|EDWARD BURNE-JONES, cont'd
Of course there might well have been no suggested authorships, authenticity in thesefor at that time (early in the eighties) there was much discussion and speculation in Oxford concerning everything to do with Rossetti, and indirectly with those associated with him, and, as an outcome, a good deal of surmise about the Ox and Cam, as it was called for short. Moreover, one at least of the pencillings was wrong, for while the lovely story of Gertha's Lovers was rightly attributed to William Morris, his other romance, The Hollow Land, was attributed to Rossetti who also wrote Hand and Soul in The Germ."
If authentic, Burne-Jones would thus also be the author of the long and interesting article on Ruskin, opposite to the publication of the third volume of Modern Painters; and of that On Two Pictures, Ford Madox Brown's The Last of England, and Rossetti's Dante and the Dead Beatrice (the early water-colour, not to be confused with the great oil-picture now in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. It is difficult, indeed, not to credit the second paper at least to Burne-Jones ; for the youth in his twenties spoke with the same spiritual accent and with much the same verbal phrasing as the man in his sixties. Who does not recognise Burne-Jones, the man, in this (written of one of his idols)---" you will not suffer this man, being such, and much more than I can express, to go on his way, witnessed against by lying spirits, obscured for you, and darkened by critics, whose pitiful revenge would sacrifice truth, and conscience, and fair name, and anything and everything, to wreck its little monthly vengeance." Yet, lest there should be any misapprehension as to the bitterness in this sentence, whether authentic or merely characteristic, it should be added that Sir Edward Burne-Jones would never have spoken thus in relation to himself, to his own work,. In the defence of others, above all of Ruskin, of Rossetti, of Morris, of Mr. Swinburne, he was ever swift in indignation against the malice or impertinence of petty minds, against "the long-necked geese of the world that are for ever hissing dispraise, because their natures are little."
If, as I take it, the Ruskin essay is also his, it may be worth while to excerpt two or three, in any case, characteristic sentences.
. . ."Is the sun ever so conservative of the old type that it cannot find a language for itself each new morning ? " " In us also there are mines of measureless wealth, if we would rise up and work them: 'for, rightly, every man is a channel through , which heaven floweth'" . . . "Whatever is noble in art and nature, may not be comprehendecl without vigilance : what part soever of it commencls itself at once to the senses, is the least and lowest. . . . It is quite possible to hear a thing every day, and not to know it, and see a thing every day, and not observe it."
. . . " I have heard [a rare and fine work of the imagination] called vulgar---and by people whose combined minds set to work upon a thought, could produce nothing from it that would not be hopelessly and ineffably vulgar. Remember once for all, the noblest things in the hands of the ignoble man are vulgar, and the meanest things in the hands of the great man are noble. . . .To us his work [that of the. great poet or painter] is ideal, to himself, real, and verily existence."
"To us his work is ideal ; to himself, real, verily existent." In that may be heard the keynote. From youth to f ulfilling manhood, from early to late maturity, Edward Burne-Jones dwelled, in spirit and imagination, with beautiful dreams, visions and ideas, which to us, as he has represented them, are ideal, but were to him the most important reality, the vraie vérité of life.
It has been averred that his achievement is not of the greatest, because that from first to last, it is, if not invariably sad at least characterised by a beauty that is ever strange, remote, and melancholy. But that is a question of approach. All great art, like all great beauty, however revealed, is in a sense melancholy. How could it be otherwise ? We discern a loveliness beyond individual attainment: and the vision must leave one either insensate, and therefore it may well be blithely indifferent, or intimately reached, and therefore made alive to the pathos of divergence between the beautiful and harmonious realities of the imagination, and the less beautiful and inharmonious, or at best fragmentary, realities of common life. Before great beauty, whether wrought by nature or by man, whether of man himself or of that which is beyond and about him we are either as children spiritually awakened, and touched to tears, by strange and exquisite music ; or as old people, with all the once-alert senses in disarray, striving with failing memories to recall the Edens of youth, the skies, that to remembrance were so cloudless, or lovely with sunhued aerial palaces and drifting spans of marvellous bows, the vivid excitements of faroff days, the hills that were ever dim and blue and wonderful, the mysterious pools in mysterious forests where beautiful shy figures of youth and maid were wont to meet, whisperings in the twilight--- twilights long passed away like smoke beneath the love-star in the west-and the beating of hearts exquisitely tormented with fears only less lovely than rainbow hopes.
For when we are deeply touched by beauty, we are always baffled by some remembrance that evades us. Whether we are as children who look wonderingly outward, or as the aged who look wonderingly backward, the same wonder confronts us and, with the wonder, mystery, the mystery of all beauty; and, with the mystery melancholy, the melancholy of all beauty.
Yet this does not mean, and Sir Edward Burne-Jones himself would have been the last to affirm it, that joyousness is not to be found, is not to be sought, in great and beautiful art. joyousness is not necessarily a condition of amusement, as we understand the word, a happy state of innocent laughters, not even only a conscious delight in happy things, in fortunate vicissitudes, the union of a glad mind with a glad body ; but is also, or can be, a grave ecstasy. And a grave ecstasy is the ideal of the highest art. For, after all, as has been truly said by a critic of rare insight : " l'imagination humaine est, au fond, triste et sérieuse." Moreover, the plastic arts demand not only supreme reticence, but the utmost austerity in selection. And how shall a man, seeing beyond the near horizons, however winsome or lovely these may be, not limn that which he discerns beyond ? Yet, if he does, he is warned that he is remote, that he is sad, that his visions are too lovely to be dissociate from melancholy: that this spiritual outlook, after all, is morbid and falsely aristocratical, and that a breath of the homely humour of a Wilkie or even of the buffoonery of a Jan Steen would be welcome. Those who argue thus, and they prevail-as concerning literature they swarm, with the parrot-cry that no work is great unless it contains humour, which generally means simply making a mock at something ; and oblivious of the supreme dramatic art of Greece, of King Lear and Macbeth, of Milton---do not see that these things are not necessarily congruous. In a word, they do not see that it is possible to write of the stars without the allegations of farce. In what conceivable way would Burne-Jones be the greater if he had alternately, or even occasionally, is painted life as we see it, you know " : if he had chosen the Village ale-house instead of the Brazen Tower of Danae, or depicted a Harlot's Progress instead of a Chant D'Amour, or emulated Morland with a farmer staring at his pigs instead of representing Dante stooping in rapt ecstasy before his Dead Beatrice, or painted the Derby Day instead of the Mirror of Venus or the Quest of the Grael ? All such questionings are vanities, and worse than vanities. He answered them when he was still a youth, glad and bewildered with a new, almost hieratic, vision of beauty : " our work must not only be the best of its kind, but the noblest we have to offer." He could, at the close, as at any time during his life, have given an answer similar to that of his friend (and enthusiastic admirer) Puvis de Chavannes, who, when addressed once by an admirer, thus: " You have worked a little like the gods, alone and apart, but of all artists you have been most fortunate, you have never had to make your ideas bend one centimetre " :---replied, smiling gravely, " I don't know how the gods work ; but I could never have given anything but the best that was in me."
As for the complaint of remoteness, of strangeness, in the work of Burne-Jones, it is clear that here again the question is one of approach. To the unimaginative, all imaginative work must inevitably present a closed door. They may knock, but none will open. If they stare in at the windows they will see nothing but faded tapestries, fantastic furniture, obsolete weapons, old silence the dust of ancient dreams. All beautiful art, all beauty, is remote : and as much when it is wed to familiar and common-place things as when it relates to the dreams and visions of a lovelier life. The very essence of beauty is its fugitiveness, its remoteness, as though for ever unattainable, so that the light of the evening star in a sky of green and purple, the face of a beautiful woman, the Narcissus of the unknown Greek sculptor forever holding silence in thrall, the drop of dew in the moonshine, the frail bubble filled with rainbow glory, are one and all of a beauty inevitably remote and fugitive, the star of aeons as the bubble of a second.
And in beauty, is it not now more than ever recognised that strangeness is what fragrance is to the loveliness of a flower, or what a subtle and foreign loveliness is to that which exhales a poignant and intoxicating odour ? Walter Pater has spoken, of not beauty alone, but the element of strangeness in beauty, as the inmost spirit of romantic art: and one earlier than he, the wise and deep-seeing Bacon, wrote "There is no Excellent Beauty, that hath not some strangeness in the proportion."
I think of Burne-Jones as having from the first been like no one else. It is true that he owed much to others ; all great artists do ; and that in particular he owed much to Rossetti. But he never borrowed more than a formula. In his very earliest drawings, Alice La Belle Pèleyine or Sidonia Von Bork, for instance, he displayed a genuine and unmistakable originality. That singular raptness in vision was his, which may be discerned pre-eminently in certain masters, widely differing in kind: as Lionardo, Dürer, William Blake. It is characteristic of him that one of his favourite passages in modern literature was that fine saying of Newman's: " Every breath of air and ray of light and heat, every beautiful prospect is, as it were, the skirts of their garments, the waving of the robes of those whose faces see god in heaven." And remembering how sacred a thing with him beauty was, and not beauty only but all beautiful things, and how for him even the commonplace relinquished often an air of something wonderful and symbolical, I am reminded of that fine saying of Pater's : "All the acts and accidents of daily life borrow a sacred colour and significance." " I recognise so much of myself in this book," Burne-Jones said once speaking of Marius the Epicurean, " that at times it is almost too personal to me to read without disquietude." Like Marius too, he knew his vocation from the first and, discerning it, delivered himself to the worthiest that was in him to fulfil, both in aim and power. Like Marius again he accepted his mission with grave circumspection. I recall one summer afternoon in his studio at The Grange, when the small company of three was joined by a wellknown connoisseur, whose discretion in social courtesies was not equal to his real, if commercially ordered, taste in art, Burne-Jones was painting one of the Perseus series, and had been showing some of those marvellous drawings of faces, limbs, armour, and other details, than which, surely, there have been none more masterly since Lionardo ; and, speaking for myself, I account Burne-Jones' studies as the most perfect things of their kind accomplished by any English artist, and consider them as destined to become not less profoundly admired and sought after than the pencil and silverpoint drawings of Lionardo, Mantegna, Raphael, and other princes of art. The visitor to whom I have alluded remarked, after expressing his regret that some years had elapsed since he had met the painter whom he now visited, that he " couldn't make out why he and Rossetti and the rest don't consider the public a little more," adding, half apologetically, " Of course, I don't mean you should qualify for the Academy, though, after all, you might do worse ; but there's no need to take your art as though you were Christian martyrs and couldn't compromise a bit. Look at Millais, for instance : no one has achieved so big a success as he has. Yet if he had stuck to his early principles like you and Rossetti and Hunt and Morris and the rest, do you think for a moment he would have become the successful man he is ?
Sir Edward (then Mr.) turned and looked at the speaker. "Perhaps not," he said slowly, "but he might have become a greater artist."
To this, when he had recovered from the effect of a statement involving so impracticable a view of art, the collector replied that the greatest artist was he who achieved the greatest success.
Burne-Jones, like all men of an imaginative nature, disliked argument with those whose approach to any subject of discussion can never be along an avenue of the imagination. But on this occasion his impatience with a view so foreign to his own high ideal overbore his reticence. I cannot, of course, recall his exact words, and he spoke with swift and eager emphasis for some time but the gist of what he said is as follows:
If the greatest artist is the man who achieves the greatest success---if the greatest because of this---that author is the greatest whose books have the largest sale. Take this book, for instance (Marius the Epicurean). I don't suppose its sale will exceed a couple of thousand copies. But Mr. So-and-So's romance of the impossible in Africa, or Miss So-and So's romance of the intolerable nearer home, runs to tens of thousands.Therefore, according to you, the shallow and essentially ephemeral work of a person with inventive mind and a certain literary faculty is greater than a book like this, the deeply considered and exquisitely wrought work of a true literary artist, any single page of which is literature. But the matter is really not worth arguing. There are too 'few who care for beauty in any art. The very name of a great writer like Pater is unknown to the vast Mudie world. Yet what writer, truly moved and actuated by the quest of beauty, but would rather be Walter Pater than (leaving aside Meredith and Hardy) and the popular novelists of the day concentrated in one gigantic 'success,' as you would call him. What poet would not rather be Keats, and read by a few hundred, than be Tupper read by a million--- or even than so good and true a writer in verse as Longfellow. I remember Rossetti's saying that it had taken centuries to prepare for the brain whose shaping imagination wrought the Ode on a Grecian Urn. A thousand ingenious Longfellows, ten thouand imperturbable Tuppers, come with every age ; but there is only one Keats. And so it is in art. A thousand men exhibit pictures at the Royal Academy, and of these men, perhaps, not one is a painter. For to be a painter is not merely to apply pigments according to academical formulas and conventions ; is not even to illustrate past or present, real or imaginary events or scenes so well that a charming object-lesson is given---the magic-lantern corroborations (for they are not illusions) of talent; no, is not even to become a great success, and paint anything or anybody according to the law of supply and demand, and to have the proud knowledge of being at the top of the tree, in the eyes of fifty dealers and five hundred thousand picture-gallery goers. To be a painter is to be an impassioned votary of truth, whether that truth be a spiritual idea or an historical circumstance, or an external fact : and to be so wrought by the need of recreating what has moved him, that whatever else he has to do in life must be subservient to this end ; and to see this new persuading aspect of actual or symbolical truth, in the atmosphere of colour with the contours and horizons of line, to see it to the point of adequate and convincing reproduction within the boundaries of line and the just and beautiful relation of colour. But to be a great painter a man must also have a great spirit. He must be a dreamer, and not be ashamed of his dreams; must, indeed, account them of paramount worth; he must be prepared for both indifference and hostility he must be so continent of his faith that he will not barter the least portion of it in order to win a worthless approval; he must be so proud that he will disdain to prostitute his genius to a public use ; he must be so single-hearted that, like Sir Galahad, there can be for him only one San Grael, beauty ; and only one quest, the lifelong insistent effort to discern and to interpret in beauty that Loveliness, that Beauty, which is at once his inspiration, his dream, his despair and his eternal hope."
Thus Sir Edward Burne-Jones: so far as, helped by a few notes, I can recall his words.
When the visitor had left he turned to us with a deprecatory shrug. " The good fellow means so well," he said, "and is really a shrewd judge of art in its relation to commercial value; but he is a type of that vast mass, 'the general public,' who cannot understand the unselfish devotion of the creative artist to his art; who can understand success and can understand failure, but cannot understand how sometimes, success may be undesirable and even disastrous, or how relative failure may be a great and far-reaching triumph. As for what I said about Millais, I feel that deeply though I could not say more than I did before our friend who has just left, who would repeat my words to all and sundry and probably to Millais himself. But at nearly all his later work I look with bewildered pain. He might have been so great ; but just when his noble powers had reached maturity the artist died in him and left only the splendid craftsman. And this was because he listened to that fatal sirensong of the ignorant and spiritually vulgar multitude, who love to look at pictures but who are distrustful of---when they are not actually resentful against---art, unless it be as old (and foreign) as Rembrandt, or as old (and foreign) as Titian or Raphael. As a younger man Millais set himself to interpret noble things nobly, beautiful things beautifully. Are not his Autumn Leaves and his Vale of Rest worth leagues of work such as he has been doing of late ? And I for one do not hesitate to aver that Rossetti, in his splendid failure in art, was far greater both in achievement and influence than Millais is in his brilliant success. A man is to be measured by his soul's reach as well as by that of his hands. What is a man's outlook is as important in art as it is in life. Many an artist is redeemed from failure by the power of the spirit within him. Take Leighton: Millais is an incomparably stronger painter, but Leighton is dominated by the sense of beauty of idea as well as beauty of pictorial colour, and so his work has a loveliness, a grace, above all a distinction which lifts it to a level not warranted by its inherent quality as painting pure and simple. In a word, his outlook upon life is towards that in it which is most worthy to survive in beauty. Millais now, is towards that which most conduces to his own well-being. The two may go together, when the lesser is controlled and directed by the greater ; but not otherwise. If Millais had Leighton's sense of beauty and distinction or Leighton had Millais'magnificent painting power, the result would be a painter of genius of the supreme few. More and more I am convinced that Rossetti was right when he declared that all art should be amusing, but that the artist should follow his art with the passionate sincerity and unworldly devotion of a man such as Fra Angelico: though by 'amusing,' Rossetti meant something else than entertainments as in his allusion to Fra Angelico he meant rather that inward spirit of which the great Pre-Raphaelite is but a noble and recognised symbol. You know . . . . and how he is exercised in spirit before he can paint a new picture, and how he cannot attain adequate expressional power until he has prayed, just as Angelico was wont to pray. Well, I do not pray thus ; and the worse for me, perhaps ; but I, too, never paint a new picture till after infinite searching of the spirit for the---for me---ultimate and inevitable expression, any more than I would dream of beginning a new picture without making complete and satisfying preliminary studies of every detail, often at the expense of days and even weeks I can ill afford, and of incalculable labour."
To this effect, then Burne-Jones spoke; and I quote the gist of his remarks because they have so intimate a relation to himself, to his own art. To know the man is to know the art of the man; though the knowledge must be of the inward life and shaping spirit, and not that of the arbitrary and accidental part. Spirits are not finely touched but to fine issues, as Bacon has said; and, it may be added, spirits are not finely known but to those akin to them.
In all the long range of his beautiful work, Edward Burne-Jones displays the unwavering outlook of a rare and noble imagination. Some who do not care for his work, or for any art of its kind, admit that he is a great decorative artist ; that in stained glass and in purely decorative design he takes very high rank. But he was far more than this ; far more, too, than the mere beautiful dreamer of impossible dreams which so many have held him to be. For he was a man moved by the great forces of life, moved so strongly that, by the same instinct as impelled Tennyson to write anew the Arthurian legends, as moved William Morris to create the Earthly Paradise, as moved Dante Gabriel Rossetti to build the House of Life, he in turn made his own art an interior criticism of exterior circumstances, laws, and issues, and so wrought for us Laus Veneris, with its symbolical tapestry background---the passion of love, which some one has called the bass note in the diapason of life, against the strange and often fantastically incongruous background of actuality; or The Mirror of Venus, wherein those in love with love, and wrought strangely by the passion of passion, look into the mysterious waters of life to read the riddle of their deep emotion, while behind them is a lovely and remote background of exquisite innocences, desires, and dreams ; or Pan and Psyche, where the old bewilderment that for ever divides soul and body, and is now, in our late day, more than ever a poignant and baffling incertitude, is painted with an insight so absolute, and a beauty so unfathomable, that this small painting may well be accounted as perfect in its kind in English art as another small picture, the Ariadne and Bacchus of Tintoretto, in the Ducal Palace at Venice, is in Venetian art; or The Beguiling of Merlin, where the eternal duel between the desiring flesh and the withholding spirit is interpreted anew through the air of lovely old-world romance; Pygmalion and Galatea where the ecstasy of dream, the passion of effort, the rapture of attainment, are unfolded as in a scroll for every dreaming mind; Perseus and Andromeda, where, again, is revealed the high dream of divine justice ; St. George and the Dragon, where lives before us the vision of the inevitable triumph of indomitable good over vanquishable evil ; The Sleepers of the Briar Rose, where, as in a mirror, we discern those sons of God within us which we call dreams, hopes, aspirations, faiths, desires, spellbound in terrible and beautiful silence---Sleepers, these, against the awakening hour, against the quickening breath of the delivering thought, the delivering vision, the deliverance through the long-baffled but invincible, and so in the end achieving quest of the soul for treasures hidden behind entangling thickets, among impenetrable woods, for a heritage beyond the dust of crowns and the Void wind that blows where empires have been ; or, once more, The Days of Creation, wherein the Word is made manifest in new beauty, the mystery of the professional order of the Divine evocation symbolically shown as it were in the very ideograms of heaven.
Of all spiritual forces in our time there is none so great as that of pity, with the cognate passionate sense of the redeeming power of love. It is this element which gives its rarest bloom and fragrance to the rarest and finest and noblest, in a word to the most spiritual art of to-day, whether expressed in words or in colour and form. In the prose of such an one as Maeterlinck, in the poetry of such as one as W. B. Yeats, in the fiction of such an one as Thomas Hardy, in music such as that of Greig, in pictorial art such as that of Edward Burne-Jones, we are arrested by the lovelier interpretations of this deep and poignant sense of the tragic piteousness of life, of the imperative need to interpret through beauty its spiritual correspondence.
The art of Burne-Jones, in its noblest manifestation, seems to me, then, a new and individual revelation, in new and convincing beauty, of those spiritual ideas which are shaping the deepest and most distinctive thought of to-day. What has come to him in the common light of day, he has transmuted into the light of romance : what impelled his thought by its nearness and exigency, his imagination has compelled into a still and remote beauty, whence all of fret and fever is gone, whence all that is incongruous, all that is superfluous, is disengaged ; where the confused and variegated vision of the many is resolved into the controlled and directed vision of the seer. It is not imagination that achieves : imagintion only uplifts : it is controlled imagination that achieves. And it is by virtue of his controlled and directed imagination that Burne-Jones, since he was twenty-five till at sixty-five he ceased working to dream the last dream, has given to us a more incalculable and enduring treasure of beauty, with an influence for good even more incalculable ---and, so far as we dare foresee, even more enduring---as no other genius of our time has done with the exception of Rossetti, whose primary greatness is that he was and has been, to adapt his own words, a central flame descending upon many altars. 1898.