Rossetti, Dante Gabriel (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828–1882
(Born Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti) English poet, translator, and short story writer.
The following entry contains late twentieth-century criticism of Rossetti's works. For a chronological survey of earlier criticism, see NCLC, Volume 4.
Equally renowned as a painter and poet, Rossetti was the leader of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of artists and writers who sought to emulate the purity and simplicity of the Italian Proto-Renaissance school of art. A successful painter, Rossetti filled his canvases with richly colored expressions of human beauty, frequently characterized by elements of the supernatural. His poetry likewise features rich and sensuous imagery, vivid detail, and an aura of mysticism. Although the subjects of his verse are typically considered narrow, Rossetti is acknowledged as a master of the ballad and sonnet forms. "The Blessed Damozel," "Sister Helen," and the sonnet sequence "The House of Life" are often noted among his finest poetic achievements.
An exiled Italian patriot, Rossetti's father came to England four years before Rossetti's birth in 1828. Rossetti received his early education at home and was particularly influenced by Thomas Percy's Reliques, the works of Sir Walter Scott, and the medieval romances. Rossetti later attended King's College School and studied art at the Royal Academy. Displeased with the conventional methods of painting taught at the Academy, Rossetti left in 1848 to study with the English painter Ford Madox Brown. After a short time, however, he joined painters John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt in founding the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Rossetti quickly became the leader of the group and later inspired English poet and artist William Morris, painter Edward Burne-Jones, and poet Algernon Charles Swinburne to become members. In 1850, Rossetti published his first poem, "The Blessed Damozel" in the Pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ; other early verses also appeared in The Germ, as did his only complete short story, "Hand and Soul."
In 1860, after a nine-year engagement, Rossetti married Elizabeth Siddal, the subject of many of his
paintings and sketches. By the time of their wedding, however, she was obviously consumptive, and after two unhappy years of marriage, she died from an overdose of laudunum, a form of opium, which she had been taking regularly for her illness. In a fit of remorse and guilt, Rossetti buried the only manuscript of his poems with his wife. At the urging of friends, he finally allowed the manuscript to be exhumed in 1869. The following year, Rossetti published a collection entitled Poems. This volume, which contains much of his finest work, established Rossetti's reputation as a leading poet. Despite eliciting considerable praise from various sources, including his admiring associates Morris and Swinburne, the publication of Poems prompted the venomous attack of Robert Buchanan in his 1871 essay "The Fleshly School of Poetry." Devastated by Buchanan's criticism, Rossetti became convinced that he was the object of an undeserved and insidious campaign. Although he continued his work as a translator and poet, Rossetti's subsequent dependence on whiskey and the sedative drug chloral to alleviate his anxiety and insomnia precipitated a gradual decline in health that ended with his death in 1882 at the age of fifty-four.
Rossetti's early romantic ballad "The Blessed Damozel" is characteristic of much of his later poetry, with its sensuous detail and theme of lovers parted by death who long for reunion. The 1870 volume Poems includes the verses "Eden Bower," "The Stream's Secret," and "Sister Helen," the last of which is regarded as one of the finest nineteenth-century literary ballads. This work also contains versions of "Jenny," which centers on a young and thoughtless prostitute, and "The Burden of Ninevah," an acutely pessimistic poem aimed at the enduring faults of civilization. The influence of Rossetti's painting is felt throughout Poems. Just as his literary background prompted his choice of mythological, allegorical, and literary subjects for his paintings, his love of detail, color, and mysticism shaped much of his poetry. Rossetti's second collection, entitled Ballads and Sonnets (1881), contains the completed version of "The House of Life," a sonnet sequence primarily devoted to themes of love, which many critics praise as evidence of Rossetti's mastery of the sonnet form. Ballads and Sonnets also includes the passionate, melancholy poems of Rossetti's last years and the historical ballad "The King's Tragedy," a blend of romantic and literary themes reminiscent of his earlier "Dante at Verona." Among Rossetti's few prose works, "Hand and Soul" is an allegorical tale set in thirteenth-century Italy. In it, Rossetti describes the appearance of a mysterious woman who asks Chiaro deil'Erma to paint her beautiful form, which she suggests will reflect the painter's own soul.
Most of the positive criticism of Rossetti's poetry during his own lifetime was subsequently overshadowed by Robert Buchanan's essay "The Fleshly School of Poetry," in which he claimed that Rossetti's only artistic aim was "to extol fleshliness as the distinct and supreme end of poetic and pictorial art; to aver that poetic expression is greater than poetic thought, and by inference that the body is greater than the soul, and sound superior to sense." After his death, Rossetti's works suffered from critical neglect: Until relatively recently, few critical studies of his poetry were published. However, with the renewed interest in Pre-Raphaelitism, numerous new assessments have appeared. By the latter half of the twentieth century, critics had begun to focus on the cultural and ideological components of Rossetti's verse, particularly on the implications of the erotic, sensuous, and feminine elements in his writing. Modern critics have also recognized Rossetti as a distinguished artist and verbal craftsman whose work greatly influenced such notable contemporaries as Morris and Swinburne, as well as the Aesthetes and Decadents of the later nineteenth century.
"Hand and Soul" (short story) published in the journal The Germ, 1850
The Early Italian Poets from Ciullo to Dante Alighieri (1100-1200-1300) in the Original Metres, Together with Dante's "Vita Nuova" [translator; also published as Dante and His Circle] (poetry) 1861
Poems (poetry) 1870
Ballads and Sonnets (poetry) 1881
The Complete Poetical Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (poetry) 1903
Ronnalie Roper Howard (essay date 1967)
SOURCE: "Rossetti's A Last Confession: A Dramatic Monologue," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. V, No. 1, Spring, 1967, pp. 21-9.
[In the following essay, Howard evaluates "A Last Confession " as a skillfully-crafted dramatic monologue.]
Critics have often suggested that Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poetic failures are connected with (or dependent on) his metaphysical problems, that there is no intellectual or emotional conviction behind his religious and supernatural symbols, which are then mere ornamentation, or behind his expressions of mystic union, which are then mere wishful thinking. Most recently and persuasively Harold L. Weatherby has analyzed Rossetti's failure...
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D. M. R. Bentley (essay date 1979)
SOURCE: "Political Themes in the Work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 17, No. 3, Autumn, 1979, pp. 159-79.
[In the following essay, Bentley studies the theme of modern indifference to God in Rossetti's political poetry.]
Max Beerbohm's well-known caricature of the young Dante Gabriel Rossetti "precociously manifesting … that queer indifference to politics which marked him in his prime and in his decline"1 embodies a basic untruth. For despite Beerbohm's and, indeed, Rossetti's own assertions to the contrary,2 Rossetti was far from indifferent to politics, either in his youth, in his "prime," or in his "decline." From almost...
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D. M. R. Bentley (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "'The Blessed Damozel'": A Young Man's Fantasy," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 20, Nos. 3-4, Autumn-Winter, 1982, pp. 31-43.
[In the following essay, Bentley interprets "The Blessed Damozel" as a poem celebratory of "medieval-Catholic awareness."]
Early in 1848, Dante Gabriel Rossetti submitted several poems to Leigh Hunt for approval. Evidently the young poet did not find the older man's comments, though obviously "flattering,"1 particularly perspicacious. In a letter to his aunt Charlotte Polidori written a short time later he says, "Where Hunt, in his kind letter, speaks of my 'Dantesque heavens,' he refers to one or two of the poems the scenes of...
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John P. McGowan (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "'The Bitterness of Things Occult': D. G. Rossetti's Search for the Real," in Critical Essays on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, edited by David G. Reide, Twayne, 1992, pp. 113-27.
[In the following essay, originally published in Victorian Poetry in 1982, McGowan probes Rossetti's attempts to reconcile art and reality in his poetry.]
In his Autobiography, Yeats claims that Dante Rossetti, "though his dull brother did once persuade him that he was agnostic," was a "devout Christian."1 This description is wildly inaccurate, yet it indicates one way to read Rossetti's poetry. Rossetti accepts the traditional Christian notion that man confronts a...
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Daniel A. Harris (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "D. G. Rossetti's 'Jenny': Sex, Money, and the Interior Monologue," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 22, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 197-215.
[In the following essay, Harris focuses on Rossetti's critique of Victorian culture through a poetic representation of silence, sexuality, and economic exchange in "Jenny."]
Rossetti's indictment of prostitution and male attitudes toward sexual exploitation in Victorian England is also the first interior monologue in English literary tradition unrecognized as such;1 the poem (1848-1870) breaks the ground for Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Molly's effusions in Ulysses, and Bernard's concluding...
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Jean Wasko (essay date 1987)
SOURCE: "The Web of Eroticism in Rossetti's 'Troy Town,' 'Eden Bower,' and 'Rose Mary,'" in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer, 1987, pp. 333-44.
[In the following essay, Wasko explores Rossetti's alignment of eroticism with themes of death, destruction, and deceit in three ballads written between 1869 and 1871.]
In the introductory sonnet to The House of Life Dante Gabriel Rossetti suggests that the sonnet pays "tribute" or addresses itself to a threefold theme—life, love, and death, a focus which his ballads share.1 Several of his early ballads, written between 1848 and 1854 when he was also busy translating the Vita...
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Jerome McGann (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: "Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Betrayal of Truth," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 26, No. 4, Winter, 1988, pp. 339-61.
[In the following essay, McGann traces Rossetti's career-spanning concern with disillusionment and the betrayal of artistic ideals.]
Rossetti has a notebook entry dating from the early 1870s in which he speaks of certain "Days when the characters of men came out as strongly as secret writing exposed to fire."1 What is illuminating and complex in this figure centers in the pun on the word "characters," where both people and writing are imagined as encrypted forms—indeed, as encrypted transforms of each other. Their respective truths...
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Andrew Leng (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: "Behind 'Golden Barriers': Framing and Taming the Blessed Damozel," in The Victorian Newsletter, No. 77, Spring, 1990, pp. 13-16.
[In the following essay, Leng investigates narrative technique and its relation to gender themes in "The Blessed Damozel."]
Some time after 1866 Dante Gabriel Rossetti formulated this eroticized theory of ut pictura poesis:
Picture and poem bear the same relation to each other as beauty does in man and woman: the point of meeting where the two are most identical is the supreme perfection. (Works 606)1
Most discussions of Rossetti and the...
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Antony H. Harrison (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: "Dante Rossetti: Parody and Ideology," in Victorian Poets and Romantic Poems: Intertextuality and Ideology, University Press of Virginia, 1990, pp. 90-107.
[In the following essay, Harrison discusses the parodic nature and self-consciously aesthetic ideology of Rossetti's poetry.]
In a recent essay, Claus Uhlig comes to the problematic conclusion that many literary works, because of their deliberate intertextuality, concern themselves preeminently with their own histories or genealogies. "It is doubtlessly true, and all the more so since the Romantic era," he insists, "that the aging of poetic forms and genres constantly increases their selfconsciousness as...
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J. Hillis Miller (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: "The Mirror's Secret: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Double Work of Art," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter, 1991, pp. 333-49.
[In the following essay, Miller offers an analysis of "the double mirroring structure" of Rossetti's poetry.]
And still she sits, young while the earth is old,
And, subtly of her self contemplative,
Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,
Till heart and body and life are in its hold.1
If Rossetti's Lilith looks only, speculatively, at her own image in the mirror, she also looks self-consciously aware of the looks of...
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Ernest Fontana (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: "Rossetti's 'On the Field of Waterloo': An Intertextual Reading," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 30, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 179-82.
[In the following essay, Fontana examines Rossetti's "On the Field of Waterloo" in relation to William Wordsworth's earlier poem on the same subject.]
As many of his critics have demonstrated, most recently Antony H. Harrison, 3 forms of intertextuality constitute a central feature of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poetry.1 For Harrison, many of Rossetti's poems, such as "A Portrait" (whose chief pre-text is in his view Browning's "My Last Duchess"), are "deliberate intertexts, works which manipulate palimpsests parodically in...
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Anderson, Amanda S. "D. G. Rossetti's 'Jenny': Agency, Intersubjectivity, and the Prostitute." Genders 4 (March 1989): 103-21.
Reading of Rossetti's poem "Jenny" that explores the ways in which the figure of the fallen woman operates in Victorian literature.
Boos, Florence Saunders. The Poetry of Dante G. Rossetti: A Critical Reading and Source Study. The Hague: Mouton, 1976, 297 p.
In-depth study of Rossetti's "The House of Life," narrative ballads, and lyrical poetry preceded by a survey of critical reaction to his work.
Brown, Thomas H. "The Quest of Dante...
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