[from Hall Caine My Story]
IF the foregoing letter seems to the reader to be little more than a courteous acknowledgment by a famous poet of an appreciative criticism sent by a stranger, I must urge that in order to realise what it meant to me it is necessary to think of who and what I was, as (for this purpose chiefly) I have tried to show myself in the foregoing story-a young man in the country who had begun life in the most unlikely of all conditions for the pursuit of the literary calling; who had scratched and scrambled through a kind of miscellaneous edu- cation, heaven knows how ; who had made efforts to emerge from an environment for which he was quite unfit, and thus far failed in all of them. To this raw and untutored beginner, quite unrecog- nised and unknown, a great man, illustrious in two arts, in return for a little essay, a mere lecture delivered in a provincial city to an audience whose opinion could have no sensible effect on his fame, held out his hand and said, at a moment perhaps of deep discouragement, " I should be very glad to know you." Is it a matter for much surprise that the day I received that first letter from Rossetti seemed to me to be the greatest day of my life ?
I think it not improbable that my reply sufficiently expressed the emotion I describe, for the poet wrote to me again and again within a very few days, with a warmth and tenderness which I still feel to be, under the circumstances of the great disparity between us, both as to age and gifts and condition, almost inexpressibly touching.
" My dear Caine," he wrote, after a while, " let me assure you at once that correspondence with yourself is one of my best pleasures, and that you cannot write too much or too often for me; though after what you have told me as to the apportioning of your time " (I had to be at my office at six in the morning in those days), " I would be unwilling to encroach unduly upon it. Neither should I on my side prove very tardy in reply, as you are one to whom I find there is something to say when I sit down with a pen and paper. I have a good deal of enforced evening leisure, as it is seldom I can paint or draw by gaslight. It would not be right in me to refrain from saying that to meet with one so ' leal and true' to myself as you are has been a consolation amid much discouragement.
"Do please drop the ' Mr. in writing to me again."
Thus far Rossetti knew nothing more about me than I have indicated in this narrative, but he was naturally curious to learn something about his cor- respondent, and in those early days he put pointed questions occasionally.
"Some one to whom I showed your article," he wrote, "would insist, from the last paragraph, that you must be a Roman Catholic. Is this the case ? Pardon my putting the query, as I perceive, rather abruptly."
On this hint I wrote freely enough, apparently, and he replied
" I am truly delighted to hear how young you are : I suppose you are not married. In original work a man does some of his best things by your time of life, though he only finds it out in a rage much later, at some date when he expected to know no longer that he had ever done them. Keats did not die so much too early if there was any danger of his taking to the modern habit eventually of treating material as product, and shooting it all out as it comes. Of course, however, he wouldn't ; he was getting always choicer and simpler ; my favourite piece in his works is ' La Belle Dame sans Merci'-I suppose about his last. As to Shelley, it is really a mercy that he has not been hatching yearly universes till now. He might, I suppose, for his friend Trelawney still walks the earth without greatcoat, stockings, or underclothing this Christmas (1879)-
"In criticism, matters are very different as to the seasons of production, though you have done work already that should honour you yet. Nothing strikes me about you to better purpose than your simple lucidity, where that alone is wanted, as in the lecture you sent me.
" I am writing hurriedly and horridly in every sense. Write again, and I'll try and answer better. All greetings to you."
Again, he wrote : "The comparative dates of our births are curious. (I myself was born on old May-day (' 12 ') in the year (1828) after that in which Blake died.) . . . You were born, in fact, just as I was giving up poetry, at about 25, on finding that it impeded attention to what constituted another aim and a livelihood into the bargain, i.e. painting. From that date up to the year when I published my poems I wrote extremely little-I might almost say nothing, except the renovated 'Jenny' in 1858 or '59. To this again I added a passage or two when publishing in 1870."
My employment in Liverpool delayed for many months the moment when I was to meet Rossetti in London, but our intimacy deepened by correspondence, and he began to send me some of the shorter poems which he had not yet published, and to ask me to show him such work as I had done myself.
" Tell me what you think of my things," he said. " All you said in your letter of this morning was very grateful to me. I have a fair amount by me in the way of later MS., which I may show someday when we meet. Meantime I feel that your energies are already in full swing-work coming on the heels of work-and that your time cannot be long delayed as regards your place as a writer. Do you write poetry ? I should think you must surely do so."
In replies to inquiries like this I was naturally very eager to show what I had done ; so I sent poetry, criticism, prose narrative, and, I think, fragments of drama, most of it unpublished, and some of it never to see print.
" I return your article on the ' Supernatural in Poetry,' he said. " In reading it I feel it a distinc- tion that my minute plot in the poetic field should have attracted the gaze of one who is able to traverse its widest ranges with so much command. I shall be much pleased if the plan of calling on me is carried out soon-at any rate, I trust it will be so eventually.
"I have been reading again your article on the Supernatural.' It is truly admirable ; such work must soon make you a place. The dramatic paper " (it was a pamphlet on Henry Irving's Macbeth) " I thought suffered from some immaturity ; moreover, if I were you, I should eschew modern dramatic matters."
" I perceive," he wrote playfully, " you have had a complete poetic career, which you have left behind to strike out into wider waters! The passage on Night,' which you say was written under the planet Shelley, seems to me (and to my brother, to whom I read it) to savour more of the ' mortal moon'- that is, of a weird and sombre Elizabethanism, of which Beddoes may be considered the modern representative. But we both think it has an un- mistakable force and value ; and if you can write better poetry than this, let your angel say unto you-Write."
But Rossetti's critical indulgence of the youngest of poetasters did not forbid the expression of a frank opinion. " You may be sure," he said, " I do not mean essential discouragement when I say that, full as ' Nell ' is of reality and pathos, your swing of arm seems to me firmer and freer in prose than in verse. You know already how high I rate your future career (short of the incalculable storms of Fate), but I do think I see your field to lie chiefly in the noble achievements of fervid and impassioned prose. . . . I thought the passage on 'Night' showed an aptitude for choice imagery. I should much like to see something which you view as your best poetic effort hitherto. After all, there is no need that every gifted writer should take the path of poetry. I am confident in your preference for frankness on my part."
While the hampering conditions of my employment delayed our coming together, Rossetti showed a good deal of friendly anxiety to bring me into contact with such of his friends as were near to Liverpool or had occasion to visit it. In this way I met Madox Brown, and sat to him for one of the figures in his admirable frescoes in the Town Hall at Manchester ; and in this way, too, I met Stephens, the art critic.
"I am very glad you were welcomed by dear staunch Stephens, as I felt sure you would be. He is one of my oldest and best friends, of whom few can be numbered at my age, from causes only too varying.
Go from me, summer friends, and tarry not-, I am no summer friend, but wintry cold.
So be it, as needs must be-not for all, let us hope, and not with all, as good Stephens shows. I have not seen him since his return. I wrote him a line to thank him for his friendly reception of you, and he wrote in return to thank me for your acquaintance, and spoke very pleasantly of you. Your youth seems to have surprised him. . . . You mention something he said to you of me and my surroundings. They are certainly quiet enough as far as retirement goes, and I have often thought I should enjoy the presence of a congenial and intellectual house-fellow and board- fellow in this big barn of mine, which is actually going to rack and ruin for want of use. But where to find the welcome, the willing and the able combined in one? . . . Your letter holds out the welcome probability of meeting you here ere long."
This note of his loneliness was only too insistent in his earlier letters. " I am sometimes very soli- tary," he said, " and then letter-writing brings solace, when one addresses so young and hopeful a well-wisher as yourself. Accordingly I sit down to-night to answer your last letter."
My health failed me for a time, and though Rossetti and I had not even yet seen each other face to face, his anxiety about my condition could not have been greater had I been his own son.
"You are very young to be so beset with dark moods," he said, " and I am much concerned to hear it. Every one, I suppose, thinks he only knows the full bitterness of the Shadowed Valley. I hope health is whole with you-then all must come out well, with your mind and such energy as yours to make its way.
" It is very late-good-bye for to-night."
Such were the earliest of the letters which formed the beginnings of my first great literary friendship, and if I have permitted myself to tran- scribe the too generous words of one whose personal affections may have been already en- gaged, I have no fear of misconception on the part of right-minded readers, and shall not count as so much as the ghost of a flea the soul of the critic who concludes that I have quoted these passages in order to show how in my youth a great man praised me. I have quoted them be- cause I believe they illustrate, as hardly anything else can, the sweetest and most intimate, if not the highest and noblest side of Rossetti's nature, that side, namely, which showed his capacity for the most disinterested friendship. And when I think of the traffic which too often goes by that name, the miserable commerce of give and take, the little-hearted barter in which self-love usually counts on being the gainer, I cannot but think that in letters like these, to an unknown beginner, Rossetti shows that with his other gifts he had the very genius of friendship itself.
Not to me only, as I now know, did he show sympathy and unselfishness, for the stories are not few or rare of how he gave his time and energies -and even in some cases sacrificed a little of his personal aims and ambitions-in order to forward the interests of his friends ; but I think there was something exceptional in the friendship he gave to me. If he lived a solitary life in those days it was not because he might not have found society enough among importunate admirers round about him, who would have been only too eager to give him their company at the faintest hint or wink ; but outside the narrow circle of intimate comrades he selected for his friend a young fellow in the country, half his age, who could bring him nothing but sympathy and counted for so very little in a world in which he counted for so much.
I am not ashamed to say there are tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat when I read again, in Rossetti's letters, of the long evenings in his studio when it was impossible for him to paint or draw by gaslight, and his loneliness was broken by writing to me, for I know that but for the un-selfishness with which, in this way, he gave me so many hours of his silent company, and but for the encouragement, the strength and self-sacrifice he brought me, it would have taken me long to emerge from the commonplace round of daily life. Not that I was in any sense an object of pity, for I was no poor little drudge in a blacking ware- house, but on the contrary a much-indulged servant of an employer who had made me his friend ; but all the time I was a clerk in the lower middle-class of provincial life, and that is perhaps the wheel of life from which it is hardest of all to escape.
That I escaped from it at all was perhaps chiefly due to the generous extravagance with which Rossetti told me, in so many ways, that my " time could not be long delayed," and that in spite of the dark moods "all must come out well." There was not much to justify such bold predictions then, and when, years afterwards, on the publi- cation of the first of my Manx novels, Rossetti's brother William said, " After all Gabriel knew what he was doing," I was more moved by that than by many favourable articles ; and since then, if I have spent countless precious hours reading the efforts of beginners and struggling to say good words of them, it has been only by way of balancing my reckoning with one who in my early and dark days did so much for me.
The correspondence from which I have quoted some pages went on without interruption for something more than a year, and during that time there was not, I suppose, a single day in which I did not either receive a letter from Rossetti or write to him. What my own letters were like I cannot any longer recall, nor is it necessary to remember ; but Rossetti's letters, which were sometimes very long, being of six, eight, twelve, and even sixteen pages, constitute perhaps a larger body of writing than all his published compositions put together. It will, therefore, be a matter for no surprise that from that time forward, for several years to come, my life was my friendship with Rossetti.
I shall try in the next section of this book to tell the story of that friendship, the greatest, the most intimate, the most beautiful that has ever come to me. In order to do so I must begin by giving an account of Rossetti's life before I knew him, and if this threatens to be a thrice-told tale, I can at least promise that it will be brief.