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D(ante) G(abriel) Rossetti (1828-1882) - original name Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti

 

Brother of poet Christina Rossetti, painter and poet too, who was in the 1840s one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Although the movement started to lose its attraction by the mid-1850s, new disciples Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris brought with them fresh enthusiasm. Rossetti's poems are distinguished by fantasy, leading the reader to times past, to medieval colour, Arthurian legend, and Dantesque mysticism.

I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell;
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

(in 'Sudden Light', 1881)

Dante Gabriel Rosetti was born in London, the son of the poet Gabriele Rossetti (1783-1854), and Frances Mary Lavinia Polidori Rossetti, sister of Byron's physician, Dr. John Polidori. Thus Rossetti's background was essentially Italian; Gabriele had emigrated to England mainly for political reasons. In the cultural atmosphere of his home, the young Dante Gabriel became interested in romantic literature early in his youth.

From 1836 to 1843 Rossetti studied at King's College School, London. 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 said: "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. Rosssetti 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.

For many years Rossetti was known only as a painter. On the other hand he had to face for some time the 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." The publication survived for only four issues. Rossetti enjoyed a modest success as a writer when his translations in The Early Italian Poets came out in 1861. Also the art critic Ruskin started to buy his paintings and spread Rossetti's reputation.

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'. Jane became the ideal of all the Pre-Raphaelite artists. The story of the Grail had a strong appeal to members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but Rossetti's mystical ideas for a possible mural at the Oxford Union did not meet with general understanding. "And what were they going to do with the Grail when they found it, Mr Rossetti?" asked Max Beerbohm's cartoon.

In most of Rossetti's early pictures his ideal ladies were portraits of his wife, the beautiful Elizabeth "Lizzie" Siddal, the daughter of a Sheffield cutler. He had met her in 1850 and fell in love with her coppery-golden hair. They were engaged in 1851 but did not marry until 1860, mostly due to his passion for Jane Morris. The honeymoon was spent in Paris. At that time she was already in poor health; her death was supposed to be imminent. Rossetti encouraged Elizabeth's own painting and writing aspirations. She modelled for him and for many of his circle – perhaps the most impressive portrait is the drowned Ophelia in Millais's painting. She caught a severe cold for posing for Millais lying in a bath of water. Another famous painting is La Ghirlandata, is which a young woman plays a harp, not Siddal, but Alexa Wilding. May Morris, the daughter of William and Jane Morris, modelled for the two angels who listen to her.

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 from her grave. The grisly task was carried out by night and by the light of bonfires. According to Rossetti's agent, Lizzie's body was perfectly preserved. Published in 1870, this collection 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. Beginning from Rossetti's The House of Life, between 1870 and 1900 the sonnet sequence was the dominant form for self-exploration in poetry.

A Sonnet is a moment's monument -
Memorial from the Soul's eternity
To one dead deathless hour.

(in The House of Life, 1870-1881)

Though he was admired by a younger generation of aesthetes such as Oscar Wilde, Rossetti's later years were shadowed by health problems, morbid thoughts, paranoia, and insomnia. For years, he took large doses chloral which he washed down with whisky. Rossetti's paintings often resembled dreams. The somber and other-wordly mood was induced partially through the use of medieval costumes and ancient background. From 1869 to 1871 Rossetti worked on his last important picture, Dante's Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice, inspired by the poem La Vita Nuova. Rossetti had  little interest in the landscape and nature. The dream world or inability to sleep intruded into his poems, too, such as 'Love's Nocturne' (1854), 'The One Hope' (1869) and 'Insomnia', in which he wrote: "Thin are the night-skirts left behind / By daybreak hours that onward creep, /  And thin, alas! the shred of sleep".

In 1871 there appeared Robert Buchanan's pamphlet 'The Fleshy School of Poetry' in the Contemporary Review, in which Rossetti and his associates were accused of obscenity. The target was especially 'Nuptial Sleep' from The House of Life. "Here is a full-grown man, presumably intelligent and cultivated, putting on record for other full-grown men to read, the most secret mysteries of sexual connection", Buchanan said, "and that with so sickening a desire to reproduce the sensual mood, so careful a choice of epithet to convey mere animal sensations, that we merely shudder at the shameless nakedness." Rossetti's reply, 'The Stealthy School of Criticism' (1871), appeared in The Athenaeum: "Any reader may bring any artistic charge he pleases against the above sonnet; but one charge it would be impossible to maintain against the writer of the series in which it occurs, and that is, the wish on his part to assert that the body is greater than the soul."

Buchanan's attack had a devastating effect on Rossetti. He withdrew from his friends, and began to seen allusions to himself in Lewis Carroll's poem 'Hunting of the Snark'. During a severe bout of depression he attempted suicide by taking an overdose of laudanum. After recovering he resumed his career as a painter and writer, full of working energy, but remaining addicted to chloral hydrate. In 1874, he left Kelmscott Manor on the upper Thames, which he had shared with the Morris family and where Jane Morris had been his muse. His closest friends in the last years of his life were Fanny Cornforth, his housekeeper, mistress, and model, and the painter Ford Madox Brown. Before his death at the age of fifty-three, on April 9, 1882, he published Ballads and Sonnets (1881). It completed with new sonnets 'The House of Life', which had appeared eleven years earlier. Rossetti was buried in the Parish Church of Birchington-on-Sea. A celtic cross designed by Ford Madox Brown stands above his grave. Rossetti's collected works appeared in 1886 in two volumes, edited by his brother William Michael Rossetti.

For further reading: A Victorian Romantic by Oswald Doughty (1960); The Dark Glass by R.J.R. Howard (1972); The Pre-Raphaelite Poems by L. Stevenson (1972); Four Rossettis by S. Weintraub (1977); Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Friends and Enemies by Helen Rossetti Angeli (1977); Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Painter and Man of Letters by Frank V. Rutter (1978); Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti by Joseph Knight (1987); Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Poet and Painter by Eben E. Bass (1990); Critical Essays on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. by David G. Riede (1992); Dante Gabriel Rossetti Revisited by David G. Riede (1992); Dante Gabriel Rossetti by Alicia Craig Faxon (1994); Dante Gabriel Rossetti by Russell Ash (1995); Rossetti and His Circle by Elizabeth Prettejohn (1998); Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Game That Must Be Lost by Jerome J. McGann (2000); Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Poet As Craftsman by Robert N. Keane (2002); The Demon and the Damozel: Dynamics of Desire in the Works of Christina Rossetti & Dante Gabriel Rossetti by Suzanne Waldman (2008). See also: John Keats, Volter Kilpi. Note: Rossetti illustrated an edition of Alfred Tennyson's Poems (1857). The most widely known of his translations are the three from Villon, especially the Ballad of Dead Ladies, and Dante's Vita Nuova Gabriele Rossetti: works include Dante Commedia (1826), Lo Spirito antipapale che produssela Riforma (1832), Poems (1833), La Beatrice Dante (1842), Il veggente in solitudine (1846), L'arpa evangelica (1852).

Selected writings:

  • The Blessed Damozel, 1850
  • Hand and Soul, 1850
  • The Early Italian poets from Ciullo d'Alcamo to Dante Alighieri, 1861 (translations)
  • Poems, 1870
  • The House of Life: a Sonnet-Sequence, 1870
  • Ballads and Sonnets, 1881
  • The Blessed Damozel, 1886 (with drawings by Kenyon Cox)
  • The Collected Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1886 (2 vols., edited by William M. Rossetti)
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family Letters, 1895 (edited by William M. Rossetti)
  • The Collected Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1897 (2 vols., edited, with preface and notes, by William M. Rossetti)
  • Some Scraps of Verse and Prose, 1898 (edited with preface by William M. Rossetti)
  • Selected Poems, 1899 (with introduction and notes by E.H. Turpin)
  • Pre-Raphaelite Diaries and Letters, 1900
  • The Poetical Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1913 (edited with preface by William M. Rossetti) 
  • The Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti to His Publisher, F.S. Ellis, 1928 (with introduction and notes by Oswald Doughty)
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Letters to Fanny Cornforth, 1940 (edited by Paull Franklin Baum)
  • Letters, 1965-67 (4 vols. ed. O. Doughty and J.R. Wahl)
  • The P.R.B. Journal, 1975
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Jane Morris: Their Correspondence, 1976 (edited by John Bryson and Janet Camp Troxell)
  • Essential Rossetti, 1990 (selected and with an introduction by John Hollander)
  • Dear Mr Rossetti: The Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Hall Caine 1878-1881, 2000 (ed.  Vivien Allen)
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Collected Writings, 2000 (ed. Jan Marsh)
  • The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Formative Years, 1835-1862: Charlotte Street to Cheyne Walk. I. 1835-1854; II. 1855-1862, 2002 (edited by William E. Fredeman)
  • Collected Poetry and Prose, 2003 (edited by Jerome McGann)

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