D. G. Rossetti was the founder and the most important member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which came into being in 1848. Initially, the Pre-Raphaelite Movement was meant to wean contemporary painting from academism and take it back to realism, sensuousness, and devotion to detail-qualities which characterised the work of the Italian painters before Raphael (1483-1529).
The members of the Brotherhood intended to sweep away the dust of traditionalised sophistication which had been accumulating over the centuries in the field of painting. They abjured all unrealistic methods and exalted photographic representationalism.
Rossetti and some other members of “P.R.B.” were both painters and poets. It was natural, therefore, for the new movement to make itself felt in the field of poetry also. In poetry, too, the movement came in the form of a revolt against tradition-the poetic tradition of Tennyson. The poetry of Tennyson and other representative Victorians was felt by the brethren to be too academic and too much concerned with contemporary social problems. They believed in “art for art’s sake” and therefore scorned to soil the wings of their Muse by letting her fly too near the earth. Among the major Pre-Raphaelite poets are Rossetti himself, Morris, and Swinburne. It is impossible to discuss the works of all of them as if they were of apiece. Each one of these poets has his own individuality, and the poetry of each has itself varying shades from page to page. Nevertheless, we can discover some common links which run through the bulk of the work of all. Of all the Pre-Raphaelites, D. G. Rossetti is, to use Compton-Rickett’s words, “the most distinguished representative.”
Revolt against Tradition:
Rossetti rebelled both in painting and poetry against the set academic traditions. In poetry he departed from the tradition which considered poetry to be “a criticism of life” and which required it to be full of “high seriousness.” Unlike Tennyson Rossetti deals with no socio-political problems of the day. He refuses to take congnizance of the distressing and pressing .problems of his age, and leaves it to Tennyson and Arnold to worry their heads over the contemporary conflict between Science and Faith. Rossetti’s cult is the cult of art and beauty. It is perhaps only in Jenny that he seems willing to look at a contemporary (rather universal) problem-that of prostitution. But even there he prescribes no remedies. His treatment of prostitution is rather diagnostic than prophylactic. He, like other Pre-Raphaelites, loves to dwell in a dream-world of his own.
This “dream-world” is mostly provided by the Middle Ages. The medievalism of the Pre-Raphaelites had a “subtle something” which individualised it. A critic observes: “The return of this school” “as to a medievalism different from the tentative and scrappy medievalism of Percy, from the genial but slightly superficial medievalism of Scott, and even from the more exact but narrow and distinctly conventional medievalism of Tennyson.” “As a medievalist,” says Compton-Rickett, “Rossetti is obviously in congenial surrounding, for the mingled warp of sensuousness and supersensuousness, so characteristic of the Middle Ages, suited to a nicety his peculiar genius.” Many of his poems recapture the mystery, splendour, and beauty of the Middle Ages. The romantic medievalists before Rossetti-Scott, Keats, and Coleridge-were fascinated for different reasons. Rossetti’s interest in the Middle Ages was due to all these reasons. Witness Compton-Rickett’s opinion: “The human elements of old romance were finely apprehended by Scott and William Morris; the sensuous elements attracted Keats; the mystic elements inspired Coleridge. But no one poet has gathered up all these elements in the way that Rossetti has done.”
Sense of Mystery:
Two of these three “diverse elements” need elaboration. They are:-
(i) mysticism; and
To begin with, let us take mysticism, which we will treat in the sense of “suggestion of mystery” rather than a spiritual creed exalting transcendentalism or intuition. In his ability to create a sense of mystery, Rossetti sometimes approaches Coleridge himself. Take, for example, the following stanza from The Blessed Damozel:
The sun was gone now; the curled moon
Was like a little feather
Fluttering far down the gulf and now
She spoke through the still weather;
Her voice was like the voice the stars
Had when they sang together.
Consider, again, the following lines from Sister Helen:
Here high up in the balcony,
The moon flies face to face with me;
Outside it’s merry in the wind’s wake,
In the shaken trees the chill stars shake,
Hush, heard you a horse tread as you spoke;
Rightly does Compton-Rickett point out: “Coleridge alone could match the haunting mystery of lines like these.” Again consider the very opening lines which, with a question, the answer, and the refrain create a sense of sinister mystery:
‘Why did you melt your waxen men,
To-day is the third since you began’.
‘The time was long, yet the time ran,
O Mother, Mary Mother,
Three days to-day, between Hell and Heaven!
For instances of Rossetti’s successful attempts at creating a sense of mystery, consider also the following lines:
Words whose silence wastes and kills.
Girt in dark growths, yet glimmering with one star,
The spacious vigil of the stars.
Devotion to Detail:
The Pre-Raphaelites, as a rule, bothered more about the particular than about the general. Both in their painting and poetry we come across a persistent tendency to dwell scrupulously on each and every detail however insignificant by itself. They do not wield a broad and hurried brush, but love to linger, Spenser-like, on details. Of course, for faithfulness of representation, fidelity to details is necessary. However, sometimes this over-concern for details degenerates into a mannerism, though as often it also strikes the reader with a forceful, concrete effect. In a word, this tendency to overprize minor details is open to two dangers as follows:
(i) It may involve, as Samuel C. Chew avers, “the sacrifice of central emphasis.”‘
(ii) It may not serve any functional purpose at all. Consider in this context the following stanza from My Sister’s Sleep. The detailed and very concrete picturing of the moon arrests the attention of the reader at once, but the poem would not have suffered functionally without it
Without, there was a cold moon up,
Of winter radiance sheer and thin;
The hollow halo it was in
Was like an icy crystal cup.
But quite often Rossetti’s attention to details is functional as well as felicitous. It may be pointed out that, even before Rossetti, quite a few poets such as Tennyson (Mariana), Coleridge (Christabel) and Keats The Eve of St. Mark) had shown this tendency to linger pn simpleiand minute details. Spenser was perhaps the pioneer in this field. So Rossetti and other Pre-Raphaelites were just cultivating a tendency which was already there-though not in the same intensity.
In painting, the details are only of the visual kind, but in poetry they may be auditory as well. Rossetti in his poetry gives importance to both auditory and visual details. Consider some examples. First, the closing lines of A Last Confession (written after the manner of Browning’s dramatic monologues [ike My Last Duchess):
She had a mouth
Made to bring death to life-the underlip
Sucked in, as if it strove to kiss itself;
Her face was pearly pale.
Again, note the visual details in the very first stanza of his first important poem The Blessed Damozel:
The blessed Damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of Heaven…
She had three lilies in her hand
And the stars in her hair were seven.
The following lines from Jenny picture the young prostitute sleeping with her head on the speaker’s knee :
Why, Jenny, you ‘re asleep at last!
Asleep, poor Jenny, hard and fast-
So young and soft and tired; so fair,
With chin thus nestled in your hair,
Mouth quiet, eyelids almost blue
As if some sky of dreams shone through!
As an illustration of the abundance of auditory details see the following lines from My Sister’s Sleep:
Twelve struck; the sound, by dwindling years
Heard in each hour, crept off, and then
The ruffled silence spread again,
Like water that a pebble stirs.
Our mother rose from where she sat;
Her needles, as she laid them down,
Met lightly, and her silken gown
Settled; no other noise than that.
The accumulation of such sensory details make for sensuousness which has come to be recognized as one of the fundamental characteristics of all Pre-Raphaelite poetry. Rossetti, like several other members-of the “P.R.B.”, was a painter as well as a poet. It is not inexplicable, therefore, that he treated poetry as if it were painting. Compton-Rickett observes: “That the pictorial element is more insistent in Rossetti than in Keats is obviously due to the fact that Rossetti’s outlook on the world is essentially that of the painter. He thinks and feel in pigments.” Too much of “thinking and feeling in pigments” can also lead him to some defects. The two major defects are :
(i) Indulgence in over-decoration,
(ii) When related to the human body, the impression of sensuality or voluptuousness may be created.
We will consider the second under the next sub-head. Let us here give some examples of the Rossetti’s overwrought pictorialness which first pleases but then cloys the reader. The following illustrative lines are from The Bride’s Prelude:
The belt was silver, and the clasp
Of lozenged arm-bearings;
A world of mirrored tints minute
The rippling sunshine wrought into’t,
That flushed her hand and warmed her foot.
Deep in the sun-searched growths, the dragonfly Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky.
Compton-Rickett observes that “like Keats, he is carried away at times by his [intensity of sense impressions] into an ultra-opulence of “illustration that weakens his work as an artist.” When Rossetti shuns this “ultra-opulence” he can execute excellent pictorial effects-such as the following (in Jenny):
…your fair face I see
Reflected lying on my knee,
Where teems with first foreshadowing
Your pier-glass scrawled with diamond rings:
And on your bosom all night worn
Yesterday’s rose now droops alone,
But dies not yet this summer morn.
As said above, Rossetti’s sensuousness often takes the shape of voluptuousness when it comes to dwell upon the beauties of the human body. The Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Swinburne, exulted in the graces of the feminine body, and thus scandalised the prudish Victorians. Buchanan attacked Pre-Raphaelite poetry as the “fleshly school of poetry”-even though later he withdrew his charge. In some Rossetti poems such as Tory Town and many sonnets in The House of Life, we do come across “fleshly” details, even though he is much less candid than Swinburne. Even in Jenny he strikes the voluptuous note in the lines following:
Why Jenny, as I watch you there,–
For all your wealth of loosened hair,
Your silk ungirdled and unlac ‘d
And warm sweets open to the waist,
All golden in the lamplight gleam.
Rossetti was three quarters Italian; and he treated passion fundamentally as a hot-blooded Italian rather than a hoity-toity Englishman. Italy has been a land of eroticism peopled by seasoned voluptuaries since times immemorial. There is in Rossetti a frank admission of passion and its sensuous, even sensual, contours. But he is seldom coarse or ribald. All the sensuous details of the body and passion are artistically delivered with considerable finesse which cushions any shock which the sensibility of the reader might be otherwise subject to.
Moreover, to quote Compton-Rickett, “senses were for Rosetti sacramental emblems of the spirit.” The sensuous and the spiritual often merge and mingle in his pictures. He can well say:
The soul I know not from thy body, nor
Thee from myself, neither our love from God-
When- he is too voluptuous he tries to spiritualise everything, as he does in the following lines from Tory Town, where the parenthetical refrain is used as a vaguely spiritualising device:
Heavenborn Helen’, Sparta’s queen.
(O Troy Town!)
Had two breasts of heavenly sheen,
The sun and moon of the heart’s desire.
All Love’s lordship lay between.
Metre and Music:
Pre-Raphaelite poetry is rich not only in pictorial quality but also in the musical. The trouble is that some Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Swinburne, go to excess in both. Rossetti’s poetry is a model of well-manipulated music, neither too rich nor too austere. He does not, indulge in alliteration and onomatopoeia to the extent as Swinburne does. Rossetti was a successful metrical artist and he effectively made use of many stanzaic forms of his own invention. His use of various ballad measures is also very happy.