The Fleshly School Controversy
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Harriett Jay

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{The Fleshly School of Poetry and Other Phenomena of the Day 1872}






I HAD written thus far of Mr. Rossetti’s poems, just after reading them for the first time when cruising among the Western Isles of Scotland in the summer of 1871, and I had published my criticism in the Contemporary Review for October (under circumstances explained in my preface), when Mr. Rossetti, goaded into a sense of grievance by the ill-advised sympathy of his friend the editor of the Athenæum, “replied” to the audacious critic who, not being honoured by his personal acquaintance, dared to accuse him of poetic incompetence and literary immorality. Mr. Rossetti’s letter, forming a whole page and a quarter of his favourite weekly print, now lies before me; and I am bound in honour to consider it in some detail.
     After a preamble somewhat personal to myself,* Mr. Rossetti arrives at his first point, which amounts to this—that he is going to write a long article of self-defence to show he is indifferent. He then formally opens his case, and (that he may not hereafter accuse me of “garbling”


     * “Here a critical organ, professedly adopting the principle of open signature, would seem, in reality, to assert (by silent practice, however, not by enunciation,) that if the anonymous in criticism was—as itself originally inculcated—but an early caterpillar stage, the nominate too is found to be no better than a homely transitional chrysalis, and that the ultimate butterfly form for a critic who likes to sport in sunlight and yet to elude the grasp, is after all the pseudonymous.” Surely human ingenuity never so tortured itself to clothe a simple meaning in cumbrous and affected words! The only parallel is the author’s poetry, where a simple kiss becomes a “consonant interlude,” and the ink in a love-letter is called “the smooth black stream that makes thy (the letter’s) whiteness fair!”


57 his letter) I will quote his very words, only italicising them in certain places:—

     “The primary accusation, on which this writer grounds all the rest, seems to be that others and myself ‘extol fleshliness as the distinct and supreme end of poetic and pictorial art; aver that poetic expression is greater than poetic thought; and, by inference, that the body is greater than the soul, and sound superior to sense.’ As my own writings are alone formally dealt with in the article, I shall confine my answer to myself; and this must first take unavoidably the form of a challenge to prove so broad a statement. It is true, some fragmentary pretence at proof is put in here and there throughout the attack, and thus far an opportunity is given of contesting the assertion.
     “A Sonnet, entitled ‘Nuptial Sleep,’ is quoted and abused at page 338 of the Review, and is there dwelt upon as a ‘whole poem,’ describing ‘merely animal sensations.’ It is no more a whole poem in reality, than is any single stanza of any poem throughout the book. The poem, written chiefly in sonnets, and of which this is one sonnet-stanza, is entitled ‘The House of Life;’ and even in my first published instalment of the whole work (as contained in the volume under notice) ample evidence is included that no such passing phase of description as the one headed ‘Nuptial Sleep’ could possibly be put forward by the author of ‘The House of Life’ as his own representative view of the subject of love. In proof of this, I will direct attention (among the love-sonnets of this poem) to Nos. 2, 8, 11, 17, 28, and more especially 13, which, indeed, I had better print here.


Sweet dimness of her loosened hair's downfall
     About thy face; her sweet hands round thy head
     In gracious fostering union garlanded;
Her tremulous smiles; her glances’ sweet recall
Of love; her murmuring sighs memorial;
     Her mouth’s culled sweetness by thy kisses shed
     On cheeks and neck and eyelids, and so led
Back to her mouth which answers there for all:—
What sweeter than these things, except the thing
     In lacking which all these would lose their sweet:—
     The confident heart’s still fervour; the swift beat
And soft subsidence of the spirit’s wing,
Then when it feels, in cloud-girt wayfaring,
     The breath of kindred plumes against its feet!

58   “Any reader may bring any artistic charge he pleases against the above sonnet; but one charge it would be impossible to maintain against the writer of the series in which it occurs, and that is, the wish on his part to assert that the body is greater than the soul. For here all the passionate and just delights of the body are declared—somewhat figuratively, it is true, but unmistakably—to be as naught if not ennobled by the concurrence of the soul at all times. (!)* Moreover, nearly one half of this series of sonnets has nothing to do with love, but treats of quite other life- influences.I would defy any one to couple with fair quotation of Sonnets 29, 30, 31, 39, 40, 41, 43, or others, the slander that their author was not impressed, like all other thinking men, with the responsibilities and higher mysteries of life; while Sonnets 35, 36, and 37, entitled ‘The Choice,’ sum up the general view taken in a manner only to be evaded by conscious insincerity. Thus much for ‘The House of Life,’ of which the Sonnet ‘Nuptial Sleep’ is one stanza, embodying, for its small constituent share, a beauty of natural universal function, only to be reprobated in art if dwelt on (as I have shown that it is not here) to the exclusion of those other highest things of which it is the harmonious concomitant.”

     Thus far Mr. Rossetti; and although it is rather hard to have to refer again to poems so unsavoury, I have no option but to accept the challenge, and judge Mr. Rossetti by “The House of Life” as an uncompleted whole. A reference to this poem, so far from changing my opinion, makes me wonder at the writer’s misconception of its true character. It is flooded with sensualism from the first line to the last; it is a very hotbed of nasty phrases; but its nastiness—or its unwholesomeness—goes far deeper than any phraseology. It opens with a sonnet entitled “Bridal Love,” wherein we are told that “Love,”

“Born with her life, creature of poignant thirst
And exquisite hunger,”


     * My complaint precisely is, that Mr. Rossetti’s “soul” concurs a vast deal too easily,
     † The italics are mine.—R. B.


59 is preparing “with his warm hands our couch;” and so intense grows the poet’s enthusiasm at this information that he exclaims, wildly addressing his lady in Sonnet II.,—

“O thou who at Love’s hour ecstatically
     Unto my lips dost evermore present
     The body and blood of Love in Sacrament !”

—which is a pretty good beginning, quite apart from the blasphemy, for a writer in whose eyes a “beauty of natural universal function” is merely a “harmonious concomitant” of higher things. Sonnet III., entitled “Love’s Light,” describes harmlessly enough how,

                         “—in the dark hours (we two alone)
Close kissed and eloquent of still replies
Thy twilight-hidden glimmering visage lies;”

but in Sonnet IV, another and higher stage is reached, for the lady gives her lover a “consonant interlude” (which is the Fleshly for “kiss”), and—“somewhat figuratively, it is true, but unmistakably”—proceeds, as a mother suckles a baby, to afford him full fruition:—

“I was a child beneath her touch (!),—a man
     When breast to breast we clung, even I and she,—
     A spirit when her spirit lookt thro’ me,—
A god when all our life-breath met to fan
Our life-blood, till love’s emulous ardours ran,
     Fire within fire, desire in deity.”

O malignant critic, who has dared to attaint the author of these sweet lines of “fleshliness!” Let the reader examine this passage phrase by phrase and word by word, dwelling particularly on the descriptive animalism of the last three lines. Why, much the same charge might be brought against that delicious effort of Thomas Carew, entitled “The Rapture,” 60 wherein (quite after the modern fleshly style) the whole business of love is chronicled in sublime and daring metaphor:—

“Then will I visit with a wandering kiss
The bower of roses and the grove of bliss,
Thence, passing o’er thy snowy Appenine,
Retire into thy grove of eglantine.” *

Sonnet V. is our favourite already quoted, “Nuptial Sleep,” and Sonnet VI., or “Supreme Surrender,” tells us how—

“To all the spirits of love that wander by,
     Along the love-sown fallow field of sleep
My lady lies apparent; and the deep
Calls to the deep; and no one sees but I.”

There is also this dainty touch about her hand:—

“First touched, the hand now warm around my neck
Taught memory long to mock desire.”

Sonnet VII., “Love’s Lovers,” is meaningless, but in the best manner of Carew and Dr. Donne; and the same may be said of Sonnet VIII., “Passion and Worship.” Sonnet IX., “The Portrait,” is a good sonnet and good poetry, despite the epithets of “mouth’s mould” and “long lithe throat.” Sonnet X., the “Love Letter,” is fleshly and affected, but stops short of nastiness. Sonnet XI. is also innocuous. Sonnets XII, to XX. are one profuse sweat of animalism, containing, amongst other gems, this euphuistic description of a kissing match:—

Her mouth’s culled sweetness by thy kisses shed
     On cheeks, and neck, and eyelids, and so led
Back to her mouth which answers there for all;”


     * For a production quite in our modern manner, the reader had better refer to this extraordinary poem. I dare not quote another word.


61 and scores of the author’s pet phrases, the veriest pimples on the surface of style, like “wanton flowers,” “murmuring sighs memorial,” “sweet confederate music favourable,” “hours eventual,” “Love’s philtred euphrasy,” “culminant changes”—all familiar enough to us from the Della Cruscans; but culminating, in Sonnet XX., with an image in which the Euphuist would have rejoiced:—

“Her set gaze gathered, thirstier than of late, (!)
And as she kissed, her Mouth became her Soul !”

In Sonnet XXI., called “Parted Love,” the lady has retired to get breath and arrange her clothes, and the lover is despairingly waiting from “the stark noon-height” to the “sunset’s desolate disarray.” Sonnets XXII. and XXIII. are too vague for description, but Landor would have stared to see his famous sea-shell image (which he accused Wordsworth of stealing) turned by the euphuistic-fleshly person into

“The speech-bound sea-shell’s low importunate strain.”

The next four sonnets, called by the affected title of “Willow-wood,” contain, besides the gem about “bubbling of brimming kisses,” some fresh variations of a kiss:—

“Fast together, alive from the abyss,
Clung the soul-wrung implacable close kiss.”

An “implacable” kiss! Also:—

'”So when the song died did the kiss unclose,
     And her face fell back drown’d

The supreme silliness and worthlessness of “Willow-wood,” however, could only be shown by quoting the four sonnets 62 entire. Sonnet XXVIII., or “Still-born Love,” will doubtless suggest to Mr. Rossetti’s admirers other similar themes, and we shall speedily have poetry on “Love’s Cross-birth” and “Love’s Anæsthetics.” Sonnets XXIX., XXX., and XXXI., Mr. Rossetti particularly challenges me to impeach; and I may at once admit that they are not nasty, though very, very silly.In Sonnet XXXII., however, we get back to the old imagery:—

     “Even as the thistledown from pathsides dead
Glean’d by a girl in autumns of her youth,
     Which one new year makes soft her marriage bed.”

Mr. Rossetti is never so great as on “kisses” and “beds.” In spite of euphuisms without end, we get nothing very spicy till we come to Sonnet XXXIX., one of those which Mr. Rossetti calls immaculate. Here, not content with picturing “Vain Virtues” as Virgins writhing in Hell, he describes the Fire as the Bridegroom, and pursues the metaphor to the very pit of beastliness:—

     “Virgins . . . . whom the fiends compel
Together now, in snake-bound shuddering sheaves
Of anguish, while the scorching Bridegroom leaves
     Their refuse maidenhood (!) abominable !”

     There are ten sonnets to come, but must I quote from them? Surely I have quoted already ad nauseam. After the sonnets comes “Love-Lily,” which I have already given in full; then “First Love Remembered;” then “Plighted Promise,” a lyric which I am bound to copy, as it has never been equalled since the famous

“Fluttering fold thy feeble pinions”

of the “Rejected Addresses:”—



     “In a soft-complexioned sky
         Fleeting rose and kindling grey,
     Have you seen Aurora fly
         At the break of day?
So my maiden, so my plighted may
     Blushing cheek and gleaming eye
         Lifts to look my way.

     “Where the inmost leaf is stirred
         With the heart-beat of the grove,
     Have you heard a hidden bird
         Cast her note above?
So my lady, so my lovely love
     Echoing Cupid’s prompted word,
         Makes a tune thereof.

     “Have you seen, at heaven’s mid-height,
         In the moon-rack’s ebb and tide,
     Venus leap forth burning white
         Pearl-pale and hide?
So my bright breast jewel, so my bride
     One sweet night when fear takes flight
         Shall leap against my side.”

A “soft-complexioned sky!” the “heart-beat of the grove!” “Aurora, Cupid, Dian!” I rub my eyes, wondering if this can be the nineteenth century, till the last lines, with their “bright breast-jewel,” recall me to my subject. But really quotations of this sort become the merest iteration. “The House of Life” contains eight songs more. Four of them, though sensuous in the extreme, have no direct reference to nasty subjects. The other four are sickly love-poems, swarming with affectations. My extracts, however, must close with this verse from the “Song of the Bower” (Mr. Rossetti is great in “bowers”):—

“What were my prize, could I enter thy bower,
     This day, to-morrow, at eve or at morn?
Large lovely arms and a neck like a tower,*                                     64
     Bosom then heaving that now lies forlorn,

Kindled with love-breath, (the sun’s kiss is colder!)
     Thy sweetness all near me, so distant to-day;
My hand round thy neck and thy hand on my shoulder,
     My mouth to thy mouth as the world melts away.”

In this and a thousand other passages one thing is apparent: either Mr. Rossetti is stealing wholesale from Mr.  Swinburne, or Mr. Swinburne has been all his life robbing Mr. Rossetti.
     Having so far complied with Mr. Rossetti’s request, and re-examined “The House of Life,” I retain unchanged my impression that the sort of house meant should be nameless, but is probably the identical one where the writer found “Jenny.” Once more, I should like to quote Mr. Rossetti, in the further passages of his high argument; but he is so very abusive that I am bound to condense his statement. After vindicating “The House of Life,” he proceeds to say that the four extracts given in p. 44 are grossly garbled, and printed “without reference to any precise page or poem,” and that the poems themselves, if read wisely, would be found perfectly beautiful and artistic. Turn, then, to the four poems in question. The first is “A Last Confession,” which describes, in Mr. Browning’s favourite manner, how an Italian, maddened by jealousy, murdered his mistress. This Italian, it may be remarked, is very like our author, for, besides being disagreeably affected, he had a morbid habit of brooding over unclean ideas and suspicions; insomuch


     * Compare Greene’s “Menaphon’s Eclogue:”—
                           “Her neck like to an ivory shining tower,” &c.


65 that, as Mr. Rossetti truly observes, he is driven to frenzy by the real or fancied resemblance between the laugh of the harlot and that of his mistress. “Observe also,” continues the bard, “that these are but seven lines in a poem of five hundred, not one other of which could be classed with them.” Observe, I say in turn, that the whole poem is morbid and unwholesome, and must be drunk in as a whole to leave its full bad flavour. It positively reeks of murder, madness, and morbid lust, and whatever merit it possesses lies in the intensity of its ugly thoughts, from the first moment when the Italian began his courtship in this extraordinary fashion—

                   “What I knew I told
Of Venus and of Cupid,—strange old tales!”

—till, blinded with lustful rage, he confesses having murdered her, and tells his dreams:—

“She wrung her hair out in my dream
To-night, till all the darkness reeked of it.
I heard the blood between her fingers hiss !”

In justice we should observe that a madman is speaking; but this madman has Mr. Rossetti’s gift, for here is the sort of conceit with which he delights the priest:—

                     “She had a mouth
Made to bring death to life,—the underlip
Suck’d in, as if it strove to kiss itself.”

With the Della Cruscan, the attempt to seem subtle and striking becomes a positive mania. What would be said of a poet who wrote thus?—

                   Her nose inclined to heaven,
As if it tried to turn up at itself !

66 Yet the one metaphor is every whit as sensible and brilliant as the other.
     The second of the four poems is the “bubble” poem from “The House of Life.” The third is from “Eden Bower,” a production which I would gladly quote entire. “Here again,” it is observed, “no reference is given, and naturally the reader would suppose that a human embrace is described. The embrace, on the contrary, is that of a fabled snake- woman and a snake.” Exactly; but will Mr. Rossetti describe a single passage in his poems where a human embrace is described? The lovers of the Fleshly School are invariably snake-like in their eternal wriggling, lipping, munching, slavering, and biting; and indeed, on reflection, “Eden Bower” may be fairly considered as a complete epitome of the art of love as practised by the coterie poets. Since Mr. Rossetti is dissatisfied, let us try again. His book is a lottery-bag— we draw blindfold—but are always sure of a prize:—

“Bring thou close thine head till it glisten
Along my breast
, and lip me, and listen!”

Once more,—conjugal bliss of Adam and Lilith:—

“What great joys had Adam and Lilith!
Sweet close rings of the serpent’s twining,
As heart in heart lay sighing and pining
.” *

The result (next verse):—

“What bright babes had Lilith and Adam?
Shapes that coiled in the woods and waters,” &c.

All this is savoury, and the whole poem is still more so; so


     * Compare Carew:—

“Now in more subtle wreaths I will entwine
My sturdy limbs, my legs and thighs, with thine!”


67 that the reader feels a horrible sense of sliminess, as if he were handling a yellow serpent or a conger eel. Let me try blindfold once more for another “draw.” This time my prize is from “Troy Town;” but, before I quote, let me once more premise that the poem as a whole is fleshlier and sillier than any extract. Helen’s breasts, described by herself:—

“Each twin breast is an apple sweet!
         *          *         *          *
Mine are apples grown to the south
                   (O Troy Town !)
Grown to taste in the days of drouth,
Taste and waste to the heart’s desire;
Mine are apples meet for his mouth !”

So that Paris, poor fellow, has a fair prospect of being suckled by Helen, and is likely, after “tasting” her “apples” or “breasts meet for his mouth,” to “waste” them (whatever that means) “to his heart’s desire.”
     But already I hear the amazed reader cry, with Macbeth, “Hold, enough!” I have thus piled example upon example, all out of one small volume of verse; and I might readily go on quoting for pages more. I reject altogether the insinuation that my criticism was based on private grounds. I do not know Mr. Rossetti, have no grievance against him, and I can quite believe that in private life he is a most exemplary person; but in his poetry—to go no further at present than that very small phase of a portentous phenomenon—there is a veritably stupendous preponderance of sensuality and sickly animalism. I base that belief, not merely on stray expressions such as I quoted, not merely on lines about the “lipping of limbs,” bubbling of kisses, “fawning of lips” in bed, munching of mouths, and 68 all the inordinate coarseness of the fleshly vocabulary, but on the persistent choice of subjects repulsive in themselves, and capable of fleshly treatment, such as the lyric about Jenny the street-walker, who “advertises dainties through the dirt,” and is serenaded by the poet in a brothel; the poem about Lilith the Snake, and her gripping and lipping, and general arts of fornication; and the nuptial sonnet which Mr. Rossetti studiously refrains from quoting, knowing that it would condemn him fatally in all decent eyes. I said, and I say, that the very choice of these subjects is deplorable, and that their treatment is offensive; and I said, and say, that the morbid habit penetrates into the writer’s treatment even when, as very seldom happens, he chooses a subject by no means morbid in itself: all this without going beyond Mr. Rossetti; but if I go a little further, and look at that phenomenon of which he is a phase, I find decency outraged, history falsified, purity sacrificed, art prostituted, language perverted, religion outraged, in one gibbering attempt to apotheosize vice and demolish art with the implements of blasphemy and passion; I find that Mary of Scotland is a biting and scratching harlot, Sappho a lustful wild beast, Christ and Christianity scandals and abortions; and pursuing further my inquiry into this phenomenon, finding religion distorted into lust, and lust raving in the very language of religion, I take occasion to say—on public grounds only, with no grudge, with no personal animosity whatever—that a number of men of real though very limited ability are, blinded by their own little knowledge, the praise of vile minds, and the applause of a heartless clique, rushing headlong to literary ruin, and dragging many of the young generation 69 with them. What Mr. Rossetti says in explanation is only to the point in so far as it is deplorably convincing that he himself is utterly unconscious of his own offences; does not, in fact, discriminate between passion and sensuality; and endeavours, writhing under what he thinks an unmerited imputation, to save himself on the plea of personal purity and dramatic motive.No one can rejoice more than I do to hear that Mr. Rossetti attaches a certain importance to the soul as distinguished from the body, only I should like very much to know what he means by the soul; for I fear, from the sonnet he quotes, that he regards the feeling for a young woman’s person, face, heart, and mind, as in itself quite a spiritual sentiment. In the poem entitled “Love-Lily” he expressly observes that Love cannot tell Lily’s “body from her soul”—they are so inextricably blended. It is precisely this confusion of the two which, filling Mr. Rossetti as it eternally does with what he calls “riotous longing,” becomes so intolerable to readers with a less mystic sense of animal function.





“Belial came last, than whom a spirit more lewd
Fell not from heaven, or more gross to love
Vice for itself.”
                                                         Paradise Lost.


I HAVE thus carefully gone through Mr. Rossetti’s poetry, not because it is by any means the best or worst verse of its kind, but because, being avowedly “mature,” and having had the benefit of many years’ revision, it is perhaps more 70 truly representative of its class than the grosser verse of Mr. Swinburne, or the more careless and fluent verse of Mr. Morris. The main charge I bring against poetry of this kind is its sickliness and effeminacy; but if there be any truth in my own Theory of Literary Morality, as enunciated some years ago in the Fortnightly Review, the charge of indecency need not be pressed at all, as it is settled by the fact of artistic and poetic incompetence. The morality of any book is determinable by its value as literature—immoral writing proceeding primarily from insincerity of vision, and therefore being betokened by all those signs which enable us to ascertain the value of art as art. In the present case the matter is ludicrously simple; for we perceive that the silliness and the insincerity come, not by nature, but at second hand; Mr. Rossetti and Mr. Swinburne being the merest echoes—strikingly original in this—that they merely echo what is vile, while other imitators reproduce what is admirable. I am loath in this connection to incriminate Mr. Morris. That gentleman is so prolific, so fertile in resources, and is generally so innocent (despite the ever-present undertone of fleshliness), that he may fairly be left to his laurels. He is open to the same literary criticism as the others, but, while often ingenuous, is never altogether unclean.
     It may be interesting for the reader to compare, in a brief glance, the various poets of the Italian-English school with each other. To do so thoroughly would involve the serious task of perusing three-fourths of the forgotten English poets; for, since weeds ever grew quicker than flowers, the bulk of the poetic trash left behind by successive generations of verse-writers, from Surrey to Spratt, far outweighs the little 71 collection of true poetry which may justly be esteemed classic and unimpeachable. But it may be observed here that all the poets of this school, though their name be legion, write very much alike. They are generally affected, and often nasty. “All that regards design, form, fable (which is the soul of poetry), all that concerns exactness or consent of parts (which is the body), will probably be wanting: only pretty conceptions, fine metaphors, glittering expressions, and something of a neat cast of verse (which are properly the dress, gems, or loose ornaments of poetry), may be found in their verses. Their colouring entertains the sight, but the lines and life are not to be inspected too narrowly.”Such is Pope’s criticism on Crashaw, and it will apply to any one of the school, certainly to Mr. Swinburne or Mr. Rossetti.
     It need cause no wonder that verse-writers of this sort find admirers in proportion to their shallowness and  affectation. This has been the case from the beginning, and it is the case now. The poems and plays of the egregious Cartwright, published in 1651, are preceded by panegyrics from all the wits of the time, no less than fifty in number, quite in the style of the Fleshly School and its Critics. Donne was the pride of collegians. Cowley was actually considered the glory and the wonder of his generation. Nowadays the anonymous press is a tremendous check on this sort of humbug, but there still linger old-fashioned journals with strings in the hands of a clique.* It is the interest of educated persons and schoolmen to exalt all artificial products, for they themselves can fairly hope to rival the stuff they praise and to get some sort of a position. If hothouse plants are in


     * See Notes.


72 favour, any clever young fellow from a university can force them. And it thus happens that the Fleshly School, without ever reaching the general public, is in favour with the literary amateurs who yearly swarm from college, and ruin the profession of literature by writing anywhere and everywhere free of charge.
     From time immemorial, poets of the Artificial School have written in the same way, and been admired for the same tricks; and indeed our modern poets can stand no comparison, even in subtle grossness, with their progenitors. Here are Cowley’s lines on a paper written in juice of lemon, and read by the fire:—

“Nothing yet in thee is seen;
But when a genial heat warms thee within,
A new-born wood of various lines there grows,
     Here buds an L, and there a B,
     Here spouts a V, and there a T,
And all the flourishing letters stand in rows;”

which the reader may advantageously compare with Mr. Rossetti’s description of a love-letter in p. 198 of his volume. The master above quoted, in his “Davideis,” has the following awful passage:—

“The sun himself started with sudden fright,
To see his beams return so dismal light!”

This is performing a miracle certainly, but Mr. Rossetti performs a greater—he makes the “Silence” speak:—

“But therewithal the tremulous Silence said:
‘Lo, Love yet bids thy lady,’”' &c. (Page 206.)

     Thus sings, or screams, Mr. Swinburne:—

“Ah, that my lips were tuneless lips, but pressed
To the bruised blossom of thy scourged white breast!
Ah, that my mouth, for Muses’ milk, were fed
On the sweet blood thy sweet small wounds had bled!
That with my tongue I felt them and could taste                                      73
The faint flakes from thy bosom to the waist!
That I could drink thy veins as wine, and eat
Thy breasts like honey.”

     Dr. Donne, however, had anticipated him in the same vein:—

“As the sweet sweat of roses in a still,
As that, which from chaf’d muskats’ pores doth trill,
As the almighty balm of the early east,
Such are the sweat drops of my mistress’ breast;
And on her neck her skin such lustre sets,
They seem no sweat drops, but pearl coronets.”

     These poets ever delight in the strangest and most far-fetched comparisons. Cleveland has a magnificent comparison of the sun to a coal-pit; but Rossetti, twenty times more cunning and subtle, sees that “vows” are the merest bricks:—

                                     “We strove
To build with fire-tried vows the piteous home
Which memory haunts.” (Page 208.)

Cowley compares his heart to a hand-grenado; in a similar spirit, Rossetti compares the Soul to a town, and (bent to hunt the simile to death) tells us that there are by-streets there, and that Hopes go about hunting for adventures at the public-houses!—

“So through that soul in restless brotherhood,
They roam together now, and wind among
It’s bye-streets, knocking at the dusty inns!”
(Page 231.)

Dr. John Donne is great on Tears: they are at one time “globes, nay worlds,” containing their “Europe, Asia, and Africa;” and at another they are “wine,” bottled “in crystal vials” for the tipple of lovers. Mr. Rossetti, in a semi-military spirit, thus describes a Moan:—

“A moan, the sighing wind’s auxiliary!”

74 Quite in the spirit of Mr. Rossetti’s fleshlier and commoner manner, in which he talks about his lady’s hand teaching “memory to mock desire,” is Cowley’s exquisite meditation, addressed to his mistress:—

“Though in thy thoughts scarce any tracts have been
So much as of original sin,
Such charms thy beauty wears, as might
Desires in dying saints excite!”

This is the way Dr, John Donne writes in the beginning of the seventeenth century:—

“Are not thy kisses, then, as filthy, and more,
As a worm sucking an envenom’d sore?
Doth not thy fearful hand in feeling quake,
As one which gathering flowers still fears a snake?”

Could anything more closely resemble the horrible manner of Mr. Swinburne’s “Anactoria?”
     It is difficult to believe that our present school of poets have not drunk deep at the muddy Aganippe of their predecessors here in England, as well as at the poetic fountain polluted by the influx of the Parisian sewers. There is a coincidence of affectation in the following parallel passages:—


“A mother, I was without mother born,
In end, all arm’d, my father I brought forth!”—DRUMMOND.

“That horse, within whose populous womb
The birth was death.”—ROSSETTI (p. 229).

     Again, Mr. Rossetti, in Sonnet XXIX., compares LIFE to “a LADY” with whom he wandered from the “haunts of  men,” finding “all bowers amiss” (!) till he came to a place 75 “where only woods and waves could hear our kiss,” and who, as an awful result, bare him three children, Love, Song—

                                               “Whose hair
Blew like a flame and blossomed like a wreath,
And Art, whose eyes were worlds by God found fair.” *

Nearly as absurd, but less subtle and harassing, is the passage in Drummond’s “Hymn to the Fairest Fair,” wherein we have the following incarnate metaphor of no less shadowy a shape than “Providence!”—

“With faces two, like sisters, sweetly fair,
Whose blossoms no rough autumn can impair,
Stands Providence, and doth her looks disperse
Thro’ every corner of the universe.”

Nor must it be hastily concluded that Mr. Rossetti’s “apples meet for the mouth” simile is quite original. Drummond in one passage calls his mistresses’ hearts

                       “Fruits of Paradise,
Celestial cherries that so sweetly smell;”

and in another—the following sonnet—comes tremendously close upon the best modern manner, minus the “lipping” and the “munching:”—

“Who hath not seen into her saffron bed
The morning’s goddess mildly her repose,
Or her of whose pure blood first sprang the rose
Lull’d in a slumber by a myrtle shade?
Who hath not seen that sleeping white and red
Makes Phœbe look so pale, which she did close
In that Ionian hall to ease her woes,
Which only lives by her dear kisses fed?
Come but and see my lady sweetly sleep,


     * It is perhaps needless to remark the utter confusion of metaphor which makes a love-act with Life as Lady precede the birth of Love, &c. The language of this school will not bear a moment’s serious investigation.


The sighing rubies of those heavenly lips,                                             76
The Cupids which breasts’ golden apples keep,
Those eyes which shine in midst of their eclipse;
And he them all shall see, perhaps and prove
She waking but persuadeth, now forceth love.”

     I have quoted this poem entire, because it is quite in the modern spirit, and would certainly, if printed in either Mr. Swinburne’s or Mr. Rossetti’s poems, have been considered beautiful; and partly because I should like the reader to compare it with the Swinburnian conception of “Love and Sleep, as known to the moderns:”—

“Lying asleep between the strokes of night
     I saw my love lean over my sad bed,
     Pale as the duskiest lily’s leaf or head,
Smooth-skinned and dark with bare throat made to bite!
Too wan for blushing and too warm for white,
     But perfect coloured without white or red;
     And her lips opened amorously, and said—
I wist not what, saving one word—Delight!
And all her face was honey to my mouth,
     And all her body pasture to mine eyes;
     The long lithe arms and hotter hands than fire,
The quivering flanks, hair smelling of the south,
     The bright light feet, the splendid supple thighs,
     And glittering eyelids of my soul’s desire.”
Poems and Ballads, p. 316.

     The reader whom this fascinates had better turn to Dr. Donne’s eighteenth elegy, every line of which might have been written in our generation, wherein the nude female is compared to a Globe for the lover’s exploration, and the whole Voyage is described with a terrific realism of detail and daring strength of metaphor which would fill even Mr. Rossetti with envy and despair. It is, unfortunately, rather too strong to quote, though not a grain more filthy than the above sonnet. Let me turn, by way of disinfectant, to a 77 conceit in the true Della Cruscan style, from Mr. Rossetti’s works. A very shadowy Entity is speaking, in a poem affectedly called “A Superscription:”—

“Look in my face: my name is Might-have-been;
I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell;
Unto thine ear I hold the dead sea-shell,” &c. (Page 234.)

This passage, although quite in the ancient manner, was perhaps composed on one of those days when Mr. Rossetti goes poaching in Mr. Swinburne’s French “Slough of Uncleanness,” for we find Baudelaire making use of very similar language:—

“Trois mille six cents fois par heure, la Seconde
Chuchote: Souviens-toi! Rapide avec sa voix
D’insecte, Maintenant dit: Je suis Autrefois!
                                               Fleurs de Mal, p. 245.

Truly, this sort of reading is wearing to the brain!
     I have already alluded more than once to the foolish fleshliness which permeates the contemporary treatment of even avowedly religious themes. For example, when Mr. Rossetti writes about the Virgin Mary, he begins in the true fantastic spirit of those older writers who spiritualised sensualism in their addresses to the Bridegroom and the Magdalen.

“Mother of the Fair Delight!”

he exclaims; and then proceeds with the following jargon:—

“Handmaid perfect in God’s sight,
Now sitting fourth beside the Three,
Thyself a woman-Trinity,—
Being a daughter born to God,
Mother of Christ from stall to rood,
And Wife unto the Holy Ghost! !”

The poem improves as it proceeds, but it is fleshly to the 78 last fibre,—quite, in fact, in the spirit of Richard Crashaw’s poem on “The Weeper:”—

“What bright soft thing is this?
     Sweet Mary, thy fair eyes’ expence?
         A moist spark it is,
A watery diamond; from whence
The very term, I think, was found,
The water of a diamond.

“O ’tis not a tear,
     ’Tis a star about to drop
         From thine eye its sphere;
The sun will stoop and take it up,
Proud will his sister be to wear
This thine eye’s jewel in her ear.

“O ’tis a tear,
     Too true a tear! for no sad eyne,
         How sad so e’er,
Rain so true a tear as thine;
Each drop leaving a place so dear
Weeps for itself, is its own tear.

“Such a pearl as this is
     (Slipt from Aurora’s dewy breast)
         The rose-bud’s sweet lip kisses,
And such the rose itself when vext
With ungentle flames, does shed,
Sweating in too warm a bed.”

This is meant reverently, but what shall we say of Mr. Rossetti’s “Love’s Redemption,” in which the act of sexual connection is outrageously and vilely compared to the administering of the sacramental bread and wine?—

“O thou, who at Love’s hour ecstatically,” &c. *

Compare, also, with Mr. Rossetti’s pseudo-religious poems generally, those passages of Crashaw in which all the language of passion and lust is used to describe purely spiritual and religious sensations:—


     * See ante, p. 59.


“Amorous languishments, luminous trances,                                        79
     Sights which are not seen with eyes,
Spiritual and soul-piercing glances;
     Whose pure and subtle lightning flies
Home to the heart, and sets the house on fire;
And melts it down in sweet desire:
Yet doth not stay
To ask the windows leave to pass that way.

“Delicious deaths, soft exhalations
Of soul! dear and divine annihilations!
     A thousand unknown rites
Of joys and rarified delights!”
                             On a Prayer Book sent to Mrs. M. R.

This might have been pardonable in a Roman Catholic of Selden’s time, but the echo of it in a “mature” person of the nineteenth century is positively dreadful.*
     I close this book of the “mature” person. I close Mr. Swinburne’s volumes. I try to gather some definite impression, some thought, some light, from what I have been reading. I find my mind jaded, my whole body sick and distressed, a dull pain lurking in the region of the medulla oblongata. I try to picture up Mr. Rossetti’s poetry, and I am dazzled by conceits in sixteenth-century costume,—“rosy


     * Hall, in the ninth satire of Book I., took occasion to attack this blending of incongruous ideas and symbols into affected religious verse. “Hence, ye profane!” he cried,

“—mell not with holy things,
That Sion’s Muse from Palestina brings.
Parnassus is transformed to Sion Hill,
And iv’ry-palms her steep ascents done fill,
Now good St. Peter weeps pure Helicon,
And both the Maries make a music moan;
Yea, even the prophet of the heav’nly lyre,
Great Solomon, sings in the English quire,
And is become a new-found sonnetist,
Singing his love, the holy spouse of Christ,
Like as she were some light-skirts of the rest,” &c.


80 hours,” “Loves” with “gonfalons,” damsels with “citherns,” “soft-complexioned” skies; flowers, fruits, jewels, vases, apple-blossoms, lutes: I see no gleam of nature, not a sign of humanity; I hear only the heated ravings of an affected  lover, indecent for the most part, and often blasphemous. I attempt to describe Mr. Swinburne; and lo! the Bacchanal screams, the sterile Dolores sweats, serpents dance, men and women wrench, wriggle, and foam in an endless alliteration (quite in Gascoigne’s manner) of heated and meaningless words, the veriest garbage of Baudelaire flowered over with the epithets of the Della Cruscans.
     “One moment!” observes a candid person as I write; “the emptiness and grossness of these may be admitted; but are not these writers quite unimpeachable on the ground of poetic form, and is that not a certain merit?” Something on this head has been said already. Let it be further said that no unsound soul is clad in a sound form; and that what holds true of matter and thought holds equally true of manner and style: both may seem rapid and strong, but neither will bear five minutes’ criticism. Imagine an English writer pluming himself on his careful choice of diction, and publishing such a verse as the following:—

“Nothing is better, I well think,
     Than love; the hidden well-water
Is not so delicate to drink:
     This was well seen of me and her.”
Poems and Ballads.

Or this other of Mr. Rossetti:—

“In painting her I shrined her face
     ’Mid mystic trees, where light falls in
Hardly at all; a covert place
     Where you might think to find a din
Of doubtful talk
, and a live flame                                                      
Wandering, and many a shape whose name
     Not itself knoweth, and old dew,
     And your own footsteps meeting you,
And all things going as they came.”    (Page 128.)

Apart altogether from the meaninglessness, was ever writing so formally slovenly and laboriously limp? I have no time to pile example on example; I leave that task to the reader, who will not have to hunt far or long for some of the worst writing in our language. Of a piece are such expressions as, “O their glance is loftiest dole!” “in grove the gracile Spring trembles;” “her soft body, dainty thin;” “handsome Jenny mine;” “smouldering senses;” “the rustling covert of my soul;” “a little spray of tears;” “culminant changes;”“wasteful warmth of tears;” “the sunset’s desolate disarray;” “watered my heart’s drouth;” “the wind’s wellaway;” “a shaken shadow intolerable;” “that swallow’s soar” (a swallow, by the way, does not soar); “my eyes, wide open, had the run of some ten weeds to rest upon;” and a thousand others, as bad or worse, all to be found in Mr. Rossetti’s small volume; besides the thousands upon thousands to be found in the works of his more fruitful brethren.
     It would be wasting time to criticize details so worthless, save for the purpose of showing that insincerity in one respect argues insincerity in all, and that where we find a man choosing worthless subjects and affecting trashy models, we may rely on finding his treatment, down to the tiniest detail, frivolous, absurd, and reckless. The affectation of carefulness in composition is in proportion to the affectation of subtlety of theme; and the result is a lamentable amount, not of valuable poetic form, but of sound and fury, signifying 82 absolutely next to nothing, and as shapeless and undigested as chaos itself.




“Away with love verses, sugared in rhyme—the intrigues, amours of idlers,
Fitted for only banquets of the night, where dancers to late music slide;
The unhealthy pleasures, extravagant dissipations of the few.”
                                                                             WALT WHITMAN.


IS this London? Is this the year 1872? That peep of blue up yonder resembles the sky, and these figures that pass seem men and women. What evil dream, then, what malignant influence is upon me?Weary of surveying the poetry of the past, and listening to the amatory wails of generations, I walk down the streets, and lo! again harlots stare from the shop-windows, and the great Alhambra posters cover the dead-walls. I go to the theatre which is crowded nightly, and I listen in absolute amaze to the bestialities of Geneviève de Brabant. I walk in the broad day, and a dozen hands offer me indecent prints. I step into a bookseller’s shop, and behold! I am recommended to purchase a reprint of the plays and novels of Mrs. Aphra Behn. I buy a cheap republican newspaper, thinking that there, at least, I shall find some relief, if only in the wildest stump oratory, and I am saluted instead in these words:—

     “FANNY HILL. Genuine edition, illustrated. Two volumes, 2s. 6d. each. Lovers’ Festival, plates, 3s. 6d.Adventures of a Lady’s Maid, 2s. 6d.Intrigues of a Ballet Girl, 2s. 6d. Aristotle, illustrated, 2s. French Transparent Cards, 1s. the set. Cartes de Visite from life, 1s. List two stamps. London: H. D——, 15, St. M—— R——d, C——ll.
“FANNY HILL, coloured plates, 2 vols. 4s.; Aristotle’s Masterpiece, plates, 2s. 6d.; Life of the celebrated Moll Flanders, 5s. 6d. ; Mysteries of a Convent, 1s. List sent on receipt of two stamps. E. B——, 9, R——n S——t, B—— S——, E.
     “THE BACHELOR’S SCARF PIN, containing secret photos of pretty women, 24 stamps; French Cards, 1s. the set; Life of a Ballet Girl, 2s. 6d.; Bang-up Reciter, 2s.; Maria Monk, 1s. 6d.; Fanny Hill, with plates, 3s. 6d. Lists two stamps. C. N——, 4, K——’s S—— Avenue, B——.”

Step where I may, the snake Sensualism spits its venom upon me. The deeper I probe the public sore, the more terrible I find its nature. I ask my physician for his experience; he only shakes his head, and dares not utter all he knows. I consult the police; they give me such details of unapproachable crime as fill my soul with horror. Returning home, I meet a friend, who tells me that the Society for the Suppression of Vice has at last stirred itself, and that the Lord Chamberlain, moreover, has interdicted the last foul importation from France.* O for a scourge to whip these money-changers of Vice for ever out of the Temple!
     Now, God forbid that I should charge any living English poet with desiring to encourage debauchery and to demoralise the public. I believe that both Mr. Swinburne and Mr. Rossetti are honest men, pure according to their lights, loving what is beautiful, conscientiously following what inspiration lies within them. They do not quite realise that they are merely supplementing the literature of


     * An interdiction which, says the Athenæum, “is the most wanton violation of liberty, and the most unwarrantable interference with Art, that modern times have witnessed!” It is to be hoped, however, that the Lord Chamberlain will not be dispirited by the indignation of Sir Charles Dilke’s journal, which, as the leading organ of the Fleshly School, is as peculiar in its notions of literary decency as Sir Charles himself in his notions of political propriety.


84 Holywell Street, and writing books well worthy of being sold under “sealed covers.” Much of Mr. Swinburne’s grossness has come of the mad aggressiveness of youth, fostered by reading the worst French poets. Nearly all Mr. Rossetti’s effeminacy comes of eternal self-contemplation, of trashy models, of want of response to the needs and the duties of his time. What stuff is this they are putting forward, or suffering their coterie to put forward for them? It is time, they say, that the simple and natural delights of the Body should be sung as holy; it is unbearable, they echo, that purists should object to the record of sane pleasures of sense; it is just, they reiterate, that Passion should have its poetry and the Flesh its vindication.* As if the “simple and natural delights of the body” had not been occupying our poetry ever since the days of the “Confessio Amantis!” As if sane (and for that matter, insane) pleasures of sense had not been the stock- in-trade of nine-tenths of all our poets and poetasters, from Wyatt to Swinburne! As if Passion had been silent until this year of the Lord 1872, and as if, till the advent of a Rossetti, the world had entirely lost sight of the Flesh! The Flesh and the Body have been sung till the Muses are hoarse again. Two-thirds of our poetry is all Body; nine-tenths of our poets are all Flesh. One would think, from this outcry, that the amative faculty was a new organ discovered by some phrenological bard of the period, and never before traced as having any influence on the human race. One would fancy, from some of our modern criticisms, that the only English poets up to this period had been Milton, holy Mr. Herbert, and the author


     * See, for example, “A Woman’s Estimate of Walt Whitman” addressed by an English Lady to W. M. Rossetti (1870).


85 of the “Christian Year!” One would swear, to hear these Cupids of the new Fleshly Epoch, that English literature had been veritably getting blue-mouldy with too much virtue, and that the Spirit of Imagination had lived in a nunnery, fed on pulse and cold water, since Chaucer’s time, instead of rioting in a lupanar, fed on hot meat and spiced wine, for hundreds upon hundreds of years!
     Perhaps, if the truth were told, we have had a little too much of the Body. Perhaps, if we push the matter home, it is no more rational to rave of the “just delights of the flesh” than it would be to talk of the “glorious liberty” of “sweating” and the “sane celebration” of the right to “spit.” Perhaps, after all, since so many centuries of Sexuality have done so little for poetry, it might be advantageous to give Spirituality a trial, and to see if her efforts to create a literature are equally unsuccessful.
     In answer to all this, it may be retorted—in the easiest form of retort known to mankind— that I am a Philistine, that I would emasculate our poets altogether, and that I would substitute for passion the merest humanitarian and other “sentiment.” Well, although I fear that I am a Puritan in a certain sense, I trust I am not a purist in the worst sense. My favourite ancient poet is the author of “Atys.” I prefer Shakspere to Milton, and I would not obliterate a line, however coarse, of Chaucer. I love Rabelais, and hold (with Coleridge) that he is deep and pure as the sea. I know no pleasanter reading for an idle hour than La Fontaine, no richer reading for a thoughtful hour than certain (by no means unimpeachable) novels of Balzac. I see the strangest erotic forces in the loves of Wilhelm Meister, but I admit their beauty and their worth. 86 I welcome Heine, and could listen to his mad laughter for a summer day. I love Byron better than Tupper, and of all Byron’s books I best love “Don Juan.” I reverence Hugo, and I see nothing in him that is shocking, save, perhaps, certain abominable eccentricities in “L’Homme qui Rit.” I still beguile many an hour, when snug at anchor in some lovely Highland loch, with the inimitable, yet questionable, pictures of Parisian life left by Paul de Kock; and I know no sweeter poet in some respects than the egregious Alfred de Musset. To my thinking, there is no grander passage in literature than that tremendous scene between Ottilia and her paramour, in “Pippa Passes:” no one accuses the author of that, and of the “Ring and the Book,” of neglecting love or overlooking the body; and yet I do daily homage to the genius of Robert Browning, I deem “Vivien” an essential pendant to that wonderful apotheosis of Masculine Chastity, which is the heart of that Arthurian epic on which the laureate has poured all his orient poetic wealth. I have praised Whitman, and hope to praise him over and over again. I know no fresher, finer work of this generation than certain novels by Mr. Charles Reade, who is not generally considered an ascetic author. In one word, I have no earthly objection to the Body and the Flesh in their rightful time and place, as part of great work and noble art; I do not see any great wickedness in the old-fashioned use of the gaudriole; and I am ready (as any sane man must be ready) to regard with kindness, and even sympathy, all work of a really good and honest author, even if it here and there, as I may think, exceeds the just limits of reserve, and becomes indecent, as sometimes happens, by sheer force of power. But Flesh, 87 merely as the Flesh, is too much for me. I find it foolish, querulous, affected, uninteresting. I do not admire its absurd manner of considering itself the Soul. I grudge it none of its just delights, even in the way of “lipping” and “munching;” only, let it enjoy them without making such a coil about them. The world never tires of real passion; it will listen to Burns’s love-songs for ever; but fleshliness is not necessarily passion, and may abound in natures utterly passionless. There are many other functions of the flesh which it is not the custom to perform in public, but which are quite as interesting to third parties as what Shakspere calls “the deed.” Really, if we set no limit to the flesh, it is certain to disgrace us in the long-run. It has already created a literature in Holywell Street. Shall we suffer it to found a poetry in St. John’s Wood?
     English Verse-poetry has been, up to the present moment, almost exclusively the property of querulous persons, engaged in contemplating their own images—either in an ordinary looking-glass or in the eyes of a fantastic female. We have had a certain number of great poets who have chosen to use rhymed and metrical speech—our very greatest, indeed, have spoken in this way; but many of our noblest—such as Bacon, Bunyan, and Thomas Carlyle—have chosen to use simple prose as their means of expression; and the last of these prose-poets has very recently, in a remarkable letter to a gentleman who had sent him some verses, protested energetically that he would infinitely have preferred a good bit of solid simple prose—that, in fact, Verse is an artificial sort of thing, by no means to be encouraged at this time of day. Rough and sweeping as this condemnation of Verse appears to be, there is a certain 88 homely truth about it. It has been the unfortunate habit of most of our poets, and especially of those we have been specially criticizing in this article, to use Verse as the vehicle of whatever thoughts are too thin or too fantastic, too much of the sweet-pea order of products, to stand without the aid of rhythmical props. Ideas too bald for prose, too trivial to stand unadorned, appear unique enough when subjected to the euphuistic process, and robed in all the wordy glitter of rhyme. If any English author, in good round prose, were to call Death “a seizure of malign vicissitude,” and compare Life to a Lady with whom he ranged the world till he found a fit “bower” for nuptial performances; or if any author were to narrate for us, still in good round prose, such a savoury narrative as that of “The Leper” in Mr. Swinburne’s poems, surely he would very soon receive his just deserts. Yet simply because such ideas and such stories are told in lines cut into certain lengths and jingling at the ends; solely because, by one-half the public, verse is recognised as an unnatural and altogether artificial form of speech, the trash of windy men is christened Art, and writers without one ray of imagination are accredited with the genius of song. It thus happens that, in the opinion of many people, the word “poet” is synonymous with “madman;” and we are told again and again not to judge such and such compositions too severely, as “they are only poetry.” It thus happens that we every day behold the melancholy spectacle of inferior men giving themselves the airs of great men merely because they can write meretricious verses. Why, I will venture to say that there is more real genius and more true literary brilliance in any one of Mr. G. A. Sala’s “Dutch Pictures” than in all 89 the fleshly products heaped together, and yet Mr. Sala only calls himself a “special correspondent,” and is far, very far, from being a “poetical” person.
     If poetry—Verse-poetry—is to be anything else than an impediment to progress, if it is to become something better than the resource of feeble talents unable to stand without artificial aid, it must be more and more approximated to the natural language of men; it must be weeded of the hideous phraseology of the schools, and sown with the fresh and beautiful idioms of daily speech; and it must deal with great issues in which all men are interested, not with the “damnable face-making” of Narcissus in a mirror. Elsewhere, notably in Germany, such experiments are encouraged as tend to broaden and strengthen the resources of poetry, and to multiply its facilities; but here in England every fresh experiment in language is ridiculed and disliked, unless it be a retrograde experiment, trebling the limitations and quadrupling the affectations of ancient rhyme. Mr. Swinburne’s eternal jingle, and Mr. Rosseti’s affected harpsichord-melody, are admired, though they throw us back hundreds of years; but not one grain of sympathy has been shown for the metrical importations, often exquisite, of Mr. Matthew Arnold, the never-ending experiments of the late Arthur Hugh Clough (a giant who died young, and alas! has left no one who fills his place in the van of thought), and the wonderful poetic prose, or prose-poetry, of Walt Whitman. The public appears to be willing that verse-poetry should remain the property of men of talent, anxious to increase its already almost insuperable limitations; and it thus happens that our men and women of genius—such as Carlyle, Hugo, Reade, Emerson, 90 Hawthorne—have written some of the best poetry of this generation in simple prose.*
     The name of Poet was once a title of honour; it bids fair soon to be a title of ridicule. The form of Verse was at one period held to be the noblest possible kind of human utterance; but that form, remaining as it does in the swaddling- clothes of infant speech, will possibly be more or less abandoned as time rolls on by the thinkers and dreamers of the world. The word poetry may one day be identical with absurdity; and no one will jingle the cap and bells of rhyme but a fool. Is there no hope? Yes, a gleam. All the blundering and all the time-wasting in our literature have been caused by eternal posturing before the mirror. Each feeble talent has been so fascinated by his own image as to dwindle into an intellectual daisy or pine into a poetical primrose. Our literary shame has sprung from want of knowledge of how the world wags, of how men and women live and love, of what mighty forces are sweeping across the earth their angels’ wings. Let the Sultan of Literature, if there be such a person (and if not, we might do worse than elect the functionary), issue forth an edict ordering the destruction of all looking-glasses, and the immediate silencing of all persons who introduce the subject of their own emotions. This would at least have the effect of driving our poets, if they must see themselves, to see themselves in flowing Rivers or the mighty Sea, and to wail aloud, if wail they must, to the four Winds of Heaven; and thus they might come in time to find how little account they themselves are


     * “The French Revolution,” “Les Misérables,” “The Cloister and the Hearth,” Emerson’s first set of Essays, and “The Scarlet Letter”—all these works are “poems” in the noblest sense.


91 in the great scheme of nature, and how much is to be done on earth besides making night and day hideous with sensual shadows and dreams. Yet, after all, I fear there would be evasion even then; for ten to one you would find some Simple Simon of the amatory type, driven to despair by the universal destruction of looking-glasses, filling the family washing-tub with water from the pump, and pining away into a shadow for love of his own image hovering therein!






SINCE the above was written, the Quarterly Review has spoken in very similar language to my own; and I agree with its strictures in every passage, save those which are levelled against Mr. Tennyson. The poet laureate is open to judgment, and is strong enough to bear it; but I hold it to be in all respects lamentable that he has been censured in the same breath as the men who owe to him what little in their writings is good and worthy. The Review speaks thus of “Jenny:”—
     “We purpose to close our remarks on Mr. Rossetti’s verse with some reflections on a poem which, we think, reveals characteristically the incapacity of the literary poet to deal with contemporary themes in an effective and straightforward manner. ‘Jenny’ is a poem on the subject of unfortunate women. A man is supposed to have followed a girl of this description to her house, where she falls asleep with her head on his knee, while he moralises on her condition. The majority of poets have, as we think wisely, avoided subjects of this sort. But assuming that success might justify its treatment, one of the first elements of success is that a piece should be brief and forcible. ‘Jenny’ is nearly four hundred lines long.The metre at the opening reminds us of one which Mr. Browning uses with characteristic force, but which in Mr. Rossetti’s hands soon degenerates into feeble octosyllabic verse. The thought throughout is pretentious but commonplace. The moralist, beginning with something like a rhapsody on the appearance of the girl as she lies asleep, wonders what she is thinking about; he then reflects that her sleep exactly resembles the sleep of a pure woman; her face he feels might serve a painter as the model of a Madonna. We are thus imperceptibly edged on into the author’s favourite regions of abstraction:—

‘Yet, Jenny, looking long at you
The woman almost fades from view.
A cipher of man’s changeless sum                                                       93
Of lust past, present, and to come
Is left. A riddle that one shrinks
To challenge from the scornful sphinx.’

Exactly. So this profound philosopher, whose somewhat particular reflections on the charms of the sleeper have brought him at last face to face with the mystery of evil, coolly remarks:—

‘Come, come, what good in thoughts like this?’

packs some gold in the girl’s hair, and takes his leave. What good indeed? But why in that case, and if Mr. Rossetti had no power to deal otherwise with so painful a theme, could he not have spared us an useless display of affected sentiment and impotent philosophy?
     “The style of the poem is as bad as the matter. Descriptions repulsively realistic are mixed up with imagery like that in Solomon’s Song; the most familiar objects are described by the most unusual paraphrases; a London schoolboy, for instance, being called ‘a wise unchildish elf,’ while the similes are painfully far-fetched. The heart of the woman is said to be—

‘Like a rose shut in a book
In which pure women may not look,
For its base pages claim control
To crush the flower within the soul;
Where through each dead rose-leaf that clings,
Pale as transparent Psyche wings,
To the vile text, are traced such things
As might make lady’s cheeks indeed
More than a living rose to read;
So nought save foolish foulness may
Watch with hard eyes the sure decay;
And so the life-blood of this rose,
Puddled with shameful knowledge, flows
Through leaves no chaste hand may unclose.’

Affectation and obscurity make the application of this difficult enough. It will not, however, escape notice that the simile is radically false, for whereas the point is that the woman’s heart is alive in the midst of corruption, the rose in the book, to which the heart is compared, is dried and dead.”




     That the system by which the school of verse-writers under criticism has made itself notorious is at last defeating itself, is evident from a recent article, entitled “Coterie Glory,” in the Saturday Review—a journal which, I believe, has been more than once made use of by the friends of the gentlemen in question. The author of “Coterie Glory,” in a number of decisive and perfectly well-tempered remarks, surveys the whole question, and on coming to the Fleshly School, openly admits, as if on certain knowledge, that the personal friends of the poets write all the reviews. This also, observes the reviewer, was the case with the once famous “Della Cruscan School,” surviving now only, if it can be called survival, in Gifford’s ponderous but effective satire.
     “A little circle of mutual admiration contrived, by ingenious devices of criticism, to create in the outer world what for awhile looked like real fame. Afterwards we had the ‘mystic’ school, to which the authors of Festus, the Roman, and other kindred spirits, chronicled in full by Mr. Gilfillan, belonged.”
     After glancing at the kind of poetry produced by the Fleshly School, the writer continues:—
     “It is clear that poetry of this order can appeal only to a limited class. It claims to be tried by a special jury of cultivated persons. This, however, is a very dangerous position for the jurors. They who have been at the pains of mastering such special qualifications, by a natural law, soon regard them as the only canons of taste; nothing which does not conform to them has the true ring. Having conquered caviare, they find all that pleases ‘the general’ tasteless. Philistinism itself is not more adverse to discrimination than this Pharisaic isolation. Once in this frame of mind, men rapidly unlearn judging in favour of believing; they feel that they do right to be partisans in such a cause; they taste the keen delights of initiation into a creed hidden from the vulgar; they reject all moderating or hostile criticism from the laity without, as proceeding from men not specially qualified; they tend to pass from faith into fanaticism.Hence also, the general attitude of criticism being of the tolerant or sceptical order already described, the believers at first write all the reviews, and man every bastion of what Goethe somewhere calls the ‘critical Zion.’ That it has been so in the case of our later ‘Pre-Raffaelites’ is denied nowhere. Crowns thus decreed may certainly and uninvidiously be described as ‘Coterie Glory.’
     “A curious sign, lastly, confirms the position which we have here advanced. It is the very essence of faith to be uncritical; to regard 95 the day for criticism as passed. It seems to be simply impossible for the artist and his circle of believers to regard a criticism on his art as anything but a criticism on himself. Many of our readers who may have watched with amusement the recent squabble between Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Rossetti will recognise a proof of our statement. Into the merits of the case we decline to go; we do not ask whether Mr. Buchanan’s attacks were well founded, whether he was entitled to use a pseudonym, or whether his article exhibited that good taste which is nowhere more called for than when a question of taste is the matter in discussion. Our point is, that the ‘Fleshly School of Poetry’ did, in the main, attempt to try Mr. Rossetti’s verses, and not Mr. Rossetti himself as distinct from Mr. Rossetti the author, by critical rules. That the poet, rudely roused from the security of fame generated by the too friendly voices of disciples, should have regarded his reviewer as actuated by base personal motives was natural. But it is characteristic that the followers should be under the same impression. One of the latest of them has just published a further reply to Mr. Buchanan, which rivals what we had too fondly believed was the tone of discussion and the form of argument peculiar to the ‘odium theologicum.’ Mr. Forman, the writer, is so hurried away by zeal for his faith that, though known only as a critic, he prefixes to his paper a cruel (and in this case, we are sure, an inapplicable) motto, describing critics as the offspring of jealousy and literary failure.To re-state Mr. Buchanan’s arguments in his own vocabulary appears to Mr. Forman, and we do not doubt appears in perfect good faith, equivalent to their refutation.To quote in full Mr. Rossetti’s sonnet on ‘Nuptial Sleep’ is proof of its maiden modesty of phrase so absolute that a man must be, we cannot venture to say what, who denies it. The gist of the whole is, that every criticism made against the book is in fact levelled against the author. What reads like a remark that a rhyme is weak is really an ungentlemanly libel on the rhymester. It is obvious that this is the canon, not of criticism, but of fanatic faith; nay, that it implicitly treats criticism as sin. For what judgment is possible if critical blame is treated as personal malignity, and if to ascribe affectation to a song is the same as to insult an artist? Yet such is the impassioned spirit of coterie that this appears to be the underlying, though no doubt the wholly unconscious, postulate of the poet and his followers. We altogether disclaim such an inference; and give notice that when we say that Mr. Buchanan’s attack is less damaging than Mr. Forman’s defence, we do not thereby imply that Mr. Forman has a base or wilful intention to injure Mr. Rossetti. He is only what some writer calls ‘that worst of enemies, your worshipper.’”—Saturday Review, Feb. 24th, 1872.

96   These remarks are worth attention, firstly, for their inherent truth; and secondly, because they come from a quarter which can certainly not be accused of friendliness to myself.




     There is at the present moment living in America a great ideal prophet, who is imagined by many men on both sides of the Atlantic to be one of the sanest and grandest figures to be found in literature, and whose books, it is believed, though now despised, may one day be esteemed as an especial glory of this generation. It is no part of my present business to eulogize Walt Whitman, or to protest against the popular misconceptions concerning him; but it just happens that I have been asked, honestly enough, how it is that I despise so much the Fleshly School of Poetry in England and admire so much the poetry which is widely considered unclean and animal in America? It is urged, moreover, that Mr. Rossetti and Mr. Swinburne merely repeat the immodesties of the author of “Leaves of Grass,” and that to be quite consistent I must condemn all alike. Very true, if Whitman be a poet of this complexion, if his poetry be shot through and through with animalism as certain stuffs are shot through and through with silk. But it requires no great subtlety of'sight to perceive the difference between these men. To begin with, there are Singers, imitative and shallow; while that other is a Bard, outrageously original and creative in the form and substance of his so-called verse. In the next place, Whitman is in the highest sense a spiritual person; every word he utters is symbolic: he is a colossal mystic; but in all his great work, the theme of which is spiritual purity and health, there are not more than fifty lines of a thoroughly indecent kind, and these fifty lines are embedded in passages in the noblest sense antagonistic to mere lust and indulgence. No one regrets the writing and printing of these fifty lines more than I do. They are totally unnecessary, and silly in the highest degree—silly as some of Shakspere’s dirt is silly—silly in the way of Aristophanes, Rabelais, Victor Hugo—from sheer excess of aggressive life.Fifty lines, observe, out of a book nearly as big as the Bible; lines utterly stupid, and unpardonable in themselves; but to be forgiven, doubtless, for the sake of the spotless love and chastity surrounding them. It is Whitman’s business to chronicle all human sensations in the person of the “Cosmical Man,” or typical Ego; and when he comes to the sexual instincts, he tries to blend emotion and physiology together, to the utter destruction of all natural 97 effect. Judging from the internal evidence of these passages, I should say that Whitman was by no means a man of strong animal passions. There is a frightful violence in his expressions, which an epicure in lust would have avoided.This part of his book, I guess, cost him a good deal of trouble; it is not written con amore; and, apart from its double or mystic meaning, is just what an old philosopher might write if he were trying to represent passion by the dim light of memory. At all  events, here Whitman is talking nonsense, as is the way of all wise men at some unfortunate moment or other.Elsewhere, he is perhaps the most mystic and least fleshly person that ever wrote.
     It is in a thousand ways unfortunate for Walt Whitman that he has been introduced to the English public by Mr. William Rossetti, and been loudly praised by Mr. Swinburne. Doubtless these gentlemen admire the American poet for all that is best in him; but the British public, having heard that Whitman is immoral, and having already a dim guess that Messrs. Swinburne and Rossetti are not over-refined, has come to the conclusion that his nastiness alone has been his recommendation. All this despite the fact that Mr. William Rossetti has expurgated the fifty lines or so in his edition.
     I should like to disclaim, in this place, all sympathy with Whitman’s pantheistic ideas. My admiration for this writer is based on the wealth of his knowledge, the vast roll of his conceptions (however monstrous), the nobility of his practical teaching, and (most of all perhaps) on his close approach to a solution of the true relationship between prose cadence and metrical verse. Whitman’s style, extraordinary as it is, is his greatest contribution to knowledge. It is not impossible to foresee a day when Coleridge’s feeling of the “wonderfulness of prose” may become universal, and our poetry (still swathe-bound in the form of early infant speech, or rhyme) may expand into a literature blending together all that is musical in verse, and all that is facile and powerful in ordinary language. I do not think Whitman has solved the difficulty, but he sometimes comes tremendously close upon the arcana of perfect speech.






[Second page of the advertisements for “New Books and New Editions - Just Published” featuring Buchanan’s The Drama of Kings and the anonymous Saint Abe and his Seven Wives.]



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