Charles Bagot Cayley was a linguist and translator. He is best known today as a long-term close friend of the poetess Christina Rossetti.
He was born near St Petersburg and his father Henry was a prominent English merchant in Russia. He was the younger brother of the major mathematician Arthur Cayley. He was educated in England, and studied at King’s College, London, where he was taught Italian by the exiled Gabriele Pasquale Giuseppe Rossetti, and Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating there in 1845.
For several years he worked in partnership as a patent agent. The partnership was dissolved in 1855, when he entered – again in partnership – a new venture: setting up advertising hoardings on railway stations. Unfortunately this venture was unsuccessful – it may well have been ahead of its time – and was dissolved in 1858, with Charles Bagot Cayley losing a lot of money. The rest of his life was spent in relative poverty, living in central London lodgings. He devoted himself to his real interests – philology and translation. He was a leading figure in the London Philological Society and a very able linguist. It is said that when the SPCK wanted to have the New Testament translated into Iroquois, they approached him: he did not know the language, but learnt enough of it in a month to complete the task.
A small volume of his poems, Psyche’s Interludes, was published in 1857 but did not attract great attention. He was most successful as a translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy: although his version (published in 1852) was eclipsed by those of Longfellow and Cary, it was the only one of the three to retain the metre and verse-form of the original, and he used a relatively simple English which reflected Dante’s use of everyday Italian. He translated other works from Italian, and also produced a metrical version of the Psalms. His other main works were translations of Aeschylus’ play Prometheus Bound and Homer’s Iliad: these again used the original metre, but the result was rather stilted and laboured.
He was close friends with the Rossetti family throughout his adult life. A rather scholarly and unworldly man, with little care for appearance, he was sometimes nicknamed by them the “wombat”. The painter Ford Madox Brown used him as the model for an eighteenth-century astronomer abstracted by his concentration of the planet Venus.
In the early 1860’s he and the poetess Christina Rossetti, Gabriele Rossetti’s daughter, fell in love. There were two impediments to their marriage: one was financial, but Christina’s brother William Michael Rossetti (a successful civil servant and art critic) offered to give them an allowance. The bigger obstacle was Charles Bagot Cayley’s agnosticism: Christina Rossetti was a devout high Anglican and felt she could not marry someone who did not share her religious sympathies. Nonetheless they remained devoted to each other till his death. Several of Christina’s poems were about their love, and one – The Wombat – was inspired by the Rossettis’ nickname for him.
William Rossetti described him as having “a very large cerebral development, dark hair and eyes, ruddy cheeks, and fairly regular features – which, with the advance of age, became rather pinched. He smiled much, in a furtive sort of way, as if there were some joke which he alone appreciated in full, but into some inkling of which he was willing to induct a less perceptive bystander. To laugh was not his style. Cayley’s costume was always shabby and out of date, yet with a kind of prim decorum in it too. His manner was absent-minded in the extreme. If anything were said to him, he would often pause so long before replying that one was inclined to ‘give it up’, but at last the answer came in a tone between hurry and confusion, and with an articulation far from easy to follow. In truth one viewed his advent with some apprehension, only too conscious that some degree of embarrassment was sure to ensue.”
Charles Bagot Cayley died at his London lodgings of heart disease on 5 December 1883 – Christina Rossetti’s 53rd birthday – and was buried in Hastings, near his mother. In the words of Christina’s brother William, he “continued to be a living personality in her heart”, and she saved every memento of him. William wrote that as she lay dying in December 1894, she talked of him “in terms of almost passionate intensity.”