Whitley Stokes, Poetry and Medievalism in the Nineteenth Century

Irish Texts Society/Irish Literary Society – Noel O’Connell Memorial Lecture 2016

Whitley Stokes was born in Dublin, into one of Ireland’s most prominent academic families. His father and grandfather were both professors of medicine at Trinity College Dublin. Throughout his life, Stokes’s social circle included many leading intellectuals, historians, artists, and writers: from his earliest childhood years, these included his father’s friends, the Irish antiquarians and scholars Samuel Ferguson, Eugene O’Curry, George Petrie and William Wilde (father of Oscar); later, Stokes became friends with the poet William Allingham and with the philologist Rudolf Siegfried. He was educated first at home and then briefly at St Columba’s College before he entered Trinity College Dublin. In 1851 Stokes went to London to study law and he was called to the Bar in 1855. During his ten years in London he befriended, as we shall hear in due course, a variety of poets, artists, academics and other intellectuals who were at the heart of a vibrant literary and cultural scene. But he left London in 1862 for India, where he worked for the legislative council; in 1879 he became president of the India Law Commission. After twenty years in India, Stokes returned to London in 1882, where he lived, at Grenville Place, Kensington, until his death in 1909. He is buried at Paddington Old Cemetery in Kilburn.

From the 1850s onwards, Stokes published prolifically on many topics, such as Serbian, Danish and Sanskrit poetry, but his most important contributions were to two fields: Anglo-Indian law and medieval Celtic philology and literature. The bibliography of his published works includes some thirty monographs and more than three hundred scholarly articles. In the field of law, his major works included Hindu Law Books (1865) and The Anglo-Indian Codes (1887-8). His seminal publications in the field of Celtic Studies are too numerous to mention; he edited and translated many of the most significant works of medieval Irish narrative literature, and it remains the case that many of these texts are only available in print today in Stokes’s editions and translations. In addition, he published many important philological studies on Old Irish glosses, as well as on Breton, Cornish, Welsh, and the gradually emerging remains of the Continental Celtic languages. Although he never held an academic post, he was an internationally renowned scholar, a founding Fellow of the British Academy, establishing and maintaining intellectual links, particularly with Germany, France and his home country, Ireland.

Stokes was a complex, contradictory and contrarian individual. Renowned for his acerbic, even aggressive, criticism of his contemporaries in print, Stokes’s private correspondence reveals him to be witty, warm and romantic. He suffered from strong feelings of depression and insecurity, which he described with surprising frankness in letters to his sister, the art historian Margaret Stokes (1832-1900). But the achievements of his life chart the expansion and consolidation of the British Empire in the nineteenth century, and raise questions about the experience of the Irish within that imperial context; and equally they chart the expansion and consolidation of historical and cultural knowledge within the nascent disciplines of philology and literary studies. It is the latter which I hope to explicate – to some extent, at least – in this lecture.


Whitley Stokes

When invited to speak on the subject of Whitley Stokes, given the nature and location of the lecture, I decided that I wanted not only give some idea of Stokes’s colossal contribution to the field of Celtic Studies, but also to elucidate something of his place in the cultural life of nineteenth-century London, particularly in relation to his association with the circle of poets and artists known as the Pre-Raphaelites. So, I have decided – in spite of my title, which has lured you in with the promise of the broad sweep of the ‘nineteenth century’ – to focus this evening on just four days of Stokes’s life, namely, 22nd – 25th June 1862. These were the four days before Stokes left London for India, where he would pursue his career as a colonial lawyer. In these four days Stokes’s friends gathered on multiple occasions to bid him farewell and thus, through tracing the events of those four days, we can paint a picture of Stokes’s social circle in London and the literary – and particularly poetic – significance of that group of young men and women.

Arthur Munby and his Diaries

Before we begin our adventure into these four days in the life of Whitley Stokes, I should introduce you to our guide, for it is not Stokes himself but rather Stokes’s good friend, Arthur Munby, who is a rather interesting character in his own right. Born in York in 1828, Munby was educated at Trinity College Cambridge and then studied law at Lincoln’s Inn and was called to the Bar in the same year as Stokes, 1855. Like Stokes, Munby never held an academic appointment: rather, he worked as a civil servant in the Ecclesiastical Commissioners’ office. He did, however, teach Latin at the Working Men’s College, a foundation which sought to offer liberal – though not revolutionary – education to skilled labourers and working class men. Munby’s involvement with the Working Men’s College seems to have arisen more from Christian than from Socialist thinking; involvement in the Working Men’s College is something which many of the people mentioned in tonight’s lecture – though not Stokes himself – have in common. Munby has also been the object of some rather more salacious interest, due to his unusual fascination – certainly straying into the territory of sexual fetish – for servant women and factory girls. For many years, Munby conducted a secret relationship with a housemaid, Hannah Cullwick, and, after they married, they maintained what they themselves described as a ‘master’-‘slave’ relationship, although there were occasional reversals in the power dynamic and sometimes Hannah would lift and carry Munby as though he were a baby and she his nurse. Munby described the physical appearance of housemaids and factory girls at great length in his diaries and possessed a large collection of photographs of girls in working clothes; he seemed to have a particular taste for girls with the signs of physical labour on their skin. The editor of Munby’s diaries, Derek Hudson, characterised Hannah Cullwick as an ‘unusually intelligent, affectionate, and highly strung working girl’ and from both her diaries which give her account of their relationship and from Munby’s diaries it would seem that their unusual relationship was mutually consensual and profoundly loving,[1] although the marriage remained secret to all but a few very close friends.


Arthur Munby

We shall have cause to return briefly to Munby’s relationship with Hannah Cullwick, but first we can take a look at one brief diary entry from a year before Stokes left for India, namely Sunday 24th February 1861, in order to get an idea of some of the cultural value of Munby’s diary and also to introduce ourselves to some of the other important characters in tonight’s lecture.

‘Sunday, 24 February [1861] … In till 3. Stokes came, & chatted philology awhile – then we both to Dante Rossetti’s by Blackfriars bridge … R[ossetti]’s book, early Italian poems – his wife’s drawings – R., S[tokes], & I dined together at the Cheshire Cheese, then back to tea at R.’s – who read us his sister Christina’s charming poems, some of his own, a sonnet of Stokes’s, R’s memoir of Guido Cavalcanti; W.M.R[ossetti]’s Ugolino from the Inferno, &c. So talk and look at sketches till 10.30 – then S. & I home.’[2]

Unpicking this diary entry will help us to elucidate something of Stokes’s friendships and cultural experiences in mid-nineteenth-century London.

Simply put, the self-declared purpose of Pre-Raphaelitism was to create art and poetry which possessed, at its core, fidelity to nature. As William Holman Hunt wrote in a 1905 essay, ‘the work that we were bent on producing [was] to be more persistently derived from Nature than any having a dramatic significance yet done in the world’. The Pre-Raphaelites reached across temporal and geographical boundaries to draw inspiration from medieval European traditions. In poetry, Pre-Raphaelitism manifested itself in a return to older European poetic forms: the popular ballad, heroic saga, courtly love poems, and so on. The translation and importation of non-English texts influenced not only the subject matter of Pre-Raphaelite poetry, but also its metrical forms, its rhymes and its vocabulary. Representative of Pre-Raphaelite technique was ‘meticulous composition’ in point of metre, rhyme, number of stanzas, the deliberate use of archaisms, and precision in detail. In the words of Lionel Stevenson, the Pre-Raphaelite ‘preoccupation with foreign literatures put an end to the parochialism that was stultifying English authorship’. Throughout the period in which the Pre-Raphaelites were producing their work, there was a constant interaction between their visual art and their poetic output. Some, such as Rossetti – to use Stokes’s words – ‘labour[ed] with the pen as well as the brush’; others were either artists or poets but drew literary inspiration from visual art and vice versa.

At the heart of the Pre-Raphaelite movement was the brilliant, charismatic, manipulative and troubled Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82). Stokes seems to have first met Rossetti round about late 1855. Stokes wrote to his sister Margaret:

‘You would like Rossetti immensely – so full of freshness and vigour as he is, and his dogmatism passes for the beautiful enthusiasm of a young artist who feels instinctively what is true and must say it.’


Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The place where Munby, Rossetti and Stokes dined together that evening in 1861 was the famous London pub – still open for business today – namely the Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street. Stokes describes the fare on offer at the Cheshire Cheese on another night:

‘… Rossetti, pre Raphaelite and poet, came in also just as we were done, and set to work vigorously at a Yorkshire ham and drew Woodward[3] out capitally. Rossetti I had dined with the evening before at a strange place in a little court off Fleet St. where we often go on Saturday evening and where a huge pudding composed of beefsteaks, kidney and oysters (mention this to my father) is dispensed (with the proper stout, bread and potatoes) to visitors commanding the sum of 2/-. … By the way, Rossetti told me that he had heard Tennyson read Maud and the poet introduced a number of passages which do not occur in the printed copies but will doubtless appear in subsequent editions. …’

The memoir of Guido Cavalcanti which Rossetti is said by Munby to have read was that which appeared in his 1861 volume The Early Italian Poets, published with the generous support of John Ruskin. Since we shall have cause to encounter briefly a number of medieval poets in the course of this lecture, it is worth noting that Guido Cavalcanti was a close friend of the perhaps more famous Dante Alighieri. Born in Florence in the 1250s, Cavalcanti was an important Tuscan poet and troubadour. He seems to have been an atheist. His most famous work, Donna me prega, is a philosophical meditation on love written in the form of a canzone or Tuscan ballad style. The work of Cavalcanti thus exemplifies the kind of poetic model which so inspired the Pre-Raphaelites: metrically intricate and complex, erotic and philosophical in subject matter, but expressed in a popular and vernacular mode of writing.

As Munby’s diary entry also notes, Rossetti’s brother William Michael Rossetti was engaged on a blank verse translation of the Inferno by Dante Alighieri, Cavalcanti’s more famous friend and contemporary, which was published by Macmillan in 1865. Macmillan was also a significant part of that London literary circle:

‘Publisher Macmillan had lately launched his own monthly, edited by David Mason, an old acquaintance of the Rossettis, and every Thursday evening held “open house” at the magazine’s office in Henrietta Street. Gabriel knew many of the regulars, including Whitley Stokes, Arthur Munby, and new fellow named Alexander Gilchrist, biographer and reviewer on The Critic, who was preparing a book on Blake.’[4]

 The literary and cultural value of Munby’s diary, as a record of Stokes’s involvement with the Pre-Raphaelites and other London-based literary and artistic figures is clear. So let us continue to the days leading up to Stokes’s departure for India.

Sunday 22 June 1862

‘Stokes, Dante Rossetti, Ormsby, and Ralston, came to breakfast with me by invitation: Litchfield could not come. It was my farewell gathering for Stokes: but Rossetti invited us all to his rooms tomorrow. He seems to have recovered, outwardly at least, the loss of his wife. We sat at the open window looking on the gardens, and smoked and told stories and discussed varied books and men, till after two. … Rossetti this morning, to my delight, dwelt with warm admiration upon the portrait of my darling – little suspecting who or what she was. “It is a beautiful face” he said “a remarkable face indeed”; & he was anxious to get a copy. “I should like to know that lady” he added. Yes: that lady, who is wasting her beauty in drudgery, and who looks no higher than to clean one’s boots.’[5]

Munby’s darling is, of course, Hannah Cullwick, with whom Munby had a secret relationship and later marriage. Munby’s description of her as ‘wasting her beauty in drudgery’ may seem at first to indicate a desire to rescue her from her life of domestic labour, but as I noted earlier, even after their marriage, Munby and Hannah continued to live as master and servant rather than husband and wife. For example, as Hannah herself noted in one of her diary entries a decade later:

‘But Massa would not sleep in his own room, but downstairs in the kitchen bedroom with me – & we talk’d together till two o’clock. And in the morning he noticed how rough my knees are – they feel like a nutmeg grater, so different to his, & M. was so pleas’d to feel ‘em, cause he said “it was such a true sign of being a servant”’.[6]

The detailed descriptions which Munby wrote of Hannah being dirty from ‘drudgery’ conducted in her own home as his wife suggest some complexity in his view of her ‘wasting her beauty in drudgery’ and her unwillingness to look higher than to ‘clean one’s boots’. The reference to Rossetti having recovered ‘outwardly at least’ the loss of his wife refers to the death of Elizabeth or ‘Lizzie’ Siddal, the poet, artist and artists’ model, who had died of a drug overdose – probably suicide – four months previously after suffering many years of mental illness, laudanum addiction and psychological distress exacerbated by the stillbirth of her child and the repeated infidelities of Dante Rossetti.


Lizzie Siddal

Amongst the social group described in the diary entry for 22 June are many of Stokes’s close friends and associates. Rossetti himself of course we have already encountered. But the others mentioned are John (or as Stokes often called him ‘Jack’) Ormsby, William Ralston Sheddon, and the absent Richard Buckley Litchfield. Ormsby was one of Stokes’s oldest friends. Just a year older than Stokes, Ormsby was born in Co. Mayo, and had been educated at Trinity College Dublin. Like Stokes, he left Dublin to study the law in London, at Middle Temple, but Ormsby was never called to the Bar. Rather, he became renowned as a literary scholar and translator: in particular, he is best known for his 1885 translation and analysis of Don Quixote.

Whitley Stokes’s friendship with Ormsby led to another important contribution to literary history. As John Drew noted in his wonderful essay in the book on Stokes which I jointly edited with Paul Russell in 2011, Stokes played a vital role in the eventual popularisation of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation, or English reworking, of the quatrains attributed to an eleventh-century Persian scientist, namely, the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam: ‘walking down (what is now) Charing Cross Road one day early in July 1861 with his friend the Hispanist John Ormsby (1829-95), Stokes discovered remaindered copies of the Rubaiyat in the penny box outside Quaritch’s shop, recognised its value as poetry, bought and gave copies to at least Samuel Ferguson and Dante Gabriel Rossetti among his friends and so alerted both the Irish [poets] and the Pre-Raphaelites to the existence of the work’.[7] The following year, of course, Stokes set off for India taking a copy of the Ruabaiyat with him, we can assume, since this must have formed the basis for the pirate edition published in Madras which was a key intermediary in the publishing history of what in its second and subsequent editions would go on to be one of the most popular and widely read works of nineteenth-century literature. Its origins in medieval Persian poetry fits with the international, culturally diverse and linguistically adept medievalism of Stokes and his friends.


Where Ormsby excelled in the translation of Spanish literature, not only Cervantes’s Don Quixote but also the medieval Castillian epic poem on El Cid, another of Stokes’s companions that night, William Ralston Shedden, made his name with the study and translation of literature in Russian. He attended Trinity College Cambridge, where he too studied the law, but he pursued a scholarly career, beginning in the printed books department of the British Museum. In addition to translations of Russian folktales and fables, Ralston significantly made the works of the great nineteenth-century Russian novelist and short story writer, Ivan Turgenev, available to an Anglophone audience. Ralston was also closely involved in the Working Men’s College, and commented astutely on the problems of social inequality both in London and in Paris. Ralston developed severe mental health problems and was exhibiting suicidal tendencies from as early as 1882. After he resigned from his post at the British Museum, one of his former colleagues, Robert Kennaway Douglas, noted:

‘… the absence of settled employment intensified the defects of a highly impressionable and volatile temperament. For weeks together he would remain, a victim of acute mental depression, in his rooms in Alfred Place, and then would suddenly reappear in his old haunts with all and more than his youthful elasticity of spirit.’[8]

Towards the end of his life, Ralston became a drug addict and was found dead on 6 August 1889, with a sheet of gutta-percha (natural latex) over his head, holding a bottle of chloroform. According to his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the coroner recorded a verdict of death by misadventure.


Richard Buckley Litchfield (1832-1903) was the friend who was unable to attend that night, but he was certainly well acquainted with Stokes and was present on other occasions. Munby wrote in his diary on 21st February 1859, for example, that one evening they

‘Talked of philology (of course, Stokes being present), books, and so on to creeds & Theology. This last however I speedily discouraged & put out, finding Litchfield assuming, in his usual offhand way, that Matthew or Luke never dreamt of the Divinity of Christ, and Stokes maintaining the contrary “but without committing himself” to any belief.’

Litchfield’s religious scepticism comes in spite of his work – like Munby – for the Ecclesiastical Commissioners’ Office. Litchfield was a founder of the Working Men’s College. Like Munby and Ralston, Litchfield had studied at Trinity College Cambridge. Like many of Stokes’s friends he then turned to the study of the law. Litchfield was admitted to the Inner Temple and was called to the Bar in 1863. Litchfield married a daughter of Charles Darwin and, in her fascinating portrait of her family, entitled Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood, Litchfield’s niece by marriage, Gwen Raverat, recalls her ‘Uncle Richard’ in the following affectionate terms:

‘He was a nice funny little man, whose socks were always coming down; he had an egg-shaped waistcoat, and a fuzzy, waggly, whitey-brown beard, which was quite indistinguishable, both in colour and texture, from the Shetland shawl which Aunt Etty generally made him wear round his next.’[9]


Richard Buckley Litchfield

Litchfield’s religious scepticism, as suggested by Munby, was countered that evening by Stokes, who argued the opposite, though apparently, as Munby said, not committing himself to any particular belief. This is typical of Stokes’s contrarian tendencies.

But to return to the 22nd June 1862, Munby’s farewell dinner for Stokes was to prove to be not the end, but rather the beginning of a long goodbye. At the outset, Rossetti’s attendance at Munby’s farewell dinner had seemed to be in doubt. However, not only did Rossetti turn up on 22nd, he decided to host a farewell gathering of his own the following day, the 23rd of June. And we can see from his correspondence that he was to invite the sculptor Alexander Munro, who also taught at the Working Men’s College. As Stokes wrote in another letter to his sister:

‘Munro the sculptor has given me a large medallion of Millais and a photograph of a drawing of Rossetti’s illustrating that song in Philip van Artevelde, “Quoth tongue of neither maid nor wife”, etc.’

Philip van Artevelde was a fourteeth-century Flemish patriot, who was executed for his part in a rebellion in Ghent. His life was the subject of a play by Sir Henry Taylor, published in 1834, which was the inspiration for Rossettti’s drawing, yet another instance of the medieval inspiration or source material for these nineteenth-century artists and writers.

Monday 23 June 1862

‘… at ten, to Rosetti’s new rooms 59 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. House of the old Earl of Chatham: lofty immense rooms, which R. has adorned with antique furniture and with his own masterly drawing. His brother was there, & Stokes, & C. B. Cayley, Madox Brown, Ralston … and others, including the intolerable little prig Swinburne. I stayed till after supper, and came home by 1 –.’[10]

We shall see more of the ‘intolerable little prig Swinburne’ in due course, but let us first fit some of these other figures into the jigsaw of Stokes’s life. Charles Bagot Cayley is largely remembered by history for his romantic relationship with Christina Rossetti, who felt unable to marry him because his religiosity conflicted with her own agnosticism. But he made significant contributions to literary culture in his own right. Although his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes his original poetic compositions as ‘lamentable’, ‘forced’ and ‘crude’, he made some important translations, including his terza rima translation of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, and his translation from Hebrew of the Psalms, published in 1860 as Metrical Translations of the Psalms. Stokes mentioned this latter work in an undated letter to his sister Margaret:

‘[Rossetti] and I strolled up afterwards to Charles Cayley’s, and we made him read us some of his psalms, a translation of which, from the Hebrew, he is now engaged upon.’[11]

The other person present at Rossetti’s gathering was the artist Ford Madox Brown, whose initial contact with the Pre-Raphaelites was less than auspicious:

 ‘Dante Gabriel Rossetti approached Brown for lessons in 1848, in a letter whose extravagance the touchy Brown took as satirical, setting off with a “stout stick” to rebuke the perpetrator.’[12]

Ford Madox Brown, similarly, though with a different dynamic, to Munby, fell in love with an illiterate servant girl, Emma Hill, who became first his mistress and later his second wife. Like Litchfield, Munby, Munro and Rossetti, he taught at the Working Men’s College and was concerned by social inequality. Like Stokes, Ralston, and Lizzie Siddal, he suffered from acute and often debilitating depression.

Tuesday 24 June 1862


John Everrett Millais, “Trust Me”

‘… At five I went down to Manchester Buildings, and found Walter Severn in, with Joyce of the Privy Council Office. Severn was making a large drawing of the view from his window, which looks out upon the river. It is a noble view, and in the fitful sunset light was full of picturesque effect. The river and its banks from Westminster almost to Blackfriars; and the dome of S. Paul’s for a central mass, bosomed in purple mist. He told me by the way, as a thing told to him by Millais, how the fine picture of “Trust me” in this year’s Academy was done. Millais, staying in the country, saw an elegant girl in a brown silk dress: got her to sit to him, and painted her figure in, without background or companion, and without any purpose. Coming to town afterwards & wanting a subject for a picture, someone suggested that he should add a man’s figure to this canvas. He did so accordingly; but still without any definite aim; in so much that he knew not what to call the picture, till a lady said “Call it Trust me”. The execution is wonderful: but this is not the way in which great pictures are conceived!

            … at ten I went to Lower Belgrave Place to a gathering at Munro’s.

            … Ralston Rossetti Sotheby Stokes and I walked home together: but Stokes and I tête à tête – for it was our last talk. We discoursed – or rather he did – of Celtic mythology and the old Irish legends; some of which he related to me, in his passionate poetic way – and beautiful they were. He lamented his departure from the study of his “beloved philology”; & many here and in Germany – Max Müller among them – lament it too; for Stokes has few equals in the knowledge of Celtic speech & history. And we talked, arm in arm, of all he will do in Madras: just like a couple of boys building castles in the air …’[13]

And here we find Stokes’s niche among this circle of friends. Where Ralston excelled in Russian and Ormsby in Spanish, where Dante Rossetti is famed for his translations of early Italian poets and Cayley immersed himself in Hebrew, Stokes’s ‘beloved philology’ was centred first and foremost in his ability in the Celtic languages and particularly Old and Middle Irish. Stokes’s earliest publications, beginning in the early 1850s ranged across European literatures, discussing, for example, Danish ballads and Serbian folksongs. But his real contribution to scholarship was in Celtic. It was the publication in 1853 of Zeuss’s Grammatica Celtica which really fired Stokes’s intellect. The philological riches of Old Irish, Welsh, Breton and Continental Celtic captivated Stokes, and he saw that the vast corpus of Old and Middle Irish literature in particular needed to be edited, translated and made available to philologists and the reading public alike.

Stokes’s reputation as a somewhat dry and acerbic scholar may make it difficult for any Celtic specialists in the audience to imagine him recounting Old Irish tales in a “passionate poetic way”, but his private correspondence and the testimony of his friends, show that Stokes was a far more complex person than his prodigious output, which paints him as a kind of one-man philological publishing machine, would suggest. When he left for India in 1862, he was just gathering steam as a scholar of medieval Celtic language and literature, but he was pushed by personal and financial pressures to seek his fortune overseas, writing to his father in February of 1862 that:

‘my heart is cut to the quick when I think how little I have done in return for all you have done and suffered for me. But I must go. There is no hope for me here.’

Also indicative of Stokes’s mental state is his comment in a letter to his sister, Margaret:

‘Coleridge at the end of the preface to his poems talks of the exceeding great reward that poetry has been to him – I forget the passage and have not got it by me, but you can look. I find law (sed longo intervallo, I suppose) acting in a similar fashion. I read, read, read, and never think about anything sad except when I write home and when I lie awake at night.’

The result of Stokes’s constant reading – undertaken to fend off the darkness – is that he made the greatest contribution to the editing and translating of medieval Irish literature of any scholar in the nineteenth century.

Wednesday 25 June 1862

‘… about ten, went to Dick’s, where some of Stokes’s more intimate friends entertained him at a quiet supper … After the supper, which was simple and unpretending, we had punch brought on: and sat smoking and discoursing in groups – earnestly enough, but with little jollity; for everyone felt that a friend was going away.

            Stokes Rossetti Swinburne & I had a good deal of talk about old French literature, with which, in spite of his priggishness, Swinburne seems to have a considerable acquaintance, though not always of a reputable kind. Rossetti brought as a parting gift to Stokes (I gave him the Opium Eater) a copy of the poems of François Villon, a contemporary of Louis XI, who besides being a famous poet, was also a thief and a pimp, and would have been hanged as such but for his genius.

            Rossetti read out some of the poems, which are full of vigour and pathos & descriptive power.’

So, what of that ‘intolerable little prig’ Swinburne who, in spite of his priggishness seems to have had an extensive knowledge of disreputable late medieval French literature? And what, just as importantly, of François Villon? Villon was fifteenth-century French poet, much of whose life is lost to history. Much of what we do know survives in the form of records of his multiple legal infractions and Munby was not far off the mark when in describing him as a “thief and a pimp”. More seriously, he seems to have been responsible for the death of a priest during a street fight in 1455. His poetry – and life – ensured his lasting fame, and he was an object of fascination for Dante Rossetti, who published his Three Translations from François Villon, 1450 (1870) and for Swinburne, who published his A Ballad of François Villon, Prince of All Ballad-Makers in 1878:

… Alas the joy, the sorrow, and the scorn,
That clothed thy life with hopes and sins and fears,
And gave thee stones for bread and tares for corn
And plume-plucked gaol-birds for thy starveling peers
Till death clipt close their flight with shameful shears;
Till shifts came short and loves were hard to hire,
When lilt of song nor twitch of twangling wire
Could buy thee bread or kisses; when light fame
Spurned like a ball and haled through brake and briar,
Villon, our sad bad glad mad brother’s name! …


A. C. Swinburne

Swinburne’s fascination with his fifteenth-century “brother”, Villon, is unsurprising, given Swinburne’s own reputation for scandalous behaviour, a reputation which he worked hard to cultivate. Swinburne was a masochist and alcoholic, but he seems not to have indulged in the kind of taboo activities – such as cannibalism and bestiality – that he encouraged rumours about. Given Stokes’s social and political conservatism, it is hard to imagine them as friends, and yet they were brought together by their common interest in language and European medievalism.

‘So passed the night till 2.30: and then our party broke up, and it was pleasant and affecting to see the warmth and tenderness with which one after another wrung Stokes’s hand and bad God bless him and Goodbye. He and I and Rossetti Ralston & Swinburne walked down to Middle Temple Gate; & there I parted with my friend of ten years, with that heartiness and lingering but not unmanly sorrow which one feels at such a time, when recollections of one’s intercourse rush in, as it were, into the gap that opens between your life and his; and he is going into a far country, from whence he returns, years and years hence, who knows what will have become of all of us? …’[14]

Retrospect allows us to know what Munby could not have known then, namely, what became of all of them. Some, such as Rossetti, have made a greater impact on the popular consciousness than others, but all made their various – and in some cases significant – contributions to literature and literary scholarship. Munby himself was able to add a note to his diary at a later date, recording that Stokes returned to England in 1882 as a member of the governor-general’s council, that is, as legal member of the Council of India.[15]

Munby later added another note to his diary entry for 25th June. After Stokes and Munby, Rossetti, Ralston and Swinburne had walked back to Middle Temple Gate, Munby recalled that at the entrance to the Gate:

‘Swinburne ran off to get “Sordello” for Stokes; exclaiming ‘What – go to India without Sordello!’[16]

Robert Browning’s Sordello of course fits perfectly into the intellectual life of Stokes’s circle. A long, narrative – and notoriously difficult – poem, it tells the story of the thirteenth-century troubadour, Sordello da Goito, thus reflecting the sustained interest with medieval European literary traditions which characterised the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Swinburne would later be known as a great champion of the work, so it is fitting that we see him running off to grab a copy for Stokes as they bade each other farewell.



And so we leave Stokes, sailing off to India, to make his fortune in the service of Empire, to make his reputation as a lawyer in the codification of Anglo-Indian law, to make his reputation as a Celtic scholar in the editing and translating of many great works of medieval Irish literature, with a copy of Sordello, thrust into his hands by Swinburne, and Browning’s words in the opening book of Sordello might serve as a closing thought as Stokes departs from our view, just one creative, passionate, adventurous young man from a circle of many creative, passionate, adventurous young men and women :

… Never, I should warn you first,

Of my own choice had this, if not the worst

Yet not the best expedient, served to tell

A story I could body forth so well

By making speak, myself kept out of view,

The very man as he was wont to do,

And leaving you to say the rest for him:

Since, though I might be proud to see the dim

Abysmal Past divide its hateful surge,

Letting of all men this one man emerge

Because it pleased me, yet, that moment past,

should delight in watching first to last

His progress as you watch it, not a whit

More in the secret than yourselves who sit

Fresh-chapleted to listen: …


Elizabeth Boyle, Maynooth University, 2016

Note on sources:

This lecture is greatly indebted to the contributions to Elizabeth Boyle and Paul Russell, ed, The Tripartite Life of Whitley Stokes (1830-1909) (Dublin, 2011), as well as to the following: Derek Hudson, Munby, Man of Two Worlds: The Life and Diaries of Arthur J. Munby (London, 1972); the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; the Dictionary of Irish Biography; and Whitley Stokes’s unpublished letters to his family (Trinity College Dublin, MS 7389).

[1] Hudson, ed., Munby, p. 15.

[2] Hudson, ed., Munby, p. 91. Hudson adds (n. 7) that ‘this entry is in note form in Munby’s secondary diary; one regrets that he did not enlarge on it. Rossetti was then living at 14 Chatham Place with his ailing wife. His book of “early Italian poems” was a collection of translations, The Early Italian Poets; its publication in 1861 was made possible by Ruskin’s generosity. Rossetti included an essay on Dante and Guido Cavalcanti in this volume, which was republished under another title in 1874. His brother William Michael Rossetti was engaged on a blank verse translation of Dante’s Inferno (Macmillan, 1865)’.

[3] Benjamin Woodward (1816-61), Irish architect.

[4] Jan Marsh, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Painter and Poet (London, 1999), p. 225.

[5] Hudson, ed., Munby, p. 127.

[6] Hudson, ed., Munby, p. 345.

[7] Drews, ‘Stokes and the Rubáiyát’, p. 115.

[8] Cited in Barbara McCrimmon, ‘W. R. S. Ralston (1829-89): Scholarship and Scandal in the British Museum’, British Library Journal 14 (1988), 178-98, at p. 195.

[9] Gwen Raverat, Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood, p. 121.

[10] Hudson, ed., Munby, p. 127.

[11] Whitley Stokes to Margaret Stokes, undated, TCD MS 7389/75[b].

[12] Tim Barringer, ‘Brown, Ford Madox (1821-1893)’, ODNB.

[13] Hudson, ed., Munby, pp. 127-8.

[14] Hudson, ed., Munby, p. 128.

[15] Hudson, ed., Munby, p. 128.

[16] Hudson, ed., Munby, p. 128.

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