Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

The Lost Pamphlet Version of D.G. Rossetti's "The Stealthy School of Criticism"

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

The Lost Pamphlet Version of D.G. Rossetti's "The Stealthy School of Criticism"

Article excerpt

IN OCTOBER OF 1871, STUNG TO ANGER BY ROBERT BUCHANAN'S HARSHLY critical essay "The Fleshly School of Poetry," Dante Gabriel Rossetti began writing a vitriolic response. The first three weeks of the month had been spent uncovering the identity of Buchanan, who had published his essay pseudonymously in the Contemporary Review. Hence came the title of Rossertti's rejoinder: "The Stealthy School of Criticism." These two pieces of writing form the heart of one of the most notorious controversies in English literary history, one that ruined Buchanan's reputation, precipitated the end of Rossetti's friendship with Swinbume, and helped shatter Rossetti's mental and physical health for good. It also fixed the terms of debate over Pre-Raphaelite poetry--particularly Rossetti's--for generations to come. However, our understanding of this episode has until recently been impaired by the absence of a key constitutive text. We know that Rossetti originally planned to issue a longer pamphlet version of his essay, but under the advice of friends and a lawyer, published instead a much-reduced text in the Athenaeum in December 1871. (1) The few printed copies of the suppressed pamphlet were thought to have been destroyed, but one has been found and is now held by the Huntington Library. More than twice the length of the Athenaeum essay, this pamphlet presents much new material, including a series of attacks on Buchanan's pseudonymity, remarks on literary genius and fame, and a variant version of Rossetti's parodic poem, "The Brothers." What is more, its outraged tone--quite at odds with the gentlemanly calm of the Athenaeum piece--reveals how deeply Buchanan's shaft had struck, giving us a prelude to the madness that would overtake Rossetti in the coming year. First announced by Arthur Freeman in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement, the pamphlet thus fills a crucial gap in the history of the "Fleshly School" controversy and in the study of the life and work of Dante Gabriel (2)

Reflecting on the "Stealthy School" pamphlet in a memoir of his brother, William Michael Rossetti wrote in 1889:

I never saw this pamphlet, nor I think any part of the MS. pertaining to it; neither did 1 ever enquire whether perchance Mr. Ellis or his printer yet owns a copy. Were such the case, the pamphlet might yet some day prove a literary curiosity highly appetizing to some of these bibliographic zealots who are prompt with cheques for [pounds sterling]7 or [pounds sterling]10 in exchange even for a copy of Rossetti's boyish, privately printed, and insipid ballad, Sir Hugh the Heron. Whether the brochure really was a libel I have of course no means of judging.... My reader, who now knows as much about the pamphlet as I do, may be left to his own conjectures. (3)

Two things may be said of this passage: first, William Michael knew much more about the contents of the pamphlet than he admits to in 1889; and second, in mentioning "bibliographic zealots," he is referring directly to T. J. Wise, whose first purchase of Rossetti material from William was indeed a copy of Sir Hugh the Heron, for 5 guineas, on July 16, l888. (4) Wise spent the next several decades acquiring rare Rossetti items from William (while simultaneously attempting to secure William's authentication of Wise's forgeries). As Fredeman puts it, Wise "regarded William as something of a literary cornucopia--or, more accurately, a golden goose--from whom he could inveigle an endless supply of manuscripts, private printings, and memorabilia" ("Wise-Forman," p. 64). The "highly appetizing" "Stealthy School" pamphlet was not forthcoming, however, although Wise came tantalizingly close the following year. Perhaps following William's hint in the above passage, Wise paid a visit to Ellis. According to Oswald Dought y,

in 1890, Ellis refused the offers of Mr. T. J. Wise to purchase the sole copy of Rossetti's pamphlet, written in reply to Buchanan's attack in "The Fleshly School of Poetry," and because Rossetti had wished it to be suppressed, Ellis destroyed the document in the presence of Mr. …

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