Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his Circle/Chapter 9

Chapter IX.

Influence of the occult upon Rossetti—"Rose Mary"—Swinburne's ecstasy—"Proserpine"—"Cassandra"—John Trivett NettleshipEdward HughesLewis CarrollLongfellow—Rossetti's methods—An appraisement of his work—Conclusion.

In recalling the foregoing scenes, I have many times asked myself why I should relate them, and whether such things were not too trivial to set down in writing? And my answer to myself was always, that the interest displayed by Rossetti towards everything bearing on the occult gave an insight to his nature, and however inconsequential these incidents may appear, they show how largely both his poetry and his painting were influenced by the bent of his mind in that direction, and his yearning for the unseen. He would often talk about spiritualism for hours, and many were the curious experiences of ours which we revealed to each other. And, as in a disconnected dream, the conversation would sometimes wander into paths not thought of before, and hence these relations occasionally had their uses.

I recollect on one occasion I had just come from visiting a neighbour—a lady who possessed the original dreaming stone of Dr. Dee99 which she allowed me to look at. It was a small, unpretentious bit of crystal, but having such a reputation as it had, I felt as though I too must have a look into it. Full half-an-hour I spent in gazing into it, but I saw nothing. Perhaps the time was not long enough, or perhaps I was not in tune; during the afternoon, however, I learnt that my hostess had seen much and written much more from the pages of antiquated lore that it had unfolded to her—Hebrew, Sanscrit, and heaven only knows what else had been opened up to her enlightened vision.

Full of all this mysterious discourse, I went back to Rossetti and told him all. He listened to my narration with the greatest interest. I spoke of the dreaming stone as the magic "Beryl."

"What did you call it?" he asked.

I repeated its name the "Beryl."

"Good," he responded, "that is the very word I want for the title of my poem; it never occurred to me before. I shall now use it; it is better than crystal in every way; it is more rhythmical, and has a greater seeming of mysticism in its sound. Moreover, it is one of the mystic stones named in Revelations."

So from that time he substituted the word "Beryl" for "crystal," and built up a wondrous poem with a sonorous titled.100

Swinburne was a frequent visitor at Cheyne Walk, and I remember well his calling one evening when Rossetti was absent on some china-collecting expedition. It had been a very sultry day, and with the advancing twilight, heavy thunder-clouds were rolling up. The door opened and Swinburne entered. He appeared in an abstracted state, and for a few minutes sat silent. Soon, something I had said anent his last poem set his thoughts loose. Like the storm that had just broken, so he began in low tones to utter lines of poetry. As the storm increased, he got more and more excited and carried away by the impulse of his thoughts, bursting into a torrent of splendid verse that seemed like some grand air with the distant peals of thunder as an intermittent accompaniment. And still the storm waxed more violent, and the vivid flashes of lightning became more frequent. But Swinburne seemed unconscious of it all, and whilst he paced up and down the room, pouring out bursts of passionate declamation, faint electric sparks played round the wavy masses of his luxuriant hair. I lay on the sofa in a corner of the studio and listened in wonder and with a curious awe, for it appeared to me as though the very figures in the pictures that were on the easels standing about the room were conscious of and sympathized with the poet and his outpourings. The Proserpine101 gazed out more mournfully than I had been wont to see her gaze; her longing to return to earth seemed to have Swinburne as an additional reason for it. On the other side looked out through her frame the Blessed Damozel,102 and "from the golden bar of heaven" Cassandra,103 away in the farthermost part of the studio, peered through the gloom, as though joining with the others in watching the poet as he impetuously strode up and down the room, each flash of lightning revealing him as one inspired, his wealth of hair giving forth a scintillation of tiny electric sparks which formed, as it were, a faint halo round his head.104 Amidst the rattle of the thunder he still continued to pour out his thoughts, his voice now sinking low and sad, now waxing louder as the storm listed.

How long his ecstasy would have lasted I know not. I was wondering, when the sounds of a latchkey and the closing of the hall door were heard. In another minute Rossetti entered the studio, boisterously shaking off the raindrops from his Inverness cape, and with a "Hullo! old fellow!" welcomed Swinburne. Divesting himself of his cape, he lit the gas, sat down with his friend, and the night began anew. Their conversation, upon many things, went on hour after hour, until the dawn began to appear, and I arose as one in a dream, and betook myself to bed.

John Trivett Nettleship105 would sometimes bring his sketches of wondrous, yet hardly worked-out ideas. Those of the Blake-like kind amazed and delighted Rossetti with their audacity of treatment. Nettleship's intense admiration of Browning's poetry and his almost idolatrous worship of the fantastic endeared him to Rossetti: in fact, had he known him a few years earlier, he would surely have found in him a valuable collaborateur in the book exhibiting the poetic genius of Blake that he, in conjunction with Gilchrist, brought out.106 Rossetti was greatly interested in Nettleship and all he did. He regarded him as a genius, and the various anecdotes which I told him from time to time concerning Nettleship and his peculiarities vastly amused him and excited his curiosity.

Ted Hughes107 once showed a little picture to Rossetti—or he saw it at Hughes' house—entitled Hushed Music, which delighted him very much. He spoke to me afterwards about it on several occasions, remarking that such a work gave fine promise of greater, and that Hughes would surely make a name for himself.

"Lewis Carroll,"108 the author of Alice in Wonderland, was another frequent visitor at Cheyne Walk in the early days of Rossetti's occupancy of the house there. Being an adept in the art of photography, he took several very good studies there. One of Rossetti, his mother, and his sister Christina, seated on a little flight of steps that led to the back hall-door, was especially happy in the likeness and arrangement of the family group.

One day Longfellow,109 who had not long arrived in London from a tour in Italy, called on Rossetti. He was a grand-looking man, although somewhat short, with a fine silver-white beard, and still a goodly amount of snow-white hair on his head. He had absolutely no knowledge of painting, and his remarks concerning pictures were not only childish, but indicated an utter indifference to them. Although having just completed his translation of the Paradiso portion of Dante's trilogy, he seemed quite at a loss to know what Rossetti's pictures represented.

From the midnight gatherings and conversations that I have mentioned, it will be seen that Rossetti's hours were very late ones. As a matter of course, he was not an early riser, and it was not his wont to commence work much before eleven o'clock in the morning. But when he did, he began right earnestly.

When a design germinated in his brain, it was all thought out and shaped into a pen-and-ink or pencil reality before the subject was transferred to canvas. When the sketch was to his liking, then came the question, What model was best fitted for the subject? And exercising the same fastidiousness as when composing poetry, several drawings of the model's face would be made ere he was satisfied. This accounts for such a number of carefully-finished chalk heads continually cropping up. They are all valuable, because they tend to show the progress and development of his most notable pictures. When all these careful preliminaries had been gone through, the painting would be commenced. But never in a hurry: no attempt was made to partially cover his canvas at once; his invariable rule being to do so much in the time that the model was present as could be well done, and required no alteration the next day. Alterations, he maintained, meant muddling, and were the death of colour.

All Rossetti's best works glow with rich tones and qualities. In the matter of drawing, however, I am obliged to confess he was not so strong. His curious habit of giving oft-times an unduly long neck to a figure threw him into difficulties in regard to the due proportions of the human body. For his models, he did not rely upon those who were strictly professional. He preferred finding a face for himself, and often a work would be delayed in the execution because the desired face could not be immediately found.


The Crystal Ball, from a design of Henry Treffry Dunn's, by his sister, Edith Hume.
The Crystal Ball, from a design of Henry Treffry Dunn's, by his sister, Edith Hume.

The Crystal Ball, from a design of Henry Treffry Dunn's, by his sister, Edith Hume.