Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,” asks Browning’s speaker in his poem “Memorabilia”: “How strange it seems, and new!” He could be talking about any successful literary or artistic career. It is practically impossible to see the outlines of a life clearly after it has been filleted into stories and barnacled by rumour. Posthumous fame is even more vulnerable to interference, which is why Tennyson was convinced that he would be “ripped up like a pig” after his death, and wrote a glum three-line poem that ended: “After death the ghouls!” Within a few years, even the most distinctive personality risks having its legacy becoming confused with its legend.
No writer or artist has suffered more from this process than Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Sometimes he even seems to have anticipated it, by living like a character in a story, although the genre of this story altered drastically according to his mood and the pressure of circumstances. For many of his contemporaries, he was the star of a gothic melodrama, which reached a messy climax when he dug up the corpse of his wife in order to retrieve the damp and wormy manuscript of the poems he had buried alongside her. For others, he was the hero of a fairytale centred on his garden in Chelsea, where he kept a menagerie that included at various times a wombat, an armadillo, a racoon, a kangaroo and a deer, plus a selection of other animals, such as a sloth and a chameleon, that sounded better suited to a fable about his own personal habits.
Rossetti’s ramshackle private zoo was just one reflection of his love of collecting. His house in Cheyne Walk was stuffed with old china and bric-à-brac, and long after he had run out of space, he continued to spend hours rummaging around in curiosity shops, surrounding himself with clutter like an endlessly proliferating nest. The same principle extended to his poetry, which was far better at gathering fragments together than it was at arranging them into coherent patterns, whether a sonnet sequence like “The House of Life” or a long ballad like “The Bride’s Prelude”, which A.C. Benson acutely described as “a secret treasury of beautiful things, heaped up in careless profusion” rather than “a tale that is told”.
More successful were Rossetti’s paintings, many of which recorded more happy hours spent collecting disparate bits and pieces, together with the tricky business of piecing them together. The unfinished canvas Found, begun in 1853, for example, records a brick wall Rossetti discovered in Chiswick, a calf and cart from Finchley and a woman’s head painted in Chelsea, and while the painting’s title refers primarily to the dramatic situation of someone lost to prostitution, it might just as plausibly refer to the mixture of research and lucky chance that went into the process of painting it, gradually assembled as the edited highlights of Rossetti’s travels through London.
One problem with this method of painting, as Found starkly illustrates, is that the viewer might end up being unable to see the wood for the trees. Precisely because each knobbly piece of bark or delicately veined leaf looks so real, these details invite us to stare at them with the same intensity of vision with which the artist stared at their originals, meaning that they sometimes resist being linked together into a coherent image. If pre-Raphaelite paintings are like a sophisticated jigsaw puzzle, they risk drawing attention to the cracks between the pieces rather than the overall design.
Much the same is true of how Rossetti has been perceived over the years. Not only is he the most famous pre-Raphaelite painter, whose dreamy images continue to adorn everything from t-shirts to mugs, but in some ways he has turned into a real-life version of a pre-Raphaelite painting. The parts stubbornly refuse to link together as a whole.
Rossetti himself can be held partly responsible for this. Particularly in the last years of his life, his refusal to exhibit his paintings combined to devastating effect with his own withdrawal from public life. People who were denied the opportunity to collect his work compensated by collecting stories about him instead: his miserable addiction to chloral; his conviction that Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” was a personal attack upon himself; the paranoid fantasy that his enemies had trained a thrush in his garden to chant insults at him. But even these stories failed to add up to more than a rich set of self-contradictions: Rossetti was the sensualist who made women untouchable by turning them into paintings; witty and boundlessly generous, he was “dogmatic and irritable when opposed”; a loyal friend, he could also be spiteful and vindictive, as if trying to live up to the example of his namesake Dante Alighieri, “who loved well because he hated”.
Never did he write a more autobiographical poem than “He and I”, in which the speaker imagines his new moods and feelings intruding into the world like different people. Never did he produce a more haunted and haunting drawing than How They Met Themselves, 1851-64, which depicts a pair of terrified lovers meeting their doppelgängers in a wood.
Rossetti’s letters are equally diverse, and sometimes equally self-divided. Sharply written and crackling with imaginative energy, they range from the chronicles of Dizzy the dog to perceptive fragments of literary criticism (“The action [of Wuthering Heights] is laid in hell, —only it seems places and people have English names there”) to reams of loving correspondence with his mother, whom he addressed in a series of pet names that showed just how delightful he could be when he was restricted to an audience of one: “Good Antique”, “Dearest Darling”, “Dear old Darling of 70”.
What most impressed those who met Rossetti in person was his voice—its power, its resonance, its magical qualities of persuasion—and it is in his letters, rather than his poems and stories, that these qualities are most clearly on display. Even as the hopes of his early years faded, and he became increasingly disappointed with himself and with life in general, the same voice can be heard ringing through his letters, alternately cajoling, flirting, teasing and bullying. Famed for his eloquence in person, once he withdrew into the nocturnal gloom of Cheyne Walk, his letters provided him with conversation by another means. They allowed him to enjoy being that paradoxical creature, a sociable recluse.
One danger of this new edition of Rossetti’s letters is that it might simply have compounded the problem of a writer who was everything by turns but nothing long. Nine volumes published over nine years could easily have turned into the critical equivalent of Rossetti’s own patchwork productions, particularly when the death of the principal editor, William Fredeman, necessitated a new editorial team to see his work through to completion. That their edition succeeds so magnificently is a triumph not only of determination but also of editorial tact.
A month after Rossetti’s death in April 1882, the Royal Scottish Academy praised him as one “whose many-sided and original genius and high accomplishment, not only as a painter but as a poet also, have shed a lustre on the artistic profession”. In its unprecedented fullness, the readability of its text, and the quality and quantity of its notes, this edition offers an equally eloquent posthumous tribute.
Occasionally, there are decisions one might question—the fact that the final three volumes are bound in a slightly different green to the previous six, for example, means that on the shelf Rossetti looks two-toned as well as many-sided—but none of these seriously detract from an edition whose quality is sustained not only to the final letter, in which Rossetti writes “I find I am out of wine again”, but to the final page of the final appendix, which quotes a snarky response in the Pall Mall Gazette to the news that a Rossetti Memorial Fountain was to be unveiled in the Chelsea Embankment Gardens: “Rossetti was far more partial to chloral, opiates, stimulants, narcotics, anything rather than cold water!”
The great benefit of this edition lies in reminding us that such views are only a partial version of this strange and complex figure. For the first time, we can do more than see Rossetti plain. We can see him whole.
The writer is a Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford. His latest book, Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist (Belknap Press), will be published in October
The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Fredeman, ed Boydell and Brewer, each volume £125, $220 (hb)
The Formative Years, 1835-62: Charlotte Street to Cheyne Walk I. 1835-54, II. 1855-62
The Chelsea Years, 1863-72: Prelude to Crisis III. 1863-67, IV. 1868-70, V. 1871-72
The Last Decade, 1873-82: Kelmscott to Birchington VI. 1873-74, VII. 1875-77, VIII. 1878-79, IX. 1880-8