Keats and the Victorians

During the age of Queen Victoria John Keats's poetry enjoyed the approval of some major artists and critics, though it was unknown to the general public. Great Britain reappropriated a lost fragment of its romantic culture so suddenly as to convince some modern scholars that Keats was discovered and widely known in the middle of the nineteenth century. The poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti contributed to this second wave of romanticism. He perceived the peculiar gothic qualities of Keats's poetry and tried to elaborate upon them. Keats inspired both John Ruskin and Rossetti to create the imaginary world of Victorian medievalism. Keats's verses inspired much Pre-Raphaelite graphic and literary work: William Michael Rossetti deeply studied Keats, though he preferred Shelley, and the painters John Everett Millais (Isabella in 1849) and William Holman Hunt (The Eve of St. Agnes) gained from Keats the subjects for their paintings.

Lord Houghton's book

Before the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of Cambridge undergraduates known as the Apostles had attempted to make Keats's work and style known to a wider audience in the lyrics and essays they dedicated to him (Ford, 17). The Apostles briefly included Alfred Tennyson as well as the first (and for many years the only) biographer of Keats — Richard Monckton Milnes, later known as Lord Houghton; the biography appeared the same year the Brotherhood began.

It was Dante Gabriel Rossetti who chose Keats as spiritual leader of the Brotherhood: he bragged that he had discovered and then popularized Keats's verses between 1844 and 1846 (Ford, 93). Critics have recently shown how Keats's aesthetic acted as a prelude to Rossetti's own poetics (Belolonzi, 27), and to the Aesthetic Movement. Reading Lord Houghton's biography, Rossetti found several points of contact with the poet. He shared his enthusiasm with his brother William Michael in a letter dated 1848 (n. 50):

I have not yet had time to get quite through the first volume of Keats, which is exceedingly interesting. He seems to have been a glorious fellow, and says in one place (to my great delight) that, having just looked over a folio of the first and second schools of Italian painting, he has come to the conclusion that the early men surpassed even Raphael himself!

Keats comment was prompted by his looking at engravings in the house of his friend Haydon that reproduced frescos of a church of Milan (Keats did not remember the name). He was astonished by the richness and the creativity of decorations ("there was left so much room for the imagination!" [Vuillard, 60]). Keats's comment requires special attention since it is considered by some scholars the reason for the name Pre-Raphaelite (see Vuillard, 61; Churchill, 160; Hilton, p. 33).

Among the poems Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton) included in Keats's biography are "The Eve of Saint Mark" (1819; text), an unfinished fragment later described as "Pre-Raphaelite ante litteram" (Churchill, 160), and "La Belle Dame sans Merci" (1819; text), a Provenccedil;al ballad translated by Chaucer that Rossetti illustrated for the Cyclographic Society in 1848 (Parris, 58). Together with "The Eve of Saint Agnes" (1819) and "Isabella" (completed in 1818) these poems were the Rossettis' favourites, and their themes and pictorial details appear in the works of Rossetti, Holman Hunt, and Millais.

The relevant aspect of these four works, and what makes them differ from the most famous Keats's poems as "Endymion" or "Ode on a Grecian Urn," (text) is their exquisite rendering of gothic details and architectural elements. In "The Gothic looks solemn" (1817) Keats revealed his love for intense medieval colours, a quality that fascinated Rossetti, who thought Keats was a "glorious fellow." Stained-glass windows, hidden vaults over lonely alleys, magnificent spurs, and sinister woods provide the background for sad knights and frightened ladies.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti indicated the popular legend at the origin of "The Eve of Saint Mark," according to which on the night between 24th and 25th April it would be possible to see entering the cathedral all people that will fall ill during that year (Luke, 162) traces in an essay on popular legends by Henry Ellis, dated 1813, a possible source for Rossetti's hypothesis). In this poem and in "The Eve of Saint Agnes," abound in medieval details and natural descriptions, he inserted haunting presences and odd suggestive figures; reading them, one can feel the presence of death. Rossetti declared himself surprised by the fact that Keats was so initiated in the details of the Middle Ages (Milner, 8). Keats wrote the fragment of St. Mark during a stay in the medieval town of Chichester, dominated by an imposing cathedral very similar to the church described in the poem. Rossetti hypothesized, after reading one of Keats's letters, the end of the story of Bertha: "I assume that the heroine, contrite because she did not take seriously her ill lover, should have reached the courtyard of the church to see his destiny, according to the legend, and saw him enter the church and not go out" (Sabbadini, p. 397n119). "La Belle Dame sans Merci," the last of the four poems by Keats that most influenced Rossetti, had great influence on Pre-Raphaelitism, "for its bewitching and sorrowful mistery embraces all the Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist world, from the Swinburne's 'Laus Veneris' to some Moreau's paintings" (Praz, 150). The influence of the poem appears in Burne-Jones's pale figures of Merlin and Nimue in the Beguiling of Merlin and the early delicate poems of Tennyson.

'Next Keats can only be a painter'

Dante Gabriel, who had enormous admiration for these poems, declared: "The Eve of St. Agnes" "and the fragment 'The Eve of Saint Mark' are in manner the choicest and the chastest of Keats' works" (Milner, 7). In these verses he found the poet's most valuable quality, that of translating into words the highly imaginative sensual world; in Rossetti's mind Keats exhausted all possibility of this kind of poetry for the posterity. As he wrote to his friend and disciple William Morris: the "next Keats can only be a painter" (quoted Ford, 122).

It's quite significant that Keats inserted medieval books in "The Eve of Saint Mark" and in "The Eve of Saint Agnes" as a refined and pictorial symbol of the Gothic period. During the researches for my thesis, I determined the reason of an odd detail in Burne-Jones' tapestry The Summon: the knights are seated around a rectangular table instead a round one, as described in Malory, because the composition adopted is the same of the Last Supper. Burne-Jones adapted the biblical scene to an arthurian one. The precious old manuscripts were the favourite books of images for Burne-Jones, Rossetti and Morris. Conserved in great number and value in the Bodleian Library of Oxford and in the British Museum, the codex illustrations fascinated Pre-Raphaelites with their enamelled varied colours and their archaic simplicity.

Rossetti too used to obtain iconographic details from a wide variety of medieval manuscripts . I would suggest a comparison between the watercolour King Arthur's Tomb (1860) and an illustration of the Lancelot Proper (Pierpont Morgan Library of New York), a codex dated 1315 ca., belonged to C. F. Murray, Ruskin's pupil, collector of illuminated manuscripts and travelling companion of Burne-Jones in Italy [My thanks to Miss Merian of the Pierpont Morgan Library, who gave me information about the codex owners in the last two centuries; the Library conserves one of the two still exhisting copies of the Caxton edition of Malory�s novel, the other one is in the Rylands Library of Manchester. ]. Both images have dramatic horizontal shape and show the similar unnatural attitudes of the lovers, stressed in a claustrophobic space dominated by a longitudinal element. More: in Malory's novel Lancelot and Guenevere meet only after the death of Arthur, in the cloister the Queen entered, while in the watercolour Rossetti synthesized in a unique scene the death of the King and the meet of the lovers. The Rossetti's work, dating the beginning of his medieval phase, has its literary source in the Robert Southey's translation of 'The Byrth, Lyf and Actes of King Arthur' by Thomas Malory, published in London in 1817 , but that meaningful detail of the chronological difference, between the novel and Rossetti work, induces to search for an iconographic source different from Malory.

Other iconographic elements of Rossetti's works refer to illuminated manuscripts, as the flamelets in the watercolour Paolo and Francesca refers to some Botticelli's drawings for the Divina Commedia, collected in the Hamilton codex 201, today at the Kupferstichkabinett of Berlin. Particularly, the comparison of the Botticelli's drawing for the sixth and the eight canto of the Paradiso with the Rossetti's watercolour reveals the same burning background and oblique attitude of the couple. Before 1819 Alexander Douglas, 10th Duke of Hamilton, bought the illustrated book, and in 1882 Alexander Louis Stephen Douglas, twelfth Duke of Hamilton and ninth Duke of Brandon, sold it to Friedrich Lippmann, curator of the German royal museums . Treasures of Art in Great Britain by Gustav Waagen, director of the royal picture gallery of Berlin and friend of Sir Charles Eastlake, made the Hamilton codex, which was published in London in 1854, very famous in Britain. Rossetti and his contemporaries could have consulted a copy of it at the British Library.


This study highlights the gothic verses of Keats, which amazed Dante Gabriel Rossetti and determined the cultural orientation of the Brotherhood towards the Primitives, an orientation also shared by Ruskin and the Arundel Society. Andrew Wilton describes him as a forerunner of Aestheticism for "his sensual lyricism and virtuoso evocation of physical pleasures" (20). Keats was the cornerstone of Pre-Raphaelitism in poetry, especially at its beginning: he loved, as did Rossetti, Dante's and Spencer's mysticism and Chaucer's tales.

Moreover, Keats stimulated a vision of Gothic crowded with symbols and sentiments that influenced the imagery of Hunt, Millais, and Rossetti; elves, dwarfs and chatelaines populate Keats' verses, the characters of a fantastic Middle Age that reaches in 1848 its english springtime. It was a new kind of art, in which the poet emulates the mosaicist, the enamellist, and the glassworker. As J. Texte has pointed out, this merging the plastic arts and the poetry, characterizing many poets including the Pre-Raphaelites, goes back to Keats (427) Last but not least, Keats, like Rossetti, created his own romanticized idea of Dante's Italy.

References (in chronological order): Keats

Milnes, Richard Monckton, Lord Houghton. Life, letters and literary remains of John Keats. London, 1848; reprinted in 1969.

Texte, J."John Keats" La revue des deux mondes. volume 94. Paris, 1889.

Vuillard, L. The influence of Keats on Tennyson and Rossetti. Paris, 1914.

Rossetti, D.G. John Keats: Criticism and Comment. London, 1919.

Ford, G. H. Keats and the Victorians. London, 1944.

Luke, D. "The Eve of Saint Mark." Studies in Romanticism. Boston, 1970.

Keats, J. Poesie. Edited by S. Sabbadini, Milan, 1986.

References (in chronological order): D. G. Rossetti and Pre-Raphaelitism

Milner, G. "On some marginalia made by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in a copy of Keats� poems�, in The Manchester Quarterly, n. V, London, 1883.

Surtees, V. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1828-1882. Paintings and drawings. A catalogue raisonnée. Oxford, 1971.

Bellonzi, F., Dante Gabriel Rossetti. exhibition catalogue, Milano, 1984.

Hilton, T. The Pre-Raphaelites. London, 1995 (first ed. 1970).

Parris, L. The Preraphaelites. London, rist. 1996.

Wilton, A., The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910. London, 1997-98.

References (in chronological order): Romantic literature and culture

Churchill, R.C. English Literature of the XIX century. London, 1951

Praz, M. La carne, la morte, il diavolo nella letteratura romantica. Florence, 1976.

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