THE FLESHLY SCHOOL CONTROVERSY
Other Accounts of the Fleshly School Controversy - 3
The Montreal Gazette
The Montreal Gazette (6 October, 1934 - p.13)
. . .
“Poor Splendid Wings” is the title of a book by Frances Winwar on the Rossettis and their contemporaries. The author claims that “Gossip holds no place here. Out of the dust of the dead letter the author has sought to reanimate the living spirit.” She has been unsparing in her pains and evidently sympathises with her subjects. Dante Gabriel especially, but she fails to render him and others of the Pre-Raphaelites more attractive than they were before; indeed she manages to produce the opposite effect on the ordinary reader. Anyway, when I put the book down, I thought to myself that William Michael Rossetti was, after all, about the most decent of the lot, if the least conspicuous.
One gathers that, just as Keats was supposed to have been killed by the Quarterly, so Dante Gabriel’s death was hastened by Robert Buchanan. It was he who wrote, under a pseudonym, the famous, or infamous article in the Contemporary entitled “The Fleshly School.” The whole episode depicts the spirit of that age as something almost incomprehensible to the post-War generation of writers. Swinburne’s “Songs and Ballads” was an outrage to be spoken of with bated breath by Mid-Victorian judges of conduct and literature. Today it would be regarded as a mildly pathological effusion.
Tennyson described one of Gabriel’s sonnets as “the filthiest thing he ever read.” The author of the book reprints it in full, and I have little doubt that a modern critic, seeing it for the first time, would wonder what on earth the fuss was all about. I remember once discussing the incident with a well-known critic who remarked that if Tennyson had belonged to the Fleshly School he could, figuratively speaking, have knocked the spots out of the lot of them. And he quoted in support of this the well-known lines out of “Fatima.”
Oh Love; Oh Fire; Once he drew
With one long kiss my whole soul through
My lips as sunlight drinketh dew.
I suppose hundreds of perfectly respectable people have read them without turning a hair.
But Robert Buchanan did not like the Pre-Raphaelites and their kin. William Michael had called him a poetaster; Swinburne had made disrespectful remarks about one of his friends. So Buchanan laid in wait for the whole coterie. He wrote a venomous attack on the entire movement, singling out Dante Gabriel for special vituperation. To make things worse he wrote under an assumed name as “Thomas Maitland.” It was some time before his identity was discovered and then the storm broke. Gabriel wrote defending himself with dignity that was wasted on Buchanan. Swinburne, whose vocabulary of abuse left nothing to be desired, wrote “Under the Microscope.” Buchanan retorted with “The Monkey and the Microscope.” Swinburne published a letter, “The Devil’s Due,” in The Examiner and signed it “Thomas Maitland.” The author of the book does not mention the most scathing reply, which appeared in The World from the pen of Edmund Yates. It was vicious. Yates described his first meeting with the author of the Contemporary article. Robert had arrived in London from Glasgow, practically penniless, and was looking for work. He called at the office of The World, and was shown in to the Editor’s room. Yates spared no detail of his personal appearance. He was dirty, ill-kempt, clothed in rags and was continually scratching the palms of his hands. Yates was sorry for him and helped him. Somebody, a friend of Yates, asked him how he could be so brutal in his onslaught. Yates replied furiously: “You don’t know what I did for that man! I went out of my way to do everything I could for him, and this is the way he shows his gratitude.”
Buchanan wrote some more or less successful verse, including “The Soul of Judas Iscariot,” which I once heard the late David Christie Murray recite, with great effect, in this country. In a novel written subsequently, “God and the Man,” Buchanan recanted publicly. He dedicated it to Gabriel with the words:
I would have snatched a bay-leaf from thy brow
Wronging the chaplet on an honoured head;
In peace and charity I bring thee now
A lily-flower instead.
Pure as thy purpose, blameless as thy song,
Sweet as thy spirit may this offering be. . .
The Gentleman’s Magazine wrote: “If for the word ‘charity’ ‘penitence’ were substituted, the dedication would be all that could be desired.” But it was too late. Gabriel was a dying man.
From The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy by William Gaunt
(London: Jonathan Cape, 1942.)
In the garden at Cheyne Walk Gabriel received the mesmerist Bergheim. George Augustus Sala, the famous journalist, F. R. Leyland and Howell were there. Bergheim mesmerised two women assistants he had brought and suggested to them various acts which they carried out in a way only possible in a trance. One, to whom it was suggested that she was in charge of a small child about to be run over, picked up a heavy man (who was asked to represent the child) and moved him with ease. Rossetti was seriously impressed. He went further into it; and it is possible that with the magnetic power he had always had, which made the impression he created on most people he knew into a kind of mesmerism or supernatural force, he could actually transfer his thought to a sensitive object and receive it back again as if it were a supernatural message. In the end it filled him with dread. ‘You must not go,’ he said to Hall Caine who intended to patronize a séance. The latter asked if he thought it was a fraud. ‘No, but they’re evil spirits—devils—and they’re allowed to torment and deceive people.’ He was by then liable to delusions and suspicions; but the vehemence of his objection testified at any rate to his belief.
Whatever the exact circumstances of his occult experience and whether or not the phenomena he saw were genuine, painful thoughts rankling in his mind were roused afresh; and this agitation was increased by a duality in himself which he had tried to subdue but which now rose up again, the duality of his gifts as poet and painter. It has been noticed that he had a certain contempt for the material and technical side of painting, before and after he had mastered it. After a prolonged bout of painting, during which his only poetical works 118 were sonnets for pictures, the poet rose up in him with renewed vigour. ‘My own belief,’ he explained to Dr. Hake in 1870, ‘is that I am a poet (within the limits of my powers) primarily and that it is my poetic tendencies that chiefly give value to my pictures; only painting being—what poetry is not—a livelihood—I have put my poetry chiefly in that form. On the other hand, the bread and cheese question has led to a good deal of my painting being pot-boiling and no more—whereas my verse, being unprofitable, has remained (as much as I have found time for) unprostituted. . . .’
He thought of coming before the world again as a poet, now that the bread-and-cheese question was less urgent. Moreover, he had begun to feel a strain on his eyes which was causing him alarm and inclined him to turn from painting to an occupation less exacting to the sight. To make an effective re-entry as a poet he must include with any fresh verses those he had already written; and they were in Highgate Cemetery under the ground. Swinburne and other friends could quote some from memory. He had made some manuscript copies and given them away. He could no doubt recall some himself; yet all this did not seem the same thing as the actual words and the precise order of words inscribed in that little manuscript book; and he began to think of recovering it, of bringing his poems back from the tomb.
No doubt Howell laughed away his scruples; appealed to the vanity of the artist; put forward common sense arguments. He was certainly the executor of the plan. The arguments were these: that it was wrong to withhold from the world what was due to it as the best work of one of its great men. It could make no difference to Lizzie now. It had been a gesture of his own making, and seven years afterwards surely he might as reasonably give up this attitude of renunciation as one would give up a suit of mourning.
There was a certain reason in this. Ford Madox Brown had objected to Rossetti’s burying the poems, and he was a sensible, honourable fellow. If Rossetti had been wrong then, was he not now persisting in his error? On the other hand—it was a desecration. However misguided he had been formerly, to recover the poems now meant rifling a grave—the grave of his wife. However acceptable they might be to the living, their recovery was an insult to the dead. 119 Out of a petty vanity he was to undo an act of homage and atonement—to wriggle out of a sacrifice he had voluntarily made—to be false to the dead. All this must inevitably have passed through his mind, causing him to waver this way and that until finally the day was won by the ‘person out of another world altogether’ who was, in Hall Caine’s opinion, ‘totally destitute of delicate feeling and almost without the moral sense’—Howell.
‘Your letter about the poems was very kind, but it’s a ghastly business.’ Gabriel wrote to Howell in the summer of 1869.
He was despatching notes hither and thither to see if he could collect manuscript copies from friends, but without much success. This note, to his friend Lushington, dated August 7, 1869, is an example.
‘MY DEAR VERNON,
‘Did I, years ago, give you a M.S. copy of a poem of mine called ‘Jenny’? I want a copy, not having one in a perfect state. To someone I gave and have a faint notion it may have been to you.
‘Write me a line,
‘D. G. ROSSETTI.’
The results were not satisfactory and by August 16, 1869, he had decided. ‘I feel disposed,’ he wrote to Howell, ‘if practicable, by your friendly aid, to go in for the recovery of my poems, if possible, as you proposed some time ago. Only I should have to beg absolute secrecy to everyone as the matter ought really not to be talked about.’ He did not wish the family to know because of their religious principles, and he was like Macbeth in thinking ‘’twere well it were done quickly.’ ‘If you think it can be done now, so much the better. It is a matter on which—having lately been taking up my old M.S.S.—I begin to feel some real anxiety.’ The postscript to this letter shows eagerness. ‘If I recover the book I will give you the swellest drawing conceivable or, if you like, paint the portrait of Kitty’ (Howell’s wife).
He instructed Howell to write to him in Scotland, whither he was just on the point of going—to Penkill Castle, Girvan, Ayrshire.
III – HYPOCHONDRIA IN A CASTLE
PENKILL was an old, grey castle with battlements, a drawbridge and portcullis, grim stone walls and mullioned windows. It had a square peel tower of four stories with corner turrets pierced with loopholes for defence. The lowest floor was the stable, above this was the living-room, above this the ‘Ladies’ Bower,’ the top room leading out on the roof. George Street, the Gothic expert, said the original part could not be later than 1450. In the seventeenth century more rooms and an outside stone staircase had been added. A high stone wall enclosed this impressive demesne, and near at hand was a lovely glen through which the Penwhapple went rushing. It was the place for a baron of the late Middle Ages or a Pre- Raphaelite to live in.
And a Pre-Raphaelite did live in it. That is if William Bell Scott can so be called; and indeed what else could he be called, having been drawn into the vortex so often and even in the provinces keeping his contact with them—with Rossetti above all. He also was a poet and a painter—the author of Poems of a Painter—which Carlyle, misreading, took to be Poems of a Printer and severely criticized, recommending to the supposed printer the habit of doing instead of saying. Essentially null, Carlyle declared him to be—though not so entirely as Carlyle, maybe with some personal dislike of the shrewd fellow-Scot, would make out. Two water-colours, at least, of Penkill and Caledonian seashore, elect Bell Scott to Pre-Raphaelite merit. He was a sceptic both about religion and humanity, a pedagogue, candid, malicious, limited. His memoirs were considered to detract from Rossetti because they were outspoken—but they breathe an occasionally wistful affection for him, and he was in his own spiteful way one of Gabriel’s slaves. He was now fifty-eight, had tufted eyebrows that went up at the corners like those of Mephistopheles, had lost his hair and wore a wig about which he was sensitive, and had a genial partiality for the wine of his native land.
When the Government Schools of Design were reorganized, he retired with a pension in 1864, devoted himself comfortably to painting for his friends, Lady Trevelyan and Miss Alice Boyd, was quite happily reconciled to the fact he would never set the Thames on fire. He had saved something, which he invested in Egyptian bonds and 121 Berlin Water Works (the latter perhaps influencing his strong anti-French sentiment in 1870) and bought an attractive Adam house in Chelsea near the old wooden Battersea Bridge and not far from Rossetti. On Miss Boyd’s suggestion he painted a series of subjects from the poem written by James I of Scotland at the end of his imprisonment in Windsor, the King’s Quair, round the great circular staircase built by Spencer Boyd, the owner of Penkill. Spencer Boyd died in 1865 and Scott’s visits to Spencer’s sister Alice, who had come into the property, were indefinitely lengthening. Between him and AB as he wrote her initials, there was a delicate, a spiritual relationship. There was a Mrs. Scott, but she, Letitia, through an attack of typhoid became simple after a fashion, disinclined to travel from London and unable to share in her husband’s artistic and intellectual interests, while remaining on perfectly amicable terms with him. In communion of mind, AB did share those interests.
The art-master-baron, desirous of showing the King’s Quair, and Miss Boyd thinking a change would cure his depression, induced Gabriel to visit Penkill in the autumn of 1868. This visit may have prepared him to lend a ready ear to Howell, for they talked much of Rossetti’s poetry and tried to ‘change the bias’ of the years during which he had been successful as a painter. There were four of them: Miss Boyd, Scott, Gabriel and Miss Losh of Ravenside, also a visitor, cousin of Miss Boyd’s, aged seventy. Miss Losh hated Scott. She suspected his influence over Alice. She looked forward to playing off Gabriel against him, ‘without,’ says Scott, ‘in the least knowing anything of the fearful skeletons in his closet,’ skeletons that danced and rattled when the ladies had gone to bed and when the two men took long walks in the mountains.
The talk often turned that autumn on Gabriel’s fear of blindness. What should he do if he lost his sight? ‘Live for your poetry,’ said Scott. The ladies said the same. Rossetti was encouraged to recite to them The Song of the Bower:
‘Shall I not one day remember thy bower
One day when all days are one day to me?
Thinking ‘I stirred not and yet had the power!’
Yearning ‘Ah God, if again it might be!’
Peace, Peace! such a small lamp illumes, on this highway 122
So dimly, so few steps in front of my feet—
Yet shows me that her way is parted from my way
Out of sight, beyond light, at what goal may we meet?’
AB was deeply moved. Scott vowed that the lines were those of one by birthright a poet, not a painter: and he gained the impression that Gabriel, thus strenuously recalled to his early artistic love, was like a dying man with new life transfused into his veins.
Miss Losh, whether she divined the presence of the skeletons or not, was captivated by Gabriel. She offered him the loan of a large sum so that he would be free of the necessity of painting or indeed doing anything whatever. When he came down late, somewhat the worse for all the whisky toddy he had drunk with Scott the night before, smashing on his plate the eggs which composed his huge late breakfast and making brown circles on the damask tablecloth with his teacup, she would say, ‘You see, Alice dear, he is not like one of us, he is a great man and can’t attend to trifles; he is always occupied with great ideas.’
Gabriel told Scott he would not think of availing himself of her kindness. Nevertheless, unknown to Scott, he did. In the winter of 1868 they corresponded, Gabriel exerting all his epistolary charm. In November he reported that his eyes were about the same and made joking references to the ‘Forbidden Fruit’ which Scott had ‘snatched in the Eden of Leicester Square.’ The latter apparently had succumbed to the temptation of carrying off a coveted book from Puttick & Simpsons—‘an act that has doubtless been photographed by the Recording Angel.’ This dig at Scott would not displease the old lady. In December Rossetti announced that his eyes were better, that Mr. Bowman, the oculist, ‘had no apprehension as to his sight; but he did not wish to overdo exertion and so run the risk of a relapse into total inertia.’ He was induced, therefore, to avail himself ‘still further than I have already done of your kind offer—that is to the extent of an additional sum of £400, making in all £500 received.’ It would enable him, ‘with the many present claims on my purse’ which had resulted from his enforced inaction to ‘refrain from overworking myself to meet them.’ Undoubtedly the, to Miss Losh, unknown and 123 invisible Fanny was one of these claims. What the final amount owing to Miss Losh was when she died in 1872 is not known. An I.O.U. for an unspecified amount was destroyed. She did not press for its return and seems to have enjoyed being able to give it: while he had no scruples in taking and was in no hurry to repay. It was partly to see his benefactress again that he went to Scotland in 1869, staying two nights at her home near Carlisle on the way to Penkill. The letter to his mother in which he mentioned the fact contained also an airy reference to his poems: ‘I am printing some old and new poems—chiefly old—for private circulation . . . I thought it necessary to print them, as I found blundered transcripts of some of my old things were flying about and would at some time have got into print perhaps—a thing afflictive to one’s bogie.’
On this visit ‘he was more hypochondriacal than ever’ says Scott. There were two strange episodes. One day they went to the Lady’s Glen, a ravine in which the water fell into a black pool. The circular basin worn out of the rock was called the Devil’s Punchbowl. They stood at its edge and Gabriel peered over. There came a peculiar expression on his face: an expression which seemed to mean ‘One step forward and I am free.’ He had been talking of suicide every day, and they thought he was going to commit suicide then; but he stepped back from the slippery wet lichen round the drop and they breathed again. All three were acutely conscious of what had nearly happened.
The following day when Rossetti and Scott were out walking, they found a small bird, a chaffinch, in the path. It did not fly away but remained still and quiet even when he picked it up. ‘What is the meaning of this?’ muttered Rossetti, his hand shaking with emotion. Scott suggested it was a tame bird escaped from its cage. ‘Nonsense,’ was his reply, still in a mutter, ‘I can tell you what it is, it is my wife, the spirit of my wife, the soul of her has taken this shape. Something is going to happen to me.’ When they returned to the house Miss Boyd told them the great bell at the door, which needed a strong pull to ring, had been rung—and by nobody. Rossetti asked when it had rung and, finding it must have been just about the time they saw the bird, he turned a ferocious look on Scott as much as to say this confirmed the matter. The two episodes were disturbing in their revelation of a morbid state of mind, though at the same time he was working hard 124 on revision and on new poems, Eden Bower, Troy Town and The Stream’s Secret. Before he left Penkill he had a volume in print, but thin and meagre. Said Scott, ‘He suddenly determined to reclaim the MS. book buried with his wife. . . . In a few days he was gone.’ Scott assumed it was a sudden decision. He did not know that Rossetti had determined to reclaim the book long before—and was writing to Howell about the details from Penkill itself. On August 26, ‘Will you write me in answer to what I wrote before leaving town? The matter occupies my mind.’ On September 3 it occurred to him that the Home Secretary was a man he knew, Henry A. Bruce, the Welsh M.P. who had interested himself in the paintings he had done for Llandaff Cathedral. He enclosed a letter for Mr. Bruce to be sent on if Howell thought fit.
Howell did think fit. He evidently described himself as a Portuguese gentleman of distinction and a friend of Ruskin, for Mr. Bruce addressed him in reply as ‘My Dear Signor,’ and hoped, rather absent-mindedly, that ‘Mr. and Mrs. Ruskin are tolerably well.’ The grave could be opened with the consent of the owner. To Rossetti himself Mr. Bruce agreed to waive this condition. ‘I think that the circumstances you mention justify a departure from the strict rule.’ Gabriel forwarded this letter to Howell from Penkill on September 16. He gave him a further recommendation to Bruce and instructions about the book. ‘The book in question is bound in rough grey calf and has, I am almost sure, red edges to the leaves. This will distinguish it from the Bible, also there as I told you.’
The difficulties were not, after all, very great. Rossetti came back from Penkill on September 20. On October 5 the deed was done.
A fire was built near the family grave in Highgate Cemetery, the coffin raised to the surface and the book removed. The body looked quite perfect by the glow of the fire. When the book was lifted there came away with it a strand of red- gold hair.
It had to be saturated with disinfectants. Dr. Llewellyn Williams of Kennington looked after this and dried it carefully leaf by leaf.
A lawyer had to be on hand to speak to the real nature of the manuscripts as difficulties were raised to the last by the Cemetery Authorities regarding the removal of papers. Henry Virtue Tebbs, a proctor at Doctor’s Commons, acted in this capacity. Howell looked generally 125 after the arrangements; Rossetti himself was not there; he stayed away in a state of agitation and torturing suspense.
The Penkill visit first openly reveals a change that was taking place in Rossetti. The humorous indifference, the philosophic irony with which he had invested himself was yielding to physical ill-health. From 1866 onwards he suffered from an affection of the kidneys, uraemia; and his refusal to take exercise must have contributed to the insomnia which began about the same time, together with the melancholy that was thrust down but unconquered. His trouble with his eyes may have been nervous, the result of auto-suggestion, for old Gabriele had lost his sight; or of stomachic disturbance or both mental and physical factors together. Given even slight symptoms of illness he was a man who could imagine himself into any condition. There was nothing actually wrong with his eyes, and the oculists Bowman and Critchett laughed at his fears. The incident of the Devil’s Punchbowl is a clue to a general state of mind. The incident of the bird and the bell, trivial enough in themselves, might be expected from his previous dabblings in the supernatural association of signs and portents. The beginnings of that suspicion which poisoned his relations with his friends and alienated them from him lurks in this proneness to read ominous meanings into what had no obvious meaning at all, though no explanation can be offered for what happened at Penkill shortly after he left. He had been in the habit of going after dinner to the room above the drawing-room to read aloud to himself as he sat alone. In the drawing-room below they could hear him very distinctly. After he had gone they heard his voice reading as usual.
Scott at this time was writing a book on Dürer (described by Rossetti to Miss Losh as a bore). The priest who was helping Scott with the proofs of his Dürer heard the sounds in the room above and was the first to comment on them. Scott and AB went up to the room but there was, of course, nobody there. The next night it was the same, and all that season they continued to hear the voice. It is not likely the rationalist Scott would have invented the story. There were two other witnesses, what is more. It was almost as if the late guest were playing a practical joke, as if with his power of projecting himself into the life of others Rossetti had animated even the stone walls of Penkill.
126 Unintentionally Scott may have made Gabriel physically worse. It was on this visit he acquired the habit of drinking whisky. Previously he had the pious horror of the Latin for this strong and barbarous spirit. He drank with the Latin moderation some, but not a great deal of wine. William Michael blamed whisky as much as chloral for his breakdown.
As always, his mind and behaviour were complicated. At Penkill he was working really hard at his poems (he wrote the Farewell to the Glen the day before he left). He was writing lightly and humorously to Miss Losh. He was writing urgently to Ho well about the exhumation. It has been assumed that Scott exaggerated his gloom and depression. With Rossetti and that capacity of his for living in half a dozen worlds at once, it does not follow. His lively imagination anticipated horror before the poems were exhumed. What fresh access of guilty remorse, what pangs of conscience he felt afterwards when filling in the gaps made in the writing by the encroachments of decay, remained in his mind alone. It is easy to imagine the reproach he would heap on himself. He was a traitor to a vow that reached beyond the grave—a thief who had wrenched his booty from the grasp of a poor, helpless creature lying still and for ever in the tomb—too cowardly even to perform the act himself—using a knave as his resurrection-man. He was oppressed by the eternal sad reproach of a woman moving dimly in an allegorical limbo which the cruel imagination of shameful genius had devised, taxed by the weight of a moral embargo, a strange dread, a strange curse. ‘I am afraid all the symptoms from which I suffer could not possibly be referred to increasing fat.’ Thus he wrote to Dr. T. Gordon Hake in December 1869. Dr. Hake was not his professional adviser, but Rossetti had long known him as a poet, had admired his Vates or the Philosophy of Madness and had come into contact again, after a lapse of time and through their common interest in poetry. Hake was then sixty. ‘Nor have I increased to any appreciable extent simultaneously with these symptoms indeed at this moment I am wearing a waistcoat made some years ago without the least inconvenience. Certainly there is a constant gradual increase in this respect, which occasionally becomes evident in me, but then seems to subside or to become unperceived. However, some months ago I commenced following to some extent 127 a diet suggested by reading Banting’s pamphlet; but although I was pretty strict (except a little milk and toast at breakfast) for a week or perhaps a fortnight, I failed to experience the remarkable change promised even within the first 48 hours. I have continued ever since to restrict myself a good deal in several things and to banish sugar almost entirely, quite so except in the very occasional form of pastry.’
But Banting’s pamphlet provided no cure for the soul.
IV – POEMS FROM A GRAVE
THE exhumation of the poems is one of the most famous events in literary history. Rossetti meant it to remain a secret. ‘I have begged Howell to hold his tongue for the future,’ he wrote to William Michael when breaking the news, ‘but if he does not I cannot help it,’ he added. He was scarcely hopeful. Knowing Howell, how could anyone expect it to remain a secret for long? That gentleman pasted all the documents in a scrapbook (they might be useful one day). The report got about at once and greatly increased the interest with which the volume of Poems was awaited.
It appeared in April 1870. The romantic circumstances, half- known, predisposed the public and the press favourably. The praise was general. The enormous number of Pre-Raphaelite allies, the Pre-Raphaelite system of mutual aid, was fully exploited. Even Morris, who hated puffing friends, was induced to write an appreciation in the Academy: Swinburne wrote enthusiastically in the Fortnightly Review. William Michael worked the Athenaeum. The bouquets were showered upon the renascent poet.
Rossetti took a holiday. He went down to Sussex, to Scalands at Robertsbridge, to stay at the cottage of Mme Bodichon—Miss Barbara Leigh-Smith, friend of the old days, feminist and amateur painter. He relaxed in the tonic spring air and derived some satisfaction from the achievement of authorship. Dr. Hake wrote to congratulate him. He indicated in reply at the end of April that he was going to do more. There was no falling off in his work, evidently. ‘The three poems to which you give the preference—viz. Eden Bower, Troy Town and The Stream’s Secret are the only 3 new ones in 128 the first section. . . . If leisure serves from painting—of which I fear there is only too much prospect on account of my poor health—I may perhaps be in the thick of another poetic venture before long.’ He discussed Lady Lilith—‘a modern Lady Lilith combing out her abundant golden hair and gazing on herself in the glass with that self- absorption by whose strange fascination such natures draw others within their own circle. The idea which you indicate (viz. of the perilous principle in the world being female from the first) is about the most essential notion of the sonnet. . . .’
Jenny, A Last Confession and the House of Life were the things he would wish to be known by: and as a true, not a pictorial poet. ‘I should particularly hope it might be thought (if so it be) that my poems are in no way the result of painter’s tendencies—and indeed no poetry could be freer than mine from the trick of what is called “word-painting.” As with re-created forms in painting, so I should wish to deal in poetry chiefly with personified emotions; and in carrying out my scheme of the “House of Life” (if ever I do so) I shall try to put in action a complete dramatis personae of the soul.’
On May 7, 1870, he remarked with pleasure, ‘The book has sold unexpectedly well and my publisher has now gone to press with the 2nd thousand.’
The few adverse criticisms he treated lightly. An unfavourable notice appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine soon after publication. He told Frederick Shields, a young artist who had become his friend, that he was surprised to find how fleeting was the momentary impression of unpleasantness—he might almost say none at all. In December 1870 he mentioned the Daily Telegraph’s criticism of Jenny as ‘maudlin and maundering,’ in a joking postscript to a letter to Hake. ‘I thought I was shaky and galvanic enough, heaven knows; but am astounded to find that my wires cannot quite be set in motion by The Telegraph for all that.’ He had always been sensitive to personal criticism and had never been able to take it in very good part. He disliked the whole idea of critical writing about the work of artists. It was partly why he never showed his pictures. At the same time he had always expressed scorn of reviewers and wondered at Tennyson’s obsession with ‘literary cabals’ under which he believed himself destined to sink one day. Now he seemed to be deliberately examining his own 129 reactions, putting himself to the test and delighted to find that he survived it with ease.
Back at Cheyne Walk he wrote to Miss Losh (January 11, 1871), ‘Assuredly I have nothing to complain of.’ There was blame as well as praise of the book, but the praise predominated and was, he thought, in the right direction. The ‘Poems’ had now reached a fifth edition, and though Emerson asserted that the Rossetti poetry was too exotic for America the book was doing well there.
To add to Rossetti’s satisfaction, the trouble with his eyes seemed to be at an end. He had taken to spectacles, which remedied the evil. He could paint again, had been working for months at a big picture, ten feet by seven, with five lifesize figures in it, for Mr. Graham, M.P. for Glasgow. He even contemplated an exhibition. The picture occupied him greatly. In September of 1870 he had declined to visit Vernon Lushington at Ockham Park because of it; ‘just now I am a slave to a big picture which blocks up all my studio. It is not yet in a state to show (nor do I mean to show it till done, which will be about the end of the year) and everything else has to be turned into holes and corners out of the studio, where there is no light to see anything. So I am obliged to put off all visits for the present.’ It was stupid, he must have thought, to take notice of omens. There had been no curse at all. All was going well.
And then the dreadful thing happened.
There appeared, not an adverse criticism simply, but a smashing, destructive, brutal onslaught on his work, his morals, his motives.
The reviving hopes of pleasant and worthy fame, the light-hearted indifference crumbled—revealed the truth that he was in a condition entirely abnormal.
He was felled like an ox with the blow of a butcher’s mallet.
V – A FATEFUL CONTROVERSY
THE notorious article called ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry’ appeared in the Contemporary Review for October 1871 over the pseudonym of Thomas Maitland. It was the sort of attack that might be expected in a Pre-Raphaelite history. It started before it began. It went on after it was finished. And it was about the wrong thing.
130 Swinburne and Swinburne’s ideas were really the subject of the controversy. He, like all revolting aristocrats, and not Rossetti, had extolled ‘fleshliness.’ The tocsin had sounded against Algernon years before. On the publication of his Poems and Ballads an unsigned article (by John Morley) in the Saturday Review had blared, ‘The bottomless pit encompasses us on one side and stews and bagnios on the other’; declared the poet to be the ‘libidinous laureate of a pack of satyrs.’ The hue and cry had been generally taken up. ‘Thomas Maitland,’ that is to say Robert Buchanan, had joined in. He was a young journalist, a Glasgow Scot, who had shared a struggling literary life in London with another young man, David Gray, who died before making a name. Swinburne made some contemptuous reference to Gray. The excitement over Poems and Ballads gave an opening to Buchanan to avenge his friend. In the Spectator for September 15, 1866, he published The Session of the Poets—verses jibing not ill-naturedly and very amusingly at Swinburne. Friendship brought William Michael Rossetti into the fray. He opened his ‘criticism’ of Swinburne with a reference to the ‘poor and pretentious poetaster, Buchanan.’ Thus the Rossetti clan became an object of attack. In January 1870, Buchanan turned his fire on William Michael in the Athenaeum, while other attacks on Swinburne, like Mortimer Collins’s Two Plunges for a Pearl, which Dante Gabriel called ‘an elaborately spiteful outrage,’ kept the moral issue before the public.
In this novel ‘a little man built like a grasshopper,’ Reginald Swynfen, whose poems dealt with ‘effeminate heroes and somewhat masculine heroines,’ was clearly Swinburne. Collins was a friend of Buchanan.
Thus by 1871 the controversy was five years old. Dante Gabriel had not so far come into it at all; but he was a Rossetti, a friend and actual house-mate of Swinburne. Therefore he must be tarred with the same brush. The publication of Rossetti’s poems was an excuse for a thorough-going diatribe against the whole gang, both as poets and painters, on the ever-safe and popular ground of immorality. How little discrimination there was in The Fleshly School may be judged from the fact that Morris was included; but Rossetti was the principal object of attack, as the only one who was both poet and painter of pictures and as the most recent author of a book of poems.
131 A piece of thoroughgoing journalist humbug, the argument scarcely deserves serious consideration. The charge was that Rossetti, Swinburne and Morris had ‘bound themselves into a solemn league and covenant to extol fleshliness as the distinct and supreme end of poetic and pictorial art, to aver that poetic expression is better than poetic thought and by inference that the body is greater than the soul and sound superior to sense.’
It was the precise opposite of all Gabriel’s artistic aims, as he temperately pointed out in a letter to the Athenaeum in December, 1871, The Stealthly School of Criticism; but Buchanan contrived to mix up Swinburne’s latter-day Byronism, his interest in Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal and the Marquis de Sade’s Justine with Rossetti’s interest in Dante and Malory. He spoke with horror of ‘the fantastic figures with their droll mediaeval garments, their funny archaic speech and the fatal marks of literary consumption in every pale and delicate visage’: implying that mysticism and the Middle Ages were an offence against morals. There was also the specific charge that in one sonnet in the House of Life, called Nuptial Sleep, Rossetti had written appreciatively of physical passion. Puerile and confused as Buchanan’s argument was, it found an echo of assent. Even poets, in ‘Victoria’s formal middle-time’ thought it was wrong to dream. ‘Yes,’ said Robert Browning to Miss Isabella Blagden in 1870, ‘I have read Rossetti’s poems—and poetical they are—scented with poetry, as it were—like trifles you take out of a cedar or sandalwood box: you know I hate the effeminacy of his school—the men that dress up like women—that use obsolete forms too and archaic accentuations to seem soft.’ This is as curiously and falsely mixed an accusation as Buchanan’s own. And even poets thought it was wrong to go into details about the passion that was their stock-in-trade. Tennyson disapproved of Nuptial Sleep.
It seemed to Rossetti as if the whole power of society had descended on him in retribution, in punishment for bringing his poems back.
‘I see by advertisements that I figure as the first victim in a series (I presume) under the title of the Fleshly School of Poetry in the Contemporary Review for October.’ Apprehensive already, playing whist with Hueffer, a new German friend of the circle, and Bell Scott at the latter’s Chelsea House, Bellevue, his mind would wander from the 132 game and he would throw down his cards in despair. Scott vividly described, though in some rather muddled fashion as to date, a later occasion when he had seen the article: the frantic knocking at the door, the rush of steps on the stairs, the entry of Rossetti shouting wildly ‘Robert Buchanan’ and his reiteration of the words at intervals—‘Robert Buchanan’ throughout a painful evening.
The wounded poet took great pains to compose a suitable answer, and composed several different drafts. He still tried to keep up the appearance of taking it lightly. He wrote to Hake, ‘I fear my writing in that way to the Athenaeum has given my friends quite a false impression of the effect adverse criticism has on me. This in the Quarterly (a further attack) has none whatever, I assure you. I laughed on reading it and laugh on thinking of it. . . . You will remember the first form in which I had put my reply was one of pure banter and satire, having for its central part only a serious reference to the critic’s misstatements. However, my friends seemed scandalized at the satirical side of the reply and this induced me to give up the idea of printing it as a pamphlet which a sense of fun chiefly had suggested.’ He referred to ‘some slight misapprehension as to the importance I attach to such things.’
The ‘sense of fun,’ still bravely maintained, led him on February 17, 1872, to write to Hake again. ‘My last censor in the Spectator this week—and his indignation carries him into verse. This charge against Swinburne and myself is that we do not write about the Battle of Waterloo.’
It was no good, though. He was mortally wounded.
The tide of battle rolled on. Swinburne was delighted. It was a triumph to have shocked the public, as the French poet Baudelaire, whom he so much admired, had done. He loved the wordy dispute, the squibs, the lampoons, the cutting phrases. In 1872 Buchanan enlarged his article as a pamphlet, The Fleshly School and other Phenomena of the Day. Swinburne replied with Under the Microscope. Buchanan retorted with The Monkey and the Microscope. In 1875 there was published anonymously Jonas Fisher: A Poem in Brown and White, in which figured a ‘prurient paganist’ hymning ‘the sensuous charms of morbid immorality.’ Swinburne thought the author must be Buchanan and wrote an Epitaph on a Slanderer in the Examiner. In 133 1876 Buchanan brought a suit for libel against the Examiner and it appeared the author was really the Earl of Southesk, Buchanan receiving £150 damages. Watts-Dunton produced a sonnet called The Octopus of the Golden Isles, the golden isles being those of Romance where Rossetti was to be found and the octopus Buchanan. Thus the controversy went on for five years after it had done its work as far as Rossetti was concerned.
One morning in 1872 William Michael called at Bellevue and asked Scott to come at once to 16 Cheyne Walk. The latter hastily swallowed his breakfast tea and went with him. They found Dr. Marshall and Dr. Hake, looking very serious, and Dante Gabriel a complete wreck.
He was taken off to Dr. Hake’s house at Roehampton, complaining fretfully that a bell was being rung in the roof of the cab. He lay there for three days like one dead. At Roehampton the full seriousness of his condition became clear.
VI – AN EXCESS OF CHLORAL
CHLORAL, a limpid, colourless, oily liquid, was discovered by Liebig in 1831, and for some time regarded as a valuable agent in inducing a sound and refreshing sleep and quietening states of excitement. The Victorians, not knowing much about it, hailed it as a wonder-working cure. As such it was recommended to Rossetti about 1870 by the American W. J. Stillman, who had first become entangled with the Pre-Raphaelites as London correspondent of an American art paper, The Crayon, and as an acquaintance of Ruskin. Well-intentioned as Stillman no doubt was, it was a fatal suggestion. Chloral was a harmful drug. Taken regularly it caused profound melancholy and enfeeblement of the will, muscular lassitude and an inability to secure the sleep it promised, thus making necessary a progressive increase in the dose. This was the final factor in Rossetti’s collapse. He had had before him the example of Lizzie’s shillingsworths of laudanum. By a queer revenge his remorse led him to repeat the addiction under another form.
He took chloral to gain unconsciousness, not, as Coleridge and de Quincey had taken opium, to sail off into dreamland. Nevertheless 134 it produced a state of mind curiously transforming reality; fitting into the sequence of illusions of which the New Life, the Morte d’ Arthur and spiritualism were part.
He took enormous doses, followed by glasses of neat whisky. They followed considerable experimentation with sleeping draughts, and their effect was hastened by the already morbid state of his mind. His melancholy was intense, and the association of signs, symbols and portents which he had always made out of trivial or unrelated happenings now became a suspicious dread of everyone and everything.
Artists are, generally, liable to this sensitive mania. Some of the letters of Millais about the reception of his pictures read like the ravings of a maniac. Ford Madox Brown was suspicious in the same irrational way. ‘Men of intelligence in England,’ remarked Rossetti once to Shields, ‘are ever as a persecuted sect.’ When there was no persecution they imagined it.
Rossetti thought Browning’s Fifine at the Fair was full of insults directed against him; that Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark made fun of him; the birds twittered derision, the streets were full of anonymous enemies. ‘There is a dead set being made at me (I do not say this by any means solely on account of the Buchanan attack),’ he informed Hake in September 1872, shortly after his arrival at Kelmscott; ‘any connection with my name is sure to arouse a swarm of malignity against your book.’
The imagined malignity was in contrast with the tender kindness of his friends. Brown, Bell Scott, Dr. Hake and, of course, William Michael fussed over him, and William Graham, who bought so many of his pictures, put his house, Stobhall in Perthshire, at his disposal. Thither he went from Roehampton with Scott and the Doctor’s son, young George Hake, fresh from Oxford, thus finding a somewhat peculiar introduction to the world of letters.
Stobhall was another house fit for a Pre-Raphaelite to live in. A seat of the ancient Drummond family, it had a tower and a chapel and Irish yews and hollies trained in straight columns twenty-five feet high and roses of almost the same height. Here Rossetti recovered somewhat and limped about in a dumb shattered way, for a paralysis of one side had afflicted him when he lay in stupor at Roehampton. He could not bear to read. He could not walk far. He moved with 135 pain and stared wildly as one in a nightmare. It seemed to Scott that the unique man had a unique illness, as original as his art, that even his morbid symptoms had a touch of personal genius.
In the meantime the staunch Madox Brown looked after his affairs in London. One can only speculate as to the disorder of Cheyne Walk under the ministrations of Fanny Hughes, Howell and the careless undisciplined servants. Brown decided the pictures at least should be put out of harm’s way. As Scott’s house was near they were moved there, among them the large, unfinished Dante’s Dream. The remaining animals presumably were disposed of. The collection of blue china was sold.
And then the amazing man got swiftly better. From Stobhall he moved to a farmhouse at Trowan near Crieff, where he made two excellent drawings of the doctor and his son, as if to demonstrate that his faculties were unimpaired. Here he got through the Arabian Nights and finished Merivale’s Roman Empire which William Michael had begun reading to him at Roehampton—‘an excellent book in all but a certain parsonic tinge that pervades it.’ ‘I am trying to reduce both stimulants and narcotics gradually,’ he wrote to Hake from Trowan, on September 12, 1872, ‘as a panic might result at Kelmscott of my late habits.’ Kelmscott, Morris’s house, was now his objective. At the end of September he was installed there.
From Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Victorian Romantic by Oswald Doughty
(Yale University Press, 1949.)
Book III ‘Change and Fate’:
THE FLESHLY SCHOOL OF POETRY
In our Contemptible Review,
I struck the beggar through and through
(Oh! Robert-Thomas is dread to see).
The Brothers D. G. ROSSETTI
“HERE COMES my last Kelmscott letter,” Gabriel had written to Scott on October 2nd; “Of course I’m leaving here just as I was getting into the poetic groove and I know were I to stay I should have a volume ready by the end of another three months. But it may not be . . . I see by advertisements I figure as the first victim in a series (I presume) under the title of the ‘Fleshly School of Poetry,’ in the Contemporary Review for October, but haven’t seen it yet.” Rossetti’s tone was jocular, probably to hide his fear. But when upon his return to town he read the article, which bore the unfamiliar signature “Thomas Maitland,” he saw that his own description of himself as the “victim” had been prophetic; that now, although delayed until all danger had seemed over, the attack he had so long anticipated, so persistently striven to prevent or forestall, had begun.
The attack was, indeed, deadly. For in describing the poetry of Rossetti as “fleshly,” his unknown assailant had maliciously seized upon a word calculated to rouse all the prejudice and irrational emotion which the violation of a dominant taboo in any period inevitably excites. “Fleshly” for the mid-Victorians had all the mystic power of a word that embodies a contemporary complex, a word energized by all the repressions of the taboo, in this case the mid-Victorian taboo upon any unnecessary exposure of the body in actuality, and upon its counterpart in the world of art; the ban upon realism, upon nudity, upon passion, which Dickens so amusingly caricatured in the person of Mr. Podsnap and his obsessional fear lest anything in art should “bring a blush to the cheek of the young person.” 487 Nothing indeed at that time could make an artist more unpopular with the middle-class in general, than an open recognition of the fact that human beings are made of flesh and blood. And this, Rossetti in his verse certainly had done.
With this taboo, carried to a now barely credible extreme, the painters of the time had seriously to reckon. It was thus that in 1854, over his figure of Christ—already clad from the waist down—in his now famous painting of Christ washing the feet of Peter, Madox Brown had mournfully pondered: “What to do with it, however, I scarce know. To suit the public taste, however, it should be clothed, to suit my taste, not.” Gabriel’s patron, the solicitor Valpy, “had,” wrote William Rossetti, “a particular objection to nudity . . . and was disquieted even by a pair of bare arms.” Henry Holiday’s statue Sleep was rejected by the Royal Academy until draped, and only a year before that, Burne-Jones had resigned from the Old Water Colour Society because of its objection to one of his nudes.
Tennyson—who in middle age, during a private discussion of the all-absorbing question with Allingham confided, secretly and sentimentally, “naked model—the chastest thing I ever saw”—escaped the taboo by resorting in his poetry to classical and mediaeval legend, as in Oenone and Godiva. Ruskin, pondering the matter at various times throughout his life, and swayed by the conflicting influences of his aesthetic sensibility and of contemporary prejudice, gradually changed from a surprisingly detached and objective attitude, to one in his later years of uncompromising and even irrational hostility. In 1872, as Slade Professor of Fine Art, at Oxford, he described the representation of the nude in art as having “been essentially destructive to every school of art in which it has been practised,” and not satisfied with this sweeping condemnation of such art throughout the ages, went on to denounce even the study of anatomy by art students as “not only a hindrance but a degradation,”
Such was the state of contemporary taste, almost incomprehensible to the modern world, when Rossetti’s unknown assailant launched in The Fleshly School of Poetry, an attack which, if successful, would brand Rossetti, for contemporaries, almost as a criminal, would deprive him of patrons and his 488 works of commercial value. Yet this charge of “fleshliness” had no doubt been suggested to his assailant in the first place by the eulogies of Gabriel’s supporters, who in their anxiety to claim him as a leader of the anti-mid-Victorian revolt, had frequently emphasized the “fleshly” element in his work, with special approval. For several years these critics, in somewhat overstrained reaction against the popular taboo, had extravagantly acclaimed Rossetti’s treatment of flesh in painting, a treatment which in actual fact was seldom if ever happy.
It was almost certainly the rhetorical Stephens, of the original Preraphaelite Brethren, but an entirely futile one, art critic to The Athenaeum since 1859, who, in that journal in 1865, had praised Rossetti’s Blue Bower for “the marvellous fleshliness of the flesh,” while Colvin, two years later, writing of Rossetti in the Fortnightly Review, had declared: “On the value and significance of flesh this painter insists to the utmost.”
Swinburne, the following year, in Notes on Some Pictures of 1868, had similarly dwelt, in language of unrestrained rhetoric, alliteration and enthusiasm, upon “the sleepy splendour” of Lilith as “a fit raiment for the idea incarnate of faultless fleshly beauty,” had praised Sibylla Palmifera, “as ripe and firm of flesh as her softer and splendid sister,” and pointed out in tones of deep emotion that La Pia “presses the deadly marriage-ring into the flesh of her finger, so deep that the soft skin is bloodless and blanched from the intense imprint of it.” So stirred indeed was he, that he likened Lilith with “those terrible tender lips,” to Theophile Gautier’s creation, “the hero of the most perfect and exquisite book of modern times—Mademoiselle de Maupin.” And quite recently, in his review of Rossetti’s Poems in the Fortnightly Review for May 1870, Swinburne had written: “No nakedness could be more harmonious, more consummate in its fleshly sculpture, than the imperial array and ornament of this August poetry.”
Gabriel’s friends might scathingly condemn or ridicule the mid-Victorian taboo upon “fleshliness,” but it was not to be lightly overthrown. Such indeed was its intensity and persistence that as late as 1880, Shields, the puritanical Calvinist, who had himself, ten years before, organized a public protest against a painting in the nude, profoundly shocked his life- long 489 friend Christina Rossetti by showing her a popular lady artist’s designs for child fairies, and, four years later, provoked the headmistress of Cheltenham School, by introducing into his design for a memorial window there, a diminutive, undraped Cupid, and refusing the outraged lady’s suggestion that it be girt with roses. To the sympathetic Miss Thomson, creator of the child-fairies which had deprived Christina of a night’s sleep, the angry Shields expressed his bitter disgust. “As soon as you undertake any other, or almost any other, subjects but water-babies,” he cried, “you will find yourself strangled by calicoes and flannels, or burnt by them like the shirt of Nessus, till you wish the whole race had remained in Adamite innocence, if only for the cost to your brains of dressing them with propriety.”
By this time, indeed, the influence of the new, uninhibited generation, which had evidently modified Shields’s own attitude, was gradually winning its way. Thus, in 1885, when an indignant, dominating and loquacious “British Matron” wrote a “public remonstrance” to The Times “against the display of nudity at the two principal galleries of modern art in London,” despite the approval she won from Ruskin and from a hyperconscientious and worried Royal Academician named Horsley, new and flippant voices of revolt filled the air, and Whistler attached to his Note in Green and Violet (a small pastel of a nude he was exhibiting); the derisive motto: “Horsley soit qui mal y pense!”
In 1871, however, those days were still in the future, and taste was as Ruskin, already preparing his Slade lectures denouncing even the study of anatomy, represented it. Yet even so, it would have been difficult to justify this attack upon Rossetti, who had never been more than a moderate rebel, avoiding nudity in his art, partly no doubt lest the industrialist patrons he depended on but despised should be frightened away, partly also, it may be, because of inadequate technique.* He shared too, despite his bohemianism, the contemporary cult of “respectability,” and had been as outraged as Ruskin would have been, and even more perhaps, when Swinburne had taken to nudist descents of the stair-rail at Cheyne Walk.
* “Whether, if Rossetti had lived later, he would have availed himself more of the freedom accorded to painters we cannot, of course, say. With his intense and passionate love of feminine beauty, and a sensual southern strain in his blood besides, it seems rather remarkable how chary he was of painting the nude form. I only know of one entire nude figure (besides, of course, studies) amongst all his works, and that is the crayon called Spirit of the Rainbow . . . also a half- length nude done from the same model, a companion drawing in fact.” Marillier’s D. G. Rossetti, 1st ed., p. 135. The “companion drawing” was named Forced Music. Ibid., pp. 191-2.
490 Indeed, although associated in “Thomas Maitland’s” article The Fleshly School of Poetry with Swinburne, as a leader of the rebels against contemporary moral standards in art, Gabriel had in fact jeopardized his friendship with Swinburne by his objections to the more extreme violations of mid-Victorian prudery in Swinburne’s works. In this way Gabriel had warned his friend not to publish various passages in Poems and Ballads, declaring: “The public will not be able to digest them, and . . . the paternal purse will have to stand the additional expense of an emetic presented gratis with each copy, to relieve the outraged British nature.” And upon Swinburne’s refusal of his advice, Gabriel admitted to a friend that Swinburne’s genius certainly did not benefit “by its association with certain accessory tendencies.” When Poems and Ballads was withdrawn by the publishers, in face of the storm its contempt for current prudery aroused, Rossetti, although assisting in the negotiations for its republication, had soon lapsed into indifference, declaring: “my own occupations have prevented me from meddling further in the matter, or from becoming the reporter, apologist or antagonist, of those who do or who do not” approve it. For although Gabriel considered the publishers had withdrawn the volume “unjustifiably from a business point of view,” he regretted that it would reappear “unaltered.” “The attack in the Press,” he had written in reference to Poems and Ballads, “has been stupid, for the most part, and though with some good grounds, shamefully one-sided.”
Even Ruskin had supported Poems and Ballads more enthusiastically than Rossetti, for although timid about their publication which would, he said to Swinburne, “win you a dark reputation,” he had, on their appearance, ecstatically but privately applauded the poet with: “I consent to much—I blame, or reject, nothing. I should as soon think of finding fault with you as with a thundercloud or a nightshade blossom. All I can say of you, or them, is that God made you, and that you are very wonderful and beautiful. To me it may be dreadful or deadly—it may be in a deeper sense or in certain relations, helpful or medicinal.”
Nor was it only over Poems and Ballads that Gabriel had opposed Swinburne’s reckless defiance of convention. In 1870, 491 when Swinburne was preparing his Songs before Sunrise, Gabriel had warned him that to include two recent sonnets ridiculing Napoleon III as The Saviour of Society, a burlesque counterpart to Christ, would bring unpleasant consequences. “Saviour of Society,” was in fact the popular designation in France for Napoleon III, and Browning employed it as sub-title for his own ironical poem on the French Emperor, Prince Hohenstiel Schwangau, written ten years before. But as this poem had not yet appeared, Gabriel must have believed the title to be Swinburne’s own invention. So, while praising the sonnets themselves as “glorious pieces of poetic wisdom,” he nevertheless deprecated, courteously yet firmly, the title and its ironical implications. “You know,” he declared, “how free I am myself from any dogmatic belief; but I can most sincerely say that (except as a joke admitted and necessarily restricted to such hearers as well know it to be a joke only), I do myself feel that the supreme nobility of Christ’s character should exempt it from being used—not as a symbolic parallel to other noble things and persons in relation with which dogmatists might object to its use—but certainly in contact of this kind with anything so utterly ignoble as this. I should myself,” he continued, “feel to breathe more freely in the splendid atmosphere of your genius if this little cloud were cleared away from it.” And he begged Swinburne to withdraw the sonnets or at least restrict them to private circulation. “After all,” he told Ellis, “what is to be done when (to enlarge the old saying) ‘Poeta nascitur non fit for publication?’” The result was that Swinburne withdrew the sonnets from Songs before Sunrise, but two years later included them in Songs of Two Nations.
Nevertheless, Rossetti was an easily vulnerable target for attack by this unknown enemy, in The Fleshly School of Poetry. Gabriel’s association with Swinburne, emphasized in the article, made him, as the elder of the two, as well as through his reputed “leadership” of the Preraphaelites, appear to the general public as one of the influences responsible for Swinburne’s flouting of contemporary standards. Yet whatever poetic influence of Rossetti’s appeared in Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads was chiefly indirect, through the work of William Morris, who had at one time so completely yielded to Gabriel’s 492 domination. Whatever direct influence Rossetti had exerted upon his friend’s work was mostly confined to Swinburne’s earliest verses, and in Poems and Ballads revealed itself chiefly in such sonnets as Hermaphroditus, Love and Sleep, and A Cameo. Later, indeed, Swinburne in Sonnet for a Picture, in his Heptalogia, cleverly parodied characteristic mannerisms of Gabriel’s sonnets.
In one other respect also Gabriel had influenced Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads. To Swinburne he had enthusiastically introduced FitzGerald’s Omar Khayyam, whence Swinburne in turn had derived formal elements incorporated in his Laus Veneris which to many contemporaries was one of the most scandalous of Swinburne’s poems. Omar Khayyam, written in 1857 at the time of Gabriel’s “Jovial Campaign,” rejected by Fraser’s Magazine and ignored in a small, anonymous, five shilling edition, was “discovered” in the “penny box” of its publisher Quaritch, in 1861, by some unnamed friend of Rossetti. Gabriel, delighted with it, rushed off to buy a copy for himself, and quickly spread its reputation amongst his friends. Not until later was the author’s identity discovered, upon which FitzGerald became one of the Preraphaelite idols. It was an admiration which FitzGerald however, far from reciprocated. “I wonder,” he told Lord Houghton in 1872, “Messrs. Browning, Morris, Rossetti, etc., can read Keats’s hastiest doggerel and not be ashamed at being trumpeted as great poets in the Athenaeum and elsewhere.” He rated them far below Tennyson, and two years later ironically told Mrs. Tennyson: “When I look at the Athenaeum, I see there are at least four poets scarce inferior to Dante, Shakespeare, etc.: Browning, Morris, D. G. Rossetti, Miss Do. They will have their day.”
The reasons for the attack upon Rossetti were in fact remote from those so speciously but unconvincingly presented in The Fleshly School of Poetry. Indeed, in the origins of the quarrel in which he was now so disastrously involved, Rossetti had played little or no part. It had begun almost five years before, when Swinburne, at the request of a publisher, and with the approval of William Rossetti, had withdrawn from the inept editorial clutches of a Scotch journalist and poetaster Robert Buchanan, a projected edition of Keats’s poems, and edited it himself. 493 Buchanan in revenge, upon the appearance of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads shortly afterwards, compared the author, in the Athenaeum, to the Gito of Petronius, and in the Spectator for September 15, 1866, published his own comic verses, The Session of the Poets, in which Swinburne and other contemporary poets, including Buchanan himself, were mildly burlesqued over the nom de guerre of “Caliban.” A reference in the poem to Swinburne’s being “tipsy,” struck home, and William Rossetti, usually so pacific, was stung to unwonted fury in his friend’s cause. Shortly afterwards, defending Poems and Ballads in a pamphlet, William retaliated by describing Buchanan—accurately enough—as “so poor and pretentious a poetaster.” Upon this Buchanan, in the Athenaeum, anonymously attacked William Rossetti’s badly edited edition of Shelley’s poems when it appeared at the close of 1869.
Upon Gabriel the effects of this squabble were most unfortunate. Anticipating an attack upon his Poems similar to that his brother had experienced, he had desperately attempted to defend himself by every means in his power, principally by “cornering” the literary journals for his friends’ criticisms. His anxiety had aggravated his paranoid tendencies, had kept him constantly on guard, so that, as he wrote: “certain spite which I judge to be brewing in at least one quarter, might find itself at fault.” He fell a prey to suspicion, saw secret enemies everywhere and schemed against them. He suspected the editor of the Athenaeum, Sir Charles Dilke, and cried, during the defensive operations preceding the publication of his poems, “Dilke may perhaps be bilked yet!” How unfounded were his suspicions in this case was soon shown, for Dilke not only allowed Gabriel’s friend, P. B. Marston, to review Poems favourably, in his journal, but was also denounced by the angry Buchanan, as editor of “the leading organ of the Fleshly School . . . as peculiar in its notions of literary decency as Sir Charles Dilke himself in his notions of political propriety.”
By this time Rossetti was personally involved in the quarrel. Irritated by Buchanan’s attacks upon his brother and Swinburne, he had spoken of the Scotsman in the language of unrestrained vulgarity which was now, in anger, his habitual mode of expression. The anal imagery to which he almost 494 invariably resorted when speaking of Buchanan, would probably be related by the Freudian to the incipient paranoia from which he already seemed to be suffering.1 To Gabriel, at any rate, it brought emotional relief. Spurred by fear, as he continued his preparations for the publication and defence of his poems, he had intensified his personal but private denunciations of Buchanan, as well as the coarse invective in which they found expression. But so complete had been Gabriel’s defence, so widespread the paean of praise raised by his friends when Poems appeared, that for eighteen months Buchanan had been held at bay. Only now, and from behind the shelter of his pseudonym “Thomas Maitland,” had he dared to strike.
On reading The Fleshly School of Poetry—D. G. Rossetti, in the October number of the Contemporary Review of 1871, Gabriel was at first merely contemptuous. “Have you seen our contemptuous Contemporary?” he asked Ellis: “What fools we must be! For it seems that we are greater fools than the writer, and even I can see what a fool he is. For once abuse comes in a form that even a bard can manage to grin at without grimacing.” But when a few days later he heard from Ellis that the unknown “Thomas Maitland” was almost certainly Buchanan, Rossetti’s real or assumed indifference changed to almost hysterical rage. “Can it be!” he replied. “Do tell me your authority. I won’t show it. By God if it is, I’ll give myself a treat and write and print a Letter on Literary Lying (to Thos. Buchanan, Esq.).” Gabriel was indeed almost beside himself with anger, obviously abnormal if we may believe Scott, who said that in the evening of this same day when Buchanan was discovered to be the enemy, Gabriel, arriving late at a dinner-party at Scott’s, startled and disconcerted the waiting guests by angrily and impatiently knocking on the door and ringing the bell, rushing noisily upstairs, and bursting into the room shouting out Buchanan’s name. “He was,” wrote Scott, “too excited to observe or care who were present, and all the evening he continued unable to contain himself, or to avoid shouting out the name of his enemy. I was glad when the sitting came to an end, and one after another left with a private word of
1 See the Letters of D. G. Rossetti to his Publisher, F. S. Ellis. Ed. O. Doughty, London, 1928.
495 enquiry regarding Rossetti.1 From this time he occupied himself in composing a long reply, which he read over a hundred times, till the lives of his friends became too heavy to bear.”
How unbalanced the attack left Gabriel the intensity and persistence of his attempt to verify Buchanan’s authorship showed. Nor was the ever pugnacious Swinburne less eager than Rossetti to find and chastise the enemy. It was Swinburne who discovered, and informed Gabriel, that “Caliban” whose signature had footed the derisive Session of the Poets, was certainly Buchanan, who, to divert suspicion and advertise himself, had even introduced himself into the poem, by name. It was, said the disgusted Gabriel, “a dodge” that “would just be up to the skunk’s mark and looks like him,” and he compared the trick with “Thomas Maitland’s” false suggestion in The Fleshly School of Poetry, that Jenny was plagiarized from some of Buchanan’s verses. William Rossetti, rising to the occasion, turned literary detective and subjected The Fleshly School of Poetry to a kind of Higher Criticism, the sole result of which was his hopeful declaration: “The phrases weird—solemn league and covenant—have a Scotch sound”; but on recollecting that so had the name “Maitland,” he despaired. So keen indeed was the hunt, that even young Nolly Brown was set to extract an admission from wary elders suspected of knowing and concealing the true authorship of the attack.
October, for Gabriel, passed, amidst these diversions, in the writing of a reply entitled The Stealthy School of Criticism, and, also to relieve his feelings, of such occasional verse as this:—
As a critic the poet Buchanan
Thinks “Pseudo” much safer than “Anon”;
Into Maitland he’s shrunk,
Yet the smell of the skunk
Guides the shuddering nose to Buchanan.
For perhaps above all else, Buchanan’s pseudonymity angered him. “No skunk,” he declared, “can get rid of his own name by giving it to another.” All such comments, however, were fulsome flattery compared with his frequent, physically nauseating
1 W. M. Rossetti considers Scott’s account of this incident greatly exaggerated, and points out Scott’s error in dating the party towards “midsummer 1872” in Memoir, p. 297.
496 references to Buchanan in various letters of this time to his closest friends. The Preraphaelite sense of beauty, outraged, reacted violently, and without restraint. Swinburne, not only attacked in The Fleshly School of Poetry, but also in a recent novel, Two Plunges for a Pearl (written in fact by an obscure and drunken journalist, Mortimer Collins), delightedly girded himself for the fray. Reluctantly yielding to Gabriel’s persuasions not to inflict upon Collins personal chastisement, Swinburne happily sat down to write a pamphlet, Under the Microscope, which should overwhelm their common foe. Hearing that Knowles, editor of the erring Contemporary, had admitted to the artist Simeon Solomon, that “Maitland” was Buchanan, Swinburne relieved his feelings in an outburst of pornographic invective chiefly expressed in pseudo-Biblical phraseology. And when shortly afterwards Solomon wrongly denied Buchanan’s authorship, Swinburne was disappointed. His pamphlet, he explained, would have “made insipid by comparison the highest flavours of Juvenal’s, Swift’s and Landor’s satire combined,” would have even been worthy of the great de Sade.
“Maitland’s” identity was said to be known also to Locker. So to Locker, Gabriel now wrote, asking for Solomon’s “grounds of recantation.” And before the end of October he completed The Stealthy School of Criticism, his reply to Buchanan’s attack. In mid-November, Locker confirmed the report that it was Buchanan, while Colvin about the same time also learned it from Knowles. So, Gabriel told Swinburne, both author and editor were trying to place responsibility each on the other’s shoulders.
Gabriel’s reply, The Stealthy School of Criticism, published in mid-December, 1871, in the Athenaeum, over his own signature, was but a pale replica of the angry and passionate original, which, yielding to strong legal advice, he had largely toned down. “Here,” he declared of his poetry, answering Buchanan’s charge of “fleshliness,” “all the passionate and just delights of the body are declared—somewhat figuratively it is true, but unmistakable—to be as naught if not ennobled by the concurrence of the soul at all times.” And he castigated both editor and author for breaking the Contemporary’s rule against pseudonymity, and blinding readers to the fact that behind a 497 mask of pretended morality, one merely would- be poet was unfairly attacking a successful rival. To this, the publishers of the Contemporary returned a weak reply in the Athenaeum of December 30th. “Maitland,” declared the liar and hypocrite Buchanan, was appended in the article entirely by “inadvertence.” To which Rossetti replied—but in Ellis’s name!—that Buchanan’s excuse was proved false by his having carefully referred to himself, Buchanan, as if to a third person other than either the writer of the article or Rossetti, and that in The Session of the Poets, he had played the same trick before.
In fact, besides jealousy, journalistic motives of self-advertisement and monetary gain had led Buchanan to this attack. Without adequate means he had settled down in Scotland to the life of a country gentleman, now badly needed money, and was ready to use any journalistic trick to divert attention from the fame or notoriety of Rossetti and his friends to his own comparatively obscure self. A love of luxury beyond his means had repeatedly led this ascetic moralist into financial speculations and consequent vicissitudes, and already the abandonment of his house and way of life at Oban, which soon occurred, seemed inevitable. And as Buchanan had a contract at this time to supply Strahan, the publisher of a journal named The Argosy, with monthly copy, to start a moral-literary controversy might be in every way profitable to himself.
At first, indeed, Buchanan’s plan seemed assured of success, as other journals followed where he had led, particularly The Quarterly Review, which in January 1872, attacked Rossetti and Swinburne in an article reputedly written by Courthope. Largely concentrating his criticism upon The House of Life, the critic complained of its obscurity, described the sonnets as vain “endeavours to attach a spiritual meaning to the animal passions,” and summarized the sonnet sequence as “emasculated obscenity.” Jenny, with its “descriptions repulsively realistic,” was also disapproved of and Rossetti’s conception of love dismissed as “pious sensuality.” “The whole spirit of Mr. Rossetti’s poetry,” the critic concluded, “is of the earth, earthy.” The following month Buxton Forman in Tinsley’s Magazine, defended Rossetti at great length and in great detail, in a dull, anonymous article entitled The ‘Fleshly School’ Scandal, 498 attacked Buchanan for his motives and methods in The Fleshly School of Poetry, and asserted the essential morality and dignity of the attitude which refused to regard physical passion as opposed or inferior to the so-called “higher” elements in love.
In May, Buchanan, despite the exposure of his identity, his falsehood and devious ways, repeated his offence by reprinting in pamphlet form an extended version of his original attack. He declared Rossetti a sensualist, and that sensualism was making London “a great Sodom and Gomorrah waiting for doom.” Projected through Buchanan’s vulgar and prurient mind, both life and literature were contaminated, and he complacently inveighed against the books “on the drawing-room table, shamelessly naked and dangerously fair,” against the streets “full” of “fleshliness,” the shop windows crammed with “photographs of nude, indecent and hideous harlots in every possible attitude that vice can devise,” while even the sweet-shops, he complained, displayed “models of the female leg, the whole definite and elegant article as far as the thigh, with a fringe of paper cut in imitation of the female drawers and embroidered in the female fashion.”
We are hardly surprised, after the obvious zest of such writing, to find through Buchanan’s quotations, delivered with a similarly obvious gusto, an intimate acquaintance with the most pornographic passages of seventeenth and eighteenth century verse, nor does it seem strange that he perverted the most passionate of Gabriel’s poems to a similar quality, even describing The Germ as “an unwholesome periodical”! Nothing, indeed, could more clearly demonstrate Buchanan’s hypocrisy and insincerity, than this renewed attack upon Rossetti, for everywhere it reveals his vulgar delight in “discovering,” that is, in creating—what he called “nastiness.” To what extent this “nastiness” was of his own invention, is shown in such comments as he makes on Parted Love: “the lady has retired to get breath and arrange her clothes.” In the same vein is Buchanan’s unconsciously revelatory ejaculation: “We get nothing very spicy till we come to Sonnet XXXIX”—that is, to Vain Virtues! So, through Rossetti’s House of Life the vulgar hypocrite ranged, until he finally concluded that The House of Life was 499 “probably the identical one where the writer found Jenny”—in short, a brothel!
Buchanan, in fact, whatever his professions of high moral aims, had a mind which touched nothing it did not contaminate. Low in mind, low in taste, low in breeding, and, as an apostle of morality, evidently insincere; such was Buchanan. He even complained of “fleshliness” in Rossetti’s Ave, before concluding with a Pecksniffian peroration in which, while emphasizing his fears for public morals, he also, to show his broadmindedness, praised the works of Paul de Kock! For Buchanan was not only a hypocrite, but a clumsy hypocrite; and not through any element of honesty, but through sheer stupidity perhaps the most contemptible figure in English literary history. Beside him, Collier denouncing Dryden appears, despite his crudity and stupidity and arrogance, an embodiment of good taste.
But at last, even Buchanan, finding that the boasted purity of his moral motives placed too great a strain upon human credulity, admitted that a personal element was present in his attack upon Rossetti and his friends. It was not, of course, mere jealousy of a successful rival; that was impossible for Buchanan! Even if personal, the motive could only be noble, and was, he now asserted—contradicting his earlier profession of entire moral disinterestedness—to avenge the memory of his early friend, David Gray, a youth of poetic ambitions who, many years before, had fled to London about the same time as Buchanan, hoping to live by his pen, but only to die shortly afterwards of consumption aggravated by the privations of poverty. On Gray’s death, his verses, of no great merit, in truth, had been published by subscription, and Swinburne, reviewing the volume, had adversely but not unkindly criticized them. Although Gray, being dead, could hardly be affected, the sensitive Buchanan, it now appeared, had received from Swinburne’s review a permanent wound, and had dedicated himself henceforth to vengeance. Such at least was Buchanan’s latest, pathetic excuse for his attack on Rossetti.
What all this had to do with Rossetti was certainly obscure; but the false pathos Buchanan invented about David Gray and his own self-dedication to his memory had already on more 500 than one occasion served his journalistic ambitions, and might now, he thought, be used to disarm those who, as he noted with growing dismay, had begun to doubt the sincerity of the high moral motives by which he sought to justify his base attack upon a leading contemporary poet, and the self-contradictions and inconsistencies into which it had led him.
Illness was soon to prevent Rossetti’s further participation in the quarrel; but first he wrote on the hypocritical Buchanan-Maitland, a poem, The Brothers, an ironical pseudo-ballad, closely imitative in form of Tennyson’s The Sisters, in which Buchanan is supposed to gloat over his miserable conduct, exclaiming:—
In our Contemptible Review
I struck the beggar through and through
(Oh Robert-Thomas is dread to see).
The quarrel, however, went on. Soon Swinburne’s satire, Under the Microscope—said to have been bought in large quantities by unsuspecting German scientists!—appeared, and in August 1872 Buchanan’s feeble reply, The Monkey and the Microscope, was published in St. Paul’s Magazine.
But already Buchanan’s courage was failing. Before launching his cowardly attack he had, he believed, made certain of overwhelming support. Not only would the vast Philistine and conventionally moral section of the country be with him, but even such leaders of poetry as Tennyson and Browning, despite references in Buchanan’s article to both poets, probably designed to prevent any suspicion of their having the slightest association with it. Tennyson, William Rossetti said later, “was one of the first to object to the attack,” and no doubt Buchanan’s vulgarity must have repelled Tennyson. Yet there seems to have been some truth in Buchanan’s assertion that he received encouragement from the two poets, whom he probably canvassed beforehand to ensure, as he thought, his own safety.
Shortly after the appearance of The Fleshly School of Poetry, Tennyson, so Buchanan long afterwards asserted, told him in conversation that he thought Rossetti’s sonnet Nuptial Sleep, the “filthiest thing he had ever read,” while Browning (though not averse to a risqué jest with a lady himself), had, according 501 to Buchanan, been no less emphatic than Tennyson in disapproval of Rossetti’s verse. To Browning, indeed, shortly before the publication of his article, Buchanan had written a characteristically false letter, informing him that The Fleshly School of Poetry was “just ready, and be its literary merit what it may, I am convinced that it will do good—most good of all to the men criticized, perhaps even saving them from going headlong to Hell. You will see,” he continued, “the whole matter there put in its perfect form of simple and out-spoken truth, and you will moreover see other allusions to yourself. In this matter of the Fleshly School I know every great-hearted and honest man will stand by my side; and, come what may, a Snake is scotched effectually, and his entire scheme ruined.” This, and the allusion to David Gray which followed, could hardly have been addressed to an openly unsympathetic correspondent. Besides these, Buchanan’s private supporters included Cardinal Manning, who sent him a message of good cheer, and the Hon. Leicester Warren (better known later as the somewhat anaemic poet Lord de Tabley) who sent him drawings of wayside flowers for the floral designs on the paper covers of the pamphlet, “so pointing,” said Buchanan, “the moral of the diatribe.”
But unfortunately for the Galahad who had challenged the powers of darkness in the mistaken belief that the bog battalions were with himself, these supporters were timid; at least they kept their approval strictly private, and seemed averse to any public appearance in Buchanan’s company. Thus, as he soon bitterly complained, he found himself left alone to fight a losing battle against a host of brilliant and outraged foes. For nearly all the rising literati who counted, both poets and critics, ranged themselves behind Rossetti and Swinburne, whom they admired as literary leaders of the “modern” movement, and regarded Buchanan as the most contemptible of vulgar and Philistine outsiders.
The battle indeed somewhat resembled that in the seventeenth century between Dryden and the “wits” against Sir Richard Blackmore and the “cits,” and the result was the same. Reputation, brilliance, wit, sarcasm, all were at the service of Buchanan’s enemies. Even when a few of Buchanan’s 502 supporters attempted to hide defeat by giving him a public dinner with music and song, the “Comic Spirit,” as Meredith would have said, outraged by the Scots moralist, introduced Love-Lily, one of Gabriel’s recent love lyrics, into the programme, and it was sung, apparently in all innocence, by Malcolm Lawson. Thereupon the young, enthusiastic and indignant Edmund Gosse, already writing poetry and literary criticism, ridiculed Buchanan in a witty triolet:—
“Who wrote that song?” Buchanan said.
They answered with one voice, “Rossetti.”
Embarrassed, shuffling, pale and red,
“Who wrote that song?” Buchanan said.
They laughed till they were nearly dead.
This affectation seemed so petty.
“Who wrote that song?” Buchanan said.
They answered with one voice, “Rossetti.”
Only now did Buchanan begin to appreciate the Nemesis he had brought upon himself. For years afterwards, he complained in later life, he was openly insulted in criticisms and reviews, and for long was forced to publish his works anonymously in order to escape immediate damnation by the literary critics.
To retrieve as far as possible the false step he had taken, to extricate himself from his unhappy position, Buchanan took an even more ignominious step than any preceding, embraced the final humiliation of a public recantation of his charges against Rossetti, or rather, as Gabriel’s reputation increased, a series of recantations, servile, sweeping, and as insincere as his original challenge had been. Retracting his criticisms in a fulsome apology as nauseating in its insincerity as the original attack, Buchanan in 1881, shortly before Rossetti’s death, and when Gabriel was at the height of his fame, dedicated to him, as “An Old Enemy,” a romance he had written, entitled God and Man, in the following unctuous and sycophantic verses, really designed like the original attack, to give himself a portion of Rossetti’s eminence or notoriety:—
I would have snatch’d a bay leaf from thy brow,
Wronging the chaplet on an honoured head;
In peace and tenderness I bring thee now,
A lily-flower instead.
Pure as thy purpose, blameless as thy song, 503
Sweet as thy spirit, may this offering be:
Forget the bitter blame that did thee wrong,
And take the gift from me!
The motive, however, or at least one of the motives, was less to placate an uneasy conscience than the angry reviewers who prevented Buchanan from publishing his works under his own name. Gabriel, his health by that time fatally affected, and largely through Buchanan’s foulness, must have felt in every word of the dedication the sentimental falsity of the fellow, and no doubt his private response to these overtures was the contemptuous couplet he scribbled in his notebook,
Aye, we’ll shake hands, though scarce for love, we two;
But I hate hatred worse than I hate you.
How insincere were both Buchanan’s attacks and recantations his own explanations and apologies clearly show. The odium long attaching to his name, and revived upon Rossetti’s death in 1882, Buchanan then sought to allay by a new series of abject protestations. “Mr. Rossetti, I freely admit now,” he wrote in the Academy for July 1, 1882, “never was a Fleshly Poet at all,” and about the same time, writing to Hall Caine in similar terms, Buchanan unconsciously revealed that jealousy of Rossetti’s fame was the basic incentive for the attack. “The newspapers,” Buchanan now admitted, speaking of the time of publication of Rossetti’s Poems, “were full of panegyric. Mine was a mere drop of gall in an ocean of eau sucrée”; and in the preface to his novel The Martyrdom of Madeline, Buchanan was careful to point out that it was not intended as a satire upon the Preraphaelites. Four years later in A Look Round Literature, Buchanan included a section entitled A Note on Dante Rossetti, which was indeed another recantation of his attack, and written in fact, immediately after Rossetti’s death. But these various recantations appear to have served their conscious or unconscious purpose, which was apparently to associate himself publicly with greatness as Hall Caine was to do later. For Buchanan seems to have been one of those who, like Boswell on a higher plane, would rather be remembered through some pitiful, or farcical, or contemptible or scurrilous association 504 with greatness than not be associated with the great, or even than not be remembered at all.
For his own satisfaction—or perhaps rather for that of his biographer, who later inserted it in her Life of Buchanan—the Scottish writer composed a record of the incident, which openly reveals how false his supposed moral reasons for the attack were. “Not consciously dishonest,” he now described it. “I really believed then that Rossetti was an affected, immoral and over-praised writer. I was not alone in that opinion, absurd as I consider it now.” Could he but have seen it, Buchanan might indeed have found a little consolation in a letter Cardinal Newman sent to Edmund Gosse, shortly before Rossetti’s death. “As regards Swinburne and Rossetti,” he wrote, “their poems are soaked in an ethical quality, whatever it is to be called, which would have made it impossible in the last generation for a brother to read them to a sister.” In this, doubtless many of Newman’s older contemporaries would have agreed with him. It was especially the younger generation, weary of mid-Victorian inhibitions and hypocrisies, who hailed the new “Preraphaelite” poetry with delight, realizing, as Ruskin in his more enlightened moments had realized, that “purity” and “impurity” in art depended far less upon subject or form than upon the quality of the artist’s imagination.
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