Chapter IV

The Rising Poet


In 1871 appeared the volume of sonnets Intaglios, which had been stopped by the war. Many of them are remarkable for their delicacy and lyrical sweetness. Swinburne, who described them as “exquisite and clear cut,” selected for particular praise “Sleepers and One that watches.”67 Others ranked the sonnet “On Leconte de Lisle’s Prose Translation of Homer” with Keats’s sonnet on Chapman’s translation. Naturally there are fine lines on Rabelais​—​the man who pitted his “laughter against wrong”; and this and the sonnets called “Winter Roses” Ford Madox Brown regarded as “poetry of the highest order.”68 D. G. Rossetti, who received a copy,69 placed pencil marks on the list of contents against the sonnets that most attracted him, as many as twelve70 being thus indicated; and in the body of the book five71 passages are similarly singled out.

Writing on 25 March, 1871, Rossetti said:

Dear Payne,—

“Thanks for the kind gift of your Intaglios. I have only had a reading in sequence of the whole as yet; and such poetry is not suited to such reading, but should rather be equipped for the favourable functions when a sonnet is taken up singly and has all one’s thoughts to itself. … The sonnets which seem to me now to have perhaps most striking value in thought or expression are the “Tropic Flower” (well-remembered from reading), the fourth of “Winter Roses,” the second of “Evocation,” the tenth of “Madonna dei Sogni,” “Jacob and the Angel,” the first of “Borders of the Night,” “Bride Night” (these two last mentioned seem to me best of all, I think), … “Love’s Epitaph,” “Indian Isle,” “Hope” and “Silentia.” Having written out these titles, I fear the verdict on such short acquaintance seems rather pretentious. I may say​—​only as a first impression also​—​that about one-half of the book perhaps seems to add little to the other half, and that if so, according to my own canons, the book would have contained more, in the highest sense, if shorn of its less representative moiety. On the whole, it certainly seems to me that this volume brings you before the reader more in the truest spirit of your work than did the other one. Its best points are exquisitely rendered.

“Again thanking you, believe me,

“Very truly yours,

D. G. Rossetti.”

On 19 June, 1871, Théodore de Banville, the eminent French poet, to whom Intaglios had been dedicated, wrote to Payne: “When your fine book of sonnets​—​gems​—​reached me I was in bed, very ill. I have been greatly moved by the honour you have paid me, and am extremely proud to accept the dedication of these admirable verses.” He then says he has been reading them with M. Stéphane Mallarmé, who was about to visit London and hoped to call on Payne in order to tell him how he and his friends had been impressed by the sonnets.

On 28 June, 1871, Matthew Arnold, writing from Harrow in acknowledgment of the copy of Intaglios which Payne had sent him, said: “It answered my expectations​—​which from what I had heard and seen were considerable​—​in the undeniable power of poetic thought and phrase shown in it. This, after all, is what separates, by a broad line, the genuine article from the counterfeit. I marked the sonnets at pp. 9, 19, 25, 45, and 77 as giving me most pleasure. I think it will be found that these are sonnets in which you had a more than usually definite subject to go upon; and if I might give you advice, it would be this, to take a distinct subject and force yourself to treat it distinctly in a poem of greater length than the sonnet. The sonnet is an alluring form, but I doubt if it does not, when too much followed, disincline one for others which, after all, can do what it cannot do. On the other hand, in no form does the composer mark more clearly whether he is essentially poetical or prosaic; and your production distinctly stamps itself as poetical.”

While Payne and O’Shaughnessy were steadily winning recognition, the third member of the Triumvirate, J. T. Nettleship, had met with scarcely any encouragement, and this condition of things sometimes filled his heart with bitterness. Mrs. Snee said of him: “It must be the very core of misery to see nothing around him but success, and for himself always failure,”72 and she further speaks of him as “the great giant that he might have been, that he still is to himself.”73 Ideas sprang up in his mind as thick as blades of corn, but his “executive unadaptabilities were glaring.”74

The influence still exercised over him by Blake is seen in his designs “God creating Evil,” “Prostituted Genius returning to her first love for the Truth,” and “Jacob and the Angel.” The last provoked the admiration of Payne, who in a fiery sonnet declares that the Jacob is none other than Nettleship himself.

Alas! ’tis I that speak!

Not Jacob. I that in this night of days

Do wrestle with the angel Art, till breath

And gladness fail me.

For a second volume of poems which O’Shaughnessy was preparing for the press Nettleship also supplied drawings. Their character, however, perturbed the respectable publisher, and the following letter concerning one of them was received by O’Shaughnessy: “25 Bouverie Street. 9 September, 1871. Re Nettleship’s drawing, one of the proprietors has seen it and has given a most decided opinion, and that I am sorry to say is against it. If a little drapery were introduced, my worthy master would probably not object. The British public has to be studied.​—​Fred G. Lister Inglis.”

Whether or not this drawing was intended for the volume which was subsequently (1872) published with the title of Lays of France is uncertain; but we can imagine the bursts of ironic laughter with which Payne and O’Shaughnessy greeted this letter, and we can imagine also Nettleship’s fury.

Eventually Nettleship struck out a new line​—​that of animal painting. As early, indeed, as 20 March, 1870, we find William Rossetti calling to see “Nettleship’s picture of a Lion and Lioness going out to prey by moonlight,” and describing it “as exceedingly fine in essentials.”

On 6 December, 1871, De Banville writes75 to Payne76: “I am delighted to hear that you are coming to Paris in a few months’ time, and that you will do me the kindness of paying me a visit. You will find my home very humble, and very modest, for, as you know, Poets in France are poor, but I hope you will let me receive you fraternally with all the love and admiration that I have for you.”

On 5 February, 1872, De Banville writes to thank Payne for translating so well into English two of his Ballads.77 As in the copy that was used one stanza was wanting, Payne supplied it himself.

“I am sorry,” says De Banville, “about the verse left out.” Then follow the missing lines. “The verse which you have been good enough to compose in order to fill the gap is very well thought out and admirably expressed, its only fault being the use of the word ripaille, which is always rather objected to, as it conveys an idea of debauchery and wantonness. But how few poets there are who, in their own tongue, could fill in, as cleverly as you, a verse omitted from a ballad! Nothing could better reveal your marvellous gifts as a poet.”

On 22 February, 1872, he writes: “How can I thank you for the numberless kindnesses you have done me. I have carried out your commission in respect to Mallarmé. When he read me the two ballads, which you translated so admirably, he made me feel all their rhythm and music. What richness! what versatility! one must possess to make such a translation. It is one of the most impossible of all impossible accomplishments. But I know that nothing is too difficult for you, and that you are a perfect master of your art. We are waiting impatiently for you in Paris. You are coming soon, are you not? Mallarmé78 tells me that you are thinking of going to Australia, and I should be deeply grieved if I did not know that for you English going to and coming from Australia is a smaller matter than going to and coming from Versailles is for us. However, if the decision were to rest with me, I would make you stay in our old Europe.”

From De Banville’s reference to Mallarmé one judges that the latter had been calling on Payne in London. In any case it was in London that the two poets first met. Payne described Mallarmé to me as “a bright little brown creature of the Parisian type​—​a charming letter-writer​—​full of ideas. Among his characteristics were extraordinary persistence and patience under discouragement.” He was often seen trotting about Bloomsbury with an elephant folio under his arm, its contents being his translation of Poe’s Raven,79 with illustrations by Manet. Payne and Mallarmé became “brothers”; and in the Dedication prefixed to the 3rd edition of the Villon Payne calls his friend “one of the sweetest souls that ever sanctified humanity.”

In April 187280 Payne published his Songs of Life and Death, in which appeared “The Westward Sailing,” “May Margaret,” “Sir Erwin’s Questing,” and other striking ballads. Among the most remarkable poems in the volume is that entitled “France,” written in 1871, that is during the Franco-German war. After expressing his sympathy with the stricken nation he cries:

Shall not God help thee and deliver thee

From whom the world has taken liberty?

and he prophesies the time when England shall join with France “and slay the twy-necked vulture in his den.” Like the poet and prophet of old time, Payne was also a seer. Forty-three years were to elapse ere the union of England and France against the common foe came about, but Payne lived to see it, though not to see the glorious termination of the war. The songs in the book, like those of Heine’s Lorelei, are “songs with a marvellous olden and magical melody.” Its merits were recognized by Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, D. G. Rossetti,81 and Swinburne. Watts-Dunton wrote long afterwards (1 December, 1902) respecting the work of Payne in general: “it has more imagination than the work of any other living man save one”​—​meaning, of course, Swinburne.

D. G. Rossetti wrote 6 May, 1872:

My Dear Payne,—

“I will not delay thanking you for your new book, though as yet only from a partial acquaintance with it. But I have read quite enough to see that it displays the same unfailing command of accomplished workmanship as your other volumes. … It seems to me (if you will pardon me saying so) that what you now need is, never to write except to embody a conception which you feel sure to be a separate and distinct one. In the present volume, one might almost say that the most clearly marked piece is “Shadow Soul,” which presents a definite profession of indefiniteness. Such a course as I venture to think your true one for the future would no doubt greatly circumscribe your productiveness, but would by this very fact, I feel sure, increase the true bulk and volume of your available work.

“If I have spoken with some frankness, I must ask you to excuse it, and to believe me

“Very truly yours,

D. G. Rossetti.”

An appreciative review was also written by (Sir) Sidney Colvin. Mrs. Tracy Robinson82 has observed of one of the poems in this volume​—​“Shadow Soul”​—​that “in certain moods Payne becomes the spokesman of the people.” … “No reader,” she continues, “could look below the surface of ‘Shadow Soul’ without realizing that a broad humanity is the essential element underlying all his poems.” In the following verse this characteristic is particularly prominent:

Haply one day these songs of mine

Some world-worn mortal may console

With savour of the bitter wine

Of tears crushed out from a man’s dole;

And he may say, tears in his eyne,

There was great love in this man’s soul!83

On 23 October, 1872, died Théophile Gautier, poet and critic​—​“the greatest critic,” said Payne, who ever lived. At the request of the publisher Lemerre, Payne, Swinburne, Victor Hugo, Anatole France, and François Coppée wrote poems which were included in a publication entitled Le Tombeau de Théophile Gautier, 187384

[67] Founded on a sketch by Simeon Solomon. Solomon died in 1905, aged sixty-three.

[68] Letter to Payne, 14 March, 1871.

[69] Lent me by Mr. Cecil Floersheim by request of Mr. St. Clair Baddeley.

[70] “A Tropic Flower,” “Winter Roses,” “Evocation,” “Belphoebe,” “Madonna dei Sogni,” “Jacob and the Angel,” “On the Borders of the Night,” “Bride Night,” “Love’s Epitaph,” “Indian Isle,” “Westering Hope,” “Silentia Lunae.”

[71] P. 6 “Linnet” line; p. 31 “It is” line; p. 49 “Greying west” line; p. 58 “Broidered gown” line, and last five lines of “Indian Isle,” p. 62.

[72] Letter to O’Shaughnessy, 25 January, 1870.

[73] Letter to O’Shaughnessy, 25 January, 1870.

[74] Rossetti Papers, p. 339.

[75] To 37 Upper Marylebone Street.

[76] This is a translation. All De Banville’s letters to Payne were written in French.

[77] One of them, “The Ballad of the Common Folk,” was included in Payne’s next volume of poems, Songs of Life and Death, 1884.

[78] Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898).

[79] Published in Paris in 1875. Payne’s copy was inscribed “A John Payne, ses amis, Stéphane Mallarmé, E. Manet.”

[80] Ford Madox Brown acknowledged the receipt of his copy on 1 May, 1872.

[81] Five letters of D. G. Rossetti to Payne (1870–72) were sold at Sotheby’s, 29 June, 1916.

[82] Lucy Catlin Robinson, first wife of Payne’s friend Tracy Robinson.

[83] Songs of Life and Death, p. 132.

[84] For Payne’s contribution see New Poems, p. 6, and Collected Poems, ii. 211.