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.
The man is so lately gone from us, with so tragical suddenness, while he was yet at work and with mind set upon unaccomplished dreams, that though we may be familiar with every great or significant thing he has done, from his first tempera experiment, the Merlin and Nimue of 1858 to the Dream of Launcelot at the Door of the Chapel of the San Grael, of 1896, we may be unable to realise, if not what was so obvious, the nobility of the man, at least the greatness of his achievement. There is a spiritual revelation that is unique---the revelation of a man in the strange auroral light which pertains to the first hours of death. In that brief season of insight we discern the reality disengaged from the accident, the perdurable from the perishable. Of all men I have known I can think of none who, in that unique hour, stood forth so like in the immortal part to that which had been the mortal. But one cannot distinguish, cannot in a moment appreciate the work, thus. Time is needed; mental perspective, spiritual vista. I recall some words written by Burne-Jones himself, in the year when he left Oxford to devote himself to the one life, though until then unforeseen, to which he felt impelled :
"Some interval of time must always pass before we can take in all the magnitude of a man, or cycle, or event, just as interspace is needed by the eye before it can see proportion in visible objects ; so that we never recognise in the slowly heaving sides of a great mountain, as we walk over it, what seemed in the distance so abrupt, terrible,and majestic."
In time we shall better be able to distinguish between that in his work which is on the hither side of genius and that which is "owre the hills and far away."
But of the man, as the personal tradition wanes, how little shall be left of the memory of that sweet winsomeness, that ready fellowship, that nimble sympathy, that entire and admirable lovableness; in a word, how little shall be left wherewith to create a semblance to fashion a living portrait, of one; whose achievement has been so high, so distinctive, and, in its influence, so potent.
To others better qualified I must leave the task of the limiter. Some notes I have given elsewhere, hints and memoranda for some portraitist of more knowledge as well as skill. Therefore, here, I must content myself with this, that the man himself was so great, so lovable, so admirable that there have been moments since his death when many who knew him must have regarded the long and splendid achievement of his genius as merely the beautiful accident in the life of a man of lovely and noble nature. But of course, there is the truer vision which cannot see the one apart from the other; which discerns in the man everything of nobility and beauty that is in the work; and in the work perceives---everywhere the expression of those spiritual ideas which were the man.
What others better qualified may do in biography, others better qualified may do in criticism. Frankly, if is a matter of indifference tome, at this moment, when one is so much the more concerned with a great loss than with a weighing of merits and demerits; whether he be accounted less great than the great, or below these again, or be but a sinner of art barely redeemed by dignity and individuality. That Sir Edward Burne-Jones was not impeccable ; that his noble manner was sometimes, and particularly of late, clouded by a less noble mannerism; that his drawing was sometimes in accord with an arbitrary conception of proportion rather than with the exigent right or wrong of actuality ; that sometimes the achievement lags overmuch behind the creative emotion ; in a word, that he had with his high and rare qualities the defects of these qualities, is, I take it, sufficiently self-evident. Nor has the time come, even for those with some claim to speak with authority, to say what place be is to taker or where he is to be uplifted, or where set down. Again, it is not as if the wonder and beauty of his work were a new thing to us in the sense of a recent revelation. For many years it has been discussed from every possible standpoint; it has known every vicissitude of praise and dispraise ; it has been adjudged by the noble and the ignoble it has filled imaginative minds with beauty and unimaginative minds with bewilderment, and small minds with mocking laughter ; it has drawn from the myriad commonplace of Punch the "criticism," "Yes, burn Jones"; it is exercising at this moment a permanent and incalculable effect in the development of a nobler ideal of the beautiful in art, and to this day it is derided when not abhorred of those who bow down before the Academical Scarlet Woman who sitteth at Burlington House. We are all, perhaps a little weary of the futile and the obvious; and in art is there anything more obvious than that many are called, few chosen; anything more futile than to persuade the many against its own indifference ?
The day will come when a fit judgment can be made; and, meanwhile, many acute and suggestive appreciations will help to that end. But just as here I relinquish biographical detail and all personal reminiscence save that which has direct interpretative bearing, so I forbear from taking the achievement of Burne-Jones seriatim, and in so doing, from attempting a critical estimate of where he has succeeded and where apparently failed. As for a descriptive catalogue of his pictures, that would not only be mere iteration of what .is commonly known but would in every sense be superfluous. Readers who wish details of this kind will find them in the excellent biography of the great artist, by Mr. Malcolm Bell, or in the more concentrated, but not less excellent monograph by Mrs. Ady.
All I wish to do here is to interpret, as best I can, what was essential and inevitable in the genius of Edward Burne-Jones.
Already one or two able critics have expressed clearly certain essential points beyond the sea-line of the endless tide ebb and flow of public opinion. Thus, one defines him with true apprehension as the Painter of Otherworldhness. Recalling Swift's affirmation that " whoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together," he adds, " that what there is of truth in this famous saying may be applied to the things of the spirit no less than to those of the earth ; and that whoever adds a new window into the world of the imagination, and puts before us new lights of wonder and beauty, does an essential service to his country." Another and exceptionally subtle and acute critic has, in his eloquent obituary of the great painter, one phrase which adequately presents the best standpoint for the moment :
"How all this will appear to new generations it is not we who can say, though two periods of unjust depreciation may be thought to have paid its debt to mortality.   For each band of youth there is some wizard who opens the gates of the dreamworld, and youth itself, its desires, the spirit's fashion of the moment conspire to make the vision glorious. After, when the mood changes and another spell is cast, these, conspiring forces fall away the art is judged, and the fashion is judged."
Well, the conspiring forces have not yet fallen away, and the dreamer has only now passed from the lesser to the greater dream.
In that early essay of his in literature, of which so much has been said since his death there occur words so apposite that I may well give them here: "Behold we know nothing of him henceforth for ever; that hour revealed him in silence; hence forward, he is locked up and scaled against a time to come."
Yet, just because there is often something
of revelation in even the most meagre personal detail, I should like to say a word of Edward Burne-Jones as last I saw him, a few weeks before that weakening seizure of influenza which preceded, and no doubt immediately induced, his death.
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:

   Queen Mary's crown was gold,
   King joseph's crown was red,
But Jesus' crown was diamond,
   That lit up all the bed

MariŠ Virginis.

   Ships sail through the Heaven,
   With red banners dress'd,
Carrying the planets seven,
   To see the white breast

MariŠ Virginis

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."
A day or two before his death I was looking at some reproductions of drawings of his, and, recalling what Sir Edward had said, was glad to think that the fatal month of May, so dreaded by the great painter, was safely over; and, as it chanced, I was near the Grange, in North End Road, on June 16, and heard from a friend, met in that quiet thoroughfare, that Burne-Jones was hard at work, and would be painting as long as the light lasted. At dawn, on the 17th, he became suddenly ill, and shortly after succumbed to that most fugitive and treacherous of organic troubles, angina pectoris. He had, thus, the sudden death for which he had always hoped, and fulfilled another ideal, in that he was at work to the end. If he had lived till August 28 he would have completed his sixty-fifth year.

The first impression, and it is a durable one, given by any adequate consideration of the achievement in art of Edward Burne-Jones, is that of a singular continuity. A continuity of inspiration; a singular continuity in aim and effort ; and, with all allowance for development from immaturity to maturity as, later, for the artifice of a mannerism distinct from that shaping art which was an inevitable development from within, a singular continuity in the work itself. No one can look at the earliest drawings of Burne-Jones and not discern in them the shaping mind and fulfilling hand of the artist who, it may well be, has bequeathed to us in the last quarter of a century a greater heritage of beauty than any other English painter has done. There is no Šsthetic, only a technical, difference between the Annunciation of 1860 and the Star of Bethlehem of 1890 ; the first oil-picture, The Prioress's Tale (1858), may be laid by the side of The Heart of the Rose or Love among the Ruins, painted in the nineties ; and in the lovely Sponsa di Libano, of a year or two ago, is the same revealing touch as in the youthful pen-drawing of Alice la Belle PŔlerine, or that strange watercolour, Sidonia Von Bork, with its hint of fantastic mediŠval beauty.
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.

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