Home  »  Volume XIII: English THE VICTORIAN AGE Part One The Nineteenth Century, II  »  § 1. The pre-Raphaelites; The Germ

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

V. The Rossettis, William Morris, Swinburne, and Others

§ 1. The pre-Raphaelites; The Germ

IN 1848, a number of young artists and men of letters, united in opposition to conventional systems of artistic teaching, formed themselves into a circle to which they gave the name “the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.” The painters William Holman and John Everett Millais, who were originally responsible for the idea, were joined by five others. Of these, Dante Gabriel, originally called Gabriel Charles Dante, Rossetti, then in his twentieth year, was best fitted to express the aims of the coterie by the coterie by his possession of the double gift of poetry and painting and by the power of a singularly masterful personality. Thomas Woolner, sculptor and poet, William Michael Rossetti, the younger brother of Gabriel, Frederick George Stephens and James Collinson were the remaining four. To these might be added the names of several sympathisers who, though in close communion with the names brotherhood, were not of it. Among elder men, Ford Madox Brown became one of the most thorough exponents of its aims in painting. William Bell Scott and Coventry Patmore gave it their help, and it found an ardent champion in Ruskin, who used his persuasive eloquence to define pre-Raphaelism and vindicate it against the charges of mere imitation and relapse into medievalism.

The term “pre-Raphaelite” implied merely a kinship of method with artists whose direct influence upon the work of the brotherhood was relatively small. Rossetti, though of Italian parentage and closely acquainted with Italian literature, was a Londoner born and bred, who had no first-hand knowledge of Italian art in its native country. Of him and his friends, Ruskin said that they “imitate no pictures: they paint from nature only.” Their passion for rendering nature as she is, in obedience to their sense of truth, was instinctive: it was pre-Raphaelite only in so far as their practice found authority in the fidelity to nature of the later medieval painters, which was abandoned by the followers of Raffaelle. When, on I January, 1850, the first number of The Germ: Thoughts towards Nature in Poetry, Literature and Art was published, the brotherhood formulated its artistic creed, in a manifesto printed on the cover of the magazine, as “an entire adherence to the simplicity of art.” The contents illustrated a strict obedience to this principle. Graphic art was represented only by Holman Hunt’s etching in illustration of Woolner’s poems My Beautiful Lady and Of my Lady in Death; but Rossetti’s poem My Sister’s Sleep, afterwards subjected to much revision and alteration, successfully combined realistic description with pictorial effect, and his mystical prose narrative Hand and Soul gave evidence of his understanding of the spirit of the painters in whose work he found the closest response to his own ideals.

A creed held so earnestly as that of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood easily lends itself to over-serious expression. Sonnets and lyrics, interspersed with didactic essays and laboured critiques, do not suffice as the material of a successful periodical; and the poetry of The Germ was too novel, its prose too conscientious, to attract general admiration. In the third number, its title was changed to Art and Poetry: Thoughts towards Nature, and it was announced as “conducted principally by artists.” After the fourth number, it ceased to appear. Apart from Rossetti’s Hand and Soul, the style of which is remarkably mature and full of the romantic imagination and depth of colour noticeable in his paintings, the prose of The Germ is almost negligible. Its verse is by no means of equal value, and some of it was experimental work by persons of no special poetic talent. The eminence of some of its promoters and contributors is enough to give it historical value as an attempt to apply an extremely rigid canon to varying forms of art. But its literary importance is almost entirely due to the eleven poems by Rossetti himself and the seven lyrics by his sister Christina, two years his junior, which it contained. In the case of Rossetti, My Sister’s Sleep was written in close adherence to the truth of detail demanded by the pre-Raphaelite creed. The subject, however, the peaceful death of a girl at midnight on Christmas eve, amid a quiet broken only by common sounds and the striking of the church clock, while the scene outside is bathed in cold moonlight, is invested with the mysticism and romance which were an inalienable part of Rossetti’s thought. Conversely, The Blessed Damozel, the first version of which appeared in the second number of The Germ, applies realistic touches to a subject which is primarily mystical and romantic. His remaining contributions to The Germ were chiefly reminiscences of a tour with Holman Hunt in Belgium, and included six sonnets on pictures by Memling and other painters. Pax Vobis, now called World’s Worth, written in the church of Saint-Bavon at Ghent, indicates, like the later Ave, Rossetti’s sensitiveness to the charm of ritual and historical doctrine from which art has derived much of its highest inspiration.

During the ten years that followed the publication of The Germ, Rossetti published little poetry, devoting himself chiefly to painting. It was about 1850 that he met the beautiful Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, who permanently inspired his painting and poetry alike. They became engaged to be married; but, owing to want of money and to Miss Siddal’s weak health, their marriage did not take place till 1860. In 1861, Rossetti published his first volume, The Early Italian Poets, rearranged, at a later date, under the title Dante and his Circle. This was a series of translations, including a prose version of LaVita Nuova, from Dante and his thirteenth-century precursors and from his friends and contemporaries. Meanwhile, Rossetti had contributed to The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine in 1856 three poems, The Burden of Nineveh, a new version of The Blessed Damozel and The Staff and Scrip. Of his influence over Morris and the other contributors to this publication more will be said later. Other poems written during this period were copied into a manuscript book, which, when his wife died in 1862, was buried with her. He died at Birchington near Margate on 9 April, 1882, and was buried in the churchyard of the parish church.

Poems by D. G. Rossetti, his first volume of strictly original poetry, was published in 1870. Most of the contents of this book, which included some of the sonnet-sequence afterwards called The House of Life, had lain undisturbed in his wife’s grave in Highgate cemetery since 1862, and it was with great difficulty that he was persuaded to consent to their disinterment, and the publication of pieces which were known only in oral versions. Ballads and Sonnets in 1881 completed The House of Life, and, among other poems, added Rose Mary, The White Ship and The King’s Tragedy to his work. The volume of his verse, even when his translations are added to it, is comparatively small, and his productiveness was restrained by fastidious habits of revision, by which the text of whole poems such as The Blessed Damozel was materially altered.