THE STEALTHY SCHOOL OF CRITICISM
The Athenćum (21 May, 1870)
A SECOND edition of Mr. D. G. Rossetti’s Poems is already announced. The sale of the first edition in about ten days shows pretty clearly that the reading public has no aversion to poetry when it is really poetry.
The Athenćum (2 December, 1871)
. . .
MR. SIDNEY COLVIN is, we believe, preparing to answer, in the pages of the Contemporary Review, an article which lately appeared in that magazine, entitled ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry,’ by Thomas Maitland, a nom de plume assumed by Mr. Robert Buchanan.
The Athenćum (9 December, 1871)
WITH reference to an announcement made a little incautiously in your last,—and I venture to think it scarcely worth making had it been exact,—allow me to state that it is not the case that I am “preparing an answer” to the strictures on a certain school of poetry, signed “Thomas Maitland,” in the Contemporary Review for last October. So far as I can judge, there was nothing instructive about those strictures, except their authorship. Say that you, a disinterested reader, came across, in a periodical adopting the rule of signature, a critical effort, which you feel at once to be reprehensibly tempered—what then? You do not “prepare an answer”; you merely look to see who is the responsible person. In this instance, and in a place where all other signatures are authentic or familiar, you find a new signature, which turns out, on inquiry, to be feigned. Among other singularities of the pages in question, you have observed the name of Mr. Robert Buchanan among somewhat more familiar names introduced for damaging comparison with the objects of attack. You learn, to your edification, that the same Mr. Buchanan is himself the author of this spirited performance, only he has been too modest to acknowledge it, and has had the happy thought of delivering his thrust from behind the shield of a putative Thomas Maitland. Still, what then? Do you “prepare an answer”? Rather you stand off, acknowledging it out of your power to accost Mr. Maitland-Buchanan on equal terms. You admire his ingenious adaptation of the machinery of candour to the purposes of disguise; you inwardly congratulate a pertinacious poet and critic on having at last done something which his friends may quote concerning him; and you feel that his achievement need only be known to be appreciated. If your announcement, together with this disclaimer, may in any way contribute towards such publicity, I shall the less regret the original inadvertence in your columns.
The Athenćum (16 December, 1871 - No. 2303, pp. 792-794)
THE STEALTHY SCHOOL OF CRITICISM.
YOUR paragraph, a fortnight ago, relating to the pseudonymous authorship of an article, violently assailing myself and other writers of poetry, in the Contemporary Review for October last, reveals a species of critical masquerade which I have expressed in the heading given to this letter. Since then, Mr. Sidney Colvin’s note, qualifying the report that he intends to “answer” that article, has appeared in your pages: and my own view as to the absolute forfeit, under such conditions, of all claim to honourable reply, is precisely the same as Mr. Colvin’s. For here a critical organ, professedly adopting the principle of open signature, would seem, in reality, to assert (by silent practice, however, not by enunciation,) that if the anonymous in criticism was—as itself originally inculcated—but an early caterpillar stage, the nominate too is found to be no better than a homely transitional chrysalis, and that the ultimate butterfly form for a critic who likes to sport in sunlight and yet to elude the grasp, is after all the pseudonymous. But, indeed, what I may call the “Siamese” aspect of the entertainment provided by the Review will elicit but one verdict. Yet I may, perhaps, as the individual chiefly attacked, be excused for asking your assistance now in giving a specific denial to specific charges which, if unrefuted, may still continue, in spite of their author's strategic fiasco, to serve his purpose against me to some extent.
The primary accusation, on which this writer grounds all the rest, seems to be that others and myself “extol fleshliness as the distinct and supreme end of poetic and pictorial art; aver that poetic expression is greater than poetic thought; and, by inference, that the body is greater than the soul, and sound superior to sense.” As my own writings are alone formally dealt with in the article, I shall confine my answer to myself; and this must first take unavoidably the form of a challenge to prove so broad a statement. It is true, some fragmentary pretence at proof is put in here and there throughout the attack, and thus far an opportunity is given of contesting the assertion.
A Sonnet, entitled ‘Nuptial Sleep’ is quoted and abused at page 338 of the Review, and is there dwelt upon as a “whole poem,” describing “merely animal sensations.” It is no more a whole poem in reality, than is any single stanza of any poem throughout the book. The poem, written chiefly in sonnets, and of which this is one sonnet-stanza, is entitled ‘The House of Life’; and even in my first published instalment of the whole work (as contained in the volume under notice) ample evidence is included that no such passing phase of description as the one headed ‘Nuptial Sleep’ could possibly be put forward by the author of ‘The House of Life’ as his own representative view of the subject of love. In proof of this, I will direct attention (among the love-sonnets of this poem) to Nos. 2, 8, 11, 17, 28, and more especially 13, which, indeed, I had better print here.
Sweet dimness of her loosened hair’s downfall
About thy face; her sweet hands round thy head
In gracious fostering union garlanded;
Her tremulous smiles; her glances’ sweet recall
Of love; her murmuring sighs memorial;
Her mouth's culled sweetness by thy kisses shed
On cheeks and neck and eyelids, and so led
Back to her mouth which answers there for all:—
What sweeter than these things, except the thing
In lacking which all these would lose their sweet:—
The confident hearts still fervour; the swift beat
And soft subsidence of the spirit's wing,
Then when it feels, in cloud-girt wayfaring,
The breath of kindred plumes against its feet?
Any reader may bring any artistic charge he pleases against the above sonnet; but one charge it would be impossible to maintain against the writer of the series in which it occurs, and that is, the wish on his part to assert that the body is greater than the soul. For here all the passionate and just delights of the body are declared—somewhat figuratively, it is true, but unmistakably—to be as naught if not ennobled by the concurrence of the soul at all times. Moreover, nearly one half of this series of sonnets has nothing to do with love, but treats of quite other life-influences. I would defy any one to couple with fair quotation of Sonnets 29, 30, 31, 39, 40, 41, 43, or others, the slander that their author was not impressed, like all other thinking men, with the responsibilities and higher mysteries of life; while Sonnets 35, 36,
and 37, entitled ‘The Choice,’ sum up the general view taken in a manner only to be evaded by conscious insincerity. Thus much for ‘The House of Life,’ of which the Sonnet ‘Nuptial Sleep’ is one stanza, embodying, for its small constituent share, a beauty of natural universal function, only to be reprobated in art if dwelt on (as I have shown that it is not here) to the exclusion of those other highest things of which it is the harmonious concomitant.
At page 342, an attempt is made to stigmatize four short quotations as being specially “my own property,” that is, (for the context shows the meaning,) as being grossly sensual; though all guiding reference to any precise page or poem in my book is avoided here. The first of these unspecified quotations is from the ‘Last Confession,’ and is the description referring to the harlot’s laugh, the hideous character of which, together with its real or imagined resemblance to the laugh heard soon afterwards from the lips of one long cherished as an ideal, is the immediate cause which makes the maddened hero of the poem a murderer. Assailants may say what they please; but no poet or poetic reader will blame me for making the incident recorded in these seven lines as repulsive to the reader as it was to the hearer and beholder. Without this, the chain of motive and result would remain obviously incomplete. Observe also that these are but seven lines in a poem of some five hundred, not one other of which could be classed with them.
A second quotation gives the last two lines only of the following sonnet, which is the first of four sonnets in ‘The House of Life’ jointly entitled ‘Willowwood’:—
I sat with Love upon a woodside well,
Leaning across the water, I and he;
Nor ever did he speak nor looked at me,
But touched his lute wherein was audible
The certain secret thing he had to tell:
Only our mirrored eyes met silently
In the low wave; and that sound seemed to be
The passionate voice I knew; and my tears fell.
And at their fall, his eyes beneath grew hers;
And with his foot and with his wing-feathers
He swept the spring that watered my heart's drouth,
Then the dark ripples spread to waving hair,
And as I stooped, her own lips rising there
Bubbled with brimming kisses at my mouth.
The critic has quoted (as I said) only the last two lines, and he has italicized the second as something unbearable and ridiculous. Of course the inference would be that this was really my own absurd bubble-and-squeak notion of an actual kiss. The reader will perceive at once, from the whole sonnet transcribed above, how untrue such an inference would be. The sonnet describes a dream or trance of divided love momentarily re-united by the longing fancy; and in the imagery of the dream, the face of the beloved rises through deep dark waters to kiss the lover. Thus the phrase, “Bubbled with brimming kisses,” &c., bears purely on the special symbolism employed, and from that point of view will be found, I believe, perfectly simple and just.
A third quotation is from ‘Eden Bower,’ and says
What more prize than love to impel thee?
Grip and lip my limbs as I tell thee!
Here again no reference is given, and naturally the reader would suppose that a human embrace is described. The embrace, on the contrary, is that of a fabled snake-woman and a snake. It would be possible still, no doubt, to object on other grounds to this conception; but the ground inferred and relied on for full effect by the critic is none the less an absolute misrepresentation. These three extracts, it will be admitted, are virtually, though not verbally, garbled with malicious intention; and the same is the case, as I have shown, with the sonnet called ‘Nuptial Sleep’ when purposely treated as a “whole poem.”
The last of the four quotations grouped by the critic as conclusive examples, consists of two lines from ‘Jenny.’ Neither some thirteen years ago, when I wrote this poem, nor last year when I published it, did I fail to foresee impending charges of recklessness and aggressiveness, or to perceive that even some among those who could really read the poem and acquit me on these grounds, might still hold that the thought in it had better have dispensed with the situation which serves it for framework. Nor did I omit to consider how far a treatment from without might here be possible. But the motive powers of art reverse the requirement of science, and demand first of all an inner standing- point. The heart of such a mystery as this must be plucked from the very world in which it beats or bleeds; and the beauty and pity, the self-questionings and all-questionings which it brings with it, can come with full force only from the mouth of one alive to its whole appeal, such as the speaker put forward in the poem,—that is, of a young and thoughtful man of the world. To such a speaker, many half-cynical revulsions of feeling and reverie, and a recurrent presence of the impressions of beauty (however artificial) which first brought him within such a circle of influence, would be inevitable features of the dramatic relation portrayed. Here again I can give the lie, in hearing of honest readers, to the base or trivial ideas which my critic labours to connect with the poem. There is another little charge, however, which this minstrel in mufti brings against ‘Jenny,’ namely, one of plagiarism from that very poetic self of his which the tutelary prose does but enshroud for the moment. This question can, fortunately, be settled with ease by others who have read my critic’s poems; and thus I need the less regret that, not happening myself to be in that position, I must be content to rank with those who cannot pretend to an opinion on the subject.
It would be humiliating, need one come to serious detail, to have to refute such an accusation as that of “binding oneself by solemn league and covenant to extol fleshliness as the distinct and supreme end of poetic and pictorial art”; and one cannot but feel that here every one will think it allowable merely to pass by with a smile the foolish fellow who has brought a charge thus framed against any reasonable man. Indeed, what I have said already is substantially enough to refute it, even did I not feel sure that a fair balance of my poetry must, of itself, do so in the eyes of every candid reader. I say nothing of my pictures; but those who know them will laugh at the idea. That I may, nevertheless, take a wider view than some poets or critics, of how much, in the material conditions absolutely given to man to deal with as distinct from his spiritual aspirations, is admissible within the limits of Art,—this, I say, is possible enough; nor do I wish to shrink from such responsibility. But to state that I do so to the ignoring or overshadowing of spiritual beauty, is an absolute falsehood, impossible to be put forward except in the indulgence of prejudice or rancour.
I have selected, amid much railing on my critic’s part, what seemed the most representative indictment against me, and have, so far, answered it. Its remaining clauses set forth how others and myself “aver that poetic expression is greater than poetic thought ... and sound superior to sense”— an accusation elsewhere, I observe, expressed by saying that we “wish to create form for its own sake.” If writers of verse are to be listened to in such arraignment of each other, it might be quite competent to me to prove, from the works of my friends in question, that no such thing is the case with them; but my present function is to confine myself to my own defence. This, again, it is difficult to do quite seriously. It is no part of my undertaking to dispute the verdict of any “contemporary,” however contemptuous or contemptible, on my own measure of executive success; but the accusation cited above is not against the poetic value of certain work, but against its primary and (by assumption) its admitted aim. And to this I must reply that so far, assuredly, not even Shakspeare himself could desire more arduous human tragedy for development in Art than belongs to the themes I venture to embody, however incalculably higher might be his power of dealing with them. What more inspiring for poetic effort than the terrible Love turned to Hate,—perhaps the deadliest of all passion-woven complexities,—which is the theme of ‘Sister Helen,’ and, in a more fantastic form, of ‘Eden Bower,’—the surroundings of both poems being the mere machinery of a central universal meaning? What, again, more so than the savage penalty exacted for a lost ideal, as expressed in the ‘Last Confession’;—than the outraged love for man and burning compensations in art and memory of ‘Dante at Verona’;—than the baffling problems which the face of ‘Jenny’ conjures up;—or than the analysis of passion and feeling attempted in ‘The House of Life,’ and others among the more purely lyrical poems? I speak here, as does my critic in the clause adduced, of aim not of achievement; and so far, the mere summary is instantly subversive of the preposterous imputation. To assert that the poet whose matter is such as this aims chiefly at “creating form for its own sake,” is, in fact, almost an ingenuous kind of dishonesty; for surely it delivers up the asserter at once, bound hand and foot, to the tender mercies of contradictory proof. Yet this may fairly be taken as an example of the spirit in which a constant effort is here made against me to appeal to those who either are ignorant of what I write, or else belong to the large class too easily influenced by an assumption of authority in addressing them. The false name appended to the article must, as is evident, aid this position vastly; for who, after all, would not be apt to laugh at seeing one poet confessedly come forward as aggressor against another in the field of criticism?
It would not be worth while to lose time and patience in noticing minutely how the system of misrepresentation is carried into points of artistic detail,—giving us, for example, such statements as that the burthen employed in the ballad of ‘Sister Helen’ “is repeated with little or no alteration through thirty-four verses,” whereas the fact is, that the alteration of it in every verse is the very scheme of the poem. But these are minor matters quite thrown into the shade by the critic’s more daring sallies. In addition to the class of attack I have answered above, the article contains, of course, an immense amount of personal paltriness; as, for instance, attributions of my work to this, that, or the other absurd derivative source; or again, pure nonsense (which can have no real meaning even to the writer) about “one art getting hold of another, and imposing on it its conditions and limitations”; or, indeed, what not besides? However, to such antics as this, no more attention is possible than that which Virgil enjoined Dante to bestow on the meaner phenomena of his pilgrimage.
Thus far, then, let me thank you for the opportunity afforded me to join issue with the Stealthy School of Criticism. As for any literary justice to be done on this particular Mr. Robert-Thomas, I will merely ask the reader whether, once identified, he does not become manifestly his own best “sworn tormentor”? For who will then fail to discern all the palpitations which preceded his final resolve in the great question whether to be or not to be his acknowledged self when he became an assailant? And yet this is he who, from behind his mask, ventures to charge another with “bad blood,” with “insincerity,” and the rest of it (and that where poetic fancies are alone in question); while every word on his own tongue is covert rancour, and every stroke from his pen perversion of truth. Yet, after all, there is nothing wonderful in the lengths to which a fretful poet-critic will carry such grudges as he may bear, while publisher and editor can both be found who are willing to consider such means admissible, even to the clear subversion of first professed tenets in the Review which they conduct.
In many phases of outward nature, the principle of chaff and grain holds good,—the base enveloping the precious continually; but an untruth was never yet the husk of a truth. Thresh and riddle and winnow it as you may,—let it fly in shreds to the four winds,—falsehood only will be that which flies and that which stays. And thus the sheath of deceit which this pseudonymous undertaking presents at the outset insures in fact what will be found to be its real character to the core.
D. G. ROSSETTI.
A fully-annotated version of ’The Stealthy School of Criticism’ is available on the Rossetti Archive site at the University of Virginia. The site also has Rossetti’s initial version of his reply to the Thomas Maitland review available online:
The Stealthy School of Criticism (Huntington Library unique proof)
“This is the only copy known to survive of the first version of DGR’s reply to Robert Buchanan’s abusive review of DGR’s 1870 Poems. It was discovered in 2000 and acquired by the Huntington Library in 2001. This first version of the essay is half as long as DGR’s published version. DGR was persuaded by his brother William and his publisher F. S. Ellis to cut the opening and closing sections, which they judged not only intemperate, but ineffective and possibly libellous.”]
’The Stealthy School of Criticism’ was immediately followed by letters from Alexander Strahan and Robert Buchanan, and a comment from the Editor of The Athenćum.]
56, Ludgate Hill, Dec. 6, 1871.
IN your last issue you associate the name of Mr. Robert Buchanan with the article ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry,’ by Thomas Maitland, in a recent number of the Contemporary Review. You might with equal propriety associate with the article the name of Mr. Robert Browning, or of Mr. Robert Lytton, or of any other Robert.
STRAHAN & CO.
Russell Square, W., Dec. 12, 1871.
I CANNOT reply to the insolence of Mr. “Sidney Colvin,” whoever he is. My business is to answer the charge implied in the paragraph you published ten days ago, accusing me of having criticized Mr. D. G. Rossetti under a nom de plume. I certainly wrote the article on ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry,’ but I had nothing to do with the signature. Mr. Strahan, publisher of the Contemporary Review, can corroborate me thus far, as he is best aware of the inadvertence which led to the suppression of my own name.
Permit me to say further that, although I should have preferred not to resuscitate so slight a thing, I have now requested Mr. Strahan to republish the criticism, with many additions but no material alterations, and with my name in the title-page. The grave responsibility of not agreeing with Mr. Rossetti's friends as to the merits of his poetry, will thus be transferred, with all fitting publicity, to my shoulders.
*** Mr. Buchanan’s letter is an edifying commentary on Messrs. Strahan’s. Messrs. Strahan apparently think that it is a matter of no importance whether signatures are correct or not, and that Mr. Browning had as much to do with the article as Mr. Buchanan. Mr. Buchanan seems equally indifferent, but he now claims the critique as his. It is a pity the publishers of the Contemporary Review should be in such uncertainty about the authorship of the articles in that magazine. It may be only a matter of taste, but we prefer, if we are reading an article written by Mr. Buchanan, that it should be signed by him, especially when he praises his own poems; and that little “inadvertencies” of this kind should not be left uncorrected till the public find them out.
The Pall Mall Gazette (23 December, 1871)
“THE FLESHLY SCHOOL OF POETRY.”
To the EDITOR of the PALL MALL GAZETTE.
SIR,—My attention has just been called to a paragraph in your paper of the 19th inst., in which you refer to a note addressed by Strahan and Co. to the editor of the Athenćum, on the subject of the article on “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” in a recent number of the Contemporary Review. Permit me to say, by way of explanation, that that short and hurried note did not at all enter, and was not meant to enter, into the question of the authorship of the article. It was simply intended as a protest against the intolerable system of gossip-mongering to which out firm has been so frequently subjected.
I admit it is a pity that the language used was so indefinite, and that the writer, instead of merely questioning the “propriety” of publishing gossip (such as that Mr. Sidney Colvin was preparing to reply in the Contemporary Review to Thomas Maitland—a quite unfounded statement, as Mr. Sidney Colvin himself demonstrated the following Saturday), did not address himself directly to the bit of gossip in hand. But there is this to be said in excuse, that a former experience of the editor of the Athenćum’s sense of fairness did not lead us to hope that the note would ever be published. And it was not published when it should have been; indeed, not until Mr. Buchanan’s letter was received; and it was evidently thought that, by putting the two together, an appearance of contradiction could be established, and Strahan and Co. be thus made to look ridiculous. I have no objection to appear in this light, provided it will have the effect of ridding us henceforth of the attentions of the gossip-collectors and inventors of the Athenćum and other journals.
This now notorious article will shortly be published in separate form by Strahan and Co., and I may here state for the information of any one interested, that the question raised as to the use of pseudonyms may possibly be discussed in the introduction to it. Enough to state here that the Contemporary Review has always adhered to the practice—as well under Dean Alford’s management as under that of the present editors—of admitting articles whether signed, unsigned, or signed with a nom de plume, as might be thought best in view of all the circumstances of the case. All statements to the contrary, whether made by Mr. Rossetti or his friends, are mere inventions, and must not be allowed to divert attention from the main issue—the merits of The Fleshly School of Poetry.
And touching the signature “Thomas Maitland,” I cannot help remarking that it did not strike me, as publisher of the Review, that there was any injustice done to Mr. Rossetti by allowing an imaginary person to say what required to be said about his poetry. The criticism was thus stripped of all factitious importance of every kind, and made to stand simply and purely upon its own merits, “Thomas Maitland” being as destitute of influence to sway a single mind as the A, B, and C of Euclid’s Problems. Had any eminent name been used, with the view of overpowering the reader, of course the position would be different. But this was not the case, and I know that “naught was set down in malice,” nor any desire entertained to be other than strictly fair and impartial. If Mr. Rossetti, however, would have taken more kindly to the article had it borne the initials A.B.C. or X.Y.Z., I can only say that it is much to be regretted that he was not gratified in this particular, all the more so that it could have been so easily done.—Yours, &c.,
56, Ludgate-hill, London, Dec. 22. A. STRAHAN.
[Note: The above letter was also published in the Glasgow Herald on 25th December, 1871.]
The Athenćum (30 December, 1871)
THE STEALTHY SCHOOL OF CRITICISM.
Russell Square, Dec. 23, 1871.
SUFFER me to contradict your editorial statement that I had, in the article on the ‘Fleshly School of Poetry,’ “praised my own poetry.” The only allusion to that poetry (rendered necessary by Mr. Rossetti’s apparent plagiarism) was the reverse of complimentary. It is in vain, perhaps, to protest against the comments of such a judge as you, but for every one who reads your journal a dozen will read my reprinted criticism, and will be able to see you in your true colours. Mean time, suffer me to direct your attention to Mr. Alexander Strahan’s letter, published in the Pall Mall Gazette of this day. His vindication of the nom de plume seems to me complete. Nevertheless, so far as I am concerned, no vindication is necessary; for as I have suggested once before, the pseudonym “Thomas Maitland” was affixed to my article when I was far out of reach—cruising on the shores of the Western Hebrides. For the rest, it is absurd to attribute mean motives when honest ones would do quite as well to explain the case. I have written under pseudonyms repeatedly, and so have some of the ablest of my contemporaries. In the present case, I am in no way responsible, but I should certainly not have hesitated to affix “Thomas Maitland” to the article if I had thought it worth my while. I was merely recording the experience, almost novel to the public in this instance, of a person who had not the honour of Mr. Rossetti’s personal acquaintance. I am sorry that this gentleman’s friends, who have done so much for him in other ways, did not dissuade him from publishing so inconsequent a letter.
*** We cannot compliment Mr. Buchanan on his temper or his accuracy. His onslaught on “The Fleshly School” contains at least two allusions to his own poetry—one which he mentions above, and another at the very outset:— “Pursuing still the theatrical analogy, the present drama of poetry might be cast as follows: Mr. Tennyson supporting the part of Hamlet, Mr. Matthew Arnold that of Horatio, Mr. Bailey that of Voltimand, Mr. Buchanan that of Cornelius, Messrs. Swinburne and Morris the parts of Rosencranz and Guildenstern, Mr. Rossetti that of Osric, and Mr. Robert Lytton that of ‘A Gentleman.’ It will be seen that we have left no place for Mr. Browning, who may be said, however, to play the leading character in his own peculiar fashion on alternate nights.” We doubt if one out of the enormous number of readers on whom Mr. Buchanan is modest enough to count, will discover that a writer who accuses Mr. Rossetti of copying him, and classes himself along with Mr. Matthew Arnold, is not praising his own poems. As Mr. Strahan has taken refuge in the columns of a contemporary, we must decline to follow him; but Mr. Buchanan must be easily contented if Mr. Strahan’s “vindication” satisfies him.
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