[from Hall Caine My Story]


WE found it hard to realise that Rossetti was dead, the dreadful fact having fallen at last with such fearful suddenness. Each of us no doubt had had his vision of how it was to be with Rossetti at the last. In mine he was to die slowly, body and mind sinking gradually to rest, as the lamp dies down, or as the boat, coming out of a tempestuous sea, lets drop its sail and glides into harbour. This was to be nature's recompense for Rossetti's troubled days and sleepless nights ; the end of his fierce joys and stormy sorrows. But nature knew better the mysteries of the future, and Rossetti was to be the same tragic figure to the end, in sunshine and shadow; in life and death, always tragic.

The little household was still staggering under its sudden blow when William Rossetti's wife arrived unexpectedly, and then in the re-gathering of the company all our hearts went out to the old mother. The tides of memory must have been flowing back upon her as upon nobody else-back from the days of Gabriel's childhood, of his father's house, and his father's death, to the hour when he too was dead and she was left in the world without him. It was impossible to attempt to console the sweet old lady without feeling that we were holding out our hands to her in the dark.

Next morning I plucked some of the big pansies and wild violets that come early in the spring in that fresh sea air; and loving hands laid them on the poet's breast. His face as he lay dead was perfectly placid, the convulsive expression gone; even the tired look that had clung to him in sleep, as the legacy of the troubled years, quite smoothed away. Shields spent the morning in making a pencil sketch of him, finding it a painful task, and weeping most of the time. Later in the day a plaster cast was taken of his head and his small delicate hand.

The London newspapers were full of obituary articles, and the drowsy little seaside settlement appeared to awake to some vague consciousness of who it was that had been living in their midst. Nevertheless, I recall the look of blank bewilderment in the face of the local clergyman, who, having come in all gracious neighbourliness to ask where the family wished Rossetti to be buried, meaning in what portion of the churchyard, received William Rossetti's reply in words like these : " If my brother had his due he would be buried in Westminster Abbey."

I wondered why it seemed to occur to nobody that Rossetti should be buried at Highgate with his wife, around whose life (and death) his own life had so plainly revolved ; but William decided to bury his brother at Birchington, and no doubt William knew best.

I went up to London on some necessary business between the death and the burial; and the gaunt old house at Chelsea, which had always seemed a desolate place to me, for all the wealth of beautiful things, felt more than ever so now that the man who had been the soul of it lay dead in the little bungalow by the sea. I remember the emotion with which I stepped noiselessly into the studio, where there was no longer the cheery voice to greet me; and the sense of chill with which I passed the dark bedroom, now empty, on my way to bed.

I took back from London the feeling that by the death of Rossetti the world had become aware of the loss of a man of twofold genius, but that its imagination had been most moved by learning of the two or three tragic facts in his storm-beaten life.

The funeral was a private one, and a few of Rossetti's friends came down to it. They were chiefly the friends of his later life, hardly any of the friends of earlier days being there. We heard that Burne-Jones had made an effort to come, and had got as far as the railway station, where he became ill, and turned back. Madox Brown was unwell in Manchester, and Ruskin was now an old man in Coniston ; as for the rest, perhaps the time and place of the funeral had not been communicated to them, or perhaps they thought the gradual asundering of the years had left them no right to be there.

It was a dumb sort of day, without wind, and the sky lying low on the sea. When I got into the last of the carriages there were some drops of rain, but they stopped before we reached the church. We were only a little company who stood about the grave, and all I can remember about that group is the figure of the blind poet, Marston, with tears in his sightless eyes. The grave was close by the church porch, and only a few yards away was the winding path where Rossetti and I had so often walked around the place which was now to be the place of his rest.

The friends left us that night, and after a day or two more the family went away. I was ill in bed by this time, and from some other cause Watts-Dunton also remained a little longer. I thought we two had been drawn closer to each other by a common affection, and the loss of him by whom we had been brought together.

When I was better, and the time had come for us to go away too, we walked one morning to the churchyard, and found Gabriel's grave strewn with flowers. It was a quiet spring day, the birds were singing, and the yellow flowers were beginning to show. As we stood by the grave under the shadow of the quaint old church, with the broad sweep of landscape in front so flat and featureless that the great sea appeared to lie on it, and with the sleepy rumble of the rolling waters borne to us from the shore, we could not but feel that little as we had thought to leave Rossetti there, no other place could be quite so fit.

It was indeed the resting-place for a poet. In that bed, of all others, he must, at length, after weary years of sleeplessness, sleep the only sleep that was deep and would endure.


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HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2018