hroughout much Pre-Raphaelite love poetry, a dialectic of desire and renunciation is at work thematically. Whether a depicted passion is visceral or idealized, its object and therefore any fulfillment of desire are almost always unattainable. As a result, the finest poetry of Christina and Dante Rossetti, of Morris and Swinburne, is essentially elegiac: melancholy poetry of intense unsatisfied longing, of unrealized potential, and of loss. The emotional malaise characteristic of Pre-Raphaelite poetic personae prompts most of them eventually to renounce the quest for fulfillment in this world in favor of attaining it in a concretely envisioned afterlife, or in some surrogate form (usually a dream), or in art itself. As I have already observed, the Pre-Raphaelite love poem often becomes a self-conscious emblem of accomplished perfection — of the ideal itself — and of the sense of fulfillment that its contents may, nevertheless, describe as impossible to attain. Art in this way achieves transcendence "outside" the mutable world. Even in the most sensual Pre-Raphaelite poems, such as Swinburne's Anactoria, where the poet Sappho speaks, the poetic enterprise assuages the longings of personae who often are themselves artists. Ironically, therefore, this school of poets whom James Buchanan labeled "fleshly" usually depicts desires and pleasures of the flesh only in order ultimately to expose their futility except as passports to a superior and transcendent ideal realm and as inspirations for art, in which the torturous ardors of human passion come most attractively to fruition.
Pre-Raphaelite poetry often thus focuses on the impossibility or transience of promised fulfillment in this world, but also, and as an unexpected corollary, on a speaker's or central character's ultimate sense of inadequacy or unworthiness to achieve a desired fulfillment. It cultivates a tone of languorous melancholy, fully exploiting the elegiac potential of its materials, and is frequently described by contemporary reviewers as "morbid."
In those same reviews, however, we often discover descriptions of Pre-Raphaelite poetry as "aesthetic," because the static meditation of a speaker on desires that cannot be satisfied, on the quest for the unattainable, commonly perpetuates inaction and reinforces the cultivation of melancholy states of mind. Not only in the Monna Innominata, but also in many of Dante Rossetti's "elegiac" sonnets and other lyrics — as well as in Morris's Arthurian and Froissartian poems from the Defence of Guenevere volume, and pervasively in Swinburne's poetry — we find the poetry of "aesthetic [92/93] withdrawal." 5 This poetry is fully solipsistic, its speakers or other central figures distant from any possible action to resolve their impassioned mental states. Rather, their inwardness is only enhanced during the psychological events portrayed in the poems. Compelled to dwell on lost possibilities, on memories, on painful and poignant states of feeling, the major characters, like Christina Rossetti's speaker in the Monna Innominata, commonly possess "fine" emotional palates. In the tradition that culminates with Keats's "Ode on Melancholy," their souls taste the sadness of Melancholy's might and are "among her cloudy trophies hung." (The most extensive discussion of Keats's influence on the Pre-Raphaelites appears in Ford, Keats and the Victorians. But see also Fass, "Christina Rossetti and St. Agnes' Eve.") However, unlike Keats's projected Porphyrian hero, who robustly "bursts Joy's grape" before succumbing to Melancholy, the major figures in Pre-Raphaelite poetry renounce all prospects of joy and even any action that would hold Melancholy at bay. Like the plaint of their most sophisticated modem successor, Eliot's J.Alfred Prufrock, their poems linger in the all-consuming chambers of the mind, which, for their creators, becomes a Palace of Art.
While self-consciously resisting the concern with morally impelled, "muscular" action so often echoed and re-echoed by their literary contemporaries, the Pre-Raphaelites also eschewed the fear of solipsism expressed repeatedly by their Romantic progenitors, especially Keats. Keats, in The Fall of Hyperion, while condemning his own poetry fervently characterized ideal poets as "physician[s] to all men," not "dreamers weak," or "vision’ries" (lines 161-90). The Pre-Raphaelite "dreamers," in fact, denied the dualism between real and visionary worlds implicit in Keats's description of ideal poetry as well as in his plea for "a life of Sensations rather than Thoughts." (See Keats to Benjamin Bailey, 22 November 1817, in Rollins, Letters of John Keats, 1:185.) As Pater recognized in his 1868 review of William Morris's poems, the Pre-Raphaelites predictably etherealized sensation, displacing it from logical contexts and all normally expected physical relations with objects in the external world. With the Pre-Raphaelites the sensory and even the sensual become idealized, image becomes symbol, and physical experience is superseded by mental states as we are thrust deeply into the self-contained emotional worlds of their varied personae. Very seldom do we have even the implied auditor of Browning's dramatic monologues to give us our bearings, to situate a speaker's perceptions in the phenomenal world. In this respect Pre-Raphaelite poems resemble many from the first two volumes of their much-admired Tennyson (especially "Mariana," "The Lotos-Eaters," "The Palace of Art," and "Oenone"). However, unlike his Pre-Raphaelite emulators, Tennyson, after In Memoriam, for the most part rejected predominantly aesthetic poetry. The final effect of Tennyson's Maud (1855) is, after all, precisely to renounce the solipsism, the perversely aesthetic mentality, and the fidly melancholic malaise of its central character. [93/94]
In Pre-Raphaelite poetry the "real" world, its events and sensations, are dwelt upon but ultimately abstracted. In reading this verse we are ever aware of the mediating mind of a speaker and, sometimes, behind that mind — as in the Monna Innominata sonnets — a visionary artist not imitating the external world but distilling emotional and spiritual essences in artifact. The Pre-Raphaelite concern with the quest for beauty has been copiously discussed as it is articulated in the poetry and the prose works of Dante Rossetti, Morris, and Swinburne (the seminal treatment of the subject is Hamilton, Aesthetic Movement in England). No commentator, however, has observed the full extent to which the ideal and "aesthetic" effects of Christina Rossetti's poetry resemble those of other Pre-Raphaelite poems. Nor have critics discussed the degree to which such effects depend upon the varied efforts of renunciation displayed by the poetic personae the Pre-Raphaelites portray. In the love poetry, and even in the more visceral "passion" poems of all four major Pre-Raphaelites, gestures of renunciation appear to be inevitable, sometimes compulsive. We see them in the major Defence poems by Morris, especially "King Arthur's Tomb," "Sir Peter Harpdon's End," and even "The Haystack in the Floods." They pervade Swinburne's work, from "The Triumph of Time" and his Proserpine poems through his epic, Tristram of Lyonesse, and such great lyrics as "A Vision of Spring in Winter." The gestures of renunciation that dominate Dante Rossetti's works from "Jenny" and his darker ballads of betrayed love through the Sonnets from the House of Life also deeply impinged upon his life. Paradigmatic here is the burial of his manuscript poems with his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, a psychologically complex gesture in which the apparent renunciation of artistic efforts on the subject of love was intended to reflect the death of ideal love. Siddal could emerge as the ideal beloved, as Beata Beatrix, only after Rossetti had been forced to renounce her as a real lover. Only in death did she become adequate to the art she helped to nurture, but which superseded the reality of her existence.
The exigencies of renunciation that shape Dante Rossetti's verbal and pictorial art, as well as the poetry of Morris and Swinburne, inhere even more pervasively in Christina Rossetti's poetry As Arthur Symons observed shortly after her death, "Alike in the love poems and in the religious poems, there is a certain asceticism, passion itself speaking a chastened language, the language, generally, of sorrowful but absolute renunciation. This motive, passion remembered and repressed, condemned to eternal memory and eternal sorrow, is the motive of much of her finest work" (Studies in Two Literatures, 138).
Acts of renunciation in Christina Rossetti's poems, as in major poems [94/95] by the other Pre-Raphaelites, are aesthetically complex events resulting from a variety of impulses and compulsions. They are sometimes external to the speaker in a poem and can include not only the death of the beloved, whereby renunciation is enforced, but also rejection by the beloved (as in both Rossettis' many poems of betrayal, or in "King Arthur's Tomb" by Morris, or in Swinburne's Anactoria). Renunciation can also be forced upon a speaker by sexual inadequacy (as in Swinburne's "Hermaphroditus"), or by the simple unavailability of the beloved (as in Morris's "Peter Harpdon" and "Geffray Teste Noir," as well as Swinburne's Tristram). Internal compulsions, too, can require renunciation. Moral compunctions impel it in Dante Rossetti's "Jenny" and Swinburne's "Laus Veneris." Sometimes an extreme sensitivity to the simple fact of mutability — of the sort we see in both sections of The House of Life, in poems by Swinburne from "The Triumph of Time" to "A Vision of Spring in Winter," in the final sonnets of Christina Rossetti's Monna Innominata and pervasively in her poetry — determines the need to renounce not only the beloved, but also the very desire to live. Such diverse gestures of renunciation account in large part for the retreat from life, the elegiac tone, and the mood of "aesthetic withdrawal" characteristic of Pre-Raphaelite poetry. The resulting melancholy and ethereal final effects that the dialectic of desire and renunciation conveys in this poetry leaves us with the powerful impression of uniform artistic goals, values, and procedures among the Pre-Raphaelite poets.
Just as tracing Christina Rossetti's uses of Dante and Petrarch will illuminate the ways in which the Pre-Raphaelites exploit literary tradition, closely reading her poems of renunciation in the context of her literary and philosophical models can reveal much about a central psychological impulse in Pre-Raphaelite poetry and the aestheticist effects of that impulse. Such exegesis also enables us more fully to understand the emotional and intellectual responses Pre-Raphaelite poetry generates within the reader. These crystallize into a distanced perception of the poem as a thing of beauty which makes use of the sensations and experiences of quotidian reality primarily to withdraw from that reality and create an estranged and static world of art. Perhaps the most useful gloss on the principle animating all the best Pre-Raphaelite verse is, once again, from Keats. In his famous speculative letter to Benjamin Bailey (22 November 1817), he professes: "I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of love[;]they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty" (Keats to Bailey, in Rollins, Letters of John Keats, 1: 185). [95/96]
Last modified 24 June 2007