[This essay first appeared in the Spring
1989 issue of
iagnosing what he sees as another case of Victorian failure, William Buckler suggests that readers who had enjoyed Pater's "Aesthetic Poetry," the revised version of his seminal review of "Poems by William Morris," would be disappointed by its sequel, "Dante Gabriel Rossetti," an essay Pater billed as a study of "another 'aesthetic' poet." Buckler feels that Pater fails "to fulfill his promise, given at the end of "Aesthetic Poetry," of addressing the theme of 'the desire of beauty quickened by the sense of death as further exemplification of the pagan spirit in aesthetic poetry'" .
While Buckler is right to regard "Dante Gabriel Rossetti" as tame in comparison with "Aesthetic Poetry," his subsequent claim that the former "lacks artistic shape" fails to take into account the strong shaping force exerted on Pater's conception of Rossetti's poetry by Ruskin's changing view of his painting. For "Dante Gabriel Rossetti" is shaped in opposition to Ruskin's 1883 lectures on Pre-Raphaelitism, although drawing extensively on their moral-aesthetic art critical terminology while subverting their judgments, a fact which largely accounts for the relative sobriety of the essay as a study of aestheticism.
In its long first paragraph "Dante Gabriel Rossetti" insists on the poet's sincerity, a rather unlikely quality for an aesthete, but one which Ruskin had recently denied that as a painter Rossetti possessed. Noting that Rosseffl's early poems were "the work of a painter" who was "the leader" of the new Pre-Raphaelite "school," an opinion that Ruskin still held even in 1883, Pater says that "Common to the school and to him, and in both alike of primary significance, was the quality of sincerity . . . a perfect sincerity" (DGR 199). Subsequently Pater goes on to argue that the artiSce of Rossetti's poetry is "redeemed by a serious purpose, by that sincerity of his, which allies itself readily to a serious beauty" (DGR 202). Pater's emphasis on the rather paradoxical quality of "serious beauty" is quite unlike the hedonism of "Aesthetic Poetry" but it is highly Ruskinian. And while Pater does not openly challenge Ruskin's view that Hunt is a more sincere painter than Rossetti his analysis of Rossetti's poetry does begin by reminding the reader than he began his career as leader of a group of painters, and by insisting on the common sincerity of "that school" he conflates Pre-Raphaelite poets and painters in a way which undermines Ruskin's position.
Pater regards "the quality of sincerity" as being "one of the charms of that earliest poem," "The Blessed Damozel," and by maintaining his focus on this poem Pater highlights another of its "charms," its grotesqueness. At the beginning of the second paragraph he writes: "One of the peculiarities of "The Blessed Damozel" was a definiteness of sensible imagery, which seemed almost grotesque to some, and was strange, above all, in a theme so profoundly visionary" (DGR 200). This and Pater's subsequent reference to Rossetti's "forced and almost grotesque materialising of abstractions" recalls both Ruskin's discussion of the grotesque realism of Rossetti's painting in Modern Painters 3, and in particular his explanation of his use of "the word 'materialistic"' to denote the "method of conception common to Rossetti and Hunt," in his 1883 lecture on Watts and Burne-Jones. Here Ruskin says that he "used that expression [in 'Realistic Schools of Painting'] to denote their peculiar tendency to feel and illustrate the relation of spiritual creatures to the substance and conditions of the visible world" (CW 33:287).
Berg suggests that "although Pater probably took his cue from Ruskin, he uses the term 'grotesque' pejoratively and loosely, whereas Ruskin intended a specific delineation of Rossetti's mental characteristics" (112). In fact Pater uses the term grotesque neither loosely nor pejoratively. Rather he implies that "some" others use the word pejoratively, while he himself proceeds to consider the positive implications of "The Blessed Damozel" by examining its Dantean aspect:
The gold bar of heaven from which she leaned, her hair yellow like ripe corn, are but examples of a general treatment, as naively detailed as the pictures of those early painters contemporary with Dante, who has shown a similar care for minute and definite imagery in his verse.... Such definition of outline is indeed one among many points in which Rossetti resembles the great Italian poet, of whom . . . he was ever a lover -- "servant and singer," faithful as Dante, "of Florence and of Beatrices" — with some close inward conformities of genius also.
The paragraph of Modern Painters 3 which concludes with Ruskin's vision "of a new era of art" heralded by the grotesque realism of the painting of Rossetti and Watts had previously invoked the names of Spenser and Dante as the "masters" of the "spiritual world" which he hoped his modern painters would enter. Pater returns Ruskin's compliment to medieval poetry by comparing Rossetti's supposedly Dantean imagery to the detailed work of Dante's contemporary pre-Raphaelite painters, reworking a Ruskinian strategy of comparing the sister arts. Furthermore by quoting from Rossetti's "Dante at Verona" (Works 6-16) and identifying him with the Dante who was "faithful" to Florence and Beatrice Pater completely discredits Ruskin's latest claim that Rossetti did not believe in the world of the Vita Nuova Pater's close identification of Dante Rossetti with his Florentine namesake, an identification Rossetti himself encouraged, brings Pater to another of his "conformities to Dante" in the next paragraph of his essay; "the really imaginative vividness, namely, of his personifications" (DGR 201). Citing Rossetti's figures of "Death," "Sleep" and "Love" as examples of his Dantean gift for personification Pater goes on to argue that "the insanitywhich follows avivid poetic anthropomorphism" characterises his poetry and elevates it to the Platonic status of "divine' mania" Thus while Ruskin had argued that Rossetti and "the realistic school of painting . . . could not happily rest in personifications" until the advent of BurneJones, Pater argues that in his pictorial poetry Rossetti has achieved divine artisitc status through his power of personification.
Appropriating the terminology of personification which Ruskin had used to denigrate Rossetti, Pater's fifth paragraph proceeds to make the grand claim that by his use of such "artifices" as personification Rossetti was making a really new kind of poetic utterance, with effects which have nothing else like them; as there is nothing else, for instance like the narrative of Jacobbs dream in Genesis, or Blake's design of the Singing Morning Stars, or Addison's Nineteenth Psalm. (DGR 202)
Pater's comparison of Rossetti's poetry with the Biblical visions of Genesis, Blake and Addison, while perhaps seeming out of place in a discussion of aesthetic poetly, clearly recalls Ruskin's comparison between hypothetical versions of "the first chapter of Genesis" which Rossetti and Burne-Jones might have painted. Whereas Ruskin limited Rossetti to the depiction of Adam or Eve, making Burnen-Jones the visionary Pre-Raphaelite painter, Pater makes Rossetti the Victorian exponent of a great Biblical tradition of visionary poetry.
That Pater appears to be simultaneously subverting Ruskin's final evaluation of Rossetti while appropriating many of his key critical terms is further confirmed by the view expressed at the beginning of his next paragraph that Rossetti's poetry has the characteristics of "some revival of the old mythopoeic age" which invests "common things" with "personal expression." For it is Ruskin's contention that because Rossetti and Hunt failed to master the art of personification they never became painters of "Mythology" as Burnen-Jones did. Once again Pater does not directly challenge Ruskin's view of Rossetti's painting but he comes close to doing so by saying that his poetry is "mythopoeic" because it contains "glimpses of landscape, not indeed of broad open-air effects, but rather that of a painter concentrated upon the picturesque effects of one or two selected objects at a time."
- Pater's Aesthetic Poet: The Appropriation of Rossetti from Ruskin — Introduction
- Why Pater Wanted to Write about Rossetti in 1883
- Pater's "Dante Gabriel Rossetti" and His Intellectual Relation to Ruskin
- Ruskin's 1883 Lecture on the "Realistic Schools of Painting"
- Walter Pater's "Dante Gabriel Rossetti" versus His "Aesthetic Poetry"
- Pater's Characterization of Rossetti's Poetry
Last modified 2002