Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

They were living in rooms in Chatham Place, by the old Blackfriars Bridge, and one evening, about halfpast six, having been invited to dine with friends at a hotel in Leicester Square, they got into a carriage to go. It had been a bad day for the young wife, and they had hardly reached the Strand when her nervousness became distressing to Rossetti, and he wished her to return. She was unwilling to do so, and they went on to their appointment; but it may be assumed that her condition did not improve, for at eight o'clock they were back at home.

Soon after that Rossetti left his wife preparing to retire for the night, and went out again apparently to walk. When he returned at half-past eleven o'clock, he found his rooms full of a strong odour of laudanum; his wife was breathing stertorously and lying unconscious on the bed. He called a doctor, who saw at once, what was only too obvious, that the lady had taken an overdose of her accustomed sleeping draught. Other doctors were summoned, and every effort was made to save the patient's life; but after lingering hours without recovering consciousness for a moment— therefore without offering a word of explanation —towards seven o'clock in the morning she died....

This was in 1862, no more than two years after the marriage that had been waited for so long. The blow to Rossetti was a terrible one. It was some days before he seemed to realize fully the loss that had befallen him; but after that his grief knew no bounds, and it first expressed itself in a way that was full of the tragic grace and beauty of a great renunciation.

Many of his poems had been inspired by and addressed to his wife, and at her request he had copied them out, sometimes from memory, into a little book which she had given him for this purpose. With this book in his hand, on the day of her funeral, he walked into the room where her body lay, and quite unmindful of the presence of others, he spoke to his dead wife as though she could hear, saying the poems it contained had been written to her and for her and she must take them with her to the grave. With these words, or words to the same effect, he placed the little volume in the coffin by the side of his wife's face and wrapped it round with her beautiful golden hair, and it was buried with her in Highgate Cemetery.

Thus seven years passed, and during that time Rossetti, who frequently immersed himself in the aims and achievements of his friends, and witnessed their rise to fame and honour, began to think with pain of the aspirations as a poet which he had himself renounced, and to cast backward glances at the book he had buried in his wife's coffin. That book contained the only perfect copy of his poems, other copies being either incomplete or unrevised; and it is hardly to be wondered at that he asked himself at length if it could not be regained. The impulse of grief or regret, or even remorse, that had prompted him to the act of renunciation had been satisfied, and for seven years he had denied himself the reward of his best poetical effort—was not his penance at an end? It was doing no good to the dead to leave hidden in the grave the most beautiful works he had been able to produce—was it not his duty to the living, to himself, and perhaps even to God, to recover and publish them?

... According to his own account given to me twelve years afterwards, the preparations were endless before the work could be begun. But at length the licence of the Home Secretary was obtained, the faculty of the Consistory Court was granted, and one night, seven and a half years after the burial, a fire was built by the side of the grave of Rossetti's wife in Highgate Cemetery, the grave was opened, the coffin was raised to the surface, and the buried book was removed....

The volume was not much the worse for the years it had lain in the earth, but nevertheless it was found necessary to take it back to Rossetti, that illegible words might be deciphered and deficiencies filled in. This was done, with what results of fresh distress can easily be imagined; and then, with certain additions of subsequent sonnets, the manuscript was complete. Under the simple title of Poems it was published in 1870, fifteen years after the greater part of it was produced, and when the author was forty-two.

The success of the book was immediate and immense, six or seven considerable editions being called for in rapid succession.

From Hall Caine, My Story (1908), pp. 84-91.

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