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.