Some glimpse into Rossetti’s ideas on poetry can be obtained from the statement made, at almost the end of his life, to Hall Caine, that when, as a youth, he had first encountered early English ballad literature, he had said to himself, “There lies your line.” He read the collections made by Thomas Percy (1765) and by Sir Walter Scott (1802-1803) as well as Scott’s original poetry, and he spent many hours in the British Museum poring over medieval romances in a search for words to use in poems that he planned to write.
He began his career, however, as a painter, and entered literature through the coterie which called itself the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. This loosely-knit group, formed in 1848 by Rossetti, Holman Hunt, and J. E. Millais, had as its artistic goal the return to the “fidelity to nature” of medieval Italian painters prior to Raphael. Thus both as painter and as poet Rossetti was directed towards medievalism. The new group soon needed a periodical through which the members could make their views known; so, in 1850, they founded The Germ. Its life was short—only four numbers appeared—but in it some of Rossetti’s early work was printed.
Surely no manuscript in all of English literature had a stranger or more macabre history than did Rossetti’s first volume of poems. When, on a February night of 1862, he returned to his home to find his wife dead from an overdose of laudanum, he was so conscience-stricken by the possibility that her death had been suicide that he resolved on the melodramatic gesture of placing the manuscript in her coffin under her famous red-gold hair. Even his brother William, who knew that of some of the poems no other copies existed, while of others there were but imperfect copies, was sufficiently influenced by the tension-charged atmosphere to approve the act. The manuscript contained some of Rossetti’s most famous poems: “The Blessed Damozel,” “Jenny,” “Sister Helen” (first titled “The Witch”), and “Love’s Nocturn.” But further melodrama was to come. In October, 1869, Rossetti, who now wished to publish the poems and had even advertised their appearance, had the grave opened and the manuscript disinterred by C. A. Howell and Dr. Llewellyn Williams. For this exhumation, which he somewhat lamely tried to justify, Rossetti has been much criticized, one biographer even calling him a “changeable widower rifling his dead wife’s grave at the dictate of literary ambition.”
The pieces that Rossetti included in this first volume can be divided, at least roughly, into three classes: “medieval” poems, love poems, and sonnets for pictures. By the first category is meant those verses employing medieval settings or imitations of medieval techniques. Rossetti derived his literary medievalism from two sources, the romance and the ballad. From the romance he obtained the colorful background of knights, ladies, and castles found in “The Staff and Scrip”; from the ballad he got the terse, tragic story as well as such devices as the refrain and the question and answer method of narration. These two technical devices, which were...
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