Dante Gabriel Rossetti
BORN: 1828, London, England
DIED: 1882, Birchington, Kent, England
Ballads and Sonnets (1881)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti. © Hulton-Deutsch Collection / CORBIS
Equally renowned as a painter and a poet, Dante Gabriel 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 medieval period. Both his painting and writing are characterized by mysticism, filled with rich, sensuous imagery and vivid detail. Although the subjects of his verse are often considered narrow, Rossetti is an acknowledged master of the ballad and sonnet forms.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Bilingual Childhood. Born Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti on May 12, 1828, in London, the eldest son of Gabriele Rossetti and his wife, Frances Polidori. An Italian expatriate, Rossetti’s father came to England four years before Rossetti’s birth. Gabriele Rossetti was a Dante scholar, who had been exiled from Naples for writing poetry in support of the Neapolitan Constitution of 1819. (Secret groups such as the Carbonari, who supported the constitution sought to bring selfgovernment to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies—which included Naples—in place of the Austrian-backed monarch, Ferdinand, but failed.) He settled in London in 1824. Frances Polidori had trained as a governess and supervised her children’s early education. Gabriele Rossetti supported the family as a professor of Italian at King’s College, London, until his eyesight and general health deteriorated in the 1840s. Frances then attempted to support the family as a teacher of French and Italian and an unsuccessful founder of two day schools.
Consequently, Rossetti was bilingual from early childhood and grew up in an atmosphere of emigre political and literary discussion. From childhood, Rossetti intended to be a painter, and he addressed literary subjects in his earliest drawings. He was tutored at home in German and read the Bible, Shakespeare, Goethe’s Faust, The Arabian Nights, Charles Dickens, and the poetry of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron. At the age of eight, he entered Mr. Paul’s day school in Portland Place and a year later began studies at King’s College School, which he attended from 1837 to 1842.
From 1842 to 1846, Rossetti was a student at Cary’s Academy of Art to prepare for the Royal Academy, which he entered in July 1846. He then spent a year in the Academy Antique School. By this time, Great Britain was well into the reign of Queen Victoria, a time of economic prosperity, expansion of the middle class, and a cultural revival often called the second English Renaissance. The theater, literature, and arts were particularly emphasized, drawing on the Gothic and classical ideals as well as modern ideas.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. After leaving school, Rossetti apprenticed himself to the historical painter Ford Madox Brown, who later became his closest lifelong friend. Rossetti continued his extensive reading of poetry (Edgar Allan Poe, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, John Keats, Robert Browning, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson) and romantic and satiric fiction (Charles Maturin, William Makepeace Thackeray, Wilhelm Meinhold, Friedrich de la Motte-Fouque, Charles Wells). In 1845, Rossetti began translations from Italian (Dante’s Vita Nuova and British Museum volumes of Dante’s little-known predecessors) and German medieval poetry.
In 1848, Rossetti joined John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt in founding the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Their name honored Carlo Lasinio’s engravings of paintings by Benozzo Gozzoli (an Italian Renaissance painter from Florence) and others who decorated Pisa’s Campo Santo (originally used as a cemetery for Pisa’s illustrious citizens). The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood sought to introduce new forms of thematic seriousness, high coloration, and attention to detail into contemporary British art. They were opposed to the stale conventions of contemporary academy art, which drew on classical poses and the compositions of the Italian High Renaissance painter Raphael.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brothers provided each other with companionship, criticism, and encouragement early in their careers and defended each other against initial public hostility. Rossetti quickly became the leader of the group and shaped the group’s literary tastes, but the life of the group was short-lived. Meetings of the Pre- Raphaelite Brotherhood became sporadic by 1851, and by 1853 the group had disbanded. It had served its purpose, however, which was to provide initial professional encouragement to its members.
Success as a Poet. Rossetti first received recognition as a poet in 1850, when he published ‘‘The Blessed Damozel’’ in the Pre-Raphaelite journal the Germ. Written when he was only eighteen, this poem is characteristic of much of Rossetti’s later poetry, with its sensuous detail and theme of lovers, parted by death, who long for reunion. That same year, Rossetti met Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, who modeled for many of Rossetti’s drawings and paintings and became his wife in 1860.
Rossetti painted steadily, saw publication of his The Early Italian Poets, and cofounded the firm of designers Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Co. His wife suffered from consumption (a popular name for tuberculosis, a contagious lung disease that was common in this period), and after two unhappy years of marriage, she died from an overdose of laudanum (an opium-based pain killer regularly prescribed by doctors in Victorian England), 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 allowed the manuscript to be exhumed in 1869.
The following year, Rossetti published Poems, (1869) which established his reputation as a leading poet. Containing much of Rossetti’s finest work, Poems includes ‘‘Eden Bower,’’ ‘‘The Stream’s Secret,’’ and ‘‘Sister Helen,’’ which is regarded by many as one of the finest Victorian literary ballads.
Decline and Death. By 1868, Rossetti was in ill health, suffering from physical and mental complaints that burdened him for the rest of his life. His unreliable eyesight, headaches, and insomnia led him to become dependent on whiskey and chloral (a depressant drug developed in the 1830s specifically for inducing sleep). This precipitated a gradual decline in health, though he continued to paint and write even after a personal change and mental breakdown caused by an attack on his poetry by Robert Buchanan in The Fleshly School of Poetry and Other Phenomena of the Day (1872). Rossetti’s poetry collection, Ballads and Sonnets, appeared in 1881, and he died the following year at the age of fifty-four.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Rossetti's famous contemporaries include:
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862): American author and naturalist best known for his writings on philosophy and natural history.
Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893): English painter known for his distinctively graphic style and the moral and historical nature of his subjects.
Jules Verne (1828-1905): French author who pioneered the genre of science fiction with such books as Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864).
Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906): Norwegian playwright who is often credited with contributing to the rise of modern realistic drama. He wrote such dramas as A Doll's House (1879).
John Everett Millais (1829-1896): English painter and illustrator who served as president of the Royal Academy.
William Morris (1834-1896): English artist, writer, and socialist who was one of the founders of the British Arts and Crafts movement.
Works in Literary Context
Painting to Poetry. The dual nature of Rossetti’s artistic endeavors led to crossover between them. Just as his literary background influenced his choice of mythological, allegorical, and literary subjects for his paintings, his Pre-Raphaelite love of detail, color, and mysticism shaped much of his poetry. The influence of Rossetti’s painting is particularly felt throughout Poems.
Evolution of Style and Theme. It is difficult to date Rossetti’s work or to divide it into periods, since he continually revised poems begun as a young man. Nonetheless, some divisions are possible. When Rossetti was young, his bright pictorialism, concrete detail, archaisms, and sublimated sexuality reflected rather conventional aspects of contemporary poetic sensibility. By the late 1860s, his sense of failure had evolved into an oppressive fear about identity. In Rossetti’s middle and later poetry, sexual love became a near-desperate desire to transcend time. By comparison, the final sonnets of Rossetti’s life are tranquil, even celebratory.
His writings can perhaps best be viewed as an expression of Victorian social uncertainty and loss of faith. Rossetti’s poetry on the absence of love is as bleakly despairing as any of the century, and no poet of his period conveyed more profoundly certain central Victorian anxieties: metaphysical uncertainty, sexual anxiety, and fear of time.
Influence on Other Writers and Artists. It is also difficult to compare Rossetti’s achievement with that of the other Victorian poets. For its modest size, Rossetti’s poetic work is wide in manner and subject. He was a talented experimenter, and his heightened rhythms and refrains influenced other mid- and late nineteenth- century poetry. He was also an important popularizer of Italian poetry in England and a major practitioner of the sonnet. Certainly, he lacked the strong, confident range and subtle lyricism of Tennyson and Browning, but his erotic spirituality and gift for the dramatic were his own. Rossetti was perhaps as significant for his effect on others as for his own work, a judgment that he himself came to make with growing bitterness. His critical remarks on Romantic and contemporary literature were often convincing and influenced all around him.
Rossetti’s attempt to create a unified composition of poetry and painting was also pioneering and extended conceptions of both arts. Through such painters as Edward Burne-Jones, Frederick Sandys, and John William Waterhouse, Rossetti had a further indirect influence on the literature of the Decadence. He also conceived the idea of the Germ, the first little magazine of literature and art, and with Ford Madox Brown, William Morris, Burne-Jones, and Philip Webb helped cofound the movement to extend the range of decorative art and improve the quality of book design. Rossetti’s poetry is not as important as that of Tennyson, Browning, or Gerard Manley Hopkins, but it would be difficult to name others who clearly surpassed him at his best and even more difficult to imagine later nineteenth-century Victorian poetry and art without his influence.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Rossetti's poetry is characterized by its mysticism, its rich and sensuous imagery, and its vivid detail. Here are some other works which have similar themes:
Idylls of the King (1856-1885), poems by Alfred Tennyson. This cycle of twelve narrative poems retells the legend of King Arthur with vibrant descriptions of nature derived from the author's own observations of his surroundings.
The Eve of St. Agnes (1820), by John Keats. This long poem tells the story of Madeline and Porphyro, whose romance "falls" from innocence to experience.
American Primitive (1984), poems by Mary Oliver. This Pulitzer Prize-winning collection allows the reader to devour luscious objects and substances through powerful recurring images of ingestion.
The Burning Alphabet (2005), poems by Barry Dempster. This collection combines a sense of humor with sensuous writing.
Works in Critical Context
Poems. Following the publication of Poems, numerous reviews appeared praising Rossetti as the greatest poet since Shakespeare. However, in 1871, critic Robert Buchanan pseudonymously published a venomous attack against Rossetti, 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.’’
Rossetti published a convincing reply called ‘‘The Stealthy School of Criticism.’’ Buchanan then expanded his views in The Fleshly School of Poetry and Other Phenomena of the Day. In this work, he added a lengthy attack on ‘‘The House of Life’’ as a ‘‘hotbed’’ of ‘‘nasty phrases,’’ which virtually ‘‘wheel[ed]’’ the poet’s ‘‘nuptial couch into the public streets.’’
Almost all the reviews of Rossetti’s Poems were favorable, and the book sold unusually well. Few in Rossetti’s actual or potential audience were likely to share Buchanan’s extreme prudery. Rossetti was deeply proud of the originality of his best work, and his friends admired his work, as well. William Morris wrote in the Academy of his friend’s work:
To conclude, I think these lyrics, with all their other merits, the most complete of their time; no difficulty is avoided in them: no subject is treated vaguely, languidly, or heartlessly; as there is no commonplace or second-hand thought left in them to be atoned for by beauty of execution, so no thought is allowed to overshadow that beauty of art which compels a real poet to speak in verse and not in prose. Nor do I know what lyrics of any time are to be called great if we are to deny that title to these.
Critics have differed in assessing the quality of Rossetti’s poetic achievement and in their preferences for different periods of his work. Following his death, Rossetti’s works suffered somewhat from critical neglect. However, with the renewed interest in Pre-Raphaelitism, numerous studies have appeared. Rossetti is now recognized as a distinguished artist and verbal craftsman.
Responses to Literature
1. The Pre-Raphaelite Brothers (PRB) was an important group that helped launch Rossetti’s career. Using the Internet and your library resources to research the goals and objectives of the PRB, write a bulleted list outlining your results.
2. Rossetti was criticized by some contemporaries for focusing on physical attributes rather than the soul. Would Rossetti’s poems draw similar criticism today? In small groups, discuss the subject matter in Rossetti’s poems and explain how his poems would be critiqued by modern society.
3. Rossetti was explicit about being influenced by poets and artists from an earlier time. Write an essay reflecting on your own artistic and literary influences.
4. The sonnet was one of Rossetti’s favored poetic forms. Write a sonnet that describes a moment of peace and silence that you have had. Include details that you observed while being quiet.
Boos, Florence S. The Poetry of Dante G. Rossetti: A Critical and Source Study. The Hague: Mouton, 1976.
Doughty, Oswald. A Victorian Romantic: Dante Gabriel Rossetti. London: Oxford University Press, 1949.
Fredeman, William E., ed. P.R.B. Journal: William Michael Rossetti’s Diary of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 1849-1853. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
Howard, Ronnalie. The Dark Glass: Vision and Technique in the Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1972.
Rees, Joan. The Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Modes of Self-Expression. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Riede, David G. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Limits of Victorian Vision. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983.
Rossetti, William Michael. Dante Gabriel Rossetti as Designer and Writer. London: Ellis, 1895.
_______, ed. Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family Letters with a Memoir. London: Ellis, 1895.
Sonstroem, David. Rossetti and the Fair Lady. Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1971.
Vogel, Joseph. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Versecraft. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1971.