2.2 COMPONENTS OF PRE-RAPHAELITISM AND POEMS

This section is designed to list and explain the most important themes from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s poesy and at the same time, comparing them with the issues of Christina Rossetti’s poems. Everybody can realize the components are the same. Some Christina Rossetti’s works prove this evidence.

We can properly understand Christina Rossetti’s artistic values and procedures only when they are placed within the relevant contexts of their development and implementation. Such contextualization also enables enhanced perceptions of the “meaning” relative canonical value, and reception history of her work. Reconstructing the aesthetic, social, and religious ideologies of Rossetti’s immediate environment, out of which her poetics emerged, clarifies the interaction in her poetry among  Pre-Raphaelite, Ruskinian, and aestheticist impulses. These impulses uniquely accommodated the High Anglican values with which she grew up and which increased in importance to her as she aged.

Despite its stylistic divergence from her brother’s poetry, Christina Rossetti’s work was not anomalous among either generation of Pre-Raphaelites. Even Swinburne, whose antiorthodoxy and iconoclasm seem to conflict most profoundly with Rossetti’s values, enthusiastically hailed her as the “Jael who led our hosts to victory.” Throughout her poetry and much of her prose Christina Rossetti demonstrated true and deep affinities with Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic values. A careful examination of her poetry significantly increases our understanding of Pre-Raphaelitism as a major phenomenon of Victorian cultural change, one that is radically innovative but stiff deeply rooted in tradition. As much as her brother, Swinburne, or Morris, and certainly to a greater extent than figures more peripheral to the Pre-Raphaelite circle, Christina Rossetti produced works that appear to be dominated by the same aesthetic consciousness and literary values that make Pre-Raphaelitism the central but variegated movement which unintentionally spawned the aestheticism of the 1880s and 1890s. Pre-Raphaelitism, in fact, influenced aesthetic thought in a way that made the movement central to the transition from the sentimental moral idealism of the Victorian mainstream to the variously nihilistic, skeptical, and ironic value systems that dominate modern poetry.

The vast majority of Victorians perceived Christina Rossetti as unequivocally Pre-Raphaelite in her poetic affinities becomes clear when we read through the contemporary reviews of her three major volumes of poetry, along with those of the New poems and the collected Poetical Works edited by William Michael Rossetti, her brother, and published after her death. The reviewers — men and women, English and American — focused on a variety of characteristics that dominate her poems and that they perceived as uniquely Pre-Raphaelite. These include her close attention to detail and her “pictorial” modes of representation; the medieval atmosphere and settings that appear repeatedly in her poems; her appreciation of the world’s physical beauty and its expression in lush images; the intensity of her poems, which seems inseparable from their “sincerity”; her preoccupation with love and her experimental approaches to it as a dominant topos; and even her religious devotion, which at least two critics described as “aesthetic mysticism.” These characteristics  of Rossetti’s poetry are still considered major components of Pre-Raphaelitism.

In 1866 The Nation printed a review of Christina Rossetti’s first two volumes of poetry. It begins, “any American reader who for the last two or three years has occasionally seen and admired the stray poems attributed to Miss Rossetti, being asked to describe them by one word, would have pronounced them Pre-Raphaelite“.

Some thirty years later another American reviewer reprinted “When I Am Dead, My Dearest” and, in order to emphasize “the spiritual relationship of the author to the poets of the group sometimes styled Pre-Raphaelite,” pointed out the resemblance between Rossetti’s poem and Swinburne’s “Rococo” . An anonymous commentator in Book Buyer asserted during the same year that Christina Rossetti’s “poetic vision had all the glow and delicacy of invention which animates the canvas of the English Pre-Raphaelite”. And with the greater self-consciousness of an historical critic, Edmund Gosse, writing the year before Christina Rossetti’s death, carefully examined her relations to the other Pre-Raphaelite poets. He cited the seven poems she contributed to The Germ in 1850 and acknowledged the order in which the first well-reviewed Pre-Raphaelite volumes were published: by her, by Morris, by Swinburne, and finally by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He then concluded:

It is with these poets that Miss Rossetti takes her historical position, and their vigor and ambition had a various influence upon her style. On this side there can be no doubt that association with men so learned and eager, so daring in experiment, so well equipped in scholarship, gave her an instant and positive advantage. By nature she would seem to be of a cloistered and sequestered temper, and her genius was lifted on this wave of friendship to heights which it would not have dreamed of attempting alone.

In The Pre-Raphaelite Imagination John Dixon Hunt has begun the large task of making such determinations. His catalog of the general “modes” of Pre-Raphaelite imagination quite properly includes:

First, the enthusiasm for what was seen as the picturesque and inspiratory Middle Ages, to which most Pre-Raphaelites looked for subject matter and even technical knowledge. Second, growing out of these mediaeval interests, their introspection and the fashion in which they chose to communicate their meditations and the shadowy depths of the psyche. Third, their celebration of the noumenous; the search for a dialect of symbolism subtle enough to convey their apprehension of a meaningful world beyond exterior description and rational habits of mind. Fourth, an account of one specific symbol invoked by almost all of the Pre-Raphaelites — the famous image of a woman with large, staring eyes and masses of heavy hair… Fifth, their attempt, often uneasy and hesitant, to accommodate themselves to a modern world of photography and scientific definition by means of realistic description, frequently of subject matter ignored by most other Victorians. There are, naturally, connections between these five topics, but they seem to represent distinct and important elements in the complex fabric of Pre-Raphaelitism.

Hunt concludes this catalog of elements by stressing that “all were imitated by the first Pre-Raphaelite brothers and are equally integral parts of the imagination of the 1890’s”. Throughout his study, which carefully examines the evolution of the Pre-Raphaelitism of 1848 into the aestheticism of the nineties, Hunt focuses his attention primarily on the work of the painters in the first brotherhood and then on Swinburne, Morris, and Dante Rossetti among the poets of the second; he thus leaves Christina Rossetti to be perceived as a shadowy figure on the outskirts of Pre-Raphaelitism. (Hunt does, however, devote several pages to the similarities between aspects of Christina Rossetti’s Commonplace stories and the elements of aestheticism.) Most other modern commentators on the movement also usually evade any discussion of the relations between Pre-Raphaelitism and the aesthetics that inform Christina Rossetti’s poetry.

Victorian reviewers were sometimes distressed and sometimes delighted to see a new “school” of poets on the scene, as they discussed the accumulating volumes of Pre-Raphaelite verse during the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s. Different critics emphasized different characteristics of the poets’ works, but, as we have seen, most of them perceived in Christina Rossetti’s poetry a special combination of traits that seemed uniquely Pre-Raphaelite. Reviewers did, for instance, discuss her poetry’s “painterly” qualities, which in some cases enabled them to see continuity rather than disjunction between the work of the first brotherhood in the visual arts and that of the second in poetry. Richard La Gallienne, writing in The Academy (1891), insisted upon the “rich material symbolism” that pervades Christina Rossetti’s verse. It has, he noted, “that “decorative” quality, as of cloth of gold stiff with sumptuous needle-work design, which is a constant effect in the painter’s poetry”. J.R. Dennet, in The Nation (1866), observed the extent to which, like that of the other Pre-Raphaelites, Christina Rossetti’s poetry was “picturesque”: “It was her practice to dwell elaborately upon details”. And in the same year the Athenaeum’s anonymous reviewer of The Princes Progress and Other poems argued that Rossetti redeemed her work only “by painting scenes which, though touched by the light of imagination, are yet as vividly true as if they were photographs of familiar objects”.

The Pre-Raphaelites’ attention to picturesque detail, the medievalist atmosphere and settings, the pervasive melancholy of their works, and their awareness of their art’s primarily Christian literary and pictorial origins — all are described in Law’s commentary as also the fundamental characteristics of Christina Rossetti’s poetry. In designating “aesthetic mysticism” as the composite final effect of these traits, Law unintentionally raised the issue that is ultimately central to any full understanding of Christina Rossetti’s position in the Pre-Raphaelite movement, as well as to all accurate perceptions of the place Pre-Raphaelitism holds in the development of Victorian artistic culture away from its predominantly moralizing function toward the culture of aestheticism. This issue is religion.

As we will have already noticed after looking around this section, of course, Rossetti’s work has much in common with the later poetry of her brother Dante Gabriel, Morris, and Swinburne. Yet — in addition to its careful attention to the details of nature, its highly sensory images, and its preoccupation with betrayed or disappointed love — her poetry’s use of symbolism and typology, its medievalism, its employment of dream visions, and its preoccupation with suffering and with visionary idealities as a relief from suffering allow readers to perceive her poetry as simultaneously Pre-Raphaelite and Tractarian.



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