William Michael Rossetti


Contributions to The Germ:

Sonnet (on wrapper of each issue)
The Bothie of Topper-na-fuosich
Her First Season

Fancies at Leisure
Review: "The Strayed Reveller, and other Poems"

Fancies at Leisure
Review, Sir Reginald Mohun

To the Castle Ramparts
"Jesus Wept."
Review: Christmas Eve and Easter Day
The Evil Under the Sun

When the PRB finally got around to setting down its rules, the first of these stipulated that "William Michael Rossetti, not being an artist, be Secretary of the PRB." Indeed, the little biographical work that has been done on William Michael Rossetti characterizes him as the "normal" Rossetti, the scrupulous and competent chronicler of all things Pre-Raphaelite.

William Michael Rossetti was born 29 September 1829, the third of the four Rossetti children. A year younger than his more famous brother, William Michael Rossetti spent most of his life following Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In his autobiography, Some Reminiscences (1906), William Michael Rossetti recalls,

we were hardly at all apart, for we slept in the same bed. We rose, talked, walked, studied, ate, amused ourselves, and slumbered, together . . . . We read the same authors, coloured prints in the same book, collected woodcuts for the same scrapbook. All books were common between us . . . (57)

They took up drawing and verse-writing together. They were in the same class at the day-school of King's College until 1841, when Dante Gabriel Rossetti left to study painting. William Michael Rossetti remained until February, 1845, when their father's increasing blindness and failing health — with the attendant financial hardship — forced William to leave school despite his wish to become a doctor, and undertake employment as a clerk at the Excise Office.

Yet this did little to hinder his literary pursuits. William Michael Rossetti was the first of the Rossetti children to have a poem published. "In the Hill-Shadow," about a sorrowing father who had just buried his child-daughter, appeared in the Athenaeum of October 1848. It was republished in Beautiful Poetry and Gems of National Poetry, but more importantly, encouraged Christina Rossetti to submit her poems for publication. Around this time the three Rossettis began improvising bouts-rimés sonnets. Dante Gabriel and William Michael Rossetti produced the bulk of them, but in William Michael Rossetti's estimation, Christina Rossetti's "must be the best of the batch" (Reminiscences, 80).

Of course, the PRB was founded in 1848 as well. Installed as its Secretary, William Michael Rossetti kept the PRB Journal from 1849 to 1855, recording the Brotherhood's proceedings. Foremost among these was The Germ, the periodical organ by which the PRB would present its principles to the public. By unanimous vote William Michael Rossetti was appointed its editor, "to do the sort of work for which other proprietors had little inclination" (Preface to Germ, 20). This included finding material to fill in the gaps, negotiating costs, and writing the cover sonnet.

Still, William Michael Rossetti's work with The Germ did yield some unlikely opportunities. Calder Campbell, a family friend and contributor the second issue of The Germ, showed a copy to Sergeant Edward William Cox, a barrister who edited several papers. Pleased with The Germ, Cox invited William Michael Rossetti to work as an unpaid picture reviewer at the Critic. William Michael Rossetti's stint here lasted only until November 1850, when Ford Madox Brown suggested him for a paid post at the Spectator. William Michael Rossetti eventually published his work there as Fine Art: Chiefly Contemporary (1867). His book reviews in each of The Germ's four numbers began his long career as a literary critic and editor. Most of this work was commissioned (between 1870 and 1873) for Moxon's Popular Poets series, the introductions of which William Michael Rossetti collected in Lives of Some Famous Poets (1878). However, this does not include his most notable work as a literary critic. In 1868 William Michael Rossetti introduced Whitman to the English public with a volume of his poetical works. William Michael Rossetti's friendship with Edward Trelawny afforded him access to interesting materials on Byron and Shelley, and in 1870 William Michael Rossetti published a two-volume exegesis of Shelley. An interest in Shelley brought him into the acquaintance of James Thomson ("B. V."), who with William Michael Rossetti's encouragement, published his City of Dreadful Night (1874). But in William's own opinion, his finest achievement as a critic emerged in his pamphlet defending Swinburne's Poems and Ballads: "few incidents have given me greater or more permanent satisfaction than the belief that I published on that occasion a few words of common sense when the press was reeking with uncommon nonsense on the same topic" (Reminiscences, 290).

Despite this formidable avocation, William Michael Rossetti continued in other, more creative interests. In the pre-PR days he would join Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the Life School after work at the Excise Office, and Holman Hunt reports (in Pre-Raphaelitism and the PRB) that Dante Gabriel Rossetti hoped William Michael Rossetti would be able to take up painting (128). As late as 1857 William attended Ruskin's class at the Working Men's College for several months. His efforts in poetry continued to a much later date, notably in Democratic Sonnets. Composing at a rate of about one per day, William Michael Rossetti completed the project by 1881, but Dante Gabriel Rossetti's alarm over the sequence's revolutionary sentiments caused William to withhold it from publication until 1907. There William Michael Rossetti also reprints "The Evil under the Sun" (in Germ IV), and restores the original title, "Hungary and Europe." Another PR effort, "Mrs Holmes Gray", never saw print in The Germ, which died before the opportunity presented itself. However, William Michael Rossetti finally published the blank-verse narrative in 1868 in The Broadway.

Meanwhile, William Michael Rossetti also found time for an ordinary life. He saw the Excise Office become the Inland Revenue Board, where he rose to Senior Assistant Secretary in 1869. In 1874 he married Lucy Madox Brown (who was six years old when he first met her in the studio of her father, Ford Madox Brown, in the early PRB years). They had five children: Olivia, Gabriel Arthur, Helen, Mary, and Michael, the last dying in infancy.

1894 saw the deaths of Lucy and Christina Rossetti. In the same year William Michael Rossetti retired from the Inland Revenue, although he continued to serve as an estate-duty advisor until 1903. Needing something "to be at," William Michael Rossetti began compiling and editing his invaluable works on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christian Rossetti, their father, and the PRB. He undertook the first of these —Dante Gabriel Rossetti: his Family Letters, with a Memoir by Myself (1895)—out of annoyance at having waited thirteen years for Theodore Watts-Dunton's biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

One of William Michael Rossetti's last projects as a memorialist is Some Reminiscences (1906). Some scholars dismiss this autobiography as notable only for the names in the subject index. William Michael Rossetti's characteristically self-effacing remarks seem to encourage this assessment:

My life having been an eminently unadventurous and uneventful one, and perhaps of little import to anybody save myself and my immediate surroundings, I do not exactly propose to write my life, and I take little or no notice of some of the matters which most closely affected myself. (xii)

Yet he did proceed to write his life, and in so doing shed considerable light on arguably the remarkable artistic movement of its time, as well as practically every writer and artist of note. Until his death on 5 February 1919, he led a life that was anything but "eminently unadventurous and uneventful."