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Reference group
Fleshly school of poetry (act. c.1866–1880) was a term of abuse coined by the Scottish poet and critic Robert Buchanan to describe the artists and writers Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and William Morris, and their followers, especially Arthur O'Shaughnessy, Philip Marston, and the poet and translator John Payne (1842–1916). In his review of the fifth edition of Rossetti's Poems (1870), published under the pseudonym Thomas Maitland in the Contemporary Review for October 1871 (5.334–50), Buchanan cast Rossetti as the leader of a group whose adherents had taken a vow:
to extol fleshliness as the distinct and supreme end of poetic and pictorial art; to aver that poetic expression is greater than poetic thought, and by inference that the body is greater than the soul, and sound superior to sense; and that the poet, properly to develop his poetic faculty, must be an intellectual hermaphrodite, to whom the very facts of day and night are lost in a whirl of æsthetic terminology. (p. 335)
Rossetti's poems, like his paintings, are said to be characterized by a ‘morbid deviation from healthy forms of life’ and a ‘sense of weary, wasting, yet exquisite sensuality’ (p. 337); Buchanan takes particular exception to ‘Nuptial Sleep’, one of the sonnets in Rossetti's House of Life sequence, for its relatively graphic (if heavily metaphorical) depiction of the immediate aftermath of sexual intercourse. Buchanan's article led to a vituperative and protracted literary dispute, a court case, and, belatedly, a retraction and an apology; more importantly, it helped to reveal some of the emerging fault lines in late nineteenth-century British culture, with the attacks in his article prefiguring many of the objections made to the ‘decadent’ writers of the 1880s and 1890s, such as the contributors to the Yellow Book.

In launching his broadside against Rossetti and Swinburne—Morris proved a relatively peripheral figure in this dispute—Buchanan seems to have been motivated in part by the bizarre and macabre circumstances surrounding the production of Rossetti's 1870 volume; many of the poems included in it had been retrieved by the poet from the grave of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, in 1869. Buchanan's principal motive, however, seems to have been a feeling of animosity towards people he regarded as members of an exclusive literary clique. Although he exaggerated the extent of the similarities between the members of the ‘school’ for his own polemical purposes, Rossetti, Swinburne, and Morris certainly knew one another well, and (for the most part) admired one another's work. Rossetti first met Morris during the mid-1850s, and the two became close friends, working together on artistic projects until the late 1860s, most famously the decoration of the Oxford Union building in 1857. Swinburne met both Rossetti and Morris while he was an undergraduate at Oxford, and lodged with Rossetti for a while after the death of Rossetti's wife in 1862.

There is some justification for Buchanan's suggestion that the members of this clique used their access to influential journals (especially The Athenaeum) to promote one another's work, irrespective of its poetic merits: one of the provocations for the fleshly school article was Swinburne's admiring review of Rossetti's 1870 volume. His animosity had manifested itself as early as 1866 in a satirical poem, The Session of the Poets (The Spectator, 15 Sept, 89–91), published under the pseudonym Caliban, in which Swinburne is depicted as an excitable and slightly tipsy adolescent disturbing the decorum of a literary supper:
Up jumped, with his neck stretching out like a gander,
Master Swinburne, and squealed, glaring out thro' his hair,
‘All Virtue is bosh! Hallelujah for Landor!
I disbelieve wholly in everything!—There!’
(lines 45–8)
Buchanan was quickly unmasked as the author, and the result was a minor literary skirmish. He was described by Rossetti's brother, William Michael, as a ‘poor and pretentious’ poet in a pamphlet on Swinburne's poetry published in 1867; and Buchanan later claimed, almost certainly incorrectly, that his article on the fleshly school was a belated attempt to ‘avenge’ a disparaging comment about his friend and fellow poet David Gray published by Swinburne about this time.

This history of antagonism might help to explain Swinburne's pugnacious response to Buchanan's attack. In 1872 Buchanan followed up his article with a pamphlet entitled The Fleshly School of Poetry and Other Phenomena of the Day, in which he repeated and amplified the criticisms made in the original essay. Here he presented the fleshly school as symptomatic of a more widespread moral and cultural malaise, spreading out from the rootless and cosmopolitan ‘Bohemian class’ to infect the whole of society. Swinburne's response was Under the Microscope (1872), a lengthy and at times laboured exercise in satire that nevertheless succeeded in landing some telling blows on its target, criticizing Buchanan for his absurd pretensions to literary authority and readiness to praise his own work. What Buchanan later called the ‘paper war’ between the parties continued until a letter of Swinburne's, headed ‘The devil's due’ and published in The Examiner of 11 December 1875, provoked Buchanan into launching an action for libel against the publisher of the journal. In this letter, signed with Buchanan's own nom de plume of Thomas Maitland, Swinburne refers to Buchanan as a ‘“multifaced” idyllist of the gutter’ and a ‘polypseudonymous lyrist and libeller’ (p. 1388). Although Buchanan won the case, his was something of a pyrrhic victory; cross-examination brought to light the full range of his literary attacks on Swinburne, Rossetti, and other literary luminaries, and he was awarded the relatively small sum of £150 in damages.

Rossetti's response to the furore provoked by Buchanan's article was altogether more anguished than Swinburne's. In ‘The stealthy school of criticism’, published in The Athenaeum for 16 December 1871 (pp. 792–4), he criticized the Contemporary Review for having permitted an anonymous attack on him to be published in its pages, and undertook a careful rebuttal of Buchanan's charges. Rossetti accused his antagonist of selective quotation, and attempted to show that his own poetry was not ‘grossly sensual’ but imbued throughout with a recognition of the spiritual dimension of human love. He decided, none the less, to remove ‘Nuptial Sleep’ from the House of Life sequence when it was reprinted in 1881. There seems little doubt that Buchanan's attack contributed to the physical and intellectual decline that afflicted Rossetti during the last decade of his life, leading to a damaging break with old friends like Robert Browning (whose Fifine at the Fair, 1872, Rossetti interpreted as another attack on himself), and forestalling the creation of new and productive personal and poetic relationships; Andrew Stauffer has recently argued that the fleshly school controversy prompted Rossetti to distance himself from John Payne, one of the people identified by Buchanan as a follower of the school. Rossetti's decline was almost certainly one of the factors behind Buchanan's eventual retraction of his original charges; he prefaced his 1881 novel God and the Man with a dedicatory poem to ‘An Old Enemy’, in which he apologized for attempting to damage Rossetti's reputation:
Pure as thy purpose, blameless as thy song,
Sweet as thy spirit, may this offering be:
Forget the bitter blame that did thee wrong,
And take the gift from me!
(lines 5–8)
Rossetti's death in April 1882 led Buchanan, in the second edition of his novel, to replace this poem with another, this time addressed explicitly to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in which he places a ‘lily of love’ in the dead poet's hand as a token of reconciliation. The about-face was completed by a preface in which Buchanan castigated himself for having ‘underrated [Rossetti's] exquisite work’ and ranged himself temporarily with ‘the Philistines’.

The term ‘fleshly school’ enjoyed a relatively limited critical currency, though it was not uncommon for the three poets in question to be regarded as a school even before Buchanan's article appeared. Robert Browning, for instance, in a letter of 19 June 1870 to his friend Isa Blagden, expressed severe misgivings about the ‘effeminacy of [Rossetti's] school,—the men that dress up like women’, identifying Swinburne as one of the principal offenders. There are, in fact, some striking parallels between Browning's letter and Buchanan's article. The accusation of effeminacy, or at least of a lack of proper manliness, can also be found in Buchanan's diatribe; he called the ‘fleshly gentlemen’ intellectual hermaphrodites, and described Rossetti's poem ‘Jenny’ as the work of ‘an emasculated Mr. Browning’. Moreover, some of Browning's stylistic objections to the school, such as the tendency of the poets in question to prefer the archaic accentuation of certain words (‘fancy a man calling it a lily—lilies and so on’), were also echoed by Buchanan. It is possible that the two poets might have discussed these matters; they were in regular contact during 1870–71, and in his reminiscences Buchanan claimed that Browning had been ‘emphatic’ in his criticisms of Rossetti's poems ‘in private talks’ (Jay, 162). It would not be unlike Buchanan to have misread Browning's private misgivings about some aspects of the work of Rossetti and Swinburne as a call to arms.

In identifying the poets in question as members of a school Buchanan was, then, articulating some widespread anxieties about the tendencies of modern art and literature. His intervention in fact anticipates the emergence of one of the dominant discursive formations of the last decades of the nineteenth century, which attempted to represent contemporary art as characterized by effeminacy, sexual deviance, atheism, and degeneracy. He presented the fleshly school as a kind of disease, originating abroad, that threatened the health and vitality of Britain. Rossetti is simply the latest representative of the ‘Italian falsetto school’, which had been slowly and stealthily corrupting English poetry with its ‘peevish’ and unmanly wailings since the time of Chaucer:
It was a fever-cloud generated first in Italy and then blown westward; finally, after sucking up all that was most unwholesome from the soil of France, to fix itself on England, and breed in its direful shadow a race of monsters whose long line has not ceased from that to the present day.
It is this emphasis on the foreign origins of the contagion that helps to explain Buchanan's (not entirely unreasonable) determination to trace Swinburne's poetic ancestry to France, and in particular to what he repeatedly called the ‘Fleurs de Mal’ (Les Fleurs du Mal), Charles Baudelaire's notorious 1857 volume of poems: ‘All that is worst in Mr. Swinburne belongs to Baudelaire. The offensive choice of subject, the obtrusion of unnatural passion, the blasphemy, the wretched animalism, are all taken intact out of the “Fleurs de Mal”’ (Fleshly School, 22). It also helps to explain Buchanan's determination to distance Swinburne and Rossetti from the American poet Walt Whitman, whose undeniably ‘fleshly’ Leaves of Grass was held to be the product of a pure and native, rather than foreign and diseased, poetic impulse. (The niceties of this critical distinction were lost on the jury that heard Buchanan's action for libel.) Swinburne, in fact, shared Buchanan's admiration for Whitman at this time; and it is one of the many ironies of this episode that Buchanan, for the most part a determined enemy of philistinism and jingoism in art, should have provided the ‘Philistines’ with much of the ammunition for their assault on the decadence of modern culture in his writings on the fleshly school.

J. P. Phelan


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