« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
a lover-'a servant and singer,' as faithful, as Dante ‘of Florence and of Beatrice'-with some close inward conformities of genius, independent of any mere circumstances of education. It was said by a critic of the last century, not wisely though 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
• Di tes-moy où, n'en quel pays,
Est Flora, la belle Romaine'-
Lady Flora the lovely Roman :' -'way,' in which one might actually chance to meet her; the unmistakeably 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- 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-
That cast no shadow yet before,
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 10 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 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, congruously perhaps with a certain feverishness of soul in the moods they present, there is in places a near approach (may it be said ?) to such insanity of realisin
• Pity and love shall burn
Between her lips to soothe and yearn,
And loose my spirit's bands.' But even if we concede this,-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 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, or Blake's design of the Singing of the Morning Stars, or Addison's Nine. teenth Psalm.
With him indeed, as in some revival of the old mythopæic aye, 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 cffects, but rather that of a painter concentrated upon the picturesque effect of one or two selected objects at a time, the 'hcllow brimmed with mist,' or the ‘ruined weir,' as he sees it írom one of the 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 ard simplicity, to a pictorial or descriptive power in dealing with the inanimate world, which is certainly still one half of the charm, in that other, more remote and mystic, use of it. For with Rossetti this sense of, after all lifeless, nature, 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 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 every-day life, towards the very mystery itself in it, gives a singular gravity to all his work : those matters never became 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 mys. terious 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, by schoolmen, whose artificial creation those abstractions really are. In our actual concrete experience, the two trains of phenomena which they 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 character 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,
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.
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 languor 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 —that, 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 which 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 obscurely struck in The Bessed Damozel, and, in his later work, makes him speak sometimes almost like believer in mesmerism. Dream-land, as we said, with its 'phan. toms 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, the lack of which became mortal disease with him. One may recognise even a sort of over-hasty and morbid making ready for death itself, which increases on him ; the thoughts and imageries of it 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 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 lyrical 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.
Were there indeed 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 Ronsard, in one of those ages, in the words of Stendhal-ces siècles de passions ou les âmes pouvaient se livrer franchement à la plus haute exaltation, quand les passions qui font la possibilité comme les sujets des beaux arts eristaient. 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 osten from modern life to the chronicle of the past. Old Scotch history, perhaps beyond any other, is