Dante Gabriel Rossetti Essay - Rossetti, Dante Gabriel (Poetry Criticism)

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel (Poetry Criticism)

Principal Works

Poems 1870

Ballads and Sonnets 1881

Ballads and Narrative Poems 1893

Sonnets and Lyrical Poems 1894

The Complete Poetical Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1903

“Hand and Soul” (short story) 1850


Thomas Maitland (essay date October 1871)

SOURCE: Maitland, Thomas. “The Fleshly School of Poetry: Mr. D. G. Rossetti.” Contemporary Review 18, no. 3 (October 1871): 334-50.

[In the following excerpt, Maitland (a pseudonym of Robert Buchanan), negatively critiques the poetry of Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites.]

If, on the occasion of any public performance of Shakspere's great tragedy, the actors who perform the parts of Rosencranz and Guildenstern were, by a preconcerted arrangement and by means of what is technically known as “gagging,” to make themselves fully as prominent as the leading character, and to indulge in soliloquies and business strictly belonging to Hamlet himself, the result would be, to say the least of it, astonishing; yet a very similar effect is produced on the unprejudiced mind when the “walking gentlemen” of the fleshly school of poetry, who bear precisely the same relation to Mr. Tennyson as Rosencranz and Guildenstern do to the Prince of Denmark in the play, obtrude their lesser identities and parade their smaller idiosyncrasies in the front rank of leading performers. In their own place, the gentlemen are interesting and useful. Pursuing still the theatrical analogy, the present drama of poetry might be cast as follows: Mr. Tennyson supporting the part of Hamlet, Mr. Matthew Arnold that of Horatio, Mr. Bailey that of Voltimand, Mr. Buchanan that of Cornelius, Messrs. Swinburne and Morris the parts of Rosencranz and Guildenstern, Mr. Rossetti that of Osric, and Mr. Robert Lytton that of “A Gentleman.” It will be seen that we have left no place for Mr. Browning, who may be said, however, to play the leading character in his own peculiar fashion on alternate nights.

This may seem a frivolous and inadequate way of opening our remarks on a school of verse-writers which some people regard as possessing great merits; but in good truth, it is scarcely possible to discuss with any seriousness the pretensions with which foolish friends and small critics have surrounded the fleshly school, which, in spite of its spasmodic ramifications in the erotic direction, is merely one of the many sub-Tennysonian schools expanded to supernatural dimensions, and endeavouring by affectations all its own to overshadow its connection with the great original. In the sweep of one single poem, the weird and doubtful “Vivien,” Mr. Tennyson has concentrated all the epicene force which, wearisomely expanded, constitutes the characteristic of the writers at present under consideration; and if in “Vivien” he has indicated for them the bounds of sensualism in art, he has in “Maud,” in the dramatic person of the hero, afforded distinct precedent for the hysteric tone and overloaded style which is now so familiar to readers of Mr. Swinburne. The fleshiness of “Vivien” may indeed be described as the distinct quality held in common by all the members of the last sub-Tennysonian school, and it is a quality which becomes unwholesome when there is no moral or intellectual quality to temper and control it. Fully conscious of this themselves, the fleshly gentlemen have bound themselves by solemn league and covenant 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; and that the poet, properly to develop his poetic faculty, must be an intellectual hermaphrodite, to whom the very facts of day and night are lost in a whirl of aesthetic terminology. … [The] fleshly school of verse-writers are, so to speak, public offenders, because they are diligently spreading the seeds of disease broadcast wherever they are read and understood. Their complaint too is catching, and carries off many young persons. What the complaint is, and how it works, may be seen on a very slight examination of the works of Mr. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. …

[Mr. Rossetti] belongs, or is said to belong, to the so-called Pre-Raphaelite school, a school which is generally considered to exhibit much genius for colour, and great indifference to perspective. … Judged by the photographs [of his paintings], he is an artist who conceives unpleasantly, and draws ill. … [He] is distinctively a colourist, and of his capabilities in colour we cannot speak, though we should guess that they are great; for if there is any good quality by which his poems are specially marked, it is a great sensitiveness to hues and tints as conveyed in poetic epithet. These qualities, which impress the casual spectator of the photographs from his pictures, are to be found abundantly among his verses. There is the same thinness and transparence of design, the same combination of the simple and the grotesque, the same morbid deviation from healthy forms of life, the same sense of weary, wasting, yet exquisite sensuality; nothing virile, nothing tender, nothing completely sane; a superfluity of extreme sensibility, of delight in beautiful forms, hues, and tints, and a deep-seated indifference to all agitating forces and agencies, all tumultuous griefs and sorrows, all the thunderous stress of life, and all the straining storm of speculation. … [The] mind of Mr. Rossetti is like a glassy mere, broken only by the dive of some water-bird or the hum of winged insects, and brooded over by an atmosphere of insufferable closeness, with a light blue sky above it, sultry depths mirrored within it, and a surface so thickly sown with water-lilies that it retains its glassy smoothness even in the strongest wind.

[In “Nuptial Sleep,” Rossetti puts] on...

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D. G. Rossetti (essay date 16 December 1871)

SOURCE: Rossetti, D. G. “The Stealthy School of Criticism.” Athenaeum 2303 (16 December 1871): 792-94.

[In the following excerpt, Rossetti rebukes the criticism aimed at him by Thomas Maitland (Robert Buchanan) in “The Fleshly School of Poetry.”]

Your paragraph, a fortnight ago, relating to the pseudonymous authorship of an article, violently assailing myself and other writers of poetry, in the Contemporary Review for October last, reveals a species of critical masquerade which I have expressed in the heading given to this letter. …

The primary accusation, on which this writer grounds all the rest, seems to be that others and myself...

(The entire section is 1573 words.)

Florence Saunders Boos (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Boos, Florence Saunders. “Style In ‘The House of Life’.” In The Poetry of Dante G. Rossetti: A Critical Reading and Source Study, pp. 88-91. Hague: Mouton & Co. B. V., Publishers, 1976.

[In the following excerpt, Boos discusses love and sexuality in Rossetti's The House of Life.]

“Love” in Rosetti, as in almost all nineteenth-century poets, is a metaphor for all that is best and most concentrated in life—memory, sensuousness, idealism, the aesthetic and the intense. Whereas in Keats' poetry the knowledge of warm human love seemed of greater significance even than death, and to Peter and certain Decadents aesthetic experience or love was the...

(The entire section is 1654 words.)

Miriam Fuchs (essay date spring 1983)

SOURCE: Fuchs, Miriam. “Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Caught Between Two Centuries.” Victorian Newsletter no. 63 (spring 1983): 3-7.

[In the following essay, Fuchs considers Rossetti's place in literature, contending that “his attempt to push against the limitations of his art reveal that he was caught between the nineteenth century and the stirrings of modernism.”]

An awareness of a particularly striking correspondence in Rossetti's work can increase our appreciation of the man responsible for creating the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood. The sonnets of “The House of Life” tend to be densely packed with figurative language, and the paintings of the late 1850s tend to...

(The entire section is 3150 words.)

Kelsey Thornton (essay date spring 1983)

SOURCE: Thornton, Kelsey. “Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Moment of the Picture.” Victorian Newsletter no. 63 (spring 1983): 1-3.

[In the following essay, Thornton investigates the relationship between Rossetti's art and poetry.]

To talk about the relationship of Rossetti's poetry to painting is not to relate particular poems to particular paintings. This of course can be done. In William Michael's edition of his brother's work, there is a section of poems on pictures, and a section of sonnets and verses for Rossetti's own paintings. The first group—of sonnets for pictures—includes poems on works by Leonardo, Giorgione, Mantegna, Ingres, Memmlinck, Burne-Jones,...

(The entire section is 2123 words.)

Thomas L. Cooksey (essay date fall 1984)

SOURCE: Cooksey, Thomas L. “Rossetti's Intellegenza Nova: Perception, Poetry and Vision in Dante at Verona.Victorian Newsletter no. 66 (fall 1984): 10-13.

[In the following essay, Cooksey determines the influence of Dante Alighieri on Rossetti's Dante at Verona.]

According to his brother William Michael, Dante Gabriel Rossetti began work on Dante at Verona soon after finishing the initial version of “The Blessed Damozel.”1 Although it went through substantial expansion and revision before it was finally published, it shares a number of similarities with “The Blessed Damozel” and might be seen as a companion piece, treating...

(The entire section is 3097 words.)

Michael Cohen (essay date fall 1986)

SOURCE: Cohen, Michael. “The Reader as Whoremonger: A Phenomenological Approach to Rossetti's ‘Jenny’.” Victorian Newsletter no. 70 (fall 1986): 5-7.

[In the following essay, Cohen explores Rossetti's poetic strategies in “Jenny,” focusing on the poet's combination of religious and art imagery.]

The rhetorical strategy in Rossetti's “Jenny” forces the reader past sympathy with the poem's narrator to identification with him. This is an uneasy and unstable identification which alternates with a distancing of reader from speaker and with the reader's criticism and unfavorable judgment of the speaker. Nevertheless the poem's readers—including female...

(The entire section is 2547 words.)

Brennan O'Donnell (essay date summer 1987)

SOURCE: O'Donnell, Brennan. “D. G. Rossetti's ‘The Stream's Secret’ and the Epithalamion.” Victorian Poetry 25, no. 2 (summer 1987): 187-92.

[In the following essay, O'Donnell compares and contrasts Rossetti's “The Stream's Secret” and the conventions of the epithalamion poetic form.]

In lines 211-216 of D. G. Rossetti's “The Stream's Secret,” the speaker turns his thoughts away from the stream he has been addressing throughout the poem and speaks of another, imaginary location where he hopes he will finally receive word that he is to be united with his lover. It is a difficult stanza, and untangling its complexities and especially its allusions is...

(The entire section is 2419 words.)

Jerome McGann (essay date winter 1988)

SOURCE: McGann, Jerome. “Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Betrayal of the Truth.” Victorian Poetry 26, no. 4 (winter 1988): 339-61.

[In the following essay, McGann traces the thematic development of Rossetti's poetry, asserting that his work repeats “Dante's journey in the opposite direction, descending from various illusory heavens through a purgatory of unveilings to the nightmares and hells of his greatest work, the unwilled revelations arrived at in ‘The House of Life’.”]

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...

(The entire section is 10722 words.)

Nathan Cervo (essay date summer 1989)

SOURCE: Cervo, Nathan. “Rossetti's ‘Ave’.” Explicator 47, no. 4 (summer 1989): 37-40.

[In the following essay, Cervo reads “Ave” in light of Il mister dell' amor platonico del medio evo, by Gabriele Rossetti (D. G. Rossetti's father.)]

Despite appearances, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's “Ave” is a complicated poem and remains opaque for critics. Thus Herbert L. Sussman, in Fact into Figure: Typology in Carlyle, Ruskin, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (Columbus: Ohio State U P, 1979), speaks of the poem in terms of “iconic presentation” (65), “a medievalized picture” (66), “essentially pictorial form,” and “historical incidents'...

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Nathan A. Cervo (essay date summer 1990)

SOURCE: Cervo, Nathan A. “Petrarch's Cervo and Cerva: The Secret of D. G. Rossetti's ‘The Stream's Secret’.” Victorian Poetry 28, no. 2 (summer 1990): 158-63.

[In the following essay, Cervo maintains that “The Stream's Secret” is concerned with the reconciliation of animus and anima.]

In the third volume of his Il mistero dell'amor platonico del medio evo (The mystery of platonic love in the middle ages),1 Gabriele Rossetti discusses the alchemic role of il Cervo (the Stag) and la Cerva (the Hind) in Petrarch's poetry. The former he identifies with Lauro (Laurel), the latter, with Laura (a...

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Marcus Bullock (essay date June 1992)

SOURCE: Bullock, Marcus. “Benjamin, Baudelaire, Rossetti and the Discovery of Error.” Modern Language Quarterly 53, no. 2 (June 1992): 201-25.

[In the following essay, Bullock applies Walter Benjamin's reading of Charles Baudelaire to Rossetti, and delineates the “differences of style and stature” between the two poets.]

Walter Benjamin wrote much that examined the situation of nineteenth-century culture under conditions of industrial capitalism and mercantile imperialism. In principle one should be able to carry his insights over to objects of study with which he does not deal individually. Yet generalizations risk overlooking the specificity of his analyses....

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Nathan A. Cervo (essay date March 1993)

SOURCE: Cervo, Nathan A. “‘Dower in Love's High Retinue’: The Transforming Power of Anima in D. G. Rossetti's ‘A Sonnet is a Moment's Monument’.” English Language Notes 30, no. 3 (March 1993): 59-62.

[In the following essay, Cervo considers the function of “The House of Life”'s introductory sonnet.]

A Sonnet is a coin: its face reveals
The soul,—its converse to what Power 'tis due:—
Whether for tribute to the august appeals
Of Life, or dower in Love's high retinue,
It serve; or, 'mid the dark wharf's cavernous breath,
In Charon's palm it pay the toll to Death.

One way of looking at the sestet of the Introductory Sonnet to “The House...

(The entire section is 1630 words.)

Catherine Maxwell (essay date spring 1993)

SOURCE: Maxwell, Catherine. “‘Devious Symbols’: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Purgatorio.” Victorian Poetry 31, no. 1 (spring 1993): 19-40.

[In the following essay, Maxwell elucidates the religious elements of “The Woodspurge.”]

Rossetti's short lyric “The Woodspurge,” a favorite of the anthologists and a perennial choice for inclusion in practical criticism papers, is one of the pieces by which the work of this still underread poet is best known. The reasons for this are perhaps not hard to fathom. What Pater in 1883 called “a vocabulary, an accent, unmistakably novel,”1 and the uncanny blend of spirituality and sensuality, the peculiarly...

(The entire section is 10133 words.)

Martin A. Danahay (essay date winter 1998)

SOURCE: Danahay, Martin A. “Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Virtual Bodies.” Victorian Poetry 36, no. 4 (winter 1998): 379-97.

[In the following essay, Danahay explores the commodification of women's bodies in Rossetti's paintings and poetry.]

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's paintings and poems were made available on the World Wide Web in 1993 thanks to Jerome McGann's creation of “The Rossetti Archive” at the University of Virginia (http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/rossetti/rossetti.html).1 “The Rossetti Archive” appeared alongside a profusion of sites purveying pornographic images, in what proved an ironic juxtaposition. When Rossetti initially created...

(The entire section is 9031 words.)

A. A. Markley (essay date winter 1999)

SOURCE: Markley, A. A. “Rossetti's ‘The Portrait’.” Explicator 57, no. 2 (winter 1999): 83-85.

[In the following essay, Markley investigates the function of the monologue in “The Portrait.”]

In his poem “The Portrait” (1870), Dante Gabriel Rossetti focuses on the attachment of a grieving artist to a portrait of his dead lover and provides a complex exploration of the idea of artistic expression as an act of self-reflection. Rossetti's exploration of this relationship is strengthened by his subtle references throughout the poem to the Greek myth of Narcissus and Echo, an ancient story that fully explores the implications of self-love in its themes of the...

(The entire section is 1242 words.)

Nathan Cervo (essay date summer 2000)

SOURCE: Cervo, Nathan. “Rossetti's ‘A Last Confession’.” Explicator 58, no. 4 (summer 2000): 193-95.

[In the following essay, Cervo contends that Rossetti works within two conflicting contexts in his poem “A Last Confession”: alchemy and Roman Catholicism.]

D. G. Rossetti's dramatic monologue [“A Last Confession”] has been called “operatic” and “Italianate,” and to some extent it is both—which in no way marks it as a major artistic accomplishment. The poem consists of all sorts of musical themes, so to speak—themes that are not stated in words alone but in words combined with a passion that strains them to the point of breaking as undefined...

(The entire section is 1034 words.)

Lawrence J. Starzyk (essay date summer 2000)

SOURCE: Starzyk, Lawrence J. “Rossetti's ‘Jenny’: Aestheticizing the Whore.” Papers on Language & Literature 36, no. 3 (summer 2000): 227-45.

[In the following essay, Starzyk traces the aestheticization of Rossetti's “Jenny,” and underscores “how the painterly hand of Rossetti influenced the verbal articulation of the muted image of this Victorian whore.”]


The most famous aestheticized object of Victorian culture is Robert Browning's Duchess, a woman whose utility as a wife has been elided with the result that all who come upon her transformed condition must disinterestedly regard her as an artifact.1 The...

(The entire section is 5595 words.)

Joseph Bristow (essay date fall 2001)

SOURCE: Bristow, Joseph. “He and I’: Dante Rossetti's Other Man.” Victorian Poetry 39, no. 2 (fall 2001): 365-88.

[In the following essay, Bristow examines the sonnet “He and I” within the context of the sonnet sequence “The House of Life,” focusing on Rossetti's portrayal of sexuality in the poem.]

Toward the largely despondent close of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's “The House of Life” stands “He and I”: a “representation,” as David G. Riede observes, “of some sort of self-division and self-alienation” that appears rather “enigmatic.”1 Composed in 1870, this intriguing sonnet—which results in a distressing physical encounter...

(The entire section is 10920 words.)

Further Reading


Coldiron, A. E. B. “Rossetti's Sonnet X: The Unexpected Powers of Art.” Victorian Poetry 30, no. 1 (spring 1992): 83-85.

Examines stylistic and thematic aspects of “The Portrait.”

Faulkner, William. “Pound and the Pre-Raphaelites.” Paideuma 13, no. 2 (fall 1984): 229-44.

Investigates the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites, especially Rossetti, on Ezra Pound.

Goldberg, Gail Lynn. “Rossetti's Sonnet on ‘A Virgin and Child by Hans Memmeling’: Considering a Counterpart.” Victorian Poetry 24, no. 3 (autumn 1986): 229-43.

Debates the problem of...

(The entire section is 333 words.)