Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1281
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 common enough in the traditional border ballads, Rossetti—as well as the other Pre-Raphaelite poets—developed into artistic elements of considerable effectiveness. From the simple refrain of the old ballads they created what has been called the “incremental” refrain—that is, a refrain which, by changing with the progress of the narrative and its emotional pattern, helps to build up the climax of the story. The trick is best seen in “Sister Helen,” which has been considered one of the best literary ballads of the nineteenth century. This poem has the starkness of the traditional ballad plus modern psychological handling. Usually, however, Rossetti tended to overlay the simplicity of the old ballads with the luxuriant detail so dear to the Pre-Raphaelites.
Another side of Rossetti’s medievalism appears in his three translations from Villon, one of which, the “Ballad of Dead Ladies,” is perhaps the most famous short piece of translation in English.
Rossetti’s love poetry, both of this time and later, presents a difficult problem. To understand the work of any poet, one must know something of his life; and this statement is particularly true of Rossetti. Even on the surface, his love poems are not easy reading, for they are densely woven, at times enigmatic. The mystery turns on his attitude toward his dead wife, Elizabeth Siddall and on the circumstances of her death. It is now fairly well agreed among Rossetti biographers that her death was an act of suicide, and that the suspicion—or even the knowledge—of this fact haunted Rossetti for the rest of his life and was responsible for the gloom of his later years. Some critics even go so far as to say that he never wrote a good poem or painted a good picture after 1862. On the other hand, it seems also true that his brief marriage, after a prolonged engagement, was unhappy. It has been customary to say that these passionate, even sensuous, love poems were inspired by Elizabeth or that they expressed a yearning for a reunion with her; but in recent years it has been claimed that the real inspiration of the poems was Jane Burden, who married William Morris in 1859. She, it is said, was the woman Rossetti really loved. Having married Elizabeth out of a sense of duty and having seen Jane become the wife of one of his best friends, he poured his frustrated love for Jane into “The Stream’s Secret” and the sonnet sequence “The House of Life.” So anxious was he, according to the proponents of this theory, to conceal the autobiographical aspects of these poems that he deliberately falsified the dates of composition so as to throw readers off the scent. Since all the facts, even after so many years, have never been made public, the matter must remain conjectural.
Rossetti’s poetry was, on its publication, generally well received by critics. But a storm was brewing. In 1871 there appeared in the Contemporary Review an article, over an assumed name, called “The Fleshly School of Poetry.” Twenty years earlier, Rossetti, along with the other Pre-Raphaelites, had been attacked for his paintings; now he was to be attacked for his poetry. The writer of this article was one Robert Buchanan, an almost unknown Scotsman. The whole situation was complicated by personal feuds and animosities. But the (to us) almost unbelievable prudery of Victorian England made Rossetti peculiarly vulnerable to this kind of attack. His poems were, for those days, extremely frank; his sonnet “Nuptial Sleep” and especially “Jenny,” the description of a prostitute, with such lines as
Your silk ungirdled and unlac’dAnd warm sweets open to the waist,
were genuinely shocking to the contemporary reading public. Also, Rossetti’s well-known friendship with Swinburne, the real enfant terrible of the period, added to the suspicions of the Victorian public. It is certainly true that Rossetti’s love poems were far more sensuous than nineteenth-century poetry had been used to. But Buchanan’s attack hurt Rossetti deeply and increased his tendency toward melancholia.
Few styles are as out of fashion these days as the Pre-Raphaelite. To the modern mind, these men seemed far too self-conscious and artificial in their medievalism. But both as poet and painter Rossetti exercised a considerable influence over the artistic taste of the subsequent decades. He and the other Pre-Raphaelites were in part responsible for the “aesthetic movement” of the 1880’s and 1890’s, the chief ornament of which was Oscar Wilde. Perhaps the most important contribution of Rossetti as a poet was his part in shattering the prudery that had strangled so much of Victorian literature.
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