Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–82)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 23, 223–232.

Poet, painter, and founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born in London on 12 May 1828, the second child and first son of Gabriele Pasquale Giuseppe Rossetti (1783–1854), an Italian expatriate, and his wife, Frances Mary Lavinia (née Polidori, 1800–86), sister of Byron’s travelling physician, John William Polidori (1795–1821). Christened Gabriele Charles Dante Rossetti, he dropped the “Charles” and adopted the arrangement and spelling by which he is known about the time of the first public exhibition of his work in 1849 (see Rossetti, I, 80). His father, a Dante scholar and teacher of Italian at King’s College, London, was anti-papal and anti-sacerdotal, whereas his mother was a devout Anglican. The two sons, Dante Gabriel and William Michael (1829–1919), followed their father’s proclivity for religious skepticism (although Rossetti used Christian iconography in many paintings and poems). The two daughters, Maria Francesca (1827–76) and the poet Christina Georgina (1830–94), followed in their mother’s faith.

Rossetti attended King’s College School from 1837 to 1842 and in late 1845 was admitted to the Antique School of the Royal Academy. In early 1848 he began taking instruction in painting from Ford Madox Brown (1821–93). A year later, Rossetti publicly exhibited his work for the first time, a watercolour entitled “The Girlhood of Mary Virgin,” in the Free Exhibition of Modern Art at Hyde Park Corner. The work received encouraging notices. The Athenæum of 7 April 1849 deemed it “a manifestation of true mental power; in which Art is made the exponent of some high aim” and predicted a “lofty career” for the young artist (no. 1119, p. 362). Meanwhile, he had been writing poetry and translating Italian poets. His productions in the latter pursuit, which included his brilliant translation of Dante’s La Vita Nuova, would appear in The Early Italian Poets (1861). Among his own poetic compositions of this period were “The Blessed Damozel” and “My Sister’s Sleep,” both of which were published in The Germ but remained little known until the 1870 publication of his Poems.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was co-founded at the beginning of autumn 1848 by Rossetti, John Everett Millais (1829–96), and William Holman Hunt (1827–1910). They were joined by four others: Thomas Woolner (1825–92), James Collinson (1825–81), Frederic George Stephens (1827–1907) and brother William, who served as secretary and who later summarized the Brotherhood’s goals in this way: “Præraphaelites had no notion of recurring to or imitating old art, but simply aimed at pursuing the art in that spirit of personal earnestness and modesty, both as to the treatment of ideals and as to the contemplation of natural truths, which had animated the earlier Old Masters, and had faltered or failed in the later ones, and of which, in the current British School, the traces were few and far between” (William Michael Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family-Letters, with a Memoir, 1895, I, 132). In 1849 Rossetti was the first to exhibit a work, the aforementioned “Girlhood,” with the initials P.R.B. Millais and Hunt followed suit with their entries in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1849. The notices of their paintings were generally positive, and the identifying initials were for the most part ignored. By the following year, however, the meaning of the initials and the anti-establishment philosophy behind them had become known, evidently leading reviewers to cast a more hostile eye over Pre-Raphaelite works. Rossetti’s “Ecce Ancilla Domini,” exhibited at the National Institution of Fine Arts in 1850, received harsh criticism from The Athenæum: “an unintelligible imitation of the mere technicalities of old Art—golden glories, fanciful scribblings on the frames, and other infantine absurdities—constitutes all its claim” (20 April 1850, no. 1173, p. 424). Less than a month later, the entries of Hunt and Millais in the Royal Academy exhibition suffered similar, if not worse, treatment. But members of the Brotherhood remained undeterred and committed. The three founders prospered as their works began to find buyers. Their literary magazine, The Germ, first issued 1 January 1850, did not fare as well and was terminated after only four numbers. A little over five years past the Brotherhood’s founding, with Woolner in Australia and Millais having been elected an associate of the conservative Royal Academy, it ceased to exist. Rossetti told his sister Christina, after reporting Millais’s election: “So now the whole Round Table is dissolved” (Rossetti, 1, 294).

After the poor reception of “Ecce Ancilla Domini,” Rossetti avoided public exhibitions of his work, selling most of it privately, much of it in the mid- to late 1850’s to John Ruskin, widely considered to be the foremost art critic in England. In May 1851, Ruskin came to the defense of the Pre-Raphaelite painters in two letters to The Times, which were re-worked and published a few months later in a pamphlet entitled Pre-Raphaelitism. Ruskin was not only generous with critical support and advice, he was generous with his purse. Commissions from himself and those he arranged from others formed a substantial part of Rossetti’s income during this period. Eventually, Rossetti, who had great confidence in his own opinions, grew tired of Ruskin’s dogmatic pronouncements. The inevitable break came in 1865 after an exchange of letters triggered by Ruskin’s criticism of Rossetti’s method of oil painting, particularly in reference to “Venus Verticordia” (1864–68), a half-length nude set amid lush foliage. What began as a difference of opinion became a contest of wills. In the last letter of this exchange, Ruskin wrote: “I do not choose any more to talk to you until you can recognize my superiorities as I do yours” (Cook, p. 494).

In 1850 Rossetti met and fell in love with Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal (1829–62), dressmaker and milliner, who became his muse, primary model, and later his wife. One of several women Rossetti referred to as “stunners,” “Lizzie” or “Lizzy,” as she was known, posed for his 1852 “Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Marriage Feast” and many of his other early works. She was also the model for Millais’s “Ophelia” (1851–52). Rossetti fostered her talent for drawing and design to the point that her works caught the eye of Ruskin. The latter expanded his patronage of Rossetti to include Lizzie and, for a few years, provided her with an annual income of £150. She also composed some lovely, haunting verse. But her progress in poetry and art was hampered by her consumptive state of health, which sapped her energy and which was a source of anxiety for Rossetti during the rest of her life. A decade after meeting, and after an engagement of probably nine years, Lizzie and Rossetti married on 23 May 1860. A year later she gave birth to a stillborn daughter and eight months after that, on 11 February 1862, she died from an overdose of laudanum (afterwards thought to have been a suicide). A distraught Rossetti buried the manuscripts of his unpublished poems in Lizzie’s coffin and renounced poetry. He afterwards attempted to communicate with her spirit by attending séances. He also continued to paint her as Beatrice—most memorably in “Beata Beatrix” (1864–70).

Following Lizzie’s death, Rossetti moved out of his rooms at 14 Chatham Place, Blackfriars Bridge, where he had lived for ten years, the last two with his wife. In October 1862 he leased Tudor House at 16 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, with his brother, William, Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909), and George Meredith (1828–1909) paying rent. During the 1860’s it became a focal point for the newest literary and artistic lights of the time, including Swinburne and Meredith, as well as James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), Frederick Sandys (1829–1904), and Simeon Solomon (1840–1905). Young artists and writers were drawn to Rossetti by his talent, charisma, good fellowship, critical powers, and boundless encouragment. Although Rossetti thrived in his painting with numerous commissions and artistic triumphs such as “The Blue Bower” (1865) and the aforementioned “Venus Verticordia,” towards the end of the decade, he again returned to poetry. In March 1869 he published sixteen sonnets in The Fortnightly Review and later that year made plans to issue a volume of poetry. Accordingly, at the urging of many friends, the buried manuscripts were disinterred in October of that year. Rossetti’s Poems (1870) was released the following April and received largely positive reviews, including a glowing one from Swinburne in the Fortnightly. But the volume was controversial: “Jenny” is a dramatic monologue to a prostitute (spoken by a client); the title character in “The Blessed Damozel” longs for reunion with her earthly lover rather than communion with the saints of heaven; “Nuptial Sleep” is a post-coital reverie. In the October 1871 issue of The Contemporary Review, poet-critic Robert Buchanan attacked Rossetti and his Poems in an essay entitled “The Fleshly School of Poetry.” Rossetti responded with his own essay, “The Stealthy School of Criticism” (The Athenæum, 16 December 1871, no. 2303, pp. 792–794). But the matter did not rest there.

In mid-May 1872 Buchanan published a greatly expanded version of “Fleshly School” as a separate title in pamphlet form. According to William, it had a profound effect on his brother’s mind: “His fancies now ran away with him, and he thought that the pamphlet was a first symptom in a widespread conspiracy for crushing his fair fame as an artist and a man, and for hounding him out of honest society” (Family-Letters, I, 305). On 2 June, “one of the most miserable days” of William’s life, he perceived that his brother was “not entirely sane” (I, 307). A few days later, Rossetti interpreted the “Epilogue” in RB’s Fifine at the Fair (1872) as part of the conspiracy (see below). On 8 June 1872 Rossetti attempted suicide with an overdose of laudanum. His health, both physical and mental, had been tending downward for some time. In 1867 he had become noticeably bothered by weakened eyesight and insomnia. The next year, on his doctors’ recommendations, he abandoned painting from August to December—with little improvement. In March of 1870, he began treating the insomnia with chloral hydrate and straight whiskey. William felt that the anticipation of Buchanan’s pamphlet caused Rossetti to exceed his usual “chloral-dosing and its concomitant of alcohol” (I, 305). But there were other factors at work on his mind, not the least of which was his affair with Jane Morris, a frequent model and the wife of his friend William Morris (see Rossetti, 5, 411–416). It is widely thought that most of the love sonnets in “The House of Life” were inspired by her rather than his deceased wife. William Fredeman speculates that Rossetti may have read some of Buchanan’s comments in the pamphlet as allusions to his affair with Mrs. Morris (see Rossetti, 5, 420–422).

Not long after the suicide attempt, Rossetti was taken to Scotland, where he gradually recovered under the various care of William, Ford Madox Brown, William Bell Scott (1811–90), George Gordon Hake (1847–1903), and Hake’s father, Dr. Thomas Gordon Hake (1809–95). By September he was well enough to continue his convalescence at Kelmscott Manor, an Elizabethan-era house that he and William Morris had leased since May of the previous year. For the rest of the 1870’s, Rossetti continued his abuse of chloral hydrate and alcohol, with predictable consequences for his health. In October 1879 he took an overdose of chloral but recovered. Two years later he issued his last original volume of poetry, Ballads and Sonnets, to great acclaim, along with a new edition of his Poems. A month earlier, he closed on the sale of his largest painting, “Dante’s Dream” (1869–71), to the Liverpool Arts Committee. These were to be his final triumphs. Following a short trip to Scotland in the autumn of 1881, Rossetti returned to London exhausted and ill. He was suffering from kidney disease, one of the many side effects of chloral hydrate addiction. In December, he complained of loss of feeling on his left side, possibly the result of a stroke, and a decision was made to wean him off the chloral by means of morphine. But the fatal damage to his kidneys had already been done. In February 1882 he was moved to Birchington-on-Sea, Kent, where he was installed in one of the resort cottages his friend Thomas Seddon had built. Rossetti died on 9 April and was buried five days later in the Birchington parish churchyard. He was not yet fifty-four.


Even before he met the Brownings, Rossetti was predisposed to adore them. According to William, the Rossetti brothers were from 1844 or 1845 “spellbound” by the poems of EBB (Some Reminiscences of William Michael Rossetti, New York, 1906, I, 232). By 1847, however, Rossetti’s favorite author was clearly RB: “Confronted with Browning, all else seemed pale and in neutral tint”—excepting only Dante and Shakespeare (Family-Letters, I, 102). Rossetti took issue with criticism that RB was obscure and became a tireless promoter of his poetry. William shared his brother’s enthusiasm for RB’s works, even to the point of encouraging William Bell Scott to have another try at reading Sordello: “If you can make up your mind to beginning it over again, I fancy that the delight you would find in the earlier portions … would impulse you triumphantly to a conclusion” (see SD1529 in vol. 17).

The acquaintance with RB began in 1847, when Rossetti found a copy of Pauline (1833) in the library of the British Museum (see Reconstruction, B28). Suspecting that the anonymous poet was also the author of Paracelsus (1835), Rossetti made a transcript of the poem, so that he might compare it with his copy of the later work. On 17 October of that year he wrote RB, expressing his “warm admiration” of Pauline and his “suspicion” as to its authorship: “It seemed to me, in reading this beautiful composition, that it presents a noticeable analogy in style and feeling to your first acknowledged work” (letter 2706). Within a month, RB replied and admitted the “literary sin” that Rossetti had uncovered (letter 2710). Thus encouraged, he set out to increase his familiarity with all things Browning. In November 1848, Rossetti was determined to attend the revival of RB’s A Blot in the ’Scutcheon, calling the play “a most wonderful production, and possessed moreover of that real, intrinsic, and unconventional purity which never fails to excite the moral execration of the enlightened Briton. … I must be there, as the great author may be visible” (see SD1355 in vol. 15). Rossetti acquired original editions of various parts of Bells and Pomegranates (1841–46), and he praised Sordello (1840) as “a phoenix of a book” (SD1523 in vol. 17). After being introduced to the Brownings by Thomas Buchanan Read in August 1851, Rossetti described RB as “short but so well made that he scarcely looks so: his head is most stunning, & even handsome in the common sense of the term” (SD1501 in vol. 17). Years later, RB recalled that sometime after this first meeting, he visited Rossetti’s studio and “was amazed with the modern artistic movement– Much of his work I at once admired” (Ralph Wormeley Curtis, entry in Diary of Daniel Sargent Curtis, 20 October 1888, ms at Marciana). RB’s extensive knowledge of Renaissance painters and painting was one of the qualities that attracted Rossetti. Following conversations with RB at Paris in November 1855, Rossetti wrote: “I found his knowledge of early Italian Art beyond that of any one I ever met—encyclopædically beyond that of Ruskin himself” (SD1886 in vol. 22).

Rossetti found EBB far less prepossessing than her husband. He considered himself an authority on feminine beauty, and in his eyes, EBB was no “stunner.” On the contrary, she was “as unattractive a person as can well be imagined … quite worn out with illness” (SD1501 in vol. 17). Also, in spite of his earlier enthusiasm, Rossetti grew to think less of EBB’s poems than of her husband’s. Although his positive remarks on Aurora Leigh seemed to be genuine, calling it “an astounding work surely” (SD2023) and “almost beyond anything for exhaustless poetic resource” (SD1994), he apparently associated EBB with the overwrought, inordinately emotional “spasmodic” poets, and he sometimes attributed their characteristic excess to the female gender. For example, while he was “greatly interested” in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), he pronounced it a “fiend” and an “incredible monster” with all the stronger “female tendencies from Mrs. Browning to Mrs. Brownrigg [notorious torturer and murderer of the eighteenth century]” (SD1777 in vol. 20). Other unfortunate tendencies he elsewhere termed “Barrett-Browningian” (see SD1666 in vol. 19). To denigrate Tennyson’s “Maud,” Rossetti declared that it was almost as bad as EBB’s “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” (see SD1850 in vol. 21).

On 27 September 1855, at their rooms in Dorset Street, the Brownings hosted a gathering that included Alfred Tennyson and the Rossetti brothers. By all accounts, it was a memorable evening: Tennyson read Maud to EBB, and RB read “Fra Lippo Lippi.” Rossetti made a pen and ink sketch of Tennyson’s reading and presented it to RB (see letter 3640, note 3). Early the next month, Rossetti began painting a watercolour portrait of RB. Although the artist had intended it to be “merely” a preliminary sketch, “to precede a proper one of him” and one of EBB the following year (letter 3641), it is the only Rossetti portrait of either Browning (see the frontispiece to vol. 23). The watercolour bears the date “October 1855,” but evidently it was completed when Rossetti visited the Brownings the next month in Paris (see Elizabeth A. Sharp, William Sharp, New York, 1910, p. 66). Rossetti himself judged the work “an indifferent head” (letter 3732); the Brownings thought otherwise and urged him to submit it to the 1856 Royal Academy exhibition (see letters 3756 and 3769). But Rossetti preferred to wait in the hope of doing something better the next year (see letter 3758). Nevertheless, the little watercolour (4¾ in. x 4⅛ in.) was displayed prominently in the painter’s studio until the crisis of 1872, at which time he may have given it to Fanny Cornforth (1835–1909), another one of his “stunners” and models, also mistress (see Rossetti, 2, 83n). She later sold it to the collector Charles Fairfax Murray (1849–1919), who gave it to the Fitzwilliam Museum. The portrait remains the most poetical of RB’s likenesses; and for many, the best. Both Brownings admired other paintings by Rossetti as well. They evidently had the loan for a time of two of his watercolours: “Dante’s Vision of Rachel and Leah” (see letter 3816) and Dante’s Dream, commissioned by Ellen Heaton (see letter 3913, note 2), on which the larger painting mentioned above was based.

Besides hoping to paint the Brownings’ portraits, Rossetti was from time to time interested in illustrating their works, especially RB’s. In 1851, the artist completed a small oil painting “Hist—said Kate the Queen” (1851), the title and subject taken from a scene in Pippa Passes (1841, II, 195–210). RB probably saw this work at Rossetti’s studio on 24 or 25 September 1855, along with Elizabeth Siddal’s pen and ink drawing of a different scene (see letter 3633, note 3; and SD1859 and SD 1860 in vol. 21). In March 1856 Rossetti was approached to illustrate two of RB’s poems, “Evelyn Hope” and “Two in the Campagna,” for The Poets of the Nineteenth Century (1857), but he felt no inspiration, explaining: “I cannot find my subject in either of the poems sent. … Were I allowed to propose a poem of Browning’s from which I could find a subject capable of illustration, I believe I should suggest “Count Gismond” (SD1912 in vol. 22). A year later, William James Linton (1812–97), one of the engravers who had worked on the “Moxon Tennyson” (see letter 3900, note 6), asked Rossetti to collaborate on an illustrated edition of the Brownings’ works. In a 27 March 1857 letter to Thomas Woolner (the other proposed collaborator), Rossetti wrote that the edition was “to be done solely by ourselves and under our control” (Rossetti, 2, 176). In the event, nothing came of the project. In the autumn of 1860, Rossetti was asked by the Brownings’ publisher to create illustrations for an edition of EBB’s Aurora Leigh, but he was reluctant, telling William Allingham in November: “I don’t think I could make much of it. However, if it were done by various hands, I should like to make one among them” (Rossetti, 2, 325). Later in the month Rossetti reiterated this comment and added that he would do it “for Browning’s sake” (Rossetti, 2, 333). This project as well came to nothing.

Rossetti had already contributed to an illustration for Aurora Leigh (4th ed,, rev., 1859) in an indirect way. When plans were being made to publish a revised edition of the poem, it was decided to use for the frontispiece a photograph of EBB (taken at Le Havre in late summer 1858), which would require an engraving. In November of that year RB asked Rossetti’s brother to “superintend the engraving,” specifying a few of the defects in the photograph that he hoped the engraver would address (Ruskin: Rossetti: Preraphaelitism; Papers 1854 to 1862, ed. William Michael Rossetti, 1899, pp. 210–211). An early proof of the engraving (presumably the first) by Thomas Oldham Barlow (1824–89) was seen by EBB’s sister Arabella, who, in a letter to William, called it “a caricature” that “would be painful to all related to my sister” and “extremely distressing” to RB ([4 April 1859], ms at British Columbia). William enlisted the expertise of his brother, who made extensive notes on one of the proofs, detailing exactly what needed to be done, particularly to the face, of which the following is a sample: “The eyebrows made squarer as in photograph, and the further eyebrow continued to the outline next the hair, instead of stopping short. The hair brought a little more down over the forehead, and the parting line not left quite so raw. … The mouth is considerably in need of correction. This may be done by adding a line of shadow all along the top of the upper lip, thus lessening the curve upward at the corner which gives a sort of smile not in the photograph & not characteristic of the original” (ms at ABL). According to a note written by William on the back of this proof, his brother’s suggestions were “all carried out.” When RB saw a revised proof of the engraving in May, he wrote to William: “Things prove not so bad as I feared—far from it: certainly I accept this gladly as the best obtainable under the difficult circumstances. … Now, truest thanks to you and to your brother who have been so entirely good to us” (Preraphaelitism, p. 228).

During the early months of RB’s residence in London following EBB’s death in 1861, he called on few friends. Rossetti was proud that he numbered among them, as indicated in a letter of 9 January 1862 to Charles Eliot Norton: “I have lately had two visits from dear glorious Browning, who though now settled in England, has hardly seen anyone as yet since his bereavement, so that I may think it no small honour that he should already have been twice seated opposite the portrait of him which is still almost the only ornament of my studio walls” (Rossetti, 2, 440). That the two men liked and admired each other was evident, but there may have been something more that drew RB to the painter’s studio. In respect to EBB’s death, perhaps RB found in Rossetti a man who could strike the proper note of sympathy. William recalls the comfort his brother gave to Ford Madox Brown on the death of the latter’s eldest son, Oliver, in 1874: “On receiving a few lines of sympathy from my brother in the first hours of bereavement, Brown said to me, ‘It is always Gabriel who speaks the right word’” (Family-Letters, I, 345). RB felt deeply for his friend when Elizabeth Siddal died on 11 February 1862. In a letter to Isa Blagden of 15 February, he wrote: “My heart is sore for a great calamity just befallen poor Rossetti—which I only heard of last night: his wife, who had been, as an invalid, in the habit of taking laudanum swallowed an over-dose … she died in the night—about a week ago: & there has hardly been a day when I have not thought—‘if I can, to-morrow, I will go & see him, & thank him for his book, & return his sister’s poems.’ Poor, dear Fellow!” (ms at ABL).

The book was doubtless The Early Italian Poets (see above), which the author had inscribed: “To Robert Browning with respect & affection D G Rossetti Xmas 1861” (Reconstruction, A1969). Rossetti apparently also sent along, or soon after, some of Christina Rossetti’s manuscript verses that would appear in Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862). Years later, after receiving a presentation copy of RB’s Balaustion’s Adventure (1871), which contained a translation of Euripides, Rossetti recalled with some bitterness that RB had failed to acknowledge The Early Italian Poets. Nevertheless, nothing in the friendship seemed to change at this time. RB sent Rossetti a copy of EBB’s Last Poems upon its publication in March 1862 and at the end of the year a copy of his own Selections (1863). Of the latter work, Rossetti wrote to RB on 5 January 1863: “Concerning this book, all your lieges of oldest standing will feel some pangs of selfishness. ‘Had I,’ each will say ‘but had the doing of it!’ For not even the poking of one’s own fire, perhaps, is so peculiar & unapproachable a privilege, as the insight into one’s own Poet” (ms at Princeton). As the decade wore on, further presentation copies of RB’s works were sent to Rossetti, including Dramatis Personae (1864) Poetical Works (3 vols., 1865), and The Ring and the Book (4 vols., 1868–69). Both his brother and Swinburne felt that Dramatis Personae signaled a decline in RB’s abilities, and it is possible that Rossetti did as well, though in a thank-you note to the author he had singled out for praise “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” “A Death in the Desert,” and “Caliban upon Setebos,” as “most glorious work” (8 June 1864, ms at Princeton). Regarding The Ring and the Book, to RB, Rossetti was effusive in his praise of the separate sections of “Giuseppe Caponsacchi” (Book VI), “Pompilia” (Book VII), and “Guido” (Book IX): “I have had my third reading of ‘Caponsacchi’ … surely this is the greatest thing you have yet done” (19 January 1869, ms at Princeton); “I have been reading & re-reading ‘Pompilia,’ and so has every one I talk with. … Exquisite indeed is every page of it” (22 February 1869, ms at Princeton); and “How you have summed up the whole drama of your book in that supreme master-stroke at the end of the second ‘Guido’. … When you wrote that line, you must have felt that you owed your Muse a votive wreath; as the world, reading it, awards one to you” (13 March 1869, ms at Princeton). Back in December 1868, however, after having evidently read only volume one, containing the first three books, Rossetti wondered in a letter to Allingham “whether the consequent evolutions will be bearable … without the intervening walls of the station-house to tone down their exuberance” ([23 December 1868], ms at Morgan). Before this remark, Rossetti theorized that for most poets, the more “fanciful” their starting point, the more “incoherent” they become; but “the thing that makes Browning drunk is to give him a dram of prosaic reality, and unluckily this time the ‘gum-tickler’ is less like pure Cognac than 7 Dials Gin.”

While Rossetti was preparing his Poems (1870) for publication in early August 1869, he worried about being charged with plagiarism for phrases and words in “The Choice I,” “Love’s Nocturn,” and “A New Year’s Burden” that were similar or the same as those in RB’s “In a Gondola” (1842) and The Ring and the Book (see Rossetti, 4, 252). His brother advised him to date his poems and thereby avoid suspicion of excessive influence, but Rossetti decided against that course. When Poems, was published on 27 April 1870, he sent RB a copy, inscribed: “To Robert Browning With old & grateful regard” (Reconstruction, A1970). In a letter of 16 May 1870, acknowledging the volume, RB congratulated and praised but with reservations: “Here is a book and a delight. Go on and give us another and another. I cannot enjoy the personifications,—Love as a youth, encircling you with his arms and wings, gives me a turn,—and a few archaisms in sentiment and expression please me less than they probably do others,—but these are nothings … the main is masterly and conclusive … of your right to all the honors in poetry as in painting” (ms at British Columbia). In a letter to Isa Blagden, however, RB was far more critical, confiding that Rossetti’s poems were merely “scented with poetry … like trifles of various sorts you take out of a cedar or sandal-wood box: you know I hate the effeminacy of his school,—the men that dress up like women,—that use obsolete forms … and archaic accentuations to seem soft” (19 [May] 1870, ms at BL). Years later, RB gave a different opinion on Rossetti’s Poems to Ralph Wormeley Curtis (see below).

In early August 1871, when Rossetti anticipated the publication of RB’s Balaustion’s Adventure, he expressed some indignation to William Bell Scott that RB, the one who so despised translations, would publish one of his own, recalling the lack of acknowledgment after sending him The Early Italian Poets: “When I sent him my Italian Poets I remember he never answered at all” (Rossetti, 5, 96). Further, he sarcastically remarked to his mother that “Balaustion’s Adventure should have been named “Exhaustion’s Imposture” (Rossetti, 5, 117). Nevertheless, Rossetti continued to think that, despite various “sins,” RB seemed “likely to remain … the most original & varied mind, by long odds, which betakes itself to poetry in our time” (Rossetti, 5, 96).

RB presented Rossetti with a copy of Balaustion’s Adventure on 13 October and one of Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau on 19 December (see Reconstruction, C217 and C502), to which the recipient responded with warm letters of thanks and admiration. When on 4 June 1872 RB sent Rossetti a copy of Fifine at the Fair, inscribed, “from his old admirer and affectionate friend” (Reconstruction, C341), the latter was already descending into madness. However, he was lucid enough the following day to acknowledge the gift with a brief, but somehow moving, note: “Thanks once more for a new book bearing your name loved from of old. And even before I read it, let me say, thanks, thanks for your warm expression of regard at this moment” (ms at Princeton). “At this moment” Rossetti imagined that a conspiracy was trying to destroy him, and soon after opening the book, he thought he recognized in the “Epilogue” direct and hurtful references to his own life. According to William, his brother at first vacillated between condemnation of RB and “tenderness” towards him (Family-Letters, I, 308). But in the end he was judged one of the main conspirators, and the two friends of twenty years never communicated again. William recalled that “on one or two occasions” after the break, RB asked about his brother and “expressed a wish to look him up” (I, 308). But William felt “compelled to fence with the suggestion, lest worse should ensue” (I, 308).

It is an open question how much RB knew about the nature of Rossetti’s mental problems prior to the latter’s death in April 1882. By the end of that year, however, he was probably in possession of the facts. In a letter of 22 November 1882, RB responded to an invitation from William Bell Scott to come and talk about Rossetti: “I want to talk to you on that particular subject very much,—having myself been both misconceiving and—I now find—misconceived of by Poor Rossetti” (ms at Princeton). Five years later, RB attended the unveiling of a memorial to Rossetti at 16 Cheyne Walk. He wrote of it to Lady Combermere on 13 July 1887: “It was proposed that I should myself play the main actor in this ceremony” (ms at Wellesley). But this he declined. The next year in Venice, Ralph Wormeley Curtis recorded in his father’s diary a conversation he had with RB, during which the latter spoke movingly of Rossetti and what had happened to him: “I have always found his conversation wonderfully suggestive and exhilarating. All agreed that seeing Rossetti made one want to rush home & do some work” (Diary of Daniel Sargent Curtis, 20 October 1888, ms at Marciana). RB went on to describe the death of Rossetti’s wife, the interment of his poems, and the eventual retrieval of them, “which were at once published & received the recognition they amply deserve. He died miserably—his ideas of right & wrong being, as is often the case, quite obliterated by morphine. … His brother said to me ‘it’s best not to go. I myself have not seen him for 8 months,’ but I always looked a long time at his house whenever I went to see Carlyle who lived close by. But the sad thing to me is that after his death someone told me that on many occasions he cried ‘what have I done to Browning that even he cuts me now!’ … I could tell you a great deal more, very interesting & very painful” (Curtis, 20 October 1888).


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