The Fleshly School Controversy
Buchanan and the Press
Buchanan and the Law

The Critical Response
Harriett Jay

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Other Accounts of the Fleshly School Controversy - 2


From The Æsthetic Movement in England by Walter Hamilton
(London: Reeves & Turner, 1882.)

pp. 51-55


     On the publication of Rossetti’s “Poems” in 1870, their originality and power at once claimed general attention, and, as a natural consequence, the envy and detraction of rival poets, and the enemies of the school with which his name and fame were identified.
     Amongst these critics was Robert Buchanan, who, as “Caliban,” had already attacked Swinburne in the verses entitled, The Session of the Poets. In that poem, it will be remembered, that Buchanan mentions himself as taking part in a solemn meeting of the leading poets of the day, although at that period (1866) he was little known, and would most certainly not have been included in such a select company by any other writer.
     However this may be, an article appeared in the Contemporary Review of October, 1871, entitled, “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” being a fierce attack on the Poems of Dante G. Rossetti, which 52 were then already in the fifth edition; this article was signed “Thomas Maitland.
     It being a distinctive feature of that Review that all articles should bear the actual signatures of their authors, some speculation took place as to this unknown “Thomas Maitland” whose virulent article appeared amongst others all bearing well-known names.
     It was at once set down as an assumed name, and for two reasons was assigned to Robert Buchanan; first, because it was known that on every possible occasion he attacked the school to which he assigned the works of Rossetti, and secondly, because in the opening passage of the article where he disputes Rossetti’s right to be considered as anything but a minor poet, he inserted his own name amongst the first poets of the day.
     The article commenced thus:—

     “Suppose that on the occasion of any public performance of Hamlet the actors who perform the parts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, were by means of what is technically known as ‘gagging,’ to make themselves just as prominent as the leading character, the result would be, to say the least of it, astonishing; yet a very similar effect is produced on the unprejudiced mind when the ‘walking gentlemen’ of the Fleshly School of poetry, who bear precisely the same relation to Mr. Tennyson, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do to the Prince of Denmark in the play, obtrude their lesser identities, and parade their smaller idiosyncrasies in the front rank of leading performers. In their own place the gentlemen are interesting and useful.
     “Pursuing still the theatrical analogy, the present drama of poetry might be cast as follows:—
     “Hamlet by Mr. Alfred Tennyson; Horatio, Mr. Matthew Arnold; Voltimand, Mr. Bailey; Cornelius, Mr. R. Buchanan; Rosencrantz, Mr. Swinburne; Guildenstern, Mr. W. Morris; Osric, Mr. D. G. Rossetti; A Gentleman, Mr. Robert Lytton.
     “ 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.”

     It was this paragraph which betrayed the author of the article, for assuredly no one but Robert Williams Buchanan would have inserted the name of Buchanan amongst, and as one of, the leading poets; and, as the Athenæum remarked, when Mr. Buchanan accused 53 Rossetti of copying him, and classed himself above him as a poet, and along with Mr. Matthew Arnold, he was really singing his own praises over an assumed name.
     On Dec. 2nd, 1871, the Athenæum said:—

     “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.”

     But the following week Mr. S. Colvin wrote to say that it was not his intention to attack the article in question, but that he would remain contented with having pointed out that in a magazine adopting the rule of signature to its articles, one had been admitted in which the author gratified his personal spite by attacking various other authors, delivering his cowardly thrust from behind the shield of an imaginary “Thomas Maitland.”
     In the same paper appeared the following singular letter from Messrs. Strahan & Co., the publishers of the Contemporary:—

     “In your last issue you associate the name of Mr. Robert Buchanan with the article, ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry,’ by Thomas Maitland. 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.”

     But just below this very equivocal communication, was one from Mr. Buchanan, saying:—

     “I certainly wrote the article on ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry,’ but I had nothing to do with the signature. Mr. Strahan 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 on the title page.”

     To which the editor of the Athenæum appended this note:—

     “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 54 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.”

     Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in the same number, wrote a crushing reply to Buchanan’s article, which he styles The Stealthy School of Criticism. He refers to the unfair nature of Mr. Buchanan’s attacks upon his poetry, and shows that by extracts taken apart from their contexts, his meanings were distorted and his ideas misrepresented; and that, in fact, Mr. Buchanan had, by his selections and suggestions, rendered impure that which was chaste, and even imported indecency where none was originally to be found.
     He adds:—

     “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.’ 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.”

     Notwithstanding the reproofs he had met with from the contemporary press, Mr. Buchanan persisted in reprinting his article, which was published in 1872 by Strahan & Co., in a pamphlet of ninety-seven pages, having been greatly enlarged by the addition of chapters violently attacking Swinburne and Beaudelaire, the French poet, from whose Fleurs du Mal, he accuses Swinburne of stealing many of his ideas, as he had previously accused Rossetti of stealing from himself!—Of course he also accuses Swinburne of fleshliness, and of even surpassing Beaudelaire in the sensualism of his art.
   After a time the pamphlet was suppressed (one may say it ought 55 never to have been published), and is now very difficult to meet with.
     In justice to Mr. Buchanan, it must be stated that he afterwards made handsome amends, admitting that he had been unjust to Rossetti, as a poet, and explaining that much of his criticism had also been unfairly construed, and misapplied.



pp. 70-81




IN 1875, Messrs. Trübner published an anonymous work entitled “Jonas Fisher, a poem in Brown and White,” which contained several passages strongly denouncing the so-called Fleshly School, and as Mr. Buchanan had already earned a notoriety for anonymously attacking rival poets, it seemed to some critics that this work might also be safely ascribed to his pen; the more especially as passages in it appeared to convey a meaning very similar to the sentiments already expressed by Buchanan in October, 1871, in the Contemporary Review, over the nom de plume of Thomas Maitland.
     The following verses are part of a dialogue between the hero, Jonas Fisher, and Mr. Grace, in which the topics of Art and Poetry are discussed:—

“It is not that our moderns lack
     All fiery essence in their mind;
But what belongs to flesh and blood
     Appears to them so unrefined.

“That to make simple manifold,
     And clear obscure, they take much pains—
The grandsires wrote with all their hearts,
     The grandsons write with all their brains.

“‘Well, Sir,’ said I, ‘I did not know                                                  71
     That poets now took pains to be
So modest. Nay, I’ve heard them charged
     With very great indecency.’

“‘I did not speak so much of that,’
     Said he, ‘the primness that I mean,
Is hating common manly force,
     Not hating things that are obscene.

“‘For (blameless held some noble names
     And placed on pinnacles above),
The moderns chiefly write with heart
     When writing about sensual love.’

“‘How pitiful, dear Sir,’ said I,
     ‘The wanderings of the carnal man!
With such good subjects all around
     To pick and choose among, he can

“‘Debase himself to play with dirt!
     Now isn’t it a stupid thing?’
Said he, ‘I’m not so sure of that,
     The subject’s always interesting.

“‘I am not one of those who howl
     Whene’er the smallest word is said,
That might not fittingly appear
     In books to little children read.

“‘Nay, heart and soul, I do enjoy
     A good strong Rabelaisian shout
To crack my sides withal, the fun
     Rough rustics make o’er pipes and stout.

“‘A man’s a man, not incense smoke
     To haunt a church and dread rude gales
And far too much for wholesome needs
     Mock modesty of speech prevails.

“‘Nor do I shudder over-much
     (However little I approve),
When men like Byron sing too free
     Of downright, honest, man-like love.

“‘But what my very soul abhors,                                                      72
     What almost turns my blood to bile,
Is when some prurient paganist
     Stands up, and warbles with a smile

“‘A sick, putrescent, dulcet lay,—
     Like sugared sauce with meat too high,—
To hymn, or hint, the sensuous charms
     Of morbid immorality.

“‘Excuse me—do you think it right
     To read such poems, Mr. Grace?
Pray, did you ever meet with them
     In any reputable place?’”

     The Examiner gave a criticism of this poem, in the course of which it said—

     “This anonymous poem is said to be the work of either Mr. Robert Buchanan or the Devil; and delicate as may be the question raised by this double-sided supposition, the weight of the probability inclines to the first of the alternatives. That the author, whichever he is, is a Scotchman, may be inferred from one or two incidental sneers at the characteristics of his countrymen. The worst things said about countries have been said by renegade natives. There are other and more specific circumstances which favour the report that Jonas Fisher is another of the aliases under which Mr. Buchanan is fond of challenging criticism, rather than one of the equally numerous disguises of the enemy.
     “There is no reason why the Devil should go out of his way to abuse the ‘Fleshly School.’ Now the hero of this poem has views on some of the tendencies of modern poetry and art which coincide very closely with Mr. Buchanan’s, exhibiting the same nicely-balanced and carefully-differentiated feelings of scorn for effeminate voluptuousness, and delight in that voluptuousness which is manly.”

     A few days after this somewhat ponderous criticism, there was a long letter in The Examiner entitled “The Devil’s Due,” this was signed “Thomas Maitland,” the name over which, it will be remembered, Buchanan’s attack on the Fleshly School in the Contemporary Review had originally appeared.
     But this letter in The Examiner of December 11th, 1875, after ridiculing “Jonas Fisher,” and comparing it to an inferior description 73 of “Bab Ballads,” proceeded to castigate Buchanan, whom it styled “multifaced idyllist of the gutter,” (alluding to the number of the pseudonyms he had assumed, and to the low-life topics he had selected for his poems), on the assumption that he was its author, and to parody the letter he had written about his article in the Contemporary, in which he had stated that the nom de plume of Thomas Maitland was inserted by the publishers without his knowledge or consent, whilst he was away yachting in Scotland.
     This is the satirical postscript affixed to the “Devil’s Due”:—

     “The writer being at present away from London on a cruise among the Philippine Islands in his steam yacht The Skulk (Captain Shuffleton, master), is, as can be proved on the oath or the solemn word of honour of the editor, publisher, and proprietor, responsible neither for an article which might with great foundation be attributed to Cardinal Manning or to Mr. Gladstone, or to any other writer in the Contemporary Review as its actual author; nor for the adoption of a signature under which his friends in general, acting not only without his knowledge, but against his expressed wishes on the subject, have thought it best and wisest to shelter his personal responsibility from any chance of attack. This frank, manly, and consistent explanation will, I cannot possibly doubt, make everything straight and safe on all hands.”

     Mr. Buchanan wrote a complaint to The Examiner on the tone of this article, which it was afterwards admitted was written by Mr. Swinburne, who, it was said, was prepared to take the full responsibility. But Mr. Buchanan preferred to bring an action for libel against the proprietor of The Examiner, Mr. P. A. Taylor, M.P. for Leicester, who pleaded not guilty, and also set up the defence that the alleged libels were only fair criticisms upon the defendant’s works.
     The case was tried before Mr. Justice Archibald and a special jury in June, 1876, and resulted in a verdict for the plaintiff with £150 damages. Much amusement was caused during the trial by the cross-examination of the plaintiff and his witnesses the first of whom was Lord Southesk, who appeared to claim “Jonas Fisher” as his work, in which he admitted that he had expressed his views against the “Fleshly School,” consisting principally of the works 74 of Mr. Swinburne, Mr. D. G. Rossetti, Mr. Morris and Mr. Arthur O’Shaughnessy. The Earl of Southesk was called, and stated—“I am the author of the work called ‘Jonas Fisher.’ My work contains nothing whatever against the characteristic virtues of the Scottish people. In the poem I express my honest views of the writings of the Fleshly School I have only had Mr. Buchanan’s acquaintance since the beginning of the present year.”
     “Jonas Fisher is supposed to be a City missionary in Edinburgh, writing on the Scotch people, and visiting amongst the poorer classes. There is nothing which offends decency in my work, but it is not a poem written for boys and girls, because I speak plainly of things, but there is no immorality in it.”*
     Then came the plaintiff, Mr. Robert Buchanan, who stated that he had been a literary man for 15 years, that he had written the article entitled “The Fleshly School,” having given instructions that it should be published anonymously, to which Messrs. Strahan objected, and affixed the name “Thomas Maitland” to it, without his knowledge. When “Jonas Fisher” was afterwards ascribed to him, he had written to repudiate its authorship, although he admitted he had written other anonymous poems severely attacking Mr. Swinburne and others, as, for instance, in the “Session of

     * I have recently been favoured with the following communication from the Earl of Southesk, explaining his position with regard to the trial arising from the criticisms on “Jonas Fisher”:—
     “I am obliged by your letter; probably, should we ever meet, you would find that your own ideas and mine are not very different. Through accidental circumstances my name was prominently connected with that of Mr. Buchanan—a gentleman with whom I am but slightly acquainted—and (to my knowledge) I am supposed to be an adherent of any set or party to which he may belong, at all events to be an opponent of the Art Movement.
     “My life-long intimacy with the founder of the Grosvenor Gallery has not prevented this misconception.
     “Yet if you would once again refer to ‘Jonas Fisher,’ Part III., verses 188-225, you would see my views plainly set down, and surely without a touch of approval of anything approaching to prudery or puritanism.
     “The whole book is meant as a protest against narrowness of view.
     “It never was my intention to assail any individual or any party except on the grounds of some special offence against what seems to me good art as well as good morals—in the wide, not the puritanical, sense.
     “I do not retract one word in ‘Jonas Fisher’—my object is to remove misconception of my aims and motives.”


75 Poets,” published in 1866. At that time he had never seen Mr. Swinburne, although in the poem he ridiculed his personal appearance and manner; and he stated generally that he lavished about as much abuse on Mr. Swinburne, Mr. Rossetti, and others of the “Fleshly School,” as he could put his pen to.
     In the defence objection was taken to Mr. Buchanan asserting himself as an authority, and constituting himself the censor of the morals of England, and on the ground that he, too, had written works of questionable decency and of doubtful morality, such as “Liz,” “The Little Milliner,” “The Last of the Hangmen,” and “Nell”— from which various extracts were read in court, as also the following passage from “The White Rose and Red”:—

“Till with passionate sensation,
Body and brain began to burn,
And he yielded to the bursting,
Burning, blinding, hungering, thirsting
Passion felt by beasts and men!
And his eyes caught love and rapture,
And he held her close in capture,
Kissing lips that kiss’d again.”

And another of a still more questionable kind from a poem entitled “The Nuptial Song,” which closes thus:—

“As freely as maids give a lock away,
     She gave herself unto him;
What was the bridegroom! Clay, common clay,
     Yet the wild joy slipt through him.
He kissed her lips, he drank her breath in bliss,
     He drew her to his bosom—
As a clod kindles at the Spring’s first kiss,
     His being burst to blossom.”

     Mr. Hawkins, Q.C., who appeared for the defence, said to the jury:—

     “I shall ask you to consider whether the works of Mr. Buchanan have made for him that mark in the literature of his country as to entitle him to make the attacks he has made upon Rossetti and Swinburne. How does he begin? He produces the ‘Session of Poets,’ and introduces Mr. Swinburne. Here is a poem written in I866, in which Mr. Robert Buchanan 76 professes to bring together the leading British poets. There are a good many of them, but if you take in the first rank a round dozen it is saying a good deal, and Mr. Robert Buchanan immediately dots himself down in the first rank of the dozen, and no doubt in the ‘Session of Poets’ he could with much greater brilliancy have taken the chair at that literary assembly than Alfred Tennyson himself.
     “This, gentlemen, is the poet who has made his mark in the literature of his country! Mr. Gladstone must have thought highly of him when he granted him a pension, but I do not know whether Mr. Gladstone had previously read the classic effusion I have quoted, or his “Liz,” or his “Little Milliner,” or even “The Last of the Hangmen.” Well, if you do not call this the ‘idyllist of the gutter,’ I don’t know where you will find one.
     “Thus, in one poem, I find a coster girl, who lived in the neighbourhood of St. Giles’s, and fell into a difficulty with a gentleman, who himself pursued a course of life which ultimately brought him to the gallows. Another poem is entitled ‘Liz.’ Here is the life of a wretchedly poor girl, who has been seduced by one of the low persons who inhabit the same classical locality I have already mentioned, and who has got an illegitimate child. These are the stories in which Mr. Robert Buchanan delights. He has written under various names, and has libelled other people. He has used hard words of other people, and, considering the things that he had written himself, he could hardly complain if some people thought fit also to pull them to pieces.”

     It was also contended that Mr. Buchanan had gravely transgressed the bounds of decorum in his personal attacks upon Mr. Swinburne, notably in the lines:—

“Up jumped, with his neck stretching out like a gander,
     Master Swinburne, and squeal’d glaring out thro’ his hair,
All virtue is bosh! Hallelujah for Landor!
     I disbelieve wholly in everything!—there!” 

and further on, where he accuses him of being carried out of the meeting in a tipsy condition. Then, as the judge pointed out, Mr. Buchanan’s mode of criticising the poets of the “Fleshly School” was calculated to do more harm than good, he having availed himself of the opportunity to quote much that was lewd and reprehensible in the poems, and in fact, he added, he thought it a great pity the case had ever come into court, as it was not creditable to either party.
77     So far as Mr. Buchanan is concerned there is little more to note. He has written some poems and novels, and is the author of two pieces, “The Shadow of the Sword,” and “Lucy Brandon,” (founded on the late Lord Lytton’s “Paul Clifford,”) both of which were withdrawn from the boards after very brief careers.
     The critics condemned “The Shadow of The Sword” as a tedious bombastic production, unworthy of serious consideration. Mr. Buchanan naturally resented these unfavourable remarks, and accused Mr. John Coleman (who produced the piece at the Olympic Theatre), of having grievously mutilated the drama, stating also that he had been personally befooled and impoverished.
     Mr. John Coleman replied that the alterations made had received Mr. Buchanan’s full assent, and that he had paid Mr. Buchanan every shilling of the purchase money agreed upon prior to the production of the play.
     Two things only are certain—that the play was a failure, and that Mr. Buchanan was very angry with the London dramatic critics, who are incapable, as he asserts, of either civility or fair play.
     As to “Lucy Brandon,” which was brought out at the Imperial, and suddenly withdrawn, the author wrote that its withdrawal “was entirely unconnected with its dramatic success or failure,” but a successful piece generally has a run of more than a few days.
     To a sensitive nature possessing highly-strung nerves, the discordant vibrations of adverse criticism are, no doubt, distressing; Mr. Buchanan appears to possess unusually susceptible feelings, and what is still more unfortunate for him, to be incapable of concealing or suppressing them.
     Hence no sooner does an uncomplimentary notice appear of one of his productions than he writes to prove that the critic is in the wrong, and knows nothing of the subject in hand.
     Critics usually are in the wrong, and, being mere mortals, cannot know, even a little, about everything.
     But the public perfectly understand all this, and make allowances accordingly, whilst every publisher knows that in so far as influencing the sale of a novel or a poem the value of a criticism is often enhanced by its being of an unfavourable description, 78 particularly if it asserts that the work contains a dash of impropriety. An historical or scientific book may be damned by one strong and ably-written condemnatory review, but not a poem, a novel, or a play, else few, even of the best would have survived, as Mr. Buchanan ought to know, for he himself has written some of the most unsparing criticisms of exactly those works which are now most popular. In his last novel, “The Martyrdom of Madeline,” he has bitterly satirised the editors of two society journals under the thinly-veiled names of Lagardère and Edgar Yahoo, the latter being described as the “social chiffonier of his age” raking for garbage in the filth of the street and in the sewers; whilst Lagardère is painted as a profligate, boastful, ignorant, lying, cowardly monster, often whipped and universally despised. Yet when this same novel was noticed in The Academy and the reviewer, in a mild manner, expostulated with the author on the tone of his book as belying the promises of purity contained in its preface, and for attacking other men of genius under transparently transliterated names, Mr. Buchanan was not content to accept a criticism which allowed him to be a man of genius and reputation, and strongly excited curiosity as to the contents of his novel, but wrote to the editor complaining that he had long been subjected to literary persecution, adding “Though rudely assailed, I have at least published a description of my persecutors.”
     He compares himself to Don Quixote attacking the windmills, but the simile is unfortunate, for we nowhere read that the chivalrous knight complained afterwards of the windmills’ treatment of him. So long as Mr. Buchanan continues to tilt at the windmills of the press, so long must he expect hard blows and heavy falls, and it would be wiser and more dignified not to complain of the wounds obtained in the fray. What, however, chiefly concerns us in this matter is the somewhat remarkable statements contained in this letter, concerning the poets of the Æsthetic School, and in justice to Mr. Buchanan I will insert those paragraphs in full, premising that the reviewer had accused him of satirising D. G. Rossetti, under the pseudonym “Blanco Serena,” and of renewing his attacks on his old enemies, the fleshly poets. On these points Mr. Buchanan’s language is clear and distinct, and is highly creditable, 79 as a handsome acknowledgment of the merits of some with whom he was supposed to be at enmity. 

     “Your reviewer may distrust my motives, he should at least be accurate in his descriptions of my performances. He accuses me, in the first place, of attacking my ‘old friends the fleshly poets.’ Who are the fleshly poets, so-called? If your reviewer refers to Mr. Swinburne, to Mr. Morris, to Mr. Rossetti, and to those whom I once classed as their disciples, I beg leave to re-assert (in addition to the disclaimer in my Preface) that my satire concerns not them, though it may, I suppose, have a certain retrospective application to writings which were merely a phase of their genius. Mr. Swinburne has long left the pastoral region shepherded by the impeccable Gautier; he has risen to heights of clear and beautiful purpose, where I gladly do homage to him. Mr. Morris may be passed by without a word; he needs no apology of mine. Mr. Rossetti, I freely admit now, never was a fleshly poet at all; never, at any rate, fed upon the poisonous honey of French art. Who, then, remains to complain of misinterpretation? If your reviewer had said that I satirized Gautier and his school of pseudo-aesthetics, and their possible pupils in this country, he would have been within his right.
     “One word more. Your reviewer insinuates (there is no mistaking his innuendo) that a certain character in my story is a shadow-picture of the late Mr. Dante Rossetti. To show the injustice of this supposition, I will simply ask your readers to compare the lineaments of my Blanco Serena, a society-hunting, worldly-minded, insincere, but good-humoured, fashionable painter, with the literary image of Mr. Rossetti, a solitude-loving, unworldly, thoroughly sincere and earnest, if sometimes saturnine, man of genius in revolt against Society. I wish to have no mistake on this, to me, very solemn matter. What I wrote of Mr. Rossetti, ten years ago, stands. What I wrote of Mr. Rossetti in the inscription of God and the Man also stands. Time brings about its revenges. Can the least acute observer of literature have failed to notice that the so-called fleshly school, in proportion as it has grown saner, purer, and more truly impassioned in the cause of humanity, has lost its hold upon the so-called fleshly public—even on the dapper master-millers and miller’s men of the journals of nepotism and malignity? Certain of our critics said to certain of our poets—‘Go that way; there lies the short cut to immortality.’ But the poets, after going a few paces, paused, recognising, as only true poets can recognise, the easy descent to Acheron.”

     This letter appeared in The Academy, July 1st, 1882.
     As closing this unpleasant controversy, Mr. T. Hall Caine, in his “Recollections of Rossetti,” gives the following communication he had recently received from Mr. R. Buchanan:—

80     “In perfect frankness, let me say a few words concerning our old quarrel. While admitting freely that my article in the Contemporary Review was unjust to Rossetti’s claims as a poet, I have ever held, and still hold, that it contained nothing to warrant the manner in which it was received by the poet and his circle.
     “At the time it was written the newspapers were full of panegyric; mine was a mere drop of gall in an ocean of eau sucrée.
     “That it could have had on any man the effect you describe, I can scarcely believe; indeed, I think that no living man had so little to complain of as Rossetti, on the score of criticism. Well, my protest was received in a way which turned irritation into wrath, wrath into violence; and then ensued the paper war which lasted for years. If you compare what I have written of Rossetti with what his admirers have written of myself, I think you will admit that there has been some cause for me to complain, to shun society, to feel bitter against the world; but, happily, I have a thick epidermis, and the courage of an approving conscience. I was unjust, as I have said; most unjust when I impugned the purity and misconceived the passion of writings too hurriedly read and reviewed currente calamo: but I was at least honest and fearless, and wrote with no personal malignity. Save for the action of the literary defence, if I may so term it, my article would have been as ephemeral as the mood which induced its composition. I make full admission of Rossetti’s claims to the purest kind of literary renown, and if I were to criticise his poems now, I should write very differently. But nothing will shake my conviction that the cruelty, the unfairness, the pusillanimity, has been on the other side, not on mine. The amende of my Dedication in God and the Man was a sacred thing; between his spirit and mine: not between my character and the cowards who have attacked it. I thought he would understand—which would have been, and indeed  is, sufficient. I cried, and cry, no truce with the horde of slanderers who hid themselves within his shadow. That is all. But when all is said, there still remains the pity that our quarrel should ever have been. Our little lives are too short for such animosities. Your friend is at peace with God—that God who will justify and cherish him, who has dried his tears, and who will turn the shadow of his life-dream into full sunshine. My only regret now is that we did not meet—that I did not take him by the hand; but I am old-fashioned enough to believe that this world is only a prelude, and that our meeting may take place yet.”

     Just a short time before his death Rossetti had heard of Buchanan’s retractation of the charges involved in the article on the “Fleshly School,” and was strangely touched by the pathetic dedication to him of Buchanan’s romance, God and the Man:—


I would have snatch’d 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;
Forget the bitter blame that did thee wrong,
     And take the gift from me!

     In a later edition (after the death of Rossetti), the following verses were added to the dedication:—


Calmly, thy royal robe of death around thee,
     Thou sleepest, and weeping brethren round thee stand,
Gently they placed, ere yet God’s angel crowned thee,
               My lily in thy hand!

I never knew thee living, O my brother!
     But on thy breast my lily of love now lies;
And by that token, we shall know each other,
               When God’s voice saith, “Arise!”

     That Mr. Buchanan means well there can he no doubt; he, at least, is on the side of the angels; if he will be a little more tolerant of others, and learn to chafe less under the lash of the critics, he will win public opinion over to his side, and then he may defy the reviewers to do their worst. But of all things the British public most dislike a man with a grievance.



From Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti by T. Hall Caine
(London: Elliot Stock, 1882.)



     Rossetti had buried the only complete copy of his poems with his wife at Highgate, and for a time he had been able to put by the thought of them; but as one by 59 one his friends, Mr. Morris, Mr. Swinburne, and others attained to distinction as poets, he began to hanker after poetic reputation, and to reflect with pain and regret upon the hidden fruits of his best effort. Rossetti—in all love of his memory be it spoken—was after all a frail mortal; of unstable character: of variable purpose: a creature of impulse and whim, and with a plentiful lack of the backbone of volition. With less affection he would not have buried his book; with more strength of will he had not done so; or, having done so, he had never wished to undo what he had done; or having undone it, he would never have tormented himself with the memory of it as of a deed of sacrilege. But Rossetti had both affection enough to do it and weakness enough to have it undone. After an infinity of self-communions he determined to have the grave opened, and the book extracted. Endless were the preparations necessary before such a work could be begun. Mr. Home Secretary Bruce had to be consulted. At length preliminaries were complete, and one night, seven and a half years after the burial, a fire was built by the side of the grave, and then the coffin was raised and opened. The body is described as perfect upon coming to light.
     Whilst this painful work was being done the unhappy author of it was sitting alone and anxious, and full of self-reproaches at the house of the friend who had charge of it. He was relieved and thankful when told that all was over. The volume was 60 not much the worse for the years it had lain in the grave. Deficiencies were filled in from memory, the manuscript was put in the press, and in 1870 the reclaimed work was issued under the simple title of Poems.
     The success of the book was almost without precedent; seven editions were called for in rapid succession. It was reviewed with enthusiasm in many quarters. Yet that was a period in which fresh poetry and new poets arose, even as they now arise, with all the abundance and timeliness of poppies in autumn. It is probable enough that of the circumstances attending the unexampled early success of this first volume only the remarkable fact is still remembered that, from a bookseller’s standpoint, it ran a neck-and-neck race with Disraeli’s Lothair at a time when political romance was found universally appetising, and poetry, as of old, a drug. But it will not be forgotten that certain subsidiary circumstances were thought to have contributed to the former success. Of these the most material was the reputation Rossetti had already achieved as a painter by methods which awakened curiosity as much as they aroused enthusiasm. The public mind became sensibly affected by the idea that the poems of the new poet were not to be regarded as the emanations of a single individual, but as the result of a movement in which Rossetti had played one of the most prominent parts. Mr. F. Hueffer, in prefacing the Tauchnitz edition of the poems with a pleasant memoir, has comprehensively denominated that movement 61 the renaissance of mediæval feeling, but at the outset it acquired popularly, for good or ill, the more rememberable name of pre-Raphaelitism. What the shibboleth was of the originators of the school that grew out of it concerned men but little to ascertain; and this was a condition of indifference as to the logic of the movement which was occasioned partly by the known fact that the most popular of its leaders, Mr. Millais, had long been shifting ground. It was enough that the new sect had comprised dissenters from the creed once established, that the catholic spirit of art which lived with the lives of Elmore, Goodall, and Stone was long dead, and that none of the coteries for love of which the old faith, exemplified in the works of men such as these, had been put aside, possessed such an appeal for the imagination as this, now that twenty years of fairly consistent endeavour had cleared away the cloud of obloquy that gathered about it when it began. And so it came to be thought that the poems of Rossetti were to exhibit a new phase of this movement, involving kindred issues, and opening up afresh in the poetic domain the controversies which had been waged and won in the pictorial. Much to this purpose was said at the time to account for the success of a book whose popular qualities were manifestly inconsiderable; and much to similar purpose will doubtless long be said by those who affect to believe that a concatenation of circumstances did for Rossetti’s earlier work a service which could not attend his subsequent one. But the explanation 62 was inadequate, and had for its immediate outcome a charge of narrowed range of poetic sympathy with which Rossetti’s admirers had not laid their account.
     A renaissance of mediæval feeling the movement in art assuredly involved, but the essential part of it was another thing, of which mediævalism was palpably independent. How it came to be considered the fundamental element is not difficult to show. In an eminent degree the originators of the new school in painting were colourists, having, perhaps, in their effects, a certain affinity to the early Florentine masters, and this accident of native gift had probably more to do in determining the precise direction of the intellectual sympathy than any external agency. The art feeling which formed the foundation of the movement existed apart from it, or bore no closer relation to it than kinship of powers induced. When Rossetti’s poetry came it was seen to be animated by a choice of subject-matter akin to that which gave individual character to his painting, but this was because coeval efforts in two totally distinct arts must needs bear the family resemblance, each to each, which belong to all the offspring of a thoroughly harmonised mind. The poems and the pictures, however, had not more in common than can be found in the early poems and early dramas of Shakspeare. Nay, not so much; for whereas in his poems Shakspeare was constantly evolving certain shades of feeling and begetting certain movements of thought which were soon to find concrete and final 63 collocation in the dramatic creations, in his pictures Rossetti was first of all a dissenter from all prescribed canons of taste, whilst in his poems he was in harmony with the catholic spirit which was as old as Shakspeare himself, and found revival, after temporary eclipse, in Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, and Tennyson. Choice of mediæval theme would not in itself have been enough to secure a reversal of popular feeling against work that contained no germs of the sensational; and hence we must conclude that Mr. Swinburne accounted more satisfactorily for the instant popularity of Rossetti’s poetry when he claimed for it those innate utmost qualities of beauty and strength which are always the first and last constituents of poetry that abides. Indeed those qualities and none other, wholly independent of auxiliary aids, must now as then go furthest to determine Rossetti’s final place among poets.
     Such as is here described was the first reception given to Rossetti’s volume of poetry; but at the close of 1871, there arose out of it a long and acrimonious controversy. It seems necessary to allude to this painful matter, because it involved serious issues; but an effort alike after brevity and impartiality of comment shall be observed in what is said of it. In October of the year mentioned, an article entitled The Fleshly School of Poetry, and signed “Thomas Maitland,” appeared in The Contemporary Review. It consisted 1 in the main

     1 In this summary, the pamphlet reprint has been followed in preference to the original article as it appeared in the Review.

64 of an impeachment of Rossetti’s poetry on the ground of sensuality, though it embraced a broad denunciation of the sensual tendencies of the age in art, music, poetry, the drama, and social life generally. Sensuality was regarded as the phenomenon of the age. “It lies,” said the writer, “on the drawing-room table, shamelessly naked and dangerously fair. It is part of the pretty poem which the belle of the season reads, and it breathes away the pureness of her soul like the poisoned breath of the girl in Hawthorne’s tale. It covers the shelves of the great Oxford-Street librarian, lurking in the covers of three-volume novels. It is on the French booksellers’ counters, authenticated by the signature of the author of the Visite de Noces. It is here, there, and everywhere, in art, literature, life, just as surely as it is in the Fleurs de Mal, the Marquis de Sade’s Justine, or the Monk of Lewis. It appeals to all tastes, to all dispositions, to all ages. If the querulous man of letters has his Baudelaire, the pimpled clerk has his Day’s Doings, and the dissipated artisan his Day and Night.” When the writer set himself to inquire into the source of this social cancer, he refused to believe that English society was honeycombed and rotten. He accounted for the portentous symptoms that appalled him by attributing the evil to a fringe of real English society, chiefly, if not altogether, resident in London: “a sort of demi-monde, not composed, like that other in France, of simple courtesans, but of men and women of indolent habits and æsthetic tastes, artists, literary persons, novel writers, actors, men of genius and men of talent, butterflies 65 and gadflies of the human kind, leading a lazy existence from hand to mouth.” It was to this Bohemian fringe of society that the writer attributed the '”gross and vulgar conceptions of life which are formulated into certain products of art, literature, and criticism.” Dealing with only one form of the social phenomenon, with sensualism so far as it appeared to affect contemporary poetry, the writer proceeded with a literary retrospect intended to show that the fair dawn of our English poetry in Chaucer and the Elizabethan dramatists had been overclouded by a portentous darkness, a darkness “vaporous,” “miasmic,” coming from a “fever-cloud generated first in Italy and then blown westward,” sucking up on its way “all that was most unwholesome from the soil of France.”

     Just previously to and contemporaneously with the rise of Dante, there had flourished a legion of poets of greater or less ability, but all more or less characterised by affectation, foolishness, and moral blindness: singers of the falsetto school, with ballads to their mistress’s eyebrow, sonnets to their lady’s lute, and general songs of a fiddlestick; peevish men for the most part, as is the way of all fleshly and affected beings; men so ignorant of human subjects and materials as to be driven in their sheer bankruptcy of mind to raise Hope, Love, Fear, Rage (everything but Charity) into human entities, and to treat the body and upholstery of a dollish woman as if, in itself, it constituted a whole universe.

     After tracing the effect of the “moral poison” here seen in its inception through English poetry from 66 Surrey and Wyat to Cowley, the writer recognised a “tranquil gleam of honest English light” in Cowper, who “spread the seeds of new life” soon to re-appear in Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Lamb, and Scott. In his opinion the “Italian disease would now have died out altogether,” but for a “fresh importation of the obnoxious matter from France.”
     At this stage came a denunciation of the representation of “abnormal types of diseased lust and lustful disease” as seen in Charles Baudelaire’s Fleurs de Mal, with the conclusion that out of “the hideousness of Femmes Damnées “came certain English poems. “This,” said the writer, “is our double misfortune—to have a nuisance, and to have it at second-hand. We might have been more tolerant to an unclean thing if it had been in some sense a product of the soil.” All that is here summarised, however, was but preparatory to the real object of the article, which was to assail Rossetti’s new volume.
     The poems were traversed in detail, with but little (and that the most grudging) admission of their power and beauty, and the very sharpest accentuation of their less spiritual qualities. Since the publication of the article in question, events have taken such a turn that it is no longer either necessary or wise to quote the strictures contained in it, however they might be fenced by juster views. The gravamen of the charge against Rossetti, Mr. Swinburne, and Mr. Morris alike—setting aside all particular accusations, however serious—was that they had “bound themselves into a 67 solemn league and covenant to extol fleshliness as the distinct and supreme end of poetic and pictorial art; to 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.”
     Such, then, is a synopsis of the hostile article of which the nucleus appeared in The Contemporary Review, and it were little less than childish to say that events so important as the publication of the article and subsequent pamphlet, and the controversy that arose out of them, should, from their unpleasantness and futility, from the bad passions provoked by them, or yet from the regret that followed after them, be passed over in sorrow and silence. For good or ill, what was written on both sides will remain. It has stood and will stand. Sooner or later the story of this literary quarrel will be told in detail and in cold blood, and perhaps with less than sufficient knowledge of either of the parties concerned in it, or sympathy with their aims. No better fate, one might think, could befall it than to be dealt with, however briefly, by a writer whose affections were warmly engaged on one side, while his convictions and bias of nature forced him to recognise the justice of the other—stripped, of course, of the cruelties with which literary error but too obviously enshrouded it.
     Whatever the effect produced upon the public mind by the article in question (and there seems little reason to think it was at all material), the effect upon two of the writers attacked was certainly more than 68 commensurate with the assault. Mr. Morris wisely attempted no reply to the few words of adverse criticism in which his name was specifically involved; but Mr. Swinburne retorted upon his adversary with the torrents of invective of which he has a measureless command. Rossetti’s course was different. Greatly concerned at the bitterness, as well as startled by the unexpectedness of the attack, he wrote in the first moments of indignation a full and point-for-point rejoinder, and this he printed in the form of a pamphlet, and had a great number struck off; but with constitutional irresolution (wisely restraining him in this case), he destroyed every copy, and contented himself with writing a temperate letter on the subject to The Athenæum, December 16, 1871. He said:

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. [Here Love Sweetness 69 is printed.] 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 unmistakeably—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, 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.

     It had become known that the article in the Review was not the work of the unknown Thomas Maitland, whose name it bore, and on this head Rossetti wrote:

     Here a critical organ, professedly adopting the principle of open signature, would seem, in reality, to assert (by silent practice, however, not by annunciation) that if the anonymous in criticism was—as itself originally indicated 70 —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 elude the grasp, is after all the pseudonymous.

     It transpired, in subsequent correspondence (of which there was more than enough), that the actual writer was Mr. Robert Buchanan, then a young author who had risen into distinction as a poet, and who was consequently suspected, by the writers and disciples of the Rossetti school, of being actuated much more by feelings of rivalry than by desire for the public good. Mr. Buchanan’s reply to the serious accusation of having assailed a brother-poet pseudonymously was that the false signature was affixed to the article without his knowledge, “in order that the criticism might rest upon its own merits, and gain nothing from the name of the real writer.”
     It was an unpleasant controversy, and what remains as an impartial synopsis of it appears to be this: that there was actually manifest in the poetry of certain writers a tendency to deviate from wholesome reticence, and that this dangerous tendency came to us from France, where deep-seated unhealthy passion so gave shape to the glorification of gross forms of animalism as to excite alarm that what had begun with the hideousness of Femmes Damnées would not even end there; finally, that the unpleasant truth demanded to be spoken—by whomsoever had courage enough 71 to utter it—that to deify mere lust was an offence and an outrage. So much for the justice on Mr. Buchanan’s side; with the mistaken criticism linking the writers of Dante’s time with French writers of the time of Baudelaire it is hardly necessary to deal. On the other hand, it must be said that the sum-total of all the English poetry written in imitation of the worst forms of this French excess was probably less than one hundred lines; that what was really reprehensible in the English imitation of the poetry of the French School was, therefore, too inconsiderable to justify a wholesale charge against it of an endeavour to raise the banner of a black ambition whose only aim was to ruin society; that Rossetti, who was made to bear the brunt of attack, was a man who never by direct avowal, or yet by inference, displayed the faintest conceivable sympathy with the French excesses in question, and who never wrote a line inspired by unwholesome passion. As the pith of Mr. Buchanan’s accusation of 1871 lay here, and as Mr. Buchanan has, since then, very manfully withdrawn it, 1 we need hardly go further;

     1 Writing to me on this subject since Rossetti’s death, Mr. Buchanan says:—“In perfect frankness, let me say a few words concerning our old quarrel. While admitting freely that my article in the C. R. was unjust to Rossetti’s claims as a poet, I have ever held, and still hold, that it contained nothing to warrant the manner in which it was received by the poet and his circle. At the time it was written, the newspapers were full of panegyric; mine was a mere drop of gall in an ocean of eau sucrée. That it could have had on any man the effect you describe, I can scarcely believe; indeed, I think that no living man had so little to complain of as Rossetti, on the score of criticism. Well, my protest was received in a way which turned irritation into wrath, wrath into violence; and then ensued the paper war which lasted for years. If you compare what 1 have written of Rossetti with what his admirers have written of myself, I think you will admit that there has been some cause for me to complain, to shun society, to feel bitter against the world; but happily, I have a thick epidermis, and the courage of an approving conscience. I was unjust, as I have said; most unjust when I impugned the purity and misconceived the passion of writings too hurriedly read and reviewed currente calamo; but I was at least honest and fearless, and wrote with no personal malignity. Save for the action of the literary defence, if I may so term it, my article would have been as ephemeral as the mood which induced its composition. I make full admission of Rossetti’s claims to the purest kind of literary renown, and if I were to criticise his poems now, I should write very differently. But nothing will shake my conviction that the cruelty, the unfairness, the pusillanimity has been on the other side, not on mine. The amende of my Dedication in God and the Man was a sacred thing; between his spirit and mine; not between my character and the cowards who have attacked it. I thought he would understand,—which would have been, and indeed is, sufficient. I cried, and cry, no truce with the horde of slanderers who hid themselves within his shadow. That is all. But when all is said, there still remains the pity that our quarrel should ever have been. Our little lives are too short for such animosities. Your friend is at peace with God,—that God who will justify and cherish him, who has dried his tears, and who will turn the shadow of his sad life-dream into full sunshine. My only regret now is that we did not meet,—that I did not take him by the hand; but I am old-fashioned enough to believe that this world is only a prelude, and that our meeting may take place—even yet.”

72 but, as more recent articles in prominent places, The Edinburgh Review, The British Quarterly Review, and again The Contemporary Review, have repeated what was first said by him on the alleged unwholesomeness of Rossetti’s poetic impulses, it may be as well to admit frankly, and at once (for the subject will arise in the future as frequently as this poetry is under discussion) that love of bodily beauty did underlie much of the poet’s work. But has not the same passion made the back-bone of nine-tenths of the noblest English poetry since Chaucer? If it is objected that Rossetti’s love of 73 physical beauty took new forms, the rejoinder is that it would have been equally childish and futile to attempt to prescribe limits for it. All this we grant to those unfriendly critics who refuse to see that spiritual beauty and not sensuality was Rossetti’s actual goal.
     To Rossetti, the poet, the accusation of extolling fleshliness as the distinct and supreme end of art was, after all, only an error of critical judgment; but to Rossetti, the man, the charge was something far more serious. It was a cruel and irremediable wound inflicted upon a fine spirit, sensitive to attack beyond all sensitiveness hitherto known among poets. He who had withheld his pictures from exhibition from dread of the distracting influences of popular opinion, he who for fifteen years had withheld his poems from print in obedience first to an extreme modesty of personal estimate and afterwards to the commands of a mastering affection was likely enough at forty-two years of age (after being loaded by the disciples that idolised him with only too much of the “frankincense of praise and myrrh of flattery”) to feel deeply the slander that he had unpacked his bosom of unhealthy passions. But to say that Rossetti felt the slander does not express his sense of it. He had replied to his reviewer and had acted unwisely in so doing; but when one after one—in the Quarterly Review, the North American Review, and elsewhere, in articles more or less ignorant, uncritical, and stupid—the accusations he had rebutted were repeated with increased bitterness, he lost all hope of stemming the torrent of hostile criticism. He had, 74 as we have seen, for years lived in partial retirement, enjoying at intervals a garden party behind the house, or going about occasionally to visit relatives and acquaintances, but now he became entirely reclusive, refusing to see any friends except the three or four intimate ones who were constantly with him. Nor did the mischief end there. We have spoken of his habitual use of chloral, which was taken at first in small doses as a remedy for insomnia and afterwards indulged in to excess at moments of physical prostration or nervous excitement. To that false friend he came at this time with only too great assiduity, and the chloral, added to the seclusive habit of life, induced a series of terrible though intermittent illnesses and a morbid condition of mind in which for a little while he was the victim of many painful delusions. It was at this time that the soothing friendship of Dr. Gordon Hake, and his son Mr. George Hake, was of such inestimable service to Rossetti. Having appeared myself on the scene much later I never had the privilege of knowing either of these two gentlemen, for Mr. George Hake was already gone away to Cyprus and Dr. Hake had retired very much into the bosom of his own family where, as is rumoured, he has been engaged upon a literary work which will establish his fame. But I have often heard Mr. Theodore Watts speak with deep emotion and eloquent enthusiasm of the tender kindness and loyal zeal shown to Rossetti during this crisis by Mr. Bell Scott, and by Dr. Hake and his son. ...

pp. 292-294

     His intellect was as powerful as in his best days, and freer than ever of hallucinations. But his bodily strength grew less and less. His sight became feebler, and then he abandoned the many novels that had recently solaced his idler hours, and Miss Rossetti read aloud to him. Among other books she read Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities, and he seemed deeply touched by Sidney Carton’s sacrifice, and remarked that he would like to paint the last scene of the story.
     On Wednesday morning, April 5th, I went into the bedroom to which he had for some days been confined, and wrote out to his dictation two sonnets which he had composed on a design of his called The Sphinx, and which he wished to give, together with the drawing and the ballad before described, to Mr. Watts for publication in the volume just mentioned. On the Thursday morning I found his utterance thick, and his speech from that 293 cause hardly intelligible. It chanced that I had just been reading Mr. Buchanan’s new volume of poems, and in the course of conversation I told him the story of the ballad called The Lights of Leith, and he was affected by the pathos of it. He had heard of that author’s retractation 1 of the charges involved in the article published ten years earlier, and was manifestly touched by the dedication of the romance God and the Man. He talked long and earnestly that morning, and it was our last real interview. He spoke of his love of early English ballad literature, and of how when he first met with it he had said to himself: “There lies your line.” ...

     1 The retractation, which now has a peculiar literary interest, was made in the following verses, and should, I think, be recorded here:


I would have snatch’d 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;
Forget the bitter blame that did thee wrong,
     And take the gift from me!

In a later edition of the romance the following verses are added to the dedication:


Calmly, thy royal robe of death around thee,
     Thou sleepest, and weeping brethren round thee stand—
Gently they placed, ere yet God’s angel crown’d thee.
     My lily in thy hand!

I never knew thee living, O my brother!
     But on thy breast my lily of love now lies;
And by that token, we shall know each other,
     When God's. voice saith “Arise!”



From Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti by Joseph Knight
(London: Walter Scott, 1887.)

pp. 138-144

     The period which immediately followed the appearance of the first volume, and its general acceptance by the critical organs and by the public, was perhaps the most serene, if not the happiest of Rossetti’s life. A new future, down the vistas of which he delighted to gaze, opened out before him, and dreams of new work in the same line at once shaped themselves in his brain. Mr. Ellis, his publisher, a close personal friend, had published the book on such terms as young authors seldom obtain. With pardonable enthusiasm, accordingly, he writes to Mr. Madox Brown, “Ellis tells me that he has sold out my first thousand, all but two hundred, and is going to press again at once, and so the two editions 139 at one quarter value of a twelve-shilling book, will bring me three hundred pounds in a few weeks. Not so bad for poetry, after all, even if the public find themselves glutted with the second thousand.” To Mr. James Anderson Rose, a close and constant friend, he writes, under the date May 19, 1870, concerning his book: “Its success has surprised me. A second thousand called for in less than ten days! Poetry is likely to prove no such bad trade in England before long.” Referring to the long ballad poem he contemplates, about a magic mirror which is a crystal ball, soon to take shape and appear as the noble poem known as “Rose Mary,” he says, “I wish one could live by writing poetry, I think I’d see painting d—d.” It is possible that a few months later when the storm burst, his views as to the relative pleasantness of the two forms of art might have been found to be changed.
     Meanwhile, among the old friends whose faith in Rossetti’s poetry had been firm and fervent, there was of course great rejoicing. New admirers, whom the magic of intimacy with a man such as Rossetti converted at once into friends, came around him, and he found himself the centre of a circle of worshippers, including many of those who have subsequently given direction to modern thought. No dissonant note was heard in a chorus of enthusiasm which rose around him. Widely divergent estimates were of course formed of the value of this latest contribution to poetry, but censure was at least respectful in tone, and the writer seemed to be

“Advanc’d above pale envy’s threatening reach.”

140 At once like thunder from a clear sky, to use a hackneyed figure, came an attack before which the enchanted fabric of complacency fell to the ground. In The Contemporary Review for October, 1871, appeared an article signed Thomas Maitland, and headed “The Fleshly School of Poetry.” Into the origin of this curiously unprovoked and unjustifiable attack it is futile to inquire. Some of the minor minstrels with whom Rossetti had been more or less closely associated, resented the kind of recognition awarded the volume of “Poems,” all unlike that accorded their own works. In the “fierce light” with which Rossetti’s poems were surrounded, the flickering recognition they had themselves received could scarcely be seen. With hinted disapproval of the choice of subjects accordingly, they began to disparage the work, and hold aloof from the writer.
     No motive of past friendship, however, reduced to feeble muttering the censure of Mr. Thomas Maitland, a critic who, speaking in terms of solemn arraignment, publicly likened Rossetti to authors of whom it may be said, as Sir Thomas Browne said of “sins heteroclitical,” that there is “a sin even in their histories,” and that of them there should remain no “register but that of hell.” It was with amazement that Rossetti heard that the indignant Scot, who “came from a remote retreat in the Highlands to this great centre of life which men have named London,” with a mission to rebuke vice and to expose iniquity by linking the writings of Rossetti with the foulest outcome of depravity and disease, was himself a poet long resident in London. “What do you think?” he asks his brother, 141 under the date October 17, 1871, “—— writes me that Maitland is Buchanan.” There is little temptation to drag back to the light of day particulars, now buried, of a feud which, though in some future edition of “The Quarrels of Authors” it may move the mirth of our descendants, will always leave an ill-taste in the mouth of those who have the highest interests of literature at heart. For his imputations Mr. Buchanan had the grace ultimately to apologize. That the original offence was heightened by the publication in pamphlet form with his own signature, and with justificatory additions of the article, cannot perhaps be held. Rossetti himself wrote at some length in protest against his assailant, and “The Stealthy School of Criticism”—an unwise step which gave rise to much subsequent controversy. His friends, moreover, came to his aid, and replied in terms of no measured indignation, contempt, and wrath. Smarting under imputations of motive and lash of censure, Mr. Buchanan, after the authorship was fixed upon him, was in no mood for penitence. During some years accordingly the attitude of hostility was maintained, and it was not until the pother was over that sane reflection induced Mr. Buchanan to dedicate a work to the subject of his quondam assault, and in so doing to withdraw his arraignment. One quotation alone from a letter of Rossetti addressed to the writer of this sketch shall be given. It is to this effect. “You may be sure that these monstrous libels—both the pamphlet and its press results—cause me great pain, but I have been in doubt what course to take till this evening, when it seems clear to me that I have the right to adopt a tone raising me above the question. 142 I have no part in insult or violence, and cannot be involved because their atmosphere is raised around me.” This letter, unfortunately dated only “Monday night,” is thoroughly characteristic, and the resolution to have no part in insult and violence, belongs to Rossetti’s innermost nature. In a letter from Mr. Buchanan, forming a portion of his amends, which is given as a note in Mr. Hall Caine’s “Recollections of Rossetti,” the writer speaks of his pamphlet being “a mere drop of gall in an ocean of eau sucrée.” That it could have had on Rossetti the effect Mr. Hall Caine has described, he can scarcely believe, and he adds, “Indeed, I think that no living man had so little to complain of as Rossetti on the score of criticism.” Not very logical is all this, though it is perhaps natural. The fact that a man has known nothing but praise does not prepare him to receive censure with equanimity. A succession of hot baths is not the best preparation for a plunge into iced water, or even for the receipt of a discharge of mud. Rossetti had obtained full recognition. His nature was robust as well as tender, and a hostile criticism would no doubt have startled him, and perhaps have acted as a healthy stimulus. There is, however, a difference between literary criticism and moral indictment. Weak spots may easily be found in the literary armour of Rossetti, from whom some important gifts are wanting. That a man, however, who had won in art and letters the praise and sympathy of all whose approval was worth having, whose bosom friends and associates in youth had risen to the topmost place in their professions, and who throughout his career had found all that was earnest in art clinging to him with 143 devotion, and appealing to him for counsel, should see himself held up to infamy as a deliberate assailant of virtue and corrupter of his age, was enough to shock and to pain. Shocked and pained Rossetti accordingly was, and his early demise is due indirectly to the disturbance thus caused. In those long nights of insomnia which grew increasingly frequent, he dwelt upon the cruelty and the outrage to which he held he had been subject, and the resort to chloral hydrate grew correspondingly easier and more constant.
     Exteriorly his life was peaceful and calm. At no time were the gatherings at Cheyne Walk more interesting or more brilliant than they were in 1871 and the first half of the following year, and never did the host, when he substituted the role of speaker for that of listener, grow more eloquent or more convincing. To a circle drawn round the fire in the studio, while the greater portion of the room remained in twilight, Rossetti would read with his unequalled voice and delivery some passage from a favourite author, and would make this an excuse to draw from some young and but half- reluctant poet his latest sonnet. The interest Rossetti took in these compositions did not cease with the words of encouragement he was ready to utter. If the poem commended itself to him, and any flaw in its perfection seemed capable of removal, letter after letter with suggestions for alteration would come to the writer at his house. So many as half-a-dozen separate letters have been written by him on consecutive days for the purpose of dealing with a crux in a sonnet. How rare is friendliness such as this, and how rarer is the sacrifice of personal vanity, must be at once obvious. 144 No less evident is it how calculated was such interest to light in the minds of those around him, the kind of devotion which attended Rossetti in life, and is still consecrated to his memory. The room, meanwhile, had other guests besides its human occupants, and the tenant of a sofa was likely enough to be startled by the appearance from under a pillow of a wood-chuck, a wombat, or some other animal equally outside the range of ordinary sympathies.



From Autobiographical Notes of the Life of William Bell Scott, Vol. 2
(London: James R. Osgood, McIlvaine & Co., 1892.)

pp. 168, 171-173



OCTOBER of 1871 having begun and ended, all of us had returned to Cheyne Walk. D. G. R.’s vigour in all things, painting, poetry, and letter-writing—the tone of the latter showing a healthy elasticity—he had left never to find again. We recommenced our whist, sometimes with Boyce or Huffer, and sometimes by ourselves with our classical friend Quartus Tacitus, but the article in the Contemporary, referred to in his last letter, was to him like a slow poison, till at last he could not follow the game, and used to throw down his cards.

. . .

     At last midsummer of 1872 was drawing on. A. B. [Alice Boyd] had left us for Penkill, and I was looking forward to following her. One day I had some friends to dinner; ten used to be my number, two or three times in the season before leaving town. On this particular day one of the friends was D. G. R.; we were loitering about the drawing- room waiting for the latest man, who was Gabriel himself. At last we heard a tremendous peal at the bell, and knocking, a great noise ascended the stair, and he burst in upon us, shouting out the name of Robert Buchanan, who, it appeared, he had discovered to be the writer of the article in the Contemporary Review which was so distracting him. He was too excited to observe or to 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 inquiry regarding Rossetti. 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. But in a very few weeks the crisis came.
     One morning at an early hour W. M. R. came along to me—now living at hand, at No. 92—in a desponding state of mind. He wished me to accompany him at once. Swallowing a cup of tea, we hurried to No. 16, and found our friend in a condition painful to witness. Professor Marshall, and Dr. Hake, whose verses Rossetti had so admired and assisted— now doctoring his doctor in another art—were there, and agreed that the patient must change his surroundings. Where was he to go? Dr. Hake answered that question by offering to take him out with him to his house at Roehampton. A cab was brought at once; we all thought it strange to see him so willing to go, but that night it was too evident he wanted to be secluded, and for three days he lay as one dead, and only by a treatment, invented for the moment by Professor Marshall, was he cured. But as I was only at Roehampton on one visit, not to him, but to William, who was made seriously ill by his brother’s state, it does not fall to me to give any further account of my friend’s sad condition, till it was determined that he was not to return to Chelsea, but that a further change of scene would be necessary, and I volunteered to be a second with young George Hake, to take charge of him. His new retirement was to be far off, at Stobhall, near Perth, the shooting and fishing quarters of William Graham, M.P. for Glasgow, his most efficient friend, and the greatest admirer of his art. Brown and George Hake took him down, and when I was free to leave town, just two days after, I released the former and stayed with him there for three long weeks.



The Bookman

The Bookman (New York) (August, 1901 - p.524-526)

Buchanan and Rossetti.

Considering the violence of the personal attacks which the late Robert Buchanan, whose death was noted in the last number of THE BOOKMAN, was in the habit of making upon his literary contemporaries, the kindly notices which his death has called forth in England are little short of remarkable. Possibly this is due to the fact that of recent years he was pitied rather than feared, and because almost all the bitterness of the old sting had died away. At any rate we have seen but one English estimate of Buchanan which has done more than mention gthe notorious attack on Rossetti. The writer of the estimate in question does not sign his name, and in consequence we feel justified in saying only that he holds a very prominent and unique place among English critics. He utterly flouts the generally accepted idea that Buchanan had unusual troubles to face in his literary career. Never, he says, had a young man better prospects and better friends. To Alexander Strahan, his publisher, he owed much, and very much. This at one time he was not ashamed to confess. He made his own troubles, for he was his own enemy; and probably the growing mental unrest of his mind, an unrest which showed itself more and more distinctly as he went on writing criticisms, helped to make him the man he became. He held his ground, however, as a person to be reckoned with until, in 1871, he published his famous attack on Rossetti, entitled “The Fleshly School of Poetry.” It is impossible to doubt, though it is hard to believe, that this article saddened the rest of Rossetti’s life. The testimony is too strong for anyone to contest it. What has not been recognised is that the article completely ruined Buchanan. It made him a confirmed mutineer. It is wonderful that he should have fought his battle with the world through thirty long years, but somehow he did it.


     The article in itself was insignificant to the last degree. Whatever may be the fate of Buchanan’s poetry there can be no doubt that his prose is dead. Indeed, it hardly ever lived. He had much ability; but, on the whole, it was bold, brazen, careless, bumptious, spiteful, while often it descended to the merest twaddle. Buchanan had something of a case against Rossetti, but he did not know how to put it. Nor was he a man entitled to pose as a moralist. In a later libel case the judge said, very truly, that the attack upon the Fleshly School was couched essentially in a fleshly tone. The circumstances of the publication were eminently discreditable. The paper was published in the Contemporary under the signature “Thomas Maitland.” Shortly after its appearance, the Athenæum announced that Mr. Sidney Colvin was preparing to answer it, and revealed the author’s name. Mr. Sidney Colvin made a stinging answer. He had no intention of replying. There was “nothing instructive about these strictures except their authorship.” “Among 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 your friends may quote concerning him, and you feel that his achievement need only be known to be appreciated.” Buchanan wrote: “I cannot reply to the insolence of ‘Mr. Sidney Colvin,’ whoever he is,” and declared that he wrote the article, but had nothing to do with the signature. He appealed to the publisher of the Contemporary to corroborate him, “as he is best aware of the inadvertence which led to the suppression of my own name.” Unfortunately the publisher of the Contemporary had written to say: “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.” Rossetti had a long reply entitled “The Stealthy School of Criticism,” which is republished in his collected works. It turned out that Buchanan’s name was suppressed by the publisher, not through an inadvertence, but through his own expressed motion and desire, urgently reiterated. Later on, the article was republished, with additions, in a pamphlet, on the wrapper of which appeared “A Catalogue of Baneful Flowers from the Whip for White Wantons.” It was years before the passions aroused by this struggle subsided, and in 1876 they culminated in an action brought by Buchanan for libel against the Examiner. He obtained damages, but paid for them very dearly. After that he never recovered any real position. He wrote much—plays, criticisms, novels, verses, and obtained occasional successes. His native brilliancy and force never quite deserted him. Until very near the end there was some market for his wares. But he did nothing to redeem his early promise, and though he was ever ready for a fight few cared to fight with him. It was not because his antagonists were afraid of him, not exactly because they despised him; it was because they pitied him.



From The Autobiography of a Journalist by William James Stillman
(Boston & New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1901)

Vol. II. pp. 472-475

     He was undoubtedly the most gifted of his generation of artists, not only in England, where art is, if  not exotic, at least sporadic, but in Europe, and I consider that if he had been of Titian’s time he would have been one of the greatest of the Venetians. His imaginative force and intensity were extraordinary, and some of the elaborate compositions he drew in pen and ink, for future painting, are as remarkable in invention and dramatic feeling as anything I know in art, and all drawn without a model. The ‘‘Hector,” the “Hamlet and Ophelia,” the “Magdalene at the door of Simon the Pharisee,” 473 are designs of unsurpassed power, eminent in all the great qualities of design, harmony of line, invention, and dramatic intensity. His early work had all the purity and intensity of feeling of the primitive Itahans, and the designs alluded to are of a little later period and of his highest imaginative activity. Had he always maintained the elevation of that period he would have done more and better work, but he fell into irregularities of life which wasted his powers and destroyed the precious exaltation of his early art. The sensuous quality of his painting, the harmony of color and the play of it, like the same qualities in his poetry, remained as long as I knew anything of his life, hut his drawing and even his intellectual powers fell off through his unsystematic, excessive demands on them, night work and overwork. In his later years his work was nearly always more or less jaded, his eye failing in the perception of forms, as has so often been the case in even the greatest painters in their decay.
     No doubt chloral was ultimately one of the agencies of his prostration, though not of his death, but he did not have recourse to it until his power of recuperation from overwork had begun to fail; and, when he had become accustomed to the effect of the chloral, he took it as the means of a form of intoxication, a form well understood by those who have had any experience, personal or by observation, in the use of the drug. The craving for this intoxicant, once it becomes a habit, is, like the use of morphia, invincible, and Rossetti indulged in it to 474 such an extent that he used to take the original prescription to several druggists to obtain a quantity that one would not have given him. The crisis came long after my close personal relations with him had ceased, and I had become only an occasional correspondent, living in Italy. But to make his decline the consequence of the use of chloral, even when it was finally become habitual, as some do, is absurd. It had been prescribed for him by a competent physician, because some remedy for his malady had become necessary. Even before I had recommended his first experiment with it he had been incapacitated from work by sleeplessness, and was in a very precarious condition of nerves and brain, and, though he recovered at Robertsbridge a comparative health, so that he was enabled to do some of his best work, his return to London, and gradually to his old habits of life and work, ultimately reproduced the old symptoms.
     During the earlier days of the return of the malady I was in London again and saw a great deal of him, was witness to his having become subject to illusions, and heard his declarations that he was beset by enemies and that he continually heard them in an adjoining room conspiring to attack him, and he attributed the savage criticism of Buchanan on his volume of poems to his being in the conspiracy to ruin him. The attack of Buchanan had a most disastrous effect on his mind. It was the first time that Rossetti had experienced the brutalities of criticism, and his sensitiveness was excessive. No reassurance had any 475 effect; lie had heard, he declared, the voices of those who had combined to ruin his reputation discussing the measures they were going to take, and it was evident that it had become a mania closely resembling insanity. Buchanan’s criticism had a rancor and breath of personality in it which had no excuse; it was a savage, wanton attack on the poet which he felt not only as poet and artist but as personal; for, to Rossetti, the two were the silver and golden sides of the shield. Though the morbid state was there, I think that the article of Buchanan had more to do with the intensification of the mania of persecution than anything else that occurred. And at that time he had not yet contracted the habit of taking chloral.



From Theodore Watts-Dunton: Poet Novelist Critic by James Douglas
(London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1904.)


     It would be worse than idle to enter at this time of day upon the painful subject of the “Buchanan affair.” Indeed, I have often thought it is a great pity that it is not allowed to die out. The only reason why it is still kept alive seems to be that, without discussing it, it is impossible fully to understand Rossetti’s nervous illness, about which so much has been said. I remember seeing in Mr. Watts-Dunton’s essay on Congreve in ‘Chambers’s Encyclopædia’ a definition of envy as the ‘literary leprosy.’ This phrase has often been quoted in reference 146 to the case of Buchanan, and also in reference to a recent and much more ghastly case between two intimate friends. Now, with all deference to Mr. Watts- Dunton, I cannot accept it as a right and fair definition. It is a fact no doubt that the struggle in the world of art—whether poetry, music, painting, sculpture, or the drama—is unlike that of the mere strivers after wealth and position, inasmuch as to praise one man’s artistic work is in a certain way to set it up against the work of another. Still, one can realize, without referring to Disraeli’s ‘Curiosities of Literature,’ that envy is much too vigorous in the artistic life. Now, whatever may have been the good qualities of Buchanan—and I know he had many good qualities—it seems unfortunately to be true that he was afflicted with this terrible disease of envy. There can be no question that what incited him to write the notorious article in the ‘Contemporary Review’ entitled ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry,’ was simply envy—envy and nothing else. It was during the time that Rossetti was suffering most dreadfully from the mental disturbance which seems really to have originated in this attack and the cognate attacks which appeared in certain other magazines, that the intimacy between Mr. Watts-Dunton and Rossetti was formed and cemented. And it is to this period that Mr. William Rossetti alludes in the following words: “‘Watts is a hero of friendship’ was, according to Mr. Caine, one of my brother’s last utterances, easy enough to be credited.”
     That he deserved these words I think none will deny; and that the friendship sprang from the depths of the nature of a man to whom the word ‘friendship’ meant not what it generally means now, a languid sentiment, but what it meant in Shakespeare’s time, a deep passion, is shown by what some deem the finest lines Mr. Watts-Dunton 147 ever wrote—I mean those lines which he puts into the mouth of Shakespeare’s Friend in ‘Christmas at the Mermaid,’ lines part of which have been admirably turned into Latin by Mr. E. D. Stone, and published by him in the second volume of that felicitous series of Latin translations, ‘Florilegium Latinum’:—

‘MR. W. H.’

To sing the nation’s song or do the deed
That crowns with richer light the motherland,
Or lend her strength of arm in hour of need
When fangs of foes shine fierce on every hand,
Is joy to him whose joy is working well—
Is goal and guerdon too, though never fame.
Should find a thrill of music in his name;                                         148
Yea, goal and guerdon too, though Scorn should aim
Her arrows at his soul’s high citadel.

But if the fates withhold the joy from me
To do the deed that widens England’s day,
Or join that song of Freedom’s jubilee
Begun when England started on her way—
Withhold from me the hero’s glorious power
To strike with song or sword for her, the mother,
And give that sacred guerdon to another,
Him will I hail as my more noble brother—
Him will I love for his diviner dower.

Enough for me who have our Shakspeare’s love
To see a poet win the poet’s goal,
For Will is he; enough and far above
All other prizes to make rich my soul.
Ben names my numbers golden. Since they tell
A tale of him who in his peerless prime
Fled us ere yet one shadowy film of time
Could dim the lustre of that brow sublime,
Golden my numbers are: Ben praiseth well.

     It seems to me to be needful to bear in mind these lines, and the extremely close intimacy between these two poet- friends in order to be able to forgive entirely the unexampled scourging of Buchanan in the following sonnet if, as some writers think, Buchanan was meant:—



Round many an Isle of Song, in seas serene,
     With many a swimmer strove the poet-boy,
     Yet strove in love: their strength, I say, was joy
To him, my friend—dear friend of godlike mien!
But soon he felt beneath the billowy green
     A monster moving—moving to destroy:
     Limb after limb became the tortured toy
Of coils that clung and lips that stung unseen.

“And canst thou strike ev’n me?” the swimmer said,                       149
     As rose above the waves the deadly eyes,
     Arms flecked with mouths that kissed in hellish wise,
Quivering in hate around a hateful head.—
     I saw him fight old Envy’s sorceries:
I saw him sink: the man I loved is dead!

     Here we get something quite new in satire—something in which poetry, fancy, hatred, and contempt, are mingled. The sonnet appeared first in the ‘Athenæum,’ and afterwards in ‘The Coming of Love.’ If Buchanan or any special individual was meant, I doubt whether any man has a moral right to speak about another man in such terms as these.



From Rossetti (English Men of Letters) by Arthur C. Benson
(London: Macmillan & Co., 1904)

pp. 61-65

     But it is now necessary to turn to an incident of the year 1871 which was fruitful in disaster for Rossetti. In the Contemporary Review for October 1871 appeared an article, afterwards expanded into a pamphlet, entitled “The Fleshly School of Poetry—Mr. D. G. Rossetti.” The article was signed Thomas Maitland, and was written by the poet recently deceased, Robert Buchanan. The morality of this device has been impugned, and it is true that a personal attack of this character should have been anonymous rather 62 than pseudonymous. Into all the stages of the painful affair it is not necessary to go. At first Rossetti did not appear to be particularly disturbed by the attack. He wrote a very temperate reply under the title of The Stealthy School of Criticism, portions of which appeared in the Athenæum over his signature. But Buchanan was not content, and early in 1872 he issued his article expanded into a pamphlet, in a far more extended and denunciatory form.
     The Fleshly School of Poetry was a strong, coarse onslaught, grossly unjust and intolerably vehement, but gaining in venom and power to wound from the fact that it was an attack made in the shape of a defence of public morality. No doubt the defence was prompted by sincere motives; but both the furtive method employed, and the careless injustice by which Rossetti was selected as a typical example of the decadent school, were inexcusable. The attack was pointed by quotation; but by carefully selected quotations it would be as easy or easier to prove both Shakespeare and Milton to be vile and shameless poets, undermining the foundations of morality. The whole tone and spirit of Rossetti’s poems are misrepresented. It is true that there breaks out in places a certain voluptuousness of phrase and image, but the fault is rather one of taste, in speaking without disguise of things more wisely left to men’s memories and hearts, but not in themselves either unnatural or debasing; of recounting things, which, as Horace says, are sacro digna silentio. Indeed, it is too strong to say taste; it should rather be English taste; and it must be kept in mind that Rossetti was by instinct an Italian, and that though he was deeply versed in English literature, 63 and a master of English speech, one can never think of him as a purely English poet; he never learned to look at things from an English point of view. The Englishman’s idea of love-making is of a secretive order, and just as, in conversation, a sturdy silence, for instance, about religious things is not inconsistent with a deep religious devotion, so the experiences of love are to an Englishman more suited for memory and recollection and seclusion, not sub divum rapienda, though the ardours of passion may be deeply felt and regarded as a very high and holy mystery of sweetness. Possibly the instinct may be wrong, and Englishmen would not lose in self-respect by a greater candour about the deeper experiences of life. But it is a national instinct for all that, and not to be lightly defied. In any case, the harm was done. There were innumerable people who agreed with the spirit of Buchanan’s attack, who never endeavoured to verify for themselves the truth of his accusation, nor heeded his recantation. For Buchanan, writing to Mr. Hall Caine after Rossetti’s death, said: “I was unjust, as I have said; most unjust when I impugned the purity and misconceived the passion of writings too hurriedly read and reviewed currente calamo; . . . I make full admission of Rossetti’s claims to the purest kind of literary renown.” Yet the result is now that a certain cloud hangs, in popular opinion, over Rossetti’s writings; and the immediate effect upon himself was to cause him deep pain, to unsettle his sensitive mind, and to contribute in no small measure to the disaster of his later life.
     The charges, if they were true, were sufficient to create a deep suspicion of Rossetti among virtuous 64 and respectable people. What passed in Rossetti’s thoughts cannot be known; but his brother discovered, on visiting him in June 1872, that his mind was unhinged. He became the victim of a delusion, from which he never entirely recovered, that there was a widespread and carefully organised conspiracy on foot against him to hound him out of society; the smallest things fed this unnatural idea. He received a presentation copy of Fifine at the Fair from Robert Browning, fastened upon some lines at the end as a veiled attack upon himself, and at once expunged Browning from the number of his friends. He believed that Lewis Carroll’s jeu d’esprit, The Hunting of the Snark, was a satire upon himself. Medical advice was summoned, and Rossetti consented to go to the house of a friend, Dr. Hake. Here he swallowed the contents of a phial of laudanum that he took with him, and his life was with difficulty preserved. He was, on recovery from the poison, discovered to be afflicted with partial paralysis of the leg. He was finally removed to Scotland, his friends rallying round him in a way which testifies to the wonderful loyalty which he inspired. He spent some time in Perthshire, at Urrard and Stobhall, two houses belonging to Mr. William Graham, M.P., the purchaser of many of his pictures. He was then moved to Trowan, near Crieff, where he made a rapid recovery, and resumed his painting. He continued, however, to take chloral. To meet his immediate necessities his great collection of china was sold, producing a large sum of money; and towards the end of September 1872 he was well enough to go down to Kelmscott, where he recovered to a great degree his 65 spirits and energy. He wrote to his brother, September 25, 1872: “The pleasant peaceful hours at Euston Square yesterday were the first happy ones I have passed for months; and here all is happiness again, and I feel completely myself.” But his delusions never wholly left him.



From Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Painter & Man of Letters by Frank Rutter
(London: Grant Richards, 1908.)


pp. 86-88

     Throughout her short married life Mrs. Rossetti was never free from sickness, though her state was never so alarming as just before her marriage. On May 2, 1861, she was delivered of a stillborn female child, but she appears to have made a tolerably rapid and satisfactory recovery from her confinement. But, in addition to the phthisis, she suffered terribly from acute neuralgia, for which she was continually obliged to have recourse to laudanum or some other opiate, and this habit led the way to the final tragedy. On February 10, 1862, Mr. and Mrs. Rossetti and Mr. Swinburne dined together at the Sablonière Restaurant in Leicester Square, after which Mrs. Rossetti, who appeared as well as usual, returned home with her husband. Dante Gabriel saw her to bed, and then went out to his class at the Working Men’s College. He returned home some time after eleven and found his wife insensible, and on the table at her bedside an empty phial which had contained laudanum. Four doctors were called in, but in spite of their endeavours she never recovered consciousness, and died about half-past seven in the morning. These are the facts, according to the best authorities, of a fatality which has given rise to so much discussion and unfounded surmise. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that Mrs. Rossetti ever had a thought of self-destruction, or that her husband had anything with which justly to reproach himself. All reports tending towards such conclusions are the baseless fabrications of mean and malignant minds.
     An inquest, of course, was inevitable, and after hearing medical evidence and the testimony of the husband, Mr. Swinburne, and Mrs. Birrell, the housekeeper, the jury returned a verdict of ‘Accidental Death.’
     Rossetti was prostrated with grief, and, with the exception of Brown, appears to have been unable to see any one outside the family. Even to Ruskin he denied himself, and it is a touching tribute to the depth of his friendship for Ford Madox Brown that it was to this great-hearted man alone that Rossetti went for sympathy during the agony of the fatal night.
     On the day of the funeral Rossetti put the manuscript book of his poems in his wife’s coffin, and since so many exaggerated accounts of this painful incident have been rumoured about, it seems advisable to quote the clear and authoritative account of the affair given by Mr. W. M. Rossetti: ‘There were some friends assembled in one of the rooms in Chatham Place; the coffin, not yet close-shut, was in another. My brother, unwitnessed, deposited the MS. in the coffin. He then joined his friends and informed Madox Brown of what he had done, saying, “I have often been writing at those poems when Lizzie was ill and suffering, and I might have been attending to her, and now they shall go.” Brown disapproved of such a sacrifice to a mere impulse of grief or of self-reproach, and he appealed to me to remonstrate. I replied, “Well, the feeling does him honour, and let him do as he likes.”’
     Here Mr. W. M. Rossetti was as clearly in the wrong as Brown was in the right, in principle if not in method. It was no use arguing with a man in Rossetti’s state of mind, though any person of sense could be certain that he would later regret abandoning himself to an unthinking and semi-dramatic impulse. The kindest thing would have been to have abstracted the book from the coffin just before it was closed down, and kept the matter secret from Rossetti till the desire for publication grew again. There are times when deception is the truest act of friendship, and since no copy existed, and there was no time to make one, this was an occasion when it would have been permissible, and even praiseworthy.


pp. 94-108

     Severe as the blow undoubtedly was, it is incorrect to suppose that Rossetti was plunged into unrelieved gloom after his wife’s death. He was not so weak in character or so devoid of interests in life as to give way to futile moping over the past. Speaking of the family and friendly parties which used to assemble at Tudor House, his sister Christina, in a magazine article published after her brother’s death, wrote: ‘Gloom and eccentricity, such as have been alleged, were, at any rate, not the sole characteristics of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. When he chose he became the sunshine of his circle, and he frequently chose so to be. His ready wit and fun amused us; his good-nature and kindness of heart endeared him to us.’
     At the same time it must be admitted that his dead wife was very constantly in his thoughts, and about 1864-5 Rossetti began to interest himself in spiritualism, in the hope that he might be enabled by its means to communicate with his lost one. His life at this time, if not exactly normal—and what man of genius is normal?—was hardly eccentric, if not actively happy. He was at least cheerful and as content as an artist may be. His worldly circumstances prospered, his professional earnings mounted into four figures, the average towards the end of the sixties being between two and three thousand a year. And up to the autumn of 1866, when he was thirty-eight years of age, his health remained good. But that year he became subject to a troublesome, if not dangerous, complaint, which occasionally required surgical treatment, and in the following year he began to suffer from insomnia. To speculate how this arose is idle. It is a trouble to which all highly strung, nervous temperaments are liable, a foe producing fearful results when it fastens and feeds upon an active imagination. About the same time—the summer of 1867—Rossetti’s eyes became painful, and remembering his father’s partial blindness, he feared he might lose his sight. The specialists whom he consulted assured him that his eyes were not organically injured, only weakened by nervous overstrain; but this verdict, though hopeful, was far from reassuring to a man of Rossetti’s impatient temperament. He took to wearing strong glasses, which he never afterwards abandoned, but still found his failing vision impeding his painting work, and the rest prescribed him was not easily won by a person of his restless energy.
     In September, 1868, after a short tour in Warwickshire with his assistant, Mr. Dunn, Rossetti paid his first visit to Penkill Castle, in Ayrshire, the home of Miss Boyd, an intimate friend of William Bell Scott. Here his sleeping improved, though not his eyesight, for on returning to London in November, 1868, he found himself unable to paint before the beginning of November. The difficulty he was now experiencing in painting led Rossetti to think of his other gift of poetry, and he began to make some preparation for publishing a volume of poems. He collected and revised all the original poems and sonnets which had appeared in ‘The Germ’ and other periodicals, and endeavoured to remember and complete the lost poems which lay buried with his wife in Highgate Cemetery.
     In the summer of 1869 he paid a second visit to Penkill, and here his conduct for the first time roused fears as to his mental condition. He is said to have discussed the ethics of suicide, and William Bell Scott, who was at Penkill at the  time, tells a curious story of a walk to a romantic ravine called the Lady’s Glen, where a hill-stream falls into a black and unfathomed pool. Rossetti bent fascinated over the dark water, and, as Mr. Bell Scott believed, had a strong impulse towards self-destruction, from which he only with an effort recovered. About the same time Rossetti believed himself to be in receipt of spiritual communications from his wife, and on one occasion he brought home a chaffinch, picked up in the road, which he supposed to be the spirit of his wife.
     Inasmuch as these incidents are related only on the authority of Mr. Bell Scott—whose reminiscences, written long after the event, are not always reliable and often to be taken cum grano salis—it would not, perhaps, be advisable to attach too great weight to them. And if Rossetti’s conduct was disturbing, it must be admitted that he proved himself to be in other respects intellectually vigorous, for it was during this visit to Penkill that he wrote the ballad of ‘Troy Town,’ and began ‘The Stream’s Secret’ and ‘Eden Bower.’ Moreover, his family letters during this period do not show any traces of mental disturbance, but they do reveal the fact that Rossetti’s whole energy was now concentrated on his poetry, and that he was troubled, if not actually fretted, by his inability to recall by memory portions of the lost poems. Of many of his early poems, ‘Jenny’ among them, no copy existed save that in his wife’s grave, and painful though the idea of their recovery must have been to him, Rossetti was at last brought to realise the wisdom of undoing his impulsive sacrifice.
     Of his intentions he said nothing to his family till after the event, but on October 13, 1869, he wrote an account of the matter to his brother William. ‘Various friends,’ he says, ‘have long hinted from time to time at the possibility of recovering my lost MSS., and when I was in Scotland last year Scott particularly referred to it. Some months ago Howell of his own accord entered on the matter, and offered to take all the execution of it on himself. This for some time I still hung back from accepting; but eventually I yielded, and the thing was done, after some obstacles, on Wednesday or Thursday last, I forget which. An order had first to be obtained from the Home Secretary, who strangely enough is an old and rather intimate acquaintance of my own—H. A. Bruce. . . . All in the coffin was found quite perfect; but the book, though not in any way destroyed, is soaked through and through, and had to be still further saturated with disinfectants. It is now in the hands of the medical man who was associated with Howell in the disinterment, and who is carefully drying it leaf by leaf. There seems reason to fear that some minor portion is obliterated, but I must hope this may not prove to be the most important part. I shall not, I believe, be able to see it for at least a week yet.’
     Although the opening of the grave was conducted at night and with all possible privacy, some rumour of it getting about excited gossip, and at the time and since Rossetti has been blamed for violating the secrecy of the grave to fulfil his literary ambition. Empty talk of this kind can never be wholly silenced, though the self-evident justification of his proceeding is that it hurt no one and made the world his debtor. We must all deplore the original act of morbid sacrifice, but unless we are prepared to maintain that it is right for a man to bury the talent with which God has endowed him, we cannot escape the accusation of being ourselves a little morbid if we denounce with horror its exhumation.
     Having at last recovered the exact form of his old poems, Rossetti actively pushed forward their preparation for the press. Messrs. Blackwood made him an offer as to their publication, but eventually an arrangement was come to whereby Mr. F. S. Ellis became the publisher. Previous to their publication, however, Rossetti took certain steps which must unhesitatingly be condemned. An entry in Mr. W. M. Rossetti’s diary for October 11, 1869, states: ‘Gabriel called, and talked about his intended publication of poems in the Spring. He thinks it desirable to make sure of the reviewers as far as possible, and thinks he can count upon handsome notices in various reviews. His plan, therefore, would be to send the book first to two or three papers that he can count on, and that are of leading importance; wait for the appearance of the critiques in these; and only then send the book to other papers, which it would reach having already a considerable prestige about it. This is skilful scheming; but for my own part (as I told Gabriel) I would not diplomatise at all, but just leave the book to take its chance, and feel pretty confident of the result into the bargain.’
     It is to be regretted that Rossetti did not listen to his brother and refrain from proceedings as unnecessary as they were ill-advised, for this attempt at what we should now term ‘log-rolling’ was the surest way to excite that hostile feeling which it was the author’s aim to avoid. When the poems were at length published in 1870 they evoked a chorus of praise which certainly cannot be wholly attributed to Rossetti’s doubtful diplomacy or the enthusiasm of a few personal friends. At the same time, it cannot be doubted that an influential lead was given by Mr. Swinburne’s eloquent panegyric on the volume in the ‘Fortnightly Review,’ by the article of William Morris in ‘The Academy,’ and the reviews of such friends as Mr. Joseph Knight and Mr. Sidney Colvin which appeared in other journals.
     The poems published, Rossetti returned to his painting, though his eyes still gave him trouble and his general health was far from satisfactory. He had now definitely taken to the use of chloral to relieve his insomnia, and since he disliked the taste of this drug it became his habit to take in immediate sequence a wineglass of neat whisky. That this combination must eventually have injurious results on his health Rossetti could not have been wholly unaware from the first, but in his complicated situation Rossetti thought he was choosing the lesser of two evils. ‘The fact is,’ he once wrote to Madox Brown, ‘that any man in my case must either do as I do, or cease from necessary occupation, which cannot be pursued in the day when the night is stripped of its rest.’
     To whatever extent this habitual and increasing consumption of chloral may have deranged his nervous system, to whatever delusions it may subsequently have given rise, its immediate effect was to restore to Rossetti his powers as a painter. It enabled him within the next two years or so to paint his largest and, as some think, his greatest picture, Dante’s Dream, now at the Walker Art Gallery of Liverpool, to paint a duplicate of Beata Beatrix, PandoraMariana, Veronica Veronese, and Water-willow. Into the background of this last picture Rossetti introduced the famous Manor House at Kelmscott, in Oxfordshire, of which he became joint-tenant with William Morris in May, 1871. Five months later appeared the first sign of that professional hostility which Rossetti had studiously endeavoured to  evade.
     In the ‘Contemporary Review’ for October, 1871, appeared an article entitled ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry,’ signed Thomas Maitland, but written in fact by the late Mr. Robert Buchanan, in which Rossetti’s poems were vehemently attacked on moral as well as literary grounds. Notwithstanding the writer’s exaggerated overstatement of his case, his excessive intemperance, and his indiscriminate denunciation, his criticism contained some particles of truth, and since it was undoubtedly prompted by sincere motives and was productive of lasting results, it requires to be considered in some detail. The pseudonymous method of attack has been generally and rightly condemned. Buchanan himself maintained that he desired the article to be published anonymously, and that it was the editor who appended the pseudonym; but however modest a writer may be—and Buchanan was not of a retiring nature—he is never more bound in duty to declare himself than when he makes a personal attack. It is the more disgraceful to Buchanan that he withheld his true signature because he wished to introduce himself into the discussion, to exalt his own poetical productions, and to accuse Rossetti of imitating one of his own ‘quasi-lyrical poems.’ Buchanan was a Scottish poet and novelist of some talent and greater conceit. He was a disappointed man, and as far apart from Rossetti in temperament as the north is from the south. He appears to have been as genuinely shocked by some of the more passionate outbursts of Rossetti as a Puritan might have been at the love-carols of a Cavalier, and his indignation was stirred to fiercer wrath by the praises which Morris and Swinburne had lavished on Rossetti. It is not difficult to realise that Buchanan conscientiously thought himself called upon to unmask the ‘log-rolling’ of this trio, whom he likens to three minor characters in ‘Hamlet,’ who ‘finding it impossible to risk an individual bid for the leading business, have arranged all to play leading business together, and mutually to praise, extol, and imitate each other; and although by these measures they have fairly earned for themselves the title of the Mutual Admiration School, they have in a great measure succeeded in their object—to the general stupefaction of a British audience.’ Here we have the natural reaction to Rossetti’s ill-advised diplomacy.
     Buchanan next proceeds to the more serious impeachment of Rossetti for animalism, the shameless chronicling of amorous sensations, and cites against him the sonnet on ‘Nuptial Sleep’:—

At length their long kiss severed with sweet smart;
And as the last slow sudden drops are shed
From sparkling eaves when all the storm has fled,
So singly flagged the pulses of each heart.
Their bosoms sundered, with the opening start
Of married flowers to either side outspread
From the knit stem; yet still their mouths, burnt red,
Fawned on each other where they lay apart. . . .

     It would be more pertinent, perhaps, to condemn the excessive use of sibilants in this sonnet; but unjust as it is to label these lines as ‘shameless’ and ‘sickening,’ it is true that their voluptuousness is distasteful to many readers whose minds are steadied by the cooler blood of the north. It is not always easy to say where sensuousness ends and sensuality begins, and Rossetti at times hovers on the border line. To most British readers there is an ugly sound in lovers ‘fawning on each other,’ ‘munching necks with kisses,’ ‘gripping and lipping limbs,’ and the occurrence in these poems of such suspicious phrases lent colour to Buchanan’s accusation.
     At first Rossetti does not appear to have been seriously concerned at this attack, and he even appreciated as a good joke against himself some lines in which Buchanan neatly parodied his fondness for accenting weak endings:—

When winds do roar, and rains do pour,
Hard is the life of the sailor;
He scarcely as he reels can tell
The side-lights from the binnacle;
He looketh on the wild water, etc.

     To the more serious accusations brought against him, Rossetti wrote a temperate reply, entitled ‘The Stealthy School of Criticism,’ which appeared in the ‘Athenæum’ over his signature. But this reply only rekindled Buchanan’s ire, and early in 1872 he republished as a pamphlet his attack, now extended and more violently denunciatory than before, and bearing his rightful signature. After Rossetti’s death, Buchanan confessed his injustice when he ‘impugned the purity and misconceived the passion of writings too hurriedly read’; and before that he had made some amends by dedicating to Rossetti as ‘To an Old Enemy’ his dramatic novel ‘God and the Man,’ in the lines:—

I would have snatch’d a bay leaf from thy brow,
     Wronging the chaplet on an honour’d 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;
Forget the bitter blame that did thee wrong,
     And take the gift from me!

But the evil was done and irreparable. Predisposed to melancholy and suspicion by continual chloral dosing, Rossetti viewed this repeated attack as the sign of a widespread conspiracy to hound him out of society, and from this delusion he never afterwards recovered. Old friends were suspected of hostility and innocent pleasantry interpreted as studied insult. The closing lines of ‘Fifine at the Fair ‘ were construed into a veiled attack, and Browning was expunged from the list of his friends; Lewis Carroll’s ‘Hunting of the Snark’ was conceived by his deluded brain to be a satire on himself. At last his brother, calling on him at 16 Cheyne Walk, on June 2, 1872, found that Rossetti was ‘past question, not entirely sane.’ On this day Rossetti completed the sale of The Bower Meadow for £735, and when Mr. Lefèvre called for the picture, the artist, in a high state of nervous excitement, suggested that if he did not consider it good value for the money the agreement might still be cancelled. When Dr. Maudsley was called in, Rossetti, according to his brother, ‘even went so far as to say that he was probably no doctor, but some one foisted upon himself for a sinister purpose.’ Other medical men were consulted, and it was agreed that complete cessation from all work and excitement was imperative, and since change and care were equally desirable, on the Friday (June 7) Rossetti was induced to leave Cheyne Walk and stay with his friend, Dr. Gordon Hake, at Roehampton. His mental state gave cause for great uneasiness; a number of gipsy vans seen on the Saturday was viewed by Rossetti as a disparaging demonstration, and he imagined he heard mysterious voices insulting him. This last delusion became so unbearable, that on the Saturday night he swallowed the contents of a bottle of laudanum which he had contrived to bring with him and hide from his friends. For hours Rossetti’s life was despaired of, but, thanks to the indefatigable efforts of Dr. Hake and Mr. Marshall, he regained conciousness on the Monday.
     After this there was some talk of sending him to a private asylum, but Madox Brown generously interfered, offering to take charge of his friend, and after a week or so at Brown’s house, Rossetti rallied sufficiently to be able to go to Scotland to recruit. By September Rossetti had so far recovered as to commence painting again, and at this time he finished a duplicate of Beata Beatrix for his patron, Mr. Graham, who had placed at Rossetti’s disposal his two houses in Perthshire, and towards the end of the month he left Scotland to join the Morrises at Kelmscott, where he stayed till July, 1874.



From Rossetti: a critical essay on his art by Ford Madox Hueffer [Ford]
(London: Duckworth, 1914.)

pp. 71-74


IN 1870 Rossetti published his first volume of original poems. He was then and continued till his death the tenant of the house in Cheyne Walk; but he had tired of the habit of lavish purchasings to fill it, and a great deal of the brilliant joyousness was going out of his life. It was primarily a matter of ill-health; he suffered from insomnia and his eyesight was seemingly failing altogether. The ill-health, of course, arose from his mode of living, which was self-indulgent and irregular; he sat up very late at nights and in no way “took care of” himself. He had no essential feeling of the value of exercise. He “spent” his life in fact with no idea of husbanding it. Probably he saw no reason for so doing. Inevitably enough he had to pay the price and the price was a very heavy one.
     The insomnia, which was of a frightful nature and an aggravated intensity, he combated by the use of chloral. And in this he seems to have been hardly used by Fate; for he was told, by the friend who recommended it, that it was innocuous. It was then a new remedy. Eventually he used it in enormous quantities. In later years he recognized well enough its ill effects and was definitely and avowedly content to abide by the results. It is a matter in which we have no right to judge; he being a man of another race and in his way clear-sighted.
     Its necessary consequence was a morbid cast of 72 thought, ending in hallucinations. Accidents made the hallucinations take a special and very lamentable form.
     It was in 1869 that, his eyesight threatening to fail permanently, Rossetti had serious thoughts of a career as a poet in the event of painting becoming impossible. This idea, it may be remembered, he had definitely abandoned in 1853.) In the spring of 1870 the “Poems” appeared. They were received, for one reason and another, with immense favour—there was, in fact, what we should to-day call “a boom.” Rossetti’s friends were very many and very influentially placed, and Rossetti’s friends were immensely enthusiastic as to the merits of the “Poems.” Rossetti himself did his best to ensure a favourable reception for his work. How much this “best” amounted to is not very material in its ethical aspect; makes the matter neither better nor worse. He was certainly not servile in hunting for notices, but he certainly expected those of his friends who could write and thought favourably of his work, to write favourably. And it is obvious enough, from the permanent popularity of the “Poems,” that they had an attraction operating quite independently of any efforts of Rossetti’s personal friends.
     The natural effect of sudden and great popularity, however gained, is the more or less effective counterblast. This is inevitable enough. In the case of the poems the damnatory article came eighteen months after the publication of the “Poems.” It appeared in the Contemporary Review, was entitled “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” and was signed Thomas Maitland. It attacked Rossetti’s poems reasonably enough for certain technical defects or exaggerations, and wholly unreasonably on the grounds of “the sickening desire they evinced to produce the sensual mood.” The 73 second heading might have been the product of a more or less pardonable mistake as far as the article in the Contemporary was concerned. The article left Rossetti at bottom comparatively unmoved.
     He wrote a letter to the Athenæum temperately enough defending his poems from any purposed immorality of tendency. It was to have formed part of a pamphlet entitled the “Stealthy School of Criticism.” (It had in the meanwhile appeared that the “Thomas Maitland” of the Contemporary was in effect the pseudonym of Mr. Robert Buchanan.) Rossetti’s pamphlet was never published, partly for fear of giving Mr. Buchanan cause for a libel action.
     So far the matter remained merely one of those unpleasant literary incidents that must, it would seem, be perpetuated as long as Art endures and writers have zealous friends. But Mr. Buchanan, for reasons of his own, saw fit to amplify his article and republish it in the form of a really abominable pamphlet entitled “The Fleshly School of Poetry and other Phenomena of the Day, by Robert Buchanan.” “He here”—the words are those of Mr. William Rossetti—“definitely identified Rossetti, as well as some other poets, with a supposed movement for the propagation of whatever is most foul in vice and most disgusting in vicious display.” Mr. Buchanan (he is dead now and his motives need no longer be inquired into) afterwards dedicated a book to “An old enemy,” Rossetti; and later, after Rossetti’s death, wrote: “I was most unjust when I impugned the purity and misconceived the passion of writing too hurriedly read and reviewed currente calamo. I make full admission of Rossetti’s claim to the purest kind of literary renown.” This was the amende honorable and the matter might rest there.
     Lamentably enough, however, the personal as distinct 74 from the literary, attack on Rossetti shaped the course of the dismal hallucinations for which chloral had already prepared Rossetti’s over-taxed and over-tired brain. It is impossible to say whether he would or would not have had other hallucinations; but it is certain that the horror of so vile and so unjustifiable an accusation made things infinitely worse and definitely caused Rossetti to think that there was in the world a gigantic conspiracy to hold him up to obloquy. This idea haunted him for a long time; under the horror of it he attempted to commit suicide; it riveted the chloral habit finally upon him and the one thing and the other sapped his life and in their effects gradually ruined his work. The whole affair is one of the most cruel and unnecessary that the history of the Arts can show, and one of the most lamentable that in life can be imagined.



Other Accounts of the Fleshly School Controversy - continued








The Fleshly School Controversy
Buchanan and the Press
Buchanan and the Law


The Critical Response
Harriett Jay


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