1902 Encyclopedia > Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
English poet and painter

DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI (1828-1882), poet and painter, whose full baptismal name was Gabriel Charles Dante, was born May 12, 1828, at 38 Charlotte Street, Portland Place, London. He was the first of the two sons and the second of the four children of Gabriele Rossetti, the Italian poet and patriot, whose career was at one period as turbulent as that of his illustrious son was (as far as mere outward incidents went) uneventful.

About 1824 Gabriele Rossetti, the father, after many vicissitudes, reached England, where he married in 1826 Frances Polidori, sister of Byron's Dr Polidori and daughter of a Tuscan who had in early youth been Alfieri's secretary and who.had married an English lady. From his mother the subject of this notice inherited as many English traits as Italian, or indeed more. In 1831 Gabriele became professor of Italian in King's College, London, and afterwards achieved a recognized position as a subtle and original, if eccentric, commentator on Dante.

Dante Rossetti's education was begun at a private school in Foley Street, Portland Place, where he remained, however, only nine months, from the autumn of 1835 to the summer of 1836. He next went (in the autumn of 1836) to King's College School, where he remained till the summer of 1843, having reached the fourth class. From early childhood he had displayed a marked propensity for drawing and painting. It had therefore from the first been tacitly assumed that his future career would be an artistic one, and he left school early. In Latin, however, he was already fairly proficient for his age; French he knew well; Italian he had spoken from childhood, and he had some German lessons about 1844-45. But, although he learned enough German to be able to translate the Anne Heinrich of Hartmann von Aue, and some portions of the Nibelungenlied, he afterwards forgot the language almost entirely. His Greek too, such as it had been, he lost. On leaving school he went to Cary's Art Academy (previously called Sass's), near Bedford Square, and thence obtained admission to the Royal Academy Antique School towards 1846. He did not attend the Royal Academy Life School, and no doubt his defective knowledge of anatomy was some obstacle to him in after life. The truth is, however, that Rossetti's occasionally defective drawing (which, as regards the throat, is most striking) did not arise mainly from ignorance; it was the result of a peculiar mannerism. Admiring long and slender necks, and drawing them admirably in such masterpieces as Beata Beatrix and Monna Vanna, he refused to see that in art as in ethics the point of virtue lies midway between two opposite vices. Admiring large hands and massive arms in a woman, and drawing them admirably in such designs as Proserpine, Reverie, &c, he refused to see that hands can be too large, arms too massive. As a colourist, however, Rossetti may be said to have required no teaching. Mastery over colour seemed to have come to him by instinct.

Of the artistic education of foreign travel Rossetti had very little. But in early life he made a short tour in Belgium, where he was indubitably much impressed and influenced by the works of Van Eyck at Ghent and Memling at Bruges. In the spring of 1848 he took an active part in forming the so-called pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, the members of which believed that the time had come for the artist to confront again Nature herself— imitating no longer man's imitations of her—even though the imitations be those splendid works of the great Raphaelite or post-Raphaelite masters which had hitherto been the inspiration of modern art. The revolution was to be one of motives no less than of methods. Of motive Rossetti was from the first a master. His struggle with methods we have already indicated.

To " paint nature as it is around them, with the help of modern science," was the object of the pre-Raphaelites according to Mr Ruskin, but to do so artists require something more than that " earnestness of the men of the 13th and 14th centuries" which Mr Ruskin speaks of: they require knowledge. Without knowledge, as we see in even such a marvellous design as Christ at the Door of Simon the Pharisee (1859), the artistic camel has to be drawn from the artist's inner consciousness, and the result is rarely a satisfactory quadruped. Intensity of seeing does not necessarily imply truth of seeing; otherwise what phenomenon can be more real than Blake's Ghost of a Flea. 1

But Rossetti's genius absorbed from pre-Raphaelitism all that it had to give, and then passed on its way towards its own special goal. Often and indeed mostly an artist's true and best education is unlearning rather than learning. It was so in Rossetti's case, though he had the most vivid personality and the rarest imagination of any man of his time. Plastic as molten wax, the mind from the dawn of consciousness begins learning, for good or ill. Youth, therefore, how rich soever in individual force, can no more help being imitative than a river, even though it be the Amazon itself, can help reflecting the scenery through which it flows. The goal before the young Rossetti's eyes (as wre see in such designs as Taurello's First Sight of Fortune, 1848, and Cassandra) was to reach through art the forgotten world of old romance—that world of wonder and mystery and spiritual beauty which the old masters knew and could have painted had not lack of science, combined with slavery to monkish traditions of asceticism, crippled their strength. And he reached it—he reached early that world which not all the pseudo-classicism that arose in the 15th century, ripened in the 16th, and rotted in the 18th could banish from the dreams of man, as we see in even such juvenile work as the pen and ink drawings of Gretchen in the Chapel, and Genevieve. In that great rebellion against the renascence of classicism which (after working much good a,nd much harm) resulted in 18th-century materialism,—in that great movement of man's soul which may be appropriately named "the Renascence of the Spirit of Wonder in Poetry and Art" —he became the acknowledged protagonist before ever the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood was founded and down to his last breath at Birchington.

And it was by inevitable instinct that Rossetti turned to that mysterious side of nature and man's life which to other painters of his time had been a mere fancy-land, to be visited, if at all, on the wings of sport. It is not only in such masterpieces of his maturity as Dante's Dream, La Pia, &c, but in such early designs as How they Met Themselves, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Cassandra, &c, that Rossetti shows how important a figure he is in the history of modern art, if modern art claims to be anything more than a mechanical imitation of the facts of nature.

For if there is any permanent vitality in the Renascence of Wonder in modern Europe—if it is not a mere passing mood—if it is really the inevitable expression of the soul of man in a certain stage of civilization (when the sanctions which have made and moulded society are found to be not absolute and eternal, but relative, mundane, ephemeral, and subject to the higher sanctions of unseen powers that work behind "the shows of things"), then perhaps one of the first questions to ask in regard to any imaginative painter of the 19th century is, In what relation does he stand to the newly awakened spirit of romance 1 Had he a genuine and independent sympathy with that temper of wonder and mystery which all over Europe had preceded and now followed the temper of imitation, prosaic acceptance, pseudo-classicism, and domestic materialism 1 or was his apparent sympathy with the temper of wonder, reverence, and awe the result of artistic environment dictated to him by other and more powerful and original souls around him ?

We do not say that the mere fact of a painter's or a poet's showing but an imperfect sympathy with the Renascence of Wonder is sufficient to place him below a poet in whom that sympathy is more nearly complete, because we should then be driven to place some of the disciples of Rossetti above our great realistic painters, and we should be driven to place a poet like the author of The Excursion and The Prelude beneath a poet like the author of The Queen's Wake; but we do say that, other things being equal or anything like equal, a painter or poet of our time is to be judged very much by his sympathy with that great movement which we call the Renascence of Wonder—call it so because the word romanticism never did express it even before it had been vulgarized by French poets, dramatists, doctrinaires, and literary harlequins. To struggle against the prim traditions of the 18th century, the unities of Aristotle, the delineation of types instead of characters, as Chateaubriand, Madame de Stael, Balzac, and Hugo struggled, was well. But in studying Rossetti's works we reach the very key of those "high palaces of romance " which the English mind had never, even in the 18 th century, wholly forgotten, but whose mystic gates no Frenchman ever yet unlocked. Not all the romantic feeling to be found in all the French romanticists (with their theory that not earnestness but the grotesque is the life-blood of romance) could equal the romantic spirit expressed in a single picture or drawing of Rossetti's, such, for instance, as Beata Beatrix or Pandora. For, while the French romanticists—inspired by the theories (drawn from English exemplars) of Novalis, Tieck, and Herder—cleverly simulated the old romantic feeling, the "beautifully devotional feeling" which Holman Hunt speaks of, Rossetti was steeped in it: he was so full of the old frank childlike wonder and awe which preceded the great renascence of materialism that he might have lived and worked amidst the old masters. Hence, in point of design, so original is he that to match such ideas as are expressed in Lilith, Hesterna Rosa, Michael Scott's Wooing, the Sea Spell, &c, we have to turn to the sister art of poetry, where only we can find an equally powerful artistic representation of the idea at the core of the old romanticism—the idea of the evil forces of nature assailing man through his sense of beauty. We must turn, we say, not to art—not even to the old masters themselves—but to the most perfect efflorescence of the poetry of wonder and mystery—to such ballads as the " Demon Lover," to Coleridge's " Christabel" and "Kubla Khan," to Keats's "La Belle Dame sans Merci," for parallels to Rossetti's most characteristic designs. Now, although the idea at the heart of the highest romantic poetry (allied perhaps to that apprehension of the warring of man's soul with the appetites of the flesh which is the basis of the Christian idea) may not belong exclusively to what we call the romantic temper (the Greeks, and also most Asiatic peoples, were more or less familiar with it, as we see in the Saldmdn and Absal of Jami), yet it became peculiarly a romantic note, as is seen from the fact that in the old masters it resulted in that asceticism which is its logical expression and which was once an inseparable incident of all romantic art. But, in order to express this stupendous idea as fully as the poets have expressed it, how is it possible to adopt the asceticism of the old masters? This is the question that Rossetti asked himself, and answered by his own progress in art. Not that it is possible here to give a chronological catalogue of Rossetti's pictures. Moreover this has been already done in great measure by Mr William Sharp, Mr W. M. Rossetti, and others. We shall only dwell upon a few of those which most strongly indicate the course his genius took.

In all of them, however, the poorest and the best, is displayed that power which Blake calls vision—the power which, as he finely says, is "surrounded by the daughters of inspiration," the power, that is, of seeing imaginary objects and dramatic actions—physically seeing them as well as mentally—and flashing them upon the imaginations (even upon the corporeal senses) of others.

It was as early as 1849 that Rossetti exhibited in the so-called Free Exhibition the Girlhood of the Virgin, one of the most beautiful and characteristic of all his works. He scarcely ever exhibited again in London, though just before his death his largest and most ambitious picture, Dante's Dream, was exhibited at Liverpool.

Then came, in 1850, The Germ, that short-lived magazine of four numbers upon which so much has of late been written. If The Germ was really " an official manifesto or apologia of pre-Raphaelitism," all that it had to preach was the noble doctrine of the sacredness, the saving grace, of conscience in art. In it appeared Rossetti's poem the "Blessed Damozel," the prose poem "Hand and Soul" (written as early as 1848), six sonnets, and four lyrics, but none of his designs, though two illustrations had been prepared and discarded on account of their unsatisfactory condition when reproduced. Like the other contributors to The Germ Rossetti had a belief that can only be called passionate in the value of subject in art. For some years his fecundity as a designer was called into astonishing activity, but not always in the field of wonder and poetic mystery. The artist who had had the strongest influence upon Rossetti's early tastes was Madox Brown, whose genius, dramatic and historic, has at length obtained universal recognition through the magnificent frescos at Manchester. Though not one of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, he had been a contributor to The Germ. Rossetti was deeply impressed with the power and fecundity of design displayed by Mr Brown's cartoons exhibited in Westminster Hall, and when he himself began serious work as a painter he thought of Brown as the one man from whom he would willingly receive practical guidance, and wrote to him at random. He became Brown's pupil; but only once or twice, as in Found and Dr Johnson at the Mitre, did Rossetti try his hand at such realistic subjects as Brown loved, and then with a success that is very surprising if we consider how entirely his artistic energy had worked in very different lines. Found, begun in 1853, still remains unfinished. A countryman entering London in the early morning is accidentally or fatally encountered at the foot of the bridge by his rustic sweetheart, who, having gone to London, has been, in the most pathetic and terrible sense of the word, " lost." At sight of her lover the girl falls fainting at his feet. The expression of shame and horror on her still beautiful face as she cowers against the wall, and the expression of pity and grief on the man's as he clasps her hands and tries to raise her are unsurpassed and perhaps for sheer power unequalled in modern dramatic art.

Many circumstances—for instance, the beginning of such grand designs as Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee, " Aspects Medusa," the Boat of Love, &c,—interfered with the completion of Found. With the exception of the Boat of Love, Dante's Dream (1870) was perhaps Rossetti's most ambitious design in purely imaginative art. From the painting of this picture to his death Rossetti never satisfactorily completed a large and elaborate design —not because his faculty of invention was ever exhausted ; in the very year of his death his brain was teeming with ideas as restlessly as when he designed Found and the Boat of Love. But the truth is that he wanted to write more poetry ; and those wonderful half-lengths of women for which, late in life, he became so famous were not only beautiful and satisfying but comparatively easy of achievement ; moreover purchasers were keen to commission them. Among those half-lengths, however, will be found some of his greatest works. Chief among them (if it is not Proserpine) is the marvellous crayon design Pandora in the possession of the present writer. In it is seen at its highest Rossetti's unique faculty of treating classical legend in the true romantic spirit. The grand and sombre beauty of Pandora's face, the mysterious haunting sadness in her deep blue-grey eyes as she tries in vain to reclose the fatal box from which are still escaping the smoke and flames that shape themselves as they curl over her head into shadowy spirit faces, grey with agony, between tortured wings of sullen fire, are in the highest romantic mood. And if the Proserpine does not equal this design in elaborate allegorical richness it has perhaps the still higher merit of suggesting lofty tragedy by the simplest means. By sheer force of facial expression, a woman clasping a pomegranate renders a tragic situation as fully as though the canvas had been crowded with figures.

But we must turn to his poetry. " The Blessed Damozel " was written so early as 1848. " Sister Helen" was produced in its original form in 1850 or 1851. The translations from the early Italian poets also began as far back as 1845 or 1846, and may have been mainly completed by 1849. Materials for the volume of original poetry (1870) accumulated slowly, and these having been somewhat widely read in manuscript had a very great influence upon our poetic literature long before their appearance in print; but this is not the place for criticizing them in detail. All that we can here say is that in poetry no less than in art what makes Rossetti so important a figure is the position he took up with regard to the Renascence of Wonder—to that modern revival of what is called the "romantic" spirit, that spirit without which English poetry, as the present writer has on a former occasion said when discussing the romantic movement, can scarcely hold an original place at all when challenged in a court of universal criticism. The Renascence of Wonder culminates in Rossetti's poetry as it culminates in his painting. The poet who should go beyond Rossetti would pass out of the realm of poetry into pure mysticism, as certain of his sonnets show. Fine as are these sonnets, it is in his romantic ballads that Rossetti (notwithstanding a certain ruggedness of movement) shows his greatest strength. In this opinion (which is not the general one) we agree with Dr Hueffer. " Sister Helen," " The Blessed Damozel," "Staff and Scrip," "Eden Bower," "Troy Town," " Rose Mary," as representing the modern revival of the true romantic spirit, take a place quite apart from the other poetry of our time.

By the modern revival of the romantic spirit in English poetry we mean something much more than the revival, at the close of the last century, of natural language, the change discussed by Wordsworth in his famous Preface, and by Coleridge in his comments thereon—that change of diction and of poetic methods which is commonly supposed to have arisen with Cowper, or, if not with Cowper, with Burns. The truth is that Wordsworth and Coleridge were too near the great changes in question, and they themselves took too active a part in those changes, to hold the historical view of what the changes really were. Important as was the change in poetic methods which they so admirably practised and discussed, important as was the revival of natural language, which then set in, it was not nearly so important as that other revival which had begun earlier and of which it was the outcome—the revival of the romantic spirit, the Renascence of Wonder, even beneath the weight of 18th-century diction, the first movement of which no one has yet been able clearly and decisively to point out, but which is certainly English, and neither German nor French in its origin, and can be traced through Chatterton, Macpherson, and the Percy Ballads.

As a mere question of methods, a reaction against the poetic diction of Pope and his followers was inevitable. But, in discussing the romantic temper in relation to the overthrow of the bastard classicism and didactic materialism of the 18th century, we must, as we have just seen in discussing Rossetti's pictures, go deeper than mere artistic methods in poetry. When closely examined it is in method only that the poetry of Cowper is different from the ratiocinative and unromantic poetry of Dryden and Pope and their followers. Pope treated prose subjects in the ratiocinative—that is to say, the prose—temper, but in a highly artificial diction which peopls agreed to call poetic. Cowper treated prose subjects too—treated them in the same prose temper, but used natural language, a noble thing to do, no doubt— but this was only a part (and by no means the chief part) of the great work achieved by English poetry at the close of last century. That period, to be sure, freed us from the poetic diction of Pope; but it gave us something more precious still—it gave us entire freedom from the hard rhetorical materialism imported from France; it gave a new seeing to our eyes, which were opened once more to the mystery and the wonder of the universe and the romance of man's destiny; it revived in short the romantic spirit, but the romantic spirit enriched by all the clarity and sanity that the renascence of classicism was able to I lend, The greatest movement that has occurred in later times was that which substituted for the didactic materialism of the 18th century the new romanticism of the 19th, the leaders of which movement, Coleridge and Scott, were admirably followed by Byron, Shelley, and Keats. Not that Wordsworth was a stranger to the romantic temper. The magnificent image of Time and Death under the yew tree is worthy of any romantic poet that ever lived, yet it cannot be said that he escaped save at moments from the comfortable 18th-century didactics, or that he was a spiritual writer in the sense that Coleridge, Blake, and Shelley were spiritual writers.

Of the true romantic feeling, the ever present apprehension of the spiritual world and of that struggle of the soul with earthly conditions which we have before spoken of, Rossetti's poetry is as full as his pictures—so full indeed that it was misunderstood by certain critics, who found in the most spiritualistic of poets and painters the founder of a "fleshly school." Although it cannot be said that "The Blessed Damozel" or "Sister Helen" or "Rose Mary" reaches to the height of the masterpieces of Coleridge, the purely romantic temper was with Rossetti a more permanent and even a more natural temper than with any other 19th-century poet, even including the author of "Christabel" himself. As to the other 19ih-century poets, though the Ettrick Shepherd in The Queen's Wake shows plenty of the true feeling, Hogg's verbosity is too great to allow of really successful work in the field of romantic ballad, where concentrated energy is one of the first requisites. And even DobelPs " Keith of Ravelston " has hardly been fused in the fine atmosphere of fairy land. Byron's " footlight bogies " and Shelley's metaphysical abstractions had of course but very little to do with the inner core of romance, and we have only to consider Keats, to whose " La Belle Dame sans Merci" and " Eve of St Mark" Rossetti always acknowledged himself to be deeply indebted. In the famous close of the seventh stanza of the " Ode to a Nightingale "—

Charmed magic casements opening on the foam
Of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn—

there is of course the true thrill of the poetry of wonder, and it is expressed with a music, a startling magic, above the highest reaches of Rossetti's poetry. But, without the evidence of Keats's two late poems, " La Belle Dame sans Merci" and the "Eve of St Mark," who could have said that Keats showed more than a passing apprehension of that which is the basis of the romantic temper _—the supernatural? In contrasting Keats with Rossetti it must always be remembered that Keats's power over the poetry of wonder came to him at one flash, and that it was not (as we have said elsewhere) " till late in his brief life that his bark was running full sail for the enchanted isle where the old ballad writers once sang and where now sate the wizard Coleridge alone." Though outside Coleridge's wrork there had been nothing in the poetry of wonder comparable with Keats's " La Belle Dame sans Merci," he had previously in ''Lamia" entirely failed in rendering the romantic idea of beauty as a maleficent power. The reader, owing to the atmosphere surrounding the dramatic action being entirely classic, does not believe for a moment in the serpent woman. The classic accessories suggested by Burton's brief narrative hampered Keats where to Rossetti (as wre see in "Pandora," "Cassandra," and "Troy Town") they would simply have given birth to romantic ideas. It is perhaps with Coleridge alone that Rossetti can be compared as a worker in the Renascence of Wonder. Although his apparent lack of rhythmic spontaneity places him below the great master as a singer (for in these miracles of Coleridge's genius poetry ceases to appear as a fine art at all—it is the inspired song of the changeling child "singing, dancing to itself "), in permanence of the romantic feeling, in vitality of belief in the power of the unseen, Rossetti stands alone. Even the finest portions of his historical ballad " The King's Tragedy" are those which deal with the supernatural.

In the spring of 1860 Rossetti married Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall, who being very beautiful was constantly painted and drawn by him. She had one still-born child in 1861, and died in February 1862. Mrs Rossetti's own water-colour designs show an extraordinary genius for invention and a rare instinct for colour. He felt her death so acutely that in the first paroxysm of his grief he insisted upon his poems (then in manuscript) being buried with her. These were at a later period recovered, however, and from this time to his death he continued to write poems and produce pictures,—in the latter relying more and more upon his manipulative skill but exercising less and less,—for the reasons above mentioned,—his exhaustless faculty of invention.

About 1868 the curse of the artistic and poetic temperament, insomnia, attacked him. One of the most distressing effects of this malady is a nervous shrinking from personal contact with any save a few intimate and constantly seen friends. This peculiar kind of nervousness may be aggravated by the use of narcotics, and in Lis case was aggravated to a very painful degree ; at one time he saw scarcely any one save his own family and immediate family connexions and the present writer. During the time that his second volume of original poetry, Ballads and Sonnets, was passing through the press (in 1881) his health began to give way, and he left London for Cumberland. A stay of a few weeks in the Vale of St John, however, did nothing to improve his health, and he returned much shattered. He then went to Birchington-on-Sea, but received no benefit from the change, and, gradually sinking from a complication of disorders, he died on Sunday the 9th April 1882.

In all matters of taste Rossetti's influence has been immense. The purely decorative arts he may be said to have rejuvenated directly or indirectly. And it is doubtful wdiether any other Victorian poet has left so deep an impression upon the poetic methods of his time.

One of the most wonderful of Rossetti's endowments, however, was neither of a literary nor an artistic kind: it was that of a rare and most winning personality which attracted towards itself, as if by an unconscious magnetism, the love of all his friends, the love, indeed, of all who knew him.

See T. Hall Caine, Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1882 ; and William Sharp, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a Record and a Study, 1882. (T. W.)

The above article was written by: Theodore Watts.

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