D. G. Rossetti’s Critical Letter
to Théophile Marzials
20th April, 1873
My dear Sir,
When you kindly sent me Passionate Dowsabella some time ago, I read it with much interest but failed to acknowledge it. Such failure was due in great measure to my not feeling the right of expressing fully to you, a stranger, (as an old friend might have done,) my sense of the obstacles you had to contend with before the qualities evident in your poetry could be really made available. I now have to thank you for your new volume, but still find the same difficulty in writing to you about it, and must ask you at the outset to excuse my doing so somewhat freely, as I cannot speak on such subjects otherwise than as I feel.
I think Dowsabella much the most valuable poem in the book, but there are all the jarring points remaining in it. A great deal is disjointed,—a great deal inconceivably forced or neglected in my judgment; yet it has something truly pastoral in a strange new way, and the tragic element is intense and memorable.
The finest single passage in the whole book is without doubt the closing portion of the Temple of Love from ‘Who art thou here at my feet?’ till the italics begin again. This stands quite alone for concentration and purpose, and accordingly the diction moves freely and nobly in every word, like something that really has to be said. The rest of the poem is full of what one may call stimulating qualities, but does not, I confess, succeed in makings its appeal clear to me, and is certainly left buried in heaps of material,—the great grievance with most poetry nowadays.
I think you have made an unfortunate choice of a leading poem. The Gallery of Pigeons, besides the objection of its odd title, has almost less starting point, and labors perhaps more under a throng of (pardon again) puerile perversities in diction than any piece in the volume. I think the closing poem (Angel of God &c.) very preferable to this, possessing much more style and discipline, though its systematic quaintness makes it rather a study than anything else.
I have marked, as pleasing one by more moderation of manner than usual, The Bird, Spring, A Night-piece (very sweet in its second half,) and Châtelard:—Gabrielle also, for its crude power, though I cannot say I find it agreeable. A Tragedy, The Sun of my Songs, and a few others appear to me to be written on a plan absolutely inadmissable. I like much the Aubade and admire extremely the two little pieces commencing ‘And I was a full-leaved, full-boughed tree’, and ‘I dreamed I was in Sicily’. These three are quite pure in execution, but for one flaw in the Aubade, the use of the word ‘rhythms’ as a dis-syllable. Chelsea is a district I know, but the two verses at page 151 fail to recall it with any vividness.
One simple fact seems to me unquestionable,—namely, that you might go over the volume and remove continually recurring words and phrases of a trivial or astoundingly concocted kind, and many inconceivable inversions such as ‘in warm the air’, with an easily attained and more beneficial result.
My main advice to you would be to refrain from contributions chiefly in voluminousness to the poetry of the day, but to try instead to attain some complete results. A poem of six lines, made perfect, adds something to one’s permanent work; but a poem of 6000 adds nothing to that, if left imperfect.
There seems no particular reason, certainly, why I should venture to speak thus plainly to you, unless my being much older than you are affords one; and as the advantage is all yours there, I hope for your indulgence. If I obtain it, I shall hope too to meet you one day.
D. G. Rossetti
from William Bell Scott’s
The next of the British Museum poets1 who came within my ken was Theodore [sic] Marzials, who had indeed published a volume, which he called The Gallery of Pigeons, half a year before, marked by surprising individuality and imaginative qualities, that ought to have given its author celebrity. Marzials had previously circulated as a pamphlet one of the poems in the volume called Passionate Dowsabella, which made us look for the coming book with curiosity. This was not disappointed. But he was of a restless, nervous nature, rushing into elevation or depression of spirits, and I have never ceased to regret that the reception his first volume met with has prevented him from persevering. Among discouraging letters D.G.R.’s seemed to have hurt him most. This letter passed through my hands, but I knew nothing of its contents till I had the following from Marzials:
My dear Mr. Scott—I have to thank you for so many things I hardly know with which to begin.—Your truly kind and sympathetic letter about my book I need not tell you how much I value. And for sending me Rossetti’s letter—your intention has so flattered me, the deed could hardly have done it more. I mean “flattered” in the French sense—delighted and gratified. I think I am right, or rather was right, in taking Rossetti’s criticism as a great kindness, since I feel that what he says is true, that my book is crude and immature, and, what to my mind is worse, trivial. But I may say in confidence to yourself that when one considers how every reader of only one line of mine becomes my critic and how very few,—some half-dozen, perhaps—there are in the world whose sympathy one can honestly care for—sympathy for one’s aim, I mean—it is hard to lose it. Rossetti does not seem to see (by what he picks out to admire) what I am driving at; he praises my imitations, and not the me, in the book.
On asking D.G.R. what he had said in the letter that had so hurt a noble but eccentric man like Marzials, he was sorry for what he had written. “But,” he added, “if work sent to me is weak, I prefer silence; but if it is not, I take it the author can only wish for one’s real opinion either way. I have since dipped into some of the poems again, with the same result as before, except that I have been even more struck with the daintiness and fancy of the last poem. It is so much more a whole than almost any of the others, that I should suppose it to be the last written. [This was a mistake, it was an early one.] I must say that the first in the book seems about the worst of all—quite irritating in its pettiness and absurdities.” Unhappily, again, this was Marzials’s last and best, according to his own ideas; the one representing himself. It was full of surprising beauties, but expressed in the most wilful way. Rossetti’s criticism was not perspicuous, though in a measure intelligent, resembling those on the appearance of Keats’s poem Endymion, which Marzials’s workmanship closely resembled.
Autobiographical Notes of the Life of William Bell Scott and Notices of His Artistic and Literary Friends, 1830–1882. 2 vols. ed. W. Minto. London: Osgood, McIlvaine &co. 1892. ii.194–5.
- ‘Poets in outward form are numerous nowadays, and the British Museum abounds with them, although verse-writing and publishing proclivities are peremptorily discouraged by the heads of the departments there’ (ibid, p. 192). In addition to Marzials, Scott also mentions E.W. Gosse (‘the first of these to come in my way’) and Arthur O’Shaughnessy (‘a man with the most sensitive temperament, and the strongest artistic faculty among them, though with less literary facility’). [↩]