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Hall Caine on Elizabeth Siddal’s Exhumation

Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine

Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine

I have been reading Hall Caine’s Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He touches briefly on Lizzie’s exhumation to retrieve the manuscript of poems that DGR had placed in her coffin:

Rossetti had buried the only complete copy of his poems with his wife at Highgate, and for a time he had been able to put by the thought of them; but as one by one his friends, Mr. Morris, Mr. Swinburne, and others, attained to distinction as poets, he began to hanker after poetic reputation, and to reflect with pain and regret upon the hidden fruits of his best effort. Rossetti—in all love of his memory be it spoken—was after all a frail mortal; of unstable character: of variable purpose: a creature of impulse and whim, and with a plentiful lack of the backbone of volition. With less affection he would not have buried his book; with more strength of will he had not done so; or, having done so, he had never wished to undo what he had done; or having undone it, he would never have tormented himself with the memory of it as of a deed of sacrilege. But Rossetti had both affection enough to do it and weakness enough to have it undone. After an infinity of self-communions he determined to have the grave opened, and the book extracted. Endless were the preparations necessary before such a work could be begun. Mr. Home Secretary Bruce had to be consulted. At length preliminaries were complete, and one night, seven and a half years after the burial, a fire was built by the side of the grave, and then the coffin was raised and opened. The body is described as perfect upon coming to light.

Whilst this painful work was being done the unhappy author of it was sitting alone and anxious, and full of self-reproaches at the house of the friend who had charge of it. He was relieved and thankful when told that all was over. The volume was not much the worse for the years it had lain in the grave. Deficiencies were filled in from memory, the manuscript was put in the press, and in 1870 the reclaimed work was issued under the simple title of Poems.

In the next paragraph, he tells us that Rossetti’s book was quite successful and that during that time, “fresh poetry and new poets arose, even as they now arise, with all the abundance and timeliness of poppies in autumn.” I find it amusing that he chose poppies as a descriptor. The opium poppy ( Papaver somniferum) is the source of opiates, from which Laudanum is derived.  Poppies, then, were at one time the source of Lizzie’s comfort during illness, eventually becoming the source of her addiction and eventual death.  Rossetti painted Lizzie with open hands, waiting to receive a poppy from the dove in Beata Beatrix.   I suppose  Caine could have chosen the word as a conscious effort to align poppies with something positive instead of the usual negative association due to Lizzie’s addiction and overdose.  Or it may have just been an oddly chosen phrase.