Bohemian sensuality and medieval revivalism
Article by Mary Vareli
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (12 May 1828 – 9 April 1882) was a poet, illustrator, translator and a painter, but above all a romantic bohemian, having founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. According to John Ruskin and Walter Pater, Rossetti was “the most important and original artistic force in the second half of the nineteenth century in Great Britain”. Whistler in his famous comment exclaimed “He was a king!”
“I cannot compliment them (the Brotherhood) on common sense” said Ruskin. First and foremost Pre-Raphaelitism stemmed from romantic tendencies, later to be called the Gothic Movement.Of the three principals of the brotherhood Rossetti was the one with the weakest grasp of the principles he espoused, as well as the first to diverge from the path the Brotherhood
The question is how he ended up symbolizing the movement? Was it luck? Was it “playing the hand that was dealt him”? The only undisputable fact that was that “Rossetti was a romantic rebel who had nothing to lose in upsetting the social applecart, as the son of an Italian émigré he felt he had no place in English society, and thus no stake in it.” (Terri Hardin, 1996).
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was the son of an Neapolitan scholar, patriot and political refugee, Gabriele Pasquale Giuseppe Rossetti, and a religious English mother, Frances Polidori . Named Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti he used the name “Dante” first, to honor Dante Alighier, but his family called him “Gabriel”. The Rossetti family was a family that encouraged all expressions of art, as his sister Christina Rossetti was also a poet, his brother William Michael Rossetti a critic , and his second sister Maria Francesca Rossetti an author. Revolution, Romanticism and Religious Fervor were the three prevailing influences under the roof of Rossetti’s parents. It is worth mentioning that Rossetti’s maternal uncle had been Lord Byron’s physician. Despite the abundance of talent the family suffered from poverty and especially the mother, daughter and Dante himself suffered from melancholia. Rossetti started drawing at four, writing at five and translating Dante at seventeen!
The young Rossetti is described as “self-possessed, articulate, passionate and charismatic” (Treuherz et al., 2003), but also “ardent, poetic and feckless”( Hilton, 1970). Born in England he was brought up in an environment of cultural and political activity that, according to critics, was more influential to his learning than his formal education at King’s College, from 1836 to 1841, Henry Sass’s Drawing Academy from 1841 to 1845 and the Antique School of the Royal Academy, dropping it in 1848 and studying under Ford Madox Brown; an influential figure for Rossetti and ardent supporter, probably the one that with his ideas connected the Brotherhood with social relevance, as to his opinions on Christian socialism and idealism. Like Hunt Rossetti was first rejected from The Royal Academy, as it was said “he lacked the discipline to conquer classical forms.
Rossetti tried to gain William Holman Hunt’s friendship, following his exhibition of “The Eve of St. Agnes” painting. The painting illustrated a poem by the little-known, at that time, John Keats, so Rossetti with his own poem “The Blessed Damozel” tried to imitate Keats, believing that Hunt might share his artistic and literary ideals, and so the latter did; in this way they formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which, like Romanticism, was an escapist movement wishing to go back to a world prior to the High Renaissance of Raphael reforming English Art, ruled at that time by family portraits. The Brotherhood rejected the mechanistic approach, first adopted by the Mannerist artists that succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo, as well as the training regime introduced by Sir Joshua Reynolds. They adored the intensity of colors and the complex compositions of Quattrocento Italian and Flemish art.
The critic John Ruskin wrote:
“Every Pre-Raphaelite landscape background is painted to the last touch, in the open air, from the thing itself. Every Pre-Raphaelite figure, however studied in expression, is a true portrait of some living person.” (Quoted in Marsh, 1996)
Rossetti remained influenced by the medieval art and poetry, placing the modern aspect of the Pre-Raphaelite movement second in his preferences. In 1850 the first issue of the Brotherhood’s magazine, “The Germ”, was published, featuring his poem The Blessed Damozel. Rossetti, admiring Poe’s “The Raven”, wrote this poem as a counterpart to it. (“The Painterly Image in Poetry” – The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age. 2009). It shows the viewpoint of the dead woman, who is sad in heaven, separated from her lover. Although she dreams of what it will be like when they are reunited, the poem suggests that he is unlikely ever to join her in heaven. Rossetti revised the poem twice and republished it in 1856, 1870 and 1873 also using the same title for one of his best known paintings. The poem also inspired Claude Debussy’s “La damoiselle élue” (1888), a cantata for two soloists, female choir, and orchestra. “The Blessed Damozel” is perhaps the best known poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
The Blessed Damozel
The blessed damozel lean’d out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters still’d at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.
Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem,
No wrought flowers did adorn,
But a white rose of Mary’s gift,
For service meetly worn;
Her hair that lay along her back
Was yellow like ripe corn.
Her seem’d she scarce had been a day
One of God’s choristers;
The wonder was not yet quite gone
From that still look of hers;
Albeit, to them she left, her day
Had counted as ten years.
(To one, it is ten years of years.
. . . Yet now, and in this place,
Surely she lean’d o’er me–her hair
Fell all about my face ….
Nothing: the autumn-fall of leaves.
The whole year sets apace.)
It was the rampart of God’s house
That she was standing on;
By God built over the sheer depth
The which is Space begun;
So high, that looking downward thence
She scarce could see the sun.
It lies in Heaven, across the flood
Of ether, as a bridge.
Beneath, the tides of day and night
With flame and darkness ridge
The void, as low as where this earth
Spins like a fretful midge.
Around her, lovers, newly met
‘Mid deathless love’s acclaims,
Spoke evermore among themselves
Their heart-remember’d names;
And the souls mounting up to God
Went by her like thin flames.
And still she bow’d herself and stoop’d
Out of the circling charm;
Until her bosom must have made
The bar she lean’d on warm,
And the lilies lay as if asleep
Along her bended arm.
From the fix’d place of Heaven she saw
Time like a pulse shake fierce
Through all the worlds. Her gaze still strove
Within the gulf to pierce
Its path; and now she spoke as when
The stars sang in their spheres.
The sun was gone now; the curl’d 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.
(Ah sweet! Even now, in that bird’s song,
Strove not her accents there,
Fain to be hearken’d? When those bells
Possess’d the mid-day air,
Strove not her steps to reach my side
Down all the echoing stair?)
“I wish that he were come to me,
For he will come,” she said.
“Have I not pray’d in Heaven?–on earth,
Lord, Lord, has he not pray’d?
Are not two prayers a perfect strength?
And shall I feel afraid?
“When round his head the aureole clings,
And he is cloth’d in white,
I’ll take his hand and go with him
To the deep wells of light;
As unto a stream we will step down,
And bathe there in God’s sight.
“We two will stand beside that shrine,
Occult, withheld, untrod,
Whose lamps are stirr’d continually
With prayer sent up to God;
And see our old prayers, granted, melt
Each like a little cloud.
“We two will lie i’ the shadow of
That living mystic tree
Within whose secret growth the Dove
Is sometimes felt to be,
While every leaf that His plumes touch
Saith His Name audibly.
“And I myself will teach to him,
I myself, lying so,
The songs I sing here; which his voice
Shall pause in, hush’d and slow,
And find some knowledge at each pause,
Or some new thing to know.”
(Alas! We two, we two, thou say’st!
Yea, one wast thou with me
That once of old. But shall God lift
To endless unity
The soul whose likeness with thy soul
Was but its love for thee?)
“We two,” she said, “will seek the groves
Where the lady Mary is,
With her five handmaidens, whose names
Are five sweet symphonies,
Cecily, Gertrude, Magdalen,
Margaret and Rosalys.
“Circlewise sit they, with bound locks
And foreheads garlanded;
Into the fine cloth white like flame
Weaving the golden thread,
To fashion the birth-robes for them
Who are just born, being dead.
“He shall fear, haply, and be dumb:
Then will I lay my cheek
To his, and tell about our love,
Not once abash’d or weak:
And the dear Mother will approve
My pride, and let me speak.
“Herself shall bring us, hand in hand,
To Him round whom all souls
Kneel, the clear-rang’d unnumber’d heads
Bow’d with their aureoles:
And angels meeting us shall sing
To their citherns and citoles.
“There will I ask of Christ the Lord
Thus much for him and me:–
Only to live as once on earth
With Love,–only to be,
As then awhile, for ever now
Together, I and he.”
She gaz’d and listen’d and then said,
Less sad of speech than mild,–
“All this is when he comes.” She ceas’d.
The light thrill’d towards her, fill’d
With angels in strong level flight.
Her eyes pray’d, and she smil’d.
(I saw her smile.) But soon their path
Was vague in distant spheres:
And then she cast her arms along
The golden barriers,
And laid her face between her hands,
And wept. (I heard her tears.)
As a child Dante Gabriel Rossetti was tutored at home in German and read the Bible, Shakespeare, Goethe’s Faust, The Arabian Nights, Dickens, and the poetry of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron. After leaving school, he indulged mostly in Poe, Shelley, Coleridge, Blake, Keats, Browning, and Tennyson.
For many years Rossetti worked on English translations of Italian poetry including Dante Alighieri’s “La Vita Nuova”, which along with Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” inspired his art of the 1850s. He created a method of painting in watercolors, using thick pigments mixed with gum to give rich effects similar to medieval illuminations and developed a novel drawing technique in pen-and-ink.
“The Maids of Elfen-Mere” (1855), was his first published illustration for a poem by his friend William Allingham, and he contributed two illustrations to Edward Moxon’s 1857 edition of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Poems and illustrations for works by his sister Christina Rossetti.
Talking of the first and second era of Romantic Poets of England, oddly, certain poets of the era seem somewhat left out, either fitting in both categories or none, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, William Blake, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, Robert Burns and A.C. Swinburne. Admittedly, insecurity and self-reproach manifested themselves in all but his earliest poems.
In 1850 Rossetti met Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, “Lizzie,” then seventeen years old, a model of great importance for the Brotherhood, she was both his muse and his pupil, an amazing painter herself. They got married in 1860 and spend their common, passionate life in poverty, eccentricity and excess.
Rossetti’s first paintings were in oil, displaying the realist qualities of the movement. This is best shown in painting such as “Girlhood of Mary Virgin” (1849) and “Ecce Ancilla Domini” (1850).
“He was painting in oils with watercolor brushes, as thinly as in watercolor, on canvas which he had primed with white till the surface was a smooth as cardboard, and every tint remained transparent. I saw at once that he was not an orthodox boy, but acting purely from the aesthetic motive. The mixture of genius and dilettantism of both men shut me up for the moment, and whetted my curiosity.” William Bell (Marsh (1996)
His second major painting though, “Ecce Ancilla Domini” was stung by criticism, when exhibited in 1850, and the “increasingly hysterical critical reaction that greeted Pre-Raphaelitism” (Treuherz et al 2003) that year. So he turned to watercolors, which could be sold privately. Although his work subsequently won support from John Ruskin, Rossetti only rarely exhibited thereafter. Charles Dickens despised the Brotherhood as the most vituperative critic of them wrote, for instance, for Millais’ “Christ in the House of his Parents”: “Commonplace and Irrelevant”. The Pre-Raphaelite Brothers comforted each other with companionship, healthy criticism, and encouragement early in their careers and defended each other against initial public hostility.
Around 1860, Rossetti abandoned the dense medieval compositions of the 1850s and returned to oil painting. It was then that powerful close-up images of women in flat pictorial spaces emerged characterized by dense color. These paintings became a major influence on the development of the European Symbolist movement. The depiction of women became stylized, his favorite models were Fanny Cornforth, exhibiting physical eroticism, Jane Burden, depicted as an ethereal goddess, and his wife Elizabeth Siddal. It is preferable not to focus on triangle between Rossetti, Jane Burden, and Morris, as it was complex and sometimes desperate for all three of them, Dante seemed obsessed with her.
In his paintings he idealized women who were withdrawn, invalid, and/or melancholic.
“These new works were based not on medievalism, but on the Italian High Renaissance artists of Venice, Titian and Veronese.” (Treuherz et al 2003)
In 1861, Rossetti contributed designs for stained glass and other decorative objects, becoming a founding partner in the decorative arts firm, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. with Morris, Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, Philip Webb, Charles Faulkner and Peter Paul Marshall.
It was then that his life suddenly changed leading to his own death, his – repeatedly cheated by him- wife Elizabeth Siddal died of an overdose of laudanum in 1862, shortly after giving birth to a stillborn child. Rossetti started becoming increasingly depressed, having buried his unpublished poems with her at Highgate Cemetery, and later having them dug up. He then idealized her image as Dante’s Beatrice in a number of paintings, such as Beata Beatrix. Nevertheless, the 1850s and ‘60s saw Rossetti’s reputation grow rapidly, marked by the unfortunate tragedy.
After the unfortunate event Rossetti leased Tudor House at 16, Cheyne Walk, in Chelsea and spent 20 years there surrounded by extravagant pieces of furniture and a parade of exotic birds and animals, fascinated with wombats. In September 1869 he acquired the first of two pet wombats, which he named “Top”, bringing to the dinner table and allowed to sleep in the large centerpiece during meals. Later he purchased “a llama and a toucan which he dressed in a cowboy hat and was trained to ride the llama round the dining table for his amusement.” (National Library of Australia)
Rossetti painted many voluptuous images of Fanny Cornforth, described delicately by William Allington as Rossetti’s “housekeeper”, in her own establishment nearby in Chelsea between 1863 and 1865, and in 1865 he discovered auburn-haired Alexa Wilding, a dressmaker and would-be actress who was engaged to model for him on a full-time basis and sat for “The Blessed Damozel” and other paintings. Comparatively little is known about her due to the lack of any romantic connection with Rossetti. In 1870 he published the poems he retrieved from his wife’s grave in the volume Poems by D. G. Rossetti.
The savage reaction of critics to Rossetti’s first collection of poetry contributed to a mental breakdown in June 1872 and “spent his days in a haze of chloral and whiskey” (Todd , 2001). The next summer he created a soulful series of dream-like portraits. In 1874, Morris reorganized his decorative arts firm, cutting Rossetti out of the business. Rossetti abruptly left Kelmscott in July 1874 and never returned. Towards the end of his life, he sank into a morbid state, darkened by his drug addiction to chloral hydrate and increasing mental instability. He spent his last years as a recluse at Cheyne Walk.
On Easter Sunday, 1882, he died at the country house of a friend. He went there in an attempt to recover his health, destroyed by chloral as his wife’s had been destroyed by laudanum; he died of a disease of the kidneys. He is buried at Birchington-on-Sea, Kent, England. At his death he left behind the almost completed “Joan of Arc” and “Salutation of Beatrice.”
His grave is visited by admirers even today. Rossetti’s work influenced the European Symbolists and was a major precursor of the Aesthetic movement. He was also the main inspiration for a second generation of artists and writers influenced by the movement, most notably William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. With difficulty someone would imagine later nineteenth-century Victorian poetry and art without Rossetti’s influence.
No other poet of this century described more profoundly the Victorian anxieties, the metaphysical uncertainty, the sexual anxiety, the absence of love, the Victorian ambivalence, the loss of faith and the fear of time.
A Little While
A little while a little love
The hour yet bears for thee and me
Who have not drawn the veil to see
If still our heaven be lit above.
Thou merely, at the day’s last sigh,
Hast felt thy soul prolong the tone;
And I have heard the night-wind cry
And deemed its speech mine own.
A little while a little love
The scattering autumn hoards for us
Whose bower is not yet ruinous
Nor quite unleaved our songless grove.
Only across the shaken boughs
We hear the flood-tides seek the sea,
And deep in both our hearts they rouse
One wail for thee and me.
A little while a little love
May yet be ours who have not said
The word it makes our eyes afraid
To know that each is thinking of.
Not yet the end: be our lips dumb
In smiles a little season yet:
I’ll tell thee, when the end is come,
How we may best forget.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
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