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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Morton Payne (1858–1919)

By Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)

IN the tender ‘One Word More’ with which Browning dedicated to his wife the “fifty poems finished” of ‘Men and Women,’ the poet speaks of the lost “century of sonnets” said to have been written by Raphael, and of the painting affirmed by tradition to have been begun by Dante. Since the days of Dante and Raphael, other poets have been painters, and other painters poets; but probably no one has attained to the high and equal mastery of both arts that we find exemplified in the work of Rossetti. In such a case, it was only natural that each art should react upon the other: that the paintings should be peculiarly poetical in conception and execution; that the poems should have much of the pictorial quality, however abstract their themes and however idealized their motives. Although the present article can say nothing of Rossetti the painter, the fact that the poet was also a painter of the highest achievement must constantly be kept in view; for it helps to account for many things in the poems,—from the statement that the hair of the Blessèd Damozel “was yellow like ripe corn,” to “the flame turned cloud, the cloud returned to flame,” that symbolizes the changing moods of the soul stirred to its depths by the magic of the musician. Yet it must not be inferred from all this that the artist (two-souled, as Michelangelo was four-souled) either unconsciously or deliberately confused the distinct aims of poetry and painting, or that his work in either art transcends, to any considerable degree, the limitations laid down by Lessing’s searching criticism in the ‘Laocoön.’ If we examine the cases in which Rossetti brought the two arts into the closest juxtaposition, as in the sonnets which he wrote for certain of his own pictures, we shall find that while the poems comment upon the paintings, the descriptive element is far less important than the elements of retrospection, anticipation, and gnomic philosophical utterance.

Rossetti takes his place in English literature as one of the six major poets of the later Victorian era, and as the oldest of the subgroup of three associated with the artistic revival vaguely known as Pre-Raphaelitism. Although several years the senior of Morris and Swinburne, the public knew little of him as a poet for some years after their reputations had been fairly well established. Yet much of his most characteristic work had been done long before Morris published his first volume, or Swinburne made the earliest displays of his astonishing virtuosity; and both of these men in some sense regarded Rossetti as their master. But his contributions to the Germ (1850) and the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine (1856) did not reach the larger public; and it was not until the ‘Poems’ appeared in 1870 that the world discovered how bright a planet had swum into its ken. Meanwhile the small group of Rossetti’s friends had long cherished his work, and manuscript copies of many of his pieces had circulated from hand to hand. In fact, when the time of publication approached, it may be said that rumor had so heralded the advent of the new poet that when the volume of 1870 appeared, it was, as Mr. Gosse remarks, “after such expectation and tiptoe curiosity as have preceded no other book in our generation.” The story of that volume is one of the most familiar bits of literary history: buried in the grave of a beloved wife, who died after but two years of wedded happiness, it was only upon the earnest solicitation of his friends that Rossetti permitted the manuscript to be unearthed, seven years later, and made arrangements for its publication.

When this volume appeared, the poet was just completing his forty-second year. Born in London, May 12th, 1828, he was named Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, which appellation was in early manhood modified into the form that became generally familiar. The means of his family were scanty; and at the age of fifteen he left school and began the study of painting. In 1848 he united with two of his fellow-students in art—Millais and Holman Hunt—and with the sculptor-poet Woolner, to form the famous Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In 1860, after a long engagement, he married Elizabeth Siddal, who died less than two years thereafter. His reputation as a painter was by this time firmly established; but his literary work, mostly contributed to the periodicals above mentioned, was known to but few readers. In 1861 he published the marvelous volume of translations at first entitled ‘The Early Italian Poets,’ and afterwards republished as ‘Dante and his Circle.’ This is one of the few works of translation into English that are almost beyond praise. It includes, besides the ‘New Life’ of Dante, a selection of poems by about a dozen of Dante’s contemporaries,—chief among them being Guido Cavalcanti,—and by a still greater number of the twelfth and thirteenth century poets who came before Dante. The path of the translator, we read in Rossetti’s preface, “is like that of Aladdin through the enchanted vaults: many are the precious fruits and flowers which he must pass by unheeded in search for the lamp alone; happy if at last, when brought to light, it does not prove that his old lamp has been exchanged for a new one—glittering indeed to the eye, but scarcely of the same virtue nor with the same genius at its summons.” Precious indeed are these translations of old Italian poetry, for they interpret with perfect insight and sympathy an important literary epoch; and precious also are Rossetti’s infrequent later experiments in translation, which include the Francesca episode of the ‘Inferno’ and some of the ballads of Villon. His version of the ‘Ballade des Dames de Temps Jadis’ (Ballad of the Ladies of Bygone Times) has received such praise from men like Pater and Swinburne, that ordinary words seem inadequate to convey the sense of its matchless charm.

The ‘Poems’ of 1870 found, as has already been stated, an audience half prepared to receive them; and a chorus of critical enthusiasm greeted their appearance. With the exception of Swinburne’s ‘Poems and Ballads,’ it may be said that no other volume of English poetry published during the last half-century has created so great a sensation, or been received with so much acclaim. But while all serious critics were agreed in recognizing the advent of a new great poet,—the emergence of a new and distinctly individual note in the chorus of English song,—the dovecotes of literature were not a little fluttered by the swoop of one bird of prey. A little more than a year after the publication of the ‘Poems,’ an unimportant scribbler, whose name does not deserve to be dignified by mention, obtained access to the pages of a leading review, and published over a pseudonymous signature an article entitled ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry.’ This article was a direct attack upon Rossetti’s poems, and fairly reeked with what Swinburne calls a “rancid morality.” Utterly unfair in its methods and unjust in its conclusions, this article seized upon certain of the more sensuous passages in the ‘Poems,’ and strove to create the impression that they were merely sensual,—a very different thing. The injustice of this attack was afterwards acknowledged by its author, and the incident would hardly call for notice were it not for the effect produced upon Rossetti’s morbidly sensitive nature. He was already suffering from the insomnia that was to wreck his life a few years later, besides being threatened with the loss of his eyesight; and it is not surprising that under these circumstances he magnified the significance of the contemptible attack. He fell “into the belief that he was fast becoming the object of widespread calumny and obloquy, not less malignant and insidious than unprovoked and undeserved,”—so his brother tells us. An alarming illness followed; and when he recovered from it, so far as he did recover, he was a changed man. The exuberant vitality of his earlier years, and the unaffected geniality which had made him so companionable, gave place to moodiness, depression, and a gloomy irritability, that estranged many of his friends, and almost made him a recluse for the last ten years of his life.

A few words about these last years may properly precede the discussion of Rossetti’s poetical achievement. He worked diligently at his painting, and made some additions to his poems during this period; and his life was not without intervals of its old-time serenity. But the excessive use of chloral as a remedy for sleeplessness was steadily sapping his energies; and he was becoming more and more of a physical wreck. For a time he lived almost wholly with William Morris at Kelmscot; but from 1874 on, his home was the house in Chelsea which he had occupied at intervals ever since the death of his wife. In 1881 he issued a new edition of his ‘Poems’; and also the volume of ‘Ballads and Sonnets,’ which included the now completed ‘House of Life’ and a number of long poems hitherto unpublished. In December of this year he suffered a paralytic shock, and was removed to Birchington, where he died on the 9th of April, 1882, and where his remains were interred.

The entire works of Rossetti, in prose and verse, original and translated, fill two stout volumes in the standard edition. A single volume of no inordinate bulk suffices to contain all the poems. Thus we see that of the six great poets of his age, Rossetti was one of the least voluminous. The bulk of his work is about equal to that of Matthew Arnold, but is much less than that of Tennyson; and falls far short of the opulence of Browning, Morris, and Swinburne. Although its composition covered a period of more than thirty years, little is to be gained from a study of its chronological sequence; for the wings of the poet were full-fledged almost from the start, and it would be difficult to show anything like the steady development of power that may be traced in the activity of many of his contemporaries. If ‘The Blessèd Damozel’ (written at eighteen) bears the marks of immaturity upon its magical beauty, ‘The Burden of Nineveh’ (written only three or four years later) is the work of a strong man of fully ripened powers. What we have to say of the poems, then, need take no account of their dates; and we are left free to group them according to subject-matter and form.

First of all, we may mention the long narrative poems and ballads: the chronicle history of ‘Dante at Verona,’ which is the noblest of the several tributes of Rossetti’s genius to what was probably the deepest artistic influence of his life; the intensely dramatic ‘A Last Confession,’ which rivals the strongest of Browning’s dramatic idyls; the story of ‘Jenny,’ with its frank but delicate treatment of one of the most difficult of subjects; the unfinished poem called ‘The Bride’s Prelude’; and the four great ballads ‘Sister Helen,’ ‘Rose Mary,’ ‘The White Ship,’ and ‘The King’s Tragedy.’ Then, following the classification of Mr. W. M. Rossetti, we come to the great sonnet-sequence named ‘The House of Life’; a brimming century of poems, which embody in splendid imagery and harmonious measure the experiences that youth and change and fate bring to the life of man. These sonnets alone would suffice to insure the immortality of the poet; for they must be ranked no lower than with the greatest in the language,—with those of Shakespeare and of Milton, of Wordsworth and of Keats. Finally, in the miscellaneous section of the poems we find many more sonnets of equal beauty and power, including the important group of ‘Sonnets for Pictures’; such ballads as ‘Troy Town’ and ‘Eden Bower’; such matchless lyrics as ‘The Sea Limits,’ ‘The Cloud Confines,’ and ‘The Song of the Bower’; and so impressive and solemn an utterance as ‘The Burden of Nineveh.’ Here are many different forms and styles, in some cases represented by but a single example: it seems as if Rossetti, whose distinctive forms of expression were the ballad, the lyric, and the sonnet, had made such single ventures in other manners as ‘Jenny,’ ‘A Last Confession,’ and ‘The Burden of Nineveh,’ merely to show that he could do these things if he chose, and do them supremely well.

To sum up the characteristics of the poet in a few concluding words, it may be said that he possessed in an extraordinary degree both richness of imagination, and the power to pack a world of meaning into one pregnant and melodious phrase. But both his pictorial faculty and his intellectual force were tempered by a strain of mysticism, for which he has been charged with obscurity by hard-headed and dull-witted readers. He was at once the most spiritual and the most material of poets; and the accusation of sensuality from which he was made to suffer could only result from inability to see more than one side of the Druid shield of his poetical personality. Mr. Pater, who saw both sides of the shield, compared him with the Florentine whose name he bore; and his words may be borrowed to crown with a touch of grace this brief study of Rossetti’s work.

  • “Practically, the Church of the Middle Age, by its æsthetic worship, its sacramentalism, its real faith in the resurrection of the flesh, had set itself against the Manichean opposition of spirit and matter, and its results in men’s ways of taking life; and in this, Dante is the central representative of its spirit. To him, in the vehement and impassioned heat of his conceptions, the material and the spiritual are fused and blent: if the spiritual attains the definite visibility of a crystal, what is material loses its earthiness and impurity. And here again, by force of instinct, Rossetti is one with him. His chosen type of beauty is one—
  • “‘Whose speech Truth knows not from her thought,
  • Nor Love her body from her soul.’”