In his essay on Dante Rossetti in Appreciations, Walter Pater emphasizes the peculiar unity of matter and spirit he finds in Rossetti's poetry. In general, Pater discusses Rossetti's poetry in terms of its attribution of personal meaning to inanimate objects, his "personifications," claiming that "as in some revival of the mythopŌic age, common things—dawn, noon, night—are full of human or personal expression, full of sentiment" (234). He then makes the bolder claim that Rosseti rejects the assumption that matter and spirit can be treated in isolation:
And yet, again as with Dante, to speak of his ideal type of beauty as material, is partly misleading. Spirit and matter, indeed, have been for the most part opposed, with a false contrast or antagonism, by schoolmen, whose artificial creation those abstractions really are. In our actual concrete experience, the two trains of phenomena which the words matter and spirit do but roughly distinguish, play inextricably into each other. . . . To him, in the vehement and impassioned heat of his conceptions, the material and the spiritual are fused and blent; if the spiritual attains the definite visibility of a crystal, what is material loses its earthiness and impurity."[(235-36]
While keeping the model of matter and spirit as at least "two trains of phenomena" Pater argues that in Rossetti the distinction between them is artificial. That is, no Rossettian image is physically beautiful without possessing some spiritual force, nor spiritually powerful in abstraction from concrete, living experience. We can still talk about the material content of the image, but only if we bear in mind the necessity of its being related to spiritual content, and vice versa.
This celebration of the unity of matter and spirit stands in stark contrast to the lament of Christina Rossetti that spirit, which is more valuable and more real, cannot be represented except indirectly through matter. However, whereas Christina equates spirit with religion, Dante has a broader, more humanistic view of spirit, which must be more accessible to humans in order to be relevant. Dante's universe does not seem to involve anything beyond human experience (such as God or Heaven) where spirit could be located, so he must conceive of spirit as something that has a place in human experience. He must therefore give a different account of the nature of spirit from that of his sister, which he attempts through numerous devices with varying degrees of success. Since Dante's approach to the issue is less consistent than Christina's, I will look at several poems as individual attempts to account for spirit, rather than as a coherent scheme.
Pater, Walter. Appreciations. "Dante Gabriel Rossetti." London: Macmillan and Co., 1889 [from Rossetti Archive]
The Rossettis and the Metaphysics of Spiritual Experience
- Christina Rossetti and the Metaphysics of Spiritual Experience
- D. G. Rossetti's Typological Approach
- D. G. Rossetti's Poetry of Nonstatement
Last modified 12 March 2007