Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Victorian Romantic

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Victorian Romantic

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Victorian Romantic

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Victorian Romantic

Excerpt

No biographer of Rossetti may flatter himself that the poet- painter would have approved his labours. "A devil," he wrote in 1878, appealing for help to his friend and legal adviser Watts-Dunton, "has written some rot to me about a biography for some series. I don't want him to be writing mine. If not answered he may scribble some malignity . . . a biographical Devil, . . . a scandal-mongering Devil."

That Rossetti did not wish to be the subject of any intimate biographical study, that he feared anything of the kind would lead to "scandal-mongering," is therefore beyond dispute. Nor was it solely that he feared a public revelation of his own tragic experience and unconventional way of life. The "private" life of artists as of other persons should, he believed, be really private; their works were all that the public had a right to know. This was his attitude in 1869 to Mrs. Beecher Stowe's accusations against Byron. "The vital interest of his poetry,"Rossetti declared, "is all we have to do with."

Yet even in days before the advent of that self-contradictory hybrid the "fictional" biographer, Rossetti seems to have had melancholy premonitions of his ultimate fate. "Rossetti," wrote an anonymous reviewer, "used to be much delighted with the account a friend gave him of the peculiar biographical methods that obtain among the Kalmuk Tartars. . . It seems that when a Kalmuk high priest dies, the reverend gentleman next in rank sets about composing his biography in this wise: first he burns his hero's body to ashes, and then, moistening the ashes with water and his own saliva, he kneads them into a dough--'the sacred dough'--and then kneads the dough into a statuette, taking care that the statuette's face shall suggest as far as possible a kind of amalgamated expression representing both artist and subject. 'I wonder what officious kneader will try his hand on my "sacred dough," 'Rossetti used to say."

Despite Rossetti's wishes, however, from the moment of his death there was a scramble amongst his friends for priority as his biographer. Hall Caine won, to the disgust of the Rossetti family; William Sharp was a close second, and Oscar Wilde wittily remarked: "Whenever a great man dies, Hall Caine and . . .

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