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An Introduction to D. G. Rossetti

Jerome J. McGann

The Life

Formal Self-Portrait, pencil, 1861
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born in London on 12 May 1828 and he died on Easter Day, 9 April 1882. He spent nearly his entire working life in the city of his birth, and indeed he only left Great Britain three times, in each case but the first quite briefly. Though his work is steeped in Italian traditions (both poetical and pictorial), Rossetti never visited Italy. He is first and always an English — more, a London — writer and artist.

His father was the celebrated (and controversial) Dante scholar and Italian political exile Gabriele Rossetti (1783-1854). His mother Frances (1800-1886), much younger than her husband, was Anglo-Italian — Polidori on her father's side. (Her brother, Dr. John Polidori, was Byron's doctor and companion during the first part of his exile from England in 1816.) Rossetti had three siblings, two younger than himself. All were remarkable. His sister Christina (1830-1894) became as distinguished a poet as her brother. His brother William Michael (1829-1919), a writer himself, edited his brother's work after the latter's death and served as the first archivist and historian of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. His other sister was the oldest child, Maria Francesca (1827-1876); she published a commentary on Dante and became an Anglican nun.

Rossetti's interests in writing and painting appeared early, encouraged by his immediate family life as well as by the literary interests of his grandfather Polidori. The children were writing from a very early age, and drawings by Rossetti survive from the mid-1830s. He went to Sass's drawing school in 1841 and in 1845 moved to the Antique School of the Royal Academy. He did not work well under academic tutelage, however, and in 1848 he dropped away from school altogether.

The departure proved a crucial event in Rossetti's life. 1848 marks not only a European watershed, it is equally the year of Rossetti's emergence as a serious — indeed, an epochal — figure in British art and poetry. In 1848 the Pre-Raphaelite movement was founded, Rossetti produced his first important painting, and he was working on or finishing a series of remarkable writings (including "The Blessed Damozel" and most of the translations that eventually appeared as The Early Italian Poets in 1861. It was in 1848 that the core set of Rossetti's artistic and poetical touchstones began to coalesce in a practical way.

Bottles, oil still life, 1848
Delaware Art Museum
William Holman Hunt, The Eve of St. Agnes, oil, 1848
Guildhall Art Gallery, London
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, oil on canvas, 1849
The Tate Britain Gallery

When Rossetti left the Academy school he initially apprenticed himself to Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), whose work he had first seen and admired in 1844. At the 1848 Royal Academy Exhibition he saw William Holman Hunt's (1827-1910) Eve of St. Agnes and was so taken with it that he sought out the young painter and they quickly became friends. Soon Rossetti moved in with him and, under Hunt's critical eye, he tried to develop more disciplined work habits. It was under Hunt's supervision that Rossetti executed his first important painting, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, begun in the summer of 1848. At the same time he was showing Hunt and his other new friends, including the young prodigy John Everett Millais (1829-1896), his writing work, including his translations.

Rossetti's extraordinary range of talents and interests, combined with his energy and enthusiasm, made him the central figure in the formation of the group of writers and artists who were to name themselves The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Hunt's express hostility to academy art gave the movement its initial polemical and theoretical focus. He was particularly inspired by the first two volumes of Ruskin's Modern Painters (1843-1846), and he introduced the others to Ruskin's ideas, which proved so fruitful to so many in and associated with the PRB and its aftermath. But it was Rossetti whose cultural vision and force of character magnetized the group, just as it was Rossetti's work which was to have the longest and most significant impact on poetry and the visual arts.

The movement's founding is customarily dated from an evening in October 1848, when Hunt, Millais, and Rossetti were studying Carlo Lasinio's engravings after the Campo Santo frescoes in Pisa. Their admiration for these pictures determined them to form a group that might bring about a revolution in artistic practice and cultural sensibilities. The three men soon gathered together a group who met monthly to discuss topics of mutal interest. It included Rossetti's brother William Michael, the young sculptor Thomas Woolner (1825-1892), James Collinson (1825?-1881) (a painter engaged to Rossetti's sister Christina), and F. G. Stephens (1828-1907), who would later become an influential art critic.

Carlo Lasinio, Conversione di S. Ranieri (detail), from his Pitture a fresco del Campo Santo di Pisa (1828)
Carlo Lasinio, S. Ranieri Prende l'Abito d'Eremita (detail), from his Pitture a fresco del Campo Santo di Pisa (1828)
Carlo Lasinio, Partenza di Agar da Abramo (detail), from his Pitture a fresco del Campo Santo di Pisa (1828)

The PRB made its debut early in 1849, when Hunt and Millais put up works at the Royal Academy Exhibition and Rossetti at the Free Exhibition at Hyde Park Corner. Despite the "PRB" signatures on their works — the initials would soon become a focus of critical attack — their works were reasonably well received. In the fall of 1849 Hunt and Rossetti left for a brief trip to Belgium and Paris, where they studied and enthused over the works of various painters they chose to regard as their spiritual precursors. On returning the group began to lay plans for publishing a journal that would carry their ideas, they hoped, to an even larger audience. This was the famous periodical The Germ (subtitled "Thoughts towards Nature in Poetry, Literature, and Art"). Beginning early in 1850, it ran for only four numbers. Despite its lack of initial success, the work would prove an important venture.

Unlike 1849, the exhibition of the work of Rossetti and the other PRBs in 1850 produced a firestorm of hostile criticism. The event brought Ruskin to the defense of the young painters — a signal moment in their history. Ruskin in effect defined the PRB as "serious artists" and his authority in effect established the movement's cultural position. Rossetti and Ruskin became close friends for a time, but they grew apart when Rossetti grew tired of having to fill the role of Ruskin's pupil.

The Germ, cover page for issue 2 (February 1850)

The year 1850 brought another crucial change to Rossetti's life. He met the beautiful Elizabeth Siddal (1829-1862), the daughter of a cutler. He painted and drew "Lizzie" — as everyone knew her — obsessively. At first the poverty of their circumstances prevented their marriage, though later in the 50s Rossetti's imagination began to be invaded by other beautiful women, including Fanny Cornforth (1835?-1905) and Jane Burden (1839-1914), who would marry Rossetti's friend William Morris. Nonetheless, Rossetti's devotion to Elizabeth never really failed, though their relationship grew increasingly troubled. They married in 1860, but two years later Elizabeth died of an overdose of laudanum. Her health had been uncertain for a number of years.

Elizabeth Siddal, watercolour 1854
Delaware Art Museum
Elizabeth Siddal, watercolour and pencil, dated by Rossetti 1850-1865
Ashmolean Museum
Elizabeth Siddal, black and brown pen drawing, 1855
Ashmolean Museum
Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, watercolour painted over a photograph, 1861
Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore

Through the 1850s Rossetti worked mainly on his painting. The initial intense period of his imaginative writing all but ceased for a time in 1852. Rossetti poured himself into his art, where he seemed — to his own judgment — unable to express himself exactly as he wanted. He gave up oil painting for a time and turned to water colour, a medium in which he produced some of his greatest works.

Sir Launcelot's Vision of the Sanc Grael, unfinished watercolor study for one of the Oxford Union murals, 1857
Ashmolean Museum

In terms of his public career, the central event of this period was the so-called "Jovial Campaign", the 1857 project to paint the walls of the Debating Hall of the Union Society in Oxford. As it turned out, the murals were executed but almost immediately faded and disappeared because Rossetti and his friends did not understand how properly to prepare the walls for the paintings. Despite this disaster, the project attracted great attention to Rossetti and his friends — in this case, largely a new cast of friends including Edward Jones (later Burne-Jones) and William Morris.

The Jovial Campaign ought to be seen as the culminant event in the years 1856-57, when Rossetti and the PRB finally gained a position of recognized cultural authority. Two other projects of these years were also important. In 1856 William Morris and his friends launched The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. A sequel to The Germ, and in certain obvious ways a much superior production, it too perished after a short run — this time, after a year. But the magazine brought Rossetti a new set of attachments that would prove fateful for all concerned. The other event was the publication of Moxon's illustrated edition of Tennyson's selected poetry, which finally appeared early in 1857. The book carried illustrations by various artists of the day. Rossetti's contributions, which illustrated "The Palace of Art" and several other poems, are stunning. From the point of view of his career, his appearance in this book defined him as an artist of established position.

St. Cecilia, pen and ink drawing (1856-1857) to illustrate Tennyson's "The Palace of Art" (lines 97-100) in the Moxon edition of 1857
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Title pages for Rossetti's epochal book of translations The Early Italian Poets From Ciullo D'Alcamo to Dante Alighieri (1100-1200-1300), published in 1861. The illustrated woodcut title page was rejected by the publisher.
A few copies survive including this from the copy in Yale University's Beinecke Library, the Tinker Collection.

The death of Elizabeth early in 1862 put a (temporary) end to some elaborate publishing plans that Rossetti had set in train. In 1861 he assembled the poetical translations of medieval Italian poetry that he had been doing in the 1840s. He finished the work and brought out, at the end of the year, the important volume The Early Italian Poets (later revised and reissued in 1874 as Dante and his Circle. His plan was to publish, as an accompanying volume of original poetry, a book to be called Dante at Verona and other Poems. Though advertised as forthcoming in his book of translations, Rossetti never issued the work. In one of the two most celebrated acts of his life, Rossetti buried the manuscript volume in the coffin with his wife. (The second was his recovery of the volume, in 1869, from Elizabeth's grave.)

Rossetti's fair copy manuscript of his sonnet "Another Love", originally composed in 1848. This manuscript is a leaf surviving from Rossetti's book of poems that he placed in his wife's grave in 1862 and later had exhumed in 1869.
British Library
Photographic portrait of Fanny Cornforth by William Downey, 1863
Delaware Art Museum

During the 1860s Rossetti wrote little poetry but he returned to oils and produced a great deal of work as a painter. This was the period when his reputation as an artist grew and he began to command remarkable prices for his pictures. The Arthurian and Dantean subjects that had been his main preoccupation for several years now succeeded to a series of erotic female portraits. Fanny Cornforth was Rossetti's principal model for the earliest of these works, but later the face of Jane Morris dominated his pictures.

After the death of his wife he began to experience onsets of depression and hypochondria. He moved to 16 Cheyne Walk and after a few years began to close himself into its precincts. He slowly narrowed his social circle, he stopped exhibiting, and he began to take spirits and drugs. In 1867 his mental and physical condition deteriorated precipitously when he began to fear he would go blind. It was at this point that he began to take chloral, to which he became addicted.

Photographic study of Jane Morris standing in a marquee. This is one of a remarkable series of photographs of Mrs. Morris taken in July 1865 in the garden of Rossetti's house in Cheyne Walk. Rossetti composed the pictures and directed the photography, which was executed by John Parsons.
This print is from the album of photographs of Mrs. Morris assembled in 1933 by Gordon Bottomly.

For the remainder of his life he would be surrounded by accumulating darknesses, and he would gradually break with some of his closest and most loyal friends. But out of the nightmare world that gradually arose in the midst of his growing public success and suffocating middle class luxury, Rossetti created a series of literary and pictorial works of great power and significance.

Sibylla Palmifera, also titled "Soul's Beauty". The sonnet titled "Soul's Beauty" from The House of Life sonnet sequence was written as a commentary on the picture, which Rossetti finished in 1869. Text and picture are an exemplary instance of a Rossettian "double work" whose dialectical companion is the double work known as "Lady Lilith" or "Body's Beauty".
The oil painting is in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight.
Lady Lilith, alternately titled "Body's Beauty", was also completed in 1869. The sonnet titled "Body's Beauty" from The House of Life sonnet sequence was written as a commentary on the picture. Conceived in relation to the double work of "Soul's Beauty", the entire constellation of poetic and pictorial materials represents Rossetti's most famous treatment of the subject of sacred and profane love, which runs through all of his work.
This painting was reworked several times by Rossetti; the version here is in the Delaware Art Museum.
Venus Verticordia, another picture with a doubled sonnet commentary.
The painting was executed betwen 1864-1868 and is located in the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery.

In 1866 and 1867 he wrote two sonnets for recent pictures —the poems now known as "Soul's Beauty" and "Body's Beauty", which appeared in print in 1868, along with another sonnet for a picture, "Venus Verticordia". The poems restored him to a sense of the importance of his poetry, which he began to take up again in earnest. The activity stimulated his old desire to see his original writings in print. His eye problems further induced him to shift his principal creative activity from art to literature. Since much of this poetry had been buried with Elizabeth, and since Rossetti kept no copies of some of his most important works, the grisly scheme to exhume the volume was set in motion. In the end the book was recovered for Rossetti by some friends. In 1869 he began recopying and revising these older works and adding new poems to them. He had these works printed up "for private circulation" in a series of proofs and so-called trial books, and eventually he gathered the lot together and published his 1870 volume of Poems.

The book was a stunning success. It was also the occasion of one of the most famous literary controversies of the century when it was reviewed in 1871 by Robert Buchanan in the pseudonymous essay "The Fleshly School of Poetry - Mr. D.G. Rossetti", in the Contemporary Review. Buchanan's main charge, that Rossetti's volume was full of indecencies, started a furious series of further attacks, defenses, counterattacks, and general public clamour. Rossetti himself entered the fray with an essay of self-defense, "The Stealthy School of Criticism", which he published in The Athenæum in December. None of this did any serious damage to Rossetti's celebrity, and indeed Buchanan would, after Rossetti's death, all but completely recant his original position.

The 1870 Poems were put together, and many new ones written, after Rossetti moved from London to Barbara Bodichon's country house Scalands, near Robertsbridge, Hastings. Rossetti moved there in March 1870 to escape his claustrophobic London existence. Soon Jane and William Morris came to visit him. Jane stayed on for nearly the entire period of his sojourn, which ended on May 9. In those two months she would stamp his new book with her presence. In a biographical point of view the volume is dominated by Rossetti's two great love obsessions — his old love, Elizabeth, now dead and enshrined to an imaginative heaven; and the new love, Jane Morris, whose very earthly existence seemed to bring Rossetti back to life.

Between 1871 and 1874 the relationship between Rossetti and Jane Morris achieved an extreme intensity. Much of the time Rossetti spent at the Morris's house at Kelmscott, and much of that time William was not at home. The poetry Rossetti wrote largely focusses on his love for Jane Morris. But in the end the romantic idyll began to dissipate, and finally Jane left Kelmscott with her family in July 1874.

A portrait of Jane Morris that Rossetti titled Perlascura. This picture, a pastel on green paper, was completed in 1871, a period when the intimacy between Rossetti and Mrs. Morris was intense. In 1877 Rossetti planned (but did not complete) a book of drawings of Jane Morris that was to be titled Perlascura: Twelve Coins for One Queen.
This is Rossetti's pen and ink illuminated text for the sonnet that heads his completed House of Life sonnet sequence, first published in 1881. Rossetti made this work for his mother's birthday in 1880.

With that separation the final phase of Rossetti's life is inaugurated. It is a period during which Rossetti's eccentricities, manias, and hallucinations began to gain a dominatng hold on his existence. Although he continued to paint, and in fact produced some astonishing works, he often seemed to be filling up, or out, his time. In 1880-1881 he had a renewed burst of poetical work as he prepared to issue a new and augmented edition of his 1870 volume. This was to include a new version of his masterwork "The House of Life" now twice the size of the 1870 version. He had also written several long ballads. The body of work proved so large, in fact, that he eventually decided two volumes should be published. These were the Ballads and Sonnets and the "new edition" of Poems. Both appeared in 1881.

Rossetti's devoted brother William Michael called this last phase of Rossetti's life "the chloralized years". His health broken and his mind continually transacted by various guilts and regrets, Rossetti slowly died into his death. After his last volumes were published he made two vain efforts to restore his health. He went to the Lake District in the fall of 1881 and later, on doctor's advice, went to stay with a friend at his country house in Birchington. There he died.

The Works

The point of departure for reading Rossetti has to be Walter Pater's essay on the poetry, which he published in 1883 shortly after Rossetti's death. The strongest as well as the subtlest literary-critical intelligence of the period in England, Pater saw "poetic originality" as the defining quality of Rossetti's work. The writing features an "almost grotesque materialising of abstractions" and stylistic "particularisation". Pater's essay explores the paradox of a writer seen as both limpid and abstruse. On one hand Rossetti covets a "transparency in language" devoted to "the imaginative creation of things that are ideal from their very birth". On the other he is "always personal and even recondite, in a certain sense learned and casuistical, sometimes complex or obscure".

Like Pope, when Rossetti came into his own as a writer he was quite young, in his teens; and although some of the work from his later years is arguably stronger or more profound, the prose and poetry composed between his fifteenth and twentieth years is already mature, in full possession of his distinctive poetic resources. Coleridge, Keats, Tennyson, Poe, and Browning: these are the English-language writers who stand behind his work and lead him to that "originality" Pater recognized. Almost equally important, of course, were the writers Rossetti himself named "Dante and his Circle." Indeed, Dante is probably Rossetti's single most important precursor, partly because he supplied Rossetti with his central myth of the poet's life, and partly because, in seeking to reconstruct that myth through his translations, Rossetti was led to fashion an English style that has been materially marked by Italian linguistic and poetical resources.

The Beata Beatrix is Rossetti's memorial tribute to his dead wife. He made several versions of the picture, which explicitly links Elizabeth with Dante's Beatrice. Rossetti perceived and pursued a parallel between his life and Dante's from the mid-1840s to his death.
This is the oil painting executed in 1864 and now located in the Tate Britain Gallery.
Beatrice is gone up into high Heaven,
   The kingdom where the angels are at peace...
Wonderfully out of the beautiful form
   Soared her clear spirit...
Who is she coming, whom all gaze upon
   Who makes the air all tremulous with light,
And at whose side is Love himself? That none
   Dare speak, but each man's sighs are infinite?

The first two passages, which open the second and third stanzas of Rossetti's translation of Dante's famous canzone "Gli occhi dolente," fashion remarkable English equivalents for Dante's hendecasyllabic rhythms. The third passage is his translation of the opening of Cavalcanti's sonnet "Chi e questa che vien" and it nicely exhibits a number of stylistic features that Rossetti will incorporate into his English verse. Notable are the synaesthesia, the sharp rendering of abstractions, the resort to sequences of brief words that subtly highlight key longer words ("coming", "tremulous", "himself", "infinite"), the careful rhythmic arrangement of the latter, and, finally, the slightly off-rhymes. The rhyming resources of Italian will draw Rossetti to develop many unusual rhymes and rhyming rhythms, some of them shocking, even outrageous.

The combination of Rossetti's favorite English poets and his Italian verse inheritance lies behind that astonishing signature work of Rossetti's late teens, "The Blessed Damozel," with its paradoxical combinations — rhythmical as well as figurative.

It lies in Heaven, across the flood
   Of ether, as a bridge.
Beneath the tides of day and night
   With flame and darkness ridge
The void, as low as where this earth
   Spins like a fretful midge
The sun was gone now; the curled moon
   Was like a little feather
Fluttering far down the gulf; and now
   She spoke through the still weather.
Her voice was like the voice the stars
   Had when they sang together
The Blessed Damozel is perhaps Rossetti's signature work. It was executed well after he wrote his poem on the same title. This is the oil version done between 1875-1878 for Rossetti's great patron William Graham.
Fogg Museum, Harvard University

This is more than a process of materializing spiritual realities and abstract ideas. Rossetti is rather literalizing that range of perceived and unperceived phenomena, turning it into a new kind of reality, purely linguistic. The effect inevitably recalls Coleridge's commentary on "Kubla Khan" as a vision in which "all the images rose up before [him] as things." Here we would be inclined to say "all the images and all the rhythms".

Rossetti's characteristic style is well suited to his most famous pair of subjects, Art and Love, where "matter and spirit... play inextricably into each other". Though Pater does not pursue the thought, both subjects are best taken up as activities, in performative and, finally, in interactive ways. The blending of the material and the spiritual, of soul and body, of idea and act, defines Rossetti's pictorial work as much as it does his verse. A pair of famous lines summarizes Rossetti's position: "Thy soul I know not from thy body, nor/ Thee from myself, neither our love from God." Despite the resolute "fleshliness" of the poetry, Pater astutely calls it "sacramental" because it displays this performative quality. Its extreme idealizations emerge in and through acts of writing, much as the meaning of prayer is an instantiated act of devotion.

One other general characteristic of Rossetti's work is important: his commitment to what he called "fundamental brainwork". Unlike his greatly gifted but undemonstrative sister, Dante Gabriel is driven by programmatic ideas and conceptual goals, as his contemporaries well knew. "Exhaustless invention" is how Ruskin described his pictorial work, which he learned to admire but came to deplore as it kept plunging through its Faustian pursuits. Rossetti holds our attention as we are held by the restless and brilliant Stephen Dedalus, who was — as Stephen tells Mr. Deasy in Ulysses — "A learner rather" than a teacher. So to read or look at Rossetti's work — actions required by both the texts and the pictures — is to enter a demanding intellectual space. Rossetti would break with Ruskin in the mid-1860s over a disagreement about how to manage the inheritance of Venetian art. But he remained to the end primarily Ruskinian (rather than Paterian) in treating art and writing more as a scene of intellectual action rather than reflection.

Rossetti began his career by catalyzing the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood through the force of his ideas and personality, which everyone at the time — even those who were teaching him how to paint, like Madox Brown and Holman Hunt — could not stay or resist. The Germ was his brainchild, and he placed in its first number one of the signal aesthetic documents of the period, his artistic manifesto "Hand and Soul".

Front Cover of the privately printed Hand and Soul pamphlet (1869)

Modest though it seems, "Hand and Soul" undertakes to overhaul the entire edifice of art history as it was formulated by Vasari and thence handed down to Rossetti's day, and even to our own. The argument with Vasari concentrates on the idea — for Rossetti, the illusion — of progress in the arts. Primitive Italian art undergoes a revisionary reading in the history of Rossetti's Chiaro, who refuses the promise of the coming glories of the Renaissance. A modern incarnation of what Trotsky would later call "the privilege of historical backwardness", Chiaro represents an imaginative resource for the nineteenth-century precisely because of his primitive aesthetic commitments — all those stylistic features that would come to be judged crude and incompetent by later art historians, with their enlightened and progressivist myths of art.

Crucially important is the fact that Rossetti casts his argument in an imaginative rather than an expository form. His point is that the most incisive explanation of an artistic practice ought to be performative — as it is, for example, in Horace's Ars Poetica, in Pope, in Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, or in Wilde's dialogues. In this programmatic context three topics emerge as indispensable areas of critical attention. Each is closely related to the others. They are: first, Rossetti's theory and practice of translation; second, his exploration of the so-called "double work of art"; and third, his remarkable understanding of what he called "an inner standing-point" as one of the "motive powers of art".

Rossetti set out his ideas about translation in the Preface to his first published book, The Early Italian Poets (1861), where he calls translation the "most direct form of commentary" and exegesis. It is a thus paradigm example of a performative act of literary criticism. Furthermore, the translator's obligation is to pursue "fidelity" rather than "literality" as his translational goal. So Rossetti's translations tend to be relatively free with respect to semantic literality and relatively strict with respect to metrical imitation. For Rossetti, a prose translation of poetry is no translation at all. A final "fidelity" is measured by this explicit rule: "a good poem shall not be turned into a bad one". The rule follows from Rossetti's basic thought that "the only true motive for putting poetry into a fresh language must be to endow a fresh nation, as far as possible, with one more possession of beauty".

Rossetti sees Dante's La Vita Nuova as a prophetic annunciation of these ideas, and when he translates that work as "The New Life" the translation incarnates the emergence of a new artistic life in the nineteenth-century. Rossetti literally becomes "Dante Rossetti," the resurrected figure of the great Florentine and, as such, the living sign of the deathless character of art. This dynamic is what "Art for Art's sake" signifies for Rossetti. As Dante Alighieri's avatar, he is called to his comprehensive work of translation because, in his view, Dante's writings are the gravitational center of the literary rebirth that took place between the emergence of the Sicilian School and the appearance of Boccaccio and Petrarch.

But Rossetti's aesthetic program was not only a literary one. Perhaps his most important aesthetic contribution was that remarkable generic form known as "the double work of art." This is an amalgam of literary and pictorial works on a single subject — two at a minimum, but the number of objects can be and often are multiple: for example, the constellation of pictures and texts named "The Blessed Damozel" or "Proserpina." Rossetti's first important double work, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, exhibits the form's typical dynamic structure. That is to say, Rossetti usually "doubles" a pictorial work with a text or a set of texts. The picture may be his own or someone else's. In 1849, for example, he wrote a series of outstanding "Sonnets for Pictures" that responded to various paintings he saw on the trip he and Holman Hunt made to Belgium and Paris. The doubling may also proceed in the other direction, however, as when Rossetti "illustrates" his own texts or texts from Poe, Tennyson, or other writers. Rossetti's earliest double works are of this last kind and they clearly derive from the illustrated book tradition.

These double works are translational forms — "direct forms of commentary" and exegesis. The dialectic of the forms is once again performative rather than conceptual. One might judge from this process that Rossetti is pursuing an unmediated form of knowing, but the truth is otherwise. What these double works want to avoid is precisely the transformation of artistic acts into ideated terms, as if thinking were an abstract process of reflection. For Rossetti, on the contrary, the practice of art is a practice of thought more penetrating than expository explanation. The Ideal forms of thinking are not abstract, they are enfleshed, aesthetic: total body experiences, as it were. Knowing by (re)doing.

Proserpina, the so-called seventh version.
This is the oil replica that Rossetti executed in 1874 and now located in the Tate Britain Gallery.)

Rossetti's fair copy manuscript of the Italian version of his sonnet "Prosperpina". He translated this poem into an English version, both of which represent critical commentaries on the painting that they "double".
The manuscript is located in the British Library.
This is the first page of Rossetti's corrected manuscript copy of "Jenny", his celebrated dramatic monologue on the "modern life" subject of prostitution.
The manuscript is housed in the library of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

This kind of imaginative work leads Rossetti to his theory of "the inner standing-point" as one of the "motive powers of art". The key text is Rossetti's discussion of "Jenny" in "The Stealthy School of Criticism," his 1871 critical response to Buchanan's attack on his poetry. Like Ruskin earlier, Buchanan was offended and troubled by "Jenny." The subject was problematic to a degree, but worse was the intimate way Rossetti handled his materials. Would "a treatment from without" — for instance, a prose essay on the subject — have been preferable? Rossetti says "no." The more difficult the material, the more one needs an imaginative rather than an expository approach: for "the motive powers of art reverse the requirement of science, and demand first of all an inner standing-point. The heart of such a mystery as this must be plucked from the very world in which it beats or bleeds."

Rossetti had introduced the theory of the "inner standing-point" some years before, in an unpublished note to his pastiche poem "Ave," one of his early "Songs of the Art Catholic". The idea of art at an "inner standing-point" is a clear theoretical reflection on the dramatic monologue, and especially on Robert Browning's use of the form, which Rossetti much admired. Rossetti's thoughts on this genre, however, are quite different from Browning's — both in 1847-1848, when he wrote "Ave" and in 1859 and 1871, when his focus of attention was on "Jenny". Rossetti's comment is arguing that an "inner standing-point" is not simply a feature of a particular genre or poetic form, it is a foundational requirement of "art". Not just writing, not just poetry, but "art" in general.

Two pages from Rossetti's corrected fair copy manuscript of his pastiche poem "Ave", one of the so-called "Songs for the Art Catholic" that he worked at in the late 1840s. Reproduced are the verso of leaf 1 and the recto of leaf 2. The verso carries Rossetti's important note about writing from "an inner standing point", an idea he would put forward again in his critical apologia "The Stealthy School of Criticism" (1871).
This manuscript is located in the Taylor Collection, Princeton University Library.

It helps to reconsider briefly Rossetti's thinking in 1847-1848. Like those other two urban artists Poe and Baudelaire, Rossetti at the time was much involved with projects that cultivated escaping from the contemporary world. "Ave" and the "Songs of the Art Catholic" were magical texts written to open a passage whereby Rossetti could plunge into a lost land of his heart's desire. To manage this feat he elaborates various kinds of "inner standing-point" procedures. He composes pastiche works like "Ave" and "Mary's Girlhood", quasi-pastiche works like "The Blessed Damozel", conjuring prose tales like "Hand and Soul" and "St Agnes of Intercession", and the ventriloquizing translations from Dante and other early Italian poets. In each case the crucial move does not abstract Rossetti away from his texts — which is Browning's object and great achievement — it draws Rossetti into his own poem's dramatic action. "Ave" is a special kind of dramatic monologue where an "inner standing-point" is constructed and then occupied simultaneously by the writing/composing Victorian poet Rossetti and his imaginary Catholic antitype from the fourteenth-century. Rossetti's innovation on Browning was to reintroduce the action of the subjective artist (and poet) into the critical space of the work.

When a poetics of the inner standing-point is undertaken in a poem of contemporary life such as "Jenny", the results are very different from those gained when Rossetti wrote "Ave". The world of "Jenny" is no lost spiritual dreamland, it is an all-too-present nightmare. Readers to this day argue about whether the "young and thoughtful man of the world" (as Rossetti called him) is offered for our judgment or our sympathy, and about Rossetti's relation to his imaginative figure. But the poem incarnates a structure of doubtfulness by troubling every effort to reach a normative or stable judgment on the characters or the situation. Biographically inflected readings of the poem — they are common — underscore this difficulty. The more explicit of these readings range between praise for Rossetti's enlightened or brave undertaking in the poem to sharp criticism of his sexist and pornographic illusions.

Rossetti's theory of the inner standing-point involves a major rewriting of the sympathetic contract poetry and art make with both their subjects and their readers. Romantic sympathy in its most authoritative cultural form displays — as Keats famously put the matter — "the holiness of the heart's affections". In this view, because the artist is imagined to have clearest access to that holy place, the artistic act becomes a moral and spiritual standard. Arnold would authorize this set of attitudes when he argued that poetry would replace religion for persons living in the modern world. His sonnet "Shakespeare" represents this set of ideas about the transcendental status of poetry:

Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask, thou smilest and art still,
Outtopping knowledge.

That is the romance — really, the romanticism — of an art conceived as some still point of a turning world. Rossetti's aesthetic move called such a view into radical question. Or perhaps one should say, Rossetti exposed the bad faith on which it had come to rest, for the authority of Arnold's sonnet is pure illusion, as Arnold himself showed in other of his poems, especially a devastating work like "The Buried Life." In Rossetti's story "Hand and Soul" the exposure comes when Chiaro, Rossetti's surrogate, poses this question for himself and his art: "May one be a devil without knowing it?" If the heart and its affections are that problematic, the ground of sympathy will only be gained through what Tennyson called, in one of his wittiest and wickedest moments, "honest doubt".

So in reading "Jenny" we want to see that the poet sympathizes with his bohemian artist-hero precisely in that young man's contradictions. Furthermore, when Rossetti takes up his subject at an inner standing-point, the move puts the reader in an equivalently equivocal position. The poem's sympathetic contract, written in ambivalent characters, must be entered on those uncertain terms. In this idea of art, the only understanding of value is a questionable understanding, the only feelings to be trusted are doubtful and uncertain. To enter the poem is to enter a space for studying problems, of which the reader's problems with the poem's moral import are among the most pertinent.

Not without cause, then, do readers follow Ruskin and Buchanan in recoiling from the poem. Its space is treacherous, as we see with special clarity in the marvelous line "Ah Jenny, yes, we know your dreams". Readers will scarcely miss the folly exposed here in the young man's facile judgment, and if we also see Rossetti reflected in the poem — as we often do — we may be led to rethink that line, as if it might also have said: "Ah, Rossetti, yes, we know your dreams." But Rossetti is not alone engulphed in this cunning text. That first-person plural pronoun snares the reader as well. If Jenny has dreams, readers make representations of those dreams. What "we" in fact know are nothing more than representations of representations. Although criticism and critics regularly covet definitive judgment and understanding, Rossetti's poetic method undermines that obscure object of desire. A poem like "Jenny" is a dangerous critical mirror that turns the readers' eye back on themselves.

Rossetti began this famous picture, "Found", in the early 1850s but never completed the oil version he had projected. "Found" is a double work and, as in nearly all cases with Rossetti, the picture called forth the accompanying sonnet. The sonnet was written early in 1881 when Rosseti was once again working hard at completing this painting. This double work is closely related to the poem "Jenny".
The painting is located in the Delaware Museum of Art.

So Rossetti is a difficult writer for several related reasons. Like Baudelaire and Swinburne, Rossetti is a learned poet who covets a highly finished surface. That surface is a careful and self-conscious structure of nuanced language games — ambiguous and antiquarian pronouns, strange words that seem more physical than cognitive, wordplays that are less puns than elusively suggestive and "worked" language, as when he torques the word "draw" to such splendid effect. This kind of writing typically spins out texts that can snare the reader with the sense that they have entered some kind of labyrinth. (The title of one of Rossetti's most important poems, "Troy Town," is an old colloquial expression meaning a maze.) But unlike Baudelaire and Swinburne, Rossetti is a more guarded and secretive writer, as if he knew how much of the reader's fear and hypocrisy he shared. The inner standing-point controls Rossetti's work even at the level of its style. He was incapable of writing poems like "Les Litanies de Satan" or "L'Aube Spirituelle," "Anactoria" or "The Leper."

But when we read Rossetti we really must think not of them, for Rossetti has his music too. "Recondite... casuistical... obscure": Pater's shrewd terms define a poet whose access to psychic recesses is acute precisely because he writes about them from an inner standing-point and because he is so assiduous in his explorations. Rossetti's obsessive corrections and revisions carry him into deep waters, nor does it matter if his brainwork continues to mask or to unmask his process of thought. Either way we get uncommon revelations, for the writing is, in the end, a reciprocal play of both.

log in : paginated updated 5/8/08: made using peer-reviewed objects from NINES