THE FLESHLY SCHOOL CONTROVERSY
Other Accounts of the Fleshly School Controversy
William Michael Rossetti
From W. M. Rossetti’s Preface to The Collected Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti
(London: Ellis and Elvey, 1887.)
In the early months of 1850 the members of the Præraphaelite Brotherhood, with the co-operation of some friends, brought out a short-lived magazine named The Germ (afterwards Art and Poetry); here appeared the first verses and the first prose published by Rossetti, including The Blessed Damozel and Hand and Soul. In 1856 he contributed a little to The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, printing there The Burden of Nineveh. In 1861, during his married life, he published his volume of translations The Early Italian Poets, now entitled Dante and his Circle. By the time therefore of the death of his wife he had a certain restricted yet far from inconsiderable reputation as a poet, along with his recognized position as a painter—a non-exhibiting painter, it may here be observed, for, after the first two or three years of his professional course, he adhered with practical uniformity to the plan of abstaining from exhibition altogether. He had contemplated bringing out in or about 1862 a volume of original poems; but, in the grief and dismay which overwhelmed him in losing his wife, he determined to sacrifice to her memory this long-cherished project, and he buried in her coffin the manuscripts which would have furnished forth the volume. With the lapse of years he came to see that, as a final settlement of the matter, this was neither obligatory nor desirable; so in 1869 the manuscripts were disinterred, and in 1870 his volume named Poems was issued. For some considerable while it was hailed with general and lofty praise, chequered by only moderate stricture or demur; but late in 1871 Mr. Robert Buchanan published under a pseudonym, in the Contemporary Review, a very hostile article named The Fleshly School of Poetry, attacking the poems on literary and more especially on moral grounds. The article, in an enlarged form, was afterwards reissued as a pamphlet. The assault produced on Rossetti an effect altogether disproportionate to its intrinsic importance; indeed, it developed in his character an excess of sensitiveness and of distempered brooding which his nearest relatives and friends had never before surmised,—for hitherto he had on the whole had an ample sufficiency of high spirits, combined with a certain underlying gloominess or abrupt moodiness of nature and outlook. Unfortunately there was in him already only too much of morbid material on which this venom of detraction was to work. For some years the state of his eyesight had given very grave cause for apprehension, he himself fancying from time to time that the evil might end in absolute blindness, a fate with which our father had been formidably threatened in his closing years. From this or other causes insomnia had ensued, coped with by far too free a use of chloral, which may have begun towards the end of 1869. In the summer of 1872 he had a dangerous crisis of illness; and from that time forward, but more especially from the middle of 1874, he became secluded in his habits of life, and often depressed, fanciful, and gloomy. Not indeed that there were no intervals of serenity, even of brightness; for in fact he was often genial and pleasant, and a most agreeable companion, with as much bonhomie as acuteness for wiling an evening away. He continued also to prosecute his pictorial work with ardour and diligence, and at times he added to his product as a poet. The second of his original volumes, Ballads and Sonnets, was published in the autumn of 1881. About the same time he sought change of air and scene in the Vale of St. John, near Keswick, Cumberland; but he returned to town more shattered in health and in mental tone than he had ever been before. In December a shock of a quasi-paralytic character struck him down. He rallied sufficiently to remove to Birchington-on-Sea, near Margate. The hand of death was then upon him, and was to be relaxed no more. The last stage of his maladies was uræmia. Tended by his mother and his sister Christina, with the constant companionship at Birchington of Mr. Hall Caine, and in the presence likewise of Mr. Theodore Watts, Mr. Frederick Shields, and myself, he died on Easter Sunday, April 9th 1882. His sister-in-law, the daughter of Madox Brown, arrived immediately after his latest breath had been drawn. He lies buried in the churchyard of Birchington.
From Dante Gabriel Rossetti as Designer and Writer by William Michael Rossetti
(London: Cassell, 1889.)
Rossetti was now rapidly tending towards the natural outcome of the whole affair—that of printing a volume of his original poems. On 1st March he sent to our mother various sonnets, which he described as “a lively band of bogies,” with other grotesque expressions to correspond—i.e. (as one may understand the phrase), sonnets embodying painful thoughts, or fertile of grievous reminiscences. I presume that these were most probably the sonnets which he had then just printed in the Fortnightly Review, including the series of four named Willow-wood. Mr. Browning, writing to him about the same time, referred to this contribution.
In May Messrs. Smith & Elder sent him an account relating to the volume The Early Italian Poets, extending up to the close of 1868. This account shows 593 copies sold, and 64 still on hand. The money realized was £108 11s. 8d., out of which a sum of £100 had been placed to Mr. Ruskin’s credit, while the balance, £8 11s. 8d., was due to Rossetti himself. A large 147 proportion of copies, no fewer than 93, had been “presented” to reviews and to private friends. The reference to Mr. Ruskin is not further defined: the natural assumption is that that gentleman had, with his wonted liberality, undertaken the expense of the printing up to a limit of £100, with the proviso that he was to be reimbursed out of the sale.
While the volume of The Early Italian Poets was waning, the project of the original poems was waxing, and by the middle of August it had reached the stage of an estimate, furnished by Mr. Strangeways, for the cost of printing such a volume. Proofs were obtained accordingly: the notion being in the first instance that of printing some old and some new poems for private circulation, and for service in a possible future published volume. My brother spent a considerable portion of this summer in the company of his old friend the painter and poet Mr. William Bell Scott, at Penkill Castle, near Girvan, Ayrshire, the seat of a lady of exceptional gifts of mind and character, Miss Boyd, to whom he was indebted, on more than one occasion, for salient evidences of amicable regard. On 21st August, writing from Penkill Castle, he sent me the proofs—such as they then stood—of his poems, asking me to correct anything in them which might be obviously wrong, and to notify any points to which I might demur. The proofs included a very early composition named To Mary in Summer; the three sonnets entitled The Choice; and another called The Bullfinch (afterwards Beauty and the Bird). All these Rossetti proposed to cut out: the only one, however, which remains finally unpublished is To Mary in Summer. As to inserting Ave (which some of my 148 readers will remember as a semi-devotional address to the Madonna, embodying in verse conceptions not unlike those of the early masters in painting) he had hesitated, on the ground that it might lead—and in fact it has in some instances led—to definite misconceptions regarding his ideas about Christian faith and dogma: he had, however, eventually decided to retain the poem—and few perhaps will contest that he did well in coming to this decision. He expressed an inclination to include the sonnet named Nuptial Sleep (or, as originally entitled, Placatâ Venere), an item in the series The House of Life: an inclination which was carried into effect with a result the reverse of fortunate; as the sonnet, when published, gave rise to severe strictures, on the justice of which I will not here offer any comment, and was ultimately withdrawn when the House of Life reached its completed form in 1881. My own opinion had been expressed in August in favour of retaining the sonnet in print, so long as the collection remained unpublished: I afterwards, and no doubt unwisely, withdrew this qualifying clause. My brother had cancelled (though it was printed in the proofs) another sonnet termed On the French Liberation of Italy; as this also, though alien in subject-matter from any possible question of sexual morals, dealt with its theme under a physical metaphor open to exception. Another item which was printed in the same form for private circulation was the prose tale Hand and Soul (originally published in The Germ): it was excluded from the volume, as ultimately issued in 1870. This is the printed Hand and Soul of which a moderate number of copies have got into circulation, and into booksellers’ catalogues, since 149 Rossetti^s death. One rather sanguine bookseller priced it at £6 6s.; whether he obtained his price is a question which I cannot determine, but as to which I should remain sceptical in default of definite assurance.
The interchange of letters between my brother and myself, as to the details of the privately-printed poems, went on at this time rather actively. On 26th August he wrote discussing the metre of his Italian song “La bella donna” (in the Last Confession); to some laxities in which, as contrary to the scheme of Italian rhythm, I had started an objection. Soon afterwards he decided to cut out this song altogether; but then again relented, and retained it. He proposed to omit a lyric named A Song and Music; referred to his having added an opening stanza to Sister Helen, for clearness’ sake; and expressed the opinion that, as Mr. Buxton Forman had recently, in an article in Tinsley’s Magazine, made mention of the early poem My Sister’s Sleep, it would become a practical necessity to include this composition in the series, although contrary to my brother’s personal preference. Another very early poem was The Card-dealer; which he modified, and inserted. On 14th September he apprised me that he had been sending to the printer seven new sonnets—including those on his own designs of Cassandra, The Passover in the Holy Family, and Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee. He had also begun two new poems of greater length; one of them being The Orchard-pit (of which he had then done little beyond a prose synopsis, and indeed it never proceeded much further), and the other being probably The Stream’s Secret. Next day he expressed a doubt as to inserting the brace of sonnets on Ingres’s picture of Ruggiero and 150 Angelica; finally it found grace in his eyes. By 21st September Rossetti had again written some more verse, including the ballad of Troy Town: “my best thing, I think,” was his comment upon this—but it does not follow that, wben the glow of recent composition had faded, he would have re-affirmed the same opinion. Other works of this period, which received the praise of Mr. Scott, were Eden Bower and the sonnet on The Glen.
Although Rossetti had in his hands several of his old poems, and was much in the vein for writing new ones, still a good number of the verses of past years, those which would be most needful for a volume taking the ordinary published form, remained as yet buried with his wife in Highgate Cemetery. He took the extreme resolution of having them unburied. This is a fact which has been frequently stated ere now: I simply re-state it, and leave all my readers to judge for themselves whether the act was laudable, condonable, or otherwise. His object manifestly was the desire of poetic fame, and reluctance that his ligbt should be permanently hid under a bushel: the state of his feeling in relation to his deceased wife had no less manifestly undergone the calming and assuaging influence which comes with the passing of six years and upwards. The MSS. were recovered from the coffin, and were consigned to Dr. Llewellyn Williams, of No. 9 Leonard Place, Kennington, to be properly treated with disinfectants before further use could be made of them. This process was going on in the middle of the month of October, when Rossetti was either still at Penkill Castle, or just returned to London. On the 20th of the month the papers were handed 151 over to him. Four days before this he had written to me saying that he had always intended to dedicate to myself his first volume of poems, and would now do so.
Friends and acquaintances evinced an eager interest in the forthcoming volume. Thus Mr. Sidney Colvin suggested an order in which the poems might be printed, differing from that which appears in the published book. Mr. Thursfield undertook to trace back, into its classic sources, the legend about Helen’s vow to Aphrodite embodied in the poem of Troy Town, and he found it in Pliny, but not in any earlier author; Mr. Swinburne thanked Rossetti for some new sheets of the volume, and for the tale of Hand and Soul, which by this date (7th December) had been definitely severed from the poems. He expressed also a wish (which was unfortunately not ratified) that Rossetti would take up and complete his other prose story of remote years, St. Agnes of Intercession; and he referred to some new passages in the poem Jenny.
A letter dated in February from Mr. Patrick Park Alexander shows that Messrs. Blackwood had made an offer for publishing Rossetti’s Poems. Mr. Alexander expressed regret that this offer had not been accepted. The publisher selected was (as is well known) Mr. F. S. Ellis, then settled as a bookseller in King Street, Covent Garden, little concerned in publishing: he afterwards published the works of Mr. William Morris, and some few others. My brother had, from first to last, the utmost reason for satisfaction in having come to terms with Mr. Ellis, who acted with 152 consistent liberality and friendly zeal, and who relieved him from all trouble in the matter more onerous than that of receiving cheques for author’s royalty on sales, at punctual intervals. All my brother’s subsequent publishing was done with Mr. Ellis and his then partners in New Bond Street; the reissue of The Early Italian Poets under the title Dante and his Circle; the reissue in 1881, in a modified form, of the Poems of 1870; and the publication, also in 1881, of the Ballads and Sonnets. In the letter from Mr. Alexander above mentioned another matter is also touched upon: he enclosed an old sonnet by Rossetti, speaking of it as a “vigorous imprecation.” This must, I presume, have been the sonnet On a Mulberry-tree (planted by Shakespeare, and felled by the Rev. Mr. Gastrell): it was published in 1881, but not in 1870.
The volume made its appearance towards the end of April. My brother was sufficiently liberal of presentation-copies to friends and acquaintances—not perhaps to any literary magnates who were not personally known to him. I find an acknowledgment of a copy from Sir Henry Taylor, whom Rossetti knew slightly, and whose stately historical drama of Philip van Artevelde had been read and re-read by him with fervent admiration at a very youthful age; another from Sir Theodore Martin, who referred to the sonnet “This is that blessed Mary,” which he recollected from the date, 1849, when he had seen it printed to illustrate the picture of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, as included in the Free Exhibition at Hyde Park Corner. A letter also came from Mr. Frank A. Marshall, whom my brother had known some years before, but had not seen recently: he asked 153 permission to include A Last Confession in a reading which he was to give in May in the Hanover Square Rooms. Alfred Tennyson, well known to be a reluctant and scanty letter-writer, was not wholly silent upon this occasion: his epistle, however, appeared to Rossetti “rather shabby”—which was a matter of opinion.
The success of the book was rapid and conspicuous. As early as 3rd May Rossetti was able to announce that Mr. Ellis had sold the whole of the first issue of 1000 copies, with the exception of 200 (these also were exhausted towards 20th May or earlier), and was about to go to press again at once with a second 1000; 250 of the copies disposed of had been sent to America. As Mr. Ellis’s liberal plan was to pay to the author, as soon as an edition or relay was in type, the stipulated royalty (one quarter of the published price of 12s. per copy), the two issues would have brought in to the author £300 in the space of less than a month; another £150 became due by the end of July. Rossetti remarked in the same letter that The Early Italian Poets, the publication of Messrs. Smith & Elder, was then just sold out, and that he would forthwith reprint it through Mr. Ellis, were the latter to assent. And this scheme was in fact carried out, but only after an interval of some three years. The idea was to make the edition in two volumes (and it seems that an advertisement appeared to this effect), with some additional matter. This was abandoned; the arrangement of the contents was altered, and the title along with that.
If readers were numerous, reviewers also were laudatory. Who that read it can have forgotten the gorgeous stream of praise in which Mr. Swinburne indulged his 154 generous instincts as critic and as friend? Another critique which Rossetti particularly valued was that contributed to the Athenæum by Dr. Westland Marston, a very cordial acquaintance of more recent years. None of the reviews, however, impressed him more than one which appeared in an American paper, the Catholic World. He thought that its writer had shown remarkable power of penetrating through the printed page into the essential and not wholly self-avowed personality of the author. Naturally he knew nothing either of the Catholic World, or of any person writing, or likely to be writing, in its columns. The interest which he felt in the article was such as to impel him to make what enquiry he could after its author. He addressed him, I think, under cover to the editor of the paper, but without result. He also consulted a Catholic acquaintance—the poet Mr. Aubrey de Vere—who replied that he thought it possible the critic might be a Mr. Rudd. Nothing more definite, I believe, was ever ascertained on this point.
A great literary event, followed by a great European event, gave a numbing shock to men’s minds in the summer of 1870. On 9th June Charles Dickens died; and I recollect that my brother told me soon afterwards that the sale of his book seemed to have suffered a sudden decline in consequence. In the middle of the summer war was declared between France and Germany. The Poems by Dante Gabriel Rossetti ran a bad chance when people who were just ceasing to talk about the author of Pickwick and David Copperfield had to discuss Napoleon III. and King William, Moltke and Macmahon, Gambetta and Bismarck, Empire and Republic. Thus, from the early summer, Rossetti and his friends 155 had little more to say about a run of purchasers, and a succession of re-issues; and the book had the fate of most other books of moderate pretensions to popularity—selling now and again with some tolerable degree of steadiness, far in the background from general interest and sensation.
The ballad named Down Stream (originally The River’s Record) seems to have been written towards July of this year; its local colouring clearly points to Kelmscott. Soon afterwards Rossetti was invited, through Mr. Madox Brown, to contribute something to a magazine which had but a short lease of life—The Dark Blue. He authorized Mr. Brown to send Down Stream, if so disposed. This was done, and the poem appeared in those pages in October, with the advantage of two woodcut illustrations from Brown’s hand. Rossetti did about the same time “a few songs and sonnets;” one of them was in Italian, being, I suppose, the Barcarola which begins “Per carità.” This earned a word of encomium from Mr. Swinburne. The Cloud Confines (a short poem on which my brother not unnaturally laid considerable stress) also received Swinburne’s marked approval in the same letter. At Kelmscott likewise, towards this date, my brother began his rather long narrative poem of Rose Mary, Its first part was completed by 10th September, and the remainder proceeded rapidly, being finished by the 23rd of the same month. The Sunset Wings, recording the arboreal evolutions of a flock of starlings at Kelmscott, was done in August. It was published in the Athenæum in the spring of 1873, and he then remarked in a letter “the description is 156 most exact.” These details suffice to show that Rossetti, having brought out his volume was not a little inspirited towards continuous poetic production, which, unless interrupted by untoward circumstance, might probably have proceeded much farther than in fact it did.
The untoward circumstance, however, was not to be wanting. It came in the shape of the article The Fleshly School of Poetry, written by Mr. Robert Buchanan under the pseudonym of Thomas Maitland, and published in the Contemporary Review. To this affair of The Fleshly School of Poetry—an affair equally trumpery in itself and miserable in its consequences—I have made some reference aforetime, in my preface to the Collected Works of my brother. Suffice it here to say that Rossetti was in the first instance annoyed and partly amused—especially amused at the poor figure which the Contemporary, or its editor, or its contributor, or all three, cut in some newspaper correspondence of the time, wherein the authorship or pseudonymity of the article was shuffled over not a little; but in the sequel, when the same article, in an extended form, was republished as a pamphlet, he was unfortunately very much more annoyed, and not amused at all. On the contrary he foolishly and blameably took very much to heart this ill-conditioned attack,* with its many imputations or implications of low and bad moral tone in his writings, and of low and bad moral motives conducing to that tone; and, instead of tossing the whole thing aside—the article or pamphlet into his
* It is perfectly true—and I mention it to Mr. Buchanan’s credit—that, after an interval of some years, he himself openly proclaimed that the attack was unjust and wrongful. If he thought so at that rather late date, it is no wonder if I do and always did think the same.
157 waste-paper basket, and its author into the limbo of unquiet spirits, actuated by some incentive or other towards detraction—he allowed a sense of unfair treatment, and a suspicion that the slur cast upon himself and his writings might be widely accepted as true, to eat into his very vitals, gravely altering his tone of mind and character, his attitude towards the world, and his habits of life. Constant insomnia (beginning towards 1867), and its counteraction by reckless drugging with chloral, co-operated, no doubt, to the same disastrous end; indeed, I find it impossible to say whether the more potent factors in the case were insomnia and chloral which gave morbid virulence to outraged feelings, or outraged feelings which promoted the persistence of insomnia, and the consequent abuse of chloral. All three had their share in making my brother a changed man from 1872 onwards. I am aware that in stating these details (which have indeed been touched upon with more or less precision by other writers as well as by myself) I am exposing him to some censure for want of that masculine scorn or sturdy indifference which is the right answer to unmerited disparagement; but the cause of truth would certainly not be served by my keeping strict silence either as to the unfairness of the attack, or as to the shock which was inflicted by it upon a nature too proud, too sensitive, and above all perhaps too isolated.
In these remarks I have been anticipating somewhat, for (as already indicated) the publishing of the article in the Contemporary Review (as distinguished from its subsequent re-issue as a pamphlet) was received by my brother light- heartedly enough. The first reference I find to this matter is in a letter which he addressed to 158 me on 17th October, saying that he—if Thomas Maitland should turn out to be Robert Buchanan—would write and print a letter in answer to him. I replied dissuading, but without effect; and soon afterwards Rossetti’s article in the Athenæum, named The Stealthy School of Criticism, made its appearance. A letter from Mr. Swinburne, and another from Mr. J. T. Nettleship the painter (author of A Study of Browning), advert to this matter. From Mr. Colvin there is a letter regarding a ballad of a burlesque kind which Rossetti wrote on the Buchanan affair. For this ballad Mr. Colvin tendered his good offices with the Fortnightly Review, but he wisely recommended that the effusion should not be published at all, and my brother, acquiescing in this advice, proceeded no further. The MS. ballad is in my possession; but is not likely ever to see the light of publication—not, at any rate, in my time. A letter from Mr. Ellis the publisher, dated 19th December, discloses another Rossettian move on the tarnished chessboard of the Fleshly School of Poetry—he had written a letter to Mr. Buchanan, forming a separate pamphlet; and this pamphlet, according to Mr. Ellis’s letter, was then in proof. But the very next day a note from the junior partner in the then firm of Ellis & Green followed the missive of his senior. Mr. Green intimated that the pamphlet might probably be actionable as a libel, and no doubt any notion of publishing it must then have been finally abandoned. I never saw this pamphlet, nor I think any part of the MS. pertaining to it; neither did I ever enquire whether perchance Mr. Ellis or his printer yet owns a copy of it. Were such the case, the pamphlet might yet some day prove a literary curiosity highly 159 appetizing to some of those bibliographic zealots who are prompt with cheques for £7 or £10 in exchange even for a copy of Rossetti’s boyish, privately printed, and insipid ballad, Sir Hugh the Heron, Whether the brochure really was a libel I have of course no means of judging; nor whether it was more a libel on Mr. Buchanan than the Fleshly School of Poetry its predecessor, had been on Rossetti; nor yet whether, if it was more a libel as aforesaid, this was or was not dependent on the legal axiom, “The greater the truth, the greater the libel.” My reader, who now knows as much about the pamphlet as I do, may be left to his own conjectures.
The year closes (30th December) with a business-announcement—Mr. Ellis writing to say that he would now advertize a sixth edition of the Poems; this sixth edition being, in fact, the second five hundred out of a set of a thousand copies which had been printed some while previously. This amounts to six editions (but probably three or four of them were small ones, like this last-named) in a space of about twenty months; not bad for poetry, as poetry rules in the market of the second half of the nineteenth century in England.
Mr. Ellis resumes the correspondence of this year. On 24th January he sent Rossetti the modest sum of £2 16s. 2d., remitted by Messrs. Roberts Brothers from Boston as the author’s profit upon the American issue of the Poems (possibly this sum was only applicable to the half-year just expired, but I am unable to determine that point). On 19th March he undertook to reprint The Early Italian Poets at his own cost, on the 160 understanding that any profit, beyond expenses recouped, would be halved between himself and the author.
The alarming illness from which my brother suffered in June of this year has been briefly mentioned on page 78. It was the result of the triple combination which I have just been discussing—insomnia, chloral, and the Fleshly School of Poetry in its pamphlet form. The immediate cause was undoubtedly the pamphlet, which, working upon an excitable brain and overstrung feelings, betrayed Rossetti into the belief that he was fast becoming the object of widespread calumny and obloquy, not less malignant and insidious than unprovoked and undeserved:—unprovoked, for he never intermixed in any literary or personal wrangles; and undeserved, for neither his poetry nor his painting was fairly chargeable with any sort of ignoble pruriency. As I have already said, my brother recruited his health by leaving London for the Scottish Highlands, and afterwards he settled down for some while at Kelmscott.
The first record I find of renewed literary work is that on 7th November he sent me his Italian sonnet on his picture Proserpina.
From Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family-letters by William Michael Rossetti
(London: Ellis and Elvey, 1895.)
Volume I, pp. 293-321
THE FLESHLY SCHOOL OF POETRY.
IN the Contemporary Review for October 1871 an article appeared entitled The Fleshly School of Poetry—Mr. D. G. 294 Rossetti—and signed Thomas Maitland. For the purpose of this article Thomas Maitland was non-existent, and the real author was the verse-writer—or let us say the poet—Robert Buchanan. Some skirmishing in the press rapidly ensued, not free from confusion and self-conflicting. Its main upshot was this—that Mr. Buchanan had intended to write an anonymous attack upon Rossetti, and the publisher of the Contemporary Review turned it into a pseudonymous attack. One poet who assails another anonymously, in a magazine where anonymity is in no degree the rule, does not occupy a very graceful position; and the publisher who pseudonymizes his anonymous and aggressive contributor occupies, I apprehend, an ungraceful position. I have very positive grounds for affirming (and I will produce them if wanted) that Mr. Buchanan was from the first strongly urged, and this by a person who had every right to intervene, not to be anonymous, and à fortiori not pseudonymous. I shall not repeat—what was said in some papers at the time—that there was plain mendacity in some of the explanations offered. But it seems to behove me to say a little about the antecedents of The Fleshly School of Poetry—Mr. D. G. Rossetti, and to take to myself any blame which may properly or plausibly belong to me; for I have more than once been told by friends that the animus against my brother, apparent in the article of Mr. Robert-Thomas Buchanan-Maitland, should be regarded as a vicarious expression of resentment at something which I myself had written. Thus then.
Mr. Swinburne’s volume of Poems and Ballads having excited a fluster in 1866, a burlesque poem appeared in the Spectator for 15 September 1866, named The Session of the Poets. It was anonymous; but rumour—since then confirmed by himself—ascribed it to Mr. Buchanan. It contained the following lines:—
“Up jumped, with his neck stretching out like a gander,
Master Swinburne, and squealed, glaring out through his hair,
‘All Virtue is bosh! Hallelujah for Landor!
I disbelieve wholly in everything! There!’
“With language so awful he dared then to treat ’em, 295
Miss Ingelow fainted in Tennyson’s arms;
Poor Arnold rushed out, crying “Sæcl’ inficetum!’
And great bards and small bards were full of alarms:
Till Tennyson, flaming and red as a gypsy,
Struck his fist on the table and uttered a shout:
‘To the door with the boy! Call a cab! He is tipsy!’
And they carried the naughty young gentleman out.
* * * * * *
“Then ‘Ah!’ cried the Chairman, ‘this teaches me knowledge:
The future shall find me more wise, by the Powers!
This comes of assigning to younkers from college
Too early a place in such meetings as ours.’”
About the same time I was writing for an American quarterly a review of Mr. Swinburne’s poems. It was eventually published, not in America, but as a brochure in England, under the name of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, a Criticism, by William Michael Rossetti, 1866. Bearing in mind Mr. Buchanan’s—as I thought it—gratuitous and insolent attack upon a poet already so illustrious as Mr. Swinburne, and entertaining the opinion that much more than commensurate laudation had been bestowed by reviews upon the volume (or volumes) of verse which Mr. Buchanan had up to that time published, I opened my Criticism with the following sentence:—
“The advent of a new great poet is sure to cause a commotion of one kind or another; and it would be hard were this otherwise in times like ours, when the advent of even so poor and pretentious a poetaster as a Robert Buchanan stirs storms in teapots.”
When my first edition of Shelley appeared in 1870 it was severely condemned in the Athenæum, in a criticism which I was informed was written by Mr. Buchanan. Whether this is correct I cannot affirm. At any rate, Mr. Buchanan considered that to be “the worst edition of Shelley which has ever seen the light,” for so he has told us in The Fleshly School of Poetry, adding one or two other partially relevant “digs” at me. Somewhat later in 1870 than the Athenæum article 296 my brother’s volume of Poems came out. It remained uncriticized by Mr. Buchanan (so far as I am aware) until October 1871, when the article in the Contemporary Review appeared.
This article was (to use no other expression) severe against Rossetti. It was afterwards considerably enlarged, and its severity, direct and implied, was increased, and it was reissued as a pamphlet-volume of about 100 pages—The Fleshly School of Poetry, and other Phenomena of the Day, by Robert Buchanan (Strahan & Co., 1872). I will give some extracts, showing what opinion Mr. Buchanan entertained of Rossetti’s performances. These extracts come direct from the pamphlet, and are (practically speaking) verbatim; but it should be understood that the “Thomas Maitland” article was in full general conformity with them.
The Poems (we are told) exhibit morbid deviation from healthy forms of life. Nothing is virile, nothing tender, nothing completely sane. There is thorough nastiness in many pieces. A sickening desire is evinced to reproduce the sensual mood. Rossetti has not given us one rounded and noteworthy piece of art. He is fleshly all over, from the roots of his hair to the tips of his toes. There is bad blood in all the poems, and breadth of poetic interest in none. Bad rhymes become the rule, and not the exception. The burden of Sister Helen is repeated with little or no alteration through thirty-four verses (as a fact, it is repeated with invariable and essential alteration, and Mr. Buchanan misquotes its close “between Hell and Heaven,” changing this into “between Heaven and Hell,” and so spoiling the cadence). Sister Helen and Eden Bower are affected rubbish. The House of Life is a very hotbed of nasty phrases. Sonnets 11 to 20 are one profuse sweat of animalism. Sonnets 29, 30, and 31, are very, very silly. 1 The Last Confession positively reeks of morbid
1 The thirteen Sonnets thus characterized are the following: The Birth-Bond (Have you not noted in some family); A Day of Love (Those envied places which do know her well); Love Sweetness (Sweet dimness of her loosened hair’s downfall); Love’s Baubles (I stood where Love in brimming armfuls bore); Winged Hours (Each hour until we meet is as a bird); Life in Love (Not in thy body is thy life at all); The Love-Moon (When that dead face bowered in the furthest years); The Morrow’s Message (Thou Ghost, I said, and is thy name To-day?); Sleepless Dreams (Girt in dark growths yet glimmering with one star); Secret Parting (Because our talk was of the cloud-control); Inclusiveness (The changing guests each in a different mood); Known in Vain (As two whose love, first foolish, widening scope); The Landmark (Was that the landmark? what, the foolish well).
297 lust. In Rossetti’s poetry there is a veritably stupendous preponderance of sensuality and sickly animalism. He and Mr. Swinburne merely echo what is vile. I see in Rossetti no gleam of Nature, not a sign of humanity. [On a passage from The Portrait] Was ever writing so formally slovenly and laboriously limp? [The, in general] Treatment, down to the tiniest detail, frivolous, absurd, and reckless. As shapeless and undigested as chaos itself.
On such abuse as this, wholesale and retail, I will not express any view of my own, nor solicit the verdict of the reader. About twenty-four years have elapsed since Mr. Buchanan wrote. If public opinion in that interval has ratified, or gone near to ratifying, his dicta, I remain under a mistake. If public opinion at the present date should avouch that the man who could thus express himself must have had in view some object extraneous to the fair and moderate expression of a candid conviction, I should be far from astonished.
According to my recollection of the facts—of which I had adequate personal knowledge at the time—my brother was but little troubled, and not downcast at all, by the article such as it appeared in the Contemporary Review. He had all along expected that some one or other would make a point of assailing him. He knew himself to be above such an assault as was now delivered, and felt moreover that the fact of the pseudonym, and the ambiguities which had accompanied it, gave him a considerable advantage as a defendant. Mr. Scott—with an inaccuracy as to date which is very habitual to him—relates how, “as midsummer 1872 was drawing on,” he gave a dinner-party which Rossetti attended; and how 298 the latter shouted out the name of Robert Buchanan, whom “he had discovered to be the writer of the article,” and how “from this time he occupied himself in composing a long reply.” It is certain (as one of the Family- letters shows) that my brother had been informed about Mr. Buchanan towards the middle of October 1871, and that soon after that time he undertook a reply for publication. Mr. Scott’s date is therefore quite erroneous. To his other statements I raise no demur, but he seems to think the whole incident more noteworthy than I can. My brother was impulsive and outspoken; and, being (it is to be supposed) among friends well known to him, and known to be on his side of any such controversy, he may very likely—and very harmlessly—have been a trifle more vociferous than those drawing-room and dining-room manners for which Dickens gave the formula of “prunes and prisms” would indicate.
It is certainly true that he set-to at writing a reply to Mr. Buchanan—a fact which is in no wise inconsistent with what I have just been saying about his comparative coolness under the Contemporary attack. He was vehemently, not to say virulently, assailed; and this more on the ground of imputed moral obliquity than of poetic or literary shortcomings. To be ridiculed was what he did not like; to be vilified as writing from impure motives and as an incentive to public impurity was what he disliked extremely. It would have been much better—and I told him so at the time—to take no part in the controversy, and to allow the anonymo-pseudonymous attack to die out of itself, leaving perhaps little general memory of its unsavoury existence, and little warning to any one except the parties directly concerned; who would probably have found out that a “poet” who abuses another poet under the shield of anonymity had better not be loaded, by himself or another, with the thicker shield of pseudonymity. However, my brother did not adopt my well-meant advice. He wrote a pamphlet, and sent the more serious parts of it to the Athenæum, where these were printed with his name appended, and under his own title, 299 The Stealthy School of Criticism.1 To me The Stealthy School of Criticism appears a very sound and telling piece of self-vindication. It rectifies some positive mis-statements contained in Mr. Buchanan’s article, and sets the whole question in a much more correct light than the latter had succeeded in casting upon it, or perhaps had been minded to supply. The pamphlet itself, including this extracted portion, was put into print, with a view to its being published by Mr. Ellis; but on consideration it was held to be such as might lay the author or the publisher open to an action at law—possibly on the ground, “the greater the truth, the greater the libel”—and it was withheld, and ultimately destroyed. I heard it at the time; but long ago I had quite forgotten its treatment and details—which were assuredly not scurrilous, but I dare say sarcastic and stinging enough, for my brother was the reverse of a bad hand at that sort of thing when he chose to take it up. He was displeased, indignant, and perhaps incensed, and disposed to “give as good as he got”; but still, as I have said, not seriously wounded nor deeply mortified, so far as the Contemporary article went. I can even remember that he was frankly amused at some remarks by Mr. Buchanan upon certain rhymes in his volume—such as “wet” rhyming with “Haymarket”; and he thought that Mr. Buchanan had made a very neat travestie of them as follows:—
“When winds do roar and rains do pour,
Hard is the life of the sailor:
He scarcely, as he reels, can tell
The side-lights from the binnacle:
He looketh on the wild water,” etc.
And at a later date, hearing that the anonymously published poem, St. Abe and his Seven Wives, was the work of Mr. Buchanan, he told me that he had found it to be a production of considerable force and spirit. He was indeed (and Dr. Hake has told us so), though sufficiently downright in denouncing works which he disrelished, whether in literature or in fine
1 Naturally, it is included in Rossetti’s Collected Works.
300 art, always inclined to say a good word for such points in them as he thought deserving of this.
Mr. Buchanan, having made one envenomed attack upon Rossetti, was not to be appeased until he had made another much more envenomed; and in the spring of 1872 he issued (as I have said) his pamphlet-volume, being a greatly extended, more systematic, and more denunciatory version of the original review. He here more definitely identified Rossetti, as well as some other poets, with a supposed movement for the propagation of whatsoever is most foul in vice, and most disgusting in vicious display. Possibly this production, like its predecessor, is only very partially remembered by the living generation of readers. The sooner it is totally forgotten, the better for all concerned, and more especially for Mr. Buchanan himself.
I can say this without any unfair bias towards my brother’s side. It must likewise be the opinion of Mr. Buchanan, for whose feelings in the matter it is not my business to entertain or express any especial concern. At the same time I willingly acknowledge that, when at last he did retract, he retracted straightforwardly, and in a spirit to which my brother might perhaps have openly responded, had he then been less near his grave. Mr. Buchanan, in 1881, dedicated to Rossetti, as to “An Old Enemy,” his romance entitled God and the Man; and, besides some other retractation (especially a phrase in The Academy, 1 July 1882, “Mr. Rossetti, I freely admit now, never was a Fleshly Poet at all”), he addressed to Mr. Hall Caine, soon after Rossetti’s death, a letter containing the following phrases. I only extract some expressions relating to Rossetti; others which show persistent rancour against other people are best left in oblivion:—
“While admitting freely that my article in the Contemporary Review was unjust to Rossetti’s claims as a poet, I have ever held, and still hold, that it contained nothing to warrant the manner in which it was received by the poet and his circle [the poet’s only overt act, it will be remembered, was to write that very moderate self-vindication called The Stealthy School of Criticism]. Well, my 301 protest was received in a way which turned irritation into wrath, wrath into violence. I was unjust, as I have said; most unjust when I impugned the purity, and misconceived the passion, of writings too hurriedly read, and reviewed currente calamo [ but several months had elapsed between the publication of the review- article and that of the pamphlet]. I make full admission of Rossetti’s claims to the purest kind of literary renown; and, if I were to criticize his poems now, I would write very differently.”
There is another phrase which seems to go near to admitting that Mr. Buchanan—in 1871, and also in 1871—abused Rossetti just because other critics had praised him:—
“At the time it [the review-article] was written, the news papers were full of panegyric. Mine was a mere drop of gall in an ocean of eau sucrée.”
But even this is not quite apposite to the facts. The “newspapers” had had their say about Rossetti’s Poems towards April and May 1870, whereas Mr. Buchanan’s pseudonymous article appeared in October 1871.
Let me sum up briefly the chief stages in this miserable, and in some aspects disgraceful, affair. 1. Mr. Buchanan, whether anonymously or pseudonymously—being a poet, veritable or reputed—attacked another poet, a year and a half after the works of the latter had been received with general and high applause. 2. He attacked him on grounds partly literary, but more prominently moral. 3. After he had had every opportunity for reflection, he repeated the attack in a greatly aggravated form. 4. At a later date he knew that the author in question was not a bad poet, nor a poet with an immoral purpose. The question naturally arises—If he knew this in or before 1881, why did he know or suppose the exact contrary in 1871 and 1872? Here is a question to which no answer (within my cognizance) has ever been given by Mr. Buchanan, and it is one to which some readers may risk their own reply. That is their affair. If Mr. Robert Buchanan concludes that Mr. Thomas Maitland told an untruth, it is not for me to say him nay.
302 Not long after Rossetti’s death an article named The Art of Rossetti was written by Mr. Harry Quilter, and it was published in that same Contemporary Review which had reviled the man during his lifetime. It is laudatory, but very far from being exclusively so. Some of the observations in this article appear to me to be among the best and most acute which have been spoken on that question of “fleshliness,” and I will give them here. I will only premise that, while I regard it as a gross calumny to say that Rossetti was in any marked sense an adherent of any “Fleshly School of Poetry” (if such there was), I do not contest that there are some things in his writings to which a puritan or a purist may, from his own point of view, legitimately take exception. The real question is not whether Rossetti, as a man or as a poet, was “fleshly,” but whether certain subjects, and certain modes of treatment and forms of expression, are to be admitted into poetry as a wide domain, or excluded from it as a narrow domain. To this question perhaps the simplest and the most sufficient answer is that all or nearly all the greatest poets, in all countries and ages of the world, have admitted them; and I will go a step further, and (without presuming to rank Dante Rossetti with those greatest poets) will say that very few of them have admitted so little as he did of those subjects, modes of treatment, and forms of expression. I now cite from Mr. Quilter:—
“It was said once, by a writer anxious to make out a case against the Præraphaelite school of modern poetry, that one of the chief characteristics of Rossetti’s verse was its sensuality, and certain quotations were given to prove this. Time has effectually disposed of that charge, and the misrepresentations on which it was founded have been adequately confuted; but it has hardly been sufficiently noticed that the real ground of the accusation is due to the fact of the poet-painter being unable to dissever his pictorial from his poetic faculty. He habitually thought (if such an expression is allowable) in terms of painting. He could not dissever his most purely intellectual ideas from colour and form; and it is the intrusion of these physical facts into his poetry, in places where they are 303 unexpected and unnecessary, that gives, to hasty readers and superficial critics, such a wrong impression. And, in the same way as he charges a poem with more colour and form than it can well bear with reference to its special subject, so does he charge his pictures with a weight of idea which their form and colour scarcely realize; and in both he calls upon the spectator to be at once the witness and the interpreter of his work. From this there results in his poetry the following effect —that he is at his finest when he has to tell some plain story, or exemplify some comparatively simple thought, the insertion into which of physical facts will heighten the meaning rather than jar upon it; or in verses which treat intellectual ideas from a purely sensuous basis, such for instance as in those sonnets which are concerned with the passion of love. When however he seeks to treat either a purely intellectual or a purely spiritual subject, he fails almost inevitably, and that apparently in painting as well as in poetry. Like Antæus, if he is held off the earth too long his strength fails him. It is this painter-like quality which makes his verse so puzzling; for in idea it is, almost without exception, of a singularly pure and intellectual character. Turn from his verse to his painting, and the same curious contradiction is forced upon our attention. We find continually, in his pictures where the painter’s individuality is most manifest, that the reproduction of the sensuous part of his subject is, so to speak, interfered with by the strange, half-refining, half-abstract quality of his intellect. . . . All the other physical peculiarities to be traced in his works are all due to the passionately sensuous but equally passionately intellectual nature of Rossetti. They are the record of a man whose sense of beauty was always being disturbed by his sense of feeling.”
HYPOCHONDRIA AND ILLNESS.
WE have now reached what may be called “the parting of the waters” in Dante Rossetti’s life. In earlier years he had had his tribulations: difficulties in his professional career, the ill-health of his loved Lizzie, with ensuing harasses in relation to their engagement, and to their matrimonial life; her early and shocking death, with troublous memories 304 attending it, and anxieties and self-conflicts ensuing; partial failure of eyesight; insomnia, only combated by perilous palliatives. Still, on the whole, as he stood at the middle of 1871, and even on to the spring of 1872, he was a moderately healthy man, and in many respects a thriving if not exactly a happy one. For happiness some fair measure of contentment is essential; and Rossetti, a man of restless imagination and vehement desires, better satisfied with his surroundings than with himself and his performances, was never contented, and therefore never, in a right sense, happy. His aspirations, though to some extent assuaged, were by no means soothed into serenity; but this I need not say, for no aspirations, properly to be thus called, will be so in the little life which is rounded with a sleep. Nature had endowed him with an ample stock of high- heartedness and high spirits. These served to while the time for his external self and for his friends, while moody distaste, and something like a surging mist of gloom, were often active within. He was a successful man: successful and admired as a painter—necessarily in a small circle, as he would not exhibit; still more successful and acclaimed as a poet, and by a much wider public. Achievement in art and in poetry he had always longed for, for these he had passionately worked; to general recognition he was not indifferent. Fortune had thrown in a more than wonted share of her capricious favours. Loving and beloved by his family, warmly cherished by his friends, acknowledged by his intellectual compeers, sought out by strangers as a man of renown, he seemed to have attained a singularly enviable position. It was indeed one of those positions which Destiny begrudges to men, and determines to reverse.
This was Dante Rossetti viewed from the outside in 1871. “But I have that within which passeth show.” Mental trouble and a too active and unappeased imagination had long ago brought on insomnia; insomnia had brought on chloral; chloral had brought on depression, agitation, and a turmoil of fantasies. I think it clear, judging from results, 305 that my brother being—“put out,” though not gravely perturbed, by the Contemporary article, and by the announcement that it would soon be enlarged and re-published separately—must have got even worse sleep than usual, and must have exceeded more than usual in his chloral-dosing and its concomitant of alcohol. Certain it is that, when the pamphlet- edition appeared (which was towards the middle of May 1872), with its greatly enhanced virus of imputation and suggestion, he received it in a spirit very different from that with which he had encountered the review-article, and had confuted it in The Stealthy School of Criticism. His fancies now ran away with him, and he thought that the pamphlet was a first symptom in a widespread conspiracy for crushing his fair fame as an artist and a man, and for hounding him out of honest society. Most of his friends, myself included, combated these ideas. I question whether his closest confidant, Madox Brown, did so with adequate energy, for he himself, though reasonable and clear-headed, was of a very suspicious temper in professional matters, and held himself and his immediate circle to be not a little ill-used. My brother’s notions were, as I have said, fancies, and fancies bred, not of a temperate consideration of facts, but of the constitutional and mental upset caused by a noxious drug. Still, it is manifest, upon the face of his booklet, that the charges brought forward and reinforced by Mr. Buchanan were by no manner of means light ones. They were sufficient —if believed, which I suppose they very scantily were—to exclude Rossetti from the companionship of virtuous and even of decent people; and it was no fault of this “accuser of sins” (to use Blake’s expression) if such a result did not ensue.
I do not remember, and do not wish to remember, all the details about Mr. Buchanan’s performances, and their reception by the press. He had of course his supporters—not perhaps extremely numerous. I don’t suppose that a single poet of renown was among them. Tennyson (as I have reason to know positively) was one of the first to object to the attack 306 that it was by no means a fair appraisement of Rossetti, much of whose work he rated extremely high, the sonnets especially. In January 1872, midway between the Contemporary article and the pamphlet, there was a critique in the Quarterly Review (I have heard it ascribed to Mr. Courthope) which was unfavourable to Rossetti, and more especially to Mr. Morris, less so to Mr. Swinburne. Mr. Hall Caine has spoken of other adverse articles in the Edinburgh Review and the British Quarterly. Their dates and other details, if ever known to me, have slipped my recollection. I can dimly recall a leading article in the Echo, one word in which, “coward” or “cowards,” disturbed my brother unduly. This article—possibly without the least reason—has been ascribed to Mr. Buchanan himself. So overstrained was the balance of his mind at the time that my brother seriously consulted me as to whether it might not be his duty to challenge the writer or the editor to a duel. I need hardly record my reply—that duels in this common-sensible country are equally illegal and risible. Mr. Buchanan’s own preface to his pamphlet makes use of the same offensive word. After referring to “Mr. Rossetti’s defence, and the opinion of Mr. Rossetti’s friends,” he is pleased to say (and to this also my brother greatly objected)—“I have only one word to use concerning the attacks upon myself. They are the inventions of cowards, too spoilt with flattery to bear criticism, and too querulous and humoursome to perceive the real issues of the case.” It does not seem to have occurred to Mr. Buchanan to ponder whether the term “coward” applies more properly to a verse-writer who anonymously (not to say pseudonymously) assails another verse-writer, intermingling questions of morals with those of poetry—or rather to the man who, being thus assailed, defends himself under his own name, or to friends (or it may be outsiders) who, with or without their names, retort on the assailant.
I am sorry to dwell at so much length upon this really contemptible, and by its very author discarded, affair of The 307 Fleshly School of Poetry; but, as a biographer, I could not from this point onward tell a word of truth unless I gave it prominence. In my brother’s life it was deplorably prominent, though in itself of hardly more importance than some one’s bad breath passing across a looking-glass and slurring it for a moment. The whole matter grieved me exceedingly at the time, and will always continue to grieve me in reminiscence or record. It is a simple fact that, from the time when the pamphlet had begun to work into the inner tissue of his feelings, Dante Rossetti was a changed man, and so continued till the close of his life. Difficult though it may be to believe this of a person so self-reliant in essentials as Rossetti—one who had all his life been doing so many things just as he chose, and because he so chose, and whether other people liked them or not—it is nevertheless the truth, as I know but too well.
On 2 June 1872 I was with my brother all day at No. 16 Cheyne Walk. It was one of the most miserable days of my life, not to speak of his. From his wild way of talking—about conspiracies and what not—I was astounded to perceive that he was, past question, not entirely sane. I went round for Mr. Scott, then living at No. 92 Cheyne Walk; and he (so I noted in my Diary), “as usual, acted in a spirit of the truest and kindest friendship.” This seems to be the occasion of which Mr. Scott speaks in his Autobiographical Notes. He says that “Mr. Marshall and Dr. Hake were there,” but my own impression is that that was on a slightly later day. It is a rather curious coincidence that, on this same 2 June, my brother completed the sale of the picture of which he had painted the background as far back as 1850 at Sevenoaks, and which he had recently completed under the name of The Bower-meadow. Messrs. Pilgeram and Lefèvre bought it for the large price of £735. When Mr. Lefèvre entered, Rossetti was in a state of nervous agitation, possessed with the delusion that all sorts of people were set against him, and trying to undervalue him; and I can recollect the stare of surprise 308 with which the picture-dealer received Rossetti’s suggestion that, if the picture were not considered good value for its price, the agreement might be cancelled. Indeed such a suggestion was not less strange as coming from Rossetti, the paragon of artists at making a bargain, than as addressed to a picture-dealer (Gambart’s successor) who was no novice at taking care of himself.
Another most unfortunate circumstance happened about the same time—I think a day or two later. Browning had just published his singular poem Fifine at the Fair, and he sent (as in previous instances) a presentation-copy to my brother. The latter looked into the book; and, to the astonishment of bystanders, he at once fastened upon some lines at its close as being intended as an attack upon him, or as a spiteful reference to something which had occurred, or might be alleged to have occurred, at his house. In a moment he relented, with an effusion of tenderness to this old, attached, and illustrious friend; but in another moment the scarcely credible delusion returned. Browning was regarded as a leading member of the “conspiracy”; and, from first to last, I was never able to discern that this miserable bugbear had ever been expelled from the purlieus of my brother’s mind. He saw no more of Browning, and communicated with him no more; and on one or two occasions when the great poet, the object of Rossetti’s early and unbounded homage, kindly enquired of me concerning him, and expressed a wish to look him up, I was compelled to fence with the suggestion, lest worse should ensue—no doubt putting myself in a very absurd and unaccountable position. Whether Browning ever knew that Dante Rossetti had conceived a real dislike of him, or supposed himself to have motive of definite complaint, I am unable to say. He was certainly far too keen to miss seeing that there was something amiss, and something which was kept studiously unexplained. Another extravagant fantasy took hold of my brother’s mind at this or some other time—namely, that the wildly grotesque verses of Mr. Dodgson (whom he knew fairly well) 309 called The Hunting of the Snark were in fact intended as a pasquinade against himself. So Mr. Dodgson was another member of the conspiracy.
Thus then on 2 June I was dismayed to find my brother an actual monomaniac. I, who had known him from infancy, had never before seen or surmised the faintest seed of insanity in him. Wilful indeed he always was, but, so far from being mad, his strong idiosyncrasy had never trenched even upon what can be called the eccentric. He was eminently natural, as very many Italians are; and in this quality he followed, to my thinking, rather the Italian model than the English, which latter derives more from sturdy straightforwardness than from direct temperament. He was easy, abrupt when he liked, and transparently intelligible—except in so far as a high and subtle mind baffles one of a dull or conventional order. On that fatal 2 June, and for many days and months ensuing, I was compelled to regard my brother as partially insane, in the ordinary sense of that term. It was only after an interval of time, and as I had opportunity to compare and consider the opinions expressed by medical men and others well qualified to judge, that I came to the conclusion that he never had been and never became thus insane at all, but was on the contrary the victim of chloral, acting upon strained nerves, mental disquiet, and a highly excitable imagination—all these coupled with a grievous and fully justified sense of wrong. For many years past my conviction has been that hypochondria, consequent upon the over-dosing with chloral and alcohol—this, and not anything dependent upon constitutional unsoundness of mind—was the real secret of my brother’s frenzied collapse. Mr. Caine, speaking according to his observation, which began in 1880, has expressed a like opinion.
From this point onward I shall assume in good faith (and my reader can part company with me if he chooses) that my brother’s fantasies were those of a hypochondriac, not a madman; and that the hypochondria was directly due to 310 the chloral, but without leaving out of account those other incentives of which I have just spoken. Meanwhile, whatever the cause, his mind was truly not a sound one. He not only supposed things contrary to reason, but he had actual physical delusions or hallucinations. I cannot remember—then or afterwards—any visual delusions; but there were auditive delusions, as I shall have over-much occasion to specify.
Mr. Marshall was called in; and by his directions I summoned also Dr. Maudsley, the great authority on mental diseases. My brother, in his perverse mood, did not like Dr. Maudsley, and even went so far as to say that he was probably no doctor, but some one foisted upon himself for a sinister purpose. Of course I left the room during the medical inspection and consultation; nor can I affirm with accuracy what was the precise opinion that Dr. Maudsley formed of the case.1 He agreed with Mr. Marshall that great care was requisite, and a cessation from all work and excitement.
Dr. Hake, in his Memoirs of Eighty Years, has written with much good feeling about these matters, and with that scrupulous reserve which marks an honourable medical man in any reference to a patient. He was the earthly Providence of the Rossetti family in those dark days. I shall borrow some of his observations, and supplement them. He says:—
“One morning [I consider that this must have been Friday 7 June] I visited him [Dante Rossetti] at Cheyne Walk, when I saw that the restlessness of the past night had pursued him into daytime. Qualifying his request with an expression of great regard, he asked me not to stay. His medical attendants were consulting in another room. I joined them there, and told them that my house at Roehampton was open to Rossetti, if they decided that he needed change. [A very pleasant roomy house it was, with a large well- kept garden.] On the same evening, in company with his brother and Mr. Madox Brown [I suppose Dr. Hake is correct with regard
1 As to exact dates and details my Diary, which has sometimes stood me in good stead, assists me no longer hereabouts. I gave it up in despair on 5 June 1872, and did not resume it until 3 November.
311 to Brown, though I do not now realize to myself his presence], he came to Roehampton; and I remember well his saying, as he sat in my quiet drawing-room, that he was enjoying what he had so long ceased to feel, and that was peace.”
I recollect that dismal cab-journey from Chelsea to Roehampton. It brought out the state of physical delusion besetting my brother as to sounds; for he insisted, several times during the transit, that a bell was being rung on the roof of the cab, to his annoyance; and, at the moment of dismounting at Dr. Hake’s door, he tartly apostrophized the cabman with the words, “Why did you ring that bell?” The cabman looked blank, as might be expected. He had often been called for my brother from a neighbouring rank; and it is probable that, on getting back there, he imparted his opinion that “there must be something queer with Mr. Rossetti.”
Dr. Hake’s next phrase (which I shall proceed to quote anon) is “He sat up late in conversation” etc.; but to me it seems that he here mixes up the transactions of two different evenings. We arrived at Dr. Hake’s house quite after dark, perhaps towards 10 P.M.; and little, I should say, was done beyond settling down for the night. The next day Saturday—by my reckoning—happened to be a very untoward one for my brother’s retirement. It was the day preceding Whit-Sunday (or some such holiday-time); and, when we walked out under Dr. Hake’s pleasant escort, we found any number of gipsy-vans and other vehicles encumbering the high-road. Rossetti’s roaming ideas being still in the ascendant, he fancied that this might be a demonstration got up in his disparagement; and he was with difficulty restrained from running after some of the conveyances, and interchanging a wordy war with their drivers. Our walk was abridged; we returned to Dr. Hake’s house, and the rest of the day passed in comparative quiet. However, after dinner some reading was proposed. Merivale’s Roman Empire was handed to me, and I began reading aloud where I was told; and, as 312 ill-luck would have it, this passage detailed some of the tiger-monkey pranks played by Caligula or Domitian, to drive his submissive senators half out of their senses. The scenes depicted bore a perilous analogy to the grotesque encumbrances of my brother’s brain. I came to a full stop, though greatly urged by him to proceed, as he wanted to know the too-appetizing details. I now recur to Dr. Hake:
“He sat up late in conversation with his brother on various family-matters; but his night was the most troubled one that he had hitherto passed through.”
The Doctor’s laudable reticence as to this matter is partly followed by Mr. Bell Scott, who, in his Autobiographical Notes, says:
“A cab was brought at once. We all thought it strange to see him [Rossetti] so willing to go; but that night it was too evident he wanted to be secluded, and for three days he lay as one dead, and only by a treatment invented for the moment by Professor Marshall was he cured.”
It will be perceived that Mr. Scott shares the mistake of Dr. Hake in mixing up the occurrences of Friday evening and night with those of Saturday night; nor is it clear why Dante Rossetti should have been more “secluded” in the house occupied by Dr. Hake, with one or more of his sons, and with my company to boot, than in his own house, in which he could command solitude if it so pleased him.
Putting together the statements made by these two writers, the reader may readily infer that something of a very exceptional kind took place in that night, really the night of Saturday. Rather than leave the matter open to dubious conjecture—which may possibly have been indulged in at large ever since the appearance of Scott’s book in 1892—I will speak out, and relate the facts. In these, to a large extent, I took part at the moment; others I heard from my brother soon afterwards.
Having gone to bed on the Saturday night, my brother 313 heard (this was of course a further instance of absolute physical delusion) a voice which twice called out at him a term of gross and unbearable obloquy—I will not here repeat it. He would endure no longer a persecution from which he perceived no escape. He laid his hand upon a bottle of laudanum which, unknown to us all, he had brought with him, swallowed its contents, and dropped the empty bottle into a drawer. Of course his intention was suicide; but it was a case in which suicide was prompted not only by generally morbid and fallacious ideas but by a real hallucination, and one therefore in which the constant verdict of “unsound mind” would have been both admissible and necessary. How he had obtained the laudanum I never knew. Maybe he had long had it about him as an opiate, even before he began the nightly course of chloral.
The Sunday opened calmly and hopefully. The fact that my brother did not appear at the family-breakfast was only conformable to his ordinary habits. Dr. Hake went up in two or three instances, and always found him sleeping with extreme placidity. He encouraged me to hope that this might be the beginning of a new lease of natural sleep, and that Dante would soon be taking a marked turn for the better. At last—this may have been towards four o’clock in the afternoon—he came down again, with an exceedingly grave face. He told me that such unusually prolonged sleep did not seem natural; that my brother’s appearance was no longer satisfying to a medical eye; and that the symptoms might almost point to serous apoplexy. I ran out for a neighbouring doctor, who came at once. His name has now lapsed from my recollection. He looked at Rossetti, and at once confirmed our worst fears. It was an evident case of “effusion of serum on the brain,” and the sufferer was already past all hope. He added that, if by chance he should survive at all, his intellect would be irrecoverably gone—a sentence far worse than death.
It became my harrowing duty to go to town as fast as a fly would carry me, and fetch my mother and my sister Maria, 314 to whom Dr. Hake forthwith proffered the hospitality of his house. Christina could not possibly accompany them. She was bed-ridden, and had been so to a great extent ever since April 1871, when an illness of great rarity attacked her—one of the most distressing in its symptoms I have ever witnessed—termed “Exophthalmic Bronchocele,” or “Dr. Graves’s Disease.” This illness stuck to her until the earlier months of 1873, and all that while her life hung upon a thread. In fact some marks of the malady clung to her until, from a different cause, she died on 29 December 1894. Mr. George Hake, the doctor’s youngest son, came up with me from Roehampton to Endsleigh Gardens. He was then an Oxford student, but some trouble with his eyes had compelled him to interrupt the collegiate course—a particularly manly, frank, kind-natured young man. Too well do I remember some of the incidents of that dreadful drive across London, and of my interview with members of the family; these I suppress. The family had advisedly been left uninformed of the sad condition of mind and body into which Dante had fallen for the last several days, although they knew that he was now at Roehampton, and that I had been much along with him of late. It is a singular fact that my mother—who was not at all a woman of presentiments and panics—had, some half-hour or so before I reached the house, been suddenly smitten with a sense that something grievous was occurring or impending, and with an eager desire to speed to Roehampton, and make enquiry.
Hurriedly we packed a few necessaries, and returned to the fly—all of us convinced that Dante must have ceased to live before we could reach Roehampton. An aunt of mine, Eliza Harriet Polidori, occupied separate apartments in the Endsleigh Gardens house, and engaged to look affectionately after Christina. At the residence of Madox Brown, 37 Fitzroy Square, I got out, and announced the crushing calamity. Brown, the warmest and most helpful of friends, refused to regard the case as absolutely desperate, and ran off at once for Mr. Marshall, in Savile Row, And so—after nightfall in 315 early June, or towards nine in the evening—we started again, and rolled onward to Roehampton.
Arriving, we learned that Dante was still alive. Dr. Hake had stationed himself at his bed-head, and held to his nostrils a large bottle of strong ammonia, which staved off his sinking into total lethargy; and I have little doubt that this wise precaution was the first and indispensable stage in the process which saved my brother’s life. Very soon the Doctor took me quietly aside, and produced an empty bottle which he had found in a drawer. It was labelled “Laudanum—Poison.” We exchanged few words, but were quite at one as to the meaning of this bottle; and now we could at least dismiss the horrible idea of any such mortal illness as serous apoplexy, or of idiocy as its alternative, and could address ourselves to what was needed to counteract laudanum-poisoning. I will here add that the affair of the poisoning was never, from first to last, intimated to my mother, my sisters, or any other member of the family. They finished their days in ignorance of the facts.
Pretty soon Mr. Marshall arrived. He ordered strong coffee as the recognized antidote, which Dr. Hake himself prepared and administered, and then, to give no handle to prying curiosity, cleared away all the dregs. I do not see how Mr. Scott can be correct in regarding this treatment as “invented for the moment” by the distinguished surgeon; but certain it is that all his measures were equally simple and efficient. Beyond the coffee, he did little or nothing except to keep the necessary functions of the body in exercise. When he left, our spirits were already considerably revived; for my brother showed no sign of going from bad to worse, but something like a steady increase of vitality. His consciousness returned in the course of Monday, and for some hours he seemed free from any serious agitation. Mr. Scott therefore is mistaken in saying that “for three days he lay as one dead.” The lethal trance only lasted from some hour in the night between Saturday and Sunday to some hour in the afternoon or even forenoon of Monday.
316 Unfortunately, when his bodily powers rallied a little, the gloomy and exasperating fantasies of his mind recurred as well, and by the evening of Tuesday things seemed in this respect worse than ever. What to do was a difficult problem. Dr. Hake’s friendliness would have been equal to almost any strain that could be put upon it; but to propose to leave Dante with him indefinitely was what we could not do. To return for any length of time to Cheyne Walk, with all its distressful memories of the last few weeks, was a notion repugnant to my brother, and rejected by Mr. Marshall. In my own house, with Christina on a bed of sickness, perhaps of death, three other female inmates (not to speak of servants), and myself daily called away to a Government-office, Dante would just then have caused the most wearing anxiety. Ominous colloquies were held as to the benefit which Dr. Hake had known as ensuing from treatment in a private asylum. But in a day or two the difficulty was solved by the friend of friends, Madox Brown. Dante knew all the Brown family most intimately; Brown understood him at least as thoroughly as did any member of the Rossetti household; the house in Fitzroy Square was large and central. So on the Thursday my brother, not so greatly out of health, and in a state of mind passive, despondent, but no longer keenly excited, quitted Hake’s residence, and was escorted to Cheyne Walk: on Monday 17 June to Brown’s. In one respect his physical state was very disheartening. He suffered from hemiplegia, or partial paralysis in the region of the hip-joint, brought on, as Mr. Marshall said, by his remaining so long in a recumbent position, under the benumbing influence of the laudanum. He was in fact quite lame of one leg, and could only walk by the help of a stick. This continued very perceptible for some five or six months, and was not wholly overcome for another year or so. At last it was subdued—either entirely, or so greatly as not to raise any further notice. At Brown’s house—though extremely dejected for the most part, and wholly unable to do any sort of work—my brother proved manageable enough. He caused no trouble 317 other than what devoted friendship was cheerfully prepared for.
I have given these painful details at some length, but shall not pursue with equal minuteness the course of Rossetti’s troubles up to the date when his health and spirits took a very decided rally. He remained at Brown’s house not more than some six or seven days, and was then, on 20 June, got off to Scotland to recruit. Mr. William Graham, M.P., who had bought the Dante’s Dream and other pictures, placed at his unreserved disposal for a while, with great kindness and liberality, two mansions which he rented in Perthshire—first Urrard, and then Stobhall. It was not considered desirable that I should accompany my brother—partly because of my official ties, and partly because I might be (and assuredly should have been) depressed, and therefore depressing. Brown and George Hake took him down to Urrard, where he remained, I think, but a few days; then they removed with him to Stobhall, where Scott very considerately joined the party, relieving Brown, and, soon before Scott left, arrived Dr. Hake. Thus the company came to consist of the two Hakes along with Rossetti. After a while, early in September, the Doctor departed—from a farmhouse to which they had meanwhile removed at Trowan near Crieff—and Mr. Dunn then came down. My brother had by that time revived considerably, and had resumed painting—completing towards the middle of September the long-pending duplicate of Beata Beatrix for Mr. Graham. I will give a few details of the Scotch sojourn from Mr. Scott’s book, and from Dr. Hake’s. A very few more appear in the Family-letters; and, from letters addressed by my brother’s friends to me at the time, I could largely increase them, but prefer to limit myself to these general outlines of a great downbreak, seething troublous fancies, and gradual but at last very marked recovery. Mr. Scott, who preceded Dr. Hake, writes as follows (I extract some particulars, and omit others):—
“The place where we lived—Stobhall, by the Tay near Perth—was, two centuries ago, one of the houses of the ancient family of 318 the Drummonds, the head of which—the Duke of Perth, as the Jacobites called him—lost everything in the Rebellion of 1715. It was originally a peel-tower, with a very uncommon appendage, a chapel of the same early date as the tower; and now it had one of the most charming old gardens I have ever seen, with Irish yews and hollies, trained by long years of careful shaping into straight columns 25 feet high, and roses almost reaching to the same height, supported on poles. The part we lived in was more modern. He could not take much walking-exercise. He could not bear reading, nor would he join us in the old game [whist]. I cannot help feeling that his malady was unique—different from other maladies, as he himself was different from other men. His delusions had a fascination, like his personality. In a few months his amazing power of resuscitation brought him back to health. He still continued to assert that we were under delusions, and not he himself, as to the number of his enemies; and it was difficult to make him own he had been ill at all.”
He had in fact not been exactly “ill,” apart from the laudanum-poisoning, the merely local hemiplegia, the malady treated surgically, and the mental disturbance resultant from chloral-dosing. And now for Dr. Hake:
“It was not long before Rossetti’s occupation of the place [Stobhall] came to a close. He was fast improving in health. He took long walks, but without any enjoyment of the scenery, which was made romantic by waterfall and splashed leaves ever fresh, the elastic boughs bending under the weight of a torrent. So far recovered, he desired to remain in Perthshire, but still craved for the utmost solitude. In search of such a home, I took the train to Perth, visited St. Andrew’s, returned to Perth, and proceeded to Crieff, where I remained for some days, and scoured the environs. At last it occurred to me to call on the leading practitioner, Dr. Gairdner, and was directed by him to a farmhouse two or three miles from the town, on the riverside. The house had every requirement, and was kept by a lady-farmer, whose manner and person had every agreeable trait. We drove to the new home. It was a pleasant spot, with a walk into Crieff by the riverside, down to a wilderness of waters. There was plenty of mountain-scenery in view. Rossetti rapidly improved in health, stumping his way over long areas of 319 path and road, with his thick stick in hand, but holding no intercourse with Nature. It was not long before he summoned his assistant [Mr. Dunn], with the implements of his art, and he was once more happy. At this time he made a chalk drawing of me, and one of my son. As a domestic trait, I would mention that Rossetti was very hearty at all times over his meals. He would wear out three knives and forks to my one; and to me, whose breakfast seldom exceeded one cup of coffee, his plate of bacon, surrounded by eggs that overlapped the rim, was amazing. [My own experience of my brother’s breakfasts corresponds with this. It should be understood however that he only ate two meals in a day. In London he wholly eschewed every sort of lunch, and I dare say at Trowan as well. He breakfasted copiously towards ten or eleven; then set-to at painting, his ordinary allowance of which was every ensuing scrap of daylight; then, more or less late according to season, but often as late as nine in the evening or even afterwards, he dined, with abundance of appetite.] I may further truly say that he, not being a believer in physiological things, did not regard tea as possessing the attributes of totality. [Clearly, by this facetious phrase, the doctor means that Rossetti was much the reverse of a teetotaller. A teetotaller he never was; but in youth he was abstemious to a very unusual degree, and I question whether I ever once saw him exceed in wine or other stimulants at table. As to whisky-drams washing-down chloral, and now and then at some other time of the day, I have already spoken.] By a careful treatment of him I procured him good nights; effecting this object chiefly by remaining at his bedside, and draining my memory of every anecdote I had ever heard, and relating to him every amusing incident that I had encountered during life in my intercourse with the world. Finding him so well recovered, I left him in the hands of his assistant and of my son, after an absence of many weeks.”
Here I may as well say that that malady requiring surgical treatment of which I made mention in Section XXIX., and which was ordinarily attended to by the eminent surgeon Mr. Durham (an old acquaintance), troubled my brother a good deal about this period; and, soon after his arrival in Scotland, it was even thought that Mr. Marshall might have to go down to relieve him. Ultimately, however, a local 320 surgeon was employed, and with entire success for the time.
Dante Rossetti was one of those men whose money-affairs, however prosperous in a general sense, would be sure, at any moment of crisis or disablement, to present difficulties and complications; one salient reason for this being that, upon undertaking any commission for a picture, he received instalments of payment to keep him going while the work was in progress, and thus, if the work came to a standstill, he owed money for paintings undelivered and undeliverable. When the great upset of 1872 took place, followed by some three months of enforced idleness, with an indisposition, amounting to incapacity, for attending to any details of business, the care of his money-matters devolved upon me. Mr. Scott’s reference to this minor affair is highly erroneous.1 He thinks that I was “so prostrated with anxiety that F. M. Brown took all business-matters out of my hand.” Nothing of the sort was done. I was not prostrated, though I assuredly was afflicted, and, had I not been so, the more shame to me. My brother’s money was removed from his own bank, and placed in Brown’s bank (I had no bank of my own until two or three weeks later) in the joint names of Brown and myself. We drew joint cheques for my brother’s occasions at first. After a very short time, a different arrangement was made, and I myself banked the money, and alone drew the cheques; and, as matters rapidly righted themselves, no sort of inconvenience ensued to my brother, his creditors, or any one else. One of the first things done, to raise convenient funds in hand, was to sell-off Rossetti’s beautiful collection of blue china. I alone transacted this business, and secured an offer of £650. I informed my brother by letter, and he replied by letter on 4 July, ratifying the arrangement. Here again Mr. Scott was either much misinformed, or else he wrote from some mere supposition of his own—speaking of
1 I said as much in a letter which I got published in The Academy towards the close of 1892, soon after the appearance of Mr. Scott’s volumes.
321 “the disposal, without his [Dante Rossetti’s] knowledge, of this assemblage of pots and dishes.” On another point Mr. Scott is of course right—namely, that, when Dante quitted his Cheyne Walk house for Brown’s or for Scotland, “it was thought proper to have all his pictures, finished or in progress, removed elsewhere. They were accordingly taken to my [Scott’s] house, which was conveniently near, among them the huge Dante’s Dream.” We were naturally very glad to get these works out of Rossetti’s house, left with no regular tenant, and much obliged to Mr. Scott for storing them. They were deposited in a large kind of brick-and-glass structure which stood in his back-garden, and which he himself used at times as a studio.
It deserves some consideration moreover that the habit of walking out in the late evening, and not in the day, was not altogether a novelty with Rossetti, brought on by that general change of feeling which resulted from the Buchanan pamphlet of 1872. There is a letter of his to Mr. Shields, 24 December 1869 (published in The Century-guild Hobbyhorse, No. 16), which says that he was then, in fine weather, in the practice of taking long walks in Battersea Park, “whereas my habit had long been to walk only at nights, except when in the country.” This habit, bad as it was in hygiene, can easily be accounted for. He rose late; painted all day as long as light served him; then dined; and, whether winter or summer, all was darkness tempered by gaslight or moonlight by the hour he left the house.
During Rossetti’s stay near Bognor a libel-case was going on in London, Mr. Buchanan suing Mr. Peter Taylor, then proprietor of The Examiner. Rossetti was not in the faintest degree concerned in writing or prompting any of the matter charged as libellous; but this matter involved in part an attack upon the conduct of Mr. Buchanan in relation to his article in the Contemporary Review. My brother was extremely desirous of avoiding all sort of intermixture in this trial, and that may, I think, have been one reason why his stay at Aldwick Lodge was so prolonged. He returned to Chelsea almost as soon as the trial was over. Let me add, in fairness to Mr. Buchanan, that the jury agreed with him in considering he had been libelled, and they gave him damages to the amount of £150. Whether they were right or wrong is a question I can leave alone.
My brother’s volume of 1870, the Poems, went through six editions. Towards the beginning of 1879 it was out of print, and no further issue of it appeared. He made about £700 by it altogether. By March 1881 he had determined to re-print the Poems in a somewhat altered form; and to follow it up by a separate volume, containing Rose Mary, The White Ship, The King’s Tragedy, The House of Life in a completed form, and various other compositions. But very soon afterwards he decided to reverse the process, and bring out first the new Ballads and Sonnets, and then in close sequence the revised Poems. Into the latter —to compensate for the removal of the original and unfinished House 374 of Life—some fresh work was introduced; especially the uncompleted yet rather long poem, chiefly of very early years, named The Bride’s Prelude. Before the end of March the copy for Ballads and Sonnets was sent to the printer, to be published by Messrs. Ellis & White. This liberal firm offered for it the same terms as for the volume of 1870 —a royalty of 25 per cent, to be paid down as soon as the book should be published, without waiting for actual sale. For the re- issued Poems the terms were to be a like royalty, but only accruing in proportion as sales were effected. As in the previous instance, I assisted my brother with the proofs. The Ballads and Sonnets, very properly dedicated to Mr. Watts, were fully in print by 16 September, and various copies were distributed. The full publication ensued on 17 October. The book was a thorough success, for by the 25th of the latter month the first edition of 1,000 copies was exhausted; and before the end of November 2,000 copies altogether had been issued and paid for. Rossetti wished to write two other historical ballads: Joan of Arc, for which he took some preparatory steps; and the Death of Abraham Lincoln, which was intended to include a tribute to another great American, John Brown, the “faithful unto death”; also, according to Mr. Sharp, The Death Ride of Alexander III. of Scotland (1286). Of this I remember nothing, nor does the subject seem to supply much material for a ballad. The Poems, in their revised form, came out likewise in 1881. This volume sold of course less rapidly, but continuously until some while after my brother’s decease.
Critics were laudatory, some of them enthusiastic; and, so far as memory serves me, there was no repetition of abuse at all resembling The Fleshly School of Poetry, or even following on the same lines. “Live it down” is a very sound axiom. My brother had lived it down, and might from the first have been sure that he would do so. But, unhappily for himself and all others concerned, he had supposed that the influence of [detraction and fallacy is much greater than it really is, and 375 the votaries of those powers much more numerous than in fact they are.
Painful to say, no scintilla of pleasure or of cheerfulness seemed to come to Dante Rossetti from his double achievement in 1881. He was of course, in a faint way, gratified that his leading picture was sold to a public institution, and that his poetry was, by a renewed experiment, recognized as an honour to our period. He sometimes expressed to me and he did so particularly in February 1880 a much higher value for his poetical than for his pictorial work. But the curtains were drawn round his innermost self, and the dusk had closed over him, and was fast darkening into night. Not for the applause of a big or a little crowd had he worked all his life long, rather for adequate self-expression and attainment in art. The work was done, but—except in a remote or abstracted sense—it did not prove to be its own exceeding great reward.
All this about the blood-spitting “at intervals for years”—not to speak of the superabundant coughing— sounds odd, and perhaps some of my readers will suppose it was mere fantasy or semi-conscious imposture on Rossetti’s part. And yet I believe it was real in its degree. As far back as November 1871 (which was some months before the appearance of the Buchanan pamphlet, and therefore before any obvious disturbance of his mental equilibrium) he told me that he had brought up blood that day, and had done so earlier in the year at Kelmscott, which was prior to the appearance even of the article in the Contemporary Review; and he made a similar statement at the beginning of April 1872. However, I have not the least reason to think that his lungs were, from first to last, otherwise than sound.
My own Diary now resumes:—
“Friday, January 6, 1882. In the evening I went to Gabriel’s. He has for some days past been down in his studio, and the numbness in the left leg is now greatly diminished; in fact he walks about the studio without any sort of assistance, and very much as before the attack. The left arm he still regards as in the same state and much the same degree of numbness. I suspect however that, by a proper exertion of will, he would find it not so very much amiss. Maudsley urges him to set his palette to-morrow, and see what he can do. Gabriel’s spirits are still extremely low—the uncertainty as to his being able to resume his profession as a painter weighing painfully upon him. I saw (copied out by Sharp) the verses ‘To an Old Enemy,’ which Buchanan has prefixed to his latest novel God and the Man. They are generally, and I think correctly, assumed to be addressed to Gabriel, and they certainly form a handsome retractation of past invidious attacks. Gabriel thinks the verses may really be intended for Swinburne [but I don’t believe that he long persisted in any such supposition].
Volume II, pp. 249-250
Here begins the matter of the Contemporary Review, and the article by “Thomas Maitland” on The Fleshly School of Poetry. I think it as well to print, following my brother’s note, the reply which I sent to him, and which, after his death, I found among his papers.
[16 CHEYNE WALK.
17 October 1871.]
What do you think? —— writes me that Maitland is —— Buchanan!
Do you know Buchanan’s prose, and can you judge if it be so? If it be, I’ll not deny myself the fun of a printed Letter to the Skunk.
—— says he has it “on very good authority.”
18 October .
Buchanan had never occurred to me, but on your mentioning him it seemed to me exceedingly probable. I have now read the article through again. It seems to me that in point of style etc. it might very well be Buchanan’s, but still I don’t feel strengthened in that view by the perusal. Buchanan is himself twice named: page 334 as personating Cornelius (which seems to imply a slight more or less); page 343 as your prototype in Jenny. This latter (see also the reference to Buchanan’s critics attached to it) does seem very much the sort of self-assumption which Buchanan might be minded (in utter ignorance of dates etc.) to indulge in. Also, page 348, Ballad on a Wedding, and Clever Tom Clinch: I don’t know whether these are Buchanan’s, but they rather sound as if they might be. The phrases weird—solemn league and covenant —have a Scotch sound; but Maitland is a Scotch name rather than otherwise, so one can make little of that as suggesting Buchanan.
The observation (344) that you are not to be blamed for selecting the subject of Jenny looks rather like Buchanan, who has been censured for somewhat similar subjects. Also the reference (336) to Swinburne’s illness notified in Athenæum. Buchanan, I know, saw that or some similar printed report; for he thereupon took the good-natured trouble (as I suppose I must have mentioned to you) of urging Dr. Chapman to try to get hold of Swinburne and restore him to health, and Chapman called on me in consequence.
My opinion is that there is not at present sufficient material for pinning Buchanan as the author of that review; and at all events I have a strong belief that you will find it in the long run more to your comfort and dignity to take no public steps whatever for the scarifying of Mr. Maitland—though of course the temptation is considerable.
W. M. R.
From Some Reminiscences of William Michael Rossetti
(London: Brown, Langham & Co., New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906.)
From Volume II, Chapter XXXI: DEATHS IN THE FAMILY: DANTE, FRANCES, LUCY, AND CHRISTINA ROSSETTI, AND OTHERS.
In my Memoir of Dante Rossetti I have set forth so many particulars regarding the sequence of his illnesses, culminating in death, that I may spare myself any long recital of them here. I will only very briefly summarize as follows. Insomnia began in 1867. In the same year his sight became badly affected, compelling him at times to intermit painting. From this date onwards his eyes were permanently somewhat infirm, but the evil did not proceed to a great extreme. As a palliative against insomnia he took doses of chloral. This commenced in 1870, and after an interval was renewed—the doses, to which a glass of whisky was made an adjunct, becoming abnormally and noxiously heavy. This chloral mitigated his troubles from want of sleep, and for a while it did not seem to do any particular harm; but it acted injuriously upon his nervous system and his spirits and power of self-control. The fact became only too apparent in June 1872, when he entirely broke down under the irritation and strain caused by Mr. Buchanan’s abusive pamphlet, The Fleshly School of Poetry. He then became the victim of exaggerated, and sometimes of absolutely delusive, fancies. The question arises whether the chloral or the pamphlet had most to do with his then shattered condition. For many years past my conviction has been that both were concerned in the crisis, but that the pamphlet would have produced only a comparatively faint impression, had it not been for the chloral. My brother in the course of three months threw off the acuter forms of the attack, but he was never quite the same man that he had been before it. His health was often broken, his spirits often gloomy; not so constantly, however, as some persons seem to suppose. He went on painting with energy and success, and produced some of his best poems. A severe illness which prostrated him in 1877 had a cause quite other than insomnia, chloral, or hypochondria; though it may be that his persisting with the drug rendered him less capable of rallying. He did however rally, and up to the autumn of 1881 was in much the same general condition as before this illness. On 11 December he had a sudden attack of a paralytic character. This again was subdued to some fair extent; he discontinued chloral, and he went to Birchington-on-Sea (near Margate) to recruit. But the grasp of Death was to be relaxed no more. He died of uræmia at Birchington on Easter Sunday, 9 April 1882. I was present, with others, at the moment when his breathing ceased. Uræmia was indeed the medically certified cause of death; but, taking a wider view of the matter, I do not believe that I exaggerate in saying that chloral brought him to his grave.
I have referred briefly (p. 516) to Mr. Robert Buchanan and his Fleshly School of Poetry: in other writings of mine I have spoken of them—not, I think, with any inordinate amount of acerbity. Mr. Buchanan is now dead, and I should not here have said anything further on the subject if only people would leave it where he himself left it in 1881. But that has not been done: his biographer, Miss Harriet Jay, has had her say, and I will have mine. The obvious and indisputable stages in the case were as follows, (1) Dante Rossetti, in the spring of 1870, published his volume Poems; it was received with general and warm yet not unmingled applause. (2) In 1871, Mr. Buchanan wrote an article, The Fleshly School of Poetry, Mr. Dante Rossetti: it was published in October of that year in The Contemporary Review, under the pseudonym of Thomas Maitland. It was a fierce attack, and was replied to by Rossetti, in a temperate spirit, in an article in The Athenæum named The Stealthy School of Criticism. (3) In the spring of 1872 Mr. Buchanan re-issued in pamphlet form his article, not a little amplified and further envenomed. (4) Late in 1881 Mr. Buchanan dedicated one of his novels, God and the Man, to Rossetti, in some prefixed verses, wherein he totally withdrew his charges against both his poetry and himself: he did so in other forms as well. This—though it furnished no sort of explanation as to why Buchanan had at first denounced as highly impure poems which he afterwards declared to be pure—was a handsome, and in some degree a touching, apology. He termed Rossetti “an Old Enemy”; but in fact there had been no enmity on the part of Rossetti, but only of Buchanan. Rossetti died very soon afterwards, and there the matter remained wound up, and the evil of it, so far as was possible, atoned for.
Not long before his final illness Mr. Buchanan recurred in print to the subject—as I deem, both needlessly and indiscreetly. But, as he is not here to prolong the controversy, I will not dwell on that. Now comes Miss Jay, and professes to vindicate him, and to re-besmirch that same Rossetti whom he in 1881 greeted as “pure in purpose, blameless in song, and sweet in spirit.”
What is the gist of Miss Jay’s vindication? It makes matters much worse than before for “Thomas Maitland.” The only plausible—I could not in conscience say tenable—excuse for that pseudonymist would be that he genuinely believed Rossetti’s poems to be vile and deleterious, and that, fired by zeal for moral right, he said so in severely aggressive terms. But Miss Jay will not have it thus: she avers that the whole affair was one of rancour, and of rancour vicariously applied. Here in brief is her account of the sequence of events, necessarily supplemented by me now and again, (1) Mr. Swinburne expressed in print a slighting opinion of the poetry of David Gray, then deceased, with whom Buchanan had been intimate. Buchanan resented this, and we can sympathize with his feelings as a friend, though surely Swinburne must have had a right to his own critical views about David Gray. (2) (But this Miss Jay abstains from mentioning) Buchanan, after the publication of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads in 1866, printed in The Spectator some verses, not free from ribaldry, abusing the author; and I thereafter (which Miss Jay does mention) in my Criticism of the Swinburne volume, termed Buchanan “a poor and pretentious poetaster.” My reference to him was limited to those words. They expressed the opinion which I then truly entertained, founded upon extracts from Buchanan’s poems cited in laudatory reviews; but I believe that at a later date he produced work (I have read it little or hardly at all) deserving to be spoken of in a different tone. (3) (But this again Miss Jay leaves unstated) Mr. Buchanan wrote in The Athenæum in 1870 a very damnatory critique of my edition of Shelley. Here one might have supposed that these “alarums and excursions” would come to an end. Mr. Buchanan had had it out with Mr. Swinburne for not admiring David Gray’s poems, and with me for not admiring his own. I had not in any way replied. But, according to Miss Jay, he continued to nurse a grudge, not only against Swinburne and me, but against any one in the same “set,” and consequently (4) he attacked my brother in The Contemporary Review about a year and two-thirds later. How far this explanation goes towards “white-washing” Mr. Buchanan I will not discuss: the facts, as affirmed by his own advocate, are sufficient.
There is one curious detail involved in the pleading. Miss Jay, quoting from Buchanan himself, says that a certain sonnet published by Dante Rossetti was reprobated by Tennyson in energetic language. This is the sonnet entitled Nuptial Sleep, which in 1870 was included in the provisional form of The House of Life series, but was omitted by my brother from the series when completed in the volume of 1881. But we have another and a very diverse account of the opinion which Tennyson entertained and expressed as to that sonnet. In the Life of Tennyson by his son, Vol. II, p. 505, we find the following for all men to read: it is among the Personal Recollections by F. T. Palgrave, who was an intimate, of old standing, of the Laureate. “In Rossetti’s [volume] the passion and imaginative power of the sonnet Nuptial Sleep impressed him (Tennyson) deeply.” Which statement are we to believe? Or both? If it is true that Tennyson denounced the sonnet as averred, I can only surmise that some one misrepresented the composition to him, and that he, reading it hurriedly if at all, took the misrepresentation on trust. Besides, I have in my hands an authentic copy of a letter written on 22nd November 1871 by another friend of Tennyson. I have no authority for mentioning his name: were I to do so, it would be seen that on this particular subject no one has a better right to be heard. He wrote as follows: “Mr. Tennyson was among the first to object to Buchanan’s article that it was by no means a fair appraisement of Rossetti; much of whose work he rates extremely high, the sonnets especially.”
Thus much for Miss Harriet Jay’s “rehabilitation” of Mr. Robert Buchanan. Of Mr. Buchanan himself I had no knowledge, and am not conscious of having ever seen him—and my acquaintance with the general body of his writings is, as aforesaid, scanty in the extreme. That he had some personal as well as some literary merits I do not doubt. I presume that on the other hand he was open to the imputation of being “ill-conditioned”—irritable, litigious, self- assertive, and, when roused into ire, not duly scrupulous. In relation to Dante Rossetti he committed an offence, and at the end of several years he did his best to wipe it out: that last is what I prefer to remember of him. “After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.” To him it appears to have been highly feverous.
Other Accounts of the Fleshly School Controversy - continued