11 May 2010

'The Mournfulness of Ancient Life'—Dante Gabriel Rossetti

So, thank you to all who said prayers for me. Thanks to God, I am doing much, much better already. I have been taking into account the advice I received in the comments on the last post, and I intend to slow down significantly my rate of posting on Logismoi. I’m not sure yet if I will set a new goal—I’ve been posting every day for quite some time—but for the time being I’ll just see how it goes and post as the mood strikes me. I may also try to keep the posts a bit simpler, so as not to overdo it.

Today, 12 May, is the birthday of the English Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), named for but not to be confused with the Florentine poet and author of the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). [1] While W.H. Auden has included Rossetti in his anthology of British minor poets, in the introduction to Rossetti in Lionel Trilling’s and Harold Bloom’s Victorian Prose & Poetry, it is argued that the Pre-Raphaelite, ‘though out of favor in our time, seems to this editor the best poet of the Victorian period, after Browning and Tennyson, surpassing Arnold and even Hopkins and Swinburne (greatly undervalued as Swinburne now is).’ [2] According to Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, Rossetti’s ‘lyric poems are distinguished by richness and vividness of detail, mysticism and fantasy, and the frequent use of modified ballad form.’ [3]

Concerning Rossetti’s origin, Joseph Knight tells us that his family came from the city of ‘Vasto d’Ammone, the ancient Histonium’. His father, Gabriele Rossetti, was ‘distinguished as a patriot and a man of letters’, but was persecuted by Ferdinand, the King of the Two Sicilies, and forced to flee to England. [4] Once in England, Rossetti’s father married Frances Mary Lavinia Polidori, whose father was Gaetano Polidori, a translator of Milton into Italian, and whose brother was Dr John William Polidori, physician to Lord Byron, participant in the famous ghost-story game which spawned Frankenstein, and author, as a result, of the first vampire story in English, The Vampyre. A few years after Rossetti’s birth, his father took up the post of Professor of Italian Literature at King’s College, a post he held until 1845. Gabriele and Frances Rossetti had four children, who were ‘all honourably known in connection with literature’: [5] Maria Francesca, author of A Shadow of Dante, Dante Gabriel, William Michael, and Christina, the latter three of whom were all associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. According to George Creeger’s account of the eldest son’s work:

Rossetti possessed the talents of painter and poet alike: at the age of six he was already writing verses, and when he was fifteen there appeared a privately printed volume entitled Hugh the Heron. But he devoted much of his energy to mastering the craft of painting; and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founded in 1848 by him (together with [William Holman] Hunt, [John Everett] Millais, and [Thomas] Woolner) was at first only incidentally concerned with literary principles. But even as Rossetti’s fame as a painter grew, he wrote a good deal of poetry, much of which was printed in The Germ, a periodical started by the Brotherhood in 1850. Many of his later MSS. he buried, however, in the coffin of his wife and beautiful model, Elizabeth (née Siddal), who, already ill with tuberculosis, died of an overdose of laudanum in 1862. Seven years later the MSS. were recovered [6] and formed the basis of the volume of poems published in 1869. Rossetti’s last years were marked by increasing morbidity, quasi-paranoia, and addiction to drugs; but in 1881 he published a second volume of poetry, Ballads & Sonnets, in which the signs of his genius were still clear. [7]

James Merritt has quoted Rossetti’s brother, William Michael, as saying of one of his own poems that ‘the informing idea of the poem was to apply to verse-writing the same principles . . . which the Pre-Raphaelites upheld in their pictures’. [8] Similarly, Dante Gabriel actually has lyrics which are meant to accompany his paintings. His subject matter and symbolism are of course frequently Christian, as are those of his paintings, though we mustn’t conclude too much from this. While Rossetti was raised in his mother’s Anglican faith, unlike his sister Christina he seems not to have been a traditional believer. George Landow quotes William Holman Hunt as saying that Rossetti spoke ‘in a very patronising way about the “poor man” Jesus, and . . . ridiculed the promises about coming again’. [9] John Ruskin writes, ‘To Rossetti, the Old and New Testaments were only the greatest poems he knew; and he painted scenes from them with no more actual belief in their relation to the present life and business of men than he gave also to the “Morte d’Arthur” and the “Vita Nuova”.’ [10]

But Landow also points out in some detail Rossetti’s use of Christian typology in his poetry, particularly in one sonnet he composed to accompany a painting entitled ‘Passover in the Holy Family’:

Here meet together the prefiguring day
And day prefigured. ‘Eating, thou shalt stand,
Feet shod, loins girt, thy road-staff in thine hand,
With blood-stained door and lintel,’ – did God say
By Moses’ mouth in ages passed away.
And now, where this poor household doth comprise
At Paschal-Feast two kindred families,
Lo! the slain lamb confronts the Lamb to slay.
The pyre is piled. What agony’s crown attained,
What shadow of Death the Boy’s fair brow subdues
Who holds that blood wherewith the porch is stained
By Zachary the priest? John binds the shoes
He deemed himself not worthy to unloose;
And Mary culls the bitter herbs ordained.

In Landow’s words, Rossetti ‘was intrigued by the fact that prefigurative symbolism provides a means of redeeming human time, of perceiving an order and causality in human events.’ He goes on to observe, ‘It is precisely this aspect of typological symbolism with which Rossetti concerns himself in his sonnet, which . . . proceeds by setting forth the series of details—the types—which prefigure Christ’s ultimate self-sacrifice.’ Interestingly, this actually suggests a very good reason for the direct linking of painting and poetry for Rossetti. As Landow writes:

Ever since Lessing had reiterated the ancient truth that paintings were limited to a single moment in time, artists had increasingly concerned themselves with dramatically climactic moments. But this new form of symbolism offered a means of inserting the scene in several different times, as it were, and thus enriching the picture’s effect. Paradoxically, this potential also emphasizes the limited nature of the visual image, because it makes it depend heavily for its effect upon linguistic, extra-visual sources for meaning and drama.

Rossetti’s fascination with typological symbolism also appears in the poems he composed about other artists’ works, for in these he is adding the typological dimension on his own authority. [11]

In conclusion, I suggest all have a look at some of Rossetti’s other work, here for instance, as well as this stirring post on the Pre-Raphaelites by Kevin Edgecomb of biblicalia. There is also another interesting take on Rossetti’s religious symbolism here. I leave you with ‘The Sea-Limits’ (1849-50), anthologised by Auden as well as Trilling and Bloom:

Consider the sea’s listless chime:
Time’s self it is, made audible,—
The murmur of the earth’s own shell.
Secret continuance sublime
Is the sea’s end: our sight may pass
No furlong further. Since time was,
This sound hath told the lapse of time.

No quiet, which is death’s,—it hath
The mournfulness of ancient life,
Enduring always at dull strife.
As the world’s heart of rest and wrath,
Its painful pulse is in the sands.
Last utterly, the whole sky stands,
Grey and not known, along its path.

Listen alone beside the sea,
Listen alone among the woods;
Those voices of twin solitudes
Shall have one sound alike to thee:
Hark where the murmurs of thronged men
Surge and sink back and surge again,—
Still the one voice of wave and tree.

Gather a shell from the strown beach
And listen at its lips: they sigh
The same desire and mystery,
The echo of the whole sea’s speech.
And all mankind is thus at heart
Not anything but what thou art:
And Earth, Sea, Man, are all in each. [12]

[1] It is worth pointing out, however, that in their note on Rossetti’s ‘Sestina (after Dante)’, Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom write, ‘No more successful version of anything by Dante exists in English . . .’ (Victorian Prose & Poetry (NY: Oxford U, 1973), p. 624).

[2] Ibid., p. 616.

[3] Katherine Baker Siepmann, ed., Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, 3rd ed. (NY: HarperCollins, 1987), p. 846.

[4] Joseph Knight, Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (London: Walter Scott, 1887), p. 11.

[5] Ibid., p. 13.

[6] On the subject of the ‘recovery’ of the manuscript, which as is noted occurred seven years after the woman’s burial, Knight insists that the idea was suggested by various friends, culminating in an offer on the part of one Mr Charles Augustus Howell to actually ‘take charge of the execution of the task’, to which Rossetti ‘was still averse’. Finally, ‘All was found as it was left, but the book, though not in any way destroyed, was soaked through and through, and had to undergo a long process of ablution in the hand of the medical man who assisted Mr Howell. By his care also the whole was dried leaf by leaf’ (Knight, p. 106).

[7] George R. Creeger, ‘Notes’, 19th-Century British Minor Poets, ed. W.H. Auden (NY: Delacorte, 1966), p. 368.

[8] James D. Merritt, ed., The Pre-Raphaelite Poem (NY: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1966), p. 20.

[9] Qtd. in George P. Landow, Replete with Meaning: William Holman Hunt & Typological Symbolism, here.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Trilling & Bloom, pp. 625-6.


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Many thanks for the "stirring" compliment!

It's good that you'll be slowing the pace down a bit. You're going to be much too busy soon to keep it up as you have, in any case. Blogging is a thing of the realm of fun, not work. Try to keep that in mind!

From Christina:

Weary In Well-Doing

I would have gone; God bade me stay:
I would have worked; God bade me rest.
He broke my will from day to day,
He read my yearnings unexpressed
     And said them nay.

Now I would stay; God bids me go:
Now I would rest; God bids me work.
He breaks my heart tossed to and fro,
My soul is wrung with doubts that lurk
     And vex it so.

I go, Lord, where Thou sendest me;
Day after day I plod and moil:
But, Christ my God, when will it be
That I may let alone my toil
     And rest with Thee?

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Aaron phoned and said his kids spilled a soda on the laptop. Bzzzt!

He won't be posting until he gets a spare laptop back.

Pray for those children!

aaronandbrighid said...

Just checking in from my parents' computer--thanks for getting the word out, Kevin! Hope you enjoyed the nutty anonymous comment I just deleted...

Anonymous said...


You are a bit too irritable. Your flaw is that you do not suffer contradiction. I cannot but be amused that you chose to delete my "nutty" comments while advertising them at the same time and giving me a side-kick on another blog.
It shows that I touched the right spot and that is the "Sophiology" of Soloviov and Bulgakov, a matter utterly alien to Orthodoxy, and the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites upon Soloviov and his inheritors in the Paris School (and OCA).
I was not "insinuating", but stating a well known fact. Gabrielle Rossetti, the father of Dante Gabriel, was a "Rosicrucian" (i.e. a Rose Croix, which is the 18th degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Free-Masonry, and a high degree in any variant of the Brotherhood) and a staunch enemy of the Catholic Church. He devised the "esoteric" interpretation of Dante (Alighieri) which boils down to the worship of "the eternal feminine" (Beatrice, the Fair Lady, the Damsel, Guinevere and... Venus- of the Wagnerian Venus berg- "the Mother of harlots and all abominations on the earth"), in a word Sophia, who revealed herself to Soloviov in the...Library of the British Museum, of all places! The place where Marx and Lenin devised their theories for the salvation of Mankind.
The thing is that I found the push to promote the Pre-Raphaelites (and their high octane erotic art) a little distasteful for an Orthodox (no matter if they are praised by some OCA parishes in Louisiana). They certainly are, not alone, for sure, at the origin of the New Age "spirituality", drenched in drugs and pornography.
Take a rest Aaron. Visit a monastery, not a "retreat" of the Mathewes-Green, New Skete kind. We expect you back with fresh ideas (Orthodox, of course).

aaronandbrighid said...

Whoever you are,

I’m only going to do this once, so pay attention. I have already stated my policy on comments like yours here. I advise you to read it carefully so that you can decide whether you really care to be a reader of this blog.

I have many flaws to which I freely admit, but not suffering ‘contradiction’ is not one of them. The fact is, your first comment was deleted not because it ‘contradicted’ me, but quite the contrary—because I found it irrelevant. Simply asserting the influence on Soloviov and the Masonic affiliations of the father of Rossetti had nothing to do with the man’s art, and particularly, his poetry, which is what I was concerned with. Your statements may well be true, but you presented no evidence for them (the word ‘insinuation’ refers to my assumption that you intended the comment about Rossetti’s father to have some implication for Rossetti himself, who was, after all, the subject of the post). Indeed, you didn’t even state your facts in a helpful, but rather a snide, dismissive way, as if to say, ‘Rossetti was a sophianist and a Mason so we shouldn’t pay any attention to his visual or literary art.’

Your most recent comment continues in this vein. Are you really suggesting that, whatever we may say about Soloviov and his false beliefs, it is impossible that anyone could have a genuine religious experience in the British Museum because Marx and Lenin spent time there? And the readiness to identify any kind of sacred feminine figure with ‘the Mother of harlots’ reminds me of Protestant fundamentalists who would make the same kind of connections with our Orthodox veneration of the Mother of God. Again, I do not necessarily disagree with your conclusions, merely with your rhetoric and your implied reasoning.

In fact, I quite agree that there is an erotic element which is apparently related to some kind of false spirituality in some Pre-Raphaelite art, and particularly Rossetti’s (see the second article I linked to). But I see no reason that Orthodox should not be familiar with it, as you yourself would have us believe you are, and even to appreciate what we can about it. I never said that Pre-Raphaelite art was perfectly laudable or equivalent to the truly sacred art of the Church. I have said nothing ‘distasteful’.

Finally, the suggestion that I would have anything to do with New Skete is beneath a response. I AM taking a rest, and it will most definitely NOT be at New Skete. Nevertheless, when I return, I will continue to post appreciations of writers, artists, and philosophers who are not Orthodox and whose work may contain disturbing or even anti-Christian elements. (If I had had more time and felt up to a more in-depth critique, I might have dwelt more on some of these issues with regard to Rossetti, but as it was I felt that the post was perfectly sufficient.) I welcome thoughtful comments pointing out these problematic elements, but curt, guilt-by-association dismissals will continue to be deleted as well as occasionally to receive mockery on this or other blogs. If you can’t live with this, then I suggest you find more worthwhile blogs to read, or perhaps even stay off the internet altogether and read the Holy Scriptures and the Lives of the Saints.

Anonymous said...

Be careful, Aaron, when you handle anti-Christian "elements" lest people may believe that you endorse them.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks for the advice, but I don't see how anyone who either knows me or has read more than one post on my blog could think that I would endorse such elements insofar as they are anti-Christian. Is it really the case that we must either accept or reject something in toto, rather than, as St Basil says, taking what is of benefit from each thing and leaving the rest in order to move on elsewhere?

The Ochlophobist said...

I have enjoyed this conversation.

I have these stones, which my front porch is made out of, and which are in my backyard, formerly surrounding little garden areas. They were field stones used on British ships which transported cotton to Britain and then needed these stones from the UK as ballasts on the way back to Memphis. Those ships were almost surely captained by Masons, so, as I have been moving some of the stones in the backyard, I check them for Masonic symbols, as well as animist symbols because the stones would have been hauled around by slaves at the time they were initially used. Also, in the little holes in the earth left when I lift a stone out of the ground, I check for those tiny little Masons which one often finds under most any stone, as we all know that we need to look for a Mason under every stone we unearth, especially stones from Britain.

aaronandbrighid said...

Owen> I find it distasteful that an Orthodox would knowingly use paving stones carried by ships captained by the staunch enemies of the Catholic Church.

Anonymous said...

We may take what is of benefit from everything. But we need do it with a pinch of salt. In some cases we need a barrow. It may be to expensive. Poetry may be very dangerous. Platon wanted to expel all poets from the city.

aaronandbrighid said...

Having written a Master's thesis on this topic, I can assure you that I've given all of these points a great deal of consideration. In fact, I've even written a blog post or two on the subject of Plato's views of poetry (to which I am more than sympathetic). It is interesting to note that they did not prevent St Basil the Great--whose authority exceeds that of the Athenian philosopher--from emphasising the benefits that young men can receive from reading it.

I'm not going to go back and forth on this. I have a position on the issue, based quite strictly on St Basil, and I don't intend this blog to be a forum for arguing about it. I'm sure we can all agree that there are good and bad things to be found in poetry and literature. The matter is now closed.

Mark Wallace said...

Names are very important, don't you think? I mean Jacob's name was changed to Israel. Abram's was changed to Abraham. Cephas was changed to Peter. Saul became Paul, etc. etc.

When "Anonymous" remains anonymous, I think it reflects an anonymous character, don't you?

aaronandbrighid said...

I am strongly inclined to agree, Father!