Rossetti Archive Textual Transcription

Document Title: Jan Van Hunks (1929)
Author: Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Date of publication: 1929
Publisher: George C. Harrap and Co. Ltd.
Printer: Mackenzie Bell

The full Rossetti Archive record for this transcribed document is available.

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Jan Van Hunks






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Prefatory Essay.
It would be impossible in the space at my disposal here, to deal fully with the reasons which induced that group of great poets, Dante Rossetti, William Morris, and Algernon Charles Swinburne, to hold firmly the theory that humour was not admissible in serious poetry. But this may be said the theory is a remarkable one—a theory about which much could be written for and against. Soon it became widely known these famous men of letters so thought, and the silly deducation was made by many people that the men themselves were not humorists, and further indeed, lacked a sense of humour altogether. Nothing could be more untrue None whose lives were enriched by intimacy with Morris could doubt his perpetual fondness for fun and playful sarcasm
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Personally I have always felt, after twenty-five years of close contact with him, that Swinburne was a wit; though, once and again, his efforts in conversation, so to shine, seemed over-strained. Nevertheless one must not forget his “Heptalogia”—a loft literary achievement.
Frederick Shields, the illustrious religious painter, is not of those one would ordinarily associate with merriment, yet he could be merry. During the evenings we spent together, occasionally, he was wont to declaim, with blushing beautiful eyes, and much dramatic force, these three epigrams by Rossetti I am about to set down, none of which have appeared previously in print
Some of us, in the inner circle, knew that for a long while Rossetti and Swinburne vied with each other in the making of “Limericks,” and, although it be impracticable to aver this far with absolute certainty, most likely these three form part of the series.
Transcribed Footnote (page 6):

(Written in Book Room 16-4-1918, 7.45—10p.m.)

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This, by Rossetti, on himself, requires no comment:—
  • “There was a poor sneak called Rossetti,
  • As a painter full many kicks met he!
  • And more as a man!
  • But, sometimes, he ran;
  • And that saved the rump of Rossetti!”
The fame of William Bell Scott is in eclipse somewhat in these days; however, no discerning critic of the art of his period would desire to detract from the meed of praise due to his ability and sustained industry. The nickname of “Pictor Ignotus” (the unknown limner) refers really more to the necessarily limited character of his scope than to any lack of contemporary recognition. Therefore, Rossetti was, in truth at play, when he gave a certain construction to the phrase. About Scott's position as a poet there is more legitimate opportunity for divergent opinion; though, here, Rossetti's deliberate view supported Scott's claim to the title
Transcribed Footnote (page 7):

(Written in Book Room 23-4-1918, 7.50—8.45 p.m.)

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  • “There was a poor dauber named Scotus,
  • Most justly called “Pictor Ignotus,”
  • Shall I call him a poet!
  • No I—if I know it—
  • That wretched poor scribbler named Scotus”
But perhaps the most pungent epigram by Rossetti, quoted to me by shields, is the following, the idea of which is that his Satanic Majesty, conducting a limited class of two, is unexpectedly surprised when his pupils outsoar himself. Readers may, or may not, surmise a personal allusion on Rossetti's part—
  • “There were two brothers named Agnew,
  • Whose lies could make e'en an old rag new!
  • The Father of Lies,
  • With tears in his eyes,
  • Said: ‘Go it Tom Agnew, Will Agnew.’ ”
Dante Rossetti will live not alone as a poet, by the magnificent sonnets of The House of Life, he will live not less by two magnificent ballads, “ The Blesséd Damozel” and “ The White Ship.” It is my privilege to give now to a wide public, a
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third superb ballad of the master, Jan Van Hunks, now in my possession. The facts concerning it are already familiar; but it may be well to state here, briefly, that its composition was a work of Rossetti's last days, and, as such, is a remarkable instance of a survival of high mental powers at a very late stage of a fell disease, which, usually, destroys such powers. The poem was given to Watts-Dunton as a token of affection, and has never before been published in book form.

Mackenzie Bell.

London, April, 1918.
Transcribed Footnote (page 9):

(Written in Book Room 30-4-1918, 7.45—8.30 p.m.)

Copywright by Mackenzie Bell, 1918.
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The Ballad


Jan Van Hunks.
  • Full of smoke was the quaint old room
  • And of pleasant winter heat;
  • Whence you might hear the hall-door slap
  • And the wary shuffling of feet
  • Which from the carpeted floor stepped out
  • Into the ice-paved street.
  • Van Hunks was laughing in his paunch;
  • Ten golden pieces rare
  • Lay in his hand; with neighbour Spratz
  • 10He had smoked for a wager there;
  • He laughed, and from his neighbour's pipe
  • He looked into his neighbour's chair.
  • Even as he laughed, the evening shades
  • Rose stealthily and spread,
  • Till the smoky clouds walled up the sun
  • And hid his shining old head
  • As though he too had his evening pipe
  • Before he tumbled to bed.
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  • Van Hunks still chuckled as he sat;
  • 20It caused him an inward grin,
  • When he heard the blast shake shutter and blind
  • With its teeth-chattering din,
  • To fancy the many who froze without
  • While he sat thawing within.
  • His bowl restuffed, again he puffed:
  • No noise the stillness broke
  • Save the tread of feet here and there in the street
  • And the church-bell's hourly stroke:
  • While silver-white through the deepening dusk
  • 30Up leaped the rapid smoke.
  • “For thirty years,” the Dutchman said,
  • “I have smoked both night and day;
  • I've laid great wagers on my pipe
  • But never had once to pay,
  • For my vapouring foes long ere the close
  • Have all sneaked sickly away.
  • “Ah! would that I could find but one
  • Who knew me not too well
  • To try his chance against me
  • 40After the evening bell,
  • Even though he came to challenge me
  • From the smoking-crib of hell!”
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  • His breath still lingered on the air
  • And mingled with the smoke,
  • When he was aware of a little old man
  • In broidered hosen and tocque,
  • Who looked as though from a century's sleep
  • That instant he had woke.
  • Small to scan was the little old man,
  • 50Passing small and lean;
  • Yet a something lurked about him,
  • Felt strongly though unseen,
  • Which made you fear the hidden soul
  • Whose covering was so mean
  • What thunder dwelt there, which had left
  • On his brow that lowering trace,—
  • What lightning, which could kindle so
  • The fitful glare on his face,—
  • Though the sneering smile coursed over his lips,
  • 60And the laughter rose apace?
  • With cap in hand the stranger bowed
  • Till the feather swept his shoe:—
  • “A gallant wish was yours,” he said,
  • “And I come to pleasure you;
  • We're goodly gossips, you and I,—
  • Let us wager and fall to.”
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  • The Dutchman stared. “How here you came
  • Is nothing to me,” he said;
  • “A stranger I sought to smoke withal,
  • 70And my wish is seconded;
  • But tell me, what shall the wager be,
  • By these our pipes essay'd?”
  • “Nay now,” the old man said, “what need
  • Have we for a golden stake?
  • What more do we ask but honour's spur
  • To keep our hopes awake?
  • And yet some bond 'twixt our good-wills
  • Must stand for the wager's sake.
  • “This be our bond:—two midnights hence
  • 80The term of our strife shall be,
  • And whichsoe'er to the other then
  • Shall yield the victory,
  • At the victor's hest must needs accept
  • His hospitality.”
  • “Done, done!” the Dutchman cried, “Your home
  • I'd reach be it far or near;
  • But in my good pipe I set my trust,
  • And 'tis you shall sojourn here;
  • Here many a time we'll meet again
  • 90For the smokers' welcome cheer.”
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  • With that, they lit their pipes and smoked,
  • And never a word they said;
  • The dense cloud gathered about them there
  • High over each smoke-crowned head,
  • As if with the mesh of some secret thing
  • They sat encompassed.
  • But now when a great blast shook the house
  • The Dutchman paused and spoke:—
  • “If aught this night could be devised
  • 100To sweeten our glorious smoke,
  • 'Twere the thought of the outcast loons who freeze
  • 'Neath the winter's bitter yoke.”
  • The stranger laughed: “I most have watched
  • The dire extremes of heat,
  • Ay, more than you, I have seen men quail,
  • And found their sufferings sweet.
  • Fit gossips, you and I! But hark!
  • What sound comes from the street?”
  • To the street the chamber-windows stood,
  • 110With shutters strongly barred.
  • There came a timid knock without
  • And another afterward;
  • But both so low and faint and weak
  • That the casement never jarred.
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  • And weak the voice that came with the knock:—
  • “My father, lend your ear!
  • 'Twas store of gold that you bade me wed,
  • But the wife I chose was dear;
  • Now she and my babes crave only bread:
  • 120O father, pity and hear!
  • Van Hunks looked after the feathered smoke:—
  • “What thing so slight and vain
  • As pride whose plume is torn in the wind
  • And joy's rash flight to pain?”
  • Then loud: “Thou mind'st when I bade thee hence,
  • Poor fool, go hence again!”
  • There came a moan to the lighted room,
  • A moan to the frosty sky:—
  • “O father, my loves are dying now,
  • 130Father, you too must die.
  • Oh! on your soul, by God's good grace,
  • Let not this dread hour lie!”
  • “Gossip, well done!” quoth the little old man
  • And in a silvery spire,
  • Like a spider's web, up leaped his smoke
  • A-twisting higher and higher;
  • And still through the veil his watchful eye
  • Burned with a fell desire.
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  • A woman's voice came next to the wall:
  • 140“Father, my mother's died,
  • 'Twas three months since that you drove her forth
  • In the bitter Christmastide:
  • How could I care for your proffered gold
  • And quit my mother's side?
  • “For two months now I have begged my bread;
  • Father, I can no more:
  • My mother's deaf and blind in her grave,
  • But her soul is at Heaven's door;
  • And though we're parted on this side death,
  • 150We may meet on the further shore.”
  • Van Hunks laughed up at the scudding smoke:—
  • “Ay, go what way you will!
  • Of folly and pride, in life or death,
  • Let a woman take her fill!
  • My girl, even choose this road or that,
  • So we be asunder still!”
  • “Gossip, well done!” the old man shrieked,
  • “And mark how her words come true!”
  • The smoke soared wildly around his head
  • 160In snakes of knotted blue;
  • And eke at heart of the inmost coil,
  • Two fiery eyes shone through.
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  • Above the hearth was a carven frame
  • Where seven small mirrors shone;
  • There six bright moon-shapes circled round
  • A centre rayed like a sun;
  • And ever the reflex image dwelt
  • Alike in every one.
  • No smokers' faces now appeared,
  • 170But lo! by magic art,
  • Seven times one squalid chamber showed
  • A grave's dull counterpart;
  • For there two starving parents lay
  • With their starved babes heart to heart.
  • Then changed the scene. In the watery street,
  • 'Twixt houses dim and tall,
  • Like shaggy dogs the pollards shake
  • Above the dark canal;
  • And a girl's thin form gleamed through the night,
  • 180And sank; and that was all.
  • And then the smoker beheld once more
  • Seven times his own hard face;
  • Half-dazed it seemed with sudden sights,
  • But showed no sign of grace;
  • And seven times flashed two fiery eyes
  • In the mirror's narrow space.
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  • The hours wore on and still they sat
  • 'Mid the vapour's stifling cloud;
  • The one towards sudden stupor sank,
  • 190While the other laughed aloud.
  • Alas for the shrinking blinking owl,
  • The vulture over him bowed!
  • 'Twas the second night of the wager now,
  • And the midnight hour was near,
  • That glance like a kindled cresset blazed:—
  • “Ho! gossip of mine, what cheer?”
  • But the smoke from the Dutchman's pipe arose
  • No longer swift and clear.
  • The door-bell rang: “Peace to this house!”
  • 200'Twas the pastor's voice that spoke.
  • Above Van Hunks's head still curled
  • A fitful flickering smoke,
  • As the last half-hour ere full midnight
  • From the booming clock-tower broke.
  • The old man doffed his bonnet and cringed
  • As he opened the chamber door;
  • The priest cast never a glance his way,
  • But crossed the polished floor
  • To where the Dutchman's head on his breast
  • 210Lolled with a torpid snore.
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  • “Mynheer, your servant sought me out;
  • He says that day and night
  • You have sat——.” He shook the smoker's arm,
  • But shrank in sudden fright;
  • The arm dropped down like a weight of lead,
  • The face was dull and white.
  • And now the stranger stood astride,
  • And taller he seemed to grow,
  • The pipe sat firm in his sneering lips,
  • 220And with victorious glow
  • Like dancing figures around its bowl
  • Did the smoke-wreaths come and go.
  • “Nay, nay,” he said, “our gossip sits
  • On contemplation bent;
  • On son and daughter afar, his mind
  • Is doubtless all intent;
  • Haply his silence breathes a prayer
  • 'Ere the midnight hour be spent.”
  • “And who art thou?” the pastor cried,
  • 230With quaking countenance.
  • —“A smoke-dried crony of our good friend
  • Here rapt in pious trance.”
  • And his chuckle shook the vaporous sprites
  • To a madder, merrier dance.
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  • “Hence, mocking fiend, I do know thee now.”
  • The pastor signed the cross.
  • But the old man laughed and shrieked at once,
  • As over turret and fosse,
  • The midnight hour in the sleeping town,
  • 240From bell to bell did toss.
  • “Too late, poor priest!” In the pastor's ear,
  • So rang the scornful croak.
  • With that, a swoon fell over his sense;
  • And when at length he woke,
  • Two pipes lay shattered upon the floor,
  • The room was black with smoke.

  • That hour a dreadful monster sped
  • Home to his fiery place;
  • A shrieking wretch hung over his back
  • 250As he sank through nether space.
  • Of such a rider on such a steed
  • What tongue the flight shall trace?
  • The bearer shook his burden off
  • As he reached his retinue:
  • He has flung him into a knot of fiends,
  • Red, yellow, green and blue:
  • “I have brought a pipe for my private use,
  • Go trim it, some of you!”
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  • They have sliced the very crown from his head,
  • 260Worse tonsure than a monk's—
  • Lopped arms and legs, stuck a red-hot tube
  • In his wretchedest of trunks;
  • And when the Devil wants his pipe
  • They bring him Jan Van Hunks.
Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Copyright: Printed for private circulation.