Re-Presentation of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Portrayals in Fiction, Drama, Music, and Film

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Lisa Dallape Matson Re-Presentation of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Portrayals in Fiction, Drama, Music, and Film Cambria Press, 2010 225 pages; $104.99

In 1848, three excited students gathered in London and - from a Gower Street home - founded an avant-garde society that, among other things, denounced contemporary art, asserting that current painters, embracing Renaissance principles, imitated the flourishes of a sixteenth-century Italian artist Raffaello Sanzio, known simply as Raphael. With youthful exuberance, these young men suggested that future art should revert to a classical style, capturing the simplicity of the medieval world. Disparaging the materialism of Britain's industrial revolution and its deleterious effects, these Englishmen - with a twenty-year-old gadfly, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as their spokesman - organized the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a movement laden with lofty goals and pie-in-the-sky ideals..

Years later, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (his Neapolitan political-refugee father adored the Supreme Poet) emerged as a leading figure in English cultural life. In 1850, his early poems and paintings - published in The Germ - drew rebuke from Charles Dickens, but by 1853, with the appearance of "Sister Helen," his reputation soared. An ill-fated 1860 marriage ended tragically after two years when his wife, Elizabeth, died, an apparent suicide. In 1869, he exhumed the body to retrieve some unpublished poems left in her coffin as a romantic gesture. By the time of his death, 1882, Rossetti stood as a pivotal figure in English poetry and art prompting James M. Whistler's noted epitaph, "He was a King."

Other tributes equally honored his name: John Ruskin and Walter Pater collectively call him an artistic force while posthumous memorials were erected, commemorative poetry was published, and a bust - depicting Rossetti holding two books - was placed prominently in Chelsea. Ezra Pound, an ardent admirer, called him "my mother and father," while William Butler Yeats, also smitten, kept pre-Raphael pictures in his room.

Well into the twentieth century, books, television series, movies, and even plays appeared, examining many aspects of Rossetti's life. In the past ten years, an archive has been created, a complete nine-volume series published, a museum exhibit opened, fictional books written - and, with a nod to the popular television program, Upstairs, Downstairs - a six episode BBC-2 series aired. Last, as a contemporary pièce de résistance, a Seattle neopsychedelic band, The Green Pajamas, used his poetry as lyrics. Clearly, as a dominant literary and artistic entity, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's reputation shows no sign of slowing down.

But why wouldn't it? As a nineteenth-century voice crying in the wilderness, Rossetti's stature increases with each generation as modern audiences discover his poetry and paintings. …