ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

Home
Biography
Bibliography

Poetry
Plays
Fiction

Essays
Reviews
Letters

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

The Critical Response
Harriett Jay
Miscellanea

Links
Site Diary
Site Search

THE FLESHLY SCHOOL CONTROVERSY

Reviews of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Poems - continued

 

Fraser’s Magazine (May, 1870 - pp. 609-622)

[Reviewed by John Skelton - available here.]

___

 

The Academy (14 May, 1870 - p.199-200)

General Literature and Art.
_____

Poems by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. London: Ellis, 1870.

 

TEN years ago with the publication of his beautiful and scholarly volume of translations from the early Italian poets, Mr. Rossetti announced the preparation of a volume of original poems. This book, so eagerly looked for by those who knew the author by his great works in painting, has now been given to the public; nor is it easy to exaggerate the value and importance of that gift, for the book is complete and satisfactory from end to end; and in spite of the intimate connection between one art and another, it is certainly to be wondered at, that a master in the supremely difficult art of painting should have qualities which enable him to deal with the other supremely difficult one of poetry: and to do this not only with the utmost depth of feeling and thought, but also with the most complete and unfaltering mastery over its material; that he should find in its limitations and special conditions, not stumbling-blocks or fetters, but just so many pleasures, so much whetting of invention and imagination. In no poems is the spontaneous and habitual interpenetration of matter and manner, which is the essence of poetry, more complete than in these. An original and subtile beauty of execution expresses the deep mysticism of thought, which in some form and degree is not wanting certainly to any poets of the modern school, but which in Mr. Rossetti’s work is both great in degree and passionate in kind; nor in him has it any tendency to lose itself amid allegory or abstractions; indeed, instead of turning human life into symbols of things vague and not understood, it rather gives to the very symbols the personal life and variety of mankind. No poem in this book is without the circle of this realizing mysticism, which deals wonderingly with all real things that can have poetic life given them by passion, and refuses to have to do with any invisible things that in the wide scope of its imagination cannot be made perfectly distinct and poetically real. Of all turns of mind this must be the fittest to give the concentration and intensity necessary for lyrical works, and the corresponding patience and untiring energy to carry them out: nothing but this could have given us the magnificent collection of sonnets at the end of this volume, which, though there are some among upwards of eighty that are not free from obscurity, the besetting vice of sonnets, are nevertheless unexampled in the English language since Shakespeare’s for depth of thought, and skill and felicity of execution. A mediocre sonnet is more hateful to gods and men than any other versified mediocrity, a crabbed one is harder to read than any other form of crabbed verse; and complete success is not common even when the thought is not over deep; but to express some deep piece of thought or feeling completely and with beauty in the narrow limits of fourteen lines, and in such a way that no line should be useless or barren of some reflex of the main idea; to leave the due impression of the whole thought on the mind by the weight and beauty of the ending; and to do all this without losing simplicity, without affectation of any kind, and with exquisite choiceness of diction and rhyme, is as surely a very great achievement, and among the things most worth doing, as it is exceedingly rare to find done. But few of these sonnets fall short of this highest standard; and they seem withal the most natural and purest expression of the peculiar mysticism spoken of above. Two poems are to be named here, as having in them much of the feeling of the strongest of the sonnets, with a sweetness and simplicity of their own, “A Little While,” and “The Sea Limits;” the completeness with which the thought is grasped, amid its delicate flux and reflux from stanza to stanza is very characteristic of Mr. Rossetti’s best work. “Love’s Nocturn” classes itself with these and the sonnets also. It is a very beautiful and finished piece of work, and full of subtle melody, but sometimes obscure with more than the obscurity of the dreamy subject, and sometimes with a certain sense of over labour in it. Both these faults may be predicated also of a poem of the same class, “The Stream’s Secret,” which nevertheless is wonderfully finished, and has very high musical qualities, and a certain stateliness of movement about it which coming among its real and deep feeling makes it very telling and impressive.
     Among pieces where the mystical feeling is by necessity of subject most simple and most on the surface, “The Blessed Damozel” should be noticed, a poem in which wild longing, and the shame of life, and despair of separation, and the worship of love, are wrought into a palpable dream, in which the heaven that exists as if for the sake of the beloved is as real as the earthly things about the lover, while these are scarcely less strange or less pervaded with a sense of his passion, than the things his imagination has made. The poem is as profoundly sweet and touching and natural as any in the book, that is to say, as any in the whole range of modern poetry. At first sight the leap from this poem to the “Jenny” may seem very great, but there is in fact no break in the unity of the mind that imagined both these poems; rather one is the necessary complement to the other. The subject is difficult for a modern poet to deal with, but necessary for a man to think of; it is thought of here with the utmost depths of feeling, pity, and insight, with no mawkishness on the one hand, no coarseness on the other: and carried out with perfect simplicity and beauty. It is so strong, unforced, and full of nature, that I think it the poem of the whole book that would be most missed if it were away. With all this, its very simplicity and directness make it hard to say much about it: but it may be noticed, as leading to the consideration of one side of Mr. Rossetti’s powers, how perfectly the dramatic character of the soliloquiser is kept: his pity, his protest against the hardness of nature and chance never make him didactic, or more or less than a man of the world, any more than his “Shame of his own shame” makes him brutal, though in the inevitable flux and reflux of feeling and habit and pleasure he is always seeming on the verge of touching one or other of these extremes. How admirably, too, the conclusion is managed with that dramatic breaking of day, and the effect that it gives to the chilling of enthusiasm and remorse, which it half produces and is half typical of; coming after the grand passage about lust that brings to a climax the musings over so much beauty and so many good things apparently thrown away causelessly.
     The dramatic quality of Mr. Rossetti’s work has just been mentioned, which brings one to saying that, though it seemed necessary to dwell so strongly on the mystical and intensely lyrical side of his poems, they bear with them signs of the highest dramatic power, whatever its future application may be. This is shewn not merely in the vivid picturing of external scenes—as that of the return of the humbled exiles to Florence in the noble poem of “Dante at Verona”—but more conclusively still in the steady purpose running through all those poems in which character or action, however  lyrical, is dealt with; in ripeness of plan, and in the congruity of detail with which they are wrought out; all this, of course, in addition to their imaginative qualities. This is well seen in “Sister Helen,” which is, in fact, a ballad (the form of poem of all others in which, when it is complete, the lyrical and dramatic sides of art are most closely connected), and in which the wild and picturesque surroundings, and the growing force of the tremendous burden, work up surely and most impressively to the expected but still startling end, the effect of which, as almost always in Mr. Rossetti’s poems, is not injured by a word too much. As widely different as it may be in character of execution to this, there is the same dramatic force amidst the magnificent verses of “Eden Bower,” where the strangest and remotest of subjects is wonderfully realized by the strength and truth of its passion, though the actors in it add supernatural characteristics to the human qualities that make it a fit subject for poetry. The “Last Confession,” whose subject connects itself somewhat with these two last, is the poem in the book whose form is the least characteristic of Mr. Rossetti’s work, the most like what is expected of a poet with strong dramatic tendencies; it is, however, most complete and satisfactory, and the character of the man is admirably imagined and developed, so as both to make the catastrophe likely, and to prevent it from becoming unpoetical, and just merely shocking: a character, elevated and tender and sensitive, but brooding, and made narrow both naturally and by the force of the continual tragedy of oppression surrounding his life; wrought upon by the necessary but unreasonable sense of wrong that his unreturned love brings him, till despair and madness, but never hate, comes from it. Well befitting such a character, but also indicating the inevitable mystical tendency of the author, as small as the indication may be, is the omen of the broken toy of Love that sheds the first blood, and that other typical incident of the altars of the two Madonnas. In speaking of a book where the poems are so singularly equal in merit as this, it has been scarcely possible to do more than name the most important, and several even must remain unnamed; but it is something of a satisfaction to finish with mentioning the “Song of the Bower,” so full of passion and melody, and more like a song to be sung than any modern piece I know. To conclude, I think these lyrics, with all their other merits, the most complete of their time; no difficulty is avoided in them—no subject is treated vaguely, languidly, or heartlessly: as there is no commonplace or second-hand thought left in them to be atoned for by beauty of execution, so no thought is allowed to overshadow that beauty of art which compels a real poet to speak in verse and not in prose. Nor do I know what lyrics of any time are to be called great if we are to deny that title to these.

                                                                                                                                     WILLIAM MORRIS.

___

 

The Saturday Review (14 May, 1870 - Vol. 29, pp. 651-652)

ROSSETTI’S POEMS.*

THERE is a phrase used by Balzac which had the power of stinging M. Sainte-Beuve into unwonted irritation. Serenest of literary judges as he was, he recurs to it again and again with a soreness of feeling shown by him on no other occasion that we know of. The phrase is (Balzac speaks of some person either imaginary or at least unknown to us):—“Il passa critique comme tous les impuissans qui manquent à leurs débuts.” Poor M. Sainte-Beuve, who had started in life as a respectable, though not particularly brilliant poet, felt this taunt to the marrow of his bones, and took every opportunity of explaining to the world at large, in paragraphs of irreproachable good sense, how unjust a view this was of the functions and dignity of the critical art. In any other case but his own, he would have been the first to see that this ill-timed susceptibility was, above all things, an acknowledgment of the piercing keenness of the shaft, and only gave the archer power to go about muttering, with malignant glee:—

Hæret lateri lethalis arundo.

Unpleasant, however, as the sentence may be to authors of forgotten compositions in verse—to those especially who classify poets as would-be connoisseurs classify wines, and divide them, according to some arbitrary theory of their own, into first class, second class, third class, and so on—it has at least the merit of suggesting indirectly that every man of genius, if his genius be a true one, has his own special gifts; and that a versifier turned poetical critic has probably none of those special gifts (possibly no gifts of any kind), and that he will do well whilst performing his task-work to bear those probabilities and possibilities in mind. We have heard that Goethe once rebuked some spiteful pickthank, who expressed his disgust at having heard Schiller put upon a level with the author of Faust, by replying, “What can it signify which is the greater of the two? Instead of wasting your time in such idle discussion, you Germans ought to be truly thankful in that you have two such fellows at the same time.” The essence of genius is, above all things, its individuality, its power of doing something that no one else can accomplish. Where these qualities are found it is better, in our judgment, instead of haggling over their precise market value, to welcome them in the spirit of Goethe’s dictum, if we can, with discriminating, but at any rate with genial, appreciation. A diamond is not a ruby, an emerald is not a pearl, but they are all nevertheless gems. We might have more and finer diamonds, but should still miss our rubies, and no proportion of emeralds would console us for the absolute extinction of the pearl. Now, the book before us is one with reference to which the known accomplishments of its author have created high expectations—expectations, in our judgment, amply realized upon the whole. We can therefore enjoy its contents without asking ourselves what precise rank Mr. Rossetti is entitled to hold among the poets of the day or the age.
     Let us begin with the end, and work backwards. Many of the sonnets in that division of the work called “The House of Life” are sonnets of great beauty. We should say they had in them more of the spirit of Shakspeare than of Wordsworth or Milton. Their tone is rich and pensive, and they give out, we think, more flute-notes than trumpet sounds. We would, however, willingly leave these poems to the judgment of others, as English sonnets, with very rare exceptions, are not to our taste; to us, who value in poetry fire, life, and force, perhaps even more than they deserve, they seem to be often, even in the hands of the great masters, cold, artificial, and constrained. Mr. Rossetti’s sonnets are not cold certainly, but though rich, as it were, with tropical blossoms, the thoughts and expressions are, unless we deceive ourselves, often exotic and far-fetched, reminding us of the orchid-house rather than of the garden or even of the conservatory. We quote two taken at random, in order that our readers may agree with us or not, as they please:—

THE LOVE-LETTER.

Warmed by her hand and shadowed by her hair,
     As close she leaned and poured her heart through thee,
     Whereof the articulate throbs accompany
The smooth black stream that makes thy whiteness fair,—
Sweet fluttering sheet, even of her breath aware,—
     Oh let thy silent song disclose to me
     That soul wherewith her lips and eyes agree,
Like married music in Love’s answering air.

Fain had I watched her when, at some fond thought,
     Her bosom to the writing closelier press’d,
     And her breast’s secrets peered into her breast;
When, through eyes raised an instant, her soul sought
My soul, and from the sudden confluence caught
     The words that made her love the loveliest.

 

A DAY OF LOVE.

Those envied places which do know her well,
     And are so scornful of this lonely place,
     Even now for once are emptied of her grace:
Nowhere but here she is: and while Love’s spell
From his predominant presence doth compel
     All alien hours, an outworn populace,
     The hours of Love fill full the echoing space
With sweet confederate music favorable.

Now many memories make solicitous
     The delicate love-lines of her mouth, till, lit
     With quivering fire, the words take wing from it;
As here between our kisses we sit thus
     Speaking of things remembered, and so sit
Speechless while things forgotten call to us.

     The “Blessed Damozel” is the poem with which the book opens; it contains many exquisite lines, e.g.:—

From the fixed place of Heaven she saw
     Time like a pulse shake fierce
Through all the worlds.

And again:—

It was the rampart of God’s house
     That she was standing on;
By God built over the sheer depth,
     The which is Space begun;
So high, that looking downward thence
     She scarce could see the sun.

We have, however, a prejudice that Heaven is the place where all tears are wiped away from all eyes, and we dislike the idea of an angel weeping there, under the pressure of emotions which, however delicate and gracious, are still of the earth, earthy.
     The longest composition in the book is entitled “A Last Confession.” It tells of an Italian girl murdered by her lover, who had brought her up from childhood, when she was abandoned by her parents. He finds at length that the affection she bore him in youth, instead of deepening and fixing itself like his own, has ebbed away—has passed indeed, possibly under some hostile and degrading influence, into insolent and contemptuous alienation. Without detracting from Mr. Rossetti’s unquestionable originality, we may perhaps be permitted to say, that in the choice of a subject and in the general outline of the conception something of Mr. Browning is here perceptible. Mr. Browning’s manner certainly is not imitated, but it seems as if his influence had been felt. The manner indeed is more to our taste, more directly and straightforwardly poetical, than the one usually employed by the powerful author of the Ring and the Book. The phrase nimium amator ingenii sui—whether Ovid deserves the reproach or not—has always struck us as singularly applicable to our great contemporary. Pleased with the pliancy and activity of his own thoughts, he delights to dally with and play among them, and is thus led on to spin, spider-like, unceasing thread-like subtleties, without much consideration that the reader may not be interested in the evolution of Mr. Browning’s thoughts quite so deeply, or, what is more to the purpose, for quite so long a time, as Mr. Browning himself. Mr. Rossetti avoids this fault, and if he does not astonish us with the same inexhaustible fertility of mind, is more concentrated, passionate, and effective. It is necessary in a review of this kind to quote a good deal, but we do it against the grain, because Mr. Rossetti’s finer poems are all poured out under one single impulse; what the French call d’un seul jet. Quotation, therefore, merely means dislocation, or a drying- up of the inner life under dismemberment. The following passage, however, will probably suffer less than most others by being removed from its place. It is the recollected beauty of the murdered girl, standing for ever, like a picture, before the phantom-haunted eye of the murderer:—

     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.

Many others of the poems, such as the “Burden of Nineveh”; “Jenny,” in which the author passes with singular grace and agility of step

                           per ignes
Suppositos cineri doloso;

“Dante at Verona,” &c., will be carefully studied, we doubt not, by all lovers of poetry.
     It is time, however, to turn our attention to the masterpiece of the present collection, and this unquestionably is the ballad of “Sister Helen.” It unites in a very noble manner the two great qualities of the higher poetry—passion and imagination. There is to be found earlier in the book another ballad beginning “It was Lilith, the wife of Adam,” which possesses, in a great degree, merit of the same kind. In point of conception, indeed, it is perhaps even more original than “Sister Helen,” but it is also more remote from human sympathies, and fails partially of its intended effect, because we have but little in common with a creature, one-third woman, one-third earth-demon, and one-third snake; and this appears to be the sum of Lilith’s complicated organization. Sister Helen belongs to a less fantastic type; she is a girl betrayed and abandoned by a faithless lover, who sells herself to the powers of darkness that she may work out a terrible revenge. The title of the poem is derived from its form, inasmuch as it consists of a conversation between the witch and her little brother, a child puzzling himself why his sister should melt, before some strange fire, the waxen man (it is of course unnecessary to explain the old superstition) which they have recently made, as he thought, for their common amusement. The poem is written in stanzas of four lines; the first two of these always contain a question from the boy; the last two, charged with meanings unintelligible to him, the answers of the implacable sorceress, full of hatred and death. There are also at the end of each paragraph two other lines, as a sort of echo to the preceding stanza. Mr. Rossetti has probably decided for himself that this burden adds to the effect, and is worth the slight jar and check of thought that it entails. There is for us this objection to it, that we do not precisely make out into whose mouth the words are put. Sometimes we fancy that they are the outpourings of Helen’s own heart; sometimes that the boy is wondering to himself over his sister’s inexplicable attitude; and, again, that this sort of burden occupies the place of a Greek chorus, assisting at and interpreting the dramatic situation placed before us by the poet. Upon the whole we consider this last the probable solution, particularly as the dramatic element of the story belongs to the Greek rather than to the Shakspearian type. We mean that its passion remains on the eye, in one fixed state and aspect, immovable and unchanged, as if it had been sculptured out of marble. This uncertainty, however, whether it be Mr. Rossetti’s fault or not, exercises a somewhat chilling and disheartening effect upon the general reader. The absorbing interest felt by him, as Helen’s fierce words reply to each successive question with a stab like that of a poisoned dagger, is disturbed by these continual interruptions, and he feels that he would like the poem even better than he does if they did not thus break in upon him. We can quite understand that the poet might be able to remove this impression by a word, and therefore our criticism is merely provision. Whenever Mr. Rossetti shows to us that these impressive stanzas would lose something of completeness and be left comparatively bare and naked if the burden were cancelled, we shall willingly retract our objection. Even with this drawback, if drawback it be, the poem is one of the finest in its own kind that we have ever read; but to quote from it is still more difficult than even from “The Last Confession.”
     After the preceding remarks it is unnecessary to add that we think highly of Mr. Rossetti’s powers, and shall look with great interest for any future production of his.

     * Poems. By Dante Gabriel Rossetti. London: F. S. Ellis. 1870.

___

 

The Contemporary Review (June, 1870 - Vol XIV, pp.480-481)

Poems. By DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI. London: F. S. Ellis.

     MR. ROSSETTI has occupied for many years a high and peculiar position as a painter; but we have no business here with the associations that cling to his name—his book comes before us, just like any other book, on its own bare merits. A thousand things might be said about the school to which he belongs, and the circumstances of culture and personal influence which must have conspired to produce a book like this. But that would be beside the mark, and would carry us too far afield. Taking this thick and closely printed volume as it stands, and making as far as possible a clean slate of our minds in all that relates to Mr. Rossetti except the book, the first thing that strikes us in these poems is one, to state which it is unfortunately necessary to employ language which has become conventional. The characteristic which, as the French say, leaps into your eyes, in turning over these pages is the marriage, so to speak, of flesh and spirit—words which we, however, employ under protest until we are sure of a common understanding. In these poems, particularly in the “House of Life,” we have the love of man and woman suggested, not to say painted—nay, that word will not do, we must rather say made living to the imaginative memory of every sense, without reserve. “Venus and Adonis” is not more plain, and yet we have here something that cannot be found in “Venus and Adonis.” The same peculiarity of varied sensuous vividness, fused into white light by spiritual suggestion, runs through all the poems. Take a few verses from “The Blessed Damozel,” which, we believe, is one of Mr. Rossetti’s early poems:—

“It was the rampart of God’s house
     That she was standing on:
By God built over the starry depth
     The which is Space begun;
So high, that looking downward thence
     She scarce could see the sun.

“It lies in heaven, across the flood
     Of ether, as a bridge.
Beneath, the tides of day and night,
     With flame and darkness ridge
The void, as low as where this earth
     Spins like a fretful midge.

“Heard hardly, some of her new friends
     Amid their loving games
Spake evermore among themselves,
     Their virginal chaste names.
And the souls mounting up to God
     Went by her like thin flames.

And still she bowed herself and stooped,
     Out of the circling charm;
Until her bosom must have made
     The bar she leaned on warm
,
And the lilies lay as if asleep,
     Along her bended arm.

“From the fixed place of Heaven she saw
     Time like a pulse shake fierce
Through all the worlds. Her gaze still strove
     Within the gulf to pierce
Its path; and now she spoke as when
     The stars sang in their spheres.

“The sun was gone now; the curled moon
     Was like a little feather
Fluttering far down the gulf; and now
     She spoke through the still weather.
Her voice was like the voice the stars
     Had when they sang together.”

     This is as chaste as the hour before the dawn, or, to quote Shelley, as a boy on a winter’s noon, but the lines in italics are full of sensuous warmth; and they might be paralleled a hundred times out of this very remarkable volume. The peculiarity which, we think, will next strike a totally impartial reader is a quality in the style which it would be wrong to call affectation, or reticence, or literary cynicism; but yet there is something in it which suggests all these names. Devotees may laugh or be angry; but when the anger or the laughter is over, it will remain true that Mr. Rossetti has a “formed” and not a simple and spontaneous manner; and not only that, but that his culture is always traceable in his thought, like veins in marble; or, to repeat an old image, the honey tastes of the particular class of flowers on which the bee has been feeding. In fine, Mr. Rossetti is a poet, and his gifts in the music, colour, and perfume of verse are extraordinary; but though he gives us a new pleasure, he opens no new path. The fusion of “flesh” and “spirit” belongs to his school, though in him it certainly takes on a deep, very beautiful intensity and lustre; but, while the design of the series of sonnets entitled, “The Hours of Life” is new, the “poems” have not stirred us with any new suggestion. Abundance, a superabundance of felicities of the highest order we do find, and everywhere the passionate yet dreamy repose of the school,—a muse with fire in her eyes, but singing a song which, though full of sense, is heard by an inner rather than the outer ear; but, after all, we are not satisfied. Perhaps this may be in part because we have so much—and yet so little—at once from the poet. Something, also, is due to what must, in charity’s despite, be called mannerisms, consisting in almost painful iteration of certain sensuous suggestions, which, nevertheless, are rather left to do their work upon the reader with the help of his imagination, than compelled into positive poetry by the author. But, on the whole, when we have read and enjoyed, we wonder why it is that we have brought away nothing of the poet’s; only a keen admiration for him. Nevertheless, these “Poems” ought to be possessed, and the links of the author’s thoughts are often so subtle, that they can hardly be taken up at one reading. Of course, all this is only the result of a first impression; but still, Mr. Rossetti does not, as we have said, satisfy us, even when he is at his best. What is it that is wanting?

___

 

The New Monthly Magazine (June, 1870 - pp. 681-700)

[Reviewed by Thomas Gordon Hake - available here.]

___

 

Blackwood’s Magazine (August, 1870 - pp. 177-183)

     We have no sooner done with works that address themselves to the superficial and uneducated, than we come upon those almost as much removed from real literature, which appeal to the literary 178 and dilettanti. The poems of Mr. Dante Rossetti * have already called forth an amount of remark totally out of proportion to their intrinsic importance. There is something in the character and temper of a painter, so contemptuous of common public opinion that he refuses to exhibit his pictures—and of a poet, who keeps his productions for some twenty years in the dark before he condescends to unfold them to the common eye—which in the first place attracts the imagination. Such a man, we conclude, is not to be judged by ordinary rules—he does not care for our applause. He walks serene at a height inaccessible to the common din, the comments and criticism of lower earth. Such a man is too far removed from us to desire to be understood upon our level; he addresses himself to the choice souls—the world within a world—the select of humanity. Literary London has heard his poems read, it has given him that delicious breath of private fame which is sweeter than all the applauses of the crowd; and when he does take the trouble to put those poems into common print, it is not as a candidate for our suffrage, but as the bestower of a graceful boon. His fame is made, we have nothing to do with it. All that is left for us is to echo the decision given by our betters, and humbly accept the melodious gift. And so great is the power of example, and the force of a bygone conclusion, that this is what most people have done. Mr. Morris’s poems, for instance, came upon us in a burst, giving even to the jaded public, the commonalty, which, after all, is the ultimate judge, a certain shock of delightful surprise; but Mr. Rossetti’s poems have had a very different introduction. They are new to the outside world, but they are old to the critic who has been trained into due appreciation of their merits by long acquaintance and much elucidation. Thus our literary guides have made themselves into showmen for the occasion. “Good people,” they say, “ you do not know those great works of art, but we have known them for years: this is Lilith, you observe, a Talmudical personage, painted from the best authorities, and in the first keeping; and this is Sister Helen, who is Gothic, and in the highest style of art. Observe that our friend is master of all the styles. He can slip in a moment from Eden down to Troy town, and from thence to a medieval litany without turning a hair. It would be difficult to say in which he is best. Heaven itself is not closed to his penetrating glance. Such treasures of poetic insight—such weird acquaintance with the mystic and wonderful—such a fine melodious sense of the music and beauty of words, have seldom been revealed to the vulgar. We have known them all for years; but now the veil is withdrawn, and it is your turn to look and to worship.” Thus we have been told on all sides. It is the Illuminati who vouch for the new poet. Like Mr. Dixon, though in a very different way, Mr. Rossetti has written for a class, and he too has found it  answer. But how far the verdict will be confirmed by the world, or how long a factitious reputation thus originated will last, is a very different matter. That the reader may not be dazzled by the weight of testimony in favour of these productions, but may be able to form some judgment of his own on the subject, we will quote from some of the poems most lauded by all the critics. The first in the list, entitled “The Blessed Damozel,” is supposed to be the musings of a maiden in heaven, still longing for the coming of her lover. Ten years have been to her like a single day; and yet her sense of the lingering of her beloved one is so

     * Poems by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Third Edition. London: Ellis. 1870.

 

179 great, that the poet hears her tears, and it is clear that heaven itself is not more entertaining to her than would be the most humdrum of earthly afternoons upon which the lover was expected, but did not come. The description is so pretty, that it is only at a second glance we perceive how curiously earthly and commonplace are the details of which it is made up:—

“The blessed damozel leaned 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.
         .        .       .        .       .        .

It was the rampart of God’s house
     That she was standing on.
By God built over the starry depth,
     The which is space begun.
So high, that looking downward thence,
     She scarce could see the sun.

It lies in heaven, across the flood
     Of ether like a bridge,
Beneath the tides of day and night,
     With flame and darkness ridge,
The void, as low as where this earth
     Spins like a fretful midge.

Heard hardly, some of her new friends
     Amid their loving games,
Spake evermore among themselves,
     Their virginal chaste names:
And the souls mounting up to God
     Went by her like thin flames.

And still she bowed herself and stooped,
     Out of the circling charm,
Until her bosom must have made
     The bar she leaned on warm,
And the lilies lay as if asleep,
     Along her bended arm.

From the fixed place of heaven she saw
     Time like a pulse shake fierce
Through all the worlds. Her gaze still strove
     Within the gulf to pierce
Its path; and now she spoke as when
     The stars sang in their spheres.”

     This fleshly imagination of the musing maiden whose breast through her white robe, which is “all ungirt from clasp to hem,” must have made the bar warm—leaning and gazing out, while the other girls play “loving games,” calling to each other by name—which we suppose is what is meant by the “Spake evermore among themselves”—is, we think, the most strangely prosaic conception of heaven we have ever met with in poetry. The “loving games” and pleasant din, the cries of Mary and Margaret, the musing of the damozel in love, who “hardly heard” (a harsh illiteration) the chatter of her companions, would be perfect if it was a village green that was being described, but has the strangest effect when we consider where the scene is really laid, and find her next moment, as she gazes down, seeing the pulse of time “shake fierce” through the worlds, which are all spinning, we suppose, like fretful midges underneath that pretty rustic assemblage. The blessed damozel has no higher thoughts about her lover than she might have were she watching at a mortal window for his coming. She will bathe with him “in the deep wells of light;” she will sit with him under a certain “living mystic tree;” she will take him to the groves where the Lady Mary sits with her hand-maidens; she will ask of Christ the Lord that he and she should live together “as once on earth.” This is all Mr. Dante Rossetti, who has all his life studied the works of his great namesake, can make of his lady in heaven. Beatrice has other thoughts. But the blessed damozel is of the earth, earthy. There is a dreamy music about the verses notwithstandmg the fretful midges and fierce shaking pulse of time—and the mechanical drawback of endless parentheses, and some strangely-defective rhymes, such as that, for instance, of “pierce” and “spheres”—which gives a deceptive air of visionariness and spiritual meaning to a thoroughly commonplace conception; but the originality of transferring an ordinary fit of love-longing, set in a bit of evening atmosphere and village landscape, out of earth to heaven, must be fully awarded to the poet. This he has done with unquestionable success.
180     “Sister Helen” is a very different production; it is the story of a wronged woman who is doing her false lover to death by melting his waxen image before a fire according to the medieval superstition. His friends come and plead with her to spare him, but she is obstinate. The drama is carried on in a kind of weird dialogue between herself and a little brother, who seems to have assisted in her operations:—

“‘I hear a horse-tread, and I see,
                                       Sister Helen,
Three horsemen that ride terribly:’
‘Little brother, whence come the three,
                                       Little brother?’
         (O Mother, Mary Mother,
Whence should they come, between hell and heaven?)

‘Oh, it’s Keith of Eastholm rides so fast,
                                       Sister Helen,
For I know the white mane on the blast.’
‘The hour has come, has come at last,
                                       Little brother!’
         (O Mother, Mary Mother,
Her hour at last, between hell and heaven!)

‘He has made a sign and called Halloo!
                                       Sister Helen,
And he says that he would speak with you.’
‘Oh tell him I fear the frozen dew,
                                       Little brother.’
         (O Mother, Mary Mother,
Why laughs she thus, between hell and heaven?)

‘The wind is loud, but I hear him cry,
                                       Sister Helen,
That Keith of Ewern’s like to die.’
‘And he and thou, and thou and I,
                                       Little brother.’
         (O Mother, Mary Mother,
And they and we, between hell and heaven!)

‘For three days now he has lain abed,
                                       Sister Helen,
And he prays in torments to be dead.’
‘The thing may chance if he have prayed,
                                       Little brother!
         (O Mother, Mary Mother,
If he have prayed, between hell and heaven!)
         .          .         .          .         .          .

‘But he calls for ever on your name,
                                       Sister Helen,
And says that he melts before a flame.’
‘My heart for his pleasure fared the same,
                   Little brother.’
         (O Mother, Mary Mother,
Fire at the heart, between hell and heaven!)

‘There’s Keith of Westholm riding fast,
                                       Sister Helen,
For I know the white plume on the blast.’
‘The hour, the sweet hour, I forecast.
                                       Little brother!’
         (O Mother. Mary Mother,
Is the hour sweet, between hell and heaven?)

‘He stops to speak, and he stills his horse,
                                       Sister Helen;
But his words are drowned in the wind’s course.’
‘Nay hear, nay hear, you must hear perforce,
                                       Little brother!’
         (O Mary, Mary Mother,
A word ill heard, between hell and heaven!)

‘Oh, he says that Keith of Ewern’s cry,
                                       Sister Helen,
Is ever to see you ere he die.’
‘He sees me in earth, in moon, and sky.
                                       Little brother!’
         (O Mother, Mary Mother,
Earth, moon, and sky, between hell and heaven!)

‘He sends a ring and a broken coin,
                                       Sister Helen.
And bids you mind the banks of Boyne.’
‘What else he broke will he ever join.
                                       Little brother?’
         (O Mother, Mary Mother,
Oh, never more, between hell and heaven!)
         .          .         .          .         .          .

‘He calls your name in an agony,
                                       Sister Helen,
That even dead love must weep to see.’
‘Hate, born of love, is blind as he.
                                       Little brother!’
         (O Mother, Mary Mother,
Love turned to hate, between hell and heaven!)
         .          .         .          .         .          .

‘Oh, it’s Keith of Keith now that rides fast,
                                       Sister Helen,
For I know the white hair on the blast.’
‘The short, short hour will soon be past,
                                       Little brother!’
         (O Mother, Mary Mother,
Will soon be past, between hell and heaven!)

‘He looks at me and he tries to speak,
                                       Sister Helen,
But oh! his voice is sad and weak!’
‘What here should the mighty baron seek,
                                       Little brother?’
         (O Mother, Mary Mother,
Is this the end, between hell and heaven!)

‘Oh his son still cries, if you forgive,
                                       Sister Helen,
The body dies, but the soul shall live.’
‘Fire shall forgive me as I forgive,
                                       Little brother!’
         (O Mother, Mary Mother,
As she forgives, between hell and heaven!)
         .          .         .          .         .          .

‘See, see, the wax has dropped from its place,
                                       Sister Helen,
And the flames are winning up apace!’
‘Yet here they burn but for a space,                                               181
                                       Little brother!’
         (O Mother, Mary Mother,
Here for a space, between hell and heaven!)

‘Ah! what white thing at the door has crossed,
                                       Sister Helen?
Ah! what is this that sighs in the frost?’
‘A soul that’s lost as mine is lost,
                                       Little brother!’
         (O Mother, Mary Mother,
Lost, lost, all lost, between hell and heaven!)

     In this ballad it cannot be denied that there is great power. The figures stand out upon the grim background—the despairing appeal and stern obduracy of revenge which is not less despairing, set in an “iron chill” of night air and melancholy wind. But the avenger makes no claim upon our sympathy. There is no softening in her, no late thrill of love or sorrow to bring her within the range of tender feeling—an error which is quite fatal so far as the widest range of human appreciation, the big common voice which is the giver of the highest fame, is concerned. And the refrain, though not so objectionable as some other refrains used by Mr. Rossetti, breaks up the tale in an arbitrary way, which is scarcely improved by the alterations which occur in it, and which break its absolute monotony. We are not sure that this is not even an additional drawback—for it compels a certain attention and prevents the reader from skimming it over simply, and trying to forget that it is there, which he does with the others. Neither “Lilith” nor “Troy Town” have any merit to carry them over the great drawback of this refrain. The first is a rhapsody of vengeance and guile, supposed to be uttered by Lilith, a witch-wife of Adam’s previous to the creation of Eve, who engages the snake, by promises of
her love, to lend her his shape, that she may tempt and ruin her unconscious rival.

“Oh but Adam was slave to Lilith!
         (And oh the bower and the hour!)
All the threads of my hair are golden.
And there in a net his heart was holden.

Oh and Lilith was queen of Adam!
         (Eden’s bower’s in flower.)
All the day and the night together,
My breath could shake his soul like a feather.
         .          .         .          .         .          .

O thou snake, the king-snake of Eden!
         (Eden’s bower’s in flower.)
God’s strong will oar necks are under,
But thou and I may cleave it asunder.

Help, sweet snake, sweet lover of Lilith,
         (And oh the bower and the hour!)
And let God learn how I loved and hated
Man in the image of God created.”

     Thus she raves; and we cannot feel particularly grateful to Mr. Rossetti for the revelation. “Troy Town” is so much more objectionable that it has not any appreciable meaning at all, and indeed would seem to have been written for the mere purpose of bringing in the refrain. It describes how “heaven-born Helen, Sparta’s queen,” offers a cup, moulded like her own breast, to Venus, in order that her beauty “may be given where it is due.” This is how the measure goes:—

“Venus looked on Helen’s gift,
                                       (O Troy town!)
Looked and saw with subtle drift,
Saw the work of the heart’s desire,
‘There thou kneel’st for love to lift.’
                                       (O Troy’s down.)
                                 (Tall Troy’s on fire.)

Venus looked in Helen’s face,
                                       (O Troy town!)
Know far off an hour and place,
And fire lit from the heart’s desire
Laughed and said, ‘Thy gift hath grace!’

                                       (O Troy’s down.)
                                 (Tall Troy’s on fire.)

     We must pause to make a strong protest against this evil habit. If the poem above quoted were particularly worth reading (which it is not) this burden would be intolerable. The refrain belongs to the song, the lyric, the poem which is written to be chanted, not read. In every other class of composition it is a mistake, even in the ballad, which, because it once was sung, the minstrels of the present day insist on treating as a song proper. All true songs are short, whereas a ballad, which has a whole romance to tell, is almost inevitably long; and as soon as the story comes 182 in the refrain ought to go out. The very essence and beauty of a song is in the brief sentiment, not lost in too many words, which is all that poetry can justly lay upon music, and the continual recurrence of which agrees with the mathematical repetitions which belong to the sister art. But a story declines to lend itself to the character of music; and it is a mere piece of archaicism in any poet to try to represent to himself that his ballad will be sung. He knows very well it will not be sung; and why should he burden the voice of a reader not possessed of any great variety of inflections, with the burden which demands all a musician’s skill to make it tolerable? We leave “Troy Town” and “Eden Bower,” however, to the people who see either poetry or music or any noble sentiment in them, to get rid of the refrain as they think best. Two such productions will help no man to acquire fame.
     The three longest poems in the book are entitled “A Last Confession,” “Dante at Verona,” and “Jenny.” Of these, the last is undoubtedly the most powerful. Perhaps powerful is not the word; but there is a side light in it thrown on one of the most painful subjects which can be discussed, and it is done without offensiveness, with a musing sadness, and comparative absence of feeling, which are remarkable enough. It is the supposed reverie of a man who has accompanied a young unfortunate to her house after some public amusement. They have been about to sup together, when the poor creature, tired out, drops asleep with her head upon his knee. She lies there in her soiled beauty, in that strange passionless passivity of guilt, which is almost like a shadow of innocence; and the man, equally passionless, muses over her. There is a poem of Alfred de Musset in which a similar situation occurs, but where the treatment is naturally more fiery, less soft and thoughtful. “Jenny,” we think, is the most original poem in the volume, but even its originality is not of a forcible kind. Passion of every description is absent from it. There is not even any sense of horror—any tragical perception of the depths of wretchedness and guilt involved, but only a gentle sadness, a soft pity for all the prettiness and softness and childish ways of the lost creature. Asleep—“just as another woman sleeps”—he muses with a thrill of insight; but pauses on the threshold of that awful avenue of thought. “Dante at Verona” is archaic and historical, but tells us nothing about Dante, and throws no further light upon him that we can make out, though the verses are quite respectably melodious, and noways to be objected to. The “Last Confession” might have been something higher, for the story has all the depth of tragedy—but somehow it is not. A certain echo of Mr. Browning is in it, though probably only to the reader and not to the author, who may, for anything we can tell, have written this sketch before Mr. Browning’s style and place in his generation were as clearly marked as they are now. It is a story of love and revenge—of a poniard and a sudden blow—and encloses a pretty love-song in (apparently) two versions, Italian and English, without any indication whether both are original, or if the translation only is Mr. Rossetti’s. The translation is a kind of paraphrase, and we prefer the Italian. In none of these poems, however, is there the least indication of a new poet arisen to bless us. They are all sufficiently interesting, pleasantly readable, some of them suggestive; but they lay no hold upon the imagination, or even on the ear and memory. It is quite curious, indeed, how so many well-chosen and well-combined words, and so many fine qualities of mind, should have so failed to seize upon our attention. We feel 183 perfectly capable of laying down the book at any moment, and even of forgetting where we have laid it. Yet there is something more than versification, and we cannot be contemptuous any more than we can be enthusiastic. A confusing sense that he ought to have done better, or that we ought to have felt more deeply, is upon us as we read. Is it our fault, or is it his? Now and then, in some “swallow flight of song” without any pretensions, we feel that Mr. Rossetti’s muse is just about to touch us deeply—as, for instance, in the two songs (which are not in the least songs, be it observed) which he entitles the “Woodspurge” and the “Honeysuckle;” but it is but a touch of her garments waving as she goes, and we are never for a moment sufficiently absorbed to be one with the poet. We are always calmly capable of spectatorship, and sensible of but a languid curiosity as to what shall come next.
     The same thing, but in stronger words, may be said of the little volume* just published by Mr. Myers. Let nobody say this is an unpoetical age. A generation ago, we doubt whether Mr. Rossetti or Mr. Myers would either of them have obtained a fair hearing. Poetry on the secondary level was then discountenanced by all the world. Mr. Rossetti’s poems have only been published for a month or two, and they are already in a third edition; and Mr. Myers informs us that his ‘St. Paul’ has found equal acceptance with the public—facts which are to ourselves simply unintelligible. The last generation must have been in this, as in other particulars, a middle-aged race, incapable of swallowing the sweet words and gentle cadences of poetical mediocrity, and with leisure enough only for the best; whereas the present generation, it would appear, has plunged into the heyday of literary youth, and is back ready to devour everything which comes to it in rhyme. It is a curious difference, and one which puzzles the critic, who has been accustomed to say, and to hear it said, that the age is not an age for poetry. When the successful poet Haverillo, in Professor Aytoun’s wonderful satire of ‘Firmilian,’ exasperates his adversary to the highest pitch by answering, “I have a third edition in the press,” the intimation is intended for a piece of extravagance. But third editions of poetry seem no longer rare.

. . .

     * Poems. By Frederic W. H. Myers. London: Macmillan & Co. 1870.

___

 

The North American Review (October, 1870 - p.471-480)

[Note: John A. Cassidy cites this review as the template for Buchanan’s ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry’ and assigns it to James Russell Lowell. Christopher Murray believes Cassidy is mistaken and the reviewer is J. R. Dennett.]

 

2. — Poems. By DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI. Author’s edition. Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1870. pp.282.

     FOR some twenty years Mr. Dante Rossetti has been more or less well known, even to persons not counted among his particular admirers, as a man of great poetical susceptibility and refined poetical 472 taste. His translations of the “Vita Nuova,” of the “Inferno,” and other mediæval Italian poetry, abundantly proved this, and proved, too, that he had in a high degree the power of literary expression. Despite, then, that presumption of incapacity very rightly entertained against a man who does not make public trial of a strength for which public acknowledgment is asked, there has been a disposition to give Mr. Rossetti the credit his immediate circle of friends asked for him as a poet of extraordinary abilities. It is true that he has printed, besides his translations, some original poems which would have served as confirmatory evidence in his favor; but the distinction between the printing of a work and the publication of it is not often better marked than in the case of “The Blessed Damozel,” in its earlier form; and the general public has, until the appearance of this volume, known but little more of his poetry than that it was handed about among a few friends, and by them admired with what to most discriminating persons seemed like extravagance. This, for the reason just mentioned, that the world is not much inclined to believe in poetry which is deliberately and persistently hid under a bushel; and, secondly, because readers and observers who have discernment are apt to feel a general distrust of the capacities of such natures as seem to have the weakness of contemptuously or with morbid uneasiness shunning the judges who alone can make general award, and seeking the presumably partial applause of a few; and, finally, because the few who in this instance called us to admire were not judges in whom there is entire confidence. It is not, we imagine, hazarding much to say that instructed lovers of poetry feel no great confidence in the justice of a poet’s claim to praise, merely because he is enthusiastically praised by Mr. Swinburne, who, his friends may profitably remind themselves, praises Mr. Walt Whitman, and puts him beside William Blake; or because he is admired by Mr. William Rossetti, who has done poetry no better service, much as he has written in poetry and criticism, than he did when he carried the strict Pre-Raphaelite theory of poetry to its legitimate end, and absurdly versified a criminal trial and its cross-examinations; or because he is declared most admirable by Mr. William Morris, whose pretty stories should not long blind many to his emptiness of matter and his extremely elaborate simplicity of manner,—fit conclusion, paradoxical though it may seem to say so, to the Pre- Raphaelite grotesqueness and weakness of his earlier “Defence of Guenevere,” with its strained and false mediævalism; or because he is praised by Miss Jean Ingelow; or by Mr. Thomas Woolner, whom, however, we ought not to mention without saying that unless it be Miss Christina Rossetti, at her best, when she is picturesque and 473 not too Pre- Raphaelite and passionate and not too sensuous—he is by very much indeed the simplest, honestest, and most thoroughly pleasing of all the group of poets with whom he is usually classed. Better than negative praise, too, can be given him, as any one may see who will look at “My Beautiful Lady.”
     It is in this circle of poets and artists, and their intimates, some of them having in their capacity as artists a strong claim on the respect of peop1e of cultivation, and most of them being at least interesting to people of cultivation, that Mr. Rossetti has had his high reputation. But as we have said, their dicta have not been of wide acceptance among those not given over to the cultus of Pre-Raphaelitism. Of this cultus it is not out of our present province to speak, for it has affected the literary as well as the pictorial or plastic expression of all who gave themselves up to it; but it is beyond our ability to treat of it as it should he treated of if one would make thoroughly clear the genesis and character of the works done under its influence. It may, however, be permitted any one to say that it had an absurd and ridiculous side; and if this aspect of it be once seen, the investigator and critic will doubtless find himself disembarrassed of some of that hindering reverence with which it is probable he might otherwise approach works which have been so very emphatically pronounced admirable and excellent, and which are to most critics strange enough and new enough to be not a little baffling. He does not need to be at all a hardened critic in order to laugh at the projectors of the “Germ,” for example, admired artists though they be, when he learns that, inasmuch as they believed that they had before them in conducting that iconoclastic magazine a work of great difficulty and labor, they decided to indicate this belief by always pronouncing the name of their periodical with the initial letter hard. This seems too absurd to be readily believed, that a number of grown men should go about saying “germ” with a hard g, because they had resolved to paint as good pictures, and write as good poems, and make as good reviews of other people’s poems as they possibly could. Yet, if a layman with no recognized right to say anything about art may say so, there is nothing in this procedure which is essentially inconsistent with the characteristics of the works which Pre-Raphaelitic art has produced,—as indeed how should there be? Over- strenuousness, enthusiasm in need of reasonable direction, self-conscious, crusading zeal, the exaggeration of surface- matters at the expense of the essential thing sought, affectation, which, however, may probably be the expression of genuine moods of minds in natures too little comprehensive,— all these one can fancy that one sees in the pictures and poems just as in this baptism of the magazine which the school set 474 on foot. The “Germ,” by the way, lived through four numbers, which are now to a certain extent curiosities worth looking at, as indicating the aims or the feelings of a school of art which has made much noise, and also as containing some of the first work of Mr. Dante Rossetti, Miss Rossetti, and Mr. Woolner; and moreover several designs by Pre-Raphaelite artists which, although generally feeble both in subject and treatment, possess, in one or two instances, what is held to be characteristic merit and characteristic defect. Not to insist on what is perhaps not very well worth attention, but by way of corroborating the evidence which our story of the “Germ” may offer, we may mention the fact that some years since, when something like an American  Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in the city of New York, where an American “Germ” too was established and lived for a while, it was seriously discussed by the brethren whether or not they should discard the ordinary clothes of contemporary mankind, and endue themselves with doublets and long hose and pantofles, and such other articles of dress as doubtless had so much to do with making the Titians and Angelos and Andreas of the old days of art.
     In the volume in hand Mr. Rossetti puts before the public the poems which have assured his friends of his genius, and offers us the means of making an advised estimate of his value as a poet to the world at large, which cannot intelligently judge of his value to particular schools, but which can with sufficient intelligence compare his productions with the general body of poetry. Opinions must differ; but the prevailing opinion, we should say, will be that we have in Mr. Rossetti another poetical man, and a man markedly poetical, and of a kind apparently though not radically different from any other of our secondary writers of poetry, but that we have not in him a true poet of any weight. He certainly has taste, and subtlety, and skill, and sentiment in excess, and excessive sensibility, and a sort of pictorial sensuousness of conception which gives warmth and vividness to the imagery that embodies his feelings and desires. But he is all feelings and desires; and he is of the earth, earthy, though the earth is often bright and beautiful pigments; of thought and imagination he has next to nothing. At last one discovers, what has seemed probable from the first, that one has been in company with a lyrical poet of narrow range; with a man who has nothing to say but of himself; and of himself as the yearning lover, mostly a sad one, of a person of the other sex. Where there seems to be something more than this, as in such a dramatic piece as “Sister Helen,” for instance, the substratum is usually the same; and the essentially subjective, and narrowly subjective character of the poem is only temporarily concealed by the author’s 475 favorite mediæval dress, which is never obtained except at the cost of throwing over the real life of the Middle Ages the special color which it suits the author’s purpose to throw over it. Mediævalism of this kind, elaborately appointed and equipped, has always been common enough, and certainly it has great powers of imposition; but what is it usually but our taking, each of us as it chances to suit his taste or his purpose, some one aspect of the true life of the Middle Ages, or, as it may happen, the classic ages, or the age of Queen Anne say, or King David, or Governor Winthrop, and making that stand for the objective truth? With Mr. Morris, say, the Middle Ages mean helmets and the treacheries of long-footed knights who fiercely love ladies who embroider banners, and wear samite gowns, and watch ships sailing out to sea, as do illuminated ladies, out of all drawing, in old manuscripts. Another man’s Middle Ages are made up of tourneys and knightly courtesies. The England of Queen Anne is to such and such a man all coffee-houses and wigs and small-swords; and to such and such another, Governor Winthrop’s New England is going always to church, and hanging witches, and austerely keeping fasts. We confess that whenever this particular form of self-indulgence is accompanied by an ostentation of exactness and of absolute reproduction of the past times, or when, as in the case of a certain school of writers, the impression given is the impression of the writer’s inability to live the life of his own age, and to see that in that also the realities of life and thought, the substance and subject of all really sound poetry, present themselves for treatment, we confess that we experience a feeling not far removed from contemptuous resentment. Surely there is something wrong in the thinker or the poet—shall we say, too, in the artist?—who can content himself with his fancies of the thoughts and feelings and views of times past, and who can better please himself with what after all must be more or less unreal phantasmagoria, than with the breathing life around him.
     Considered as a lyrical poet pure and simple, a lyrical verse-making lover, apart from whatever praise or blame belongs to him as a Pre-Raphaelite in poetry whose Pre-Raphaelitism is its most obvious feature, it will be found that Mr. Rossetti must be credited with an intensity of feeling which is overcast almost always with a sort of morbidness, and which usually trenches on the bound of undue sensuousness of tone. Pretty and natural, for example, is the idea, in “The Stream’s Secret,” of the lover’s making the wandering brook, endowed with the kind of animate existence that is so readily accorded the running stream, the confidant and messenger of his mistress. But the somewhat too erotic key-note is not long in making itself heard here, any more than in most of the other poems:

“Ah me! with what proud growth                                                   476
Shall that hour’s trusting race be run;
While, for each several sweetness still begun
Afresh, endures love’s endless drouth:
Sweet hands, sweet hair, sweet cheeks, sweet eyes, sweet mouth,
Each singly wooed and won.
         .          .         .          .         .
Therefore, when breast and cheek
Now part, from long embraces free,—
Each on the other gazing shall but see
A self that has no need to speak:
All things are sought, yet nothing more to seek,—
One love in unity.”

This certainly, if a little obscure and stammering in detail, and not much worth doing, is in the general forcible and vigorous. Freer from the fault of sexuality, if that is what we are to call it, is the skilful and even beautiful little poem entitled “The Portrait,” though in that also there is an undercurrent of earthly passionateness which marks it as in tune with its author’s all but unvarying mode of conceiving of love, which is with him, if never quite mere appetite, never, on the other hand, affection. This poem is, however, well worth attention for its delicacy and subdued warmth of passion,—the beloved woman being now dead, and the regard for the portrait tempering the love for its original; and also it is good by reason of some excellent pictures which it contains.
     Picturesqueness, indeed, is, as might have been expected, one of our author’s strong points. For one thing because he looks on nature with the eyes of a man whose business in the world it is to see and make pictures; and it might be not easy to find, outside of the delightful poems of Mr. William Barnes, who has so extraordinary an eye for the landscape- picturesque, any more decided recent successes in this way than Mr. Rossetti has made. Then, for another thing, he looks on life with the feeling of a born painter, whose natural instrument of expression is color, and who can with more ease indicate and subtly hint than he can clearly enunciate with intellectual precision what he wishes to convey to us. Thus he is no doubt at a disadvantage with most of his critics, and has for the necessary injustice, to call it so, which these do him, only the somewhat imperfect compensation of pleasing with an excess of vague pleasure a certain number of his more impressible readers of like mind with himself. The sensuousness, too, of which we speak, making it natural for him to seek palpable, tangible images in which to embody his conception, is another allied cause of his strength as a pictorial writer.
     The union of the qualities we have mentioned—his warmth of passion, 477 his picturesque power, his mediævalism in its apparently less affected form, his skill in the technic of verse—are perhaps best seen in the best known and, all things considered, the best worth knowing, of his poems; though we should say that having had exceptional luck with it, “The Blessed Damozel” is not that work of his in which he himself is most distinctly visible. Nor would it, we think, be true to say that there are not passages in other poems of his in which he, by glimpses, appears at greater altitude than in this one, and which gives the reader a better opinion of him. Though, for the matter of that, in “The Blessed Damozel” he is hedged about with that peculiar respect which is given to the maker of a rounded and complete work,—that respect accorded to a creator, and which is not given to the same man even when he is producing sweeter and deeper detached strains than are to be found in the melodious harmony of his perfected symphony or oratorio. The poem is no doubt fresh in the memory of many who first made its acquaintance twenty years or so ago. It is improved in the present edition; the changes, we observe, all being in the direction of less quaintness and Pre-Raphaelite roughness and more definiteness of thought,—albeit there is perhaps a little loss of the force and strikingness which the old quaintness had. Here, for example, we give the second stanza as it appeared in the “Germ,” to which we prefix the first stanza as it reads in the volume before us:—

“The blessed damozel leaned 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
     On the neck meetly worn;
Her hair, lying down her back,
     Was yellow like ripe corn.”

     In the new edition we have this reading of the last four verses, which we give by way of illustrating briefly the nature and effect of the changes that have been made:—

“But a white rose of Mary’s gift
     For service meetly worn;
Her hair that lay along her back
     Was yellow like ripe corn.”

     In the first stanza, too, there have been similar changes. Formerly

“Her blue, grave eyes were deeper much
     Than the deep water even,”—

478 the color of the eyes having now been changed apparently from blue to dark; and the verses smoothened and modernized a little. These alterations are less considerable than many others which the author has made, but they illustrate as well as any others our remark as to the kind of alterations that have been made.
     Of the rest of the books we have little to say as regards particular pieces. The sonnets descriptive of pictures will no doubt be accepted as skilfully interpretative by many persons who know already the pictures upon which they are based; and doubtless the sonnets giving subjects for pictures will have a value in the eyes of artists, which they can hardly have in those of literary readers. We may venture to say that they seem to us, as sonnets merely, not very good; although they are carefully constructed and are in that respect to be commended, as well as for occasional happinesses of thought. The same thing we should say of the other sonnets, but not without selecting one or two as examples of Mr. Rossetti’s general weakness, both as concerns his capacity of thought and his over-warmth of temperament. It is something very like morbidly gratified sexual sensuousness, too, that we discover in “Jenny,” a poem in which a young man “moralizes” a young woman of the town whom he has accompanied home from a place of amusement, and comments on her way of life and her probable character and fate after the manner of Mr. Browning in his analytical moods. It is the fashion to say of such things, that, although it is difficult to see how the author contrived it, he has managed with consummate skill to avoid the intrinsic indelicacy of his subject. As a matter of fact, however, it may be doubted if the inherent indelicacy is not what he just has not avoided; and whether all writers who practise this sort of morbid anatomy do not do something towards debauching the minds of a certain number of their readers. Such things tend, we imagine, to confound the distinction between morality and immorality, and have much the same effect as the prurient moral novels with which M. Feuillet, or the excellent M. Dumas fils occasionally buttresses the foundations of society. Another piece in which Mr. Rossetti shows that he has felt the influence of Mr. Browning is “A Last Confession,” which is one of the most direct and simple poems in the volume, and perhaps the one which is most fairly on a common and ordinary level of thought and sympathy. Worthy of mention, too, for various reasons, are “Eden Bower,” with its curious legend and successful versification which not even the device of a burden can destroy; “The Woodspurge,” for its truthful, forcible presentation of the facts of external nature, and of the psychological fact that sometimes, in moments of the greatest pain and distress, some trivial thing will impress itself ineffaceably upon the memory; “The 479 Honeysuckle,” also, which succeeds “The Woodspurge,” and like it has one or two of our author’s exasperating bits of quaintness, is both pretty and true, and may almost be set down with its companion as making the most satisfactory pair of poems in the book; the translations from the French of Villon are felicitously done; and if there is anybody who wants to get at once a full mouthful of mediævalism such as may keep him cloyed for a good while, and who has not at hand Mr. Morris’s “Defence of Guenevere” where the poet is a little better concealed and the mediævalism is more out and out hot and strong, we advise him to turn to “John of Tours,” “Sister Helen,” “The Staff and Scrip,” and “My Father’s Close.”
     To whatever the reader turns he will, we think, as we have said, come at last to the conclusion that Mr. Rossetti is essentially a subjective poet who deals with the passion of love, and who has at command a set of properties which have the advantage of being comparatively new and striking to most readers and have the disadvantage of being thought by most readers to be merely properties. And the love to which he confines himself will be found to be at bottom a sensuous and sexual love, refined to some extent by that sort of worship of one’s mistress as saint and divinity which the early Italians made a fashion, certainly, whether or not it was ever a faith by which they lived. It is, we take it, to his long study in this school that Mr. Rossetti owes much of this turn that his thoughts take. See, for example (to instance hastily), how in his own translation of Giacomino Pugliesi’s poem “Of his Dead Lady,” the lover anticipates the Blessed Damozel going to God with her lover by the hand and asking that his and her heaven should be merely to be together as on earth:—

“Had I my well belovéd, I would say
     To God, unto whose bidding all things bow,
That we were still together night and day.”

And here again, by the way, in Jacopo da Lentino, is a hint of less consequence for the yearning of the damozel:—

“I have it in my heart to serve God so
     That unto Paradise I shall repair,—
The holy place through the which everywhere
     I have heard say that joy and solace flow,—
Without my lady I were loath to go,
She who has the bright face and the bright hair.”

Besides its sensuousness and its sort of ecstasy, sadness and dejection characterize Mr. Rossetti’s love, which sheds tears and looks backwards with regret, and forwards without cheerfulness, and yearningly into the mould of the grave, as often as it looks backwards upon remembered raptures and forwards to an eternity of locked embraces and speechless 480 gazing upon the beloved. His love is, on the whole, rather depressing. It is, however, past doubt that, although the world at large is not going to give Mr. Rossetti anything like the place that has been claimed for him,—though it is even probable that the fashion of his poetry will very soon pass away and be gone for good, and the opinion of his genius fall to an opinion that he is a man of the temperament of genius lacking power to give effect, in words at least, to a nature and gifts rare rather than strong or valuable, nevertheless it will be admitted that he is an elaborately skilful love-poet of narrow range, who affords an occasional touch that makes the reader hesitate and consider whether he has not now and again struggled out and really emerged as a poet worthy of the name. We cannot say that in our own case the hesitation has ever lasted long. Nor can we say that we have not oftener hesitated and almost made up our mind to say of him, that he is very unprofitable,—a writer so affected, sentimental, and painfully self-conscious that the best that can be done in his case is to hope that this book of his, as it has “unpacked his bosom” of so much that is unhealthy, may have done him more good than it has given others pleasure. Of course to say so would be to speak far too harshly, and would convey a false impression. To say so would, however, express accurately enough one mood of mind into which the reader is thrown during the perusal of these poems; and it would really be no falser than very much of the praises which they have called out.

___

 

Temple Bar (December, 1871 - Vol. 34, p. 99-100)

[Extracted from the article, ‘Among the Books of Seventy-one’. Vol. 34 of Temple Bar is available at the Hathi Trust.]

. . .

     I should like to have delivered my soul about another “new poet,” Mr. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but all I had to say about him has been already said. In a recent paper in the ‘Contemporary,’ called ‘The Fleshly School,’ Mr. Rossetti and his admirers have been told a few wholesome truths. There is in all the writings of this school a fleshliness which is meant to be natural, but is exaggerated and unwholesome: the verses reek with what the writer in the ‘Contemporary’ calls “their inordinate and extravagant desire for some person of the other sex;” and love, which should be secret, tender, and shrinking, becomes blatant, fierce, and loud; and what it then deserves to be called we may leave to the more outspoken critic. By the “mutual admiration society” system the verses of Mr. Rossetti have been greatly belauded; but we believe that the British public, who must expect, of course, to be called Philistines, have been pretty unanimous in refusing to be goaded into admiration. And yet there is really much to admire. Mr. Rossetti is a most careful artist; every line is studied; nothing is hasty; nothing against verbal taste; but his verses are cold—cold and hard. One little ballad with the tearful ring in it, one single song where we can feel that the poet is thinking more of what he says than of how he says it, is worth a cartload of these volumes. Cannot cultivated men perceive that verse writing is an art which may be successfully studied by almost everybody, but that the art of poetry can never be taught?
     And as for this passion of love, which lights up men’s lives like the sunshine, what kind of art is it which so exaggerates and distorts its importance as to make it seem the sole end and aim of life instead of one joy out of many? Are we fallen back on the old Provençal views of art? Or are Messrs. Swinburne, Rossetti, and the rest, like some of the later poets of the Midi—allegorists, who, under the garb of erotic verse, teach truths of a lofty and mystical nature to a small band of initiés?
     From a vague republicanism, which seems in its wild and purposeless desires, to one who really strives for the bettering of the human race, like the cry of a child for the moon; from an atmosphere over-charged with simulated passion and ardours too fervid to be real, let us pass to a new poet whose voice comes on us like the sweet breath of the west wind, cool, healthy and invigorating. A poet from across the ocean, a singer in novel guise, who takes us to other scenes and pastures new, whose song is of the prairie and the cañon; with whom we crash through the tangles of the forest and listen to the roar of the hurricane. Joaquin Miller is a Californian; his verse, not modelled on that of any English poet, has a freshness and a freedom of its own unlike anything English.

. . .

___

 

The Quarterly Review (January, 1872 - Vol. 132, p. 69-75)

[A late review of Rossetti’s Poems which Buchanan refers to in his ‘Fleshly School’ pamphlet. It was part of a longer article which also reviewed Swinburne’s Songs before Sunrise and William Morris’ The Earthly Paradise. Vol. 132 of The Quarterly Review is available at the Hathi Trust.]

 

     The passions of modern life, which appear to Mr. Swinburne so full of sound and fury, die completely away, or at most make themselves but faintly audible, in the poems of Mr. Rossetti. The latter describes himself as a poet of the order that ‘haunt—

‘The vale of magical dark mysteries.’

     In one of his sonnets he speaks approvingly of the religious symbolism of ancient art, and advises the moderns to retrace their footsteps to the old starting-point. A similar impulse, we presume, leads him to attempt in poetry a revival of the mystical style of Dante’s ‘Vita Nuova.’ Such, at least, appears to be the intention of his sonnets, which, we think, contain all that is most characteristic of his work.
     The objections to such a scheme are not far to seek, and lose none of their force after an examination of Mr. Rossetti’s poems. The period for which Dante wrote was theological, learned, and enigmatical. Our own day is scientific and matter-of-fact to excess. The complete body of physical and metaphysical philosophy which Dante compiled throws light upon the otherwise dark enigmas of his style. In the riddles of the modern mystic everything is of private interpretation, and depends upon the kind of communication established between the author and the reader. Lastly, in the ‘Vita Nuova’ Dante gives us a detailed history of his connection with Beatrice, and explains the occasion and the meaning of each sonnet in turn. Mr. Rossetti affords us no clue to the collection of sonnets which he terms ‘contributions towards a work to be entitled “The House of Life.”’ We fail to find in it any sign of unity or arrangement. We see that some of the sonnets express the feelings of a lover in happy possession of his mistress, and others his despair at the loss of her; others, again, are in a vein of philosophical reflection; but how the philosophical sonnets are connected with the love sonnets, or the love sonnets with each other, there is nothing to declare. The result of all this is that, whether or not the reader of Dante fathoms the depth of the poet’s meaning, he finds enough to interest him strongly in an orderly and beautiful work; while the reader of Mr. Rossetti has to content himself with guessing at mysteries, which often turn out to be nothing but word puzzles or literary conceits.
70     We propose to set the work of the master and disciple side by side, that our readers may judge of the difference in quality. The following is a translation of the last sonnet in the ‘Vita Nuova,’ describing Dante’s sigh passing into heaven to Beatrice:—

     ‘Beyond the sphere that has the largest sweep passes the sigh that issues from my heart: the new apprehension that Love in grief leads him draws him heavenwards. When he arrives where he desires, he sees a lady who receives honour and shines so brightly that, through the midst of her splendour, the pilgrim spirit beholds her. He sees her in such wise that when he reports her to me I do not understand him, so subtly does he speak to the sorrowing heart that makes him speak. I know that he speaks of that gentle one, because he often names Beatrice, so that I understand him well, dear ladies mine.’

     The drift of this is plain enough, and the niceties of the thought can be easily understood by the light of Dante’s own commentary. Here, on the other hand, is one of Mr. Rossetti’s most finished sonnets on what appears to be a parallel occasion:—

‘I sat with Love beside a woodside well,
     Leaning across the water, I and he;
     Nor ever did he speak, nor looked at me,
But touched his lute wherein was audible
The certain secret thing he had to tell:
     Only our mirrored eyes met silently
     In the low wave; and that sound came to be
The passionate voice I knew; and my tears fell.
And at their fall, his eyes beneath grew hers;
And with his foot and with his wing feathers
     He swept the spring that watered my heart’s drouth.
Then the dark ripples spread to waving hair,
And, as I stooped, her own lips rising there
     Bubbled with brimming kisses at my mouth.’

     Both these poems make pictures, but Dante’s is full of a deep and tender meaning. Mr. Rossetti’s is a picture, and no more: or if there is a meaning to the gross image in the concluding line, it is of a kind that we would sooner miss.
     This difference is continued throughout the sonnets of the two poets: Dante being always simple and tender, Mr. Rossetti rarely anything more than picturesque. Thus both of them describe abstract passions by means of persons and images. Dante, for instance, speaks of Love ‘driving from bis breast the exile sighs that went out wailing.’ Mr. Rossetti’s abstract characters are also numerous—Love, Sleep, Death, and the like—but they are much more finely dressed than Dante’s: they live in groves, wear aureoles, and carry gonfalons. So laboriously picturesque is he that 71 he sometimes spoils a symbol with a really felicitous meaning by overloading it. It is poetical to speak of sleep as a fallow-field; but Mr. Rossetti, wishing to connect the idea of sleep with love, writes ‘the love-sown fallow-field of sleep,’ and so destroys the beauty of the metaphor. Death may appear to Mr. Rossetti as a child, but why need he go on to speak of ‘Death’s new- born milky eyes’? or what is the point of saying of Song that his hair—

‘Blew like a flame, and blossomed like a wreath’?

     To picturesque symbolism of this sort, however, we have no objection, except in so far as it pretends to be profound. But there is another kind of symbolism which Mr. Rossetti affects, and for which no terms of condemnation can be too strong. We allude to certain sonnets, in which he endeavours to attach a spiritual meaning to the animal passions. The fourth and fifth sonnets describe, with a revolting picturesqueness, the sexual relation, which, with a profanity the more gross because it appears to be unconscious, he speaks of in the second sonnet under the metaphor of the sacramental bread and wine. We have no hesitation in stigmatising such a deification of the animal instincts as emasculate obscenity. Mysteries of this sort are intelligible enough, but they belong to the worship of no deity but Priapus. There are, indeed, no other passages in the sonnets so objectionable as those which we have noticed; but the whole spirit of Mr. Rossetti’s love poetry is of the earth, earthy. Love, as he represents it, appears not as romantic passion, or even as natural ardour, but as pious sensuality. If the lover of his verse wishes to praise his mistress, he describes her as one—

‘Whose speech truth knows not from her thought,
     Nor love her body from her soul.

Her ‘brows, hands, lips, heart, mind, voice, kisses, and words’ are so many terrestrial revelations of the heavenly Deity; and when death deprives him of her company, the force of love, as we have seen, calls up her image from a spring so vividly that her ‘lips bubble with brimming kisses at his mouth.’ It can, of course, be urged that, as what is obscure may be profound, love poetry of this sort is an expression of refined passion: for ourselves, we confess that the religious tone in the amatory sonnets reminds us forcibly of the language of the Agapemone.
     The character of Mr. Rossetti’s thought is reflected in his style. The construction of his verse is generally musical, and his language is sometimes happily epigrammatic, as in the
description of the light-of-love ladies,—

‘Who kissed Love’s wings that brought him yesterday,                     72
     And thank his wings to-day that he is flown.’

     Great pains have evidently been taken to give every thought an uncommon aspect, and to elaborate the language in which it is expressed. The value of the thought, however, often seems out of all proportion to the labour spent upon it, as in the following sonnet called ‘A Day of Love:’—

             ‘While Love’s spell
From his predominant presence doth compel
     All alien hours, an outworn populace,
     The hours of Love fill full the echoing space
With sweet confederate music favourable.’

     Here we suppose if Mr. Rossetti, like Dante, were to translate himself, he would say he wished to express that the time was full of love; that he therefore represented Love expelling the memory of past hours from the present moment, the perfect delight of which he described by the image of music. But we think it clear that a feeling so simple cannot be really intensified by so much elaboration and such remote imagery.
     The practice of looking at everything in an uncommon way extends itself to the commonest objects. A love-letter is thus addressed:—

‘Warmed by her hand and shadowed by her hair,
     As closed she leaned and poured her heart through thee,
Whereof the articulate throbs accompany
     The smooth black stream that makes thy whiteness fair,
     Sweet fluttering sheet!’

     Passing over the grammatical looseness of these lines, and making allowance for a lover’s enthusiasm, we must say we have never known ink and paper apostrophised in terms of such
elaborate and Oriental respect.
     Obscurity of thought may sometimes be condoned in a mystical poet, but wherever his thought is clear in intention he has no excuse for not presenting it in the clearest language, especially when, like Mr. Rossetti, he opens his volume with the notice that nothing is included which is believed to be incomplete. What, then, are we to say of lines like these?—

‘Because our talk was of the cloud-control
     And moon-track of the journeying face of Fate.
Her tremulous kisses faltered at love’s gate,
     And her eyes dreamed against a distant goal.’

     When translated into English prose we suppose this means, ‘Our talk of the uncertainty of events made her kisses falter on 73 her lips, while her eyes appeared to contemplate some distant goal.’ We see in fragments the metaphor by which the thought is conveyed, but to extract any clear image from the words in the first two lines is, we venture to say, a sheer impossibility. In the next sonnet, called ‘Parted Love,’ we read—

‘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?’

     How can we sympathise with a lonely lover, however weary of the time, who cannot speak more plainly than this?
     We have commented severely upon these sonnets because their defects appear to us considerably to exceed their merits. It would be unjust, however, to Mr. Rossetti to deny that his poetical qualities—and they are not mean— sometimes combine to produce a really happy result. The following sonnet is entitled ‘The Portrait:’—

‘O Lord of all compassionate control,
     O Love, let this my lady’s picture glow
     Under my hand to praise thy name, and show
Even of her inner self the perfect whole;
That he who seeks her beauty’s furthest goal,
     Beyond the light that the sweet glances throw,
     And refluent wave of the sweet smile, may know
The very sky and sealine of her soul.
Lo! it is done. Above the long lithe throat
     The mouth’s mould testifies of voice and kiss,
     The shadowed eyes remember and foresee.
Her face is made her shrine. Let all men note
That in all years (O Love, thy gift is this!)
     They that would look on her must come to me.’

     If ‘Lord of all compassionate control' is not one of the author’s many affectations, it is, at any rate, not idiomatic English. ‘Long lithe throat’ has rather too much of the jargon of the studio. But with these exceptions the sonnet seems to us as good as it can be. Appropriate symbolism is united to ingenious fancy, and expressed in language of natural feeling. It is a singular comment on the general tone of Mr. Rossetti’s love poems, that as the expression in the portrait is appropriately made a revelation of the lady’s soul, so the bodily traits of the lady herself are elsewhere exalted as revelations of 74 the supreme and invisible Love. But in the former case the symbolism represents the glow of natural feeling; in the latter it is an unnatural conceit.
     Mr. Rossetti’s volume also contains several ballads, which are mostly exercises on remote subjects in a semi-antique style, generally ingenious and complete. One in particular, called ‘Sister Helen,’ deserves the praise due to poems of this class as being forcibly imagined and very dramatically contrived. The effect of the others is a little spoiled by their tiresome and unmeaning burdens.
     We purpose to close our remarks on Mr. Rossetti’s verse with some reflections on a poem which, we think, reveals characteristically the incapacity of the literary poet to deal with contemporary themes in an effective and straightforward manner. ‘Jenny’ is a poem on the subject of unfortunate women. A man is supposed to have accompanied a girl of this description to her house, where she falls asleep with her head on his knee, while he moralises on her condition. The majority of poets have, as we think wisely, avoided subjects of this sort. But assuming that success might justify its treatment, one of the first elements of success is that the piece should be brief and forcible. ‘Jenny’ is nearly 400 lines long. The metre at the opening reminds us of one which Mr. Browning uses with characteristic force, but which in Mr. Rossetti’s hands soon degenerates into feeble octosyllabic verse. The thought throughout is pretentious but  commonplace. The moralist, beginning with something like a rhapsody on the appearance of the girl as she lies asleep, wonders what she is thinking about; he then reflects that her sleep exactly resembles the sleep of a pure woman; her face he feels might serve a painter as the model of a Madonna. We are thus imperceptibly edged on into the author’s favourite regions of abstraction:—

‘Yet, Jenny, looking long at you
The woman almost fades from view.
A cipher of man’s changeless sum
Of lust past, present, and to come
Is left. A riddle that one shrinks
To challenge from the scornful sphinx.’

     Exactly. So this profound philosopher, whose somewhat particular reflections on the charms of the sleeper have brought him at last face to face with the mystery of evil, coolly remarks,—

‘Come, come what good in thoughts like this?’

packs some gold into the girl’s hair, and takes his leave. What good indeed? But why in that case, and if Mr. Rossetti had no 75 power to deal otherwise with so painful a theme could he not have spared us an useless display of affected sentiment and impotent philosophy?
     The style of the poem is as bad as the matter. Descriptions repulsively realistic are mixed up with imagery like that in Solomon’s Song; the most familiar objects are described by the most unusual paraphrases; a London schoolboy, for instance, being called ‘a wise unchildish elf,’ while the similes are painfully far-fetched. The heart of the woman is said to be—

‘Like a rose shut in a book
In which pure women may not look,
For its base pages claim control
To crush the flower within the soul;
Where through each dead rose-leaf that clings,
Pale as transparent psyche wings,
To the vile text, are traced such things
As might make lady’s cheek indeed
More than a living rose to read;
So nought save foolish foulness may
Watch with hard eyes the sure decay;
And so the life-blood of this rose,
Puddled with shameful knowledge, flows
Through leaves no chaste band may unclose.’

     Affectation and obscurity make the application of this difficult enough. It will not, however, escape notice that the simile is radically false, for whereas the point is that the woman’s heart is alive in the midst of corruption, the rose in the book, to which the heart is compared, is dried and dead.

_____

 

Back to The Fleshly School of Poetry Controversy

 

Home
Biography
Bibliography

 

Poetry
Plays
Fiction

 

Essays
Reviews
Letters

 

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

 

The Critical Response
Harriett Jay
Miscellanea

 

Links
Site Diary
Site Search