Anxious to avoid all occasion of offence, I do hope this book will not be taken as a slight to men of the moment. Throughout the past quarter of a century I have been proclaiming by pencil my great interest in such men; and the only fault I have found in them is that (numerous though they always are) they are not numerous enough to satisfy my interest in mankind. They would suffice me if I were properly keen on metaphysics, Chippendale, the beauties of Nature, the latest discoveries in science, the shortest cut to Utopia, etc. I don't agree that the proper study of mankind is Man. I do but confess that Man is the study that has been most congenial to me — so congenial that the current specimens of him have always whetted my appetite for other ones. Lack of imagination debars me from the pleasure of gazing much at the great Jones who is to leave so deep an impress on the late twentieth century, and the even greater Robinson who is to loom so tremendously, for good or evil, over the thirtieth. It is to the Past that I have ever had recourse from the Present. Years ago there was a book entitled 'The Poet's Corner', in which some of my adventures into the Past were recorded by me. But in that volume there was a slight admixture of the (then) Present. In this latest volume there is nothing of anything that wasn't the Past when I was a child. Hence the apologetic (but not, I hope, abject) tone of these prefatory words.
Perhaps I ought also to beg your pardon for having here confined myself to one little bit of the Past. In 'The Poet's Corner' I ranged back as far as Homer. Here I haven't so much as shown Rossetti before he passed out of baby-clothes into breeches. Perhaps you have never heard of Rossetti. In this case, I must apologise still more profusely. But even you, flushed though you are with the pride of youth, must have heard of the Victorian Era. Rossetti belonged to that — though he was indeed born nine years before it began, and died of it nineteen years before it was over. For him the eighteen-fifties-and-sixties had no romance at all. For me, I confess, they are very romantic — partly because I wasn't alive in them, and partly because Rossetti was.
Byron, Disraeli, and Rossetti — these seem to me the three most interesting men that England had in the nineteenth century. England had plenty of greater men. Shelley, for example, was a far finer poet than Byron. But he was not in himself interesting: he was just a crystal-clear crank. To be interesting, a man must be complex and elusive. And I rather fancy it must be a great advantage for him to have been born outside his proper time and place. Disraeli, as Grand Vizir to some Sultan, in a bygone age, mightn't have seemed so very remarkable after all. Nor might Rossetti in the Quattrocentro and by the Arno. But in London, in the great days of a deep, smug, thick, rich, drab, industrial complacency, Rossetti shone, for the men and women who knew him, with the ambiguous light of a red torch somewhere in a dense fog. And so he still shines for me.
It does not appear that the men and women who knew him well were many. But the men atoned for their fewness by a great deal of genius, and the women by a great deal of beauty. Rossetti had invented a type of beauty; otherwise perhaps we should not be regarding these ladies as beautiful. And certainly the genius of the younger men would not but for him have expressed itself just as it did. Holman Hunt, Millais, Swinburne, Morris, were among those whose early work bore his stamp. Burne-Jones' work bore it always. Even Whistler's had it for a time. These men, with a sprinkling of remarkable elder and younger persons who at one time and another entered or at any rate impinged on the magic Circle, you will find in the pages of this book. Rather a ribald book? Well, on se moque de ce qu'on aime. And besides, there is no lack of antidotes. I refer you to William Rossetti's biography of his brother — a very thorough piece of work, full of well-ordered facts, and very pleasant in tone. Holman Hunt's autobiography is a finely solid and (between the lines) delightful production. Professor Mackail's book about Morris is a penetrating work of art. Nor could a husband and his friends be portrayed more vividly and prettily than Burne-Jones and his friends were portrayed by his widow. And if, albeit earnest, you are in a great hurry, there is always the Dictionary of National Biography, you know.
I must warn you, before parting, not to regard as perfectly authentic any of the portraits that I here present to you. Rossetti 'to my gaze was ne'er vouchsafed.' Nor did I ever set eyes on Coventry Patmore or Ford Madox Brown or John Ruskin or Robert Browning. Nor did I see any one of the others until he had long passed the age at which he knew Rossetti. Old drawings and paintings, early photographs, and the accounts ot eye-witnesses, have not, however, been my only aids. I have had another and surer aid, of the most curious kind imaginable. And some day I will tell you all about it, if you would care to hear.
Max Beerbohm, Rossetti and His Circle, London: William Heinemann, 1922, v-vii. WWW version and commentary by GPL].
Last modified 18 May 2006