ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)
THE FLESHLY SCHOOL OF POETRY
From The Contemporary Review - October 1871 - Vol. 18, pp. 334-350.
THE FLESHLY SCHOOL OF POETRY:
Poems. By DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI. Fifth Edition. London: F. S. Ellis.
IF, on the occasion of any public performance of Shakspere's great tragedy, the actors who perform the parts of Rosencranz and Guildenstern were, by a preconcerted arrangement and by means of what is technically known as “gagging,” to make themselves fully as prominent as the leading character, and to indulge in soliloquies and business strictly belonging to Hamlet himself, the result would be, to say the least of it, astonishing; yet a very similar effect is produced on the unprejudiced mind when the “walking gentlemen” of the fleshly school of poetry, who bear precisely the same relation to Mr. Tennyson as Rosencranz and Guildenstern do to the Prince of Denmark in the play, obtrude their lesser identities and parade their smaller idiosyncrasies in the front rank of leading performers. In their own place, the gentlemen are interesting and useful. Pursuing still the theatrical analogy, the present drama of poetry might be cast as follows: Mr. Tennyson supporting the part of Hamlet, Mr. Matthew Arnold that of Horatio, Mr. Bailey that of Voltimand, Mr. Buchanan that of Cornelius, Messrs. Swinburne and Morris the parts of Rosencranz and Guildenstern, Mr. Rossetti that of Osric, and Mr. Robert Lytton that of “A Gentleman.” It will be seen that we have left no place for Mr. Browning, who may be said, however, to play the leading character in his own peculiar fashion on alternate nights.
At length their long kiss severed, with sweet smart:
Sleep sank them lower than the tide of dreams,
This, then, is “the golden affluence of words, the firm outline, the justice and chastity of form.” Here is a full-grown man, presumably intelligent and cultivated, putting on record for other full-grown men to read, the most secret mysteries of sexual connection, and that with so sickening a desire to reproduce the sensual mood, so careful a choice of epithet to convey mere animal sensations, that we merely shudder at the shameless nakedness. We are no purists in such matters. We hold the sensual part of our nature to be as holy as the spiritual or intellectual part, and we believe that such things must find their equivalent in all; but it is neither poetic, nor manly, nor even human, to obtrude such things as the themes of whole poems. It is simply nasty. Nasty as it is, we are very mistaken if many readers do not think it nice. English society of one kind purchases the Day’s Doings. English society of another kind goes 339 into ecstasy over Mr. Solomon’s pictures—pretty pieces of morality, such as “Love dying by the breath of Lust.” There is not much to choose between the two objects of admiration, except that painters like Mr. Solomon lend actual genius to worthless subjects, and thereby produce veritable monsters—like the lovely devils that danced round Saint Anthony. Mr. Rossetti owes his so-called success to the same causes. In poems like “Nuptial Sleep,” the man who is too sensitive to exhibit his pictures, and so modest that it takes him years to make up his mind to publish his poems, parades his private sensations before a coarse public, and is gratified by their applause.
“Time like a pulse shake fierce
he is “heaven-born Helen, Sparta’s queen,” whose “each twin breast is an apple sweet;” he is Lilith the first wife of Adam; he is the rosy Virgin of the poem called “Ave,” and the Queen in the “Staff and Scrip;” he is “Sister Helen” melting her waxen man; he is all these, just as surely as he is Mr. Rossetti soliloquizing over Jenny in her London lodging, or the very nuptial person writing erotic sonnets to his wife. In petticoats or pantaloons, in modern times or in the middle ages, he is just Mr. Rossetti, a fleshly person, with nothing particular to tell us or teach us, with extreme self-control, a strong sense of colour, and a careful choice of diction. Amid all his “affluence of jewel-coloured words,” he has not given us one rounded and noteworthy piece of art, though his verses are all art; not one poem which is memorable for its own sake, and 340 quite separable from the displeasing identity of the composer. The nearest approach to a perfect whole is the “Blessed Damozel,” a peculiar poem, placed first in the book, perhaps by accident, perhaps because it is a key to the poems which follow. This poem appeared in a rough shape many years ago in the Germ, an unwholesome periodical started by the Pre-Raphaelites, and suffered, after gasping through a few feeble numbers, to die the death of all such publications. In spite of its affected title, and of numberless affectations throughout the text, the “Blessed Damozel” has great merits of its own, and a few lines of real genius. We have heard it described as the record of actual grief and love, or, in simple words, the apotheosis of one actually lost by the writer; but, without having any private knowledge of the circumstance of its composition, we feel that such an account of the poem is inadmissible. It does not contain one single note of sorrow. It is a “composition,” and a clever one. Read the opening stanzas:—
“The blessed damozel leaned out
“Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem,
This is a careful sketch for a picture, which, worked into actual colour by a master, might have been worth seeing. The steadiness of hand lessens as the poem proceeds, and although there are several passages of considerable power,—such as that where, far down the void,
or that other, describing how
“the curled moon
the general effect is that of a queer old painting in a missal, very affected and very odd. What moved the British critic to ecstasy in this poem seems to us very sad nonsense indeed, or, if not sad nonsense, very meretricious affectation. Thus, we have seen the following verses quoted with enthusiasm, as italicised—
“And still she bowed herself and stooped
“From the fixed place of Heaven she saw
It seems to us that all these lines are very bad, with the exception of the two admirable lines ending the first verse, and that the italicised portions are quite without merit, and almost without meaning. On the whole, one feels disheartened and amazed at the poet who, in the nineteenth century, talks about “damozels,” “citherns,” and “citoles,” and addresses the mother of Christ as the “Lady Mary,”—
“With her five handmaidens, whose names
A suspicion is awakened that the writer is laughing at us. We hover uncertainly between picturesqueness and namby- pamby, and the effect, as Artemus Ward would express it, is “weakening to the intellect.” The thing would have been almost too much in the shape of a picture, though the workmanship might have made amends. The truth is that literature, and more particularly poetry, is in a very bad way when one art gets hold of another, and imposes upon it its conditions and limitations. In the first few verses of the “Damozel” we have the subject, or part of the subject, of a picture, and the inventor should either have painted it or left it alone altogether; and, had he done the latter, the world would have lost nothing. Poetry is something more than painting; and an idea will not become a poem because it is too smudgy for a picture.
* “Why, sir, Sherry is dull, naturally dull; but it must have taken him a great deal of trouble to become what we now see him—such an excess of stupidity is not in nature.”—Boswell’s Life.
342 volume spontaneous in the sense that some of Swinburne’s verses are spontaneous; the poems all look as if they had taken a great deal of trouble. The grotesque mediævalism of “Stratton Water” and “Sister Helen,” the mediæval classicism of “Troy Town,” the false and shallow mysticism of “Eden Bower,” are one and all essentially imitative, and must have cost the writer much pains. It is time, indeed, to point out that Mr. Rossetti is a poet possessing great powers of assimilation and some faculty for concealing the nutriment on which he feeds. Setting aside the “Vita Nuova” and the early Italian poems, which are familiar to many readers by his own excellent translations, Mr. Rossetti may be described as a writer who has yielded to an unusual extent to the complex influences of the literature surrounding him at the present moment. He has the painter’s imitative power developed in proportion to his lack of the poet’s conceiving imagination. He reproduces to a nicety the manner of an old ballad, a trick in which Mr. Swinburne is also an adept. Cultivated readers, moreover, will recognise in every one of these poems the tone of Mr. Tennyson broken up by the style of Mr. and Mrs. Browning, and disguised here and there by the eccentricities of the Pre-Raphaelites. The “Burden of Nineveh” is a philosophical edition of “Recollections of the Arabian Nights;” “A Last Confession” and “Dante at Verona” are, in the minutest trick and form of thought, suggestive of Mr. Browning; and that the sonnets have been largely moulded and inspired by Mrs. Browning can be ascertained by any critic who will compare them with the “Sonnets from the Portuguese.” Much remains, nevertheless, that is Mr. Rossetti’s own. We at once recognise as his own property such passages as this:—
“I looked up
“As I stooped, her own lips rising there
“Have seen your lifted silken skirt
“What more prize than love to impel thee,
343 Passages like these are the common stock of the walking gentlemen of the fleshly school. We cannot forbear expressing our wonder, by the way, at the kind of women whom it seems the unhappy lot of these gentlemen to encounter. We have lived as long in the world as they have, but never yet came across persons of the other sex who conduct themselves in the manner described. Females who bite, scratch, scream, bubble, munch, sweat, writhe, twist, wriggle, foam, and in a general way slaver over their lovers, must surely possess some extraordinary qualities to counteract their otherwise most offensive mode of conducting themselves. It appears, however, on examination, that their poet-lovers conduct themselves in a similar manner. They, too, bite, scratch, scream, bubble, munch, sweat, writhe, twist, wriggle, foam, and slaver, in a style frightful to hear of. Let us hope that it is only their fun, and that they don’t mean half they say. At times, in reading such books as this, one cannot help wishing that things had remained for ever in the asexual state described in Mr. Darwin’s great chapter on Palingenesis. We get very weary of this protracted hankering after a person of the other sex; it seems meat, drink, thought, sinew, religion for the fleshly school. There is no limit to the fleshliness, and Mr. Rossetti finds in it its own religious justification much in the same way as Holy Willie:—
“Maybe thou let’st this fleshly thorn
Whether he is writing of the holy Damozel, or of the Virgin herself, or of Lilith, or Helen, or of Dante, or of Jenny the street-walker, he is fleshly all over, from the roots of his hair to the tip of his toes; never a true lover merging his identity into that of the beloved one; never spiritual, never tender; always self-conscious and æsthetic. “Nothing,” says a modern writer, “in human life is so utterly remorseless—not love, not hate, not ambition, not vanity—as the artistic or æsthetic instinct morbidly developed to the suppression of conscience and feeling;” and at no time do we feel more fully impressed with this truth than after the perusal of “Jenny,” in some respects the finest poem in the volume, and in all respects the poem best indicative of the true quality of the writer’s humanity. It is a production which bears signs of having been suggested by Mr. Buchanan’s quasi-lyrical poems, which it copies in the style of title, and particularly by “Artist and Model;” but certainly Mr. Rossetti cannot be accused, as the Scottish writer has been accused, of maudlin sentiment and affected tenderness. The two first lines are perfect:—
“Lazy laughing languid Jenny, 344
And the poem is a soliloquy of the poet—who has been spending the evening in dancing at a casino—over his partner, whom he has accompanied home to the usual style of lodgings occupied by such ladies, and who has fallen asleep with her head upon his knee, while he wonders, in a wretched pun—
“Whose person or whose purse may be
The soliloquy is long, and in some parts beautiful, despite a very constant suspicion that we are listening to an emasculated Mr. Browning, whose whole tone and gesture, so to speak, is occasionally introduced with startling fidelity; and there are here and there glimpses of actual thought and insight, over and above the picturesque touches which belong to the writer's true profession, such as that where, at daybreak—
“lights creep in
What we object to in this poem is not the subject, which any writer may be fairly left to choose for himself; nor anything particularly vicious in the poetic treatment of it; nor any bad blood bursting through in special passages. But the whole tone, without being more than usually coarse, seems heartless. There is not a drop of piteousness in Mr. Rossetti. He is just to the outcast, even generous; severe to the seducer; sad even at the spectacle of lust in dimity and fine ribbons. Notwithstanding all this, and a certain delicacy and refinement of treatment unusual with this poet, the poem repels and revolts us, and we like Mr. Rossetti least after its perusal. We are angry with the fleshly person at last. The “Blessed Damozel” puzzled us, the “Song of the Bower” amused us, the love-sonnet depressed and sickened us, but “Jenny,” though distinguished by less special viciousness of thought and style than any of these, fairly makes us lose patience. We detect its fleshliness at a glance; we perceive that the scene was fascinating less through its human tenderness than because it, like all the others, possessed an inherent quality of animalism. “The whole work” (“Jenny,”) writes Mr. Swinburne, “is worthy to fill its place for ever as one of the most perfect poems of an age or generation. There is just the same life-blood and breadth of poetic interest in this episode of a London street and lodging as in the song of ‘Troy Town’ and the song of ‘Eden Bower;’ just as much, and no jot more,”—to which last statement we cordially assent; for there is bad blood in all, and breadth 345 of poetic interest in none. “Vengeance of Jenny’s case,” indeed!— when such a poet as this comes fawning over her, with tender compassion in one eye and æsthetic enjoyment in the other!
“Between the hands, between the brows,
“Within the voice, within the heart,
“Brows, hands, and lips, heart, mind, and voice,
With the exception of the usual “riotous longing,” which seems to make Mr. Rossetti a burthen to himself, there is nothing to find fault with in the extreme fleshliness of these verses, and to many people who live in the country they may even appear beautiful. Without pausing to criticise a thing so trifling—as well might we dissect a cobweb or anatomize a medusa—let us ask the reader’s attention to a peculiarity to which all the students of the fleshly school must sooner or later give their attention—we mean the habit of accenting the last syllable in words which in ordinary speech are accented on the penultimate:—
“Between the hands, between the brows,
which may be said to give to the speaker's voice a sort of cooing tenderness just bordering on a loving whistle. Still better as an illustration are the lines:—
“Saturday night is market night 346
which the reader may advantageously compare with Mr. Morris’s
“Then said the king
or Mr. Swinburne’s
“In either of the twain
It is unnecessary to multiply examples of an affectation which disfigures all these writers—Guildenstern, Rosencranz, and Osric; who, in the same spirit which prompts the ambitious nobodies that rent London theatres in the “empty” season to make up for their dullness by fearfully original “new readings,” distinguish their attempt at leading business by affecting the construction of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and the accentuation of the poets of the court of James I. It is in all respects a sign of remarkable genius, from this point of view, to rhyme “was” with “grass,” “death” with “lièth,” “love” with “of,” “once” with “suns,” and so on ad nauseam. We are far from disputing the value of bad rhymes used occasionally to break up the monotony of verse, but the case is hard when such blunders become the rule and not the exception, when writers deliberately lay themselves out to be as archaic and affected as possible. Poetry is perfect human speech, and these archaisms are the mere fiddlededeeing of empty heads and hollow hearts. Bad as they are, they are the true indication of falser tricks and affectations which lie far deeper. They are trifles, light as air, showing how the wind blows. The soul’s speech and the heart’s speech are clear, simple, natural, and beautiful, and reject the meretricious tricks to which we have drawn attention.
* “An Epic of Women.” By Arthur W. E. O’Shaughnessy. (Hotten.)
347 hand Mr. Swinburne; when we read Mr. Payne’s queer allegories,* we remember Mr. Morris’s early stage; and every poem of Mr. Marston’s† reminds us of Mr. Rossetti. But what is really most droll and puzzling in the matter is, that these imitators seem to have no difficulty whatever in writing nearly, if not quite, as well as their masters. It is not bad imitations they offer us, but poems which read just like the originals; the fact being that it is easy to reproduce sound when it has no strict connection with sense, and simple enough to cull phraseology not hopelessly interwoven with thought and spirit. The fact that these gentlemen are so easily imitated is the most damning proof of their inferiority. What merits they have lie with their faults on the surface, and can be caught by any young gentleman as easily as the measles, only they are rather more difficult to get rid of. All young gentlemen have animal faculties, though few have brains; and if animal faculties without brains will make poems, nothing is easier in the world. A great and good poet, however, is great and good irrespective of manner, and often in spite of manner; he is great because he brings great ideas and new light, because his thought is a revelation; and, although it is true that a great manner generally accompanies great matter, the manner of great matter is almost inimitable. The great poet is not Cowley, imitated and idolized and reproduced by every scribbler of his time; nor Pope, whose trick of style was so easily copied that to this day we cannot trace his own hand with any certainty in the Iliad; nor Donne, nor Sylvester, nor the Della Cruscans. Shakspere’s blank verse is the most difficult and Jonson’s the most easy to imitate, of all the Elizabethan stock; and Shakspere’s verse is the best verse, because it combines the great qualities of all contemporary verse, with no individual affectations; and so perfectly does this verse, with all its splendour, intersect with the style of contemporaries at their best, that we would undertake to select passage after passage which would puzzle a good judge to tell which of the Elizabethans was the author— Marlowe, Beaumont, Dekkar, Marston, Webster, or Shakspere himself. The great poet is Dante, full of the thunder of a great Idea; and Milton, unapproachable in the serene white light of thought and sumptuous wealth of style; and Shakspere, all poets by turns, and all men in succession; and Goethe, always innovating, and ever indifferent to innovation for its own sake; and Wordsworth, clear as crystal and deep as the sea; and Tennyson, with his vivid range, far-piercing sight, and perfect speech; and Browning, great, not by virtue of his eccentricities, but because of his close intellectual grasp. Tell “Paradise Lost,” the “Divine
* “The Masque of Shadows.” By John Payne. (Pickering.)
348 Comedy,” in naked prose; do the same by Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear; read Mr. Hayward’s translation of “Faust;” take up the “Excursion,” a great poem, though its speech is nearly prose already; turn the “Guinevere” into a mere story; reproduce Pompilia’s last dying speech without a line of rhythm. Reduced to bald English, all these poems, and all great poems, lose much; but how much do they not retain? They are poems to the very roots and depths of being, poems born and delivered from the soul, and treat them as cruelly as you may, poems they will remain. So it is with all good and thorough creations, however low in their rank; so it is with the “Ballad in a Wedding” and “Clever Tom Clinch,” just as much as with the “Epistle of Karsheesh,” or Goethe’s torso of “Prometheus;” with Shelley’s “Skylark,” or Alfred de Musset’s “A la Lune,” as well as Racine’s “Athalie,” Victor Hugo’s “Parricide,” or Hood’s “Last Man.” A poem is a poem, first as to the soul, next as to the form. The fleshly persons who wish to create form for its own sake are merely pronouncing their own doom. But such form! If the Pre-Raphaelite fervour gains ground, we shall soon have popular songs like this:—
“When winds do roar, and rains do pour,
and so on, till the English speech seems the speech of raving madmen. Of a piece with other affectations is the device of a burthen, of which the fleshly persons are very fond for its own sake, quite apart from its relevancy. Thus Mr. Rossetti sings:—
“Why did you melt your waxen man,
This burthen is repeated, with little or no alteration, through thirty-four verses, and might with as much music, and far more point, run as follows:—
Why did you melt your waxen man,
349 About as much to the point is a burthen of Mr. Swinburne’s, something to the following effect:—
“We were three maidens in the green corn,
We are not quite certain of the words, as we quote from memory, but we are sure our version fairly represents the original, and is quite as expressive. Productions of this sort are “silly sooth” in good earnest, though they delight some newspaper critics of the day, and are copied by young gentlemen with animal faculties morbidly developed by too much tobacco and too little exercise. Such indulgence, however, would ruin the strongest poetical constitution; and it unfortunately happens that neither masters nor pupils were naturally very healthy. In such a poem as “Eden Bower” there is not one scrap of imagination, properly so-called. It is a clever grotesque in the worst manner of Callot, unredeemed by a gleam of true poetry or humour. No good poet would have wrought into a poem the absurd tradition about Lilith; Goethe was content to glance at it merely, with a grim smile, in the great scene in the Brocken. We may remark here that poems of this unnatural and morbid kind are only tolerable when they embody a profound meaning, as do Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” and “Cristabel.” Not that we would insult the memory of Coleridge by comparing his exquisitely conscientious work with this affected rubbish about “Eden Bower” and “Sister Helen,” though his influence in their composition is unmistakable. Still more unmistakable is the influence of that most unwholesome poet, Beddoes, who, with all his great powers, treated his subjects in a thoroughly insincere manner, and is now justly forgotten.
The Contemporary Review (Vol. 18, August-November, 1871) is available at the Internet Archive.