[from Hall Caine My Story]
THE only terms I attempted to make with the expectations of my friends was that of writing articles on architectural subjects for the pro- fessional journals. This I began to do imme- diately after my return to Liverpool, and kept it up for a considerable period, so that stowed away somewhere in the Budder and the Building News there must be a number of essays in architectural criticism written by me in my youthful days at the drawing-board. They were distinctly transcendental, I remember, and never very practical, and this was probably the reason my inexperience was not detected.
It was about the time when Ruskin was quite rightly raising a loud outcry against the restora- tion of ancient buildings, and my articles were, I think, for the most part intended to support him in his propaganda. I know they were written in a style that was a far-away imitation of the great critic's earlier manner, being very florid, even as flamboyant, full of passionate appeals for the reverent treatment of decaying monuments and fierce denunciations of the great people who were then falsifying history as it was written in our stones. My articles were sincere enough, I think, and thanks to their model they were not too manifestly immature, for Ruskin himself took notice of them and wrote to me more than once in words of sufficient encouragement. His letters if I could find them all would, I think, be interesting for what they reveal of the man, apart from his subject, for they were written at that period of storm and stress when his tempestuous brain was swinging to and fro, before it finally went down to that still and vacant air in which it lingered so long. In one of them, which I have recovered, Ruskin speaks of " a bad fit of weariness, not to say worse," which had kept him from fulfilling some promise he had made me, and adds, "1 am sincerely glad and grateful for all you tell me of your work." In another he says
" I have of course the deepest interest in your work-and for that reason must keep wholly out of it.
" I should drive myself mad again in a week if I thought of such things.
" 1 am doing botany and geology, and you, who are able for it, must fight with rascals and fools. I will be no more plagued by them."
Again, apparently on the same subject, he said
"1 am entirely hopeless of any good whatever against these devilish modern powers and fashions. My words choke me if I try to speak.
"1 know nothing of Liverpool, and what can I say there, but that it has first to look after its poor, and the churches will take care of themselves."
I remember that I had other letters from Ruskin at this period, some of them written from Coniston and some from Venice, in the full blast of the torrential wrath in which his great brain finally disappeared; but the most immediate if not the most practical reward I received for my articles came to me from another source. The editor of one of my architectural journals, George Godwin, I think, wrote to say that he would be glad if I would go up to see him in London.
The perturbation created by this message was increased by the rumour, whispered to me by an architect friend, that Godwin, who was growing old, was on the look-out for an assistant editor, who might perhaps succeed him some day at the office of the Builder. The prospect was glorious, but there was a lion in the way, and no-one could be so much in fear of it as myself. It was before the days when men were " too old at forty"; and I had David Copperfield's dread of being too young. I had suffered from that malady for a considerable time, and as often as I had had to tell my age I had inwardly asked forgiveness and then added a year to it, being only restrained from adding more by the certainty that my face, which was ridiculously youthful, would betray and convict me.
I obeyed the editor's order and went up to see him at his private house in London, but I shall never forget my miserable sense of being so young when I was shown into a drawing-room full of historic chairs, or the shiver that passed over me as the old man entered and looked at me for the first time. It seemed to me that for a moment his eyes were starting out of his head, and he was asking himself if it could be possible that he had inflicted upon the mature readers of his staid editorial columns the effusions of this boy who was not much more to look at than a girl.
Fortunately for himself, the editor did not ask me to become his assistant editor ; and perhaps that (after the breakdown of the Gladstone stewardship) was the luckiest chance, and the narrowest escape, that ever happened to me in my life. In the making of imaginative literature it is the rolling stone that gathers the moss, and my stone has not yet done rolling.
Partly from the failure of faith in myself as a draughtsman, and partly from a desire to be moving on, I left my architect and became assis- tant to a builder. That was for me the best move I had yet made, though I remember with a certain shame that it must have been considerably less advantageous to my employer, for my new em- ployment fostered my literary activity after a fashion that could hardly have been contemplated by my indulgent chief. Making no particular demand on my intellect, it left me free to read more and more books of many sorts and to write stories and dramas and essays and articles. I remember that I had a snug little office to myself in which I did these things for several years, while all the time my face bore an expression of intense absorption in the affairs of the building trade. The literary conscience in its early manifestations is distinctly elastic.
My building employment brought me something even better than leisure for my amateur literary efforts-it put me into touch with men. I was in daily communication with one or two hundred of them of various trades and classes for at least five years, so it was my own fault if I did not learn something of the working man. I learned a good deal about him, both on his good side and his bad side, about his thrift and his improvidence, his industry and his malingering, his frequent self-sacrifice for his family and his drunken indifference to the cries of his children, his simple natural manners as of a born gentleman, and his frequent foulness of speech as of a low brute. It would not be entirely safe to say that what I saw of the working man at close quarters did not tend to modify the more uncompromising side of my militant Socialism. But better than any knowledge which my building experience brought me of the working man, as such, was the daily sight of the inside of life which came by giving " subs." to meet the expenses of sickness at home that was sometimes real and sometimes imaginary, and even of funerals which were occasionally " faked." Like my Manx experience, it was all grist to my mill, and I was unconsciously filling a big granary which I have never since been able to empty, though I have made calls upon it many times.
Meantime, with the help of friend Tirebuck and others, I was making various grandiose efforts in Liverpool, and one of these was an attempt to establish a branch of the Shakespeare Society, the Ruskin Society, and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings-all rolled into one. We called our own organisation "Notes and Queries" Society, held our meetings at the local Royal Institution, and invited public men to discourse to us in person, or by proxy. The "Notes" were often provided by persons of no less distinction than Ruskin and William Morris ; but the only "Queries" I can remember, came from our landlords, and concerned the subject of rent. Henry Irving, then a young man in the first flush of his success, came to us on one occasion to defend what was called his " craven " view of Macbeth ; and I remember that, much to his amusement, a rugged Unitarian minister, who had been, I think, a postman, dressed him down as if he had been a naughty boy who required the cane of a schoolmaster.
The local authorities gave us occasionally the light of their countenance. Philip Rathbone told us stark-naked truths about the "nude in art," and Edward Russell read to us, I think, one of his masterly essays on Shakespeare. There were, too, a good many young Liverpool men in the enterprise, and though "Notes and Queries" eventually subsided, a few of us emerged. One became known to the public as a poet (I think a great one), another as a politician, a third as a preacher, and two of us as writers of tales.
I was in my early twenties by this time, and in spite of many discouragements, life was full of great dreams. Among them was one which brought me back to the great writer and painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was to fill so large a space in my succeeding years. Through a member of our Society, a journalist of much ability, Ashcroft Noble, I came to know a young poet who has since attained to a high and well-deserved renown. He was a boy of seventeen or eighteen at that time, very slight and pale, very modest and reticent, and reminding us constantly of Keats-not alone by his spiritual gifts but also his physical infirmities, for he was very delicate then, and we feared he would die of decline. This was William Watson, the son of a merchant in Liverpool, and he had written a long romantic poem which we believed to be full of genius. I remember that, unlike the rest of us, he had never been to business, and that his father, partly out of regard for his health, and partly, I think, on the recommendation of Edward Dowden, of Dublin University, had left him free to follow, if he wished to do so, the profession of literature.
Both Watson and Noble were at that period enthusiastic admirers of Rossetti, both as a poet and as a painter, and through them I revived my interest in the subject of the grim story of the buried book which had so deeply impressed me in the Isle of Man. I heard of Rossetti through other channels also, for through "Notes and Queries " I had come to know Hawthorne's friend, H. A. Bright, and through him the late Lord Houghton.
I remember Bright as a frail, sensitive man with eager eyes, who read aloud to me, with the appearance of one who is passing delicious wine over his palate, the choicest passages from Haw- thorne's letters ; and I recall Lord Houghton chiefly by his story of how he came to write his life of Keats. When very young (he was then very old), he had set off for Italy in order to work up material for a life of Shelley, and putting up for a day or two at Florence, he had called on Walter Savage Landor.
Landor, for some reason, threw cold water on Houghton's enthusiasm, and then said
"But a young fellow named Keats died at Rome a while ago, and he was a real poet-why not get up a life of him ? "
Bright had known something of Rossetti, and in reply to my eager questioning, which was not to be satisfied without personal details, he told me that the poet was a little dark man, with fine eyes under a broad brow-a little Italian, in short. I think it was Lord Houghton who said that Rossetti, in the days when he used to meet him (probably at Mrs. Gaskell's), was a young fellow of strong bohemian habits (meaning thereby, I presumed, a certain tendency to recklessness or even in- decorum), known at that time principally as a painter and the leader of an eccentric school of art, but also as a poet whose poems, not yet published as a whole, were much belauded by a narrow circle from whom they passed from hand to hand.
I also recall, as one of the fountains from which I quenched my thirst for any sort of ana relating to Rossetti, that on a holiday in the Lake country I met a stranger whom I thought I recognised as the author of "Festus," and that with much akin to the foregoing I also heard from him that in his young manhood the poet's manners had been, to say the least, robustious, suggesting a person in deliberate revolt against nearly all the conventions of society, and delight- ing, if only out of perversity or for devilish amusement, in every opportunity to startle well- ordered people out of their propriety by cham- pioning the worst view of Neronian Rome, and to silence by sheer vehemence of denunciation the seemly protests of very good and very gentle folk.
But more arresting, because obviously of more serious import than such pictures of the excesses of a vigorous physical and intellectual youth, were the slight peeps I was able to get from Bright, Houghton, and others of the life the poet lived then. It appeared that Rossetti had long been living in the strictest seclusion in a large house in Chelsea, which had once been the home of the Princess Elizabeth ; that neither the literary nor the artistic society of London saw anything of him ; that his face was unknown to the pictorial newspapers and unfamiliar to his contemporaries in either of the two arts in which he was now illustrious ; that outside a close and very limited circle he was as one who was dead and buried, save for the splendid achievements in poetry and painting which emerged at intervals from the sealed doors of his tomb.
It was natural that about an existence so shrouded by mystery various myths should have gathered, and in reply to my questioning I received a number of fragmentary romances, some of them having, as I now see, a certain substratum of truth. Thus I was told that Rossetti's seclusion had been due to the shock occasioned by the death of his wife ; and again, to the remorse that had followed on having allowed himself to exhume her body for the recovery of the manuscripts which he had buried in her grave ; and yet again, to the distress and sense of degradation which had resulted upon the adverse criticism of a brother- poet, taken up by a whole pack of critical hounds in full cry.
Such were the portraits of Rossetti with which I fed my curiosity in those early days in Liverpool, and the first outcome of my enthusiasm was a lecture which I delivered at the local Free Library, when, " Notes and Queries " having sub- sided, the rolling-stone was once more moving on. The text of that lecture I have long ago lost, but as it probably gave birth to the friendship which it will be my duty and pleasure to describe, I shall perhaps be doing well to trust to my memory in an effort to indicate its drift.
I do not remember to have said anything about Rossetti the man, though that might have been a promising theme for a popular audience, neither did I attempt to tell the story of the origin and publication of his books, but I gave a narrative account of the stories of his greater poems, and then wound up with an abstract analysis of the impulses animating his work. In this analysis I argued that to place Rossetti among the "ęsthetic" poets was an error of classification ; that he had nothing in common with the Caliban of Browning, who worked " for work's sole sake " ; that the top- most thing in him was indeed love of beauty, but the deepest thing was love of truth, often plain and uncomely truth ; that the fusion of these two passions had at the same time softened the Italian Catholic, which I recognised as a leading element in him, and purified the Italian troubadour ; that while he was too true an artist to follow art into its byeways of moral significance and so cripple its broader aims, the absorption of the artist in his art seemed always to live and work together with the personal instincts of the man ; that to do good on other grounds was, in Rossetti's art, involved and included in being good on its own; that the manner of doing a thing could never be more than the part of a thing done, and that the most unmoral of all poetry-Poe's, for example - involved many meanings, purposes, and results ; that Rossetti's poetry showed how possible it was, without making conscious compromise with that Puritan principle of " doing good" of which Keats had been enamoured, to be unconsciously making for moral ends ; and finally that there was a passive Puritanism in " jenny" and in the most ardent of the sonnets, which lived and worked together with the poet's artistic passion for doing his work supremely well.
I cannot but smile when I cast my mind back some thirty years and think of myself as a young fellow of five-and-twenty, full to the throat of the last phrase, not to say the last jargon, of the "higher" literary criticism, pouring out its ab- stract theories to an audience consisting chiefly of working men and women, who listened to me, I remember, in the most indulgent silence. But sure I am that some kindly fate must have been directing my incongruous efforts, for knowing Rossetti's nature as I afterwards learned to know it, I see that such pleading for the moral influences animating his work was of all things most likely to enlist his sympathy and engage his affections. Smarting still under the monstrous accusation that he had by his poetry been engaged with others in ' an attempt to demoralise the public mind by the glorification of mere lust, he jumped with eagerness at a whole-hearted defence of his literary and human impulses, as a writer who had been prompted by the highest of spiritual emotions, and as a man to whom the passions of the body were as nothing unless sanctified by the concur- rence of the soul.
My lecture was printed about a year after its delivery, and then eagerly but nervously, and I think modestly, I sent a copy of it to the poet, hardly expecting more than a word of response. A post or two later brought me, however, the following reply
" 16 CHEYNE WALK, CHELSEA, 29th July 1879.
"DEAR Mr. CAINE,-I am much struck by the generous enthusiasm displayed in your lecture, and by the ability with which it is written. Your estimate of the impulses influencing my poetry is such as I could wish it to suggest, and this suggestion, I believe, it will always have for a true-hearted nature. You say that you are grate- ful to me ; my response is that I am grateful to you, for you have spoken up heartily and un- falteringly for the work you love.
"I daresay you sometimes come to London. I should be very glad to know you, and would ask you, if you thought of calling, to give me a day's notice when to expect you, as I am not always able to see visitors without appointment. The afternoon about 5 might suit you, or else the evening about 9.30.
With all best wishes, yours sincerely,
" D. G. ROSSETTI."