The Pre-Raphaelite movement, which was initiated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the mid-nineteenth century, was originally not a literary but an artistic movement. Rossetti, himself a painter (and a poet as well), felt that contemporary paintings had become too formal, academic, and unrealistic.
He desired to see it taken back to the realism, sensuousness, and devotion to detail which characterise the art of the Italian painters before Raphael. Raphael (1483-1520) was, no doubt, an excellent and noted painter of his day, but Rossetti and his ilk perhaps rightly thought that he had started the movement towards academism in art. Led by Rossetti some painters organised themselves in London in 1848 into a group which came to be called the “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.” Apart from Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Millais, Thomas Woolner, and James Collinson were the important members of this group. In painting, they broke the shackles of stereotyped traditions. Like Rousseau they effected “a return to Nature” by giving up the bulk of traditionalised sophistication which had accumulated over the centuries after Raphael. The creed of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was “an entire adherence to the simplicity of art.” Ruskin, who came to champion the cause of the Pre-Raphaelites in the teeth of severe opposition, said that “they imitate no pictures: they paint from nature only.” And again: “Every Pre-Raphaelite landscape background is painted to the last touch in the open air from the thing itself…Every minute accessory is painted in the same manner.” And when he said this, he said a great deal. The anti-conventionalism of the Pre-Raphaelites marks them as neo-romantics.
Rossetti and some other members of the Brotherhood were both painters and poets. Consequently, Pre-Raphaelitism, not remaining confined to painting, made itself felt in English poetry. The qualities which distinguished Pre-Raphaelite painting also characterised Pre-Raphaelite poetry. In poetry the movement came in the shape of a revolt against contemporary poetry of the kind of Tennyson’s which was full of tradition and involved in the immediate, mundane problems of contemporary society. To justify their ideas, the Brotherhood started a periodical publication, The Germ, which did not, however, extend beyond four numbers. As an organised group the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood ceased to exist beyond the early 1850’s. But with the meeting of Rossetti and William Morris in 1856,’the movement was revitalised. Other poets like Swinburne, Coventry Patmore, and Austin Dobson also came under Rossetti’s influence. But they did not go unattacked. Robert Buchanan came out with a stinging onslaught on what he considered was the indecently erotic nature of Pre-Raphaelite poetry. This attack was delivered in his article The Fleshly School of Poetry. Rossetti and Swinburne were quick to join issues with him, and the result was a fair mass of polemics.
The Antecedents of Pre-Raphaelitism:
Before we discuss the features of Pre-Raphaelite poetry, it will be profitable to cast a glance at the antecedents of Pre-Raphaelitism. First, of course, was the work of thirteenth-century Italian poets, which like that of the compatriot painters of the same age, was marked by sensuousness, devotion to detail, and realism. A kind of mysticism and love of symbolism also characterised their work. Next, there was Spenser whose poetry in its symbolism, sensuousness, and mystical overtones is near Pre-Raphaelite poetry. Last but not least was the poetry of nineteenth century English romantic poets, particularly Keats. Saintsbury in A History ofNineteenth Century Literature considers Pre-Raphaelitism a direct and legitimate development of the Romantic Revival in England.Coleridge’s supematuralism, Keats’s sensuousness, Shelley’s mysticism, Wordsworth’s concern for “the meanest flower that blows”-all merge into the poetry of the Pre-Raphaelites. The Pre-Raphaelites’ insistence on realism has to be taken with a grain of salt. In poetry, at last, they were as keen escapists as most of the Romantics themselves had been. A critic observes: “Despite their professed aim of realism, the Pre-Raphaelite poet tended ultimately toward the creation of a poetic realm in which medievalism, musicality, and vague religious feeling combined to achieve a narcotically escapist effect.” Lastly we may mention Tennyson himself, the metrical artist and connoisseur of sounds.
Let us now consider the salient features of Pre-Raphaelite poetry.
(1) Break with Tradition:
Pre-Raphaelite poetry broke with the set tradition of poets like Tennyson. The Pre-Raphaelites revolted against the over-concern of poets like Tennyson with contemporary socio-political problems. Consequently, none of the Pre-Raphaelites concerns himself with sordid realism and the mundane issues of his day, but excapes to a dreamworld of his own making.
This dream-world is often provided by the Middle Ages which had, even before the Pre-Raphaelites, exercised a strong hold on the minds of some Romantics like Coleridge, Keats, and Scott. Medieval Italy, being the land of artists before Raphael, held for them a very special attraction. The medievalism of the Pre-Raphaelites had “a subtle something” which differentiates it from that of the Romantics before them. Saintsbury observes in this context: “The return of this school was 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.” Some Pre-Raphaelites, such as Hunt and Millais the painter, were somewhat sceptical of medievalism but Rossetti and Morris, in particular, felt a compulsive fascination for the romance, chivalry, gorgeousness, mystery and supematuralism of the Middle Ages. Many of Rossetti’s poems (like The Blessed Damozel and Sister Helen) are redolent of the spirit of the Middle Ages. “As a medievalist,” says Compton-Rickett in A History of English Literature : “Rossetti is obviously in congenial surroundings for the mingled warp of sensuousness and supersensuousness, so characteristic of the Middle Ages, suited to a nicety his peculiar genius.” However, it was Rossetti alone who, among the members of the original Brotherhood, exalted medievalism to a cult. Later, Morris also came under the medieval spell. Morris was particularly interested in Chaucer, the fourteenth-century English poet. Though there is no resemblance worth the name between Morris and Chaucer, yet Morris’ interest in the Middle Ages (to which Chaucer belonged) is noteworthy. Like Rossetti he found asylum from the sordidness of contemporary life in the splendour of the Middle Ages. Most of Morris’ works (such as Guinever and Other Poems, The Haystack in the Flood, and some poems in the collection Earthly Paradise) are steeped in the medieval spirit. Explaining Morns’ return to the Middle Ages, Alfred Noyes observes in William Morris (English Men of Letters): “Morris turned to the Middle Ages not as a mere aesthete seeking an anodyne, not as an aesthetic scholar composing skilful exercises, but as a child turns to the fairy land.”
(3) Devotion to Detail:
The Pre-Raphaelites, as a rule, bothered more about the particular than about the general. Both in their painting and their poetry we come across a persistent tendency to dwell scrupulously on each and every detail, however minor or even insignificant by itself. They do not wield a broad and hurried brush, but love to linger on details for their own sake. They tried to paint the thing itself-not a traditional copy of it. For a perfect faithfulness of description the fidelity to details was, therefore, necessary. Sometimes this concern for details degenerates into a mannerised trick, but very often it strikes the reader with a forceful, concrete effect, making for freshness of perception. It may be pointed out that even before the Pre-Raphaelites, in some poems such as Tennyson’s Mariana, Coleridge’s Christabel, and Keats’s The Eve of St. Mark) this tendency to linger on simple details is discernible. Indeed, Christabel has rightly been called “the first Pre-Raphaelite poem.”
The details we have been talking about are purely visual in painting, but in poetry they may be auditory as well as visual. Pre-Raphaelite poets love both visual and auditory details. Now to take some examples. See the closing lines of Rossetti’ A Lost Confession:
She had a mouth
Made to bring death oflife-the underlip
Sucked in, as if it strove to kiss itself;
Her face was pearly pale.
Again, note the details in the very first stanza of The Blessed Damozel:
The blessed Damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lillies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.
The third and fourth lines are suggestive as well as concrete, but the last two lines could have been written by Defoe himself. Consider, again, the following passage from Morris’ Golden Wings:
There were five swans that never did eat
The water-weeds, for ladies came
Each day, and young knights did the same
And gave them cakes and bread for meat.
As an illustration of the abundance of auditory details, see the following passage from Rossetti’s 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.
Like Rossetti most Pre-Raphaelites were painters as well as poets. That explains much of the sensuousness of their poetry as well as their loving concern for details. Much of their poetry is as concrete as painting. Referring to Rossetti, 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 feels in pigments.” But this thinking and feeling “in pigments” sometimes leads the Pre- Raphaelites to excess, giving rise to two defects:
(i) Too much concern for detail without thematic relevance or any other functional significance. For instance, see the following lines from Rossetti’s My Sister’s Sleep:
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.
(ii) Excessive recourse to colourful decoration which within limits is pleasing enough, but becomes a cloying confection if carried beyond. As atypical instance of the Pre-Raphaelite taste for decoration consider the following lines from Christina Rossetti’s ^ Birthday:
Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes!
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes :
Work it in gold and silver grapes
In leaves and silver fleur-de-lys.
A quaint feature of Rossetti is his interchange of sensory functions: he appears to be capable, for instance, of hearing with his eyes and seeing with his ears. Thus in Silent Noon we have the phrase “visible silence”, and last four (parenthetical) words in The Blessed Damozel are “I heard her tears.”
(5) Fleshly School of Poetry:
The sensuousness of the Pre-Raphaelites was considered culpable by the prudish Victorians when it came to the beauties of the human body. The Pre-Raphaelites made no bones about the exhibition of their voluptuous tendencies. But it is difficult to charge them with grossness or immorality. Swinburne and others strongly reacted to the charge of Buchanan that the poetry of their school was “fleshly.” Such poem? as Rossetti’s Troy Town and The House of Life are somewhat “fleshly,” but Rossetti is not an indecent sensualist as he deals with the physical body as something interfused with the inner character and even the spirit itself. Swinburne, however, was much too daring. Grierson and Smith observe: “Never since Venus and Adonis, Hero andLeander and the Songs and Sonnets of Donne had the passion of the senses been presented with such daring frankness.” Swinburne struck the readers with as intense a feeling of shock mixed with amazement as Byron had done before him. Indeed, it is to be admitted that the Pre-Raphaelites had an emotional overplus which led them to excessive sensuousness not entirely free from the immoral taint. Swinburne by his “protracted adolescence rather than by adult passion”, paints, as A. C. Ward puts it, “the bitter blossoms of fierce kisses, the lips intertwined and bitten, the bruised throats and bosoms, the heaving limbs, the dead desires and barren lusts.” All this is “fleshly” enough.
(6) Metre and Music:
Pre-Raphaelite poetry is rich not only in pictorial quality but also in music. The trouble is that the Pre-Raphaelites go to excess in both. Swinburne exhibits both the merits and demerits of being over-musical. The excessive use of alliteration and onomatopoeic effects makes often for a cloying sweetness. Legouis observes: “Vowels call to vowels and consonants to consonants, and these links often seem stronger than the links of thought or imagery.” According to Compton-Rickett, Swinburne’s effects are harmonic rather than melodic. As an instance, see the following lines from his Tristram of Lyonesse (1882):
Nor shall they feel or fear, whose date is done,
Aught that made once more dark the living sun
And bitterer in their breathing lips the breath
Than the dark dawn and bitter dust of death.
Alliteration is good if it does not become a persistent mannerism, and if it does not “out-sound” the sense.