Who were the Pre Raphaelites? highlight the characteristics of the movement.


Here we will first look at the pre-Raphaelite movement in art and literature and then we will talk about the two poets of the movement, namely D.G. Rossetti and Christina Rossetti. We will also look at two poems by the D.G. Rossetti and one by Christina Rossetti.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood:

A Movement in Art and Literature:

The brotherhood produced highly convincing and significant works. One of the first departures the Pre-Raphaelites made from contemporary pictorial conventions was through their representation of the human anatomy. In their early works brotherhood members Rossetti, Hunt and Millais all produced religious paintings marked for the realism of their bodies and the oddness of their postures. The best example of this is Christ in The House of His Parents by Millais. The mimetic accuracy by which the characters are portrayed reflects the Pre-Raphaelites penchant for expressive empiricism that is painting real human models as accurately as possible. The main criticism leveled against their work, from an entirely unprepared audience, was that it married the ‘lofty sentiment’ of a religious subject with the ‘physical baseness’ of realistic characters. These were critics unsympathetic to the Pre-Raphaelites ideals of fidelity to nature and true, honest depiction, by token of which they studied each human figure from a model–going ‘to nature in all singleness of heart’ as Ruskin had exhorted young painters in Modern Painters. The critics were used to the chiaroscuro of the Old Masters and they wanted to see dignified human forms with beautiful bodies and faces.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

Introduction to The Poet Mr. Rossetti was an Italian patriot exiled from Naples for his political activity and a Dante scholar who became professor of Italian at King’s College, London, in 1831. Dante attended King’s College School from 1837 to 1842, when he left to prepare for the Royal Academy at F.S. Cary’s Academy of Art. In 1846 he was accepted into the Royal Academy but was there only a year before he became dissatisfied and left to study under Ford Madox Brown. In 1848 he, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais began to call themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. This group attracted other young painters, poets, and critics; William Michael Rossetti acted as secretary and later historian for the group. Between the years 1843 and 1846 he attended Cary’s Art Academy, and entered in 1848 the Royal Academy, where he spent an unfruitful period. However, he also started to write ‘The House of Life’, a sequence of 102 sonnets, which is considered his masterpiece. In it he wrote: “A Sonnet is a moment’s monument, - Memorial from the Soul’s eternity / To one dead deathless hour. ...” Rossetti founded in 1848 with John Everett Millais, Holman Hunt, and others the short-lived but influential Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which received rough treatment from the critics. Rossetti and his friends rejected Victorian materialism, admired the works of early Italian artists, and wanted to bring back into art a pre-Renaissance purity of style and spirit.

Early Works

The early oil paintings made by Rossetti were simple in respect of the style but were very rich in symbolism. Sometimes he had to face problem that his paintings were not bought. He idealized his subjects, and used literary themes of medieval romances. His early poems, such as ‘The Blessed Damozel’, a highly symbolic work, and ‘My Sister’s Sleep’, in which death visits a family on a Christmas Eve, were published in the Pre-Raphaelite magazine The Germ in 1850. “I said, “Full knowledge does not grieve: / This which upon my spirit dwells / Perhaps would have been sorrow else: / But I am glad ’tis Christmas Eve.” (from ‘My Sister’s Sleep’) The publication survived for only four issues. Rossetti enjoyed a modest success as a writer when his translations in The Early Italian Poets appeared in 1861. Also the art critic Ruskin started to buy his paintings and spread Rossetti’s reputation.

Personal Experience

It is very much true that the source and the root of the much of the work of Rossetti was his own personal experience. He based his poetry and paintings on the lived and experienced events. All the characters of his depicted in his work of art are also somehow connected with his personal life. And that is one reason that some knowledge about his life and the people he came in contact with essentially important for the understanding of his works. In most of Rossetti’s early pictures his ideal ladies were portraits of his wife, the beautiful Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal. He had met her in 1850, and they married in 1860 when she was already in poor health. Rossetti encouraged Elizabeth’s own painting and writing aspirations. She modeled for him and for many of his circle - perhaps the most impressive portrait is the drowned Ophelia in Millais’s painting. Another famous painting is La Ghirlandata, is which a young woman plays a harp, not Siddal, but Alexa Wilding. After his wife died of an overdose of laudanum in 1862, Rossetti buried with her the only complete manuscript of his poems. The manuscript was recovered seven years later and published in 1870. It included most of his best verse and established his reputation as a poet. Although Rossetti had not been faithful to Elizabeth, her loss left an increasing sadness in his work.

In 1868, Rossetti showed renewed interest in poetry. Sixteen sonnets, including the ‘Willowwood’ sequence, were published in The Fortnightly Review in 1869. He had a close relationship with Jane Morris, wife of the painter William Morris, and wrote the ballad ‘Rose Mary’. In 1871 there appeared R. Buchanan’s pamphlet ‘The Fleshy School of Poetry’ in the Contemporary Review, in which Rossetti and his associates were accused of obscenity. Rossetti’s reply, ‘The Stealthy School of Criticism’, appeared in The Athenaeum in 1872.

Portrayal of Women

Rossetti along with his friend like Algernon Charles Swinburne and James McNeil Whistler, who was an American painter, tried to follow the aesthetic and sensual approach to art. One of the best means that he found to do this was to explore the female beauty, for example he painted his mistress, Fanny Cornforth. An important quality of these paintings is that the rhythmic design used in these painting enhances the effect of their languid their female subject, which reflect the Pre-Raphaelite spirit.

Literary Endeavours

Rossetti had enjoyed a modest success in 1861 with his published translations, The Early Italian Poets; and toward the end of the 1860s his thoughts turned to poetry again. He began composing new poems and planned the recovery of the manuscript poems buried with his wife in High gate Cemetery. Carried out in 1869 through the agency of his unconventional man of business, Charles Augustus Howell, the exhumation visibly distressed the superstitious Rossetti. The publication of these poems followed in 1870. The Poems were well enough received until a misdirected, savage onslaught by “Thomas Maitland” (pseudonym of the journalist-critic Robert Buchanan) on “The Fleshly School of Poetry” singled out Rossetti for attack. Rossetti responded temperately in “The Stealthy School of Criticism,” published in the Athenaeum; but the attack, combined with remorse and the amount of chloral and alcohol he now took for insomnia, brought about his collapse in 1872. He recovered sufficiently to paint and write, but his life in Chelsea was subsequently that of a semi-invalid and recluse. Until 1874 he spent much time at Kelmscott Manor (near Oxford), of which he took joint tenancy with William Morris in 1871. His lovingly idealized portraits of Jane Morris at this time were a return to his more poetic and mystical style.

In the early 1880s Rossetti occupied himself with a replica of an early watercolor, “Dante’s Dream” (1880), a revised edition of Poems (1881), and Ballads and Sonnets (1881), containing the completed sonnet sequence of “The House of Life,” in which he described the love between man and woman with tragic intensity. The lawyer and man of letters Theodore Watts-Dunton meanwhile did his best to put Rossetti’s financial affairs in order. From a visit to Keswick (in northwestern England) in 1881, Rossetti returned in worse health than before, and he died the following spring.


Let us now look at two of the poems by Mr. Rossetti – My Sister’s Sleep and The Blessed Damozel. ‘My Sister’s Sleep’

In “My Sister’s Sleep”

Rossetti describes the last moments of a dying girl’s life through the narration of her brother. Rossetti develops an intensely sensory poem characterized by a dark mood through his descriptions of sight and sound. Various techniques invite the reader to experience the pain of loss along with the mother and brother. The poem explores different emotions and reactions to the death of a loved one. This piece emphasizes such differences between the brother and mother of the girl. Rossetti expertly develops these qualities in his descriptions of the character’s body language and speech; he never has to announce his characterizations bluntly. The reactions of the characters, along with the descriptions of sight and sound, simile, and word choice, produce a dark and sober mood. Stanzas ten through fifteen showcase these techniques effectively.

Rossetti shows his sophisticated talent as a poet in his impressive depictions of tangible and intangible elements, which all enhance the mood. The attention to detail and emotion parallel the same precision he exhibited in his

paintings. “My Sister’s Sleep” provides a strong example of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood poetry because of these qualities.

‘The Blessed Damozel’

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was only 19 when he wrote “The Blessed Damozel” in 1847. It was published in The Germ in 1850. Although Rossetti was still young, the images and themes in his poem have caught the attention of many critics throughout the years. “The Blessed Damozel” is a beautiful story of how two lovers are separated by the death of the Damozel and how she wishes to enter paradise, but only if she can do so in the company of her beloved.

“The Blessed Damozel” is one of Rossetti’s most famous poems and has been dissected and explicated many times by many different people. Even so, they all revolve around the same ideas and themes. The theme of Rossetti’s poem is said to have been taken from Vita Nuova, separated lovers are to be rejoined in heaven, by Dante. Many people say his young vision of idealized love was very picturesque and that the heavens Rossetti so often painted and those which were in his poems were much like Dante. The heaven that Rossetti painted in “The Blessed Damozel” was warm with physical bodies and beautiful angels full of love. This kind of description of heaven was said to have been taken from Dante’s ideas. Others said that Rossetti’s heaven was described so in “The Blessed Damozel” because he was still young and immature about such matters. In other words, he had not yet seen the ugliness and despair that love can bring, which he experienced later in his life after the death of his true love Elizabeth Siddal.

“The Blessed Damozel” is beautiful in that if flows so easily from one line to the next and it seems, although it is not very apparent, that Rossetti filled it with symbolism and references to his own personal feelings and future life. The first few stanzas tell of how the Damozel is in heaven overlooking earth and thinking of her lover. Rossetti writes in stanza three of how time to the Damozel seemed to last forever because she was without her love. “To one it is ten years of years...” There are a few stanzas in the poem where the narrative jumps to her lover. In stanza four, it is the lover on earth talking about his beloved. The next few stanzas describe heaven, where it lies, and other lovers reuniting around her as she sits and watches...alone. In stanzas ten and eleven, her earthbound lover describes the sound of her voice like a bird’s song which tells the reader that not only is he thinking of her, but it hints he can hear her and feel her about him. Of course, she cannot understand why she must be miserable in heaven when all others are with their loves, after all, “Are not two prayers a perfect strength?” (stanza 12). In stanza thirteen, she dreams of the day that they will be together and present themselves in the beauty and glory of God. It is also in this stanza that Rossetti lets the reader know that she has not yet entered heaven. She is at the outer gates of the kingdom of heaven. Through the second half of the poem, the Damozel refers to herself and her lover as “we two” and describes how they will be together again someday in heaven. The Damozel even says she will teach him the songs that she sings...and she dreams of them together. It is in the next stanza, (stanza 17), that the narrative changes again back to the lover. He says that she keeps on saying “we two” but when and will they ever really be together like they used to be. Rossetti is using the Damozel in these few stanzas to describe how the Damozel would want her ideal and perfect love to be, but could that really be with her in heaven and him on earth? The two worlds separating them don’t keep them apart in thought, but it is not possible to be together. In stanza twenty-two, she once again says that she will want their love to be as it was on earth with the approval of Christ the Lord.

Near the end of the poem, in the last couple of stanzas, the Damozel finally realizes that she can have none of this until the time comes. The Damozel suddenly becomes peaceful and lets the light take her in stanza twenty-three. It is there that the reader also realizes that she will enter heaven without her love. Her lover on earth, of course, knows this and it is there in the last stanza that “I saw her smile...I hear her tears.” Apart, but together in hearts, the two are separated by two worlds so great that there is nothing that can be done but hope and pray. And that is why the Damozel “laid her face between her hands, And wept.”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti used the ideas of Christian belief in order to write his poem. His poem explores if two lovers or anyone will be reunited once again in heaven. In many ways this poem is both optimistic and idealistic. That is why so many people said Rossetti was immature on the subject of love when he wrote this. To read Rossetti’s poetry starting with some of his earliest, “The Blessed Damozel”, and ending with his later, “The Orchard Pit”, it is apparent how his feelings and ideas changed. As many times as “The Blessed Damozel” has been read and explicated, it is no wonder it has been said that so many ideas lie in his famous piece, but who doesn’t want to believe, like Rossetti did in his younger years that love, no matter what, would always live in the spirit of soul and memory.

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