Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. IV. The Nineteenth Century: Wordsworth to Rossetti
Critical Introduction by Walter Pater
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (18281882)
[Dante Gabriel Rossetti, poet and painter, was born in London, in the year 1828; his father, by birth and education an Italian, being distinguished as a curious commentator upon Dante. He became in early youth a student of painting, in which art, though never a public exhibitor, he grew steadily to fame as an imaginative designer and a colourist of the highest rank. With two years of wedded life (18601862) and with some intimate friendships, he passed his days in much seclusion; residing from the year 1863 chiefly at an old and picturesque house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. In 1861 he published Translations from the Early Italian Poets; in 1870 Poems; and in 1881 Ballads and Sonnets. After a period of failing health he died at Birchington-on-Sea, on Easter Day, 1882. The student of his life and work should consult Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, by T. Hall Caine; Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a Record and a Study, by William Sharp; and, in the Nineteenth Century, March 1883, The Truth about Rossetti, by Theodore Watts.]
IT was characteristic of a poet who had ever something about him of mystic isolation, and will still appeal perhaps, though with a name it may seem now established in English literature, to a special and limited audience, that some of his poems had won a kind of exquisite fame before they were in the full sense published. The Blessed Damozel, although actually printed twice before the year 1870, was eagerly circulated in manuscript; and the volume which it now opens came at last to satisfy a long-standing curiosity as to the poet, whose pictures also had become an object of the same peculiar kind of interest. For those poems were the work of a painter, understood to belong to, and to be indeed the leader, of a new school then rising into note; and the reader of to-day may observe already, in The Blessed Damozel, written at the age of eighteen, a prefigurement of the chief characteristics of that school, as he will recognise in it also, in proportion as he really knows Rossetti, many of the characteristics which are most markedly personal and his own. Common to that school and to him, and in both alike of primary significance, was the quality of sincerity, already felt as one of the charms of that earliest poema perfect sincerity, taking effect in the deliberate use of the most direct and unconventional expression, for the conveyance of a poetic sense which recognised no conventional standard of what poetry was called upon to be. At a time when poetic originality in England might seem to have had its utmost play, here was certainly one new poet more, with a structure and music of verse, a vocabulary, an accent, unmistakeably novel, yet felt to be no mere tricks of manner adopted with a view to forcing attentionan accent which might rather count as the very seal of reality on one mans own proper speech; as that speech itself was the wholly natural expression of certain wonderful things he really felt and saw. Here was one, who had a matter to present to his readers, to himself at least, in the first instance, so valuable, so real and definite, that his primary aim, as regards form or expression in his verse, would be but its exact equivalence to those data within. That he had this gift of transparency in languagethe control of a style which did but obediently shift and shape itself to the mental motion, as a well-trained hand can follow on the tracing paper the outline of an original drawing below it, was proved afterwards by a volume of typically perfect translations from the delightful but difficult early Italian poets: such transparency being indeed the secret of all genuine style, of all such style as can truly belong to one man and not to another. His own meaning was always personal and even recondite, in a certain sense learned and casuistical, sometimes complex or obscure; but the term was always, one could see, deliberately chosen from many competitors, as the just transcript of that peculiar phase of soul which he alone knew, precisely as he knew it.
One of the peculiarities of The Blessed Damozel was a definiteness of sensible imagery, which seemed almost grotesque to some, and was strange, above all, in a theme so profoundly visionary. The gold bar of heaven from which she leaned, her hair yellow like ripe corn, are but examples of a general treatment, as naively detailed as the pictures of those early painters contemporary with Dante, who has shown a similar care for minute and definite imagery in his verse; there, too, in the very midst of profoundly mystic vision. Such definition of outline is indeed one among many points in which Rossetti resembles the great Italian poet, of whom, led to him at first by family circumstances, he was ever a lovera servant and singer, as faithful, as Dante of Florence and of Beatricewith some close inward conformities of genius, independent of any mere circumstances of education. It was said by a critic of the last century, not wisely though agreeably to the practice of his time, that poetry rejoices in abstractions. For Rossetti, as for Dante, without question on his part, the first condition of the poetic way of seeing and presenting things is particularisation. Tell me now, he writes, for Villons
Dictes-moy où, nen quel pays,
Est Flora, la belle Romaine
Tell me now, in what hidden way is
Lady Flora the lovely Roman:
way, in which one might actually chance to meet her; the unmistakeably poetic effect of the couplet in English being dependent on the definiteness of that single word (though actually lighted on in the search after a difficult double rhyme) for which every one else would have written, like Villon himself, a more general one, just equivalent to place or region.
And this delight in concrete definition is allied with another of his conformities to Dante, the really imaginative vividness, namely, of his personificationshis hold upon them, or rather their hold upon him, with the force of a Frankenstein, when once they have taken life from him. Not Death only and Sleep, for instance, and the winged spirit of Love, but certain particular aspects of them, a whole populace of special hours and places, the hour even which might have been, yet might not be, are living creatures, with hands and eyes and articulate voices.
Poetry as a maniaone of Platos two higher forms of divine maniahas, in all its species, a mere insanity incidental to it, the defect of its quality, into which it may lapse in its moment of weakness: and the insanity which follows a vivid poetic anthropomorphism like that of Rossetti may be noted here and there in his work, in a forced and almost grotesque materialising of abstractions, as Dante also became at times a mere subject of the scholastic realism of the Middle Age.
In Loves Nocturn and The Streams Secret, congruously perhaps with a certain feverishness of soul in the moods they present, there is in places a near approach (may it be said?) to such insanity of realism
Pity and love shall burn
In her pressed cheek and cherishing hands;
And from the living spirit of love that stands
Between her lips to soothe and yearn,
Each separate breath shall clasp me round in turn
And loose my spirits bands.
But even if we concede this,if we allow, in the very plan of those two compositions, something of the literary conceitwhat exquisite, what novel flowers of poetry, we must admit them to be, as they stand! In the one, what a delight in all the natural beauty of water, all its details for the eye of a painter; in the other, how subtle and fine the imaginative hold upon all the secret ways of sleep and dreams! In both of them, with much the same attitude and tone, Lovesick and doubtful Lovewould fain inquire of what lies below the surface of sleep, and below the water; stream or dream being forced to speak by Loves powerful control; and the poet would have it foretell the fortune, issue, and event of his wasting passion. Such artifices were not unknown in the old Provençal poetry of which Dante had learned something. Only, in Rossetti at least, they are redeemed by a serious purpose, by that sincerity of his, which allies itself readily to a serious beauty, a sort of grandeur of literary workmanshipto a great style. One seems to hear there a really new kind of poetic utterance, with effects which have nothing else like them; as there is nothing else, for instance, like the narrative of Jacobs Dream, or Blakes design of the Singing of the Morning Stars, or Addisons Nineteenth Psalm.
With him indeed, as in some revival of the old mythopic age, common thingsdawn, noon, nightare full of human or personal expression, full of sentiment. The lovely little sceneries scattered up and down his poems, glimpses of a landscape, not indeed of broad open-air effects, but rather that of a painter concentrated upon the picturesque effect of one or two selected objects at a timethe hollow brimmed with mist, or the ruined weir, as he sees it from one of the windows, or reflected in one of the mirrors of his house of life (the vignettes for instance seen by Rose Mary in the magic beryl) attest, by their very freshness and simplicity, to a pictorial or descriptive power in dealing with the inanimate world, which is certainly still one half of the charm, in that other, more remote and mystic, use of it. For with Rossetti this sense of, after all lifeless, nature, is translated to a higher service, in which it does but incorporate itself with some phase of strong emotion. Every one understands how this may happen at critical moments of life; what a weirdly expressive soul may have crept, even in full noonday, into the white-flowerd elder-thicket, when Godiva saw it gleam through the Gothic archways in the wall, at the end of her ride. To Rossetti it is so always, because to him life is a crisis at every moment. A sustained impressibility towards the mysterious conditions of mans every-day life, towards the very mystery itself in it, gives a singular gravity to all his work: those matters never became trite to him. But throughout, it is the ideal intensity of loveof love based upon a perfect yet peculiar type of physical or material beauty, which is enthroned in the midst of those mysterious powers; Youth and Death, Destiny and Fortune, FamePoetic Fame, Memory, Oblivion, and the like. Rossetti is one of those who, in the words of Mérimée, se passionnent pour la passion, one of Loves lovers.
And yet, again as with Dante, to speak of his ideal type of beauty as material, is partly misleading. Spirit and matter indeed have been for the most part opposed, with a false contrast or antagonism, by schoolmen, whose artificial creation those abstractions really are. In our actual concrete experience, the two trains of phenomena which they do but roughly distinguish, play inextricably into each other. Practically, the church of the Middle Age by its æsthetic worship, its sacramentalism, its real faith in the resurrection of the flesh, had set itself against that Manichean opposition of spirit and matter, and its results in mens way of taking life; and in this, Dante is the central representative of its spirit. To him, in the vehement and impassioned heat of his conceptions, the material and the spiritual are fused and blent: if the spiritual attains the definite character of a crystal, what is material loses its earthiness and impurity. And here again, by force of instinct, Rossetti is one with him. His chosen type of beauty is one,
Whose speech Truth knows not from her thought,
Nor Love her body from her soul.
Like Dante, he knows no region of spirit which shall not be sensuous also, or material. The shadowy world, which he realises so powerfully, has still the ways and houses, the land and water, the light and darkness, the fire and flowers, that had so much to do in the moulding of those bodily powers and aspects which counted for so large a part of the soul, here.
For Rossetti, then, the great affections of persons to each other, swayed and determined, in the case of his highly pictorial genius, mainly by that so-called material loveliness, formed the great undeniable reality in things, the solid resisting substance, in a world where all beside might be but shadow. The fortunes of those affectionsof the great love so determined; its casuistries, its languor sometimes; above all, its sorrows; its fortunate or unfortunate collisions with those other great matters; how it looks, as the long day of life goes round, in the light and shadow of themthat, conceived with an abundant imagination, and a deep, a philosophic reflectiveness, is the matter of his verse, and especially of what he designed as his chief poetic work, a work to be called The House of Life, towards which the majority of his sonnets and songs were contributions.
The dwelling-place in which one finds oneself by chance or destiny, yet can partly fashion for oneself; never properly ones own at all, if it be changed too lightly; in which every object has its associationsthe dim mirrors, the portraits, the lamps, the books, the hair-tresses of the dead and visionary magic crystals in the secret drawers, the names and words scratched on the windowswindows open upon prospects the saddest or the sweetestthe house which one must quit, yet taking perhaps how much of its quietly active light and colour along with us!grown now to be a kind of raiment to ones body, as the body, according to Swedenborg, is but the raiment of the soulunder that image, the whole of Rossettis work might count as a House of Life, of which he is but the Interpreter. And it is a haunted house. A sense of power in love, defying distance, and those barriers which are so much more than physical distanceof unutterable desire penetrating into the world of sleep, however lead-bound, was one of those anticipative notes obscurely struck in The Blessed Damozel, and, in his later work, makes him speak sometimes almost like a believer in mesmerism. Dream-land, as we said, with its phantoms of the body, deftly coming and going on loves service, is to him, in no mere fancy or figure of speech, a real country, a veritable expansion of, or addition to, our waking life; and he did well perhaps to wait carefully upon sleep, the lack of which became mortal disease with him. One may recognise even a sort of over-hasty and morbid making ready for death itself, which increases on him; the thoughts and imageries of it coming with a frequency and importunity, in excess, one might think, of even the very saddest, quite wholesome wisdom.
And indeed the publication of his second volume of Ballads and Sonnets preceded his death by scarcely a twelvemonth. That volume bears witness to the reverse of any failure of power or falling-off from his early standard of literary perfection, in every one of his then accustomed forms of poetrythe song, the sonnet, and the ballad. The newly printed sonnets, now completing the House of Life, certainly advanced beyond those earlier ones, in clearness; his dramatic power in the ballad, was here at its height; while one monumental lyrical piece, Soothsay, testifies, more clearly even than the Nineveh of his first volume, to the reflective force, the dry reason, always at work behind his imaginative creations, which at no time dispensed with a genuine intellectual structure. For in matters of pure reflection also, Rossetti maintained the painters sensuous clearness of conception; and this has something to do with the capacity, largely illustrated by his ballads, of telling some red-hearted story of impassioned action with effect.
Were there indeed ages, in which the external conditions of poetry such as Rossettis were of more spontaneous growth than in our own? The archaic side of Rossettis work, his preferences in regard to earlier poetry, connect him with those who have certainly thought so, who fancied they could have breathed more largely in the age of Chaucer, or of Ronsard, in one of those ages, in the words of Stendhalces siècles de passions ou les âmes pouvaient se livrer franchement à la plus haute exaltation, quand les passions qui font la possibilité comme les sujets des beaux arts existaient. We may think, perhaps, that such old time as that has never really existed except in the fancy of poets; but it was to find it, that Rossetti turned so often from modern life to the chronicle of the past. Old Scotch history, perhaps beyond any other, is strong in the matter of heroic and vehement hatreds and love, the tragic Mary herself being but the perfect blossom of them; and it is from that history that Rossetti has taken the subjects of the two longer ballads of his second volume: of the three admirable ballads in it, The Kings Tragedy (in which Rossetti has dexterously interwoven some relics of Jamess own exquisite early verse) reaching the highest level of dramatic success, and marking perfection, perhaps, in this kind of poetry; which, in the earlier volume, gave us, among other pieces, Troy Town, Sister Helen, and Eden Bower.
Like those earlier pieces, the ballads of the second volume bring with them the question of the poetic value of the refrain
Eden bower s in flower:
And O the bower and the hour!
and the like. Two of those balladsTroy Town and Eden Bower, are terrible in theme; and the refrain serves, perhaps, to relieve their bold aim at the sentiment of terror. In Sister Helen again, it has a real, sustained purpose (being here duly varied also) and performs the part of a chorus, as the story proceeds. Yet even in these cases, whatever its effect may be in actual recitation, it may indeed be questioned, whether, to the mere reader their actual effect is not that of a positive interruption and drawback, at least in pieces so lengthy; and Rossetti himself, it would seem, came to think so, for in the shortest of his later ballads. The White Shipthat old true history of the generosity with which a youth, worthless in life, flung himself upon deathhe has contented himself with a single utterance of the refrain, given out like the key-note or tune of a chant.
In The Kings Tragedy, Rossetti has worked upon a motive, broadly human, in the phrase of popular criticism, such as one and all may realise. Rossetti, indeed, with all his self-concentration upon his own circle of work, by no means ignored those general interests which are external to poetry as he conceived it; as he has shown here and there, in this poetic, as also in pictorial, work. It was but that, in a life to be shorter even than the average, he found enough to occupy him in the fulfilment of a task, plainly given him to do. Perhaps, if one had to name a single composition of his to a reader who desired to make acquaintance with him for the first time, it is The Kings Tragedy one would selectthat poem so moving, so popularly dramatic and lifelike. Notwithstanding this, his work, it must be conceded, certainly through no narrowness or egotism, but in the faithfulness of a true workman to a vocation so emphatic, was mainly of the esoteric order. But poetry, at all times, exercises two distinct functions: it may reveal, it may unveil to every eye, the ideal aspects of common things, after Grays way (though Gray too, it is well to remember, seemed in his own day, seemed even to Johnson, obscure) or it may actually add to the number of motives poetic and uncommon in themselves, by the imaginative creation of things, ideal from their very birth. Rossetti did something, something excellent, of the former kind; but his characteristic, his really revealing work, lay in the adding to poetry of fresh poetic material, of a new order of phenomena, in the creation of a new ideal.