Rossetti's different approaches to imagery and symbolism show his complexity as a painter-poet. In some of his early painting and poetry, for example, he demonstrates a characteristic early Pre-Raphaelite interest in metaphor, allegory, and typology as a means of elevating materialism and realism. His early sonnets "For a Virgin and Child, by Hans Memmelinck." "For An Annunciation, Early German," and "Mary's Girlhood," show him using such biblical symbolism with great skill. Such knowledge is not surprising for someone who both grew up in a High Anglican househould — one of his sisters became an Anglican nun — and who knew the writings of Dante as well as he did.

However, in sharp contrast to such symbolism that emphasizes multiple meanings, Rossetti also wrote early works, such as "The Woodspurge," that call into question symbolism and figurative meaning. As Jerome J. McGann pointed out in a seminal article (which provides the basis of David Reid's comments), in this poem, none of the described elements, such as a three-branched leaf, have any religious or other symbolic meaning at all — and that is in fact the point of the poem.

The complex, often convoluted, imagery of Rossetti's later work, such as the later sonnets in The House of Life, appear to attempt to create a poetry out of the richness of language rather than out of the way that such language describes any objective reality.

Last modified 12 March 2007