Four Rossettis: A Victorian Biography
Pre-Raphaelitism, as a principle, was precociously brooded in 1847, by Holman Hunt, aged twenty, and John Millais, aged eighteen, with some not entirely convinced help from Dante Gabriel Rossetti, aged nineteen. Then a year later the Pre-Raphaelite group or movement was hatched. Hunt says that he and Millais, his pupil, were resolved “to turn more and more devotedly to Nature as the one means of purifying modern art.” They found an inadequacy of nature in Raphael, or at any rate too little of the truth of nature in the subsequent strains of art by those who blindly insisted on the supremacy of Raphael. Hunt was also to write that he and Millais used to stand in front of the Raphael cartoons (then at Hampton Court) and judge them fearlessly, also that they condemned Raphael’s Transfiguration (which they had never seen) “for its grandiose disregard of the simplicity of truth, the pompous posturing of the Apostles, and the unspiritual attitudinising of the Saviour.”
In their final estimation The Transfiguration “was a signal step in the decadence of Italian art.”
“When we had advanced this opinion to other students [at the Royal Academy schools], they as a reductio ad absurdum had said, ‘Then you are Pre-Raphaelite.’ Referring to this as we worked side by side, Millais and I laughingly agreed that the designation must be accepted.”
So the celebrated, all too celebrated, label was fashioned, first applied, and accepted not too seriously.
In 1846 when these young men came together with their imprecise aims of renewing or revitalizing English art, Holman Hunt considered that their inspiration, their determination to work, in their way, from nature, would best be described by this word “Pre-Raphaelite.” Rossetti wasn’t so sure. His preferred term was “Early Christian,” but Hunt argued that “Early Christian” would link them with the German Nazarenes, in whose pictures the natural was absent. They accepted, all the same, Rossetti’s other suggestion that they should be brothers in their new art, in short that they should be “P.R.B.,” each a Pre-Raphaelite Brother in a Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of which knowledge should be withheld from the public. The trio now enlarged their Brotherhood, enrolling other sympathizers; and in that kinship Millais and Hunt worked on new pictures which they signed “J.E. Millais P.R.B.” and “William Holman Hunt P.R.B.” (the pictures were Millais’s Lorenzo and Isabella, from Keats’s poem “Isabella and the Pot of Basil,” and Hunt’s Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of his Young Brother, Slain in a Skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini Factions, from a popular novel by Bulwer-Lytton).
These two canvases were hung in the summer exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1849; and no doubt they would have added the secret conspiratorial letters, the monogram of their revolution, to later pictures had the meaning of P.R.B. not been disclosed by a Scottish journalist with a taste for the comic, and ridiculed.
Having a position to make, Hunt and Millais at once altered their strategy, but not their new-found principle. For the exhibition of 1850 they settled to pictures of religious storytelling instead of medieval storytelling. Hunt—he was one for long sententious titles and inscriptions—to his Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Priest from the Persecution of the Druids, Millais to his Christ in the House of His Parents. Hunt’s modernity, Hunt’s fidelity to nature, in detail, was once more to paint an outdoor picture and to give his priest and his Britons faces of the day instead of faces out of painting—out of Raphael, for instance; pointed faces for round faces. Millais, in his modernity and fidelity, set his modern-faced family, in slightly Near Eastern undress, in a very English carpenter’s shop, across the floor of which curled a plenitude of fresh wood shavings. (Elsewhere in that year—but the comparison is too obvious and too cruel—the thirty-one-year-old Gustave Courbet, rooted in his Franche-Comté and his respect for Velázquez, exhibited his Casseurs de pierre and his Enterrement à Ornans.)
And Rossetti, of the original Pre-Raphaelite trio?
Stanley Weintraub, in his group account of the Rossettis—the four children of the scholarly Italian exile who reached London from Naples in 1824—won’t be found telling the reader how badly, if in a different way, Rossetti painted, how meretriciously he wrote. But he does display, as if without intention, how un-Pre-Raphaelite this No. 3 of the Brotherhood was, this art-drugged Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti who so speedily and romantically reshuffled his names, dropping the Charles and putting the Dante first.
For a while the young Rossetti did assent, with mind and not feeling, to Hunt and Millais’s notion of natural truth. He tried it, in one or two pictures which he no doubt thought of as “Early Christian.” But very soon he began to fabricate his initial shortcuts to the effects of art. Rossetti’s aversion to nature as his friends saw it and struggled with it (and as Dante saw it in his exact similes) is entertainingly evident in an exchange of letters—not mentioned in this book—between himself and Ruskin, after well-to-do Ruskin had declared himself as a champion and defender of the Pre-Raphaelites and of going to the fern or the moss or the ivy leaf, detail by detail. Would Rossetti—if Ruskin were to pay—take a run to Wales and make “a sketch of some rocks in the bed of a stream, with trees above, mountain ashes, and so on, scarlet in autumn tints”? Rossetti demurred—whether or no a little drawing, a little accuracy from nature would be good for him or for the morality of his art. Wouldn’t Ruskin pay for him to go to Paris?
You are a very odd creature, that’s a fact. I said I would find funds for you to go into Wales to draw something I wanted. I never said I would for you to go to Paris, to disturb yourself and other people, and I won’t….
That Rossetti went to art, to his choice of art, while they went, in their way, to nature, adding sharp-colored accuracy to accuracy in their strident subject pictures, wasn’t of course unrecognized by Rossetti’s one-time Brothers in Pre-Raphaelitism. They were faithful, he was not; they were morally in the truth of art—in nature, that is to say—while Rossetti was none too morally in the grip of his senses and appetites. They reverenced women, Rossetti mixed reverence and whoring. They were respectable, under the Victorian gaze, Rossetti—well….
Holman Hunt, pompous, though his pompous language was not always false, was to write that “in his designs as in his poems” Rossetti’s mind “expressed itself, in a form independent of new life and joy in Nature,” that Rossetti was indifferent “to the subject of a poetic image,” and was dominated by “the finished phraseology, the mode of delineation.” Millais, rebel long changed to orthodox hero of the United Kingdom, came to speak of him as “the mysterious un-English Rossetti,” queer, dogmatic, irritable, with aims and ideals in his art quite different from those of Pre-Raphaelitism. He complained strongly of the way Rossetti’s later work came to be spoken of as Pre-Raphaelite, and Rossetti himself as the former leader of the movement: “at least when he presented for our admiration the young women which have since become the type of Rossettianism, the public opened their eyes in amazement. And this, they said, is Pre-Raphaelitism! It was nothing of the sort.” Millais too insisted that the Pre-Raphaelites—i.e., himself and Holman Hunt—“had but one idea—to present on canvas what they saw in Nature”; so such productions as those of Rossetti “were absolutely foreign to the spirit of their work.”
Of course; but is there much to choose—perversions either way—between Millais and Hunt’s Pre-Raphaelitis, and Rossetti’s Rossettianism? That Rossetti gets in the way of Millais and Hunt, that Millais and Hunt get in the way of Rossetti, that all three are so mixed up historically does not matter; but it matters that between them they occupy so much room, it matters that the large portmanteau falsity, the large portmanteau concept “Pre-Raphaelitism,” gets in the way of so much else by being made ineptly inclusive.
Barbarously as it is written (so that hardly a paragraph can be read with comfort), I should therefore respect Professor Weintraub’s fourfold biography of the Rossettis rather more if it showed some suspicion at least of the existence of that falsity, and the way it interferes; if in other words his book was concerned genuinely, if incidentally, with the arts of painting pictures and writing poems.
Taking it, in a now outré way perhaps, that literary biography or painter’s biography should evidently be undertaken for the sake of the writings or the pictures, I can correctly say that Rossetti’s poems are neither the worse nor the better, nor any more interesting, because Rossetti’s model and wife Lizzie Siddal died of an overdose of laudanum in brandy, in circumstances of doubt, or because many of his poems, in a manuscript book, lay between her cheek and her golden hair in the coffin in Highgate Cemetery until the coffin and the body were exhumed and the book was recovered. But over again we are given a potted account of the drying and disinfection of the poems, and a potted réchauffé of the wombats and Fanny Cornforth the luscious, and Howell the Portuguese cad, etcetera; and all for their sakes, or Rossetti’s sake, for biographical hot-pot, with no accompanying estimate, no celebration of the worth of Rossetti’s poems and pictures; unless by writing at all of Rossetti Professor Weintraub implies—I suppose he does—that of course the poems and pictures are wonderful; though by now we have the measure—I think, I hope—of Rossetti’s intolerable poeticism in either art.
A next question is how much does Dante Gabriel Rossetti elbow out Christina Rossetti? Does Professor Weintraub contrast Dante Gabriel’s poems and Christina’s poems usefully, or at all? Does he see the difference in kind and quality?
In Rossetti’s poems even anguish—and he was anguished often enough—speaks for the most part in cliché of word, phrase, and movement—
Sweet Love—but oh! most dread desire of Love Life thwarted. Linked in gyres I saw thee stand, Love shackled with Vain-longing, hand to hand.
In Christina’s poems—
Come back to me in dreams, that I may give Pulse for pulse, breath for breath: Speak low, lean low
As long ago, my love, how long ago
—anguish (or happiness) finds a variation of forms and a delicacy of movement which are sui generis, and a language free enough of literary pretension in its Victorian kind, free almost of time. Professor Weintraub quotes from her poems now and then, making them point to the biography, not to themselves. “Erotic” is one of his adjectives for them (though he does risk the conventional statement that the poem beginning “My heart is like a singing bird” is “deservedly one of the great love lyrics in the language”).
Maybe Christina Rossetti’s real life is concealed beyond discovery—except as much of it as makes the poems; maybe it was less mousy and dim and pious than it appears to be, and more dramatic. (Professor Weintraub mentions and discusses and dismisses a story that the still more obscured sister Maria Rossetti once crouched for seven nights on the doormat of the family home in London to save Christina from eloping with a married man.) But I think the morbid dramatics in Rossetti’s life, which are described in so many books, do get in Christina’s way, even now; in the way of her just celebrity as a poet. And Rossetti’s verse, or the false estimation of it, also gets in the way. When Poems by D.G. Rossetti was on the verge of being published in 1870, eight years after the death of Lizzie Siddal, and a year after his manuscript book had been exhumed, Rossetti campaigned for his poems and his fame (see the account in Oswald Doughty’s life of Rossetti) in an extraordinary way, arranging reviewers and favorable reviews, and planting advance copies wherever helpful opinions might be expected. From that manic exercise his poems are perhaps benefiting still, a hundred and seven years later, rather to the detriment of the poems of his retreating but greatly more gifted younger sister.
It is true that Rossetti acted for her, and pushed her poems on to Macmillan the publisher. But he arranged no campaign for them, and alongside the many collected editions of D.G.R. there has been one, and one only, collected (and incomplete) edition of Christina’s poems, in a bad text, edited by her steady and respectable brother William (of whom Professor Weintraub can give no more than an inevitably dull account), and published—though reprinted several times—as long ago as 1907.
In the end Macmillan also did their worst for the subtleties of Christina’s art by corsetting the poems two columns to the page, so that lines turn over, shapes are distorted, and hardly a poem can stretch and breathe in isolation (a selection worth looking at is the one which was made in 1930 by Walter de la Mare, one master of tone and movement in appreciation of another).
On the strictly P.R.B. episode of 1848 and a few more years Professor Weintraub writes only a chapter, with another chapter about The Germ, the Pre-Raphaelite magazine—“Thoughts towards Nature in Poetry, Literature and Art”—which ran to four numbers in the first months of 1850. Certainly a real need, which shows up in every book touching the P.R.B., is to restrict our application of “Pre-Raphaelite” and its noun. Holman Hunt, all through his rather unattractive career, slyly understood how to use his attractively shaped and sounding vocable, for himself. But it wasn’t Holman Hunt who overextended it. That has been the work of generations of lazy journalists, collectors, critics, and art historians, who have allowed the word for a naturalistic incident or mode to cover so much of the naturalism and realism of mid-nineteenth-century England.
Because we have so magnified this incident or a movement which its authentic instigators were never powerful enough to transcend, one by one other “naturalists” of purer merit continue to be misstated or misinterpreted, even obscured altogether. Stuffing needs to be taken out of the “great” Pre-Raphaelites, as in the story of the Texas millionaires reduced to dwarfs. They need diminishing. We have to begin to employ “Pre-Raphaelitism” to describe accurately and sensibly at last both a nineteenth-century bout of self-advertising and a rather jejune, garish, angular, moralistic way of setting natural detail against detail in the pictures of a few modestly talented young men.