[from Hall Caine My Story]
I THINK the better part of a year passed before I saw Rossetti again ; but meantime I was in constant correspondence with him, so that the continuity of our intercourse was never broken for so much as a day. Long afterwards, when he was very ill, he said to me
"How well I remember the beginning of our correspondence, and how little did I think it would lead to such relations between us as have ensued I I was at that time very solitary and depressed from various causes, and the letters of a well-wisher so young and so ardent, though unknown to me personally, brought a good deal of comfort."
"Your letters," I said, "were very valuable to me."
" Mine to you," he answered, " were among the largest body of literary letters I ever wrote, others being often letters on personal subjects."
"And so admirable in themselves," I added, " that many of them would bear to be printed exactly as you penned them."
"That," he said, " will be for you some day to decide."
Later still, I remember, at a very solemn moment he said
" Caine, how long have we been friends ? " I replied, " Between three and four years." " And how long did we correspond ? " "Three years, nearly."
" What numbers of my letters you must possess! They may perhaps even yet be useful to you; otherwise our friendship may prove to have been more burden than service."
Only that I knew how unselfish had been the impulse which prompted the last remark, I might perhaps from that moment have regarded the publication of Rossetti's letters to me as a sort of trust. Some extracts I did indeed give from them in the earlier book already referred to, and even now I content myself with indicating the drift of those long conversations by post which were the consequence of the two hundred miles which divided me from my friend.
If, as I have not hesitated to show in an earlier chapter, Rossetti gave me on occasion the encouragement of his warmest praise, he did not shrink from playing the part of Mentor also, censuring particularly a tendency to obscurity and involution in style, the abnormal search after " phrase" and the " outstanding word," which, strange as I find it to remember, was at that time a disfiguring characteristic of my mind. Prose might be fervid and vivid, but it ought to be simple and direct, rarely calling attention to itself, never breaking the rhythmic flow by forced or foreign expression or yet carrying it on for the mere sake of effect.
"Surely," he said, "you are strong enough to be English pure and simple. I am sure I could write a hundred essays on all possible subjects (I once did project a series under the title ' Essays written in the intervals of Elephantiasis, Hydrophobia, and Penal Servitude'), without once experiencing the ' aching void,' which is filled by such words as ' mythopceic' and ' anthropomorphism.' I do not find life long enough to know in the least what they mean. They are both very long and very ugly indeed-the latter only suggesting to me a vampire or a somnambulant cannibal."
He was equally severe on my tendency to quote the opinions of certain journals that had spoken well of me. The criticism of good critics might be good and therefore good to quote, but much criticism was bad, and therefore it was bad to mention it.
"Really I cannot but say," he said, "that the last page of your new pamphlet is sadly disfigured by the names of London prints which are conducted by the lowest gangs-at least I will answer for one being so. You have begun, as you tell me, and as I somewhat divine, in a scrambling literary way, and the sooner you shake all such connections off the nearer you will be to your goal. No need to take any notice of this in any way. It is a finger-post which only asks to be followed in silence. Indeed I will ask you not to answer."
Having to some extent cast in his lot with me, he was irritated by any loss of what he thought becoming dignity on my part, and not only remonstrated against my publishing articles in magazines which he called "farragoes of absolute' garbage," but was even reluctant to allow me, when I was about to edit an anthology of sonnets, to write to the poets who were to be asked to contribute.
"I must say I rather doubt the wisdom of writing without introduction to such men as you mention. A superior man runs the risk, by doing so, of being confounded with those who are perpetually directing correspondence to any one whose name they have heard-and the bibliographic and autograph-hunting tribe whose name is legion. I do not mean that such an application as yours could rightly be classed with these, but I know the sort of exclamation that rises to the lips of a man as much beset by strangers as (say) Swinburne, when he opens a letter and sees a new name at the end of it."
'He was hardly less irritated by a tendency of mine to set the manner of a work higher than its substance, to glorify style as if it were a , thing apart from subject.
" You have too great a habit of speaking of a special octave, sestette, or line. Conception, my boy, FUNDAMENTAL BRAINWORK, that is what makes the difference in all art. Work your metal as much as you like, but first take care that it is gold and worth working. A Shakespearean sonnet is better than the most perfect in form because Shakespeare wrote it."
But, " I hope you won't think that I am everlastingly playing Mentor," he said, and to lift up my heart after so many packs of the wet blanket, he wrote, about a new lecture on the scarcely confluent elements of "Politics and Art": "It is abundantly rich in spirit and animated truth, and in powerful language too when required. It must do you high credit wherever seen, and when you are able to enlarge your sphere, I look to you as destined to rank among the coming teachers of men."
All the same he was too discreet to accept the dedication of this same lecture, when I came to print it, though the letter in which he declined was touching, and I think sincere:
" I must admit at all hazards that my friends consider me exceptionally averse to politics ; and I suppose I must be, for I have never read a Parliamentary debate in my life 1 At the same time I must add, that, among those whose opinions I most value, some think me not altogether wrong when I venture to speak of the momentary momentousness and eternal futility of many noisiest questions. However, you must simply view me as a nonentity in any practical relation to such matters. You have spoken but too generously of a sonnet of mine in the lecture just received. I have written a few others of the sort (which, by-the-bye, would not prove me a Tory), but felt no vocation-perhaps no rightto print them. I have always reproached myself as sorely amenable to the condemnation of a very fine poem by Barberino on ' Sloth against Sin,' which I translated in the Dante volume. Sloth, alas 1 has but too much to answer for with me ; and is one of the reasons (though I will not say the only one) why I have always fallen back on quality instead of quantity in the little I have ever done. I think often with Coleridge
`Sloth jaundiced all: and from my graspless hand
Drop friendship's precious pearls like hour-glass sand.
I weep, yet stoop not : the faint anguish flows,
A dreamy pang in morning's feverish doze."'
Though my beginnings had been scrambling ones, it was my own fault now if my literary education was not more thorough and even more systematic than any school or university could have given me. Notwithstanding the calls of my ordinary occupation, I was reading as much as six, eight, and even ten hours a day, and corresponding constantly on the subject of my reading with a man of genius whose knowledge of literature was very wide, and whose instinct for excellence very sure. Our studies were, of course, mainly English, but I think they covered the whole range of what was best, from Shakespeare and even the less-known Elizabethan poets, through Steele, Savage, Goldsmith, Johnson, Cowper, Fielding, and Richardson, to the writers of the " Lake," " Cockney," and " Satanic " schools, coming down to our own day with Tennyson and Browning, and covering some of the forgotten geniuses of yesterday, such as Smart and Wells.
Rossetti's letters, which are equal in quantity to the contents of a large volume, are studded with names familiar and unfamiliar, which show how vigorously throughout the years in which he had been occupied chiefly with painting, he must have burrowed in the bypaths as well as laboured in the highways of literature ; and when I remember the disadvantages of my own beginning I must not forget that for two and a half years I had the daily coaching of Rossetti's forty years of reading and the constant guidance of his fine selective instinct. That of itself ought to have been a literary education of the highest kind, though it was not then that I so regarded it, nor do I suppose for a moment that Rossetti himself looked at it in such a light. I see, with some amusement, that in the course of our correspondence I sometimes withstood his judgments and occasionally remonstrated against his " prejudices."
Thus I protested that he was radically unjust to Wordsworth, whom he had not the patience to read except in fugitive passages taken at random, and he answered
" I grudge Wordsworth every vote he gets. . . No one regards the great Ode with more special and unique homage than I do, as a thing absolutely alone of its kind among all greatest things. I cannot say that anything else of his with which I have ever been familiar (and I suffer from long disuse of all familiarity with him), seems to me at all on a level with this."
We were on common ground, however, in the worship of Coleridge. "The three greatest English imaginations," he said, " are Shakespeare, Coleridge, and Shelley," and he was never tired of extolling the beauties of " Christabel "
" Of course the first part is so immeasurably beyond the second that one feels Charles Lamb's view was right, and the poem should have been abandoned at that point. The passage on Sundered Friendship is one of the masterpieces of the language, but no doubt was written quite separately and then fitted into ' Christabel'-the two lines about ' Roland and Sir Leoline' are simply an intrusion and an outrage."
Another of Rossetti's references to " Christabel " is interesting for the peep it affords into the home of his boyhood, where English books, it seems, were few
"There are, I believe, many continuations of Christabel.' Tupper did one I I myself saw a continuation in childhood, long before I saw the original, and was all agog to see it for years. Our household was all of Italian, not English environment, however, and it was only when I went to school later that I began to ransack bookstalls."
With sufficient audacity, I came into collision with Rossetti again over Chatterton, whom I was not at first prepared to regard with special reverence, apart from the fact that against tremendous odds and at seventeen years of age he had written anything that deserved to be remembered at all ; but nothing would suffice for Rossetti but that I should go down on my knees and worship the author of the African Eclogues.
" I assure you," he said, " Chatterton was as great as any English poet whatever, and might absolutely, had he lived, have proved the only man in England's theatre of imagination who could have bandied parts with Shakespeare."
At my insinuation that perhaps part of one's interest in Chatterton had its origin in the fact that he was a bit of a blackguard, and not so much in admiration of his poems as in surprise that a boy of sixteen should have written them, Rossetti, as was most natural, fired up warmly
" I must protest finally that the man who says that cannot know what criticism means. Chatterton was an absolute and untarnished hero. . . . Surely a boy up to eighteen may be pardoned for exercising his faculty if he happens to be one among millions who can use grown men as his toys. Certainly that most vigorous passage commencing
' Interest, thou universal God of men,' reads startlingly, and comes in a questionable shape. What is the answer to its enigmatical aspect ? Why, that he meant it, and that all would mean it at his age, who had his power, his daring, and his hunger."
I was on safer ground with Rossetti when we began to write about Keats, " the lovely and beloved Keats."
"You say an excellent thing," he said, " when you ask, ' Where can we look for more poetry per page than Keats gives us ?' I shall look forward with very great interest to your essay on Keats."
And when the Keats paper was sent to him he made up for many critical denunciations by the warmest sympathy.
" I have this minute at last read the Keats paper, and return it. It is excellent throughout, and the closing passage is very finely worded.
. . . You quote some of Keats's sayings. One of the most characteristic, I think, is in a letter to Haydon : ' I value more the privilege of seeing great things in loneliness than the fame of a prophet.' . . . Keats wrote to Shelley : ' You, I am sure, will forgive me for sincerely remarking that you might curb your magnanimity, and be more of an artist, and load every rift of your subject with ore. Cheeky 1 but not so much amiss. Poetry and no prophecy, however, must have come of that mood ; and no pulpit would have held Keats's wings."
In this way the Rossetti correspondence had, with great profit to me, been going on for a considerable time, when my personal affairs reached an acute but not altogether unexpected crisis. My long-standing grievance against my everyday occupation as a builder's draughtsman was, in spite of the never-failing indulgence of my employer, brought to a head by another attack of illness. The symptoms were sufficiently alarming this time ; but although satisfied that I had received my death -warrant, I said nothing to anybody except the doctor and Rossetti, to whom by this time I was in the habit of telling everything. Rossetti replied with his usual solicitude, coupled with his customary remonstrance.
Grave as the issue certainly was, it is almost amusing to me to remember that, being convinced that my failure of health was mainly due to the zeal with which for several years I had been burning the candle at both ends, it did not occur to me for a moment to put it out at the end that was apparently least necessary to my material welfare. My easy work in the building yard made me my living, while my hard work with my books made me nothing at all ; but I take it to be an evidence of how the itch for writing will conquer all practical considerations, and perhaps evidence also of a certain natural vocation, that when I came to choose between those two, it was the living that had to go.
It is also amusing to me to remember that when I announced to Rossetti that the time had come for me to cut away from business, and to sink or swim in an effort to live by my pen, having no literary connections at that time that were safe for sixpence, it was he-he who had predicted such certain success for me-that was thrown into a state of the greatest alarm. But even Rossetti's alarm did not alarm me, and, spurred perhaps by secret and increasing fear of a disease from which more than one member of my family had died, I left my architectural employment rather abruptly, as I now see, notwithstanding various kind overtures from James Bromley, my employer and my friend.
On seeing that I was fully resolved to burn my boats, Rossetti proposed that I should pitch my tent with him in London.
" I feel greatly interested," he said, "in your prospects and intentions, and at this writing I can see no likelihood of my not remaining in the mind that, in case of your coming to London, your quarters should be taken up here. The house is big enough for two, even if they meant to be strangers to each other. You would have your own rooms, and we should meet just when we pleased. You have got a sufficient inkling of my exceptional habits not to be scared by them. It is true, at times my health and spirits are variable; but I am sure we should not be squabbling."
I hesitated to take advantage of such a onesided arrangement as Rossetti proposed, and in order to overcome my reluctance, he began to protest that he, too, was far from well, and that my presence in his house might be helpful in various ways.
" You must not be anxious on my account," he said. " But any cause whatever which should bring you (but not to your own injury) to my door, would be welcome in result."
The truth was, however, though I little thought it, that while my illness was slight and merely temporary, with youth to banish it, Rossetti's was serious and fated to follow him to the end. During the first half of 1881, he had been collecting, revising, and finally printing and correcting the proofs of his second volume of poems; carrying on (through me) a rather difficult correspondence relating to the sale of his picture, " Dante's Dream," to the Corporation of Liverpool; and (through Watts - Dunton) another vexatious correspondence about the renewal of the lease of his house in Chelsea, and the loss of the large garden at the back, which had for years been his sole ground for fresh air and exercise. Besides these causes of worry, there had been another and yet more insidious enemy at work in undermining Rossetti's health, the drug in which, partly as the consequence of increasing anxieties, he was now, unknown to his friends, exceeding terribly.
So it came about that when I had left Liverpool and gone up to Cumberland, resolved, if I shook off my trouble, to toil early hours and late, and live in a cottage on oatmeal porridge and barley bread rather than_ give up my intention of becoming a man of letters, Rossetti, also influenced by considerations of health, came to the conclusion that if I would not come to him he must go to me. Scarcely had I settled in my remote quarters, when he wrote that he must soon leave London, that he was wearied out and unable to sleep, that if he could only reach my secluded vale he would breathe a purer air, mentally as well as physically.
"They are now really setting about the building at the back here. I do not know what my plans may be. Suppose I were to ask you to come to town in a fortnight from now, and perhaps I returning with you for a while into the country, would that be feasible to you ?"
The idea of my going up to London and bringing Rossetti back with me to Cumberland became a settled scheme, and towards the beginning of August he wrote
" I will hope to see you in town on Saturday next, unless an earlier day suits decidedly better. We will then set sail in one boat. I am rather anxious as to having become perfectly deaf on the right side of my head. Partial approaches to this have sometimes occurred to me and passed away, so I will not be too much troubled. . . . I am getting the rooms cleared out for your reception."
In due course I arrived in London, and was received with the utmost warmth. The cheery " Hulloa" greeted me again as I entered the studio, and then Rossetti, feebler of step, I thought, than before, led the way to the apartments he had prepared for me.
My sitting-room was the room to the left of the hall, facing the green dining-room, with a huge sofa and two huge chairs in an apple-blossom chintz, a table, a black oak cabinet, and a number of small photographs of Rossetti's pictures in plain oak frames. It had been occupied in turn by Mr. Meredith and by Mr. Swinburne in the days when they had lived under the same roof with Rossetti, and now it was to be mine for my permanent home in London. In this way I drifted into my place as Rossetti's housemate, and very soon I realised what the position involved.