THE FLESHLY SCHOOL CONTROVERSY
Reviews of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Poems
Buchanan’s The Book of Orm also appeared in the spring of 1870 and was occasionally reviewed alongside Rossetti’s Poems. The reviews from The Westminster Review, The North British Review and The Guardian are available in the Reviews section of the site.
The Pall Mall Gazette (21 April, 1870 - p.7)
[Note: According to John A. Cassidy, reviewed by Sidney Colvin (Cassidy also assigns the review in The Westminster Review to Colvin).]
POEMS BY DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI.*
HERE is a volume of poetry upon which to congratulate the public and the author; one of those volumes, coming so seldom and so welcome to the cultivated reader, that are found at a first glance to promise the delight of a new poetical experience. There is no mistaking the savour of a book of strong and new poetry of a really high kind; no confounding it with the milder effluence that greets us from a hundred current books of poetry in various degrees praiseworthy or hopeful or accomplished, and we may say at once that it is the former and later savour that is assuredly in the present case to be discerned. The name of M. Dante Gabriel Rossetti has for many years possessed among us a somewhat shadowy renown, as that of a poet and painter who has in general withheld from the public the opportunity of judging the products of his genius in either art. He has at length given us all the opportunity that could be desired of judging concerning his poetical gift; coming forward with the body of verse that is now in our hands, and that includes pieces written at very various dates within the last twenty-four years—two or three only of these having been long ago published in little read periodicals, and a few sonnets lately in the Fortnightly Review.
The poem with which the book opens is one of those that were long ago published, and one that found its way to a somewhat wider hearing than any other similarly put forth by the author. There may be several among our readers to-day to whom “The Blessed Damozel” (in its earlier form, which has now been considerably revised) is familiar as one of the most tender and imaginative of spiritual lyrics, in which a virgin love perpetuated beyond the grave is sung in the imagery of that refined yet fully realised mediæval faith which is known to have had so strong a fascination for the English pre- Raphaelite school at a certain period of its development. How exquisite is the atmosphere into which its opening verses at once lift us, with their restrained and delicate melody!—
The blessed damozel lean’d out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.
Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem,
No wrought flowers did adorn,
But a white rose of Mary’s gift,
For service meetly worn;
Her hair that lay along her back
Was yellow like ripe corn.
Her seemed she scarce had been a day
One of God's choristers;
The wonder was not yet quite gone
From that still look of hers;
Albeit, to them she left, her day
Had counted as ten years.
Throughout the first part of Mr. Rossetti’s volume there reigns no special principle of classification, and there occurs a juxtaposition of poetical disparates such as had better, we think, have been avoided. In dealing, therefore, with his book, we shall allow ourselves to neglect the arrangement of pieces which we find in it. and to class together those that seem allied by some real affinity of spirit. There are two or three other poems in which the spirit of “The Blessed Damozel,” a spirit of refined religious mysticism and of yearning for the transcendental perpetuation of earthly love, recurs under various disguises. There is an “Ave” in which the joys of the Virgin are made a subject of rapt meditation in the purest temper of romantic Mariolatry. On the other hand, there is a poem called “The Portrait,” in which the yearning for an immortality of love is only slightly associated with aspirations properly religious, and strongly associated with regretful recollection of the incidents of an earthly passion. It opens thus:—
This is her picture as she was:
It seems a thing to wonder on,
As though mine image in the glass
Should tarry when myself am gone.
I gaze until she seems to stir,—
Until mine eyes almost aver
That now, even now, the sweet lips part
To breathe the words of the sweet heart:—
And yet the earth is over her.
Alas! even such the thin-drawn ray
That makes the prison-depths more rude,—
The drip of water night and day
Giving a tongue to solitude.
Yet this, of all love’s perfect prize
Remains; save what in mournful guise
Takes counsel with my soul alone;
Save what is secret and unknown,
Below the earth, above the skies.
Then follows an account of the occasion which suggested the portrait, the place and manner of its painting; and, after an outburst of hope for a meeting hereafter, comes this subdued conclusion:—
Here with her face doth memory sit
Meanwhile, and wait the day’s decline,
Till other eyes shall look from it,
Eyes of the spirit’s Palestine,
Even than the old gaze tenderer:
While hopes and aims long lost with her
Stand round her image side by side,
Like tombs of pilgrims that have died
About the Holy Sepulchre.
Another poem, from which the religious element is indeed wanting, but which may be held to link itself on to the foregoing by a certain mysticism of invention and sentiment, and by the imaginative intensity with which it dwells upon the passion of love (as indeed the key-note of the whole book is its celebration of the passion of love at its highest pitch of imaginative intensity) is one that stands early in the volume, and is called “Love’s Nocturn.” It is an address to a personified Love, as lord of the realm of sleep and dreams, beseeching him to further the poet’s desire that his lady’s slumbers may be haunted by dreams of him, and him alone. We must not overload our columns with quotations—and there is much that we shall have yet to quote—or we should have been glad to give the reader a sample of this lovely poem, as well for the sense’s sake as to prove, by the mastery with which its involved and recurring system of rhyme is managed, the immense proficiency shown by this writer always, but here perhaps most of all, in the technical art of poetry; his unsurpassed command of lyrical metre, melody, and diction. One more poem there is, called the “Stream’s Secret,” which it is hard to know whether to group with those above discussed, or with the later section of the book that is called “The House of Life;” in it the lover imagines Love to have whispered the secret of his passion’s future issue to the stream at its “far well-head,” and demands a revelation from its ripples, but in vain:—
Still silent? Can no art
Of Love’s then move thy pity? Nay,
To thee let nothing come that owns his sway:
Let happy lovers have no part
With thee; nor even so sad and poor a heart
As thou hast spurned to-day.
A class of lyric very different from these with their highly spiritualized and lingeringly meditative passion—a class of narrative lyric of which the movement is vehement and rapid, the passion fierce and direct—is set before us under a special form in the poems called “Sister Helen” and “Lilith.” These are both cast in the form of ballads with a recurring burden or refrain; a form common in old French poetry, but that in modern English poetry has certainly never been treated with so much power as here. The scene in “Sister Helen” is a dialogue between the heroine and her little brother at the close of an incantation by which she has been procuring the death of a faithless lover; and the fiery verses ring and beat upon the ear with a weird and concentrated force that is positively appalling. And if the impression of despairing revenge is strongly given here, so is the impression of jealous malignity in the kindred poem of “Lilith.” We believe that it is an old Talmudical legend, mentioned among other modern writers by Burton in his “Anatomy of melancholy,” that a snake was transformed into a wife for Adam at first, and named Lilith; that because her offspring turned out snakes also, she was superseded and Eve created in her place; and that it was in jealousy that she reassumed the serpent’s form and tempted Eve to the fall. Our author treats this wild subject with an almost ferocious power. Here are some concluding fragments of the forecast of vengeance which Lilith confides to her original snake lover:—
Then Eve shall eat and give unto Adam;
(And O the bower and the hour!)
And then they both shall know they are naked,
And their hearts ache as my heart hath achèd.
Aye, let them hide in the trees of Eden,
(Eden bower’s in flower.)
As in the cool of the day in the garden
God shall walk without pity or pardon.
Hear, thou Eve, the man’s heart in Adam!
(And O the bower and the hour!)
Of his brave words hark to the bravest—
“This the woman gave that thou gavest.”
Hear Eve speak, yea, list to her, Lilith!
(Eden bower’s in flower.)
Feast thine heart with words that shall sate it—
“This the serpent gave and I ate it.”
O proud Eve, cling close to thine Adam,
(And O the bower and the hour!)
Driven forth as the beasts of his naming
By the sword that for ever is flaming.
Know, thy path is known unto Lilith!
(Eden bower’s in flower.)
While the blithe birds sang at thy wedding,
There her tears grew thorns for thy treading.
* * * * *
In the planted garden eastward in Eden,
(Eden bower’s in flower.)
Where the river goes forth to water the garden,
The springs shall dry and the soil shall harden.
Yea, where the bride-sleep fell upon Adam,
(And O the bower and the hour!)
None shall hear when the storm-wind whistles
Through roses choked among thorns and thistles.
Yea, beside the east-gate of Eden,
(Eden bower’s in flower.)
Where God joined them and none might sever,
The sword turns this way and that for ever.
What of Adam cast out of Eden?
(And O the bower and the hour!)
Lo! with care like a shadow shaken,
He tills the hard earth whence he was taken.
What of Eve too, cast out of Eden?
(Eden bower’s in flower.)
Nay, but she, the bride of God’s giving,
Must yet be mother of all men living.
* * * * *
Lo! two babes for Eve and for Adam!
(And O the bower and the hour!)
Lo! sweet snake, the travail and treasure—
Two men-children born for their pleasure!
The first is Cain and the second Abel:
(Eden bower’s in flower.)
The soul of one shall be made thy brother,
And thy tongue shall lap the blood of the other.
(And O the bower and the hour!)
Let the reader contrast the tone of this with the tone of “The Blessed Damozel”—this unearthly frenzy of rage and spite with that clear and beatified mood of spiritual hope—and he will see that Mr. Rossetti seems to be equally at home at opposite poles of the imagination. There is another and shorter burdened ballad called “Troy Town,” and two long ballads, one in the old English ballad key and metre, called “Stratton Water,” and the other “Staff and Script.” There is a poem of philosophical and historical retrospect, suggested by the importation of the Assyrian bulls into London, which is not pitched in so high a poetical key as most of the volume, but which abounds in robust thought, and shows always the same magisterial strength and wealth of English diction and metre that would of themselves suffice to make this one of the most remarkable of poetry books. The longest poem here is also one of philosophical and historical, or rather biographical, retrospect,—a meditative piece upon the exile of Dante, for which our author’s intimate study of Dante and his poetical compeers and predecessors has excellently prepared him; and from which we cannot do better than give our readers an excerpt:—
Fame tells us that Verona’s court
Was a fair place. The feet might still
Wander for ever at their will
In many ways of sweet resort;
And still in many a heart around
The Poet’s name due honour found.
Watch we his steps. He comes upon
The women at their palm-playing.
The conduits round the gardens sing
And meet in scoops of milk-white stone,
Where wearied damsels rest and hold
Their hands in the wet spurt of gold.
One of whom, knowing well that he,
By some found stern, was mild with them,
Would run and pluck his garment’s hem,
Saying, “Messer Dante, pardon me,”—
Praying that they might hear the song
Which first of all he made, when young.
“Donne che avete” . . . Thereunto
Thus would he murmur, having first
Drawn near the fountain, while she nurs’d
His hand against her side: a few
Sweet words, and scarcely those, half said:
Then turned, and changed, and bowed his head.
For then the voice said in his heart,
“Even I, even I am Beatrice”;
And his whole life would yearn to cease:
Till having reached his room, apart
Beyond vast lengths of palace-floor,
He drew the arras round his door.
At such times, Dante, thou hast set
Thy forehead to the painted pane
Full oft, I know; and if the rain
Smote it outside, her fingers met
Thy brow; and if the sun fell there,
Her breath was on thy face and hair.
Then, weeping, I think certainly
Thou hast beheld, past sight of eyne,—
Within another room of thine
Where now thy body may not be
But where in thought thou still remain’st,—
A window often wept against:
The window thou, a youth, hast sought,
Flushed in the limpid eventime,
Ending with daylight the day’s rhyme
Of her; where oftenwhiles her thought
Held thee—the lamp untrimmed to write
In joy thro’ the blue lapse of night.
As if to show that he is not alone able to move in the remoter fields of the historical past or of the mystical imagination, Mr. Rossetti gives us also two substantial pieces of modern realism. One of these is called “A Last Confession (Regno Lombardo-Veneto, 1848),” and takes the form of a dramatic monologue in blank verse. A Lombard patriot, wounded to death in conflict with the Austrians, confesses to his priest the crime of his life—his murder of a girl whom he had tended from childhood, and whom he had loved without response when she became a woman. We cannot spoil so nobly conceived and highly wrought a poem by quotation; but we can promise the reader that he will find in this deathbed narrative, broken with the fever of remembrance and remorse, a piece of true and irresistible tragedy written with all the dramatic subtlety that we have been accustomed to associate with the work of Mr. Browning, as well as with a richness and fluency of poetical imagery, and above all a fire and tenderness of passion, that we do not know in any other poem of the class. The other modern piece is one which from a certain point of view may endanger the reception of Mr. Rossetti’s volume, one which may without injustice be said to render it unfit for the drawing-room table. “Jenny” is not written “virginibus puerisque.” True, it is an ethical study of a very high kind as it seems to us, but a study of things not generally talked about in the drawing-room (however much, as we pointed out the other day in another connection, the recent writing and talking of ladies seem to indicate that the day of drawing-room decencies in literature is nearly done). It is a study of the moral and imaginative issues raised by the comparison of a London prostitute with her virtuous sisters, or with what she herself might have been—
(Of the same lump, it has been said,
For honour and dishonour made,
Two sister vessels. Here is one.
It makes a goblin of the sun!)—
and is put into the mouth of a speaker having for the moment practical relations with the subject of his musings. Such musings have naturally no more definite upshot for good than such an aspiration as this:—
If but a woman’s heart might see
Such erring heart unerringly
For once! But that can never be.
Nevertheless, we cannot but hold that it is well, and not ill, despite the daring of the situation and bluntness of some of the language in the poem, that this mournful contemporary problem should have been dealt with, so to speak, in this poetico- practical way; to say nothing of the fact that, as so dealt with, it has become in our author’s hands the occasion of some passages of the most sustained and moving poetry with which we have anywhere acquaintance.
There remains a section of Mr. Rossetti’s work, which is perhaps most of all characteristic of his peculiar genius, and which to those having most sympathy with that genius will be especially stirring and delightful, while to the general reader its contents are likely to remain to a certain degree problematic and difficult. The last hundred pages of the volume are occupied principally with sonnets, its last division of all proclaiming the double artistic profession of the author by the heading “Sonnets for Pictures, and other Sonnets.” Of these some are suggested by pictorial works either of the author’s own or of others; some are miscellaneous studies in the old Italian, Elizabethan English, or even Wordsworthian keys of sentiment, and among them there are a few of admirable beauty. But where Mr. Rossetti most powerfully asserts his mastery in this difficult branch of poetry is in the last division but one of his book, called “Sonnets and Songs towards a work to be called the House of Life.” Here we have fifty sonnets and a dozen other lyrics of the most highly finished and impassioned kind, dealing in the main with a special class of feelings under the forms of a special imagery; dealing with the great emotions of life as influenced by its great fatalities—love in all phases (not ignoring the physical phase), love triumphant or baffled, cut asunder by circumstance or cut short by death; dealing with these under the forms of a concrete pictorial imagery, a machinery, so to speak, of semi-mystical personification, by which human semblance is given, not only to Love, to Life, to Death, but to a hundred lesser powers, to this or that passion or desire or regret, to this or that hour of joy or woe, to yesterday, to-day, and to-morrow, to a man’s former self whom he may meet by the way, to a thousand fugitive inventions and abstractions. The air is thus peopled with winged and bodied spirits. That an imagery, or, as we have called it, a machinery, of this kind might easily be used amiss by a frigid or mechanical writer is manifest. But here it is obviously the creation of real and vivid habits of thought; it is kindled with the colours of an ardent pictorial imagination, and the sonnets and songs thus conceived march or rush with the heat of an authentic and contagious emotion; it is a poetry aflame with feeling and aglow with beauty, that wants to be read and re-read until its full meaning comes out. The peculiar combination of exquisiteness with pregnancy which is the note of Mr. Rossetti’s poetical diction enables him to put a great deal into a small space; and when one of these majestic and melodious sonnets seems obscure, as it will seem at first, the reader will almost always find, if he perseveres, that this is the obscurity not of emptiness or confusion, but of closeness and concentration. For instance, let him read the following pair of sonnets called “Newborn Death,” until he is in possession of their full meaning, and then see what ripe and solid thought, as well as what a depth of human pathos and what a splendour of pictorial personification, they contain:—
To-day Death seems to me an infant child
Which her worn mother Life upon my knee
Has set to grow my friend and play with me;
If haply so my heart might be beguiled
To find no terrors in a face so mild,—
If haply so my weary heart might be
Unto the newborn milky eyes of thee,
O Death, before resentment reconciled.
How long, O Death? And shall thy feet depart
Still a young child’s with mine, or wilt thou stand
Fullgrown the helpful daughter of my heart,
What time with thee indeed I reach the strand
Of the pale wave which knows thee what thou art,
And drink it in the hollow of thy hand?
And thou, O Life, the lady of all bliss,
With whom, when our first heart beat full and fast,
I wandered till the haunts of men were pass’d,
And in fair places found all bowers amiss
Till only woods and waves might hear our kiss,
While to the winds all thought of Death we cast:—
Ah, Life! and must I have from thee at last
No smile to greet me and no babe but this?
Lo! Love, the child once ours; and Song, whose hair
Blew like a flame and blossomed like a wreath;
And Art, whose eyes were worlds by God found fair—
These o’er the book of Nature mixed their breath
With neck-twined arms, as oft we watched them there:
And did these die that thou mightst bear me Death?
Here is a sonnet from the same section embodying, surely with an exquisite sentiment, the old desire for a perpetuation of love hereafter:—
When vain desire at last and vain regret
Go hand in hand to death, and all is vain,
What shall assuage the unforgotten pain
And teach the unforgetful to forget?
Shall Peace be still a sunk stream long unmet—
Or may the soul at once in a green plain
Stoop through the spray of some sweet life-fountain
And cull the dew-drenched flowering amulet?
Ah! when the wan soul in that golden air
Between the scriptured petals softly blown
Peers breathless for the gift of grace unknown,
Let no such joys as other souls count fair
But only the one Hope’s one name be there,—
Not less nor more, but even that word alone.
And here another, rebelling against the fatality of “parted love” with a fire and stateliness of language surely unsurpassed:—
What shall be said of this embattled day
And armed occupation of this night
By all thy foes beleaguered,—now when sight
Nor sound denotes the loved one far away?
Of these thy vanquished hours what shalt thou say,
As every sense to which she dealt delight
Now labours lonely o’er the stark noon-height
To reach the sunset’s desolate disarray?
Stand still, fond fettered wretch! while Memory’s art
Parades the Past before thy face, and lures
Thy spirit to her passionate portraitures:
Till the tempestuous tide-gates flung apart
Flood with wild will the hollows of thy heart,
And thy heart rends thee, and thy body endures.
We should have been glad to quote one or other of the songs that are associated with these sonnets, but we have already exceeded our limit both in citation and criticism; and must here take leave of a volume concerning which judgments may differ, but which for our own part we have no shadow of hesitation in placing in the front rank of contemporary poetry.
* “Poems.” By Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (London: F. Ellis. 1870.)
The Athenæum (30 April, 1870 - No. 2218, p. 573-574)
[Note: Reviewed by John Westland Marston.]
Poems. By Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (Ellis.)
TO the public in general this volume will announce a new poet. To a small, but influential circle of thinkers its publication will be only the formal evidence of powers and accomplishments long since recognized. There may have been a question in some cases as to the soundness of the theories which contributed to the rise of Pre-Raphaelitism in Art, and which recently exercised a real but more modified influence upon poetry; but few will deny that the mind from which these results sprang was in the highest sense an original one, or that its utterances were entitled to marked consideration. So much the more, because the tendency of the theories alluded to was to throw back the disciple upon his own individuality —to make him shun the mere conventions of beauty, to teach him to express nothing that he had not seen with his own eyes or felt in his own soul, and to shrink from expressing nothing that he had so felt and seen. It is the peculiarity of such a school that the pupil must be as original as the master.
But, whatever the value of Mr. Rossetti’s influence on painting, there can be little doubt that his views have been often misapprehended, and that his sanction has been claimed for works noticeable only for their extreme and eccentric realism. Let us at once say, therefore, that there is nothing in the poems before us to denote sectarianism in Art or to provoke antagonism from any class of true critics in poetry. Mr. Rossetti’s genius, which delights to track emotion and thought to their furthest retreats, and to grasp their most delicate and evanescent traits, leads him occasionally into the vague and obscure; but his cxcellencies— uncramped by the hard limitations of theory— have their rise in those universal sources from which alone great poetry is derived. His book evinces imagination, passion, vivid reality of picture, and, as may be inferred from what we have said, special subtlety in seizing the half- elusive suggestions of thought and feeling; but it has nothing which proclaims the apostle of any one-sided and therefore temporary creed.
From those poems in which the author reveals his power in passion and in poetic realism, we may single out ‘Jenny,’ ‘Sister Helen,’ and ‘A Last Confession.’ The theme of the first—an analysis of the life and feelings of a courtesan—will doubtless be excepted to in some quarters. It is obvious from this and other poems that Mr. Rossetti holds the lawful province of Art to be almost unlimited, and believes that everything comes fairly within it that has a real and natural existence, provided it be susceptible of beauty in treatment; we may remark that in some of the Sonnets this view is carried out with such unflinching boldness, that even readers who assent to the principle may feel startled at the illustrations. With respect to ‘Jenny,’ however, those who object to its subject can hardly deny that it has been treated with consummate power and in a spirit essentially moral. Life-like in its minute and graphic details, the effect of the whole painting is to inspire a sad heart-sickness for the fall of womanhood, but a sickness which partakes of compassion. With exquisite art, the poet makes us feel that although the blown rose is in the mire, it was once a bud and had its portion in the sunlight and the dew.
Of ‘Sister Helen,’ which displays the lyrical and dramatic faculties in their fusion, it would be difficult to speak too highly. The story is mediæval: in accordance with the arts of magic accepted at the time, a young girl, who has lost love and honour, slowly burns away the waxen effigy of her betrayer, in the faith that his life will waste and expire with the melting wax. The vengeance of the implacable girl contrasted with the curiosity, deepening into terror, of her boy-brother (who reports to her the prayer for mercy sent by the victim), and the chorus of awe and lamentation which seems to wail round the lattice, as if the wind had been charged with a human cry, compose a picture the tragic elevation of which cannot easily be surpassed. No quotation would do justice to a poem which depends even more upon the indivisible spirit which animates it than upon beauty of form. In such a case the “Ex pede Herculem” dogma would be a fallacy.
From ‘A Last Confession,’ an extract is possible, because the poem includes descriptions which are complete in themselves. A dying man relates to his confessor, in Lombardy, the murder of a girl whom he had idolized, and who had lapsed from his love into a life of shame. The narrative would be perfect both in substance and shape, did we not feel that the verse, though clear and musical, had a certain sameness due especially to the great preponderance of lines ending in monosyllables. The poem in question is the only example given by Mr. Rossetti of blank verse. Judging from a solitary specimen, we should say that he does not exhibit, in blank-verse narrative, all the variety and opulence of rhythm which we find in his rhymed lyrics. In the characterization and passion—in a word, in the psychology of the story—Mr. Rossetti is admirable. Nothing can be truer or more dramatic than the wild excitement in which the lover slays the fallen idol who has taunted him, or his surprise when he sees her dead.
Then came a fire
That burnt my hand; and then the fire was blood,
And sea and sky were blood and fire, and all
The day was one red blindness; till it seemed
Within the whirling brain’s entanglement
That she or I or all things bled to death.
And then I found her lying at my feet
And knew that I had stabbed her, and saw still
The look she gave me when she took the knife
Deep in her heart, even as I bade her then,
And fell, and her stiff bodice scooped the sand
Into her bosom.
And here is the portrait, full of fascination and individuality, of the girl as she appeared to the hapless man in their better days. In these times, when good illustrations are hackneyed and new illustrations are too often strained, such an image as that which we have italicized is a delicious surprise :—
Yes, let me think of her as then; for so
Her image, Father, is not like the sights
Which come when you are gone. She had a mouth
Made to bring death to life,—the underlip
Sucked in, as if it strove to kiss itself.
Her face was ever pale, as when one stoops
Over wan water; and the dark crisped hair
And the hair’s shadow made it paler still :—
Deep-serried locks, the darkness of the cloud
Where the moon’s gaze is set in eddying gloom.
Her body bore her neck as the tree’s stem
Bears the top branch; and as the branch sustains
The flower of the year’s pride, her high neck bore
That face made wonderful with night and day.
Her voice was swift, yet ever the last words
Fell lingeringly; and rounded finger-tips
She had, that clung a little where they touched
And then were gone o’ the instant. Her great eyes,
That sometimes turned half dizzily beneath
The passionate lids, as faint, when she would speak,
Had also in them hidden springs of mirth,
Which under the dark lashes evermore
Shook to her laugh, as when a bird flies low
Between the water and the willow-leaves,
And the shade quivers till he wins the light.
Apart from the Sonnets, we think that of the meditative poems ‘The Portrait’ carries away the palm. Grief in the soft twilight of memory with the halo of faith around its brow, stands before us in such recollections as these:
A deep dim wood; and there she stands
As in that wood that day: for so
Was the still movement of her hands
And such the pure line's gracious flow.
And passing fair the type must seem,
Unknown the presence and the dream.
’Tis she: though of herself, alas!
Less than her shadow on the grass
Or than her image in the stream.
That day we met there, I and she
One with the other all alone;
And we were blithe; yet memory
Saddens those hours, as when the moon
Looks upon daylight. And with her
I stooped to drink the spring-water,
Athirst where other waters sprang;
And where the echo is, she sang,—
My soul another echo there.
But when that hour my soul won strength
For words whose silence wastes and kills,
Dull raindrops smote us, and at length
Thundered the heat within the hills.
That eve I spoke those words again
Beside the pelted window-pane;
And there she hearkened what I said,
With under-glances that surveyed
The empty pastures blind with rain.
* * * *
Here with her face doth memory sit
Meanwhile, and wait the day’s decline,
Till other eyes shall look from it,
Eyes of the spirit’s Palestine,
Even than the old gaze tenderer:
While hopes and aims long lost with her
Stand round her image side by side,
Like tombs of pilgrims that have died
About the Holy Sepulchre.
It is with reluctance that we pass over Mr. Rossetti’s early poem, ‘The Blessed Damozel’—a study remarkable for reality of manner, always in keeping with spiritual beauty of idea; over ‘Eden’s Bower,’ in which the perversion of feminine nature—its love turned into cruel fascination, its sympathy into hatred—is deified; over ‘Stratton Water,’ in which the best characteristics of old ballad poetry are wonderfully reproduced, and over ‘The Burden of Nineveh,’ to be dwelt upon for its striking pictures and its Hamlet-like speculations (touched at times with ironical humour) on the contrast afforded between the remote and the present. We must leave all these and come to the Sonnets, from which, perhaps more than from all else that Mr. Rossetti has given us, poets and poetical readers will hereafter quote. It is true that, owing to Mr. Rossetti’s fondness for seizing phases of emotion as airy and shifting as the tints of sunset, some of them may escape the mind even of the poetical reader, unless he catches at once the writer’s point of view, and follows him rather with the intuition of sympathy than with the mere vision of intellect. Nor in such a sonnet as that entitled ‘He and I,’ do we feel quite sure that Mr. Rossetti has done all that he could for his readers, or that the whole poem might not have been more definite without loss to its delicacy of treatment. Taken as a whole, however, these Sonnets, which chiefly record the experiences of life between the mysteries of Love and Death, form a noble series. We may more especially mention that on the ‘Vita Nuova’ of Dante, not because it is one of the most striking, but because it confirms our view that, if any work has influenced a mind remarkable for its independence, that work is the ‘Vita Nuova.’ Its essential features—the love which is one with religion and the intensity of devotion which a knight, turned devotee, might offer to the Virgin—seem again revealed to us in Mr. Rossetti’s Sonnets. The wealth of illustrative beauty is, however, far greater in the present work. What can be more intense in expression than the love uttered in the following, or the desolation which it conjectures!—
When do I see thee most, beloved one?
When in the light the spirits of mine eyes
Before thy face, their altar, solemnize
The worship of that Love through thee made known?
Or when in the dusk hours, (we two alone,)
Close-kissed and eloquent of still replies
Thy twilight-hidden glimmering visage lies,
And my soul only sees thy soul its own?
O love, my love! if I no more should see
Thyself, nor on the earth the shadow of thee,
Nor image of thine eyes in any spring,—
How then should sound upon Life’s darkening slope
The ground-whirl of the perished leaves of Hope,
The wind of Death’s imperishable wing?
Here, as an exception, is a simple landscape:—
THE HILL SUMMIT.
This feast-day of the sun, his altar there
In the broad west has blazed for vesper-song;
And I have loitered in the vale too long
And gaze now a belated worshipper.
Yet may I not forget that I was ’ware,
So journeying, of his face at intervals
Transfigured where the fringed horizon falls,—
A fiery bush with coruscating hair.
And now that I have climbed and won this height,
I must tread downward through the sloping shade
And travel the bewildered tracks till night.
Yet for this hour I still may here be stayed
And see the gold air and the silver fade
And the last bird fly into the last light.
The reader must take these examples as pledges that throughout the series he will meet with beauty as rare and suggestion as fine as we have instanced. We would direct him specially to a song, entitled ‘The Woodspurge,’ which intervenes between the Sonnets. We have no further space for comment or quotation; but we shall have written to little purpose if there be any poem in the volume to which our readers will not eagerly resort.
The Fortnightly Review (1 May, 1870 - p.551-579)
THE POEMS OF DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI.
WHEN fate has allowed to any man more than one great gift, accident or necessity seems usually to contrive that one shall encumber and impede the other. It has been thought, rightly or wrongly, that even the work done by such supreme men as Michel Angelo and Leonardo was impaired on this hand or on that by the various and eager impatience of genius which impelled them alternately along diverging lines of life and labour. Be that as it may, there is no room to doubt that such a double-natured genius as was theirs lies open to a double kind of attack from the rancorous tribe of weaklings and dullards. The haters of either light or of any may say that there cannot be sunlight and moonlight in the same sky; that a double-gifted nature must be powerless to beget as to bear, sterile by excess of organs as by defect, “like that sweet marble monster of both sexes” beloved of Shelley as of Gautier: that the time and ardour of spirit and of hand spent on this way of work must be so much lost to that other way; that on neither course can the runner of a double race attain the goal, but must needs in both races alike be caught up and resign his torch to a runner with a single aim. Candid envy and judicious ignorance will mutually concede something; the one, that he might have won the foot-race had he let the horse- race be; the other, that he might have ridden in first had he never tried his luck afoot. That assurance refreshes with the restorative of a false consolation the runners who fell impotent at starting or dropped lame at the turning-point. Hateful as the winner of a single prize must be to them, how can they bear—if shutting their eyes will save them the sight—to behold the coronation of the conqueror in all five heats? Nevertheless they have now and then to bear it as they may: though some take side with them who should know better, having won each a single crown in his own field, and being loth to admit that in that field at least they can be distanced by the best man in another.
In every generation that takes any heed of the art, the phrase of “greatest living poet,” or (with a difference of reservation) “first of his age and country,” is flung about freely and foolishly enough: but if more than mere caprice—be it caprice of culture or caprice of ignorance—is to go to the making up of the definition, we must decide what qualities are of first necessity for the best poet, and proceed to try how far the claimant can be surely said to possess them. Variety is a rare and high quality, but poets of the first order have had little or none of it; witness Keats and Coleridge; men otherwise 552 greater than these have had much, and yet have fallen far short of the final place among poets held by these; witness Byron and Scott. But in all great poets there must be an ardent harmony, a heat of spiritual life, guiding without constraining the bodily grace of motion, which shall give charm and power to their least work; sweetness that cannot be weak and force that will not be rough. There must be an instinct and a resolution of excellence which will allow no shortcoming or malformation of thought or word: there must also be so natural a sense of right as to make any such deformity or defect impossible, and leave upon the work done no trace of any effort to avoid or to achieve. It must be serious, simple, perfect; and it must be thus by evident and native impulse. The mark of painstaking as surely lowers the level of style as any sign of negligence; in the best work there must be no trace of a laborious or a languid hand.
In all these points the style of Mr. Rossetti excels that of any English poet of our day. It has the fullest fervour and fluency of impulse, and the impulse is always towards harmony and perfection. It has the inimitable note of instinct, and the instinct is always high and right. It carries weight enough to overbear the style of a weaker man, but no weight of thought can break it, no subtlety of emotion attenuate, no ardour of passion deface. It can breathe unvexed in the finest air and pass unsinged through the keenest fire; it has all the grace of perfect force and all the force of perfect grace. It is sinuous as water or as light; flexible and penetrative, delicate and rapid; it works on its way without halt or jar or collapse. And in plain strength and weight of sense and sound these faultless verses exceed those of faultier workmen who cover their effects by their defects; who attain at times and by fits to some memorable impression of thought upon speech, and speech upon memory, at the cost generally of inharmonious and insufficient work. No such coarse or cheap stuff is here used as a ground to set off the rich surprises of casual ornament and intermittent embroidery. The woof of each poem is perfect, and the flowers that flash out from it seem not so much interwoven with the thread of it or set in the soil, as grown and sprung by mere nature from the ground, under the inevitable rains and sunbeams of the atmosphere which bred them.
It is said sometimes that a man may have a strong and perfect style who has nothing to convey worth conveyance under cover of it. This is indeed a favourite saying of men who have no words in which to convey the thoughts which they have not; of men born dumb, who express by grunts and chokes the inexpressible eloquence which is not in them, and would fain seem to labour in miscarriage of ideas which they have never conceived. But it remains for them to prove as well as assert that beauty and power of expression can accord with emptiness or sterility of matter, or that impotence of 553 articulation must imply depth and wealth of thought. This flattering unction the very foolishest of malignants will hardly in this case be able to lay upon the corrosive sore which he calls his soul: the ulcer of ill-will must rot unrelieved by the rancid ointment of such fiction. Hardly could a fool here or a knave there fail to see or hope to deny the fullness of living thought and subtle strength of nature underlying this veil of radiant and harmonious words.
It is on the other side that attack might be looked for from the more ingenious enemies of good work: and of these there was never any lack. Much of Mr. Rossetti’s work is so intense in aim, so delicate and deep in significance, so exuberant in offshoot and undergrowth of sentiment and thought, that even the sweet lucidity and steady current of his style may not suffice to save it from the charges of darkness and difficulty. He is too great a master of speech to incur the blame of hard or tortuous expression; and his thought is too sound and pure to be otherwise dark than as a deep well- spring at noon may be, even where the sun is strongest and the water brightest. In its furthest depth there is nothing of weed or of mud; whatever of haze may seem to quiver there is a weft of the sun’s spinning, a web not of woven darkness but of molten light. But such work as this can be neither unwoven nor recast by any process of analysis. The infinite depth and wealth of life which breathes and plays among these songs and sonnets cannot be parcelled and portioned out for praise or comment. This “House of Life” has in it so many mansions, so many halls of state and bowers of music,chapels for worship and chambers for festival, that no guest can declare on a first entrance the secret of its scheme. Spirit and sense together, eyesight and hearing and thought, are absorbed in splendour of sounds and glory of colours distinguishable only by delight. But the scheme is solid and harmonious; there is no waste in this luxury of genius: the whole is lovelier than its loveliest part. Again and again may one turn the leaves in search of some one poem or some two which may be chosen for sample and thanksgiving; but there is no choice to be made. Sonnet is poured upon sonnet, and song hands on the torch to song; and each in turn (as another poet has said of the lark’s note falling from the height of dawn)
“Rings like a golden jewel down a golden stair.”
There are no poems of the class in English—I doubt if there be any even in Dante’s Italian—so rich at once and pure. Their golden affluence of images and jewel-coloured words never once disguises the firm outline, the justice and chastity of form. No nakedness couldbe more harmonious, more consummate in its fleshly sculpture, than the imperial array and ornament of this august poetry. Mailed in gold as of the morning and girdled with gems of strange water, the 554 beautiful body as of a carven goddess gleams through them tangible and taintless, without spot or default. There is not a jewel here but it fits, not a beauty but it subserves an end. There seems no story in this sequence of sonnets, yet they hold in them all the action and passion of a spiritual history with tragic stages and elegiac pauses and lyric motions of the living soul. Their earnest subtleties and exquisite ardours recall to mind the sonnets of Shakespeare; poems in their way unapproachable, and here in no wise imitated. Shakespeare’s have at times a far more passionate and instant force, a sharper note of delight or agony or mystery, fear or desire or remorse—a keener truth and more pungent simpleness of sudden phrase, with touches of sound and flashes of light beyond all reach; Mr. Rossetti’shave a nobler fullness of form, a more stately and shapely beauty of build: they are of a purer and less turbid water than the others are at times, and not less fervent when more serene than they; the subject-matter of them is sweet throughout, natural always and clear, however intense and fine in remote and delicate intricacy of spiritual stuff. There is nothing here which may not be felt by any student who can grasp the subtle sense of it in full, as a just thing and admirable, fit for the fellowship of men’s feelings; if men, indeed, have in them enough of noble fervour and loving delicacy, enough of truth and warmth in the blood and breath of their souls, enough of brain and heart for such fellow-feeling. For something of these they must have to bring with them who would follow the radiant track of this verse through brakes of flowers and solitudes of sunlight, past fountains hidden under green bloom of leaves, beneath roof-work of moving boughs where song and silence are one music. All passion and regret and strenuous hope and fiery contemplation, all beauty and glory of thought and vision, are built into this golden house where the life that reigns is love; the very face of sorrow is not cold or withered, but has the breath of heaven between its fresh live lipsand the light of pure sweet blood in its cheeks; there is a glow of summer on the red leaves of its regrets and the starry frost-flakes of its tears. Resignation and fruition, forethought and afterthought, have one voice to sing with in many keys of spirit. A more bitter sweetness of sincerity was never pressed into verse than beats and burns here under the veil and girdle of glorious words; there are no poems anywhere of more passionate meditation or vision more intense than those on “Lost Days,” “Vain Virtues,” “The Sun’s Shame;” none of more godlike grace and sovereign charm than those headed “Newborn Death,” “A Superscription,” “A Dark Day,” “Known in Vain,” “The One Hope;” and of all splendid and profound love-poetry, what is there more luminous or more deep in sense and spirit than the marvellous opening cycle of twenty-six sonnets, which embrace and express all sorrow and all joy of passion in union, of outer love and inner, triumphant or dejected or piteous or at peace? 555 No one, till he has read these, knows all of majesty and melody, all of energy and emotion, all of supple and significant loveliness, all of tender cunning and exquisite strength, which our language can show at need in proof of its powers and uses. The birth of love, his eucharistic presence, his supreme vision, his utter union in flesh and spirit, the secret of the sanctuary of his heart, his louder music and his lower, his graver and his lighter seasons; all work of love and all play, all dreams and devices of his memory and his belief, all fuller and emptier hours from the first which longs for him to the last which loses, all change of lights from his mid-day to his moonrise, all his foreknowledge of evil things and good, all glad and sad hours of his night- watches, all the fear and ardour which feels and fights against the advent of his difference and dawn of his division, all agonies and consolations that embitter and allay the wounds of his mortal hour; the pains of breach and death, the songs and visions of the wilderness of his penance, the wood of desolation made beautiful and bitter by the same remembrance, haunted by shadows of the same hours for sorrow and for solace, and, beyond all, the light of the unaccomplished hour which missed its chance in one life to meet it in another, where the sundered spirits revive into reunion; all these things are here done into words and sung into hearing of men as they never were till now. With a most noble and tender power all forms and colours of the world without are touched and drawn into service of the spirit; and this with no ingenious abuse of imagery or misuse of figures, but with such gracious force of imagination that they seem to offer voluntary service. What interlude more radiant than that of the “Portrait,” more gracious and joyous than the “Love-Letter,” more tender than the remembered “Birth-Bond,” more fervent than the memorial “Day of Love,” more delicate than the significance of “Love’s Baubles,” more deep and full than the bitter-sweet “Life-in-Love,” more soft in spiritual shade of changeful colour than “The Love-Moon,” more subtly solemn in tragic and triumphant foresight than “The Morrow’s Message,” more ardent with finer fires and more tremulous with keener senses than the sonnets of parting, than “Broken Music,” or “Death-in-Love,” ever varied the high delight of verse, the sublime sustention of choral poetry through the length of an imperial work? In the sonnet called “Love-Sweetness” there is the very honey of pure passion, the expression and essence of its highest thought and wisdom; and in that called “He and I,” the whole pain and mystery of growing change. Even Shelley never expressed the inmost sense and mighty heart of music as this poet has done in “The Monochord.” There are no lyrics in our lyrical English tongue of sweeter power than the least of these which follow the sonnets. The “Song of the Bower” is sublime by sheer force of mere beauty; the sonorous fluctuation of its measure, 556 a full tide under a full moon, of passion lit and led by memory to and fro beneath fiery and showery skies of past and future, has such depth and weight in its moving music that the echo of it is as a seashell in the mind’s ear for ever. Observe the glorious change of note from the delicate colour of the second stanza to the passionate colour of the third; the passage from soft bright symbols to the actual fire of vision and burning remembrance; from the shelter of soul under soul and mirror of tears wherein heart sees heart, to the grasp and glow of
“Large lovely arms and a neck like a tower”
growing incarnate upon the sight of memory: and again to the deep dim witness and warning, the foresight and regret which lighten and darken the ways of coming life. This is perhaps, for style at once ample and simple, the noblest song of all; yet it is but one of many noble. Among these others I find none which clings by itself so long and close to the mind as one outside their circle—the song of the sea-beach, called “Even So;” it dies out with a suppressed sigh like the last breath or heartbeat of a yearning weak-winged wind. “A Little While” is heavy with all the honey of foretasted sorrow, sweeter in its aftertaste than the joy resigned, with a murmur beyond music in its speech. The perfect pity of the two last lines has the touch on it of plain truth and patience;
“I’ll tell thee when the end is come
How we may best forget.”
In “Plighted Promise” and “Love-Lily” the white flame of delight breathes and trembles in a subtler air, with a sure and faultless charm of motion. I like the first stanza of “Sudden Light” better than the second and third, admirably as they are fashioned and set to the music of the thought: they have less seeming effusion of an insuppressible sense; and the touches of colour and odour and sound in it are almost too fine in their harmony to be matched with any later. There is not a more delicate note of magic nature in these poems. The tremulous ardour of “Penumbra” is another witness to the artist’s mastery of hand; the finest nerves of life are finely touched; the quiver and ache of soul and senses to which all things are kindled and discoloured by half morbid lights of emotion give a burning pulse of melody to the verses. The same fear or doubt which here is attired in fancies of feverish beauty finds gentler utterance, again outside this circle, in “A New Year’s Burden;” the tone and colour have always a fresh and sure harmony. Four poems in a different key from such songs are “The Sea-Limits,” “A Young Fir-Wood,” “The Honeysuckle,” “The Woodspurge;” not songs, but studies of spirit and thought, concrete and perfect. The first of these has the solemn weight and depth in it of living water, and a sound like the speech of 557 the sea when the wind is silent. The very note of that world-old harmony is caught and cast into words.
“Consider the sea’s listless chime:
Time’s self it is, made audible:
The murmur of the earth’s own shell.”
This little verse also has the
“Secret continuance sublime”
which “is the sea’s end;” it too is a living thing with an echo beyond reach of the sense, its chord of sound one part of the multiform unity of mutual inclusion in which all things rest and mix; like the sigh of the shaken shell, it utters “the same desire and mystery” as earth through its woods, and water through its waves, and man through his multitudes: it too has in it a breath of the life immeasurable and imperishable. The other three of these studies have something of the same air and flavour: their keen truthfulness and subtle sincerity touch the same springs and kindle the same pulses of thought. The passionate accuracy of sense half blunted and half whetted by obsession and possession of pain is given in “The Woodspurge” with a bitterly beautiful exactitude.
In all the glorious poem built up of all these poems there is no great quality more notable than the sweet and sovereign unity of perfect spirit and sense, of fleshly form and intellectual fire. This Muse is as the woman praised in the divine words of the poet himself,
“Whose speech Truth knows not from her thought,
Nor Love her body from her soul.”
And if not love, how then should judgment? for love and judgment must be one in those who would look into such high and lovely things. No scrutiny can distinguish nor sentence divorce the solid spiritual truth from the bodily beauty of the poem, the very and visible soul from the dazzling veil and vesture of fair limbs and features. There has been no work of the same pitch attempted since Dante sealed up his youth in the sacred leaves of the “Vita Nuova;” and this poem of his namechild and translator is a more various and mature work of kindred genius and spirit.
Other parts of his work done here have upon them the more instant sign of that sponsor and master of his mind; there is a special and delicate savour of personal interest in the sonnet on the “darkness” of Dante, sacred to the fame of a father made again illustrious in his children, which will be cherished with a warm reverence by all heedful students. The poem of “Dante at Verona” stands apart among the rest with a crown on it of the like consecration, as perhaps the loftiest monument of all raised by the devotion of a race of genius for two generations of 558 noble work and love. All incidents and traditions of the great poet’s exile are welded together in fusion of ardent verse to forge a memorial as of carven gold. The pure plain ease and force of narrative style melt now and then into the fire of a sad rapture, a glory of tragedy lighting the whole vision as with a funereal and triumphal torch. Even the words of that letter in which Dante put away from him the base conditions of return—words matchless among all that ever a poet found to speak for himself, except only by those few supreme words in which Milton replied to the mockers of his blindness—even these are worthily recast in the mould of English verse by the might and cunning of this workman’s hand. Witness the original set against his version.
“Non est hæc via redeundi ad patriam, Pater mi; sed si alia per vos aut deinde per alios invenietur, quæ famæ Dantis atque honori non deroget, illam non lentis passibus acceptabo. Quod si per nullam talem Florentia introitur, nunquam Florentiam introibo. Quidni? nonne solis astrorumque specula ubique conspiciam? Nonne dulcissimas veritates potero speculari ubique sub cœlo, ni priùs inglorium, immo ignominiosum, populo Florentinæque civitati me reddam?—Quippe nec panis deficiet.”
So wrote Dante in 1316; now partly rendered into English to this effect:—
“That since no gate led, by God’s will,
To Florence, but the one whereat
The priests and money-changers sat,
He still would wander: for that still,
Even through the body’s prison bars,
His soul possessed the sun and stars.”
These and the majestic lines which follow them as comment have the heart of that letter in them; the letter which we living now cannot read without the sense of a double bitterness and sweetness in its sacred speech, so lamentably and so gloriously applicable to the loftiest heir of Dante’s faith and place; of his faith as patriot, of his place as exile. It seems that the same price is still fixed for them to pay who have to buy with it the inheritance of sun and stars and the sweetest truths, and all generations of time, and the love and thanks and passionate remembrance of all faithful men for ever.
This poem is sustained throughout at the fit height with the due dignity; nothing feeble or jarring disturbs its equality of exultation. The few verses of bitter ardour which brand as a prostitute the commonweal which has become a common wrong—the common goddess deformed into a common harlot—show a force of indignant imagination worthy of a great poetic satirist, of Byron and Hugo in their worst wrath. The brief pictures of the courtly life atVerona between women and rhymesters, jester and priests, have a living outline and colour; and the last words have the weight in them of time’s own sentence:— 559
“Eat and wash hands, Can Grande; scarce
We know their names now; hands which fed
Our Dante with that bitter bread,
And thou the watch-dog of those stairs
Which, of all paths his feet knew well,
Were steeper found than heaven or hell.”
No words could more fitly wind up the perfect weft of the poem in which throughout the golden thread of Dante’s own thought, the hidden light of his solitude at intervals between court-play and justice-work, gleams now and again at each turn of the warp till we feel as though a new remnant of that great spirit’s leaving had been vouchsafed us.
Another poem bearing the national mark upon it may be properly named with this, the “Last Confession.” Its tragic hold of truth and grasp of passion make it worthy to bear witness to the writer’s inheritance of patriotic blood and spirit. Its literal dramatic power of detail and composition is a distinctive test of his various wealth and energy of genius. This great gift of positive reality, here above all things requisite, was less requisite elsewhere, and could not have been shown to exist by any proof derivable from his other poems; though to any student of his designs and pictures the admirable union of this inventive fidelity to whatever of fact is serviceable to the truth of art, with the infinite affluence and gracious abundance of imagination, must be familiar enough; the subtle simplicity of perception which keeps sight always of ideal likelihood and poetical reason is as evident in his most lyrical and fanciful paintings as in Giorgione’s or Carpaccio’s. Without the high instinct and fine culture of this quality such a poem as we now have in sight could not have been attempted. The plain heroism of noble naked nature and coherent life is manifest from the first delicate detail to the last. The simple agony of memory inflames every line with native colour. A boyish patriot in hiding from the government finds a child forsaken in time of famine by her parents, saves and supports her sets his heart towards hers more and more with the growth of years, to find at last the taint upon her of a dawning shame, of indifference and impurity—the hard laugh of a harlot on her lips, and in her bearing the dull contempt of a harlot for love and memory. Stabbed and stung through by this sudden show of the snake’s fang as it turns upon the hand which cherished it, he slays her; and even in his hour of martyrdom, dying of wounds taken in a last fight for Italy, is haunted by the lovely face and unlovely laugh of the girl he had put out of reach of shame. But the tender truth and grace, the living heat and movement of the tragedy through every detail, the noble choice and use of incident, make out of this plain story a poem beyond price. Upon each line of drawing there has been laid the strong and loving hand of a great artist, and specially a supreme 560 painter of fair women. In the study of the growing girl the glories of sculpture and painting are melted into one, and every touch does divine service;
Sucked in as if it strove to kiss itself;”
the pale face “as when one stoops over wan water;” the “deep-serried locks,” the rounded clinging finger-tips, and great eyes faint with passion or quivering with hidden springs of mirth,
“As when a bird flies low
Between the water and the willow-leaves,
And the shade quivers till he wins the light.”
In what poet’s work shall we find a touch of more heavenly beauty, and nobler union of truth and charm? and in what painter’s a statelier and sweeter mastery of nature than here?
“Her body bore her neck as the tree’s stem
Bears the top branch: and as the branch sustains
The flower of the year’s pride, her high neck bore
Her face made wonderful with night and day.”
The purest pathos of all is in the little episode of the broken figure of Love, given to the child by her preserver, and the wound of its dart on her hand; nothing in conception or in application could be tenderer or truer; nothing more glorious in its horror than the fancy of heaven changing at its height before the very face of a spirit in paradise, with no reflection of him left on it:
“Like a pool that once gave back
Your image, but now drowns it, and is clear
Again; or like a sun bewitched, that burns
Your shadow from you, and still shines in sight.”
Admirable as it is throughout for natural and moral colour, the poem is completed and crowned for eternity by the song set on the front of it as a wreath on a bride’s hair, of which I can hardly say whether the Italian or the English form be the more divine. The miraculous faculty of transfusion which enables the cupbearer to pour this wine of verse from the golden into the silver cup without spilling was never before given to man. All Mr. Rossetti’s translations bear the same evidence of a power not merely beyond reach but beyond attempt of other artists in language. Wonderful as is the proof of it shown by his versions of Dante and his fellows, of Villon’s and other ballad-songs of old France, the capacity of recasting in English an Italian poem of his own seems to me more wonderful; and what a rare and subtle piece of work has been done here, they only can appreciate who have tried carefully and failed utterly to refashion in one language a song thrown off in another. This is the kind of test which stamps the supremacy of an artist, 561 answering in poetry to the subtlest successes of the same hand in painting. Whether or not there be now living a master in colours who can match the peculiar triumphs of its touch, there is assuredly no master in words. The melodies of these in their Italian form can never die out of the ear and heart they have once pierced with their keen and sovereign sweetness. This song would suffice to redeem the whole story from the province of pain, even though the poet had not left upon us the natural charm of that hope which comes in with death, that the woman grown hard and bad was indeed no less a lie, an error, a spectral show, than the laughing ghost of her forged by bodily pain and recollection.
By this poem we may set for contrast, in witness of the artist’s clear wide scope of work and power, the “Burden of Nineveh;” a study of pure thought and high meditation, perhaps for sovereignty of language and strong grasp of spirit the greatest of his poems. The contemplation that brings forth such fruit should be a cherub indeed, having wings and eyes as an eagle’s. The solemn and splendid metre, if I mistake not, is a new instrument of music for English hands. In those of its fashioner it makes harmonies majestic as any note of the heights or depths of natural sound. No highest verse can excel the mighty flow and chiming force of its continuous modulation, bearing on foamless waves of profound song its flock of winged thoughts and embodied visions. We hear in it as it were for once the sound of time’s soundless feet, feel for once the beat of his unfelt wings in their passage through unknown places, and centuries without form and void. Echoes and gleams come with it from “the dark backward and abysm” of dateless days; a sighing sound from the graves of gods, a wind through the doors of death which opened on the early world. The surviving shadow of the Bull-God is as the shadow of death on past and passing ages, visible and recognisable by the afterlight of thought. Of the harmonious might and majesty of imagination which sustains the “speculative and active instrument” of song, we might take as separate samples the verses on its old days of worship from kings and queens, of light from lamps of prayer or fires of ruin; on the elder and later gods confused with its confusion, “all relics here together;” on the cities that rose and fell before the city of its worshippers; of their desolation and its own in the days of Christ. The stanza on the vision of the temptation has a glory on it as of Milton’s work:—
“The day when he, Pride’s lord and man’s,
Shewed all earth’s kingdoms at a glance
To Him before whose countenance
The years recede, the years advance,
And said, ‘Fall down and worship me:’—
’Mid all the pomp beneath his look
Then stirred there, haply, some rebuke 562
Where to the wind the salt pools shook,
And in those tracts, of life forsook,
That know thee not, O Nineveh!”
And what more august and strenuous passion of thought was ever clothed in purple of more imperial speech than consummates and concludes the poem? as, dreaming of a chance by which in the far future this God, found again a relic in a long-ruined city, might be taken for the God of its inhabitants, the thinker comes to find in it indeed “the God of this world” and no dead idol, but a living deity and very present strength; having wings, but not to fly with; and eyes, but not to look up with; bearing a written witness and a message engraved of which he knows not, and cannot read it; crowned, but not for honour; brow-bound with a royal sign, of oppression only and contraction; firm of foot, but resting the weight of its trust onclay:—
“O Nineveh, was this thy God,
Thine also, mighty Nineveh?”
A certain section of Mr. Rossetti’s work as poet and as painter may be classed under the head of sacred art: and this section comprises much of his most exquisite and especial work. Its religious quality is singular and personal in kind; we cannot properly bracket it with any other workman’s. The fire of feeling and imagination which feeds it is essentially Christian, and is therefore formally and spiritually Catholic. It has nothing of rebellious Protestant personality, nothing of the popular compromise of sentiment which, in the hybrid jargon of a school of hybrids, we may call liberalized Christianism. The influence which plainly has passed over the writer’s mind, attracting it as by charm of sound or vision, by spell of colour or of dream, towards the Christian forms and images, is in the main an influence from the mythologic side of the creed. It is from the sandbanks of tradition and poetry that the sacred sirens have sung to this seafarer. This divides him at once from the passionate evangelists of positive belief and from the artists upon whom no such influence has fallen in any comparable degree. There are two living and leading writers of high and diverse genius whom any student of their work—utterly apart as their ways of work lie—may and must, without prejudice or presumption, assume to hold fast, with a force of personal passion, the radical tenet of Christian faith. It is as difficult for a reasonable reader to doubt the actual and positive adherence to Christian doctrine of the Protestant thinker as of the Catholic priest; to doubt that faith in Christ as God—a tough, hard, vital faith which can bear at need hard stress of weather and hard thought—dictated “A Death in the Desert” or “Christmas Eve and Easter Day,” as to doubt that it dictated the “Apologia” or “Dream of Gerontius:” though neither in the personal creed set forth by Mr. Browning, nor in the clerical 563 creed delivered by Dr. Newman, do we find apparent or flagrant—however they may lurk, tacit and latent, in the last logical expression of either man’s theories—the viler forms and more hideous outcomes of Christianity, its more brutal aspects and deadlier consequences; a happy default due rather to nobility of instinct than to ingenuity of evasion. Now the sacred art of Mr. Rossetti, for all its Christian colouring, has actually no more in common with the spirit of either than it has with the semi-Christianity of “In Memoriam” or the demi-semi-Christianity of “Dipsychus.” It has no trace, on the other hand, of the fretful and fruitless prurience of soul which would fain grasp and embrace and enjoy a creed beyond its power of possession; no letch after Gods dead or unborn, such as vexes the weaker nerves of barren brains, and makes pathetic the vocal lips of sorrowing scepticism and “doubt that deserves to believe.” As little can it be likened to another form of bastard belief, another crossbreed between faith and unfaith, which has been fostered in ages of doubt; a ghost raised rather by fear than love; by fear of a dead God as judge, than by love of a dead God as comforter. The hankering and restless habit of half fearful retrospect towards the unburied corpses of old creeds which, as we need not Shelley’s evidence to know, infected the spiritual life and disturbed the intellectual force of Byron, is a mirage without attraction for this traveller; that spiritual calenture of Christianity is a sickness unknown to his soul; nor has he ever suffered from the distemper of minds fretted and worried by gnatstings and fleabites of belief and unbelief till the whole lifeblood of the intellect is enfeebled and inflamed. In a later poet, whose name as yet is far enough from inscription on the canonical roll of converts, there was some trace of a seeming recrudescence of faith not unlike yet not like Byron’s. The intermittent Christian reaction apparently perceptible in Baudelaire was more than half of it mere repulsion from the philanthropic optimism of sciolists in whose eyes the whole aim or mission of things is to make the human spirit finally comfortable. Contempt of such facile free-thinking, still more easy than free, took in him at times the form of apparent reversion to cast creeds; as though the spirit should seek a fiery refuge in the good old hell of the faithful from the watery newparadise of liberal theosophy and ultimate amiability of all things.1 Alone among the higher artists of his age, Mr. Rossetti has felt and given the mere physical charm of Christianity, with no admixture of doctrine or of doubt. Here as in other things he belongs,
(1) It is remarkable that Baudelaire always kept in mind that Christianity, like other religions which have a broad principle of popular life in them, was not and could not be a creature of philanthropy or philotheism, but of church and creed; and this gives its peculiar savour and significance to the Christian infusion in some of his poems; for such recollection is too rare in an age and country where semi-Christian sentiment runs loose and babbles aloud.
564 if to any school at all, to that of the great Venetians. He takes the matter in hand with the thorough comprehension of Tintoretto or Veronese, with their thorough subjection of creed and history to the primary purpose of art and proper bearing of a picture. He works after the manner of Titian painting his Assumption with an equal hand whether the girl exalted into goddess be Mary or Ariadne: but his instinct is too masterly for any confusion or discord of colours; and hence comes the spiritual charm, and satisfaction of his sacred art. In this class of his poems the first place and the fairest palm belong to the “Blessed Damozel.” This paradisal poem, “sweeter than honey or the honeycomb,” has found a somewhat further echo than any of its early fellows, and is perhaps known where little else is known of its author’s. The sweet intense impression of it must rest for life upon all spirits that ever once received it into their depths, and hold it yet as a thing too dear and fair for praise or price. Itself the flower of a splendid youth, it has the special charm for youth of fresh first work and opening love; “the dew of its birth is of the womb of the morning;” it has the odour and colour of cloudless air, the splendour of an hour without spot. The divine admixtures of earth which humanize its heavenly passion have the flavour and bloom upon them of a maiden beauty, the fine force of a pure first sunrise. No poem shows more plainly the strength and wealth of the workman’s lavish yet studious hand. One sample in witness of this wealth, and in evidence of the power of choice and persistent search after perfection which enhance its price, may be cited; though no petal should be plucked out of this mystic rose for proof of its fragrance. The two final lines of the stanza describing the secret shrine of God have been reformed; and the form first given to the world is too fair to be wholly forgotten:—
“Whose lamps tremble continually
With prayer sent up to God,
And where each need, revealed, expects
Its patient period.”
Wonderful though the beauty may be of the new imagination, that the spirits standing there at length will see their “old prayers, granted, melt each like a little cloud,” there is so sweet a force in the cancelled phrase that some students might grudge the loss, and feel that, though a diamond may have supplanted it, a ruby has been plucked out of the golden ring. Nevertheless, the complete circlet shines now with a more solid and flawless excellence of jewels and of setting. The sweetness and pathos and gracious radiance of the poem have been praised by those who have not known or noted all the noble care spent on it in rejection and re-arrangement of whatever was crude or lax in the first cast; but the breadth and sublimity which ennoble its brightness and beauty of fancies are yet worthier 565 of note than these. What higher imagination can be found in modern verse than this?
“From the fixed place of heaven she saw
Time like a pulse shake fierce
Through all the worlds.”
This grandeur of scale and sweep of spirit give greatness of style to poetry, as well as sweetness and brightness. These qualities, together with the charm of fluent force and facile power, are apparent in all Mr. Rossetti’s work; but its height of pitch and width of scope give them weight and price beyond their own.
Another poem, based like this on the Christian sentiment of woman-worship, is worthy of a place next it. In the hymn headed “Ave,” the finest passage is that on the life of the Virgin after the death of Christ; a subject handled by the painter as well as by the poet. Indeed, of the two versions, that in colour is even the lovelier and more memorable to all who may have seen it for gentle glory of treatment—for the divine worn face of the Mother, seen piteously sacred in the light struck by the beloved disciple, as the thick purple twilight steeping the city roofs and the bare hill-side which saw the stations of the cross fills with pale coloured shadows the still small chamber where she sits at work for her Son’s poor. The soft fervour and faultless keeping of the poem give it that final grace of a complete unity of spirit and style which is the seal of sacred art at its highest.
No choicer sample of Mr. Rossetti’s delicate mastery of language—of his exquisite manner of speech, subtle and powerful and pliant to all necessities of thought—can be found than the verses invoking Love as the god of sleep to guide the shadow of the lover who invokes him to the dreams of the woman beloved. The grace of symbol and type in the poem have something of the passionate refinement of Shelley’s. There are many several lines and turns of phrase in this brief space of which any least one would suffice to decide the rank of a poet: and the fine purity of its passion gives just colour enough to the clouds and music enough to the murmurs of the deep dreamland in which it moves.
With this poem we may class one sadder and as sweet, “The Stream’s Secret;” the thread of thought is so fine, yet woven into so full a web of golden fancies and glowing dreams, that few will follow it at first sight; but when once unwound and rewoven by the reader’s study of it, he will see the whole force and beauty of all its many by-way beauties and forces.
The highest form of ballad requires from a poet at once narrative power, lyrical, and dramatic; it must hold in fusion these three faculties at once, or fail of its mark: it must condense the large loose fluency of romantic tale-telling into tight and intense brevity; it 566 must give as in summary the result and extract of events and emotions, without the exhibition of their gradual change and growth which a romance of the older type or the newer must lay open to us in order; it must be swifter of step and sharper of stroke than any form of poetry. The writer of a first-rate tragic ballad must be yet more select in his matter and terse in his treatment of what he selects from the heap of possible incident, than Chaucer in the compilation of his “Knight’s Tale” from the epic romance of Boccaccio, or Morris in the sculpture of his noble master- poem, “The Lovers of Gudrun,” from the unhewn rock of a half-formed history or a half-grown legend. Ballads have been cut out of such poems as these, even as they were carven out of shapeless chronicles. There can be no pause in a ballad, and no excess; nothing that flags, nothing that overflows; there must be no waste of a word or a minute in the course of its rapid and fiery motion. Even in our affluent ballad literature there is no more triumphant sample of the greatness that may be won by a poem on these conditions than we find in the ballad of “Sister Helen.” The tragic music of its measure, the swift yet solemn harmonies of dialogue and burden, hold in extract the very heart of a tragedy, the burning essence distilled from “Hate born of Love, and blind as he.” Higher effect was never wrought out of the old traditions of witchcraft; though the manner of sorcery here treated be one so well known as the form of destroying a man by melting a waxen effigy of him before a continuous flame for the space of three days and nights, after which the dissolution of the fleshly body keeps time to a minute with that of the waxen. A girl forsaken by her high-born lover turns to sorcery for help in her revenge on him; and with the end of the third day come three suppliants, the father and the brothers of the betrayer, to whom he has shown the secret of his wasting agony, if haply they may bring him back, not life, but forgiveness at her hands. Dying herself of anguish with him and with the molten figure of her making, she will remit nothing of her great revenge; body and soul of both shall perish in one fourfold death: and her answers pass, ever more and more bitter and ardent, through the harmless mouthpiece of a child. How the tragic effect is enforced and thrown out into fiery relief by this intervention of the boy-brother it needs no words, where none would be adequate, to say. I account this one of the artist’s very highest reaches of triumphant poetry; he has but once in this book matched it for pathos, and but once for passion: for pathos in “Jenny,” for passion in “Eden Bower.” It is out of all sight or thought of comparison the greatest ballad in modern English; next to it, among the attempts in that way of living Englishmen, I should class Mr. George Meredith’s pathetic and splendid poem of “Margaret’s Bridal-Eve.” 567 There is exquisite grace of colour and sweetness in “The Staff and Scrip,” with passages that search and sound pure depths of sentiment, and with interludes of perfect drawing; witness the sweet short study of the Queen sitting by her loom: but the air of the poem is too remote and refined for any passionate interest.
The landscape of “Stratton Water” is as vivid and thorough as any ballad can show; but some may wish it had been more or less of a compromise in style between old and new: it is now a study after the old manner too close to be no closer. It is not meant for a perfect and absolute piece of work in the old Border fashion, such as were those glorious rescripts, full of the fiery ease which is the life of such poetry, which Surtees of Mainsforth passed off even upon Scott as genuine; and yet it is so far a copy that it seems hardly well to have gone so far and no further. On this ground Mr. Morris has a firmer tread than the great artist by the light of whose genius and kindly guidance he put forth the firstfruits of his work, as I did afterwards. In his first book the ballad of “Welland River,” the Christmas carol in “The Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” and that other, his most beautiful carol, printed with music in a volume of sacred verse, are examples of flawless work in the pure early manner. Any less absolute and decisive revival of mediæval form by inspiration of returning lifeblood and measured breath of life into the exact type and mould of ancient art rouses some sense of failure by excess or default of resemblance. This positive note of the past is not quite caught here, and the note struck is too like it to take its place without discord.
There is a singular force and weight of impression in the “Card Dealer” which give it a distinct and eminent place among these lesser poems. The sharpness of symbol and solidity of incarnation with which the idea is invested bring it so close to us that the mere type itself assumes, as it were, a bodily interest over and above its spirit and significance; and the tragic colour and mystic movement of the poem are fitted to the dim splendour and vague ardour of life in it: whether the dealer be fortune or passion or ambition, pleasure or fame or any desire of man’s, we see her mistress of the game in that world of shadows and echoes which is hers if ours. Without the date appended, we might have guessed that the little cabinet poem called “My Sister’s Sleep” was an early study. It has the freshness and clearness of first youth, with something of the hardness of growing outlines; the bodily form of verse has not yet learnt to melt and flow by instinct into the right way; yet with this slight sharpness and crudity there is a grace of keen sincerity and direct force, which gives proof of no student’s hand, but a workman’s recognisable as born into the guild of masters. The fourth and three following stanzas have a brightness and intensity of truth, a fine and tender 568 vigour of sentiment, admirable at any age; and the last have an instant weight of pathos and clear accuracy of beauty, full of prophecy and promises. In the same short-lived magazine into which the first flowerage of many eminent men’s work was cast with such liberal and fruitful hands, there was another early poem of this their leader’s and best man, which he might as well have gathered into his harvest; a delicate and subtle study of religious passion, with the colour and perfume in it of the choral air of a cathedral, lit with latticed glories of saints, and tremulous with low music of burning prayers; the mystery of sense and ardour of soul in an hour made drunken with the wine of worship were wrought into expression of bright and sensitive words, full of the fiery peace of prayer and sightless vision of faith. This little sacred picture of the Father Hilary should have been here reframed, if only for the fine touches of outer things passing by as a wind upon the fervent spirit in its dream. Besides, it has its place and significance among the author’s studies in the Christian style, near some of these earlier works, so full of his special grace and spiritual charm, which belong to the same period, if not beside the highest of his sacred designs, such as the Passover and Magdalene here as it were engraved and put forth in print among the sonnets for pictures. All these are most noble,and give once more a magnificent proof of his power to bend and mould, to inflame and invigorate, to carve and colour the dead forms of words with a shaping and animating life. Among them all, the most utterly delightful to me is that on Giorgione’s divine and transcendant pastoral in the Louvre: which actually attains to the transfusion of a spirit that seemed incommunicable from one master’s hand even to another’s. In the verse, as on the canvas, there is the breathless breath of overmuch delight, the passion of overrunning pleasure which quivers and aches on the very edge of heavenly tears—“tears of perfect moan” for excess of unfathomable pleasure and burden of inexpressible things only to be borne by Gods in heaven; the sweet and sovereign oppression of absolute beauty and the nakedness of burning life: the supreme pause of soul and sense at the climax of their consummate noon and high tide of being; glad and sad and sacred, unsearchable and natural and strange. Of the sonnets on the writer’s own pictures and designs, I think that on Pandora to be the most perfect and exalted, as the design is among his mightiest in its godlike terror and imperial trouble of beauty, shadowed by the smoke and fiery vapour of winged and fleshless passions crowding from the casket in spires of flame-lit and curling cloud round her fatal face and mourning veil of hair. The sonnets on Cassandra translate with apt and passionate choice of words the scheme of his greatest tragic design, his fullest and most various in vital incident and high truth of heroic life. The grand sonnet “on refusal of aid 569 between nations” shows yet a fresh side and a most noble aspect of his great and manifold genius; its severe emotion and grave loveliness of ardent anger set a mark on it as of Dante’s justice and judgment. “Autumn Idleness” is a splendid study of landscape, for breadth of colour and solemn brightness of vision worthy to stand by those great symbolic landscapes seen in the “House of Life,” such as “Barren Spring” and “The Hill Summit;” and in “Beauty and the Bird” we have a sample of the painter’s gladdest colour and sweetest tone of light. His full command of that lyric sentiment and power which give to mediæval poetry its clear particular charm is plain alike from the ending given to the “old song” of Ophelia and from the marvellous versions of Villon’s and other French songs. The three sweetest of that great poet’s who was the third singer of the Middle Ages and first vocal tongue of the dumb painful people in its agony and mirth and shame and strength of heart, are here recast in English gold of equal weight. The very cadence of Villon’s matchless ballad of the ladies of old time is caught and returned. The same exquisite exactitude of translation is notable in “John of Tours,”—the old provincial song long passed from mouth to mouth and at last preserved with all its breaks and lapses of sweet rough metre by Gérard de Nerval. His version of Dante’s divinest episode, that of Francesca, I take to be the supreme triumph of translation possible; for what, after so many failures—Byron’s the dismallest failure of all, and worst imaginable instance of perversion—could be hoped of any new attempt? But here the divine verse seems actually to fall of itself into a new mould, the exact shape and size of the first—to be poured from one cup into another without spilling one drop of nectar. Nay, so far beyond other men’s is this poet’s power of transfusion, that, as though to confute the Italian proverb against the treasons of translators, he has well-nigh achieved the glory of reproducing a few lines even of Sappho, by welding two fragments into one song, melting two notes into one chord of verse. But though the sweet life and colour be saved and renewed, no man can give again in full that ineffable glory and grace as of present godhead, that subtle breath and bloom of very heaven itself, that dignity of divinity which informs the most passionate and piteous notes of the unapproachable poetess with such grandeur as would seem impossible to such passion. Here is a delicious and living music, but here is not—what can nowhere be— the echo of that unimaginable song, with its pauses and redoubled notes and returns and falls of sound, as of honey dropping from heaven—as of tears, and fire, and seed of life—which, though but run over and repeated in thought, pervades the spirit with “a sweet possessive pang.” That apple “atop on the topmost twig” of the tree of life and song remains unreachable by any second hand, untastable by any later lip for ever; 570 never out of sight of men’s memory, never within grasp of man’s desire; the apple which not Paris but Apollo gave to her whose glory has outlived her goddess, and whose name has been set above hers:—
“La mâle Sapho, l’amante et le poëte,
Plus belle que Vénus par ses mornes pâleurs,—
Plus belle que Vénus se dressant sur le monde!”
Among the lesser poems of this volume “The Portrait” holds a place of honour in right of its earnest beauty of thought and rich simplicity of noble images. Above them all in reach and scope of power stands the poem of “Jenny,” great among the few greatest works of the artist. Its plain truth and masculine tenderness are invested with a natural array of thought and imagination which doubles their worth and force. Without a taint on it of anything coarse or trivial, without shadow or suspicion of any facile or vulgar aim at pathetic effect of a tragical or moral kind, it cleaves to absolute fact and reality closer than any common preacher or realist could come; no side of the study is thrown out or thrown back into false light or furtive shadow; but the purity and nobility of its high and ardent pathos are qualities of a moral weight and beauty beyond reach of any rivalry. A divine pity fills it, or a pity something better than divine; the more just and deeper compassion of human fellowship and fleshly brotherhood. Here is nothing of sickly fiction or theatrical violence of tone. No spiritual station of command is assumed, no vantage-ground of outlook from hills of holiness, or heights of moral indifference, or barriers of hard contempt; no unction of facile tears is poured out upon this fallen golden head of a common woman; no loose-tongued effusion of slippery sympathy, to wash out shame with sentiment. And therefore is “the pity of it” a noble pity, and worth the paying; a genuine sin-offering for intercession, pleading with fate for mercy without thought or purpose of pleading. The man whose thought is thus gloriously done into words is as other men are, only with a better brain and heart than the common, with more of mind and compassion, with better eye to see and quicker pulse to beat, with a moregenerous intellect and a finer taste of things; and his chance companion of a night is no ruined angel or self-immolated sacrifice, but a girl who plies her trade like any other trade, without show or sense of reluctance or repulsion; there is no hint that she was first made to fit better into a smoother groove of life, to run more easily on a higher line of being; that anything seen in prospect or retrospect rebukes or recalls her fancy into any fairer field than she may reach by her present road. All the open sources of pathetic effusion to which a common shepherd of souls would have led the flock of his readers to drink and weep and be refreshed, and leave the medicinal well-spring of sentiment warmer and fuller from their easy tears, are here dried up. This poor hireling of the streets and casinos is professionally 571 pitiable; the world’s contempt of her fellow tradeswomen is not in itself groundless or unrighteous; there is no need to raise any mirage about her as of a fallen star, a glorious wreck; but not in that bitterest cry of Othello’s own agony—“a sufferance panging as soul and body’s severing”—was there a more divine heat of burning compassion than the high heart of a man may naturally lavish, as in this poem, upon such an one as she is. Iago indeed could not share it, nor Roderigo; the naked understanding cannot feel this, nor the mere fool of flesh apprehend it; but only in one or the other of these can all sense be dead of “the pity of it.”
Every touch of real detail and minute colour in the study serves to heighten and complete the finished picture which remains burnt in upon the eyes of our memory when the work is done. The clock ticking, the bird waking, the scratched pier-glass, the shaded lamp, give new relief as of very light and present sound to the spiritual side of the poem. How great and profound is the scope and power of the work on that side, I can offer no better proof than a reference to the whole; for no sample of this can be torn off or cut out. Of the might of handiwork and simple sovereignty of manner which make it so triumphant a witness of what English speech can do, this one excerpt may stand in evidence:—
“Except when there may rise unsought
Haply at times a passing thought
Of the old days, which seem to be
Much older than any history
That is written in any book;
When she would lie in fields and look
Along the ground through the blown grass,
And wonder where the city was,
Far out of sight, whose broil and bale
They told her then for a child’s tale.
“Jenny, you know the city now.
A child can tell the tale there, how
Some things, which are not yet enrolled
In market-lists, are bought and sold
Even till the early Sunday light,
When Saturday night is market-night
Everywhere, be it dry or wet,
And market-night in the Haymarket.”
The simple sudden sound of that plain line is as great and rare a thing in the way of verse, as final and superb a proof of absolute poetic power upon words, as any man’s work can show. As an imaginative instance of positive and perfect nature, the whole train of thought evolved in the man’s mind, as he watches the head asleep on his knee, is equal and incomparable; the thought of a pure honest girl, in whom the same natural loves and likings shall run straight and bear fruit to honour, that in this girl have all run to seed of 572 shame; the possible changes of chance that in their time shall bring fresh proof of the sad equality of nature and tragic identity of birthmark as of birthright in all souls born, the remote conceivable justice and restitution that may some day strike the balance between varying lots and lives; the delicately beautiful and pitiful fancy of the rose pressed in between the pages of an impure book; and the mightier fancy, so grandly cast in words, of lust, alone, aloof, immortal, immovable outside of death, in the dark of things everlasting; self-secluded in absorption of its own desire, and walled up from love or light, as a toad in its stone wrapping; and last, with the grey penetration of London dawn, the awakening of mind into live daylight of work, and farewell taken of the night and its follies, not without pity or thought of them.
The whole work is worthy to fill its place for ever as one of the most perfect and memorable poems of an age or generation. It deals with deep and common things; with the present hour, and with all time; with that which is of the instant among us, and that which has a message for all souls of men; with the outward and immediate matter of the day, and with the inner and immutable ground of human nature. Its plainness of speech and subject gives it power to touch the heights and sound the depths of tragic thought without losing the force of its hold and grasp upon the palpable truths which men often seek and cry out for in poetry, without knowing that these are only good when greatly treated, and that to artists who can treat them greatly all times and all truths are equal, and the present, though assuredly no worse, yet assuredly no better topic than the past. All the ineffably foolish jargon and jangle of criticasters about classic subjects and romantic, remote or immediate interests, duties of the poet to face and handle this thing instead of that or his own age instead of another, can only serve to darken counsel by words without knowledge: a poet of the first order raises all subjects to the first rank, and puts the life-blood of an equal interest into Hebrew forms or Greek, mediæval or modern, yesterday or yesterage. Thus there is here just the same life-blood and breath of poetic interest in this episode of a London street and lodging as in the song of “Troy Town” and the song of “Eden Bower;” just as much, and no jot more. These two songs are the masterpieces of Mr. Rossetti’s magnificent lyric faculty. Full of fire and music and movement, delicate as moonlight and passionate as sunlight, fresh as dawn and fine as air, sonorous as the motion of deep waters, the infallible verse bears up the spirit safe and joyous on its wide clear way. There is a strength and breadth of style about these poems also which ennobles their sweetness and brightness, giving them a perfume that savours of no hotbed, but of hill-flowers that face the sea and the sunrise; a colour that grows in no greenhouse, but such as comes with morning upon the mountains. They are good certainly, but 573 they are also great; great as no other man’s work of the same age and country. Out of the beautiful old tradition of Helen, which tells of her offering on a shrine at Sparta a cup modelled upon the mould of her own breast, the poet has carved a graven image of song as tangible and lovely as the oblation itself; and this cup he has filled with the wine of love and fire of destruction, so that in the Spartan temple we feel a forecast of light and heat from the future Trojan flame. These two poems have the fiery concentration and condensation of the ballad; but they have a higher rapture of imagination, a more ardent affluence of colour and strenuous dilation of spirit, than a ballad can properly contain; their wings of words heat and burn at fuller expansion through a keener air. The song of Lilith has all the beauty and glory and force in it of the splendid creature so long worshipped of men as god or dreaded as devil; the voluptuous swiftness and strength, the supreme luxury of liberty in its measured grace and lithe melodious motion of rapid and revolving harmony; the subtle action and majestic recoil, the mysterious charm as of soundless music that hangs about a serpent as it stirs or springs. Never was nobler blood infused into the veins of an old legend than into this of the first wife of Adam, changing shapes with the snake her lover, that in his likeness she may tempt the mother of men. The passion of the cast-off temptress, in whose nets of woven hair all the souls are entangled of her rival’s sons through all their generations, has such actual and instant flame of wrath and brilliance of blood and fragrance of breath in it, that we feel face to face the very vision of the old tale, and no symbol or shadow, but a bodily shape and a fleshly charm, dominant in ear and eye. The tragic might of the myth, its fierce and keen significance, strikes through us sharpest at the end, as with the supreme sting of triumph and final fang of the transfigured serpent.
Had I time and room and skill, to whom all these are wanting, I would here at length try to say some passing word illustrative of the more obvious and the more intimate relations of this artist’s work in verse and his work in painting; between the poem of “Jenny” and the design called “Found,” where at early dawn the driver of a country cart finds crouching in London streets the figure of a girl once his betrothed, and stoops to lift with tender strength of love, and surprise of simple pity startled into freshness of pain, the shuddering abased head with the golden ruin of its rich soiled hair, which cowers against a graveyard wall away from the light that rises beyond the paling lamps on bridge and river; between the song of “Troy Town” and the picture of Helen, with Parian face and mouth of ardent blossom, a keen red flower-bud of fire, framed in broad gold of wide-spread locks, the sweet sharp smile of power set fast on her clear curved lips, and far behind her the dull flame of burning towers and light from reddened heaven on dark 574 sails of lurid ships; between the early sacred poems and the early sacred designs of the author’s Christian era, as for instance the “Ave” and the “Girlhood of the Virgin,” with its young grace and sincere splendour of spirit, the “Staff and Scrip” and the design of “Fra Pace,” the “Blessed Damozel” and the “Dream of Dante,” all clothed in colours of heaven, with raiment dyed and spun in the paradise of trust and thought; between the romantic poems and the romantic designs, as for example “Sister Helen” and the “Tune of ‘Seven Towers,’” which have the same tone and type of tragic romance in their mediæval touches and notes of passionate fancy; between the poems of richer thought and the designs of riper form, works of larger insight and more strong decision, fruits of the mind at its fullest and the hand at its mightiest, as the “Burden of Nineveh” and the “Sybil” or “Pandora.” The passage from a heaven of mere angels and virgins to the stronger vision of Venus Verticordia, of Helen