Rossetti, Dante Gabriel
BORN: 1828, London, England
DIED: 1882, Birchington, Kent, England
Ballads and Sonnets (1881)
Equally renowned as a painter and a poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was the leader of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of artists and writers who sought to emulate the purity and simplicity of the medieval period. Both his painting and writing are characterized by mysticism, filled with rich, sensuous imagery and vivid detail. Although the subjects of his verse are often considered narrow, Rossetti is an acknowledged master of the ballad and sonnet forms.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Bilingual Childhood Born Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti on May 12, 1828, in London, the eldest son of
Gabriele Rossetti and his wife, Frances Polidori. An Italian expatriate, Rossetti's father came to England four years before Rossetti's birth. Gabriele Rossetti was a Dante scholar, who had been exiled from Naples for writing poetry in support of the Neapolitan Constitution of 1819. (Secret groups such as the Carbonari, who supported the constitution sought to bring self-government to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies—which included Naples—in place of the Austrian-backed monarch, Ferdinand, but failed.) He settled in London in 1824. Frances Polidori had trained as a governess and supervised her children's early education. Gabriele Rossetti supported the family as a professor of Italian at King's College, London, until his eyesight and general health deteriorated in the 1840s. Frances then attempted to support the family as a teacher of French and Italian and an unsuccessful founder of two day schools.
Consequently, Rossetti was bilingual from early childhood and grew up in an atmosphere of émigré political and literary discussion. From childhood, Rossetti intended to be a painter, and he addressed literary subjects in his earliest drawings. He was tutored at home in German and read the Bible, Shakespeare, Goethe's Faust, The Arabian Nights, Charles Dickens, and the poetry of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron. At the age of eight, he entered Mr. Paul's day school in Portland Place and a year later began studies at King's College School, which he attended from 1837 to 1842.
From 1842 to 1846, Rossetti was a student at Cary's Academy of Art to prepare for the Royal Academy, which he entered in July 1846. He then spent a year in the Academy Antique School. By this time, Great Britain was well into the reign of Queen Victoria, a time of economic prosperity, expansion of the middle class, and a cultural revival often called the second English Renaissance. The theater, literature, and arts were particularly emphasized, drawing on the Gothic and classical ideals as well as modern ideas.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood After leaving school, Rossetti apprenticed himself to the historical painter Ford Madox Brown, who later became his closest lifelong friend. Rossetti continued his extensive reading of poetry (Edgar Allan Poe, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, John Keats, Robert Browning, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson) and romantic and satiric fiction (Charles Maturin, William Makepeace Thackeray, Wilhelm Meinhold, Friedrich de la Motte-Fouqué, Charles Wells). In 1845, Rossetti began translations from Italian (Dante's Vita Nuova and British Museum volumes of Dante's little-known predecessors) and German medieval poetry.
In 1848, Rossetti joined John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt in founding the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Their name honored Carlo Lasinio's engravings of paintings by Benozzo Gozzoli (an Italian Renaissance painter from Florence) and others who decorated Pisa's Campo Santo (originally used as a cemetery for Pisa's illustrious citizens). The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood sought to introduce new forms of thematic seriousness, high coloration, and attention to detail into contemporary British art. They were opposed to the stale conventions of contemporary academy art, which drew on classical poses and the compositions of the Italian High Renaissance painter Raphael.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brothers provided each other with companionship, criticism, and encouragement early in their careers and defended each other against initial public hostility. Rossetti quickly became the leader of the group and shaped the group's literary tastes, but the life of the group was short-lived. Meetings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood became sporadic by 1851, and by 1853 the group had disbanded. It had served its purpose, however, which was to provide initial professional encouragement to its members.
Success as a Poet Rossetti first received recognition as a poet in 1850, when he published “The Blessed Damozel” in the Pre-Raphaelite journal the Germ. Written when he was only eighteen, this poem is characteristic of much of Rossetti's later poetry, with its sensuous detail and theme of lovers, parted by death, who long for reunion. That same year, Rossetti met Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, who modeled for many of Rossetti's drawings and paintings and became his wife in 1860.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Rossetti's famous contemporaries include:
Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862): American author and naturalist best known for his writings on philosophy and natural history.
Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893): English painter known for his distinctively graphic style and the moral and historical nature of his subjects.
Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906): Norwegian playwright who is often credited with contributing to the rise of modern realistic drama. He wrote such dramas as A Doll's House (1879).
John Everett Millais (1829–1896): English painter and illustrator who served as president of the Royal Academy.
William Morris (1834–1896): English artist, writer, and socialist who was one of the founders of the British Arts and Crafts movement.
Rossetti painted steadily, saw publication of his The Early Italian Poets, and cofounded the firm of designers Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Co. His wife suffered from consumption (a popular name for tuberculosis, a contagious lung disease that was common in this period), and after two unhappy years of marriage, she died from an overdose of laudanum (an opium-based pain killer regularly prescribed by doctors in Victorian England), which she had been taking regularly for her illness. In a fit of remorse and guilt, Rossetti buried the only manuscript of his poems with his wife. At the urging of friends, he allowed the manuscript to be exhumed in 1869.
The following year, Rossetti published Poems, (1869) which established his reputation as a leading poet. Containing much of Rossetti's finest work, Poems includes “Eden Bower,” “The Stream's Secret,” and “Sister Helen,” which is regarded by many as one of the finest Victorian literary ballads.
Decline and Death By 1868, Rossetti was in ill health, suffering from physical and mental complaints that burdened him for the rest of his life. His unreliable eyesight, headaches, and insomnia led him to become dependent on whiskey and chloral (a depressant drug developed in the 1830s specifically for inducing sleep). This precipitated a gradual decline in health, though he continued to paint and write even after a personal change and mental breakdown caused by an attack on his poetry by Robert Buchanan in The Fleshly School of Poetry and Other Phenomena of the Day (1872). Rossetti's poetry collection, Ballads and Sonnets, appeared in 1881, and he died the following year at the age of fifty-four.
Works in Literary Context
Painting to Poetry The dual nature of Rossetti's artistic endeavors led to crossover between them. Just as his literary background influenced his choice of mythological, allegorical, and literary subjects for his paintings, his Pre-Raphaelite love of detail, color, and mysticism shaped much of his poetry. The influence of Rossetti's painting is particularly felt throughout Poems.
Evolution of Style and Theme It is difficult to date Rossetti's work or to divide it into periods, since he continually revised poems begun as a young man. Nonetheless, some divisions are possible. When Rossetti was young, his bright pictorialism, concrete detail, archaisms, and sublimated sexuality reflected rather conventional aspects of contemporary poetic sensibility. By the late 1860s, his sense of failure had evolved into an oppressive fear about identity. In Rossetti's middle and later poetry, sexual love became a near-desperate desire to transcend time. By comparison, the final sonnets of Rossetti's life are tranquil, even celebratory.
His writings can perhaps best be viewed as an expression of Victorian social uncertainty and loss of faith. Rossetti's poetry on the absence of love is as bleakly despairing as any of the century, and no poet of his period conveyed more profoundly certain central Victorian anxieties: metaphysical uncertainty, sexual anxiety, and fear of time.
Influence on Other Writers and Artists It is also difficult to compare Rossetti's achievement with that of the other Victorian poets. For its modest size, Rossetti's poetic work is wide in manner and subject. He was a talented experimenter, and his heightened rhythms and refrains influenced other mid- and late nineteenth-century poetry. He was also an important popularizer of Italian poetry in England and a major practitioner of the sonnet. Certainly, he lacked the strong, confident range and subtle lyricism of Tennyson and Browning, but his erotic spirituality and gift for the dramatic were his own. Rossetti was perhaps as significant for his effect on others as for his own work, a judgment that he himself came to make with growing bitterness. His critical remarks on Romantic and contemporary literature were often convincing and influenced all around him.
Rossetti's attempt to create a unified composition of poetry and painting was also pioneering and extended conceptions of both arts. Through such painters as Edward Burne-Jones, Frederick Sandys, and John William Waterhouse, Rossetti had a further indirect influence on the literature of the Decadence. He also conceived the idea of the Germ, the first little magazine of literature and art, and with Ford Madox Brown, William Morris, Burne-Jones, and Philip Webb helped cofound the movement to extend the range of decorative art and improve the quality of book design. Rossetti's poetry is not as important as that of Tennyson, Browning, or Gerard Manley Hopkins, but it would be difficult to name others who clearly surpassed him at his best and even more difficult to imagine later nineteenth-century Victorian poetry and art without his influence.
Works in Critical Context
Poems Following the publication of Poems, numerous reviews appeared praising Rossetti as the greatest poet since Shakespeare. However, in 1871, critic Robert Buchanan pseudonymously published a venomous attack against Rossetti, in which he claimed that Rossetti's only artistic aim was “to extol fleshliness as the distinct and supreme end of poetic and pictorial art; to aver that poetic expression is greater than poetic thought, and by inference that the body is greater than the soul, and sound superior to sense.”
Rossetti published a convincing reply called “The Stealthy School of Criticism.” Buchanan then expanded his views in The Fleshly School of Poetry and Other Phenomena of the Day. In this work, he added a lengthy attack on “The House of Life” as a “hotbed” of “nasty phrases,” which virtually “wheel[ed]” the poet's “nuptial couch into the public streets.”
Almost all the reviews of Rossetti's Poems were favorable, and the book sold unusually well. Few in Rossetti's actual or potential audience were likely to share Buchanan's extreme prudery. Rossetti was deeply proud of the originality of his best work, and his friends admired his work, as well. William Morris wrote in the Academy of his friend's work:
To conclude, I think these lyrics, with all their other merits, the most complete of their time; no difficulty is avoided in them: no subject is treated vaguely, languidly, or heartlessly; as there is no commonplace or second-hand thought left in them to be atoned for by beauty of execution, so no thought is allowed to overshadow that beauty of art which compels a real poet to speak in verse and not in prose. Nor do I know what lyrics of any time are to be called great if we are to deny that title to these.
Critics have differed in assessing the quality of Rossetti's poetic achievement and in their preferences for different periods of his work. Following his death, Rossetti's works suffered somewhat from critical neglect. However, with the renewed interest in Pre-Raphaelitism, numerous studies have appeared. Rossetti is now recognized as a distinguished artist and verbal craftsman.
Responses to Literature
- The Pre-Raphaelite Brothers (PRB) was an important group that helped launch Rossetti's career. Using the Internet and your library resources to research the goals and objectives of the PRB, write a bulleted list outlining your results.
- Rossetti was criticized by some contemporaries for focusing on physical attributes rather than the soul. Would Rossetti's poems draw similar criticism today? In small groups, discuss the subject matter in Rossetti's poems and explain how his poems would be critiqued by modern society.
- Rossetti was explicit about being influenced by poets and artists from an earlier time. Write an essay reflecting on your own artistic and literary influences.
- The sonnet was one of Rossetti's favored poetic forms. Write a sonnet that describes a moment of peace and silence that you have had. Include details that you observed while being quiet.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Rossetti's poetry is characterized by its mysticism, its rich and sensuous imagery, and its vivid detail. Here are some other works which have similar themes:
Idylls of the King (1856–1885), poems by Alfred Tennyson. This cycle of twelve narrative poems retells the legend of King Arthur with vibrant descriptions of nature derived from the author's own observations of his surroundings.
The Eve of St. Agnes (1820), by John Keats. This long poem tells the story of Madeline and Porphyro, whose romance “falls” from innocence to experience.
American Primitive (1984), poems by Mary Oliver. This Pulitzer Prize–winning collection allows the reader to devour luscious objects and substances through powerful recurring images of ingestion.
The Burning Alphabet (2005), poems by Barry Dempster. This collection combines a sense of humor with sensuous writing.
Boos, Florence S. The Poetry of Dante G. Rossetti: A Critical and Source Study. The Hague: Mouton, 1976.
Doughty, Oswald. A Victorian Romantic: Dante Gabriel Rossetti. London: Oxford University Press, 1949.
Fredeman, William E., ed. P.R.B. Journal: William Michael Rossetti's Diary of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 1849–1853. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
Howard, Ronnalie. The Dark Glass: Vision and Technique in the Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1972.
Rees, Joan. The Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Modes of Self-Expression. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Riede, David G. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Limits of Victorian Vision. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983.
Rossetti, William Michael. Dante Gabriel Rossetti as Designer and Writer. London: Ellis, 1895.
———, ed. Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family Letters with a Memoir. London: Ellis, 1895.
Sonstroem, David. Rossetti and the Fair Lady. Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1971.
Vogel, Joseph. Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Versecraft. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1971.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The English painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) was a cofounder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His works show an impassioned, mystic imagination in strong contrast to the banal sentimentality of contemporary Victorian art.
Born on May 12, 1828, of Anglo-Italian parentage, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was steeped throughout childhood in the atmosphere of medieval Italy, which became a major source of his subject matter and artistic inspiration. After 2 years in the Royal Academy schools he worked briefly under Ford Madox Brown in 1848.
Shortly after Rossetti joined William Holman Hunt's studio later that year, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed, in Hunt's words, "to do battle against the frivolous art of the day." An association of artists so varied in artistic style, technique, and expressive spirit as the Pre-Raphaelites could not long survive, and it was principally owing to Rossetti's forceful, almost hypnotic personality that the Brotherhood held together long enough to achieve the critical and popular recognition necessary for the success of its crusade.
Rossetti did not have the natural technical proficiency that is evident in the minute detail and brilliant color of a typical Pre-Raphaelite painting, and his early oil paintings, the Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849) and the Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850), were produced only at the expense of great technical effort. In the less demanding medium of watercolor, however, Rossetti clearly revealed his intense, compressed imaginative power. The series of small watercolors of the 1850s culminates in such masterpieces as Dante's Dream (1856) and the Wedding of St. George and the Princess Sabra (1857), characteristic products of Rossetti's inflamed sensibility, with typically irrational perspective and lighting, glowing color, and forceful figures.
In almost all his paintings of the 1850s Rossetti used Elizabeth Siddal as his model. Discovered in a hatshop in 1850, she was adopted by the Brotherhood as their ideal of feminine beauty. In 1852 she became exclusively Rossetti's model, and in 1860 his wife. Beset by growing melancholy, she committed suicide 2 years later. Rossetti buried a manuscript of his poems in her coffin, a characteristically dramatic gesture which he later regretted. Beata Beatrix (1863), a posthumous portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, the Beatrice to his Dante, is one of Rossetti's most deeply felt paintings: it is his last masterpiece and the first in a series of symbolical female portraits, which declined gradually in quality as his interest in painting decreased.
Although early in his career poetry was for Rossetti simply a relaxation from painting, later on writing gradually became more important to him, and in 1871 he wrote to Ford Madox Brown, "I wish one could live by writing poetry. I think I'd see painting d——d if I could… ." In 1861 he published his translations from Dante and other early Italian poets, reflecting the medieval preoccupations of his finest paintings. In 1869 the manuscript of his early poems was recovered from his wife's coffin and published the next year.
Rossetti's early poems under strong Pre-Raphaelite influence, such as "The Blessed Damozel" (1850; subsequently revised) and "The Portrait," have a sensitive innocence and a strong mystical passion paralleled by his paintings of the 1850s. As his interest in painting declined, Rossetti's poetic craftsmanship improved, until in his latest works, such as "Rose Mary" and "The White Ship" (both included in Ballads and Sonnets, 1881), his use of richly colored word textures achieves a sumptuous grandeur of expression and sentiment.
At his death on April 9, 1882, Rossetti had reached a position of artistic prominence, and his spirit was a significant influence on the cultural developments of the late 19th century. Although his technique was not always the equal of his powerful feeling, his imaginative genius earned him a place in the ranks of English visionary artists.
The most recent work on Rossetti is G. H. Fleming, Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1967), a detailed study of his relations with the Brotherhood, which like Oswald Doughty's A Victorian Romantic: Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1949; 2d ed. 1960) is a general biography, not a specialized work on the paintings. Fundamental on the Pre-Raphaelites is William Holman Hunt's firsthand account, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (2 vols., 1905). Also important are Robin Ironside, Pre-Raphaelite Painters (1948); T. S. R. Boase, English Art, 1800-1870 (1959); and John Dixon Hunt, The Pre-Raphaelite Imagination, 1848-1900 (1968).
Ash, Russell. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, New York: H.N. Abrams, 1995.
Dobbs, Brian. Dante Gabriel Rossetti: an alien Victorian, London: Macdonald and Jane's, 1977.
Faxon, Alicia Craig. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, New York: Abbeville Press, 1989.
Nicoll, John. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, New York: Macmillan, 1976, 1975.
Waugh, Evelyn. Rossetti, his life and works, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978. □
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel
Born: May 12, 1828
Died: April 9, 1882
Birchington-on-Sea, Kent, England
English painter and poet
The English painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti was a cofounder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a band of painters that reacted against unimaginative and traditional historical paintings. His works show a passionate imagination, strongly contrasting Victorian art which was popular during the second half of the nineteenth century.
Born on May 12, 1828, in London, England, of English-Italian parents, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was surrounded throughout his childhood in the atmosphere of medieval Italy, which drew heavily from art and literature from the sixth to fifteenth centuries. This influence became a major source of his subject matter and artistic inspiration later in his career. As a child, almost as soon as he could speak, he began composing plays and poems. He also liked to draw and was a bright student. After two years in the Royal Academy schools he studied briefly under Ford Madox Brown in 1848.
Shortly after Rossetti joined William Holman Hunt's studio in 1848, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed, in Hunt's words, "to do battle against the frivolous [silly] art of the day." An association of artists so varied in artistic style, technique, and expressive spirit as the Pre-Raphaelites could not long survive, and it was principally owing to Rossetti's forceful, almost hypnotic personality that the Brotherhood held together long enough to achieve the critical and popular recognition necessary for the success of its mission.
Rossetti did not have the natural technical talent that is seen in the small detail and brilliant color of a typical Pre-Raphaelite painting, and his early oil paintings, the Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849) and the Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850), were produced only at the expense of great technical effort. In the less demanding technique of watercolor, however, Rossetti clearly revealed his imaginative power. The series of small watercolors of the 1850s produced such masterpieces asDante's Dream (1856) and the Wedding of St. George and the Princess Sabra (1857).
In almost all of Rossetti's paintings of the 1850s he used Elizabeth Siddal as his model. Discovered in a hat shop in 1850, she was adopted by the Brotherhood as their ideal of feminine beauty. In 1852 she became exclusively Rossetti's model, and in 1860 his wife. Struggling with growing depression, she killed herself two years later. Rossetti buried a manuscript of his poems in her coffin, a characteristically dramatic gesture which he later regretted. Beata Beatrix (1863), a posthumous portrait (portrait done after her death) of Elizabeth Siddal is one of Rossetti's most deeply felt paintings. It is one of his last masterpieces and the first in a series of symbolic, female portraits, which declined gradually in quality as his interest in painting decreased.
Although poetry was simply a relaxation from painting early in Rossetti's career, writing later became more important to him, and in 1871 he wrote to fellow painter Ford Madox Brown, "I wish one could live by writing poetry." In 1861 he published his translations from Dante (1265–1321) and other early Italian poets, reflecting the medieval obsessions of his finest paintings. In 1869 the manuscript of his early poems was recovered from his wife's coffin and published the next year.
Rossetti's early poems under strong Pre-Raphaelite influence, such as "The Blessed Damozel" (1850; later revised) and "The Portrait," have an innocence and spiritual passion paralleled by his paintings of the 1850s. As his interest in painting declined, Rossetti's poetry improved, until in his later works, such as "Rose Mary" and "The White Ship" (both included in Ballads and Sonnets, 1881), his use of richly colored word textures achieves fantastic expression and feeling.
Rossetti died on April 9, 1882, in Birchington-on-Sea, Kent, England. Rossetti had reached a position of artistic respect, and his spirit was a significant influence on the cultural developments of the late nineteenth century. Although his technique was not always the equal of his powerful feeling, his imaginative genius earned him a place in the ranks of England's most forward-thinking artists.
For More Information
Ash, Russell. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1995.
Bass, Eben E. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Poet and Painter. New York: P. Lang, 1990.
Dobbs, Brian. Dante Gabriel Rossetti: An Alien Victorian. London: Macdonald and Jane's, 1977.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel (1828-1882)
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel (1828-1882)
While yet a boy, Rossetti manifested artistic talent, and accordingly was sent to study drawing under John Sell Cotman, Shortly afterward he entered the Royal Academy Schools. In 1848, he commenced working in the studio of Ford Madox Brown, during which time he began to show himself a painter of distinct individuality, while simultaneously he made his first essays in translating Italian literature into English and became known among his friends as a poet of rare promise.
Meanwhile, however, Rossetti was really more interested in painting rather than writing, and soon after leaving Brown's studio he brought about a memorable event in the history of English painting by founding the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a body consisting of seven members, whose central aim was to render precisely and literally every separate object figured in their pictures. Leaving his father's house in 1849, Rossetti went to live at Chatham Place, Blackfriars Bridge, London, and during the next ten years his activity as a painter was enormous.
The year 1860 was a notable one in his career, as it marked his marriage to Eleanor Siddal. The love between the pair was of an exceptionally passionate order, and from it sprang Rossetti's later sonnet sequence called The House of Life, published in 1881. However, Eleanor died in 1862. The loss of his wife preyed upon him persistently; he was tortured by insomnia and, in consequence, began to take occasional doses of the drug chloral. Gradually this practice developed into a habit, and it soon became evident that his death was imminent unless he gave up his addiction to the drug. He died April 9, 1882, at Birchington, near Margate, and his remains were interred in the cemetery there.
Rossetti had a marked bias for mysticism in various forms. William Bell Scott, in his Autobiographical Notes (2 vols., 1892), told how the poet became at one time much enamored of table-turning. His temperament was undoubtedly a very religious one, and once toward the close of his life he declared that he had "seen and heard those that died long ago."
A belief in the possibility of communicating with the dead may have induced him on his wife's death to have some of his love poems enclosed in her coffin. Whatever the truth of his poems, it is by his painting rather than by his poetry that Rossetti holds a place as a great mystic, for despite his fondness for precise handling, most of his pictures are essentially of a mystical nature. They embody the scenes and incidents beheld in dreams in a manner similar to the work of William Blake.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel