Essay on Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Rossetti’s phrase about poetry, that it must be ‘amusing’; his ‘commandment’ about verse translation, ‘that a good poem shall not be turned into a bad one’; his roughest and most random criticisms about poets, are as direct and inevitable as his finest verse. Only Coleridge among English poets has anything like the same definite grasp upon whatever is essential in poetry. And it is this intellectual sanity partly, this complete knowledge of the medium in which he worked, that has given Rossetti a position of his own, a kind of leadership in art.

And, technically, Rossetti has done much for English poetry. Such a line as

And when the night-vigil was done,

is a perfectly good metrical line if read without any displacement of the normal accent in speaking, and the rhyme of ‘of’ to ‘enough’ is as satisfying to the ear as the more commonly accepted rhyme of ‘love’ and ‘move.’ Rossetti did nothing but good by his troubling of many rhythms which had become stagnant, and it is in his extraordinary subtlety of rhythm, most accomplished where it seems most hesitating, that he has produced his finest emotional effects, effects before his time found but rarely, and for the most part accidentally, in English poetry.

Like Baudelaire and like Mallarmé in France, Rossetti was not only a wholly original poet, but a new personal force in literature. That he stimulated the sense of beauty is true in a way it is not true of Tennyson, for instance, as it is true of Baudelaire in a way it is not true of Victor Hugo. In Rossetti’s work, perhaps because it is not the greatest, there is an actually hypnotic quality which exerts itself on those who come within his circle at all; a quality like that of an unconscious medium, or like that of a woman against whose attraction one is without defence. It is the sound of a voice, rather than anything said; and, when Rossetti speaks, no other voice, for the moment, seems worth listening to. Even after one has listened, not very much seems to have been said; but the world is not quite the same. He has stimulated a new sense, by which a new mood of beauty can be apprehended.

Dreams are precise; it is only when we awake, when we go outside, that they become vague. In a certain sense Rossetti, with all his keen practical intelligence, was never wholly awake, had never gone outside that house of dreams in which the only real things were the things of the imagination. In the poetry of most poets there is a double kind of existence, of which each half is generally quite distinct; a real world, and a world of the imagination. But the poetry of Rossetti knows but one world, and it inhabits a corner there, like a perfectly contented prisoner, or like a prisoner to whom the sense of imprisonment is a joy. The love of beauty, the love of love, because love is the supreme energy of beauty, suffices for an existence in which every moment is a crisis; for to him, as Pater has said, ‘life is a crisis at every moment’: life, that is to say, the inner life, the life of imagination, in which the senses are messengers from the outer world, from which they can but bring disquieting tidings.

The whole of this poetry is tragic, though without pathos or even self-pity. Every human attempt to maintain happiness is foredoomed to be a failure, and this is an attempt to maintain ecstasy in a region where everything which is not ecstasy is pain. In reading every other poet who has written of love one is conscious of compensations: the happiness of loving or of being loved, the honour of defeat, the help and comfort of nature or of action. But here all energy is concentrated on the one ecstasy, and this exists for its own sake, and the desire of it is like thirst, which returns after every partial satisfaction. The desire of beauty, the love of love, can but be a form of martyrdom when, as with Rossetti, there is also the desire of possession.

Circumstances have very little to do with the making of a poet’s temperament or vision, and it would be enough to point to Christina Rossetti, who was hardly more in the country than her brother, but to whom a blade of grass was enough to summon the whole country about her, and whose poetry is full of the sense of growing things. Rossetti instinctively saw faces, and only faces, and he would have seen them if he had lived in the loneliest countryside, and he would never have learned to distinguish between oats and barley if he had had fields of them about his door from childhood. It was in the beauty of women, and chiefly in the mysterious beauty of faces, that Rossetti found the supreme embodiment of beauty; and it was in the love of women, and not in any more abstract love, of God, of nature, or of ideas, that he found the supreme revelation of love.

With this narrowness, with this intensity, he has rendered in his painting as in his poetry one ideal, one obsession. He calls what is really the House of Love The House of Life, and this is because the house of love was literally to him the house of life. There is no mystic to whom love has not seemed to be the essence or ultimate expression of the soul. Rossetti’s whole work is a parable of this belief, and it is a parable written with his life-blood. Of beauty he has said, ‘I drew it in as simply as my breath,’ but, as the desire of beauty possessed him, as he laboured to create it over again, with rebellious words or colours, always too vague for him when they were most precise, never the precise embodiment of a dream, the pursuit turned to a labour and the labour to a pain. Part of what hypnotises us in this work is, no doubt, that sense of personal tragedy which comes to us out of its elaborate beauty: the eternal tragedy of those who have loved the absolute in beauty too well, and with too mortal a thirst.

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