[This essay was originally published in The Pre-Raphaelite Review 2 (1979), 38-48. I would like to thank the authorities of the Bodleian Library, the Huntington Library, and Princeton University Library for permitting me to publish passages from this and other letters in their collections, and I would also like to thank Diana Holman-Hunt and Elizabeth Burt Tompkin, the painter's heirs, for permission to publish this and other letters by Holman Hunt. In transcribing his letters I have tried to follow Hunt's punctuation and orthography as closely as possible, emending them only when necessary to have the passages quoted make sense when they would not otherwise have done so.]
ike other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, William Holman Hunt took poetry seriously. This artist, who was one of the most earnest of Victorians, wanted an earnest poetry capable of guiding man in a time of shifting opinion and shaken belief. although on occasion he tried his hand at poetry — just as he also did at bas reliefs, sculpture in the round, furniture and dress design — he certainly was no poet, at least no poet in words. Nonetheless, from the beginning of his career to its close he remained one of the most poetic, most literary, painters in the Pre-Raphaelite circle. Holman Hunt's reliance upon literary sources, his skillful use of complex symbolism, and his devotion to inscriptions on his frames and within the picture all bespeak his basic notion that the painter's image had to associate itself closely with verbal discourse. [For an extended discussion of this subject see both the chapter on the sister arts in The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin (1971) and Replete with Meaning (1979).] In other words, Hunt was one of a long line of humanistically oriented artists who believed that for painting to achieve greatness it had to remain the sister of poetry. For this reason, if no other, his conceptions of poetry are of interest.
As one might expect from the artist who painted The Lady of Shalott as his last major work and statement of aesthetic principles, Tennyson was his favorite contemporary poet. Unlike Rossetti, Swinburne, and others associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, Hunt did not qualify his praise of the man he called "the kingly poet" once Tennyson achieved great popular fame [Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1905), II, 171]. One major reason for his continued delight in the works of Tennyson would seem to be that he shared so many conceptions of the nature and purpose of art with him. Like the Poet Laureate, he wished men of creative imagination to be prophets, moral and spiritual guides, and also like Tennyson he was concerned throughout his entire career with making public use of his most personal beliefs. In addition, Hunt, like the poet, remained fascinated by experiences of conversion and illumination as subjects for art throughout his career. The painter's public statements of praise for Tennyson, however, make the relatively pedestrian point that the "wholesome tenor" of his work followed that "of his predecessors, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and other protesters against adoration of license and outlawry" (i.326), which we find in Byron and Shelley.
Characteristically, Hunt's defiant praise of Tennyson on moral grounds — he was writing with the recent experience of the Yellow Nineties in mind — takes the form of a detailed reminiscence of his defense of the poet decades earlier. Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood relates that when Hunt visited Oxford 1850, he was surprised to discover that the Fellows of one unnamed college (probably Jesus) received his statements of PRB principles far more favorably than his praise of Tennyson, whom most refused to admit was even a poet. For those unaware of the state of critical opinion more than fifty years earlier, he explains that "the fashion for making robbers, regicides, corsairs, betrayers of homes and innocence, heroes of romance, which Byron, Schiller, Goethe, and Shelley had followed, still captivated the elder world" (i.326). Meanwhile, says Hunt, a
newer generation had found in Keats, Wordsworth, and Coleridge the mental matter of robust honesty which Henry Taylor, Tennyson and Browning utilized to teach the manliness and heroism of simple goodness, a basis which Chaucer and the early English poets had made as that on which our poetry should be built. [i.326-27]
This combined emphasis upon morality and nationalism, as we shall see, remains a constant in Hunt's views of poetry.
The notion that the history of poetry after the third decade of the nineteenth century was the history of a necessary and healthy reaction against the excesses of Byron and Shelley was a commonplace of Victorian reviewers, and the painter undoubtedly encountered it in many places. But his mention of the almost forgotten Henry Taylor in the company of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Tennyson, and Browning reminds us that his conceptions of poetry were heavily influenced by the writings of that minor figure. In fact, Hunt's pronouncements about poetry in Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood seem to derive rather directly from Taylor's preface to the first edition (1834) of Philip Van Artevelde, a work extremely popular with the Brotherhood in its early years. In his memoirs Hunt recalls that while he would paint Rossetti would declaim the poetry of Robert Browning, William Bell Scott, and Coventry Patmore.
Then would follow the grand rhetoric from Taylor's Philip van Artevelde, in the scene between the herald and the Court at Ghent, with Philip in reply, a scene very much to my taste, with my picture standing on the easel designed to show the sword of justice, inevitable in the fulness of time, on all such as being strong scourge the weak, and being rich rob the poor, and 'change the sweat of nature's brow to blood. [i.145]
Hunt refers to act II, scene 1 in the second part of Taylor's verse drama, in which the hero, who has successfully led an insurrection against the Earl of Flanders, defends the right of the people to revolt against tyranny and exploitation:
Where is there on God's earth that polity Which it is not. . . A treason against nature to uphold? Whom may we now call free?. . . . What then remains But in the cause of nature to stand forth,
And turn this frame of things the right side up?
For this the hour is come, the sword is drawn,
And tell your masters vainly they resist.
Nature, that slept beneath their poisonous drugs,
Is up and stirring, and from north and south,
From east and west, from England and from France,
From Germany, and Flanders, and Navarre,
Shall stand against them like a beast at bay.
The blood that they have shed will hide no longer
In the blood-sloken soil, but cries to Heaven. . . .
Rises the song, — How are the mighty fallen'
And by the peasant's hand' Low lie the proud'
And smitten with the weapons of the poor, —
The blacksmith's hammer and the woodsman's axe.
Their tale is told; and for that they were rich,
And robbed the poor; and for that they were strong,
And scourged the weak; and for that they made laws
Which turned the sweat of labor's brow to blood! —
For these their sins the nations cast them out. [Philip Van Artevelde. A Dramatic Romance in Two Parts. (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1863), 258-59.]
The painting on Hunt's easel was Rienzi, an illustration of Bulwer Lytton's novel which is strikingly similar to Taylor's drama: In both works the heroes are men of comparatively low birth and scholarly temperament who find themselves forced to abandon their chosen pursuits to lead successful revolts of the lower orders. Cola di Rienzi, like Philip Van Artevelde, for a brief time manages to bring order and justice to the late middle ages and then he perishes, again like Taylor's protagonist, largely because he is ahead of his time. Both works provided romantic, nobly tragic figures with which the young self-conscious Pre-Raphaelites could identify. For Hunt, as for his friends, Philip Van Artevelde represented the socially responsible, politically advanced art for which 1848 called.
Holman Hunt's continued interest in Taylor's work appears in a letter he wrote to the poet on April 28, 1862, thanking him for a copy of St. Clement's Eve. He told the poet how "greatly" he valued
the book as the work of one whose earlier poems I have so often studied with delight. . It seems to me that at my particular age [Hunt was thirty-five] those books should be most profitable which like this one are written by authors whom one has accepted as teachers earlier in life. To follow the author in the development of his views, to understand to what principles he has been most constant, and what he has since seen reasons to modify or to insist upon less — is what a reader most desires when he has lived long enough to experience many changes in himself, and yet not to an age in which experience shall have substituted in the place of his firmly adopted views of youth those more liberal ones of maturer life.
Holman Hunt, one may remark, might have slightly qualified his political views as he grew older, but his conceptions of poetry remained those which Taylor set forth in the 1834 preface to Philip Van Artevelde.
There Taylor begins by asserting that the work of Byron, Shelley and their school is a poetry of adolescence. "It will always produce a powerful impression upon very young readers, and I scarcely think that it can have been more admired by any than by myself, when I was included in that category. . . .but I am unable to concur in opinion with those who would place it in the foremost ranks of the art". According to him, they wrote poetry "characterized by great sensibility and fervor, by a profusion of imagery, by force and beauty of language, and by a versification peculiarly easy and adroit, and abounding in that sort of melody which, by its very obvious cadences, makes itself most pleasing to an unpracticed ear". Unfortunately, this poetry devoted little attention to the "intellectual and immortal part" of human concerns, largely because its creators lacked a true "subject-matter," sufficient ideas, knowledge, or wisdom to create great work: "A feeling came more easily to them than a reflection, and an image was always at hand when a thought was not forthcoming". Sounding almost as if he were writing a summary description of the Soul in Tennyson's "The Palace of Art," Taylor argues that either these poets
did not look upon mankind with observant eyes, or they did not feel it to be any part of their vocation to turn what they saw to account. It did not belong to poetry, in their apprehension, to thread the mazes of life in all its classes and under all its circumstances, common as well as romantic, and, seeing all things, to infer and to instruct: on the contrary, it was to stand aloof from everything that is plain and true; to have little concern with what is rational or wise: it was to be, like music, a moving and enchanting art, acting upon the fancy, the affections, the passions, but scarcely connected with the exercise of the intellectual faculties.
Poetry, he urges, "of which sense is not the basis, — sense rapt or inspired by passion, not bewildered or subverted, — poetry over which the passionate reason of Man does not preside in all its strength as well as all its ardors. . .[cannot] be poetry of the highest order".
Byron, a man of greatest gifts but insufficient ideas and sympathy, created the fashion for such verse. His greatest weakness as a poet — and most pernicious influence — appears in his conceptions of character, for his personages possess "nothing. . .of the mixture and modification, — nothing of the composite fabric which nature has assigned to man. They exhibit rather passions personified than persons impassioned". Like Hunt, Taylor believes that Byron's worst influence is to be seen in his immoral heroes — "evidence, not only of scanty materials of knowledge from which to construct the ideal of a human being, but also of a want of perception of what is great or noble in our nature. His heroes are creatures abandoned to their passions, and essentially, therefore, weak of mind. Strip them of the veil of mystery and the trappings of poetry. . .and they. . . certainly excite no sentiment of admiration".
Taylor gives comparatively short shrift to Shelley, a poet "of more powerful and expansive imagination", because he considers him guilty of Byron's poetic sins and of less influence as well. He does, however, criticize his overly precious and abstract style.
Hunt, Shelley, and Byron
Henry Taylor's criticism of Byron and Shelley struck Hunt with peculiar force because in his youth he had been so passionately devoted to them. The painter's father, who was a Unitarian, apparently raised him without any religious guidance, and as he later told Ruskin he had been "a contemptuous believer in any spiritual principles but the development of talent, and Shelley and Lord Byron with Keats were my best modern heroes — all read by the light of materialism — or sensualism." [Hunt's letter of November 6, 1880 apparently did not reach Ruskin until more than a year and a half after it was written, for the painter, who kept it by him, finally enclosed it in another letter of July 4, 1882.] Then he read Modern Painters, which "first arrested me in my downward course. It was the voice of God. I read this in rapture and it sowed some seed of shame." After his religious conversion in the early 1850's, he turned sharply against his earlier heroes, coming to believe that great painting and poetry required a basis in belief. As he wrote to Robert St. John Tyrwhitt in 1885, "Phidias, M[ichel]. Angelo, L[eonardo]. da Vinci. , certainly applied their Art to the highest recognised object — religion [--] and appealed to the most advanced intelligence of the day. No good poetry, or rather no great poet, ever worked without similar inspiration. Shakespeare has it as his moving inspiration where it is overlooked throughout" [ALS July 21, 1885 (Bodleian Eng. lett. e. 116)]. Not surprisingly for one who held such notions about the necessary connection of religion and the arts, Hunt, who had once idolized Shelley, came to dislike the atheistic poet intensely, and it is against him — rather than Byron — that most of his private criticisms are directed.
Like many Victorians, Hunt became especially disillusioned with Shelley after he learned of his treatment of Harriet. On February 22, 1887 he wrote to the painter-poet William Bell Scott that he refused to "be deceived by the cant of genius — and Shelley was the very Messiah of humbug in this way. I have ever said so in my rugged way, and now I know the man's life more clearly I am more impressed with the fact. But then I take exception to poetic maunderings in even higher men and of less known wickedness than the treatment of Harriet makes Shelley to figure at in my mind "[Troxell Collection, Princeton University Library. I would like to thank the authorities of the Princeton University Library for granting permission to publish this letter.]. Eight years before he had similarly written to his friend the minor sculptor and Rugby drawing-master John Lucas Tupper: "I have been reading Symond's P. B. Shelley, and I feel what a deal of good it would have done the young genius if he had had to gain his livelihood about 12. He was such an erotic, so babylike in helplessness and temper to the last, crying for what did not belong to him." Sounding much like Taylor, who had complained about the lack of relevance for most men of Shelley's poetry, Hunt continues: "With great recognition of his high gift and the interest of his work in an Art sense, I am unable to find any value in it for honest rough active humanity. For scrutinisers and feverishminded professional geniuses of course it is interesting and wonderful." But even as he thus attacks one of his former heroes, Hunt found it necessary to qualify his words, admitting to Tupper: "Much is mere incoherent nonsense — empty words to me — and yet having written this damnatory sentence certain things crowd into my memory which make me feel I might have said exactly the reverse with as much truth to my own average feeling" [ALS March 11, 1879 (Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, Uncat. L/F)]. Nonetheless, he tells Tupper, he finally cannot approve of Shelley's poetry because it is too ethereal, and here he again sounds like Henry Taylor, who had strongly criticized the poet for being a visionary — on precisely those grounds, in other words, on which Shelley's twentieth-century appreciators have defended him. According to the author of Philip Van Artevelde, the school of Byron and Shelley believed that "Spirit was not to be debased by any union with matter, in their effusions, dwelling, as they did, in a region of poetical sentiment which did not permit them to walk upon the common earth or to breathe the common air", and Shelley in particular "seems to have written under the notion that no phenomena can be perfectly poetical, until they shall have been so decomposed from their natural order and coherency as to be brought before the reader in the likeness of a phantasma or a vision. A poet is, in his estimation, . . . purely and pre-eminently a visionary". Holman Hunt, who was implicitly arguing for his own kind of art, told Tupper that he was not "enthusiastic for the sort of poetry which deals with nothing but the ideal, the ethereal, the psychical, the mysteries, the illimitable, eternity, and such like intangible subjects, and I do not estimate highly the genius which makes an impression by the management of such sublime materials as I do that which shews us beauty and noble lessons in familiar things. For to soar in celestial regions to the commonest mind produces a sense of poetry, tho' it may be an unprofitable vague one, but none but a poet can see a reflection of the eternal in lowest things."
Hunt's attitude toward Dante
Given Hunt's stern morality and his own conceptions of high art, one can readily understand his later dislike of Shelley and his poetry. What is perhaps surprising is that Hunt includes Dante with Shelley as one of those guilty of the "cant of genius." Immediately after telling William Bell Scott that he takes exception to "poetic maunderings" of "higher men" than Shelley, he makes it clear that the author of the Divine Comedy is his chief example:
Dante throws a glamour over the story of Paolo and Francesca which is not healthy and the whole tone of his own spooneyings in the Vita Nuova and the whole scheme of the Inferno in which he puts men, known individuals, into eternal punishment seems to me like the real sin against the Holy Ghost. Every human judgment should stop short of that. Virgil's imaginings are quite of another spirit and the fact of Dante following him under such distinct responsibilities has always made me think less of his intellect and more of his narrowness, and cruelty. His example has I think introduced the wretched principle of 'poetic justice' as a make up for much unwholesome gloating over brilliant vice" [ALS February 12, 1887. Troxell Collection. Princeton U.].
The painter did not come late to such views of the great Italian poet, for more than two decades earlier, in a letter of July 3, 1865, he had made similar objections to Tupper:
[William Michael Rossetti's] translation of Dante interested me very much but it brought me to the conclusion that Dante was a miserable egotistical professional genius, in no way akin to the great family which contained Shakespeare, Homer — or even Goethe. Imagine S or H describing himself as kicking the imprisoned head of a poor wretch doomed for eternity to be frozen into a sea of ice and saying he did not know whether he had done it by chance or design — or still further think of one or other getting a history of the life of a similar miserable out of him by a sacred promise to clear the frozen tears away from his eyes and then leaving him neglected with the reflection that to be such [sic] false to such an one were courtesy. I had some idea that the great Italian was an imposter from my knowledge of the Vita Nuova and the incident in his life at Casa del Scala's court but I did not like to trust this; [Huntington Uncat. L/F]
Hunt's moral objections to Dante provided the major impetus for his dislike of a poet idolized by both Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites, but there were two other contributing factors as well. In a letter of June 16, 1869 the painter complained to Tupper from Florence that "from high to low here the people have no sense of responsibility, no true sense of personal dignity. They believe in lying and assignations and I don't wonder looking at their literature [from] Dante, Boccaccio &c. down to Goldoni" [Huntington Uncat. L/F]. This bitter dislike of Italy and the Italians was largely the result of several painful experiences in Florence after his wife's death there. Not only was Italy the scene of his wife's death, but he almost lost his infant son there as well — and largely, he believed, because of the selfishness and dishonesty of Italian midwives. Several local women purporting to be wet-nurses had apparently swindled the bereaved father, so that the infant Cyril almost died of malnutrition before their actions were discovered. The last one, when relieved of her position, told the still stricken father that she hoped the infant would die. Meanwhile, his models, who demanded advance payment, failed to return and the stonecarver who was preparing Fanny Waugh Hunt's gravestone also cheated the painter.
Furthermore, Hunt makes it clear in this same letter to Tupper that his dislike of Dante — and the Italians — had another source, for as he told his friend, he made his criticisms "with a strong fiendish determination because it seemed to me from one or two words you said you had been talked over too much by William [M. Rossetti]. We could not then go into the subject — it was about Macchiavelli. I am hot on the subject for I believe that these Italian geniuses little by little are spoiling the standard of morality in English literature. Nothing makes me wish I could write well more than the desire to avow my ideas on this subject and in a despair on this point, I wish I could make somebody else a convert to my views". His mention here and in other letters of "these Italian geniuses" and "professional geniuses" suggests that his increasing dislike of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his supporters contributed importantly to his distaste for Dante Alighieri. Certainly, his striking out at the greater Dante's morality and character served Hunt as a way to criticize the man whom he came to believe had betrayed him in a number of ways — ways which ranged from philandering with the woman Hunt had planned to marry to claiming undue importance in the foundation of an artistic movement that Hunt thought he had done much to destroy. He wrote to Tupper that "to attack Dante requires indifference to the opinions of all professional geniuses or their admirers, the largest and most influential class in intellectual society in Europe" [ALS July 1870 (Huntington Uncat. L/F]; and perhaps the desire not to seem eccentric on yet another point made Hunt refrain from making such comments in Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood where discussion of the great Italian poet is conspicuously absent.
At any rate, Hunt's dislike for Dante encouraged him to hold even more fiercely his beloved nationalistic theory of the arts. This artistic nationalism, one should emphasize, was never a simple narrowminded chauvinism. Rather, like Ruskin, the painter believed that every nation's arts were the expression of its character as well as its testament to later ages. He was therefore always troubled by the thought that England might fail to leave such an artistic legacy, and whenever possible he did his best to encourage the creation of a uniquely English art and poetry. Characteristically, he wrote to Sir William Watson on September 25, 1891:
Your poems come to me bringing pleasure. . . . The imagination is more welcome because it is English — that is manly, open aired and rebounding. The strain of much recent poetry is too self retired for our red blooded race. One may profit by a mood for Dante, but it is then only for part of our complete appetite. Adopted in our language the strain [has] grown stale and jaundiced even when the form is accomplished, as it often is. Perhaps I have more determinedly formed this opinion from having seen much of the insincerity of the sentiments thus expressed, and poetry is worth nothing if it is not a genuine revelation of the inventors soul. I hail with comfort all indications of return to the honest tone of mind of Dan Chaucer, and of all true Britons since. The stilted posing vanity cabins all sterling [or: starting] vitality; in my Art in one form or the other — like the tares which the evil one sewed — it is always trying to choke up the real bread of life.[Yale University Library (Ms Vault/Shelves/Hunt)]
As Holman Hunt's closing remark makes clear, his views of poetry were always closely related to his conceptions of painting — and always implicit defenses of his own form of Pre-Raphaelitism. Earnest to the end, Hunt conceived of painting and poetry as sacred enterprises, and those who misused them as servants of the Evil One.
Last modified 12 June 2007