William Bell Scott


Contributions to The Germ:

Morning Sleep

Sonnet: Early Aspirations

William was the seventh child of Robert and Ross Bell Scott. William's four eldest brothers died in an 1807 epidemic, making him what he called the "family victim." Yet the breadth and quantity of his artistic and literary output indicate intense ambition. Educated at the local high school, he learned engraving, and before age 20 had published Views of Loch Katrine and Adjacent Scenery, a collection of 8 engravings. Though not a university student, Scott entered the ranks of Edinburgh University's St. Luke's Club during the 1832-3 year. In 1843 he convinced the Board of Trade to offer him the founding headmastership in the Government School of Design. Plagued by administrative problems, he left in 1851 for the Department of Practical Art in Newcastle, under the direction of Sir Henry Cole.

By most accounts, he had eased into resigned obscurity when his 1846 The Year of the World and his "Rosabell" and "A Dream of Love," published in the February and March numbers of Leigh Hunt's Monthly Repository, inspired Dante Gabriel Rossetti to seek his friendship and advice in a letter of fulsome praise in 1847. His kind answer marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship with the Rossettis. Soon after their meeting in 1850, Dante Gabriel Rossetti began submitting poems for Scott's approval, among them "The Blessed Damozel" and "My Sister's Sleep." His January 1850 letter soliciting contributions for The Germ brought a prompt reply, accompanied by "Early Aspirations" and "Morning Sleep."

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's friendship inspired a renaissance in Scott's life and work, though the influence was somewhat reciprocated. For instance, "Rosabell," a stark blank-verse narrative depicting ten stages in the life of an Edinburgh prostitute, issues a sober indictment of the Victorian society that vilified the prostitute while allowing her bourgeois patrons impunity. Not surprisingly, it is often suggested as an influence on Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "Jenny." According to Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti often discoursed on the poem's "pathetic strains" at PRB meetings.

The other important liaison in Scott's life began in 1859, when he met Alice Boyd. With her and his wife, Letitia Norquoy, Scott had a 26-year ménage à trois. Dante Gabriel Rossetti spent the summers of 1868 and 1869 with him and Boyd at her home, Penkill Castle. It was here that Dante Gabriel Rossetti decided to take up poetry again after Elizabeth Siddal's death.

Through Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Scott reportedly became the main emotional influence on Christina Rossetti's life. (In her biography Lona Mosk Packer makes the controversial speculation that Scott and Christina Rossetti were romantically involved.) According to William Michael Rossetti, Scott explored "the deepest mysteries of life, death, and religion, of ethnic and christian dogma." He also made an impression on other associates of the PRB, though not always favorably. Swinburne abhorred Scott, pronouncing him "the Parasite of the North," and even after his death, dismissed him as
"a man whose name would never be heard, whose verse would never have been read, whose daubs would never have been seen, outside some Lilliput of the North, but for his casual and parasitic association with the Trevelyans, the Rossettis, and Myself."