probably before I had left his house: for the letter was, no doubt, written in that interval of sleeplessness which he had spoken of as his nightly visitant: