This essay is XIV in the author's Principle in Art. In the following web version page breaks are indicated in the following manner [98/99] to permit readers to cite the print edition. — George P. Landow
THE claims of Rossetti as a painter and a poet have obtained a full and generous recognition; and he has acquired a standing in either art which, will ip all probability abide, though it is far too soon to attempt any estimate of his position in the permanent ranks of artists and writers. His thoughtfalness, and the clearness and intensity of his perceptions, do not require to be insisted upon, nor the almost unexampled wty in which he has merged — and often, it must be admitted, confounded — the functions of painter and poet. This he has done to the detriment of his perfection in either art, in neither of which can he be truly said to have attained the character of mastery which may be found, more or less, in almost all other workers of equal genius with himself, and sometimes in those whose natural qualifications have been inferior to his. Little [98/99] of his drawing and none of his painting can be enjoyed without the drawback of some sense of manifest technical failure; and nearly all his poetry — which is more or less difficult by reason of the quick succession of out-of-the-way thoughts and images, needing the closest attention for their appreciation — is rendered unnecessarily so by language which rarely has the fluency of perfec- tion. In the two or three instances in which his verse becomes fluent and more or less masterly — notably in the "Burden of Nineveh" and "Jenny" — it ceases to be characteristic or subtle. The "Burden of Nineveh" might have been written by Southey, or any other writer of forcible words and thoughts in somewhat commonplace rhythm. This fact, that fluency fails him as soon as he gets upon his own proper ground, renders it extremely difficult to discern and to describe exactly what that ground is. Style, which is the true expression of the poet's individuality — the mark by which we discover, not what, but how, he thinks and feels — is almost suffocated, in Rossetti's most characteristic work, by voluntary oddities of manner and by a manifest difficulty in so moving in the bonds of verse as to convert them into graces. If subtle thoughts and vivid imagery were all that went to make a poet, Rossetti would stand very high. But these qualities must have [99/100] the running commentary and musical accompaniment of free feeling, which only a correspondingly subtle and vivid versification can express, before they can be allowed to constitute a claim to the highest poetical rank. Rossetti as a versifier was not less technically defective than Rossetti as a painter; his best poems and his best paintings are the outcome, not only of very high aims — which are as common as blackberries — but of very high aims deeply and characteristically felt; and his superiority to many far more technically perfect artists results from the fact that his characteristic feeling is strong enough to make itself powerfully, however indistinctly, perceived through the mist and obstructions of his mannerism and defective verse.
Lite all men of strong artistic individuality combined with serious artistic faults, Rossetti has had a great influence upon the literature of his day — such an influence as comparatively faultless writers never exert, at least in their time. Many young versifiers and painters fancy they are reproducing Rossetti's intensity when they are only imitating the most prevailing fault of his art, its tensity. His brother, William Rossetti, in his modest and judicious introduction to these volumes, tells how he and Gabriel used to amuse themselves in making bouts-rimés. William says [100/101] of his brother's literary toys of this sort: "Some have a faux air of intensity of meaning, as well as of expression; but their real core of significance is small." It cannot be denied that a careful scrutiny of much of Rossetti's published work is open to this criticism. It is tense without being intense. This fault is his great attraction to his imitators, whose every sensation is represented as a pang, delicious or otherwise, and whose mental sky is a canopy of iron destiny compared with which the melancholy of Byron, which likewise had so many copyists, was no more than a pleasant shade.
In endeavouring to do justice to Rossetti it must be remembered that, though born and bred in England, he was an Italian by blood and sympathy. His acquaintance with Englishmen and English books was by no means wide. Love, the constant theme of his art, is in some of his most important poems, not the English love whose stream is steady affection and only its occasional eddies passion, and which, when disappointed, does not cease to be love though it becomes sorrow: but the Italian ardour, in perennial crisis, which stabs its rival and hates its object, if she refuses its satisfaction, as ardently as it worships her so long as there is hope. The limitations, also, which characterise Rossetti's poetry belong [101/102] to Italian poetry itself. There is little breadth in it, but much acuteness. It is therefore quite unfair to try an essentially Italian poet, like Rossetti, by comparing his works with the classical poetry of a nation which, for combined breadth and height, far surpasses the poetry of all other languages present and past, with the doubtful exception of the Greek. The English language itself is not made for Italian thought and passion. It has about four times as many vowel sounds as Italian and a corresponding consonantal power; that is to say, it differs from the Italian about as much as an organ diners from a flute. Rossetti uses little besides the flute-notes of our English organ; and, if he had made himself complete master of those notes, it would have been the most that could have been expected of him. In appearance and manners Rossetti was thoroughly Italian. In his youth especially he had the sweet and easy courtesy peculiar to his nation. His brother says, " There was a certain British bluffness streaking the finely poised Italian suppleness and facility." This describes, better than perhaps Mr. William Rossetti intended, a characteristic which occasionally, but fortunately not often, appears in his poetry, which is most pleasing when it is least "streaked" with British bluffness: as it is, for example, in " Jenny." [102/103]
Rossetti's power is chiefly shown in his long ballads, such as "Sister Helen," "The Bride's Prelude." "Rose Mary," and "The King's Tragedy." Had these been found in Percy's " Relics," they would have constituted the chief ornaments of that collection. As it is, it is impossible not to feel that they are more or less anachronisms, both in spirit and in form. The repetition of a refrain through the fifty stanzas or so of "Sister Helen," the most forcible of all these lyrical narratives, has no sufficient justification for its interruption of the fiercely flowing history. A refrain which extends to more than three or four stanzas requires and originally assumed a musical accompaniment. The constant high-pressure of passion in these ballads is also an anachronism: and to the cultured modern reader this character is calculated to defeat the poet's purpose, giving him an impression of cold instead of warmth, as if the fire had a salamander instead of a heart in its centre. A kindred fault, which Rossetti has in common with some of the most famous poets of the century, is that of conferring upon all his images an acute and independent clearness which is never found in the natural and truly poetical expression of feeling. It is true, and great poets (especially Shakespeare) have noted it, that in extreme crises of passion there will sometimes be [103/104] a moment of calm in which the minutiae of some most trifling object or circumstance will, as it were, photograph themselves upon the mind. But this praeternatural calm is only the "eye of the storm"; and to scatter broadcast, over a long poem, imagery with the sharpest outlines is to prove, not only that it has not been written from true passion, but that the poet has not even observed the phenomena of true passion. Such independent force and clearness of imagery can bp justified only in poems of the very lowest type oi artistic construction, such as Schiller's "Song of the Bell" and "Childe Harold," which scarcely profess to have more unity than is to be found in a scrap-book. A fine poem may or may not be full of "fine things"; but, if it does abound in them, their independent value should appear only when they are separated from their context. In Rossetti, as in several other modern poets of great reputation, we are constantly being pulled up, in the professedly fiery course of a tale of passion, to observe the moss on a rock or the note of a chaffinch. High finish has nothing to do with this quality of extreme definiteness in detail; indeed, it is more often exercised by the perfect poet in blurring outlines than in giving them acuteness. It must be admitted, however, that Rossetti had an unusual temptation to this kind [104/105] or excess in his extraordinary faculty for seeing objects in such a fierce light of imagination as very few poets have been able to throw upon external things. He can be forgiven for spoiling a tender lyric by a stanza such as this, which seems scratched with an adamantine pen upon a slab of agate —
But the sea stands spread
As one wall with the flat skies,
Where the lean black craft, like flies,
Seem wellnigh stagnated,
Soon to drop off dead.
Though the foregoing strictures apply to a large portion of Rossetti's work, there is a really precious residuum which they do not touch. There are several pieces — such as "Love's Nocturn," "The Portrait," "A Little While," and many sonnets — which are full of natural feeling expressed with simple and subtle art; and in much of his work there is a rich and obscure glow of insight into depths too profound and too sacred for clear speech, even if they could be spoken: a sort of insight not at all uncommon in the great art of past times, but exceedingly rare in the art of our own.
Patmore, Coventry. Principle in Art. New edition.London: Gerge Bell and Sons, 1898. 98-105.
Last updated 24 September 2004