Rossetti Archive Textual Transcription

Document Title: Appreciations, with an Essay on Style
Author: Walter Pater
Date of publication: 1889
Publisher: MacMillan and Co.
Printer: R.R. Clark, Edinburgh
Edition: 1st

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

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THE RENAISSANCE: Studies in Art and Poetry. Fourth

Thousand, Revised and Enlarged. 10s. 6d.

MARIUS THE EPICUREAN: His Sensations and Ideas.

2 Vols. Second Edition. 12s.

IMAGINARY PORTRAITS: A Prince of Court Painters;

Denys l'Auxerrois; Sebastian van Storck; Duke Carl

of Rosenmold. 6s.
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  • STYLE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
  • WORDSWORTH. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .37
  • COLERIDGE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .64
  • CHARLES LAMB. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 107
  • SIR THOMAS BROWNE . . . . . . . . . . . . . 127
  • "LOVE'S LABOURS LOST" . . . . . . . . . . . 167
  • "MEASURE FOR MEASURE" . . . . . . . . . . . 176
  • SHAKSPERE'S ENGLISH KINGS . . . . . . . . . 192
  • AESTHETIC POETRY. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 213
  • DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI. . . . . . . . . . . 228
  • POSTSCRIPT. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 243
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It was characteristic of a poet who had ever something about him of mystic isolation, and will still appeal perhaps, though with a name it may seem now established in English literature, to a special and limited audience, that some of his poems had won a kind of exquisite fame before they were in the full sense published. The Blessed Damozel , although actually printed twice before the year 1870, was eagerly circulated in manuscript; and the volume which it now opens came at last to satisfy a long-standing curiosity as to the poet, whose pictures also had become an object of the same peculiar kind of interest. For those poems were the work of a painter, understood to belong to, and to be indeed the leader, of a new school then rising into note; and the reader of today may observe already, in The Blessed Damozel , written at the age of eighteen, a prefigurement of the chief characteristics of that school, as he will recognise in it also, in pro-
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portion as he really knows Rossetti, many of the characteristics which are most markedly personal and his own. Common to that school and to him, and in both alike of primary significance, was the quality of sincerity, already felt as one of the charms of that earliest poem—a perfect sincerity, taking effect in the deliberate use of the most direct and unconventional expression, for the conveyance of a poetic sense which recognised no conventional standard of what poetry was called upon to be. At a time when poetic originality in England might seem to have had its utmost play, here was certainly one new poet more, with a structure and music of verse, a vocabulary, an accent, unmistakably novel, yet felt to be no mere tricks of manner adopted with a view to forcing attention—an accent which might rather count as the very seal of reality on one man's own proper speech; as that speech itself was the wholly natural expression of certain wonderful things he really felt and saw. Here was one, who had a matter to present to his readers, to himself at least, in the first instance, so valuable, so real and definite, that his primary aim, as regards form or expression in his verse, would be but its exact equivalence to those data within. That he had this gift of transparency in language—the control of a style which did but obediently shift and shape itself to the mental
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motion, as a well-trained hand can follow on the tracing-paper the outline of an original drawing below it, was proved afterwards by a volume of typically perfect translations from the delightful but difficult “early Italian poets”; such transparency being indeed the secret of all genuine style, of all such style as can truly belong to one man and not to another. His own meaning was always personal and even recondite, in a certain sense learned and casuistical, sometimes complex or obscure; but the term was always, one could see, deliberately chosen from many competitors, as the just transcript of that peculiar phase of soul which he alone knew, precisely as he knew it.
One of the peculiarities of The Blessed Damozel was a definiteness of sensible imagery, which seemed almost grotesque to some, and was strange, above all, in a theme so profoundly visionary. The gold bar of heaven from which she leaned, her hair yellow like ripe corn, are but examples of a general treatment, as naively detailed as the pictures of those early painters contemporary with Dante, who has shown a similar care for minute and definite imagery in his verse; there, too, in the very midst of profoundly mystic vision. Such definition of outline is indeed one among many points in which Rossetti resembles the great Italian poet, of whom, led to him at first
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by family circumstances, he was ever a lover—a “servant and singer,” faithful as Dante, “of Florence and of Beatrice”— with some close inward conformities of genius also, independent of any mere circumstances of education. It was said by a critic of the last century, not wisely but agreeably to the practice of his time, that poetry rejoices in abstractions. For Rossetti, as for Dante, without question on his part, the first condition of the poetic way of seeing and presenting things is particularisation. “Tell me now,” he writes, for Villon's
  • “Dictes-moy où, n'en quel pays,
  • Est Flora, la belle Romaine”—
  • “Tell me now, in what hidden way is
  • Lady Flora the lovely Roman:”
—“way,” in which one might actually chance to meet her; the unmistakably poetic effect of the couplet in English being dependent on the definiteness of that single word (though actually lighted on in the search after a difficult double rhyme) for which every one else would have written, like Villon himself, a more general one, just equivalent to place or region.
And this delight in concrete definition is allied with another of his conformities to Dante, the really imaginative vividness, namely, of his personifications
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—his hold upon them, or rather their hold upon him, with the force of a Frankenstein, when once they have taken life from him. Not Death only and Sleep, for instance, and the winged spirit of Love, but certain particular aspects of them, a whole “populace” of special hours and places, “the hour” even “which might have been, yet might not be,” are living creatures, with hands and eyes and articulate voices.
  • “Stands it not by the door—
  • Love's Hour—till she and I shall meet;
  • With bodiless form and unapparent feet
  • That cast no shadow yet before,
  • Though round its head the dawn begins to pour
  • The breath that makes day sweet?”—
  • “Nay, why
  • Name the dead hours? I mind them well:
  • Their ghosts in many darkened doorways dwell
  • With desolate eyes to know them by.”
Poetry as a mania—one of Plato's two higher forms of “divine” mania—has, in all its species, a mere insanity incidental to it, the “defect of its quality,” into which it may lapse in its moment of weakness; and the insanity which follows a vivid poetic anthropomorphism like that of Rossetti may be noted here and there in his work, in a forced and almost grotesque materialising of abstractions, as
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Dante also became at times a mere subject of the scholastic realism of the Middle Age.
In Love's Nocturn and The Stream's Secret , congrously perhaps with a certain feverishness of soul in the moods they present, there is at times a near approach (may it be said?) to such insanity of realism—
  • “Pity and love shall burn
  • In her pressed cheek and cherishing hands;
  • And from the living spirit of love that stands
  • Between her lips to soothe and yearn,
  • Each separate breath shall clasp me round in turn
  • And loose my spirit's bands.”
But even if we concede this; even if we allow, in the very plan of those two compositions, something of the literary conceit—what exquisite, what novel flowers of poetry, we must admit them to be, as they stand! In the one, what a delight in all the natural beauty of water, all its details for the eye of a painter; in the other, how subtle and fine the imaginative hold upon all the secret ways of sleep and dreams! In both of them, with much the same attitude and tone, Love—sick and doubtful Love— would fain inquire of what lies below the surface of sleep, and below the water; stream or dream being forced to speak by Love's powerful“control”; and the poet would have it foretell the fortune, issue, and event of his wasting passion. Such artifices, indeed,
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were not unknown in the old Provençal poetry of which Dante had learned something. Only, in Rossetti at least, they are redeemed by a serious purpose, by that sincerity of his, which allies itself readily to a serious beauty, a sort of grandeur of literary workmanship, to a great style. One seems to hear there a really new kind of poetic utterance, with effects which have nothing else like them; as there is nothing else, for instance, like the narrative of Jacob's Dream in Genesis, or Blake's design of the Singing of the Morning Stars, or Addison's Nineteenth Psalm.
With him indeed, as in some revival of the mythopœic age, common things—dawn, noon, night—are full of human or personal expression, full of sentiment. The lovely little sceneries scattered up and down his poems, glimpses of a landscape, not indeed of broad open-air effects, but rather that of a painter concentrated upon the picturesque effect of one or two selected objects at a time—the “hollow brimmed with mist,” or the “ruined weir,” as he sees it from one of his windows, or reflected in one of the mirrors of his “ house of life” (the vignettes for instance seen by Rose Mary in the magic beryl) attest, by their very freshness and simplicity, to a pictorial or descriptive power in dealing with the inanimate world, which is certainly also one half of the charm, in that other, more remote and mystic,
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use of it. For with Rossetti this sense of lifeless nature after all, is translated to a higher service, in which it does but incorporate itself with some phase of strong emotion. Every one understands how this may happen at critical moments of life; what a weirdly expressive soul may have crept, even in full noonday, into “the white-flower'd elder-thicket,” when Godiva saw it “gleam through the Gothic archways in the wall,” at the end of her terrible ride. To Rossetti it is so always, because to him life is a crisis at every moment. A sustained impressibility towards the mysterious conditions of man's everyday life, towards the very mystery itself in it, gives a singular gravity to all his work: those matters never become trite to him. But throughout, it is the ideal intensity of love—of love based upon a perfect yet peculiar type of physical or material beauty—which is enthroned in the midst of those mysterious powers; Youth and Death, Destiny and Fortune, Fame, Poetic Fame, Memory, Oblivion, and the like. Rossetti is one of those who, in the words of Mérimée, se passionnent pour la passion, one of Love's lovers.
And yet, again as with Dante, to speak of his ideal type of beauty as material, is partly misleading. Spirit and matter, indeed, have been for the most part opposed, with a false contrast or antagonism,
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by schoolmen, whose artificial creation those abstractions really are. In our actual concrete experience, the two trains of phenomena which the words matter and spirit do but roughly distinguish, play inextricably into each other. Practically, the church of the Middle Age by its æsthetic worship, its sacramentalism, its real faith in the resurrection of the flesh, had set itself against that Manichean opposition of spirit and matter, and its results in men's way of taking life; and in this, Dante is the central representative of its spirit. To him, in the vehement and impassioned heat of his conceptions, the material and the spiritual are fused and blent; if the spiritual attains the definite visibility of a crystal, what is material loses its earthiness and impurity. And here again, by force of instinct, Rossetti is one with him. His chosen type of beauty is one, “Whose speech Truth knows not from her thought, Nor Love her body from her soul.” Like Dante, he knows no region of spirit which shall not be sensuous also, or material. The shadowy world, which he realises so powerfully, has still the ways and houses, the land and water, the light and darkness, the fire and flowers, that had so much to do in the moulding of those bodily powers and aspects which counted for so large a part of the soul, here.
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For Rossetti, then, the great affections of persons to each other, swayed and determined, in the case of his highly pictorial genius, mainly by that so-called material loveliness, formed the great undeniable reality in things, the solid resisting substance, in a world where all beside might be but shadow. The fortunes of those affections—of the great love so determined; its casuistries, its langour sometimes; above all, its sorrows; its fortunate or unfortunate collisions with those other great matters; how it looks, as the long day of life goes round, in the light and shadow of them: all this, conceived with an abundant imagination, and a deep, a philosophic, reflectiveness, is the matter of his verse, and especially of what he designed as his chief poetic work, “a work to be called The House of Life ,” towards which the majority of his sonnets and songs were contributions.
The dwelling-place in which one finds oneself by chance or destiny, yet can partly fashion for oneself; never properly one's own at all, if it be changed too lightly; in which every object has its associations—the dim mirrors, the portraits, the lamps, the books, the hair-tresses of the dead and visionary magic crystals in the secret drawers, the names and words scratched on the windows, windows open upon prospects the saddest or the sweetest; the house
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one must quit, yet taking perhaps, how much of its quietly active light and colour along with us!—grown now to be a kind of raiment to one's body, as the body, according to Swedenborg, is but the raiment of the soul—under that image, the whole of Rossetti's work might count as a House of Life , of which he is but the “Interpreter”. And it is a “haunted” house. A sense of power in love, defying distance, and those barriers which are so much more than physical distance, of unutterable desire penetrating into the world of sleep, however “lead-bound,” was one of those anticipative notes struck in The Blessed Damozel , and, in his later work, makes him speak sometimes almost like a believer in mesmerism. Dream-land, as we said, with its “phantoms of the body,” deftly coming and going on love's service, is to him, in no mere fancy or figure of speech, a real country, a veritable expansion of. or addition to, our waking life; and he did well perhaps to wait carefully upon sleep, for the lack of it became mortal disease with him. One may even recognise a sort of morbid and over-hasty making-ready for death itself, which increases on him; thoughts concerning it, its imageries, coming with a frequency and importunity, in excess, one might think, of even the very saddest, quite wholesome wisdom.
And indeed the publication of his second volume
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of Ballads and Sonnets preceded his death by scarcely a twelvemonth. That volume bears witness to the reverse of any failure of power, or falling-off from his early standard of literary perfection, in every one of his then accustomed forms of poetry—the song, the sonnet, and the ballad. The newly printed sonnets, now completing the House of Life , certainly advanced beyond those earlier ones, in clearness; his dramatic power in the ballad, was here at its height; while one monumental, even gnomic piece, Soothsay , testifies, more clearly even than the Nineveh of his first volume, to the reflective force, the dry reason, always at work behind his imaginative creations, which at no time dispensed with a genuine intellectual structure. For in matters of pure reflection also, Rossetti maintained the painter's sensuous clearness of conception; and this has something to do with the capacity, largely illustrated by his ballads, of telling some red-hearted story of impassioned action with effect.
Have there, in very deed, been ages, in which the external conditions of poetry such as Rossetti's were of more spontaneous growth than in our own? The archaic side of Rossetti's work, his preferences in regard to earlier poetry, connect him with those who have certainly thought so, who fancied they could have breathed more largely in the age of Chaucer, or of
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Ronsard, in one of those ages, in the words of Stendhal— ces siècles de passions où les âmes pouvaient se livrer franchement à la plus haute exaltation, quand les passions qui font la possibilité comme les sujets des beaux arts existaient. We may think, perhaps, that such old time as that has never really existed except in the fancy of poets; but it was to find it, that Rossetti turned so often from modern life to the chronicle of the past. Old Scotch history, perhaps beyond any other, is strong in the matter of heroic and vehement hatreds and love, the tragic Mary herself being but the perfect blossom of them; and it is from that history that Rossetti has taken the subjects of the two longer ballads of his second volume; of the three admirable ballads in it, The King's Tragedy (in which Rossetti has dexterously interwoven some relics of James's own exquisite early verse) reaching the highest level of dramatic success, and marking perfection, perhaps, in this kind of poetry; which, in the earlier volume, gave us, among other pieces, Troy Town , Sister Helen , and Eden Bower .
Like those earlier pieces, the ballads of the second volume bring with them the question of the poetic value of the“refrain”;—
  • Eden's bower in flower:
  • “And O the bower and the hour!”
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Sig. R
—and the like. Two of those ballads— Troy Town and Eden Bower , are terrible in their theme; and the refrain serves, perhaps, to relieve their bold aim at the sentiment of terror. In Sister Helen again, the refrain has a real, and sustained purpose (being here duly varied also) and performs the part of a chorus, as the story proceeds. Yet even in these cases, whatever its affect may be in actual recitation, it may fairly be questioned, whether, to the mere reader their actual effect is not that of a positive interruption and drawback, at least in pieces so lengthy; and Rossetti himself, it would seem, came to think so, for in the shortest of his later ballads, The White Ship —that old true history of the generosity with which a youth, worthless in life, flung himself upon death—he was contented with a single utterance of the refrain, “given out” like the keynote or tune of a chant.
In The King's Tragedy , Rossetti has worked upon motive, broadly human (to adopt the phrase of popular criticism) such as one and all may realise. Rossetti, indeed, with all his self-concentration upon his own peculiar aim, by no means ignored those general interests which are external to poetry as he conceived it; as he has shown here and there, in this poetic, as also in pictorial, work. It was but that, in a life to be shorter even than the average, he
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found enough to occupy him in the fulfilment of a task, plainly given him to do. Perhaps, if one had to name a single composition of his to readers desiring to make acquaintance with him for the first time, one would select: The King's Tragedy —that poem so moving, so popularly dramatic, and lifelike. Notwithstanding this, his work, it must be conceded, certainly through no narrowness or egotism, but in the faithfulness of a true workman to a vocation so emphatic, was mainly of the esoteric order. But poetry, at all times, exercises two distinct functions; it may reveal, it may unveil to every eye, the ideal aspects of common things, after Gray's way (though Gray too, it is well to remember, seemed in his own day, seemed even to Johnson, obscure) or it may actually add to the number of motives poetic and uncommon in themselves, by the imaginative creation of things that are ideal from their very birth. Rossetti did something, something excellent, of the former kind; but his characteristic, his really revealing work, lay in the adding to poetry of fresh poetic material, of a new order of phenomena, in the creation of a new ideal.
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Printed by R. & R. Clark, Edinburgh.
Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: pr99.p32.rad.xml