The Pre-Raphaelites

By Boos, Florence S. | Victorian Poetry, Autumn 2015 | Go to article overview

The Pre-Raphaelites


Boos, Florence S., Victorian Poetry


This past year was unusual in witnessing no book-length studies on Pre-Raphaelite literary topics per se, though several collections include essays on these subjects. As compensation, however, a plethora of excellent articles have burgeoned, and in a further noticeable change, criticism on the Rossetti family has centered more on the work of Dante Gabriel than that of his sister. In what follows, I will first discuss essays which consider some aspect of "Pre-Raphaelitism" as a whole, then review items on the Rossettis and Elizabeth Siddal, and finally, turn to new material on Morris and his circle.

Pre-Raphaelitism

Pre-Raphaelite Masculinities: Constructions of Masculinity in Art and Literature, edited by Amelia Yates and Serena Trowbridge (Ashgate) includes several valuable reexaminations of Pre-Raphaelite artistry from the perspective of gender and feminist-influenced "masculinity studies." In '"How grew such presence from man's shameful swarm': Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Victorian Masculinity" (pp. 11-34), Jay D. Sloan argues that prior feminist and post-feminist assessments of Rossetti's work have incorrectly assumed that these manifest a unitary point of view, whereas Rossetti instead explores several alternate modes of masculinity in his poetry. He defines the most important of these personae as those of "Confessional Man" and the "Pilgrim of Love," as exemplified by "Jenny" and a sonnet, "On the Vita Nuova of Dante." Sloan's reading of "Jenny" concludes that the poem "captures the ultimate damning reality of Victorian masculinity, its infinite capacity for denial"--a view which he believes Rossetti presents ironically and at critical distance. Since much of the chapter centers on his interpretation of "Jenny," however, it might also seem useful to consider whether the persona of "Confessional Man" appears in Rossetti's other narratives and sonnets.

In '"Me, Who Ride Alone': Male Chastity in Pre-Raphaelite Poetry and Art" (pp. 151-168), Dinah Roe identifies the motivations which underlie the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of the unmated warrior and artist, characterized by his "suppression of desire." She traces the permutations of this ideal in the work of Frederic Stephens, Dante Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and others, noting the often-hostile Victorian critical reactions to several variants of artistically embodied non-normative forms of masculinity. She traces such embodiments from an early Tractarian-influenced ideal of monastic-like brotherhood, through celebration of the quests of lone knightly warriors such as Galahad, to a final stage of identification with previous artist and singer figures such as Dante and the storytellers of The Earthly Paradise. Discerning in Christina Rossetti's "Repining," Dante Rossetti's "The Staff and Scrip," and Morris's "Sir Galahad: A Christmas Mystery" characteristic expressions of "the conflation of chaste male and modern artist," she finds this configuration central to Walter Pater's developing aestheticism, as well as a prelude to later fin de siecle challenges to norms of masculine self-restraint.

Sally-Anne Huxtable's "In Praise of Venus: Victorian Masculinity and Tannhauser as Aesthetic Hero" (pp. 169-188), explores the meanings ascribed to the legend of Venus's cave by artists and poets of the period. She finds Venus's hill "a queer space" which protected the enactment of inexpressible anti-normative desires and traces its permutations from its Germanic origins through the poems of Swinburne and Morris, the paintings of Edward Burne-Jones, and Oscar Wilde's dialogue, "The Critic as Artist." Especially interesting is Huxtable's commentary on Burne-Jones' "Laus Veneris," which she interprets as representing an anguished and abandoned Venus languishing in a female-centered, "highly fashionable Aesthetic interior."

In "A 'World of Its Own Creation': Pre-Raphaelite Poetry and the New Paradigm for Art" (Twenty-First Century Perspectives on Victorian Literature, ed. …

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