Rossetti Archive Textual Transcription

Document Title: The Athenaeum, 1871, Part II
Author: John Francis (publisher)
Date of publication: 1871 July - 1871 December
Publisher: John Francis
Printer: Edward J. Francis
Volume: 1871, Part II
Issue: 2303

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

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Your paragraph, a fortnight ago, relating to the

pseudonymous authorship of an article, violently

assailing myself and other writers of poetry, in the

Contemporary Review for October last, reveals a

species of critical masquerade which I have

expressed in the heading given to this letter. Since

then, Mr. Sidney Colvin's note, qualifying the report

that he intends to “answer” that article, has ap–

peared in your pages: and my own view as to the

absolute forfeit, under such conditions, of all claim

to honourable reply, is precisely the same as Mr.

Colvin's. For here a critical organ, professedly adopt–

ing the principle of open signature, would seem, in

reality, to assert (by silent practice, however, not

by enunciation,) that if the anonymous in criticism

was—as itself originally inculcated—but an early

caterpillar stage, the nominate too is found to be

no better than a homely transitional chrysalis, and

that the ultimate butterfly form for a critic who

likes to sport in sunlight and yet to elude the grasp,

is after all the pseudonymous. But, indeed, what I

may call the “Siamese” aspect of the entertain-

ment provided by the Review will elicit but one

verdict. Yet I may, perhaps, as the individual

chiefly attacked, be excused for asking your

assistance now in giving a specific denial to

specific charges which, if unrefuted, may still

continue, in spite of their author's strategic fiasco,

to serve his purpose against me to some extent.
The primary accusation, on which this writer

grounds all the rest, seems to be that others and

myself “extol fleshliness as the distinct and supreme

end of poetic and pictorial art; aver that poetic

expression is greater than poetic thought; and, by

inference, that the body is greater than the soul,

and sound superior to sense.” As my own writings

are alone formally dealt with in the article, I

shall confine my answer to myself; and this must

first take unavoidably the form of a challenge to

prove so broad a statement. It is true, some frag-

mentary pretence at proof is put in here and there

throughout the attack, and thus far an opportunity

is given of contesting the assertion.
A Sonnet, entitled ‘ Nuptial Sleep ’ is quoted and

abused at page 338 of the Review , and is there

dwelt upon as a “whole poem,” describing “merely

animal sensations.” It is no more a whole poem

in reality, than is any single stanza of any poem

throughout the book. The poem, written chiefly

in sonnets, and of which this is one sonnet-stanza,

is entitled ‘ The House of Life’ ; and even in my

first published instalment of the whole work (as
page: 793
contained in the volume under notice) ample

evidence is included that no such passing phase of

description as the one headed ‘ Nuptial Sleep

could possibly be put forward by the author of

The House of Life’ as his own representative view

of the subject of love. In proof of this, I will direct

attention (among the love-sonnets of this poem) to

Nos. 2, 8, 11, 17, 28, and more especially 13, which,

indeed, I had better print here.
  • Sweet dimness of her loosened hair's downfall
  • About thy face; her sweet hands round thy head
  • In gracious fostering union garlanded;
  • Her tremulous smiles; her glances' sweet recall
  • Of love; her murmuring sighs memorial;
  • Her mouth's culled sweetness by thy kisses shed
  • On cheeks and neck and eyelids, and so led
  • Back to her mouth which answers there for all:—
  • What sweeter than these things, except the thing
  • 10In lacking which all these would lose their sweet:—
  • The confident hearts still fervour; the swift beat
  • And soft subsidence of the spirit's wing,
  • Then when it feels, in cloud-girt wayfaring,
  • The breath of kindred plumes against its feet?
Any reader may bring any artistic charge he

pleases against the above sonnet; but one charge

it would be impossible to maintain against the

writer of the series in which it occurs, and that is,

the wish on his part to assert that the body is

greater than the soul. For here all the passionate

and just delights of the body are declared—some-

what figuratively, it is true, but unmistakably—

to be as naught if not ennobled by the concurrence

of the soul at all times. Moreover, nearly one half

of this series of sonnets has nothing to do with

love, but treats of quite other life-influences. I

would defy any one to couple with fair quotation

of Sonnets 29, 30, 31, 39, 40, 41, 43, or others,

the slander that their author was not impressed,

like all other thinking men, with the responsibilities

and higher mysteries of life; while Sonnets 35, 36,

and 37, entitled ‘ The Choice,’ sum up the general

view taken in a manner only to be evaded by

conscious insincerity. Thus much for ‘ The House

of Life
,’ of which the Sonnet ‘ Nuptial Sleep’ is

one stanza, embodying, for its small constituent

share, a beauty of natural universal function, only

to be reprobated in art if dwelt on (as I have

shown that it is not here) to the exclusion of those

other highest things of which it is the harmonious

At page 342, an attempt is made to stigmatize

four short quotations as being specially “my own

property,” that is, (for the context shows the

meaning,) as being grossly sensual; though all

guiding reference to any precise page or poem in

my book is avoided here. The first of these un-

specified quotations is from the ‘ Last Confession,’

and is the description referring to the harlot's

laugh, the hideous character of which, together

with its real or imagined resemblance to the laugh

heard soon afterwards from the lips of one long

cherished as an ideal, is the immediate cause

which makes the maddened hero of the poem a

murderer. Assailants may say what they please;

but no poet or poetic reader will blame me for

making the incident recorded in these seven lines

as repulsive to the reader as it was to the hearer

and beholder. Without this, the chain of motive

and result would remain obviously incomplete.

Observe also that these are but seven lines in a

poem of some five hundred, not one other of which

could be classed with them.
A second quotation gives the last two lines only

of the following sonnet, which is the first of four

sonnets in ‘ The House of Life’ jointly entitled

Willowwood’ :—
  • I sat with Love upon a woodside well,
  • Leaning across the water, I and he;
  • Nor ever did he speak nor looked at me,
  • But touched his lute wherein was audible
  • The certain secret thing he had to tell:
  • Only our mirrored eyes met silently
  • In the low wave; and that sound seemed to be
  • The passionate voice I knew; and my tears fell.
  • And at their fall, his eyes beneath grew hers;
  • 10And with his foot and with his wing-feathers
  • He swept the spring that watered my heart's drouth,
  • Then the dark ripples spread to waving hair,
  • And as I stooped, her own lips rising there
  • Bubbled with brimming kisses at my mouth.
The critic has quoted (as I said) only the last

two lines, and he has italicized the second as some-

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thing unbearable and ridiculous. Of course the

inference would be that this was really my own

absurd bubble-and-squeak notion of an actual kiss.

The reader will perceive at once, from the whole

sonnet transcribed above, how untrue such an in-

ference would be. The sonnet describes a dream

or trance of divided love momentarily re-united by

the longing fancy; and in the imagery of the

dream, the face of the beloved rises through deep

dark waters to kiss the lover. Thus the phrase,

“Bubbled with brimming kisses,” &c., bears purely

on the special symbolism employed, and from that

point of view will be found, I believe, perfectly

simple and just.
A third quotation is from ‘ Eden Bower,’ and

  • What more prize than love to impel thee?
  • Grip and lip my limbs as I tell thee!
Here again no reference is given, and naturally the

reader would suppose that a human embrace is de-

scribed. The embrace, on the contrary, is that of

a fabled snake-woman and a snake. It would be

possible still, no doubt, to object on other grounds

to this conception; but the ground inferred and

relied on for full effect by the critic is none the less

an absolute misrepresentation. These three extracts,

it will be admitted, are virtually, though not

verbally, garbled with malicious intention; and

the same is the case, as I have shown, with the

sonnet called ‘ Nuptial Sleep’ when purposely

treated as a “whole poem.”
The last of the four quotations grouped by the

critic as conclusive examples, consists of two lines

from ‘ Jenny.’ Neither some thirteen years ago,

when I wrote this poem, nor last year when I pub-

lished it, did I fail to foresee impending charges of

recklessness and aggressiveness, or to perceive that

even some among those who could really read the

poem and acquit me on these grounds, might still

hold that the thought in it had better have dis-

pensed with the situation which serves it for frame-

work. Nor did I omit to consider how far a

treatment from without might here be possible.

But the motive powers of art reverse the require-

ment of science, and demand first of all an inner

standing-point. The heart of such a mystery as

this must be plucked from the very world in which

it beats or bleeds; and the beauty and pity, the

self-questionings and all-questionings which it

brings with it, can come with full force only from

the mouth of one alive to its whole appeal, such as

the speaker put forward in the poem,—that is, of a

young and thoughtful man of the world. To such

a speaker, many half-cynical revulsions of feeling

and reverie, and a recurrent presence of the im-

pressions of beauty (however artificial) which first

brought him within such a circle of influence, would

be inevitable features of the dramatic relation por-

trayed. Here again I can give the lie, in hearing

of honest readers, to the base or trivial ideas which

my critic labours to connect with the poem. There

is another little charge, however, which this minstrel

in mufti brings against Jenny, namely, one of

plagiarism from that very poetic self of his which

the tutelary prose does but enshroud for the mo-

ment. This question can, fortunately, be settled

with ease by others who have read my critic's

poems; and thus I need the less regret that, not

happening myself to be in that position, I must be

content to rank with those who cannot pretend to

an opinion on the subject.
It would be humiliating, need one come to

serious detail, to have to refute such an accusation

as that of “binding oneself by solemn league and

covenant to extol fleshliness as the distinct and

supreme end of poetic and pictorial art”; and one

cannot but feel that here every one will think it

allowable merely to pass by with a smile the

foolish fellow who has brought a charge thus framed

against any reasonable man. Indeed, what I have

said already is substantially enough to refute it,

even did I not feel sure that a fair balance of my

poetry must, of itself, do so in the eyes of every

candid reader. I say nothing of my pictures; but

those who know them will laugh at the idea. That

I may, nevertheless, take a wider view than some

poets or critics, of how much, in the material

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conditions absolutely given to man to deal with

as distinct from his spiritual aspirations, is admis-

sible within the limits of Art,—this, I say, is

possible enough; nor do I wish to shrink from

such responsibility. But to state that I do so to

the ignoring or overshadowing of spiritual beauty, is

an absolute falsehood, impossible to be put forward

except in the indulgence of prejudice or rancour.
I have selected, amid much railing on my critic's

part, what seemed the most representative indict-

ment against me, and have, so far, answered it.

Its remaining clauses set forth how others and

myself “aver that poetic expression is greater

than poetic thought ... and sound superior to sense”—

an accusation elsewhere, I observe, expressed by

saying that we “wish to create form for its own

sake.” If writers of verse are to be listened to in

such arraignment of each other, it might be quite

competent to me to prove, from the works of my

friends in question, that no such thing is the case

with them; but my present function is to confine

myself to my own defence. This, again, it is

difficult to do quite seriously. It is no part of my

undertaking to dispute the verdict of any “con-

temporary,” however contemptuous or contemptible,

on my own measure of executive success; but

the accusation cited above is not against the poetic

value of certain work, but against its primary and

(by assumption) its admitted aim. And to this I

must reply that so far, assuredly, not even Shak-

speare himself could desire more arduous human

tragedy for development in Art than belongs to

the themes I venture to embody, however incal-

culably higher might be his power of dealing with

them. What more inspiring for poetic effort than

the terrible Love turned to Hate,—perhaps the

deadliest of all passion-woven complexities,—which

is the theme of Sister Helen, and, in a more

fantastic form, of Eden Bower,—the surroundings

of both poems being the mere machinery of a

central universal meaning? What, again, more

so than the savage penalty exacted for a lost

ideal, as expressed in the Last Confession;

—than the outraged love for man and burning

compensations in art and memory of Dante

at Verona
;—than the baffling problems which

the face of Jenny conjures up;—or than the

analysis of passion and feeling attempted in

The House of Life, and others among the more

purely lyrical poems? I speak here, as does my

critic in the clause adduced, of aim not of achieve-

and so far, the mere summary is instantly

subversive of the preposterous imputation. To

assert that the poet whose matter is such as this

aims chiefly at “creating form for its own sake,”

is, in fact, almost an ingenuous kind of dishonesty;

for surely it delivers up the asserter at once, bound

hand and foot, to the tender mercies of contradic-

tory proof. Yet this may fairly be taken as an

example of the spirit in which a constant effort is

here made against me to appeal to those who

either are ignorant of what I write, or else belong

to the large class too easily influenced by an

assumption of authority in addressing them. The

false name appended to the article must, as is

evident, aid this position vastly; for who, after

all, would not be apt to laugh at seeing one poet

confessedly come forward as aggressor against

another in the field of criticism?
It would not be worth while to lose time and

patience in noticing minutely how the system of

misrepresentation is carried into points of artistic

detail,—giving us, for example, such statements as

that the burthen employed in the ballad of ‘Sister

Helen’ “is repeated with little or no alteration

through thirty-four verses,” whereas the fact is,

that the alteration of it in every verse is the very

scheme of the poem. But these are minor matters

quite thrown into the shade by the critic's more

daring sallies. In addition to the class of attack

I have answered above, the article contains, of

course, an immense amount of personal paltriness;

as, for instance, attributions of my work to this,

that, or the other absurd derivative source; or

again, pure nonsense (which can have no real

meaning even to the writer) about “one art getting

hold of another, and imposing on it its conditions
page: 794
and limitations”; or, indeed, what not besides?

However, to such antics as this, no more attention

is possible than that which Virgil enjoined Dante

to bestow on the meaner phenomena of his

Thus far, then, let me thank you for the oppor-

tunity afforded me to join issue with the Stealthy

School of Criticism. As for any literary justice to

be done on this particular Mr. Robert-Thomas, I

will merely ask the reader whether, once identified,

he does not become manifestly his own best “sworn

tormentor”? For who will then fail to discern all

the palpitations which preceded his final resolve in

the great question whether to be or not to be his

acknowledged self when he became an assailant?

And yet this is he who, from behind his mask,

ventures to charge another with “bad blood,” with

“insincerity,” and the rest of it (and that where

poetic fancies are alone in question); while every

word on his own tongue is covert rancour, and

every stroke from his pen perversion of truth. Yet,

after all, there is nothing wonderful in the lengths

to which a fretful poet-critic will carry such grudges

as he may bear, while publisher and editor can

both be found who are willing to consider such

means admissible, even to the clear subversion of

first professed tenets in the Review which they

In many phases of outward nature, the principle

of chaff and grain holds good,—the base enveloping

the precious continually; but an untruth was

never yet the husk of a truth. Thresh and riddle

and winnow it as you may,—let it fly in shreds to

the four winds,—falsehood only will be that which

flies and that which stays. And thus the sheath

of deceit which this pseudonymous undertaking

presents at the outset insures in fact what will be

found to be its real character to the core.
56, Ludgate Hill, Dec. 6, 1871.
IN your last issue you associate the name of

Mr. Robert Buchanan with the article The Fleshly

School of Poetry,
by Thomas Maitland, in a recent

number of the Contemporary Review. You might

with equal propriety associate with the article the

name of Mr. Robert Browning, or of Mr. Robert

Lytton, or of any other Robert.
Russell Square, W., Dec. 12, 1871.
I CANNOT reply to the insolence of Mr. “Sidney

Colvin,” whoever he is. My business is to answer

the charge implied in the paragraph you published

ten days ago, accusing me of having criticized Mr.

D. G. Rossetti under a nom de plume. I certainly

wrote the article on The Fleshly School of Poetry,

but I had nothing to do with the signature. Mr.

Strahan, publisher of the Contemporary Review,

can corroborate me thus far, as he is best aware of

the inadvertence which led to the suppression of

my own name.
Permit me to say further that, although I should

have preferred not to resuscitate so slight a thing,

I have now requested Mr. Strahan to republish

the criticism, with many additions but no material

alterations, and with my name in the title-page.

The grave responsibility of not agreeing with Mr.

Rossetti's friends as to the merits of his poetry,

will thus be transferred, with all fitting publicity,

to my shoulders.
*** Mr. Buchanan's letter is an edifying com-

mentary on Messrs. Strahan's. Messrs. Strahan ap-

parently think that it is a matter of no importance

whether signatures are correct or not, and that

Mr. Browning had as much to do with the article

as Mr. Buchanan. Mr. Buchanan seems equally

indifferent, but he now claims the critique as his.

It is a pity the publishers of the Contemporary

should be in such uncertainty about the

authorship of the articles in that magazine. It may

be only a matter of taste, but we prefer, if we are

reading an article written by Mr. Buchanan, that it

should be signed by him, especially when he praises

his own poems; and that little “inadvertencies” of

this kind should not be left uncorrected till the

public find them out.

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