Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Hand and Soul

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Hand and Soul

Rivolsimi in quel lato
Là onde venia la voce,
E parvemi una luce
Che lucea quanto stella:
La mia mente era quella.

 Bonaggiunta Urbiciani (1250).

Before any knowledge of painting was brought to Florence, there were already painters in Lucca, and Pisa, and Arezzo, who feared God and loved the art. The keen, grave workmen from Greece, whose trade it was to sell their own works in Italy and teach Italians to imitate them, had already found rivals of the soil with skill that could forestall their lessons and cheapen their crucifixes and addolorate, more years than is supposed before the art came at all into Florence. The pre-eminence to which Cimabue was raised at once by his contemporaries, and which he still retains to a wide extent even in the modern mind, is to be accounted for, partly by the circumstances under which he arose, and partly by that extraordinary purpose of fortune born with the lives of some few, and through which it is not a little thing for any who went before, if they are even remembered as the shadows of the coming of such an one, and the voices which prepared his way in the wilderness. It is thus, almost exclusively, that the painters of whom I speak are now known. They have left little, and but little heed is taken of that which men hold to have been surpassed; it is gone like time gone,—a track of dust and dead leaves that merely led to the fountain.

Nevertheless, of very late years and in very rare instances, some signs of a better understanding have become manifest. A case in point is that of the triptych and two cruciform pictures at Dresden, by Chiaro di Messer Bello dell’ Erma, to which the eloquent pamphlet of Dr. Aemmster has at length succeeded in attracting the students. There is another still more solemn and beautiful work, now proved to be by the same hand, in the Pitti gallery at Florence. It is the one to which my narrative will relate.

This Chiaro dell’ Erma was a young man of very honorable family in Arezzo; where, conceiving art almost for himself, and loving it deeply, he endeavoured from early boyhood towards the imitation of any objects offered in nature. The extreme longing after a visible embodiment of his thoughts strengthened as his years increased, more even than his sinews or the blood of his life; until he would feel faint in sunsets and at the sight of stately persons. When he had lived nineteen years, he heard of the famous Giunta Pisano; and, feeling much of admiration, with perhaps a little of that envy which youth always feels until it has learned to measure success by time and opportunity, he determined that he would seek out Giunta, and, if possible, become his pupil.

Having arrived in Pisa, he clothed himself in humble apparel, being unwilling that any other thing than the desire he had for knowledge should be his plea with the great painter; and then, leaving his baggage at a house of entertainment, he took his way along the street, asking whom he met for the lodging of Giunta. It soon chanced that one of that city, conceiving him to be a stranger and poor, took him into his house and refreshed him; afterwards directing him on his way.

When he was brought to speech of Giunta, he said merely that he was a student, and that nothing in the world was so much at his heart as to become that which he had heard told of him with whom he was speaking. He was received with courtesy and consideration, and shewn into the study of the famous artist. But the forms he saw there were lifeless and incomplete; and a sudden exultation possessed him as he said within himself, “I am the master of this man.” The blood came at first into his face, but the next moment he was quite pale and fell to trembling. He was able, however to conceal his emotion; speaking very little to Giunta, but when he took his leave, thanking him respectfully.

After this, Chiaro’s first resolve was, that he would work out thoroughly some one of his thoughts, and let the world know him. But the lesson which he had now learned, of how small a greatness might win fame, and how little there was to strive against, served to make him torpid, and rendered his exertions less continual. Also Pisa was a larger and more luxurious city than Arezzo; and when, in his walks, he saw the great gardens laid out for pleasure, and the beautiful women who passed to and fro, and heard the music that was in the groves of the city at evening, he was taken with wonder that he had never claimed his share of the inheritance of those years in which his youth was cast. And women loved Chiaro; for, in despite of the burthen of study, he was well-favoured and very manly in his walking; and, seeing his face in front, there was a glory upon it, as upon the face of one who feels a light round his hair.

So he put thought from him, and partook of his life. But, one night, being in a certain company of ladies, a gentleman that was there with him began to speak of the paintings of a youth named Bonaventura, which he had seen in Lucca; adding that Giunta Pisano might now look for a rival. When Chiaro heard this, the lamps shook before him and the music beat in his ears and made him giddy. He rose up, alleging a sudden sickness, and went out of that house with his teeth set.

He now took to work diligently, not returning to Arezzo, but remaining in Pisa, that no day more might be lost; only living entirely to himself. Sometimes, after nightfall, he would walk abroad in the most solitary places he could find; hardly feeling the ground under him, because of the thoughts of the day which held him in fever.

The lodging he had chosen was in a house that looked upon gardens fast by the Church of San Rocco. During the offices, as he sat at work, he could hear the music of the organ and the long murmur that the chanting left; and if his window were open, some, times, at those parts of the mass where there is silence throughout the church, his ear caught faintly the single voice of the priest. Be, side the matters of his art and a very few books, almost the only object to be noticed in Chiaro’s room was a small consecrated im, age of St. Mary Virgin wrought out of silver, before which stood always, in summer-time, a glass containing a lily and a rose.

It was here, and at this time, that Chiaro painted the Dresden pictures; as also, in all likelihood, the one, inferior in merit, but certainly his, which is now at Munich. For the most part he was calm and regular in his manner of study; though often he would remain at work through the whole of a day, not resting once so long as the light lasted; flushed, and with the hair from his face. Or, at times, when he could not paint, he would sit for hours in thought of all the greatness the world had known from of old; until he was weak with yearning, like one who gazes upon a path of stars.

He continued in this patient endeavour for about three years, at the end of which his name was spoken throughout all Tuscany. As his fame waxed, he began to be employed, besides easel-pictures, upon paintings in fresco: but I believe that no traces remain to us of any of these latter. He is said to have painted in the Duomo; and D’Agincourt mentions having seen some portions of a fresco by him which originally had its place above the high altar in the Church of the Certosa; but which, at the time he saw it, being very dilapidated, had been hewn out of the wall, and was preserved in the stores of the convent. Before the period of Dr. Aemmster’s researches, however, it had been entirely destroyed.

Chiaro was now famous. It was for the race of fame that he had girded up his loins; and he had not paused until fame was reached; yet now, in taking breath, he found that the weight was still at his heart. The years of his labour had fallen from him, and his life was still in its first painful desire.

With all that Chiaro had done during these three years, and even before with the studies of his early youth, there had always been a feeling of worship and service. It was the peace-offering that he made to God and to his own soul for the eager selfishness of his aim. There was earth, indeed, upon the hem of his raiment; but this was of the heaven, heavenly. He had seasons when he could endure to think of no other feature of his hope than this: and sometimes, in the ecstacy of prayer, it had even seemed to him to behold that day when his mistress — his mystical lady (now hardly in her ninth year, but whose solemn smile at meeting had already lighted on his soul like the dove of the Trinity) — even she, his own gracious Italian Art — with her virginal bosom, and her unfathomable eyes, and the thread of sunlight round her brows — should pass, through the sun that never sets, into the circle of the shadow of the tree of life, and be seen of God, and found good: and then it had seemed to him, that he, with many who, since his coming, had joined the band of whom he was one (for, in his dream, the body he had worn on earth had been dead an hundred years), were permitted to gather round the blessed maiden, and to worship with her through all ages and ages of ages, saying, Holy, holy, holy. This thing he had seen with the eyes of his spirit; and in this thing had trusted, believing that it would surely come to pass.

But now (being at length led to inquire closely into himself), even as, in the pursuit of fame, the unrest abiding after attainment had proved to him that he had misinterpreted the craving of his own spirit — so also, now that he would willingly have fallen back on devotion, he became aware that much of that reverence which he had mistaken for faith had been no more than the worship of beauty. Therefore, after certain days passed in perplexity, Chiaro said within himself, “My life and my will are yet before me: I will take another aim to my life.”

From that moment Chiaro set a watch on his soul, and put his hand to no other works but only to such as had for their end the presentment of some moral greatness that should influence the beholder: and, in doing this, he did not choose for his medium the action and passion of human life, but cold symbolism and abstract impersonation. So the people ceased to throng about his pictures as heretofore; and, when they were carried through town and town to their destination, they were no longer delayed by the crowds eager to gaze and admire: and no prayers or offerings were brought to them on their path, as to his Madonnas, and his Saints, and his Holy Children. Only the critical audience remained to him; and these, in default of more worthy matter, would have turned their scrutiny on a puppet or a mantle. Meanwhile, he had no more of fever upon him; but was calm and pale each day in all that he did and in his goings in and out. The works he produced at this time have perished — in all likelihood, not unjustly. It is said (and we may easily believe it), that, though more laboured than his former pictures, they were cold and unemphatic; bearing marked out upon them, as they must certainly have done, the measure of that boundary to which they were made to conform. And the weight was still close at Chiaro’s heart: but he held in his breath, never resting (for he was afraid), and would not know it.

Now it happened, within these days, that there fell a great feast in Pisa, for holy matters: and each man left his occupation; and all the guilds and companies of the city were got together for games and rejoicings. And there were scarcely any that stayed in the houses, except ladies who lay or sat along their balconies between open windows which let the breeze beat through the rooms and over the spread tables from end to end. And the golden cloths that their arms lay upon drew all eyes upward to see their beauty; and the day was long; and every hour of the day was bright with the sun.

So Chiaro’s model, when he awoke that morning on the hot pavement of the Piazza Nunziata, and saw the hurry of people that passed him, got up and went along with them; and Chiaro waited for him in vain.

For the whole of that morning, the music was in Chiaro’s room from the Church close at hand; and he could hear the sounds that the crowd made in the streets; hushed only at long intervals while the processions for the feast-day chanted in going under his windows. Also, more than once, there was a high clamour from the meeting of factious persons: for the ladies of both leagues were looking down; and he who encountered his enemy could not choose but draw upon him. Chiaro waited a long time idle; and then knew that his model was gone elsewhere. When at his work, he was blind and deaf to all else; but he feared sloth: for then his stealthy thoughts would begin to beat round and round him, seeking a point for attack. He now rose, therefore, and went to the window. It was within a short space of noon; and underneath him a throng of people was coming out through the porch of San Petronio.

The two greatest houses of the feud in Pisa had filled the church for that mass. The first to leave had been the Gherghiotti; who, stopping on the threshold, had fallen back in ranks along each side of the archway: so that now, in passing outward, the Marotoli had to walk between two files of men whom they hated, and whose fathers had hated theirs. All the chiefs were there and their whole adherence; and each knew the name of each. Every man of the Marotoli, as he came forth and saw his foes, laid back his hood and gazed about him, to show the badge upon the close cap that held his hair. And of the Gherghiotti there were some who tightened their girdles; and some shrilled and threw up their wrists scornfully, as who flies a falcon; for that was the crest of their house.

On the walls within the entry were a number of tall narrow pictures, presenting a moral allegory of Peace, which Chiaro had painted that year for the Church. The Gherghiotti stood with their backs to these frescoes; and among them Golzo Ninuccio, the youngest noble of the faction, called by the people Golaghiotta, for his debased life. This youth had remained for some while talking listlessly to his fellows, though with his sleepy sunken eyes fixed on them who passed: but now, seeing that no man jostled another, he drew the long silver shoe off his foot and struck the dust out of it on the cloak of him who was going by, asking him how far the tides rose at Viderza. And he said so because it was three months since, at that place, the Gherghiotti had beaten the Marotoli to the sands, and held them there while the sea came in; whereby many had been drowned. And, when he had spoken, at once the whole archway was dazzling with the light of confused swords; and they who had left turned back; and they who were still behind made haste to come forth: and there was so much blood cast up the walls on a sudden, that it ran in long streams down Chiaro’s paintings.

Chiaro turned himself from the window; for the light felt dry between his lids, and he could not look. He sat down, and heard the noise of contention driven out of the church-porch and a great way through the streets; and soon there was a deep murmur that heaved and waxed from the other side of the city, where those of both parties were gathering to join in the tumult.

Chiaro sat with his face in his open hands. Once again he had wished to set his foot on a place that looked green and fertile; and once again it seemed to him that the thin rank mask was about to spread away, and that this time the chill of the water must leave leprosy in his flesh. The light still swam in his head, and bewildered him at first; but when he knew his thoughts, they were these:

“Fame failed me: faith failed me: and now this also, — the hope that I nourished in this my generation of men, — shall pass from me, and leave my feet and my hands groping. Yet, because of this, are my feet become slow and my hands thin. I am as one who, through the whole night, holding his way diligently, hath smitten the steel unto the flint, to lead some whom he knew darkling; who hath kept his eyes always on the sparks that himself made, lest they should fail; and who, towards dawn, turning to bid them that he had guided God speed, sees the wet grass untrodden except of his own feet. I am as the last hour of the day, whose chimes are a perfect number; whom the next followeth not, nor light ensueth from him; but in the same darkness is the old order begun afresh. Men say, ‘This is not God nor man; he is not as we are, neither above us: let him sit beneath us, for we are many.’ Where I write Peace, in that spot is the drawing of swords, and there men’s footprints are red. When I would sow, another harvest is ripe. Nay, it is much worse with me than thus much. Am I not as a cloth drawn before the light, that the looker may not be blinded; but which sheweth thereby the grain of its own coarseness; so that the light seems defiled, and men say, ‘We will not walk by it.’ Wherefore through me they shall be doubly accursed, seeing that through me they reject the light. May one be a devil and not know it?”

As Chiaro was in these thoughts, the fever encroached slowly on his veins, till he could sit no longer and would have risen; but suddenly he found awe within him, and held his head bowed, without stirring. The warmth of the air was not shaken; but there seemed a pulse in the light, and a living freshness, like rain. The silence was a painful music, that made the blood ache in his temples; and he lifted his face and his deep eyes.

A woman was present in his room, clad to the hands and feet with a green and grey raiment, fashioned to that time. It seemed that the first thoughts he had ever known were given him as at first from her eyes, and he knew her hair to be the golden veil through which he beheld his dreams. Though her hands were joined, her face was not lifted, but set forward; and though the gaze was austere, yet her mouth was supreme in gentleness. And as he looked, Chiaro’s spirit appeared abashed of its own intimate presence, and his lips shook with the thrill of tears; it seemed such a bitter while till the spirit might be indeed alone.

She did not move closer towards him, but he felt her to be as much with him as his breath. He was like one who, scaling a great steepness, hears his own voice echoed in some place much higher than he can see, and the name of which is not known to him. As the woman stood, her speech was with Chiaro: not, as it were, from her mouth or in his ears; but distinctly between them.

“I am an image, Chiaro, of thine own soul within thee. See me, and know me as I am. Thou sayest that fame has failed thee, and faith failed thee; but because at least thou hast not laid thy life unto riches, therefore, though thus late, I am suffered to come into thy knowledge. Fame sufficed not, for that thou didst seek fame: seek thine own conscience (not thy mind’s conscience, but thine heart’s), and all shall approve and suffice. For Fame, in noble soils, is a fruit of the Spring: but not therefore should it be said: ‘Lo! my garden that I planted is barren: the crocus is here, but the lily is dead in the dry ground, and shall not lift the earth that covers it: therefore I will fling my garden together, and give it unto the builders.’ Take heed rather that thou trouble not the wise secret earth; for in the mould that thou throwest up shall the first tender growth lie to waste; which else had been made strong in its season. Yea, and even if the year fall past in all its months, and the soil be indeed, to thee, peevish and incapable, and though thou indeed gather all thy harvest, and it suffice for others, and thou remain vexed with emptiness; and others drink of thy streams, and the drouth rasp thy throat; — let it be enough that these have found the feast good, and thanked the giver: remembering that, when the winter is striven through, there is another year, whose wind is meek, and whose sun fulfilleth all.”

While he heard, Chiaro went slowly on his knees. It was not to her that spoke, for the speech seemed within him and his own. The air brooded in sunshine, and though the turmoil was great outside, the air within was at peace. But when he looked in her eyes, he wept. And she came to him, and cast her hair over him, and took her hands about his forehead, and spoke again:

“Thou hast said,” she continued, gently, “that faith failed thee. This cannot be so. Either thou hadst it not, or thou hast it. But who bade thee strike the point betwixt love and faith? Wouldst thou sift the warm breeze from the sun that quickens it? Who bade thee turn upon God and say: ‘Behold, my offering is of earth, and not worthy: thy fire comes not upon it: therefore, though I slay not my brother whom thou acceptest, I will depart before thou smite me’? Why shouldst thou rise up and tell God He is not content? Had He, of his warrant, certified so to thee? Be not nice to seek out division; but possess thy love in sufficiency: assuredly this is faith, for the heart must believe first. What He hath set in thine heart to do, that do thou; and even though thou do it without thought of Him, it shall be well done; it is this sacrifice that He asketh of thee, and his flame is upon it for a sign. Think not of Him; but of his love and thy love. For God is no morbid exactor: He hath no hand to bow beneath, nor a foot, that thou shouldst kiss it.” And Chiaro held silence, and wept into her hair which covered his face; and the salt tears that he shed ran through her hair upon his lips; and he tasted the bitterness of shame.

Then the fair woman, that was his soul, spoke again to him, saying: “And for this thy last purpose, and for those unprofitable truths of thy teaching, — thine heart hath already put them away, and it needs not that I lay my bidding upon thee. How is it that thou, a man, wouldst say coldly to the mind what God hath said to the heart warmly? Thy will was honest and wholesome; but look well lest this also be folly, — to say, ‘I, in doing this, do strengthen God among men.’ When at any time hath He cried unto thee, saying, ‘My son, lend me thy shoulder, for I fall’? Deemest thou that the men who enter God’s temple in malice, to the provoking of blood and neither for his love nor for his wrath will abate their purpose, — shall afterwards stand with thee in the porch, midway between Him and themselves, to give ear unto thy thin voice, which merely the fall of their visors can drown, and to see thy hands, stretched feebly, tremble among their swords? Give thou to God no more than He asketh of thee; but to man also, that which is man’s. In all that thou doest, work from thine own heart, simply; for his heart is as thine, when thine is wise and humble; and he shall have understanding of thee. One drop of rain is as another, and the sun’s prism in all: and shalt not thou be as he, whose lives are the breath of One? Only by making thyself his equal can he learn to hold communion with thee, and at last own thee above him. Not till thou lean over the water shalt thou see thine image therein: stand erect, and it shall slope from thy feet and be lost. Know that there is but this means whereby thou mayest serve God with man: — Set thine hand and thy soul to serve man with God.”

And when she that spoke had said these words within Chiaro’s spirit, she left his side quietly, and stood up as he had first seen her: with her fingers laid together, and her eyes steadfast, and with the breadth of her long dress covering her feet on the floor. And, speaking again, she said:

“Chiaro, servant of God, take now thine Art unto thee, and paint me thus, as I am, to know me: weak, as I am, and in the weeds of this time; only with eyes which seek out labour, and with a faith, not learned, yet jealous of prayer. Do this; so shall thy soul stand before thee always, and perplex thee no more.”

And Chiaro did as she bade him. While he worked, his face grew solemn with knowledge: and before the shadows had turned, his work was done. Having finished, he lay back where he sat, and was asleep immediately: for the growth of that strong sunset was heavy about him, and he felt weak and haggard; like one just come out of a dusk, hollow country, bewildered with echoes, where he had lost himself, and who has not slept for many days and nights. And when she saw him lie back, the beautiful woman came to him, and sat at his head, gazing, and quieted his sleep with her voice.

The tumult of the factions had endured all that day through all Pisa, though Chiaro had not heard it: and the last service of that Feast was a mass sung at midnight from the windows of all the churches for the many dead who lay about the city, and who had to be buried before morning, because of the extreme heats.

In the spring of 1847, I was at Florence. Such as were there at the same time with myself — those, at least, to whom Art is something, — will certainly recollect how many rooms of the Pitti Gallery were closed through that season, in order that some of the pictures they contained might be examined and repaired without the necessity of removal. The hall, the staircases, and the vast central suite of apartments, were the only accessible portions; and in these such paintings as they could admit from the sealed penetralia were profanely huddled together, without respect of dates, schools, or persons.

I fear that, through this interdict, I may have missed seeing many of the best pictures. I do not mean only the most talked of: for these, as they were restored, generally found their way somehow into the open rooms, owing to the clamours raised by the students; and I remember how old Ercoli’s, the curator’s, spectacles used to be mirrored in the reclaimed surface, as he leaned mysteriously over these works with some of the visitors, to scrutinize and elucidate.

One picture that I saw that spring, I shall not easily forget. It was among those, I believe, brought from the other rooms, and had been hung, obviously out of all chronology, immediately beneath that head by Raphael so long known as the “Berrettino,” and now said to be the portrait of Cecco Ciulli.

The picture I speak of is a small one, and represents merely the figure of a woman, clad to the hands and feet with a green and grey raiment, chaste and early in its fashion, but exceedingly simple. She is standing: her hands are held together lightly, and her eyes set earnestly open.

The face and hands in this picture, though wrought with great delicacy, have the appearance of being painted at once, in a single sitting: the drapery is unfinished. As soon as I saw the figure, it drew an awe upon me, like water in shadow. I shall not attempt to describe it more than I have already done; for the most absorbing wonder of it was its literality. You knew that figure, when painted, had been seen; yet it was not a thing to be seen of men. This language will appear ridiculous to such as have never looked on the work; and it may be even to some among those who have. On examining it closely, I perceived in one corner of the canvass the words Manus Animam pinxit, and the date 1239.

I turned to my Catalogue, but that was useless, for the pictures were all displaced. I then stepped up to the Cavaliere Ercoli, who was in the room at the moment, and asked him regarding the subject and authorship of the painting. He treated the matter, I thought, somewhat slightingly, and said that he could show me the reference in the Catalogue, which he had compiled. This, when found, was not of much value, as it merely said, “Schizzo d’autore incerto,” adding the inscription. (*) I could willingly have prolonged my inquiry, in the hope that it might somehow lead to some result; but I had disturbed the curator from certain yards of Guido, and he was not communicative. I went back therefore, and stood before the picture till it grew dusk.

The next day I was there again; but this time a circle of students was round the spot, all copying the “Berrettino.” I contrived, however, to find a place whence I could see my picture, and where I seemed to be in nobody’s way. For some minutes I remained undisturbed; and then I heard, in an English voice: “Might I beg of you, sir, to stand a little more to this side, as you interrupt my view.”

I felt vexed, for, standing where he asked me, a glare struck on the picture from the windows, and I could not see it. However, the request was reasonably made, and from a countryman; so I complied, and turning away, stood by his easel. I knew it was not worth while; yet I referred in some way to the work underneath the one he was copying. He did not laugh, but he smiled as we do in England: “Very odd, is it not?” said he.

The other students near us were all continental; and seeing an Englishman select an Englishman to speak with, conceived, I suppose, that he could understand no language but his own. They had evidently been noticing the interest which the little picture appeared to excite in me.

One of them, an Italian, said something to another who stood next to him. He spoke with a Genoese accent, and I lost the sense in the villanous dialect. “Che so?” replied the other, lifting his eyebrows towards the figure; “roba mistica: ’st’ Inglesi son matti sul misticismo: somiglia alle nebbie di là. Li fa pensare alla patria, ‘e intenerisce il core Lo dì ch’ han detto ai dolci amici adio.’” “La notte, vuoi dire,” said a third.

There was a general laugh. My compatriot was evidently a novice in the language, and did not take in what was said. I remained silent, being amused. “Et toi donc?” said he who had quoted Dante, turning to a student, whose birthplace was unmistakable, even had he been addressed in any other language: “que dis-tu de ce genre-là?” “Moi?” returned the Frenchman, standing back from his easel, and looking at me and at the figure, quite politely, though with an evident reservation: “Je dis, mon cher, que c’est une spécialité dont je me fiche pas mal. Je tiens que quand on ne comprend pas une chose, c’est qu’ elle ne signifie rien.”
My reader thinks possibly that the French student was right.


(*) I should here say, that in the catalogue for the year just over, (owing, as in cases before mentioned, to the zeal and enthusiasm of Dr. Aemmster) this, and several other pictures, have been more competently entered. The work in question is now placed in the Sala Sessagona, a room I did not see, under the number 161. It is described as “Figura mistica di Chiaro de’ Erma,” and there is a brief notice of the author appended.


Einige Beigaben

Obiger Text folgt der Kelmscott-Ausgabe, welche dem Erstdruck in „The Germ“ entspricht.
Die 1869 veröffentlicht Fassung weicht an wenigen Stellen davon ab.
1869 Privately Issued Pamphlet.
Der Druck der Kelmscott Press von 1895 als elektronisches Faksimile.
The Germ, no. 1, Jamuary 1850.
Das schönste Bild zu diesem Thema scheint mir Evelyn De Morgan: The Soul’s Prison House.
The Germ, 1850

When whoso merely hath a little thought
 Will plainly think the thought which is in him, —
 Not imaging another’s bright or dim,
Not mangling with new words what others taught;
When whoso speaks, from having either sought
 Or only found, — will speak, not just to skim
 A shallow surface with words made and trim,
But in that very speech the matter brought:
Be not too keen to cry — “So this is all! —
 A thing I might myself have thought as well,
 But would not say it, for it was not worth!”
 Ask: “Is this truth?” For is it still to tell
 That, be the theme a point or the whole earth,
Truth is a circle, perfect, great or small?


William Michael Rossetti:
Preface to the 1901 Stock edition of The Germ

By Dante G. Rossetti: ‘Hand and Soul.’ This tale was, I think, written with an express view to its appearing in No. 1 of our magazine, and Rossetti began making for it an etching, which, though not ready for No. 1, was intended to appear in some number later than the second. He drew it in March 1850; but, being disgusted with the performance, he scratched the plate over, and tore up the prints. The design showed Chiaro dell’ Erma in the act of painting his embodied Soul. Though the form of this tale is that of romantic metaphor, its substance is a very serious manifesto of art-dogma. It amounts to saying, The only satisfactory works of art are those which exhibit the very soul of the artist. To work for fame or self-display is a failure, and to work for direct moral proselytizing is a failure; but to paint that which your own perceptions and emotions urge you to paint promises to be a success for yourself, and hence a benefit to the mass of beholders. This was the core of the ‘Praeraphaelite’ creed; with the adjunct (which hardly came within the scope of Rossetti’s tale, and yet may be partly traced there) that the artist cannot attain to adequate self-expression save through a stern study and realization of natural appearances. And it may be said that to this core of the Praeraphaelite creed Rossetti always adhered throughout his life, greatly different though his later works are from his earlier ones in the externals of artistic style. Most of ‘Hand and Soul’ war written on December 21, 1849, day and night, chiefly in some five hours beginning after midnight. Three currents of thought may be traced in this story: (1) A certain amount of knowledge regarding the beginnings of Italian art, mingled with some ignorance, voluntary or involuntary, of what was possible to be done in the middle of the thirteenth century; (2) a highly ideal, yet individual, general treatment of the narrative; and (3) a curious aptitude at detailing figments as if they were facts. All about Chiaro dell’ Erma himself, Dresden and Dr. Aemmster, D’Agincourt, pictures at the Pitti Gallery, the author’s visit to Florence in 1847, etc., are pure inventions or ‘mystifications’; but so realistically put that they have in various instances been relied upon and cited as truths. I gave some details as to this in my Memoir of Dante Rossetti. The style of writing in ‘Hand and Soul’ is of a very exceptional kind. My brother had at that time a great affection for ‘Stories after Nature,’ written by Charles Wells (author of ‘Joseph and his Brethren’), and these he kept in view to some extent as a model, though the direct resemblance is faint indeed. In the conversation of foreign art-students, forming the epilogue, he may have been not wholly oblivious of the scene in Browning’s ‘Pippa Passes’ (a prime favourite of his), where some ‘foreign students of painting and sculpture’ are preparing a disagreeable surprise for the French sculptor Jules. There is, however, no sort of imitation; and Rossetti’s dialogue is the more markedly natural of the two. In re-reading ‘Hand and Soul,’ I am struck by two passages which came true of Rossetti himself in after-life: (1) ‘Sometimes after nightfall he would walk abroad in the most solitary places he could find – hardly feeling the ground under him because of the thoughts of the day which held him in fever.’ (2) ‘Often he would remain at work through the whole of a day, not resting once so long as the light lasted.’ When Rossetti, in 1869, was collecting his poems, and getting them privately printed with a view to after publication, he thought of including ‘Hand and Soul’ in the same volume, but did not eventually do so. The privately-printed copy forms a small pamphlet, which has sometimes been sold at high prices – I believe 10 and upwards. At this time I pointed out to him that the church at Pisa which he named San Rocco could not possibly have borne that name – San Rocco being a historical character who lived at a later date: the Church was then re-named ‘San Petronio,’ and this I believe is the only change of the least importance introduced into the reprint. In December 1870 the tale was published in ‘The Fortnightly Review.’ The Rev. Alfred Gurney (deceased not long ago) was a great admirer of Dante Rossetti’s works. He published in 1883 a brochure named ‘A Dream of Fair Women, a Study of some Pictures by Dante Gabriel Rossetti’; he also published an essay on ‘Hand and Soul,’ giving a more directly religious interpretation to the story than its author had at all intended. It is entitled ‘A Painter’s Day-dream.’

The Early Italian Poets


Bonaggiunta Urbiciani

La mia amorosamente,
 Quando voi, bella, sente,
 Non può in altro pensare,
 Se non di voi piacente:
 Tanto siete avvenente,
 E d’amoroso affare.
 Però, bella, mi pare
 Vedere così voi,
 Come fosse una gioi’,
 Ch’ha nome somigliante,
 Che mi pare davante.
Pensieri e pensamento,
 E amoroso talento,
 M’adobla lo tormento.
 E poi che m’addormento,
 Forte mi dispavento.
 Risguardami la mente,
 E dicemi, indormente?
 Dolente, non dormire,
 Levati, e va vedire,
 Chè nullo amor s’acquista,
 Se non per dolce vista.
Risvegliomi infiammato,
 Chè al sonno fui tentato
 D’amor, che mi soddoce.
 E poi ch’eo fui svegliato
 Rivolsimi in quel lato
 Là’nde venia la voce,
 E parvemi una luce,
 Che lucea quanto stella;
 La mia mente era quella,
 Ch’al sonno mi tentava
 Di voi, bella, ch’amava.
Perdut’ho lo dormire
 Desiando vedire,
 Bella, lo vostro viso.
 Donqua posso ben dire,
 Che m’ha fatto infollire
 Amor, che si m’ha priso.
 E poi con dolce riso,
 Quando voi mi sguardate,
 Così m’alluminate,
 Che mi torna in dolzore
 Lo mal, ch’aggio d’amore.
Così mi traie Amore
 Lo spirito e lo core,
 Madonna, in voi amando,
 Sicchè lo mio sentore
 Gli occhi miei di fore
 Mandino voi guardando.
 Adonqua dico intando,
 Perchè lo dice Amore,
 Son quello che lo core,
 Io che t’alluminai,
 Ora difendo e or m’hai.


Ezra Pound: De Ægypto

I even I, am he who knoweth the roads
Through the sky, and the wind thereof is my body.
I have beheld the Lady of Life,
I, even I, who fly with the swallows.
Green and gray is her raiment,
Trailing along the wind.
I, even I, am he who knoweth the roads
Through the sky, and the wind thereof is my body.
Manus animam pinxit,
My pen is in my hand
To write the acceptable word.
My mouth to chant the pure singing!
Who hath the mouth to receive it,
The song of the Lotus of Kumi?
I, even I, am he who knoweth the roads
Through the sky, and the wind thereof is my body.
I am flame that riseth in the sun,
I, even I, who fly with the swallows.
The moon is upon my forehead,
The winds are under my lips.
The moon is a great pearl in the waters of sapphire,
Cool to my fingers the flowing waters.
I, even I, am he who knoweth the roads
Through the sky, and the wind thereof is my body.


Walter Pater: Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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 to-day 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 proportion 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 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 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 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

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 — 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 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 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, 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 old mythopoeic 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 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 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, 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 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 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 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 aesthetic 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.

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: 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 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 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 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, 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 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 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 bower’s in flower:
And O the bower and the hour!

— and the like. Two of those ballads — Troy Town and Eden Bower, are terrible in 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 effect 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 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.


A Sonnet