If history is to be believed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was a faction of louche and rapacious deviants who flouted Victorian conventions by gormandising on drink, ingesting miscellaneous subtropical chemicals and debauching honey-eyed cygnets in a fashion equalled only by Marquis de Sade himself. History is often a hybrid account of fable and fact yet inevitably it frequently has roots in the latter. As such I have a feeling that the three predominant members of the PRB – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais – along with their champion, art critic John Ruskin, were a wild and fractious bunch – each in their own measure, but even more so when together. And there is something to be said for men who dared to defy convention in the era of pious mores and social repression. Perhaps the most appropriate would be that they were, as a brotherhood, the pioneers of the avant-garde – an axiom which cannot be applied to any other. Their subject matter was rife with sexual connotation, verging on the realms of pornography, and their irreverent depictions of Christ caused mortal offence; as did their relationships with their models. But, while polite society may have been shocked it was also quietly drawn to the works of these hircine artistes, which ironically came to epitomise the art of the Victorian age.
The founding member of the PRB, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is known for his works of art as well as his poetry which according to his most thersitical critic at the time, Robert Buchanan, belonged to the The Fleshy School due to its amative and erotic nature. Writing about Rossetti after the publication of his collected poems, Buchanan yirred: “In petticoats or pantaloons, in modern times of in the middle ages, he is just Mr Rossetti, a fleshy person, with nothing particular to tell us or teach us…” But Rossetti did have something to teach us by making his poetic work a critical mirror reflecting the image back to the reader and thereby inviting him to trace aspects of his own experiences and perceptions in the verses – a technique which was quite new in Victorian England.
In 1859 Rossetti met a prostitute by the name of Fanny Cornforth with whom he remained involved for the rest of his life. He captured her in the painting Bocca Baciata, and later reworked a poem in her honour called Jenny which offers a libertine meditation on a sleeping beauty, a woman whom Rossetti describes as being “fond of a kiss and fond of a guinea”. The concupiscent language and the imagery it evokes makes the poem highly provocative, particularly when Rossetti talks about the “homage of the dim boudoir” and the “realms of love…silver-shrined in shadowy grove”. Interestingly, the poem reads both as a sensuous admonition and a love letter, subtly merged into one. The speaker points out a marked difference between himself and the woman, through the following observation: “This room of yours, my Jenny, looks/A change from mine so full of books/Whose serried ranks hold fast, forsooth/So many captive hours of youth,” and later uses the literary reference as a subtext for the human soul which too can be opened and closed as a book thus making the speaker realise that reading is an exercise for the damned. Subsequently the reading of the poem itself makes the reader guilty of indiscretion by association. The subject matter is similar in The Portrait, another poem in celebration of a woman most likely Rossetti’s wife. The poem examines the relationship between the artist and his work and probes the connection between the man, his sense of self and his art. Rossetti uses the mythological story of Narcissus to convey the idea that the artist is attached to his art as much as to the person depicted and thereby himself, when he says: “In painting her I shrin’d her face,” immortalising it, but also himself by doing so and “While hopes and aims long lost with her/Stand round her image side by side/Like tombs of pilgrims that have died/About the Holy Sepulchre,” the image remains.
Rossetti was first and foremost a painter – his poetic endeavours came a little later in life and almost didn’t materialise at all. In 1849 Rossetti was introduced to a young woman by the name of Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal, who posed for several painters including Walter Deverell and Hunt before modelling exclusively for Rossetti. The two fell in love but Rossetti’s growing acclaim and casual infidelities put a strain on the relationship and Lizzie’s health. In May 1860, Rossetti set off to visit her in Hastings and came to the belief that the two should marry. The couple’s connubial life was incredibly complicated, made more so by Lizzie’s deepening depression due to a stillbirth, insomnia, neuralgia and a growing dependence on laudanum. Lizzie died, on 11th February 1862, of an overdose. Compelled by contrition Rossetti buried his manuscript of poems with her and it later had to be retrieved at the suggestion of Rossetti’s agent Charles Agustus Howell. In his biography, Rossetti, His Life and Works, Evelyn Waugh writes about the exhumation, and Rossetti’s role in the process, saying: “He permitted and assisted in the preliminary formalities necessary for the recovery of the manuscript of his poems…This took place at night, under Howell’s supervision, and while it was being done Rossetti sat alone at the house of a friend in a fever of conflicting emotions. A fire was lighted by the grave and the coffin opened. It is said that the body was not unduly disfigured, but that some of the hair came away with the book.” The guilt plagued Rossetti for the rest of his life.
There were three key women in Rossetti’s life: his wife, Cornforth and Jane Burden, later Jane Morris by marriage to Rossetti’s friend William Morris. All three featured both in Rossetti’s art and poetry. Lizzie was the “heavenly lady” with the ethereal face and long, auburn hair, the embodiment of Beatrice in the painting. She was the divine beauty of the soul and personified Rossetti’s belief in the salvific nature of romantic love. Cornforth was another great influence on the poet. Legend has it that he met Cornforth in 1856 while she was standing on a street corner in Strand cracking nuts with her teeth. He was attracted to her blond “yellow-harvest” hair and her voluptuous carnality; she therefore came to represent the sinful image of the woman ripe and venal. She liberated Rossetti form the idea of virginal muliebrity, instead offering him a release and sexual satisfaction. The last of the women in Rossetti’s artistic demimonde is Jane Burden Morris. According to some historians, Burden Morris served as a nexus for all of Rossetti’s fantasies. The two met in Oxford in 1857 when she posed as a model for Rossetti’s Oxford Union murals. She later married Morris, but continued to pose for Rossetti and was his muse from 1866 until his death. Rossetti once wrote of Burden Morris: “Beauty like hers is genius”. Their illicit affair, which ceased eventually due to scandal, left Rossetti in adverse mental health. The break, and the fact that he could no longer see Burden Morris, precipitated Rossetti’s chloral hydrate abuse, turning him into an image of a tortured artist but more accurately into a mentally ill addict. Rossetti’s wellbeing was further debilitated by Buchanan’s critique of his poetry and representations of him as a sybaritic reprobate. This together with Rossetti’ deteriorating eyesight, chronic fear of blindness, several suicide attempts and indulgence in drugs led to the poet’s in 1882. The official cause being a stroke and kidney failure.
Rossetti’s most famous poetical works are his sonnets, most of which are of romantic nature. In his metonymy “love” symbolises sexuality and physical relations, “death” mortality and religious anxieties. This is particularly true of the poems in The House of Life collection, such as Last Fire when Rossetti alludes to copulation saying: “Love, through your spirit and mine what summer eve/Now glows with glory of all things possess’d” or in the poem Life in Love when he names love-for-woman as the sole purpose of life: “Not in thy body is thy life at all/But in this lady’s lips and hands and eyes/Through these she yields the life that vivifies.” Rossetti’s poems are nothing short of masterful, if not in subject matter – repetitive if interesting – then certainly in technique. This is, in part, due to his ability to take the monadic representation of the repressed and lovelorn female and turn it into a vivid image. His muses, all puritanically pale with breasts the size of fine-china teacups and faces so beautifully pristine they’d make those of Grecian goddesses seem like portraits of Dorian Gray, are highly sexualised and liberated from the oppressive contemporary values. It is perhaps no wonder that his poetry is considered a beacon of lyric eroticism, and somewhat ironically iconic of the Victorian age.
One of Rossetti’s most acclaimed poems, The Blessed Damozel, encompasses all the elements that typify his work, down to his greatest influence the Italian poet Dante. Rossetti wrote The Blessed Damozel at the age of 19 but emendated it for the remainder of his life. The poem combines Rossetti’s preoccupation with women, religious references, and his most important and evolving interpretation of the Dantean legacy. The Blessed Damozel is considered to be is Rossetti’s single most important work. The poem contains Catholic, and in particular medieval, frills, picking up on the modish enthusiasm for the Gothic and for the revival of interest in Arthurian mythology, which appears throughout Rossetti’s work. It relays the story of two lovers divided by death, and their hope to be reunited in heaven. Rossetti’s approach is strongly eroticised in the treatment of his subject, but also highly romanticised and idealistic. The poet cited Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven as one of his influences when working on The Blessed Damozel. In a letter to his friend Hall Caine, Rossetti wrote: “I saw that Poe had done the utmost it was possible to do with the grief of the lover on earth, and so I determined to reverse the conditions, and give utterance to the yearning of the loved one in heaven.” By today’s standards The Blessed Damozel is somewhat bromidic and dated in its depictions of love as “deathless” and the “hand in hand” journey to dream’s kingdom. It is, however, striking. And, there’s a misty realism over the ideal, especially in the closing lines when Rossetti says: “Her eyes prayed, and she smil’d/(I saw her smile.) But soon their path/Was vague in distant spheres/And then she cast her arms along/The golden barriers/And laid her face/between her hands/And wept. (I heard her tears),” which connotes a steadfast realisation of mortality and the proverbial wall between life and death.
The Blessed Damozel has often been said to be about Rossetti’s wife – the deceased heavenly female figure in the poem. Rossetti was somewhat haunted by her ghostly presence, as he was by those of the other two women in his life. This added another dimension to his work, a more eerie and foreboding one. Although his subjects ranged from classical, biblical, historical, and literary, and often the ethereal and romantic mood prevailed, his female subjects were often portrayed as seemingly innocent yet obdurate seductresses charming the male to his end. Perhaps Rossetti adhered to the antediluvian belief that the great fall of man rests at the hands of a woman. But who can say? Rossetti’s poems, like his paintings, are beautiful, at times remarkably so and characterised by the themes which shaped the poet’s own life, namely love and death.