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THE POEMS OF DANTE GABRIEL
WHEN fate has allowed to any man more than one great gift, accident or necessity seems usually to contrive that one shall encumber and impede the other. It has been thought, rightly or wrongly, that even the work done by such supreme men as Michel Angelo and Leonardo was impaired on this hand or on that by the various and eager impatience of genius which impelled them alternately along diverging lines of life and labour. Be that as it may, there is no room to doubt that such a doublenatured genius as was theirs lies open to a double kind of attack from the rancorous tribe of weaklings and dullards. The haters of either light or of any may say that there cannot be sunlight and moonlight in the same sky ; that a double-gifted nature must be powerless to beget as to bear, sterile by excess of organs as by defect, “like that sweet marble monster of both sexes” beloved of Shelley as of Gautier: that the time and ardour of spirit and of hand spent on this way of work must be so much lost to that other way; that on neither course can the runner of a double race attain the goal, but must needs in both races alike be caught up and resign his torch to a runner with a single aim. Candid envy and judicious ignorance will mutually concede something ; the one, that he might have won the foot-race had he let the horse-race be; the other, that he might have ridden in first had he never tried his luck afoot. That assurance refreshes with the restorative of a false consolation the runners who fell impotent at starting or dropped lame at the turning-point. Hateful as the winner of a single prize must be to them, how can they bear—if shutting their eyes will save them the sight—to behold the coronation of the conqueror in all five heats? Nevertheless they have now and then to bear it as they may : though some take side with them who should know better, having won each a single crown in his own field, and being loth to admit that in that field at least they can be distanced by the best man in another.
In every generation that takes any heed of the art, the phrase of “greatest living poet” or (with a difference of reservation) “ first of his age and country” is Aung about freely and foolishly enough : but if more than mere caprice-be it caprice of culture or caprice of ignoranceis to go to the making up of the definition, we must decide what qualities are of first necessity for the best poet, and proceed to try how far the claimant can be surely said to possess them. Variety is a rare and high quality, but poets of the first order have had little or none of it; witness Keats and Coleridge ; men otherwise greater than these have had much, and yet have fallen far short of the final place among poets held by these ; witness Byron and Scott. But in all great poets there must be an ardent harmony, a heat of spiritual life guiding without constraining the bodily grace of motion, which shall give charm and power to their least work; sweetness that cannot be weak and force that will not be rough. There must be an instinct and a resolution of excellence which will allow no shortcoming or malformation of thought or word: there must also be so natural a sense of right as to make any such deformity or defect impossible, and leave upon the work done no trace of any effort to avoid or to achieve. It must be serious, simple, perfect; and it must be thus by evident and native impulse. The mark of painstaking as surely lowers the level of style as any sign of negligence; in the best work there must be no trace of a laborious or a languid hand.
In all these points the style of Mr. Rossetti excels that of any English poet of our day. It has the fullest fervour and fluency of impulse, and the impulse is always towards harmony and perfection. It has the inimitable note of instinct, and the instinct is always high and right. It carries weight enough to overbear the style of a weaker man, but no weight of thought can break it, no subtlety of emotion attenuate, no ardour of passion deface. It can breathe unvexed in the finest air and pass unsinged through the keenest fire ; it has all the grace of perfect force and all the force of perfect grace. It is sinuous as water or as light, flexible and penetrative, delicate and rapid ; it works on its way without halt or jar or collapse. And in plain strength and weight of sense and sound these faultless verses exceed those of faultier workmen who earn their effects by their defects; who attain at times and by fits to some memorable impression of thought upon speech and speech upon memory, at the cost generally of inharmonious and insufficient work. No such coarse or cheap stuff is here used as a ground to set off the rich
surprises of casual ornament and intermittent embroidery. The woof of each poem is perfect, and the flowers that flash out from this side or from that seem not so much interwoven with the thread of it or set in the soil, as grown and sprung by mere nature from the ground, under inevitable rains and sunbeams of the atmosphere which bred them.
It is said sometimes that a man may have a strong and perfect style who has nothing to convey worth conveyance under cover of it. This is indeed a favourite saying of men who have no words in which to convey the thoughts which they have not; of men born dumb who express by grunts and chokes the inexpressible eloquence which is not in them, and would fain seem to labour in miscarriage of ideas which they have never conceived. But it remains for them to prove as well as assert that beauty and power of expression can accord with emptiness or sterity of matter, or that impotence of articulation must imply depth and wealth of thought. This flattering unction the very foolishest of malignants will hardly in this case be able to lay upon the corrosive sore which he calls his soul : the ulcer of ill-will must rot unrelieved by the rancid ointment of such fiction. Hardly could a fool here or a knave there fail to see or hope to deny the fullness of living thought and subtle strength of nature underlying this veil of radiant and harmonious words.
It is on the other side that attack might be looked for from the more ingenious enemies of good work: and of these there was never any lack. Much of Mr. Rossetti's work is so intense in aim, so delicate and deep in signi. ficance, so exuberant in offshoot and undergrowth of sentiment and thought, that even the sweet lucidity and steady current of his style may not suffice to save it from the charges of darkness and difficulty. He is too great a master of speech to incur the blame of hard or tortuous expression; and his thought is too sound and pure to be otherwise dark than as a deep well-spring at noon may be even where the sun is strongest and the water brightest. In its furthest depth there is nothing of weed or of mud; whatever of haze may seem to quiver there is a weft of the sun's spinning, a web not of woven darkness but of molten light. But such work as this can be neither unwoven nor recast by any process of analysis. The infinite depth and wealth of life which breathes and plays among these songs and sonnets cannot be parcelled and portioned out for praise or comment. This “ House of Life” has in it so many mansions, so many halls of state and bowers of music, chapels for worship and chambers for festival, that no guest can declare on a first entrance the secret of its scheme. Spirit and sense together, eyesight and hearing and thought, are absorbed in splendour of sounds and glory of colours distinguishable only by delight. But the scheme is solid and harmonious; there is no waste in this luxury of genius : the whole is lovelier than its loveliest part. Again and again may one turn the leaves in search of some one poem or some two which may be chosen for sample and thanksgiving ; but there is no choice to be made. Sonnet is poured upon sonnet, and song hands on the torch to song; and each in turn (as another poet has said of the lark's note falling from the height of dawn)