decorated initial 'T'n her recent biography of Christina Rossetti, Georgina Battiscombe quite properly describes the poet as "soaked ... in the Dante legend" (129). More expansively, Lona Packer has explained that "as Christina grew older, she recovered from the notion that Dante, as [her father's] special possession, was a noxious feature of adult life.... Although she herself was to write several prose studies of Dante, more important is the pervasive Dantean influence on her poetry, an influence recognizable both in her conceptions and the poetic techniques she used to express them. The Dantean imagery and symbolism for the Dantean religious ideas may be found throughout her work" (14). Rossetti herself acknowledged in 1892 that "perhaps it is enough to be half an Italian, but certainly it is enough to be a Rossetti to render Dante a fascinating centre of thought" (FL, 49). Almost a decade earlier, when preparing "Dante. The Poet Illustrated out of the Poem" for Century Magazine, she wrote to Edmund Gosse in order to defend her use of Cayley's translation of the Divine Comedy rather than Longfellow's more popular one. In her letter of 30 January 1883, she explained that Cayley's translation adheres "to the ... ternary rhyme of the original poem, [and] has gone far towards satisfying an ear rendered fastidious by Dante's own harmony of words" (30 Jan. 1883, Ashley Manuscripts, British Library. Quoted Packer, 360).

Indeed, apart from the inescapable Dantean preoccupations of her entire household, we know that Rossetti began serious study of Dante in 1848 (Bell, 16); that as early as 1850 she had the opportunity to read at least portions of Cayley's translations of the Divine Comedy when posting them to William Michael (FL, 15); that she initiated (but never completed) a project to assist with the Rev. Alexander B. Grosart's edition of [142/143] Spenser's complete works by tracing allusions to Dante and Boccaccio in Spenser; and that she read Cayley's translations of Petrarch in proof during September 1878 (FL, 76-77). Bell suggests that Rossetti began her work assisting Grosart in 1855, but the effort probably came later. Grosart's ten-volume Spenser did not appear until 1882-84 (Christina Rossetti, 36). Her erudition in the troubadour traditions out of which Dante's and Petrarch's works arose was indicated in small ways: for instance, in a letter to William Michael she revealed knowledge of the obscure fact that "a golden violet ... was a provenÇal prize for poetry" (FL, 145).

The profound influence of Dante upon Christina Rossetti is, of course, neither a surprising nor a singular phenomenon. For all the Pre-Raphaelite poets, but especially for the Rossettis, Dante was a literary precursor whose importance to their art can be compared only with that of Milton to the art of the Romantics. But Dante influenced writers of all stripes during the century — sometimes enormously, as in the cases of Blake, Carlyle, and the Rossettis, and sometimes to a lesser extent, as with Keats, Tennyson, Swinburne, and Arnold. Like all writers of major influence, Dante was adapted to the particular purposes of those who alluded to him. Among Victorian writers this process of adaptation is especially clear, and differences between those aspects of Dante's poetry admired by mainstream Victorians — such as R. W. Church, Thomas Carlyle, and William Gladstone — and those emphasized by the Pre-Raphaelites, but especially by Christina Rossetti, reveal the full extent to which the Rossettis, Swinburne, and Morris can be looked upon not only as "the last Romantics," but also as harbingers of aestheticism in ways that their contemporaries were not.

Two aspects of the Divine Comedy especially appealed to typical Victorian readers: what they perceived as its gothic structure, and the manifest feelings of alienation shown by its author. These characteristics of the poem were admired by R. W Church, the popular dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, who had studied under John Keble at Oxford. In an essay on Dante written in 1850 this important religious leader reveled in the gothic eclecticism of the Divine Comedy, exhibiting a familiar aspect of Victorian taste. He extolled Dante's masterpiece,

abnormal, so lawless, so reckless of all ordinary proprieties and canons of feeling, taste and composition. It is rough and abrupt; obscure in phrase and allusion, doubly obscure in purpose. It is a medley of all subjects usually kept distinct: scandal of the day and transcendental science, politics and confessions, coarse satire and angelic joy, private wrongs, with the mysteries of faith, local names and habitations of earth, with visions of hell and heaven. [Quoted in Friedrich, Dante's Fame Abroad, 339. To simplify references to Victorian commentators on Dante, all future citations for such commentary will be cited in the text as Friedrich.] [143/144]

The immense diversity of characteristics that Church emphasized inevitably remind us not only of the expected eclecticism of the Victorian drawing room, but also of most of the basic elements of "gothic" which Ruskin later elaborated in his chapter "The Nature of Gothic" from The Stones of Venice (1853). Church showed sensitivity to Dante's "savageness" "changefulness' " "naturalism" "grotesqueness'" and "redundance." Church also found oddly attractive the extreme degree of alienation suffered by Dante, with which many Victorians could identify. (For two standard discussions of the sense of alienation that pervades Victorian literature and culture, see Houghton, Victorian Frame of Mind, esp. 77-89; and Johnson, Alien Vision of Victorian Poetry [full text in VW].)

Such alienation is the focal concern of Dante Rossetti's poem, "Dante at Verona." Church described such alienation, in Dante's case, as the "price and counterpoise" of greatness. Dante was "solitary and companionless" in his "visionary world." He thought and wrote "as a friendless man-to whom all that he had held dear was either lost or embittered" (Friedrich, 339). Thomas Carlyle saw such alienation from lesser men as inevitable for the prophet-poet: "Dante burns as a pure star, fixed there in the firmament, at which the great and high of all ages kindle themselves" (Friedrich, 303).

Several crucial elements of Dante's greatest work, as extensions of the alienated great man, especially appealed to Carlyle, and these, too, reflect paramount concerns in Victorian literature and Victorian society at large. Carlyle profoundly admired the moral earnestness of the Divine Comedy and especially of the Purgatorio: "There is no book so moral as this, the very essence of Christian morality! ... [We see in Dante] one great mind, making of himself, as it were, the spokesman of his age, and speaking with such an earnestness and depth that he has become one of the voices of mankind itself, making his voice to be heard in all ages" (Friedrich, 301). Moreover, that voice in the Comedy is inexorably sincere, Dante's magnum opus being "the sincerest of all Poems." Carlyle found sincerity to be the primary "measure of worth" in the work: "It came deep out of the author's heart of hearts; and it goes deep, and through long generations into ours" (Friedrich, 302). For Carlyle, a characteristic of Dante's work even more poignant than his earnest morality and sincerity, however, is the elegiac tone of his poem. Beneath the surface of Carlyle's commentary is the dolorous yearning for lost ideals, the remorse for failed potential that literary Victorians inherited from the Romantic poets and that pervaded the literature of Victoria's reign, existing in tension with its utilitarian faith in progress. Carlyle pronounced Dante "great above an in his sorrow!" (Friedrich, 301).

Other aspects of Dantean thought were attractive to William Gladstone, who felt a kinship with Dante in political principles, but he valued Dante's religious precepts still more highly. In a letter written near the end [144/145] of his life, Gladstone expressed the enormous debt he felt to Dante's work as a kind of magister vitae. He described the "supreme poet" as "a 'solemn master' for me" and explained that "the reading of Dante is not merely a pleasure, a tour de force, or a lesson; it is a vigorous discipline of the heart, the intellect, the whole man. In the school of Dante I have learnt a great part of that mental provision ... which has served me to make the journey of life up to the term of nearly seventy-three years" (Friedrich, 322). Gladstone actually translated touchstone passages from the Divine Comedy,.and one of his favorites — presumably a source of moral as well as ontological instruction — was the speech of Picarda, daughter of Simone Donati, in Paradisio 3. Speaking to Dante, she explains how in heaven,

Within the will Divine to set our own
    Is of the essence of this Being blest,
    For that our wills to one with his be grown.
So, as we stand throughout the realms of rest,
    From stage to stage, our pleasure is the King's
    Whose will our will informs, by him imprest.
In His Will is our peace. To this all things
    By Him created, or by nature made,
   As to a central Sea, self-motion brings. [Friedrich, 321]

Dante's paradisal ideal of loving union between man's will and God's provided a goal to be pursued by Gladstone, one that probably often reinforced the prime minister's faith in the moral rectitude of his political actions as well as his social endeavors.

From Church, Carlyle, and Gladstone — a fairly representative sampling of influential Victorian readers of Dante — we can generalize about the uses to which the less avant-garde contemporaries of the Pre-Raphaelites put Dante. The crucial values they perceived in or projected upon the Divine Comedy derive from the poem's eclectically varied form and content, a feature reminiscent of gothic architecture. But those values also clearly hinged upon their sensitivity to the profound and inescapable feelings of alienation incurred by men who attempt great work in the world. Dante's typical Victorian readers admired his intense sincerity of tone (for them a facet of all profoundly earnest moral endeavors), his great poems undercurrent of sorrow that laments and foreshadows fallen experience, and his serious celebration of the providential ways in which God designed the world and operates within it to align man's will with His own.

The emphases we find in Church, Carlyle, and Gladstone upon these [145/146] elements of Dante's vision of the world differ substantially from the values extrapolated by the Pre-Raphaelites from Dante. One such value was Dante's self-conscious concern with literary traditions and genealogies, and their importance to him in pursuing and perfecting his art. As a corollary to this, and equally important, was the Pre-Raphaelites' obsessive concern with the great Italian poet's transposition of erotic passion to a spiritual object and condition. In "Dante, an English Classic," Christina Rossetti describes the central movement in Dante's work as one in which "the lost love of earth is found again as one higher, lovelier and better loved in paradise" (201). This movement begins for Dante in the Vita Nuova and culminates in the Paradisio. It is therefore appropriate that Dante Rossetti's first extensive published work included a meticulous translation of Dante's first major literary enterprise.

In his preface to the first edition of The Early Italian Poets (1861) Dante Rossetti broaches (but does not subsequently pursue) a discussion of those areas of his life in which literary culture subsumes biography. He begins the penultimate paragraph of his preface with the statement that "In relinquishing this work, . . . I feel, as it were, divided from my youth." He explains: "The first associations I have are connected with my father's devoted studies [of Dante], which, from his own point of view., have done so much towards the general investigation of Dante's writings. Thus, in those early days, all around me partook of the influence of the great Florentine; till, from viewing it as a natural element, I also, growing older, was drawn within the circle" (3). Significantly, when this "only contribution" of Rossetti's "to our English knowledge of old Italy" was revised and reissued in 1874, it was also retitled as Dante and His Circle, suggesting that Rossetti had by then achieved a more powerful awareness of his position within the historically expanded circumference of Dante's circle of influence. After having published his own first volume of poems in 1870, Rossetti could implicitly acknowledge that throughout much of his creative life he saw himself and his own work as an extension of a literary tradition that his namesake had redefined and perpetuated.

Similarly Christina Rossetti, near the end of her fife, wrote to her brother William of "all too late ... being sucked into the Dantean vortex" (FL, 188). This remark appears at the conclusion of some brief statements about Canon Moore's volume, Dante and His Early Biographers, and is perplexing because Christina Rossetti had throughout her life been surrounded and influenced by Dante scholars. The comment nonetheless reflects her sense of inadequacy as a commentator on the great poet whose life and works had absorbed such an enormous amount of her family's [146/147] intellectual energy. Up to 1892 her attention to Dante had been primarily imaginative rather than scholarly, and her anxieties on that score are enunciated very early in her second major essay on Dante, "Dante. The Poet Illustrated out of the Poem," (1884). She explains that,

If formidable for others, it is not least formidable for one of my name, for me, to enter the Dantesque field and say my little say on the Man and on the Poem; for others of my name have been before me in the same field and have wrought permanent and worthy work in attestation of their diligence. My father, Gabriele Rossetti, in his "Comento Analitico sul' Inferno di Dante" ("Analytical Commentary upon Dante's Hell"), has left to tyros a clew [sic] and to fellow-experts a theory. My sister, Maria Francesca Rossetti, has in her "Shadow of Dante" eloquently expounded the Divina Commedia as a discourse of most elevated faith and morals. My brother Dante has translated with a rare felicity the "Vita Nuova" . . . and other minor (political) works of his great namesake. My brother William has, with a strenuous endeavor to achieve dose verbal accuracy, rendered the Inferno into English blank verse. I, who cannot lay claim to their learning, must approach my subject under cover of "Mi valga ... il grande amore" ("May my great love avail me"), leaving to them the more confident plea, "Mi valga il lungo studio" ("May my long study avail me"). [566-67; see also comments on Christina as student of Dante]

This passage elucidates Christina Rossetti's perspective on that engrossing tradition of love poetry that began with the troubadours and culminated in the works of Dante and Petrarch. It was a tradition that deeply influenced Dante and Christina Rossetti, and with which all of the Rossetti children felt compelled to deal in their literary efforts, each of them reading and assimilating Dante as both a literary father — that is, an authenticating authority — and as a liberator of the imagination. As the two preceding quotations make clear, for all four Rossettis the culture of Dante was inescapable. It affected their values, their patterns of thought, their emotions, and their spiritual lives. The ambiguous title of Maria Rossetti's A Shadow of Dante appropriately reveals the range of influence Dantean literature had, especially on Dante and Christina Rossetti; as a great poet, but also as a representative of a tradition, he provided the enabling conditions for their art.10 As early as 1867, she wrote in her first essay on Dante, "Dante, an English Classic,": "Viewing the matter of nationality exclusively as one of literary interest, now in this nineteenth century when it is impossible to be born an ancient Greek, a wise man might choose not unwisely to be born an [147/148] Italian, thus securing Dante as his elder brother, and the 'Divina Commedia' as his birthright" (200). It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Rossetti introduces what may be her most fascinating love poem, the Monna Innominata, with a preface that identifies a point of origin and the literary backgrounds for the Monna Innominata sonnets, but that also does a good deal more. (See Appendix for the complete text of the preface and poem sequence.) It raises a whole constellation of questions concerning matters of literary historicity, as well as the intertextual qualities, and therefore the full range of meanings, displayed by Christina Rossetti's love poetry.

As we know, she began to write poetry dealing with the problems of attaining fulfillment in love at an age far too young for it to have originated from her own emotional experience with a man; rather it must have come from the "Poet mind," that is, from aesthetic and emotional responses to fundamentally literary experience. Rossetti's apparent familiarity with the troubadours — "a school of less conspicuous poets" — once again belies assumptions that she was virtually ignorant of most nonreligious literature produced before the nineteenth century. We might well infer some familiarity on her part with medieval romances and lyrics, which were probably of interest to her close friend, Charles Cayley (the translator of Dante), and which were being fervently researched at the British Museum during the various periods of Christina's own work there in the 1870s and 1880s. Moreover, the last paragraph of her preface reconfirms her faith in "the Poet mind" the ability of the creative imagination to appropriate all materials — especially, in this case, literary mythologies — in order to generate works of art that extend and develop those mythologies.

Victorian Website Overview Christina Rossetti Next

Last modified 4 April 2002 [MB]