s we have seen, late nineteenth-century reviewers frequently observed that Christina Rossetti's devout religiosity distinguished her from the other Pre-Raphaelites. Such commentators, appear to have forgotten the early, ostensibly sacramental work of the first members of the brotherhood, who were not only painters, but also poets and self-proclaimed art theorists as well. The emphasis of reviewers like W J. Courthope upon the "literariness" the "common antipathy to society," and the aestheticism "the atmosphere of... materialistic feeling [that] pervades the poetry" — is not surprising in light of the work published by Morris, Swinburne, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti after 1858 ("Latest Development in Literary Poetry," 63).
After all, as David Riede has demonstrated, when Dante Rossetti prepared his Poems of 1870 for publication, the most extensive and "the most important revisions were designed to eliminate any impression of religious faith in his book" ("Erasing the Art-Catholic" 50). In 1847 Rossetti had forwarded a number of these poems, later heavily revised, to William Bell Scott as a group entitled Songs of the Art Catholic. (Some, including "My Sister's Sleep" and "The Blessed Damozell" were published under the Pre-Raphaelite imprimatur in The Germ.) The success of Rossetti's alterations to these early drafts and the revised poems' resulting compatibility with the work of Swinburne [64/65] and Morris is affirmed by Courthope's typical assertion that all three poets either "quietly avow" or "passionately profess" atheism, "not as the supplanter of superstition, but as the rival of Christianity" (63; see also J. C. Shairp's even more vitriolic attack, on similar grounds, in "Aesthetic Poetry.").
Such a conclusion is distant indeed from Ruskin's insistence, during his 1853 Edinburgh lectures, that the Pre-Raphaelites were in the process of rehabilitating contemporary art, restoring it to the heights of spirituality and truth that characterized painting during the late medieval period and the early Renaissance. With the single exception of work by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PR.B.), he asserted,
the great and broad fact which distinguishes modern art from old art ... [is] that all ancient art was religious, and all modern art is profane.... That is to say, religion was its first object; private luxury or pleasure its second.... [For] all modem art . . . private luxury or pleasure is its first object; religion its second.... Anything which makes religion its second object, makes religion no object. God . . . will not put up with ... a second place.... He who makes religion his first object, makes it his whole object: he has no other work in the world than God's work. (WJR, 12:135)
The clear implication of Ruskin's remarks is that, in pursuing absolute truth to nature and to historical details, the Pre-Raphaelite painters were God's apostles. Two years earlier, before meeting any of the brethren, Ruskin had written his first letter concerning Pre-Raphaelitism to the Times (the letter is dated 13 May 1851 (WJR, 12.319-23).). Like many early viewers of works by members of the PR.B., he went so far as to suspect them of "Romanist and Tractarian tendencies." Had Ruskin read the second number of The Germ (February 1850), his suspicions might have been reinforced by certain ambiguities in F. G.Stephens's brief essay, "The Purpose and Tendency of Early Italian Art." Searching for models that the P.R.B., as a new and aspiring school of "historical painters," might follow, Stephens found precedent only in the early Italian painters who possessed "a feeling which, exaggerated and its object mistaken by them, though still held holy and pure, was the cause of the retirement of many of their greatest men from the world to the monastery." Of course, Stephens insisted (the example of James Collinson was not yet available to him), "the modern artist does not retire to monasteries, or practice discipline; but he may show his participation in the same high feeling by a firm attachment to truth in every point of representation.... By a determination to represent the thing and the whole of the thing, by training himself to the deepest observation of its fact and de[66/67] tail, enabling himself to reproduce, as far as possible, nature herself, the painter will best evince his share of faith" (Sambrook, 58).
In such passages, readers like Ruskin might well see as much of a leaning toward "old" religious belief and modes of expression (in the Tractarian vein) as toward the new and diametrically opposed, historical perspectives on religious understanding inaugurated by the Higher Criticism. Whichever view of Pre-Raphaelitism a reader or viewer adopted, the inalterable fact remained that most early PRB pictures were occupied with what William Michael Rossetti termed "Christian Art Design" or the "sacred picture" (Fredeman, P.R.B. Journal, 9, 13. See Sussman, Fact, chapter 4, for a full discussion of scripture as history among the Pre-Raphaelites.).
The transition from the sacramentalism of Pre-Raphaelite painting, poetry, and aesthetic theory during the period 1848-53 to the aestheticism of the second generation of Pre-Raphaelite poets hinges upon the avant-garde techniques and habits of mind adopted by both generations. As Herbert Sussman has observed, the early brotherhood "effort to restore ... the authentic tradition in sacred art" required "a rejection of the artistic tradition offered by established institutions." But, "once the religious motivations dissolved, the sense of opposition remained, to be passed on through Rossetti to Morris, Swinburne, and the aesthetic movement" (Fact, 55). With these historical matters dear, then, Christina Rossetti can be seen not only as the "Jael who led [the Pre-Raphaelite] hosts to Victory" with the recognition accorded her 1862 volume of poems, but also as the poet who, in the pervasive Tractarian tendencies of her poetry, remained true to the topoi, the habits of mind, and the ostensibly sacramental aesthetics of first-generation Pre-Raphaelitism.
As we have already seen, of course, Rossetti's work has much in common with the later poetry of her brother, Morris, and Swinburne. Yet — in addition to its careful attention to the details of nature, its highly sensory images used to accomplish noumenal effects, and its preoccupation with betrayed or disappointed love — her poetry's use of symbolism and typology, its medievalism, its employment of dream visions, and its preoccupation with suffering and with visionary idealities as a relief from suffering allow readers to perceive her poetry as simultaneously Pre-Raphaelite and Tractarian. Through analysis of Rossetti's devotional poetry, we can, in fact, begin to understand some previously underemphasized connections between Pre-Raphaelite and Tractarian aesthetics.[67/68]
Last modified July 2000