William Michael Rossetti, less gifted but perhaps more sensible than some other members of the circle of which he was to become an important chronicler, was once known as a critic of art and literature. In the preface to Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads he explained that he had not been asked, but had volunteered, to undertake his friend’s defence. Originally he had planned that defence as an article for the North American Review, but J. R. Lowell’s harsh judgment of Swinburne’s tragedies in that periodical had led him to publish it as a book.
The advent of a new great poet is sure to cause a commotion of one kind or another; and it would be hard were this otherwise in times like ours, when the advent of even so poor and pretentious a poetaster as a Robert Buchanan stirs storms in teapots.1 It is therefore no wonder that Mr. Swinburne should have been enthusiastically admired and keenly discussed as soon as he hove well in sight of the poetry-reading public, for he is not only a true but even a great poet; still less wonder, under all the particular circumstances of the case, that, with his last volume, admiration and discussion should have ended in a grand crash of the critical orchestra, and that all voices save those of denunciation and repudiation should have been well-nigh drowned. As with many poets of whom our literature is or might be proud—a Shelley, a Byron, a Landor, a Whitman, a Mrs. Browning—the time had to come to Mr. Swinburne when the literary interest in his writings paled before some other feeling excited by them—when the literary gauge was thrown aside by his examiners, and some other one was applied, not to the
1 According to W. M. Rossetti’s Some Reminiscences, this reference to Buchanan was prompted by Buchanan’s ‘The Session of the Poets’ (No. 9) and led Buchanan to respond with a savage criticism of Rossetti’s edition of Shelley.