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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Rossetti and Pre-Raphaelitism

By John Richard Dennett (1838–1874)

[Born in Chatham, N. B., 1838. Died at Westborough, Mass., 1874. The North American Review. 1870.]

FOR some twenty years Mr. Dante Rossetti has been more or less well known, even to persons not counted among his particular admirers, as a man of great poetical susceptibility and refined poetical taste. His translations of the “Vita Nuova,” of the “Inferno,” and other mediæval Italian poetry, abundantly proved this, and proved, too, that he had in a high degree the power of literary expression. Despite, then, that presumption of incapacity very rightly entertained against a man who does not make public trial of a strength for which public acknowledgment is asked, there has been a disposition to give Mr. Rossetti the credit his immediate circle of friends asked for him as a poet of extraordinary abilities. It is true that he has printed, besides his translations, some original poems which would have served as confirmatory evidence in his favor; but the distinction between the printing of a work and the publication of it is not often better marked than in the case of “The Blessed Damozel.” in its earlier form; and the general public has, until the appearance of this volume, known but little more of his poetry than that it was handed about among a few friends, and by them admired with what to most discriminating persons seemed like extravagance. This, for the reason just mentioned, that the world is not much inclined to believe in poetry which is deliberately and persistently hid under a bushel; and, secondly, because readers and observers who have discernment are apt to feel a general distrust of the capacities of such natures as seem to have the weakness of contemptuously or with morbid uneasiness shunning the judges who alone can make general award, and seeking the presumably partial applause of a few; and, finally, because the few who in this instance called us to admire were not judges in whom there is entire confidence….

It is in a circle of poets and artists, and their intimates, some of them having, in their capacity as artists, a strong claim on the respect of people of cultivation, and most of them being at least interesting to people of cultivation, that Mr. Rossetti has had his high reputation. But as we have said, their dicta have not been of wide acceptance among those not given over to the cultus of Pre-Raphaelitism. Of this cultus it is not out of our present province to speak, for it has affected the literary as well as the pictorial or plastic expression of all who gave themselves up to it; but it is beyond our ability to treat of it as it should be treated of if one would make thoroughly clear the genesis and character of the works done under its influence. It may, however, be permitted any one to say that it had an absurd and ridiculous side; and if this aspect of it be once seen, the investigator and critic will doubtless find himself disembarrassed of some of that hindering reverence with which it is probable he might otherwise approach works which have been so very emphatically pronounced admirable and excellent, and which are to most critics strange enough and new enough to be not a little baffling. He does not need to be at all a hardened critic in order to laugh at the projectors of the “Germ,” for example, admired artists though they be, when he learns that inasmuch as they believed that they had before them in conducting that iconoclastic magazine a work of great difficulty and labor, they decided to indicate this belief by always pronouncing the name of their periodical with the initial letter hard. This seems too absurd to be readily believed—that a number of grown men should go about saying “germ” with a hard g, because they had resolved to paint as good pictures, and write as good poems, and make as good reviews of other people’s poems as they possibly could. Yet, if a layman with no recognized right to say anything about art may say so, there is nothing in this procedure which is essentially inconsistent with the characteristics of the works which Pre-Raphaelitic art has produced—as, indeed, how should there be? Over-strenuousness, enthusiasm in need of reasonable direction, self-conscious, crusading zeal, the exaggeration of surface-matters at the expense of the essential thing sought, affectation, which, however, may probably be the expression of genuine moods of minds in natures too little comprehensive—all these one can fancy that one sees in the pictures and poems just as in this baptism of the magazine which the school set on foot…. Not to insist on what is perhaps not very well worth attention, but by way of corroborating the evidence which our story of the “Germ” may offer, we may mention the fact that some years since, when something like an American Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in the city of New York, where an American “Germ,” too, was established and lived for a while, it was seriously discussed by the brethren whether or not they should discard the ordinary clothes of contemporary mankind, and endue themselves with doublets and long hose and pantofles, and such other articles of dress as doubtless had so much to do with making the Titians and Angelos and Andreas of the old days of art….

Opinions must differ; but the prevailing opinion, we should say, will be that we have in Mr. Rossetti another poetical man, and a man markedly poetical, and of a kind apparently though not radically different from any other of our secondary writers of poetry, but that we have not in him a true poet of any weight. He certainly has taste, and subtlety, and skill, and sentiment in excess, and excessive sensibility, and a sort of pictorial sensuousness of conception which gives warmth and vividness to the imagery that embodies his feelings and desires. But he is all feelings and desires; and he is of the earth, earthy, though the earth is often bright and beautiful pigments; of thought and imagination he has next to nothing. At last one discovers, what has seemed probable from the first, that one has been in company with a lyrical poet of narrow range; with a man who has nothing to say but of himself; and of himself as the yearning lover, mostly a sad one, of a person of the other sex. Where there seems to be something more than this, as in such a dramatic piece as “Sister Helen,” for instance, the substratum is usually the same; and the essentially subjective, and narrowly subjective character of the poem is only temporarily concealed by the author’s favorite mediæval dress, which is never obtained except at the cost of throwing over the real life of the Middle Ages the special color which it suits the author’s purpose to throw over it. Mediævalism of this kind, elaborately appointed and equipped, has always been common enough, and certainly it has great powers of imposition, but what is it usually but our taking, each of us as it chances to suit his taste or his purpose, some one aspect of the true life of the Middle Ages, or, as it may happen, the classic ages, or the age of Queen Anne say, or King David, or Governor Winthrop, and making that stand for the objective truth? With Mr. Morris, say, the Middle Ages mean helmets and the treacheries of long-footed knights who fiercely love ladies who embroider banners, and wear samite gowns, and watch ships sailing out to sea, as do illuminated ladies, out of all drawing, in old manuscripts. Another man’s Middle Ages are made up of tourneys and knightly courtesies. The England of Queen Anne is to such and such a man all coffee-houses and wigs and small-swords; and to such and such another, Governor Winthrop’s New England is going always to church, and hanging witches, and austerely keeping fasts. We confess that whenever this particular form of self-indulgence is accompanied by an ostentation of exactness and of absolute reproduction of the past times, or when, as in the case of a certain school of writers, the impression given is the impression of the writer’s inability to live the life of his own age, and to see that in that also the realities of life and thought, the substance and subject of all really sound poetry, present themselves for treatment, we confess that we experience a feeling not far removed from contemptuous resentment. Surely there is something wrong in the thinker or the poet—shall we say, too, in the artist?—who can content himself with his fancies of the thoughts and feelings and views of times past, and who can better please himself with what after all must be more or less unreal phantasmagoria than with the breathing life around him.

Considered as a lyrical poet pure and simple, a lyrical verse-making lover, apart from whatever praise or blame belongs to him as a Pre-Raphaelite in poetry whose Pre-Raphaelitism is its most obvious feature, it will be found that Mr. Rossetti must be credited with an intensity of feeling which is overcast almost always with a sort of morbidness, and which usually trenches on the bound of undue sensuousness of tone.

Picturesqueness, indeed, is, as might have been expected, one of our author’s strong points. For one thing, because he looks on nature with the eyes of a man whose business in the world it is to see and make pictures; and it might be not easy to find, outside of the delightful poems of Mr. William Barnes, who has so extraordinary an eye for the landscape-picturesque, any more decided recent successes in this way than Mr. Rossetti has made. Then, for another thing, he looks on life with the feeling of a born painter, whose natural instrument of expression is color, and who can with more ease indicate and subtly hint than he can clearly enunciate with intellectual precision what he wishes to convey to us. Thus he is no doubt at a disadvantage with most of his critics, and has for the necessary injustice, to call it so, which these do him, only the somewhat imperfect compensation of pleasing with an excess of vague pleasure a certain number of his more impressible readers of like mind with himself. The sensuousness, too, of which we speak, making it natural for him to seek palpable, tangible images in which to embody his conception, is another allied cause of his strength as a pictorial writer….

To whatever the reader turns he will, we think, as we have said, come at last to the conclusion that Mr. Rossetti is essentially a subjective poet who deals with the passion of love, and who has at command a set of properties which have the advantage of being comparatively new and striking to most readers and have the disadvantage of being thought by most readers to be merely properties. And the love to which he confines himself will be found to be at bottom a sensuous and sexual love, refined to some extent by that sort of worship of one’s mistress as saint and divinity which the early Italians made a fashion, certainly, whether or not it was ever a faith by which they lived. It is, we take it, to his long study in this school that Mr. Rossetti owes much of this turn that his thoughts take…. Besides its sensuousness and its sort of ecstasy, sadness and dejection characterize Mr. Rossetti’s love, which sheds tears and looks backwards with regret, and forwards without cheerfulness, and yearningly into the mould of the grave, as often as it looks backwards upon remembered raptures and forwards to an eternity of locked embraces and speechless gazing upon the beloved. His love is, on the whole, rather depressing. It is, however, past doubt that, although the world at large is not going to give Mr. Rossetti anything like the place that has been claimed for him—though it is even probable that the fashion of his poetry will very soon pass away and be gone for good, and the opinion of his genius fall to an opinion that he is a man of the temperament of genius lacking power to give effect, in words at least, to a nature and gifts rare rather than strong or valuable, nevertheless it will be admitted that he is an elaborately skilful love-poet of narrow range, who affords an occasional touch that makes the reader hesitate and consider whether he has not now and again struggled out and really emerged as a poet worthy of the name.