|Selected Writings, Vol. 3, William Sharp||SIR EDWARD BURNE-JONES
POSSIBLY, even now, after more than forty years of continuous
toil of spirit and labour of hand in that quest which is the highest quest of man---the
quest of beauty---Edward Burne-Jones must await till a much later day, an adequate
judgment of his great achievement, and of his, it may well be incalculable, influence.
It seems only a few weeks ago that I was walking with him through a crowded western thoroughfare. We met in Trafalgar Square, and before we spoke I noticed how much older he looked than when I had seen him a few months before; how worn ; and apparently how more than ever given over to that interior life whose spiritual reflection revealed itself in the visionary eyes. These strange luminous eyes always impressed people who met the great painter for the first time ; and even old acquaintances, coming suddenly upon him unawares, when the reality of dreams was much more to him than outward actuality, could not fail to realise anew how much of the man was.in that curiously lit gaze, as though entranced spiritual reverie were shining there. Of late years, when walking alone, he was often seen with moving lips, as though in silent speech or recalling some of those lines of a remote beauty, ancient or modem, in which he took so great a delight; but generally he was descried walking swiftly, with head slightly thrown forward, and with intent, dreaming eyes.
On this day when I saw him for the last time I noticed that he was murmuring to himself as he came along. Something in his rapt expression persuaded me to avoid him, but just as he passed he turned and held out a hand with winsome cordiality.
" I was thinking," he added, after we had walked a short way, " of a large picture I have long had in my mind to paint ; an Ave Maria ! I have pondered this in a hundred ways for years past but ever since dear Morris died I have thought of it much more, for we had talked about it not long before his death. Still, I have not been able to get at it. Something brought it into my mind to-day, and what I was recalling to myself when we met was a strange little poem that 'Topsy' wrote when we were both undergraduates at Oxford more than forty years ago.* [*"Topsy" was a favourite nickname of William Morris among his intimate friends.] You will find it in a lovely little tale that has never been reprinted since it was published in The Oxford and Cambridge,* [* The (now exceedingly rare) Oxford and Cambridge Magazine for 1856.] called The Hollow Land. This is how it goes:
Then, abruptly, and with a petulance foreign to his singularly
sweet and courteous disposition, he exclaimed: " But there, you don't expect a spent
horse to win a race. Let us say no more about my work. I have done what I could. As for
what I have told you, well, we all love to live among our dreams." When I rallied him
upon this (very characteristic) mood of depression, he insisted that he knew he had but a
brief time in which to work. " Do you remember," he added abruptly, " what
Rossetti used to say about the fatal month of May ? " And when I said I did, but
reminded him that after all Rossetti died in April, he exclaimed " A few days one way
or another means little."
It is rare that an artist enters at once upon his inheritance, or, having entered into possession that he is able to see clearly the aim and end in the first tentatives of adolescence. But, almost from the day when, in company with his fllow-undergraduate at Oxford, William Morris, his artistic self was quickened into active life through a drawing little-known artist, in a then by a then already defunct magazine,* [*Rossetti's drawing, The Maids of Elfinmere, which appeared first in The Germ, 1850.] Edward Burne-Jones recognised that, for him, the line of imagination lay along the beautiful and mysterious borderland of actuality and dreamland: that actuality, so infinitely more stronge and alluring, because irradiated by the remote glow and rainbow-light of the land of the imagination ; and that dreamland, so much the less an exquisite figment, so much the more a genuine revelation of spiritual reality, because habited with the familiar white clouds, the pastoral meadows the winding ways, with rock and tree, valley and upland, and with men mortal as ourselves and women no more divine than their kindred of Arden---because habited with those happy commonplace things. From the outset he saw life symbolically. Thus spiritual ideas took on a new pictorial raiment; the flowing line and interwoven colour, which we recognise as the raiment woven from the loom of his individual imagination, being but the beautiful accident of a fresh and exquisite apparition of spiritual truths. To all of us to whom the interpretations, the revelations of the imagination mean so infinitely more than anything else the human mind can reveal Burne-Jones is no remote dreamer, but only a comrade who has fared further who has seen beyond our horizons, whose spiritual outlook is deeper and wider. " When we think," he wrote, as a young man in that early essay already alluded to, " when we think upon heroic men, conquerors prophets, poets, painters, musicians, it is for the most part in the light of difference, . . . seldom; if ever, in the light of unity." It is because, in the truest sense, Burne-Jones is a profound realist---only his realism is not that aggregating observation of the detective intelligence, but the perceiving and unifying vision of the imagination---that to those of us who are in any sense his kindred, however remote, he is real and near to us in the light not of difference, but of unity.
In this essay, now again alluded to, immature in expression as it is, there is ample proof that the man is revealed in hints, of which life-long literary work would only have been an expansion. It was thus with his painting. His intellectual scrupulousness is disclosed in a remark such as this: " Alas those brilliant formulas in which we sometimes fold our criticisms and condemnations, and suffer them to pass from mouth to mouth without question or gainsay, how are they not the cause of infinite injustice to others, and to ourselves of loss irreparable." His intellectual and artistic singleheartedness is even more conspicuously unveiled in---" Our work, whatever it be, must be the best of its kind, the noblest we can offer." The Burne-Jones who had not yet begun his lifework, wrote this ; and over the tomb of the great painter who has just passed from among us, the same words might aptly be inscribed, or the same in effect : " His work whatever it was, was the best of its kind, the noblest he had to offer."
The formative influences in the youth of this great painter were intellectually so important that it would have been strange if he had shown no ability or inclination for literary expression. The subtle voices of The Germ were still the alluring echoes from a haunted land. The exquisite art of Tennyson the strenuous rhetoric of Carlyle, the new strange beauty of the genius of the young Rossetti the urgent intensity of Browning, the superb prose of Ruskin---these were the flames in that day at which the torches of eager youth were lit. And as for Edward Burne-Jones who had come to Exeter College with an imagination already quickened with Hellenic mythology and Pagan dreams of beauty, and had there at once found an ideal (as well, as it proved, a lifelong) friend in a young Oxonian also newly arrived at the University, also a Welshman and also come with the intention ultimately to enter the church---for Burne-Jones it could hardly have been possible that he should not have developed mentally with eager swiftness. Through William Morris he tasted of the sweet hydromel of Chaucer; of the wild honey of Arthurian romance. In art, a prophet, though disguise d as an "Oxford Graduate," had preached a new gospel, and with the speech of those who dwell in high places. In its practice, the painter who drew the wistful faces of the Maids of Elfinmeye, and the poet who had written The Blessed Damozel, was already a leader, young, and, in a sense, unknown as he was. Holman Hunt, Millais and other young men were conveying to their elders and preceptors the bitter lesson that these preceptors and elders knew very little that was worth knowing. In a word, the spirit of intellectual and spiritual revolt was in the air, as it had been earlier in the century. Only, instead of the insincerities of Byron and the futilities of insurgents in art such as Haydon the calling voices were those of Carlyle and Ruskin ; while in the arts of silent beauty, Turner had just ceased from his revelations of natural splendour, and Rossetti and Millais and Holman Hunt had begun that union of intense spiritual emotion with emotional intensity in expression---which, as much in whim as in earnest, dubbed pre-Raphaelitism---was already mistrusted and disparaged by all who spoke glibly of art and had but the dimmest idea of what the word means, and none at all. Of the aim, spirit, and achievement of those mediŠval dreamers in line and colour who preceded the master-craftsman of Urbino.
And, as a matter of fact, Burne-Jones did at one time think of devoting himself to literature. Rossetti, who was ever ready with generous encouragement, admitted he might succeed; though, as Burne-Jones told me himself, the poet-painter doubted if his pupil could attain to the same detachment, with the pen, instead of the brush as his medium---" that detachment which is so imperative for the creative mind in any art, as I've often heard him say. " But Morris, young as he was, proved a wiser counsellor. " You would always be losing yourself in the idea," he would say, " as long as you wrote in prose ; and as for Verse, you haven't got the true faculty, and, after all, I would far rather see you a good parson than a second-rate poet."
It is generally averred, and I think both Sir Edward's biographers, Mr. Malcolm Bell and Mrs. Adyi confirm the statement, that he published only one paper in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. I am not sure if Mr. Fulford (who edited it) is still living, or if any one can settle the point definitely ; but I have always understood that both the Thackeray essays in that one-year magazine---that in the January and that in the June numbers---were by Burne-Jones; indeed, that they were one rather ill-constructed essay severed into two sections on account of length. Internal evidence, too.certainly seems to indicate this. The style is the same, in its demerits as well as its merits; and there are many phrases which are not only in conformity with others of a kindred nature in the earlier paper, but might readily have fallen from Burne-Jones' lips at any time of his life. Here, for example, are a few representative, and, as I believe, idiosyncratic sentences. " If nobody ever went beyond the tether of a rule, we should all stand still, and the state of the world be stereotyped in imperfection." . . . "Why should we not all have as much, instead of as little, happiness as we may." . . . "Ore implies dross ; refining, refuse labour, some degree of waste but so long as there is a healthy preponderance of gold, refinement, and effort after excellence, so long may we be well satisfied that we are not at a standstill." . . . " Men are not made for rules, but rules for men." . . . "What is Principle ? Principle to me is feeling regulated ; to you, feeling suppressed." The same crudities occur, too, as in the passage about respectability, beginning, " All is not gold that glitters ; all is not respectable that bears the name, &c. &c."; which has its counterpart in the Newcomes essay in "Of all marvels in this same universe that pass our poor philosophy I doubt not this of marriage is the very strangest, seeing to what end it has arrived at last, and from what beginning---" or in this strangely crude intellectual judgment, " I protest that in the Waverley Novels and in the whole historical romance school which followed them one looks in vain for anything to sympathise with."
But, further than this, it is quite possible that more than the Thackeray articles in the Oxford and Cambridge are due to Burne-Jones. I do not remember ever having asked the painter himself, though I have a vague recollection of his having alluded, on one occasion, to his having once had a spurt at literary work which kept me going for some months." But I do recall a remark of William Morris's one day at Ford Madox Brown's studio, in reply either to M. DestrÚe, or some other foreign art writer who chanced to be there, and had been inquiring as to the authorship of certain contributions to The Germ and the Oxford and Cambridge, that Jones wrote two or three review articles for the latter. Again, and more definitively I took up one day, at Walter Pater's rooms in Brasenose, a copy of the Oxford and Cambridge, which had names pencilled after most or all of the contributions. It was not Pater's own copy, but one lent him by a friend, and so he could not lend it to me but, at his suggestion, I copied the pencilled indications, and afterwards transferred them to my own incomplete set of the magazine.