[from Hall Caine My Story]
DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI (baptized Gabriel Charles Dante) was the elder son of Gabrielle Rossetti, a patriotic poet exiled from the Abruzzi, and of Frances Polidori, a daughter of Alfieri's secretary, and a sister of the young doctor who t travelled with Lord Byron.
His father had taken part in the Neapolitan insurrection of 1820, and after the treachery of Ferdinand he was compelled to fly from his country. He arrived in England about 1823, married in the same year, was appointed Professor of Italian at King's College, and died in 1854.
Gabriel (the name by which his family always knew him) was born, as he had told me, on old May Day (the 12th) of 1828, in Charlotte Street, Portland Place. He had one brother, William Michael, and two sisters, Christina and Maria.
Gabrielle Rossetti's house was, as long as he lived, the constant resort of Italian refugees, from which I judge that though he did not live to see the returning glories of his country, he remained true to the last to the principles for which he had fought and suffered ; but I do not gather that any of his children, least of all his elder son, felt any call of blood to participate actively in the struggles of Italy. From the beginning to the end Rossetti was, I think, an absolute Englishman.
The home of the Italian exile in London appears to have been that of a poor scholar, and among the consequences of this condition was the inevitable one that his children were brought up in an atmosphere of culture, and that his sons had to seek their own livelihood as soon as possible. After a few years at King's College School, Rossetti studied at the Royal Academy Antique School; and he appears to have been a fairly assiduous student. I remember that in later years, when his habit of late rising was a stock subject of banter between us, he told me with pride that at this period he would rise at six in the morning once a week to attend a life class, and breakfast on a buttered roll and a cup of coffee at a stall at a street corner, so as not to disturb the domestic arrangements by requiring the servants to get up in the middle of the night.
So far as I can gather, he did not exercise the self-denial very long, for he left the family roof after a few years, and, in the interest of his studies, pitched his tent with certain of his artist friends. These were Millais, Holman Hunt, Woolner, Deverell, Stephens, and, above all, Madox Brown. With some of this group of associates, while he was still under age, he started an art movement, to which, half in jest, he gave the name of Pre-Raphaelitism.
The group of young artists calling themselves Pre-Raphaelites had begun to exhibit, to attract attention, to excite discussion, and provoke censure, when Ruskin, already a great light in art criticism, came to the rescue of the little brotherhood by writing a letter in their defence in the Times, and thus placed their movement in the category of serious efforts.
From early days Rossetti had written poetry, and it is clear from a letter already quoted that many of his most admired poems were the work of his first twenty-five years. Some of the best, showing marked originality of manner and substance, were obviously the product of his minority, and were accepted side by side with Pre-Raphaelitism in art as manifestations of Pre-Raphaelitism in literature. A magazine, called the Germ, was started to illustrate the new ideas, and later, in a kind of semi-affiliated way, came a kindred magazine, called The Oxford and Cambridge. Beyond, however, contributing a few of his poems to these periodicals, Rossetti made little or no attempt to publish his poetry, which, nevertheless, acquired a kind of subterranean reputation among his private friends.
His personal character in these days of early manhood is described as genial and generous, but also a little masterful. He was admittedly the king of his circle, and I fear it must be said that in all that constituted kingship he took care to rule. There appears to have been a certain determination of purpose which occasionally took the look of arbitrariness, sometimes even of selfishness, and a certain disregard of differing opinion which partook of tyranny.
Such is the picture given of Rossetti as a young man by some of those who knew him best; but there is another picture, equally authentic, which is, I think, a necessary counterpart. It is that of a robustious young fellow, of great intellectual pride perhaps, but of immense good-nature and irresponsible spirits. Rossetti was never in any distinct sense a humorist, but there came to him at this period those outbursts of high spirits which act as safety-valves to serious natures. At such times he appears to have been utterly reckless, and to have plunged into any madcap escapade that might be afoot with complete heedlessness of consequences. Stories of misadventures, quips, and quiddities of every kind were then his delight, and he was by no means above the innocent ruffianism of the practical joke. To this period belong the tales of his rioting in those outrageous opinions on moral questions which appear to have shocked some staid people as the views of a young man in a Christian country in the middle of the nineteenth century ; and to this period, too, belong the stories of tumultuous nights spent on the fringe of a wild Bohemia-manifestations of sheer intellectual vigour and animal spirits, not, I am sure, to be regarded in any more serious light.
But midway between the twenties and the thirties there came into his life an event that was to touch the deepest side of his nature. One day his friend Deverell, going with his mother into a milliner's shop in Oxford Street, saw through an open door a number of young girls at work in an inner room. Among the girls was one who had the most glorious mass of reddish auburn hair, and as this was then the favourite Pre-Raphaelite colour, Deverell's interest was excited in a moment, and he whispered to his mother, "Ask that girl with the red hair if she will sit to me." After some hesitation, Mrs. Deverell did so ; and on this chance hung the beginning of what is perhaps the most tragic series of incidents in modern literary life.
The girl sat as a model to Deverell, and through him to Rossetti also. Her name was Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, and she was the daughter of a singer at one of the dissenting chapels. Father and daughter had lately come from Sheffield, where certain records of them are still preserved. The girl was young and beautiful, clever also in various ways, and she presently revealed a very marked aptitude for art. She became known to all the young artists of the Rossetti circle, and Ruskin appears to have taken a peculiar interest in her. It is said that to enable her to liberate herself from the thraldom of her menial occupation, yet not to wound her pride, the great critic, who was rich, offered to buy all the pictures she could paint, on condition that she should become a pupil of Rossetti. There appears to have been no difficulty about this, for the painter's interest in his young model had speedily ripened into love. In due course Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal became engaged.
The young girl must have been a very remarkable creature. Her face, as Rossetti painted it, shows intellect and sensibility in a high degree, but a certain tendency to sadness. People who remember her, however, speak of her as cheerful '- and bright if not vivacious in that springtime of her youth.
They seem to have been happy in those early days, painting together, reading together, and even writing together ; for the girl developed under Rossetti's tuition not only a wonderful eye for colour and an astonishing power of composition, but also a real appreciation of the higher poetic literature, and a capacity for reproducing it. While he, too, as we may plainly see without other knowledge than the internal evidences of his work, produced some of the most pure and perfect of his poems under the impulse of her presence and the inspiration of his first great love.
Then came a separation, and it is not easy for me to say what it was due to-so conflicting are the stories of those who claim to know. I have heard that, beautiful and brilliant as Elizabeth Siddal was, she was not (as is natural) in the conventional sense an educated woman; and that at her own suggestion and by Rossetti's help she went away to school. I have also heard that at a moment of some difference Ruskin again interposed, with certain delicate overtures, which enabled her to return for further study to her native place. At all events she left London, and was away for a considerable time.
Meantime Rossetti, giving up poetry on finding, as he says, that it "impeded attention to what constituted another aim and a livelihood into the bargain," devoted himself entirely to his painting. At twenty-eight he undertook, with two or three other young painters, to cover with frescoes the walls of the Union Debating Hall at Oxford ; and whilst engaged upon this task he made the acquaintance of a group of undergraduates with whose name his own name has ever since been associated-Burne-Jones, Swinburne, and William Morris, as well as one other who proved to be among the strongest, purest, and most lasting influences upon his life, the lady, herself a model at the beginning, who afterwards became his friend Morris's wife.
What effect these new friendships, any or all of them, may have had on the relation in which he still stood to Elizabeth Siddal it would perhaps be hard to say ; but I think evidences are not wanting in the poems written about this period of a new and disturbing element-a painful and even tragic awakening, a sense of a great passion coming too late, and above all, of a struggle between love and duty which augured less than well for the happiness of the marriage that was to come.
But Elizabeth Siddal returned to London, and Rossetti and she were married. Friends who saw much of them in earlier days of their married life speak of their obvious happiness, and protest, in particular against evil rumours circulated later, that nothing could have been more marked than Rossetti's zealous attentions to his young wife. All the same it is true that very soon her spirits drooped, her art was laid aside, and much of the cheerfulness of home was lost to both of them. Her health failed, she suffered from neuralgia, and began to be a victim of nervous ailments of other kinds.
To allay her sufferings she took laudanum, at first in small doses, but afterwards in excess. A child came, but it was stillborn ; and then her mood, already sad, appears to have deepened to one of settled melancholy. I remember to have heard Madox Brown say that she would sit for long hours, with her feet inside the fender, looking fixedly into the fire. It is easy to believe that to a man so impressionable as Rossetti, so dependent on cheerful surroundings, so liable to dark moods of his own, this must have been a condition which made home hard to bear. If he escaped from it as often as possible it is perhaps only natural, and it is no less natural if his absence was misunderstood. I express no opinion, but the facts appear to point that way.
They were living in rooms in Chatham Place, by the old Blackfriars Bridge, and one evening, about half-past six, having been invited to dine with friends at a hotel in Leicester Square, they got into a carriage to go. It had been a bad day for the young wife, and they had hardly reached the Strand when her nervousness became distressing to Rossetti, and he wished her to return. She was unwilling to do so, and they went on to their appointment ; but it may be assumed that her condition did not improve, for at eight o'clock they were back at home.
Soon after that Rossetti left his wife preparing to retire for the night, and went out again apparently to walk. When he returned at half-past eleven o'clock he found his rooms full of a strong odour of laudanum ; his wife was breathing stertorously and lying unconscious on the bed. He called a doctor who saw at once, what was only too obvious, that the lady had taken an overdose of her accustomed sleeping draught. other doctors were summoned, and every effort was made to save the patient's life ; but after lingering several hours without recovering consciousness for a moment-and therefore without offering a word of explanation-towards seven o'clock in the morning she died.
Next day an inquest was held, at which Rossetti, though stunned and stupefied, had to give the evidence which is summarised in the foregoing statement. There had been no reason why his wife should wilfully take her own lifequite the contrary ; and when he had left her about nine o'clock she seemed more at ease. The verdict was " accidental death." The proceedings of the coroner's court were reported in a short paragraph in one only of the London papers, and there the poet's name was wrongly spelled.
This was in 1862, no more than two years after the marriage that had been waited for so long. The blow to Rossetti was a terrible one. It was some days before he seemed to realise fully the loss that had befallen him ; but after that his grief knew no bounds, and it first expressed itself in a way that was full of the tragic grace and beauty of a great renunciation.
Many of his poems had been, as I have said, inspired by and addressed to his wife, and at her request he had copied them out, sometimes from memory, into a little book which she had given to him for this purpose. With this book in his hand, on the day of her funeral, he walked into the room where her body lay, and quite unmindful of the presence of others, he spoke to his dead wife as though she could hear, saying the poems it contained had been written to her and for her and she must take them with her to the grave. With these words, or words to the same effect, he placed the little volume in the coffin by the side of his wife's face and wrapped it round with her beautiful golden hair, and it was buried with her in Highgate Cemetery.
It was long before Rossetti recovered. Perhaps he was never the same man again. At least the brilliant and perhaps rather noisy young fellow, fond of intellectual gymnastics, and full of a sort of animal spirits, was gone for good ; and though after a time he recovered a certain hilarity, there does not seem to have been much real joy in it. Not long after his wife's death he removed from Blackfriars Bridge and made his home in the house already referred to-Queen's House, Cheyne Walk, Chelsea.
Before leaving his old quarters he destroyed many things associated with his life there, among them being a great body of letters, some very valuable, from men and women eminent in literature and art, Ruskin, Tennyson, and Browning. Perhaps with the same view of cutting himself off from everything that was likely to remind him of his great loss, he separated himself from many of his former friends. It was of course the last course he ought to have taken, whether in the interests of his mental or bodily health, and the consequences of his isolation came only too quickly and lasted only too long.
Insomnia, that curse of the literary and artistic temperament, had been hanging about him for years ; and now he began to try opiates. He took them in sparing quantities after the death of his wife, for had he not, in that fact alone, the most fearful cause to avoid their use? But presently he heard of the then newly-found drug-chloral, which was of course accredited at the beginning with all the virtues and none of the vices of other known narcotics. Here then was the thing he wanted ; this was the blessed discovery that was to save him from days of weariness and nights of misery. Eagerly he procured it, and took it nightly in small doses of ten grains each ; it gave him pleasant and refreshing sleep. He made no concealment of his habit ; like Coleridge under similar circumstances, he rather elected to talk of it. Not yet had he learned the sad truth, too soon to force itself upon him, that this dreadful drug was an evil power with which he was to fight, almost down to his dying day, a single-handed and losing battle.
It was not, however, for some years after he began to use it that chloral produced any sensible effects of an injurious kind, and meantime he pursued his calling as a painter, making a substantial living, and though he never exhibited, an unmistakable reputation. After a while he amused himself, also, in furnishing his big house in various and novel and beautiful styles, and in filling a big garden at the back with a veritable menagerie of birds and beasts. Life recovered a measure of interest for him in other directions also, if only as the shadowy ghost of the glad spirit of happier years ; and Queen's House began to hum with the doings of friends old and new, Swinburne, Morris, Burne-Jones, for a short while Meredith, and of course his ever constant and devoted brother, William.
Thus seven years passed, and during that time Rossetti, who frequently immersed himself in the aims and achievements of his friends, and witnessed their rise to fame and honour, began to think with pain of the aspirations as a poet which he had himself renounced, and to cast backward glances at the book he had buried in his wife's coffin. That book contained the only perfect copy of his poems, other copies being either incomplete or unrevised ; and it is hardly to be wondered at that he asked himself at length if it could not be regained. The impulse of grief or regret, or even remorse, that had prompted him to the act of renunciation had been satisfied, and for seven years he had denied himself the reward of his best poetic effort-was not his penance at an end? It was doing no good to the dead to leave hidden in the grave the most beautiful works he had been able to producewas it not his duty to the living, to himself, and perhaps even to God, to recover and publish them ?
If in the daily sight of the growing reputation of younger men, his friends and comrades of no better genius, Rossetti began to be influenced by thoughts like these, without reflecting that while it may have been an act of emotional weakness to bury his poems, it would be an act of desecration to take them up again, I set it down to the constant companionship at that period of a man of whom I shall have occasion to speak later on, a person out of another world altogether, a daring, reckless, unscrupulous soldier of fortune, very clever, very plausible, very persuasive, but totally destitute of delicate feeling, and almost without the moral sense.
Under this man's direction the exhumation, when Rossetti had brought himself to agree to it, was eventually carried out. According to his own account given to me twelve years afterwards, the preparations were endless before the work could be begun. But at length the license of the Home Secretary was obtained, the faculty of the Consistory Court was granted, and one night, seven and a half years after the burial, a fire was built by the side of the grave of Rossetti's wife in Highgate Cemetery, the grave was opened, the coffin was raised to the surface, and the buried book was removed.
I remember that I was told, with much else which it is unnecessary to repeat, that the body was apparently quite perfect on coming to the light of the fire on the surface, and that when the book was lifted, there came away some of the beautiful golden hair in which Rossetti had entwined it.
While the painful work was being done the unhappy author of it, now keenly alive to its gravity, and already torturing himself with the thought of it as a deed of sacrilege, was sitting alone, anxious and full of self-reproaches, at the house of the friend who had charge of it, until, later than midnight, he returned to say it was all over.
The volume was not much the worse for the years it had lain in the earth, but nevertheless it was found necessary to take it back to Rossetti, that illegible words might be deciphered and deficiencies filled in. This was done, with what result of fresh distress can easily be imagined ; and then, with certain additions of subsequent sonnets, the manuscript was complete. Under the simple title of " Poems" it was published in 1870, fifteen years after the greater part of it was produced, and when the author was forty-two.
The success of the book was immediate and immense, six or seven considerable editions being called for in rapid succession. Appearing in the same season as Disraeli's " Lothair," it ran, from the bookseller's standpoint, a neck-and-neck race with a political romance which owed much of its popularity to recognisable portraiture of living persons. It was reviewed with enthusiasm on nearly every side, and it was at once the literary sensation and the social event of the hour.
It would perhaps be difficult to assign to any single cause this extraordinary success of a book whose popular qualities were obviously inconsiderable, whether, as Swinburne said in a noble essay full of splendid praise, to those innate qualities of beauty and strength which are always the first and last constituents of poetry that abides, or to the sudden explosion of the enthusiasm which had lived a subterranean life for so many years while the poems were in manuscript ; or yet, as I think more probable, to the flick of interest and curiosity which came of a rumour of the book's romantic history, culminating in its burial for so many years in the grave of the woman whose love and beauty had inspired it.
Whatever the cause of the book's immediate success, there can be no doubt that Rossetti himself took great delight in it, and that in the first flush of his new-found happiness he began afresh with great vigour on poetic creation, producing one of the most remarkable ballads of his second volume within a short time of the publication of the first. But then came a blow which arrested his energies and brought his literary activities to a long pause.
About a year after the appearance of the " Poems," an article was published in one of the most influential of the reviews, the Contemporary, which was in general a denunciation of the sensual tendencies of the age, in art, music, poetry, and the drama, and in particular an impeachment of the poetry of Rossetti, Swinburne, and William Morris, who were said to have "bound themselves into a solemn league and covenant to extol fleshliness as the distinct and supreme end of poetic and pictorial art, to aver that poetic expression is better than poetic thought, and by inference, that the body is greater than the soul, and sound superior to sense."
The article, which was entitled " The Fleshly School of Poetry," a name that was in itself an offence, suggesting the shambles and wounding the very sensibilities which it was supposed to defend, was undoubtedly written with great vigour, much knowledge of literature, and an immense power of popular appeal. It produced a sensible effect, awakening that moral conscience which in the English people always slumbers, like the conventional lion, with one eye open, and being quickly followed by articles in the same spirit appearing in other reviews and newspapers of equal or yet greater standing.
On its publication in the Contemporary the article bore the signature " Thomas Maitland," but it afterwards became known that the actual writer was Robert Buchanan, then a young author who had risen to very considerable distinction as a poet, and was consequently suspected, no doubt without much injustice, of being actuated by feelings of envy rather than by desire for the public good.
Against Rossetti, as the latest and most universally acclaimed of poets, Buchanan's attack was especially directed ; and while it may be freely admitted that there was actually present in some of the poetry assailed a tendency to deviate from wholesome reticence in dealing with human passion, and that to deify mere lust is an offence and an outrage, the sum total of all the poetry that was really reprehensible was probably less than one hundred lines, and therefore too inconsiderable to justify the charge made against its authors of an attempt to ruin society.
To say that Rossetti felt this charge is not to express his sense of it. He who had withheld his pictures from exhibition from dread of the distracting influences of public opinion ; he who for fifteen years had kept back his poems from print in obedience first to an extreme modesty of personal estimate, and afterwards to the command of a mastering passion, was of all men the one most likely to feel deeply and incurably the wicked slander, born in the first instance of jealousy, that he had unpacked his bosom of unhealthy passions and demoralised the public mind.
If what Rossetti did, under this first fire of the enemy, seems weak or futile, let it be said that only those who know by experience what it is to have this foul accusation made against them, can have any idea of its distracting power. In the first moments of his indignation, he wrote a full and point-by-point rejoinder, printed it as a pamphlet, had a great number struck off ; then he destroyed every copy. After that he wrote a temperate but not very effectual letter to the Athenĉum; but finding that the accusations he rebutted were repeated immediately with increasing bitterness, he lost hope of stemming the tide of hostile criticism, and announced his intention of abandoning poetic composition.
One by one some of the remaining friends of earlier years seemed now to have left him. Whether, as I have heard certain of them say, they wearied a little of Rossetti's absorption in the critical attacks . made upon him-thinking he put them out of proportion, or interpreted their origin and intention by a light that was scarcely consistent with sanityor whether Rossetti on his part (as one of the letters I have quoted appears to show) began to think of his old comrades as "summer friends" who fell away at the first breath of winter, the result was the same - he shut himself up in his big house in yet more absolute seclusion than before.
Nor did the mischief end there. The chloral which he had first taken in small doses, he began now, in moments of physical prostration and nervous excitement, to indulge in to excess ; and as a consequence he went through a series of terrible though intermittent illnesses, inducing a morbid condition, in which he was the victim of many painful delusions. Among them, as was perhaps natural, were some that related to the exhumation of his wife's body, and the curse that was supposed to have followed him for that desecration. This was an idea very liable to torment a mind so susceptible to supernatural suggestion as Rossetti's ; and although one's soul cries out against a torture that was greater than any sins of his deserved, one cannot but welcome the thought that the seclusion to which he doomed himself, and the illness from which he suffered, were due to something more serious and more worthy of a man than the hostile article of a jealous fellow-poet.
Several years passed, during which Rossetti lived in the closest retirement, seeing only the two or three friends who had been always with him, Madox Brown and his faithful and unfailing brother, William ; and then light came and he began in the fuller sense to live again. Letters and articles reached him from many quarters, from foreign countries and distant colonies, showing that adverse criticism had not quenched the light of his book. New friends came, too, to take the place of those who had gone " from causes only too varying," and unquestionably the first of these-the first in the confidence reposed in him and the affection felt for him-was Theodore Watts-Dunton, known at that time as Walter Theodore Watts. Next to Watts perhaps among later friends came Frederic Shields, an artist from Manchester, whose power as a draughtsman and qualities as a man Rossetti held in high esteem. Others there were, too, such as Dr. Hake, himself a poet of some distinction, whose soothing friendship brought lasting solace ; and finally there was myself, coming into Rossetti's life under the conditions I have described.
I am older myself at this time of writing than Rossetti was when I first knew him, and perhaps I can understand better now than I did then what interest I had for one who had twice my years. In default of the knowledge and the judgment that older friends could bring, and in spite of the difference of our education and gifts, I must have stood beside him like his youth, with its eagerness, its hopes, its dreams, its aspirations. This was just what was wanted at that period by the great man who had so lately come out of the shadowed valley, but was lonely enough yet, notwithstanding the frequent company of loyal comrades, to find comfort and cheer in the sympathy of a young and enthusiastic stranger.
He began to try his hand again at poetic composition, to send me some of his new poems, and to write of others with a freedom and familiarity that were entirely flattering.
" I am just finishing a ballad on the death of James I. of Scotland. . . . It is a ripper, I can tell you, my boy."
It was clear that life was beginning to take a brighter outlook, and that he was preparing to publish again.
He was even thinking of exhibiting his pictures. " I am painting a picture of modern life begun long ago, and when I finish it, may be showing some things one way or another. This also in thine ear."
" Your letter has crossed one of mine, but a solitary evening (rather exceptional with me now, as you will be glad to hear) leads to my writing again."
Answer this when you can. I like getting your letters. The last was a goodly one."
" I hope sincerely that we may have further and closer opportunities of intercourse. . . . I should welcome your advent in London warmly."
Such, then, was Rossetti when I first knew him and during the earlier period of our correspondence, and now the time had come when I was to meet him face to face. There can be no necessity to describe the feelings with which I went forward to that first interview. Believing that my friend of twenty-five years ago has entered into the company of the immortals, and that a century hence everything will be of interest that gets close to him at any period, my portrait may perhaps exceed in details but it shall not fail in fidelity.
I cannot, of course, claim for my picture that it will represent Rossetti as he was from first to last, or yet as he appeared to older friends, who knew him through varying phases of his changeful career ; but it shall at least be true to Rossetti as he appeared to me, twenty-five years his junior, and coming to him, full of admiration and affection, during the last years of his life.