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Victorian Poetry, Drama and Miscellaneous Prose 1832–1890$

Paul Turner

Print publication date: 1990

Print ISBN-13: 9780198122395

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198122395.001.0001

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The Pre-Raphaelites

The Pre-Raphaelites

(p.117) 7. The Pre-Raphaelites
Victorian Poetry, Drama and Miscellaneous Prose 1832–1890

Paul Turner

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) in 1848 including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, William Morris, and Algernon Charles Swinburne. Dante Gabriel Rossetti wanted to be a painter, but did not like studying art at the Royal Academy Schools. So at twenty he stopped doing so, and with Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1848). This was a gesture of revolt, in a year of political revolutions, against the academic principle that a young artist should begin by imitating the old masters, instead of obeying his own individual impulse, and acting upon his own perception of Nature. The PRB was much influenced by literature, especially the poems of John Keats and Alfred Tennyson. Its literary organ, The Germ (1850), was designed by D. G. Rossetti to be not only an artistic manifesto, but also an outlet for poetry, particularly his own.

Keywords:   Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, William Morris, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, John Keats, Alfred Tennyson, The Germ

‘I NEVER do anything I don’t like’, Rossetti told a friend.1 He wanted to be a painter, but did not like studying art at the Royal Academy Schools. So at twenty he stopped doing so, and with Holman Hunt and Millais founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1848). This was a gesture of revolt, in a year of political revolutions, against the academic principle that a young artist should begin by imitating the old masters, instead of obeying his own individual impulse, and acting upon his own perception of Nature. The PRB was much influenced by literature, especially the poems of Keats and Tennyson, Ruskin’s Modern Painters, and Blake’s scathing comments on the Discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Its literary organ, The Germ (1850), was designed by Rossetti to be, not only an artistic manifesto, but also an outlet for poetry, particularly his own. The individual impulses of the brethren sent them off in too many directions to be listed here, though they included medievalism and vague social concern. Rossetti himself developed into a highly original and commercially successful painter; but his strongest natural impulse was to write poems.

His earliest pieces, published in The Germ, were conceived pictorially. ‘My Sister’s Sleep’, which exploited in Tennysonian verse the irony of a death on Christmas Eve, was like a genre-painting of a sick-room, lit by candle, fire, and moon, and by dim reflections in a mirror. ‘The Blessed Damozel’, though not translated into paint before 1875, was a carefully composed portrait of a dead girl, waiting Mariana-like for the arrival of her earthly lover, whose parenthetical interjections paralleled his final (p.118) appearance on a small predella below the main picture. Though the contrived simplicity of the style makes the poem hard to take seriously, it is characteristic of Rossetti in its curious blend of religiosity and eroticism: ‘her bosom’s pressure must have made | The bar she leaned on warm’.

Also published in The Germ was a short story called ‘Hand and Soul’, about a mysterious picture which appears to have been a portrait of his own soul, in female form, by a thirteenth-century (i.e. Pre-Raphaelite) artist. The story may serve to introduce and partially explain the centrality of the female figure in all Rossetti’s poetry and painting. The ubiquitous woman-image takes many forms, ranging from the Virgin Mary to Jenny the prostitute, from Dante’s Beatrice to such snake-women as Lilith and Medusa. Beatrice was clearly the prototype of the Blessed Damozel herself, and Dante was a pervasive influence on all Rossetti’s poetry and art. His Italian father had worked obsessively to prove that the Divina Commedia was full of secret anti-Papal propaganda, and had christened him after the subject of his own research. Dante Gabriel responded by translating the Vita Nuova (1861), painting such pictures as Dantis Amor and Beata Beatrix, specializing in the sonnet-form, and developing a habit of symbolic personification.

Between 1847 and 1854, when the PRB broke up, Rossetti wrote, or started to write, many lyrical, narrative, and dramatic pieces which were first published in Poems (1870). This meant exhuming the manuscripts from the coffin of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, where he had buried them with her at her death (possibly suicide) in 1862. Of these, ‘Troy Town’ and ‘Eden Bower’ are typical of Rossetti’s fondness for the almost meaningless refrain, and for hints of sexuality. ‘Ave’ features the fundamentalist piety, derived from his Anglo-Italian mother, that inspired the early paintings, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, and Ecce Ancilla Domini. ‘Dante at Verona’, perhaps partly modelled on his father, presents the poet as a resentful and self-pitying political refugee. ‘Stratton Water’ is a pseudo-ballad, showing a vein of boisterous humour more familiar to Rossetti’s friends than to his readers. And ‘The Card-dealer’ invites comparison with such paintings as Astarte Syriaca as a sensational portrait of a sinister symbolic female. More interesting, though still disappointing, is ‘Jenny’, a dramatic monologue spoken by an intellectual, but not very intelligent, young man in a prostitute’s bedroom at night, while she sleeps (p.119) undisturbed. It resembles Hunt’s PRB painting, The Awakening Conscience in its symbolic use of décor and rather vapid moralizing. As dawn breaks, and the final tableau is reflected in a mirror, the young man sees himself and Jenny from another angle; but even his concluding view of prostitution seems astonishingly naive, nor is there any clear indication that the speaker himself is an object of satire. In this respect ‘Jenny’ fails to exploit the ironic possibilities of the dramatic monologue.

The most effective of the early poems are ‘A Last Confession’ (1849) and ‘Sister Helen’ (1851). The first is a dramatic monologue spoken by a dying member of the Italian resistance movement who has killed the girl he loved. Byron’s Giaour and Browning’s ‘The Italian in England’ are among the obvious influences, but in its dramatic intensity and psychological emphasis the poem is much closer to Browning’s later monologue, ‘A Forgiveness’ (1876). The murderer keeps approaching, then shying off the confession of his crime, until the series of evasions ends in a climactic release of accumulated tension, subtly prepared for, throughout the poem, by images of a knife, of redness, and of blood:

  • ‘Take it,’ I said to her the second time,
  • ‘Take it and keep it.’ And then came a fire
  • That burnt my hand; and then the fire was blood,
  • And sea and sky were blood and fire, and all
  • The day was one red blindness; till it seemed
  • Within the whirling brain’s entanglement,
  • That she or I or all things bled to death.
  • And then I found her laid against my feet
  • And knew that I had stabbed her…

‘Sister Helen’, a weird cross between Theocritus’ Idyll II and such bloodthirsty ballads as ‘Edward, Edward’ or Tennyson’s ‘The Sisters’, dramatizes the slow killing of an unfaithful lover by burning a wax image of him. The grim story is suggested by a dialogue between the implacable Helen, crouched over the fire, and her innocent small brother, who reports, without comprehension, the effects of her witchcraft. A chorus-like refrain implies a Christian comment on her cold vindictiveness, which is reflected in the icy moonlight outside. Here too, a gradual accumulation of tension leads to a spine-chilling climax.

So far, however, Rossetti’s poetry was mostly a matter of (p.120) external contrivance and literary adaptation. It began to acquire substance when it became an outlet for his personal feelings. ‘Even so’ (1859), for instance, movingly records, in laconic, almost conversational language, and highly individual imagery, his sadness at the loss of his original feeling for Elizabeth Siddal. ‘The Stream’s Secret’ (1869–70) delicately alludes, through verse that simulates water flowing softly through darkness to his secret, frustrated love for the wife of his friend, William Morris. In a still more cryptic sonnet, ‘The Monochord’ (1870), he professes to find a piece of music symbolic of his own emotional history; but the single string seems to imply, not so much a musical instrument, as a line of development, from the ‘flame’ of his first love for Elizabeth Siddal, through the ‘cloud’ of their alienation, to the new ‘flame’ of his passion for Jane Morris:

  • Oh! what is this that knows the road I came,
  • The flame turned cloud, the cloud returned to flame
  •      The lifted shifted steeps and all the way?-—
  • That draws round me at last this wind-warm space,
  • And in regenerate rapture turns my face
  • Upon the devious coverts of dismay?

To chart this ‘road’ was the purpose of Rossetti’s most important poem, a sonnet-sequence called The House of Life.

It was published by instalments. Sixteen sonnets appeared in the Fortnightly Review for March 1869 under the title, ‘Of life, love, and death’. Fifty sonnets ‘towards a work to be called “The House of Life”’ appeared in Poems (1870); and in Ballads and Sonnets (1881) the number was raised to a hundred and one, while ‘Nuptial Sleep’ was expurgated. This was a quite unnecessary response to Robert Buchanan’s prurient criticisms in ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry’ (1871), which Rossetti had sufficiently answered at the time in ‘The Stealthy School of Criticism’.

The best of the 1869 sonnets are four on ‘Willowwood’, where the poet and his second ‘flame’ wander hopelessly, with other frustrated lovers. Willowwood was clearly derived from the selva oscura in which Dante lost his way, the selva of souls suspended in Limbo, and the barren bosco of suicides in the Inferno. The fifty sonnets of the 1870 The House of Life fall into two groups. The first twenty-eight, which end with ‘Willowwood’, hint with doubtless deliberate obscurity at a love-story, partly fictitious and partly (p.121) autobiographical, which begins with rapture and ends in separation and frustration. The last twenty-two reflect generally on the poet’s past life and present misery. In the absence of any clear narrative, the reader can only react to individual sonnets, and may well get more pleasure from the eleven ‘Songs’, which give readier access to feelings rather ponderously analysed in the sonnets themselves. ‘The Woodspurge’, for instance, instantly conveys a sense of utter misery, without any attempt to explain it.

In the 1881 version the plan, at least, of the whole work is clarified. The introductory sonnet, tacitly alluding to the ‘image and superscription’ of Luke 20: 24, implies that each sonnet is an ‘image’ of some critical moment of experience, with a ‘superscription’ defining its significance. ‘Inclusiveness’ (LXIII) suggests that every such ‘image’ is a ‘room’ in the House of Life. The whole edifice is divided into two parts. The first, ‘Youth and Change’, is a ‘transfigured’ account of the poet’s love-life, representing the ‘image’. The second, ‘Change and Fate’, is the ‘superscription’, designed to interpret his own experience in a wider human context. The proportion between these two parts (59: 42) is not very far from that between octave and sestet, so the whole sequence may be seen as a kind of macro-sonnet.

The architectural plan of The House, like the splendid decorations of many of its ‘rooms’, displays plenty of that ‘fundamental brain work’ that Rossetti thought essential in poetry. But the total effect is disappointing. Though the poem shows a capacity for acute, if rather self-pitying, self-analysis, and certainly arouses human sympathy for the poet’s sense of having somehow wasted his life, it is unsatisfactory as a work of art. This is chiefly due to the pretentious turgidity of its style. As a young man, Rossetti carefully collected what he called ‘stunning words for poetry’ from ‘old romaunts’ at the British Museum. In these sonnets he still relied too much on ostentatiously fine phrases, equally studied, and perorations that seem to invite applause:

  •                           So it happeneth
  •      When Work and Will awake too late, to gaze
  • After their life sailed by, and hold their breath.
  •      Ah! who shall dare to search through what sad maze
  •      Thenceforth their incommunicable ways
  • Follow the desultory feet of Death?

(p.122) The work of his sister Christina was altogether different.2 Simple and unpretentious in language and versification, it seems neither cerebral nor calculated, but totally spontaneous. Her range of themes was narrow, and ill-health, abortive love-affairs, a puritanical outlook, and an other-worldly religion combined to make her characteristic tone monotonously gloomy. But strong human feelings, concentrated by frustration, and released only through verse, often produced poetry far purer than any of her brother’s.

‘Dreamland’, the best of her seven poems published in The Germ, at one point recalls The Blind Girl of Millais:

  • She cannot see the grain
  • Ripening on hill and plain;
  • She cannot feel the rain
  •      Upon her hand…

The general effect, however, is musical rather than pictorial, and more in the manner of Tennyson, whom Christina greatly admired, than of Pre-Raphaelite painting. Other notable influences upon her writings were Coleridge, Shelley, and the Bible, especially Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Most of the short poems written between 1847 and 1859 were concerned with the desolation of disappointed love, in the spirit of Proverbs 13: 12, ‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick.’ The death of a woman whose love was not returned was a theme (1848–9) for several subtle variations. The graceful symmetry of the Song, ‘When I am dead, my dearest’, culminates in the mildly vindictive statement that she may forget all about him. ‘Looking Forward’, despite its Tennysonian echoes, makes highly individual music of a suicidal mood. The most moving of the group, because free from self-pity or resentment, is the sonnet, ‘Remember’, which arrives, by a kind of logical progression, at a climax of altruism that still carries conviction: ‘Better by far you should forget and smile | Than that you should remember and be sad.’

(p.123) The details of Christina’s emotional history are not known; but in 1855 some traumatic experience appears to have changed her mood from sad resignation to almost Byronic savagery and gloom. ‘My Dream’, which seems like Byron’s ‘The Dream’ to reflect some bitter disillusionment in love, is a satiric fantasy, puzzling but powerful, about an exceptionally handsome crocodile, who ruthlessly exploits his fellows:

  • He battened on them, crunched, and sucked them in.
  • He knew no law, he feared no binding law,
  • But ground them with inexorable jaw.
  • The luscious fat distilled upon his chin,
  • Exuded from his nostrils and his eyes,
  • While still like hungry death he fed his maw.

At the approach of retribution, ‘The prudent crocodile rose on his feet, | And shed appropriate tears and wrung his hands.’ ‘Cobwebs’, written seven months later, echoed Byron’s ‘Darkness’ and anticipated Thomson’s The City of Dreadful Night in a nightmarish externalization of hopeless depression. In 1857, for reasons again unknown, Christina’s mood changed into its opposite. ‘A Birthday’ is a rapturous cry of joy, because ‘the birthday of my life | Is come, my love is come to me.’ Whoever her love may have been, one of her exuberant images was in keeping with her favourite Proverb: ‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick: but when the desire cometh, it is a tree of life.’

  • My heart is like a singing bird
  •      Whose nest is in a watered shoot:
  • My heart is like an apple-tree
  •      Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit…

Another seven months, and she produced the far more characteristic ‘Up-hill’. This ‘lively little Song of the Tomb’, as Dante Gabriel called it, was Christina’s first public success, when published in Macmillan’s Magazine (February 1861).

Of her longer poems, ‘From House to Home’ (1858), which her other brother, William Michael, thought one of her ‘most manifest masterpieces’, was an allegory implying that her sufferings were an earthly martyrdom that qualified her for heaven. The ‘house’ of the title was a glass castle reminiscent of Tennyson’s ‘Palace of Art’ and Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’. As a ‘house of lies’ it represented the deceptive nature of earthly happiness. Its most (p.124) interesting feature was an adjoining ‘heath’, which served as a kind of conservation-area for small animals, of which the poet was very fond. When ‘one like an angel’ urges her, ‘Come home, O love, from banishment: | Come to the distant land’, all the animals disappear, and she is left desolate:

  • Then with a cry like famine I arose,
  •      I lit my candle, searched from room to room,
  • Searched up and down; a war of winds that froze
  • Swept through the blank of gloom.

The traumatic frustration of animal instinct was again to be the theme of Christina’s most remarkable poem, written five months later, Goblin Market (1862). She insisted that ‘she did not mean anything profound by this fairy tale’, but William was right to call it ‘suggestive’ of some meaning, and it is hard to resist the impression that the ‘fruit forbidden’ forced upon Laura and Lizzie by the animal-like goblins represents the sexual instinct. The rest of the story, however, is not easy to interpret in such terms. That sexual indulgence was dangerous and addictive would have seemed in the period a reasonable doctrine; but how, in such an interpretation, Lizzie could save her addicted sister’s life by fetching her another dose of fruit-juice, without ingesting any of it herself, seems less intelligible. The ostensible moral, ‘there is no friend like a sister’, and the dedication to Christina’s sister Maria, who later became a nun, suggest a private allusion to some incident in their relationship. Whatever it was, one may guess that the poem reflected a switch of interest from sexual love to family affection, a sense of release from obsession with unsatisfactory love-affairs. When first given the ‘fiery antidote’, Laura is ‘like a caged thing freed’; and perhaps it was a new sense of freedom in Christina that made her throw off the restrictions of traditional verse-forms, and adopt an irregular, almost Skeltonic, metre and rhyme-scheme. That Goblin Market has always been so popular, despite the tantalizing obscurity of its meaning, is possibly due to its expression, in the spontaneous rhythms of nursery rhymes, of a suddenly rediscovered jote de vivre. It is also fascinating as a symbolic creation, especially where an ambivalent attitude towards instinctive feeling is implied by a subtle change in the character of the goblins. At first they are nice, cuddly, rather funny little animals: by the end they are frighteningly evil.

(p.125) In The Prince’s Progress (1866) Christina reverted to her usual melancholy. The nucleus of the poem was the final lyric, ‘Too late for love, too late for joy, | Too late, too late!’ The Prince, like the one in Tennyson’s The Princess, is told by a ‘voice’ to go off and claim his bride; but he is so dilatory, and so unable to resist distractions on his journey, that he arrives only to see her carried out feet-first, and to hear, by way of ‘bride-song’, ‘Too late for love…’. As the Bunyanesque title implies, the story may be taken as a religious allegory of delay in preparing for the next world; but one is tempted to take it also as a protest against Christina’s disappointments in earthly love. Certainly the characterization of the Prince contains many touches of sarcasm, which suggest exasperation, if not with any particular man, then at least with men in general. This apparent confusion of personal and doctrinal elements in the poem interferes with the reader’s enjoyment. Still, the story is vividly told, with striking glimpses of symbolic landscape, in a stanza that suggests by its rhyme-scheme an appropriate lack of progress.

Christina Rossetti wrote a great deal of religious verse, including the carol, ‘In the bleak mid-winter’, and some pleasant pieces for children. Her last important work, however, was a sonnet-sequence called ‘Monna Innominata’, possibly begun as early as 1866, but not published until 1881. The title implied a mild protest against the tradition that the woman’s role in love-poetry was to be quite anonymous, as in the sonnets of early Italian poets, or, like Petrarch’s Laura or Dante’s Beatrice, to have a name but no personality or ‘attractiveness’, although they were possibly just as good poets as the men. This faintly feminist flourish introduced a sequence that William called an ‘intensely personal’ utterance. The personal experience referred to is still a matter of dispute, but, as in Dante and Petrarch (who supply the epigraphs), the general theme is a progress from human love towards il Primo Amore. The sequence consists of fourteen sonnets, and the subtitle, ‘A Sonnet of Sonnets’, suggests that, like The House of Life, the whole poem is meant to parallel the sonnet-structure. Thus the first eight sonnets are mainly concerned with the poet’s human feelings, and end with a wish that she possessed the physical attractions of Esther. The last six are more concerned with her relationship to God, and end with her acceptance of la Sua Volontade. The lines in which she sums up what that Will seems to be for her epitomize (p.126) her inexplicable gift for making moving poetry out of the unpromising material of self-pity:

  •    Youth gone and beauty gone, what doth remain?
  •    The longing of a heart pent up forlorn,
  •        A silent heart whose silence loves and longs;
  •        The silence of a heart which sang its songs
  •    While youth and beauty made a summer morn,
  • Silence of love that cannot sing again.

After the introverted, and sometimes claustrophobic, poetry of the two Rossettis, the work of William Morris seems like a breath of fresh air.3 A close friend of D. G. Rossetti and Burne-Jones, he helped to start the second Pre-Raphaelite journal, The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine (1856), painted one of the equally short-lived Pre-Raphaelite frescos in the Oxford Union (1857), married Jane Burden, who came to be the type of Pre-Raphaelite beauty, and produced a picture of her as Queen Guinevere (1858). But he was much more than a Pre-Raphaelite poet-painter. He was also an influential critic of architecture, who founded the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings. He was a designer of almost everything, from furniture and wallpaper to stained-glass windows and printed books (not to mention a suit of armour in which he got stuck). He was a practical expert in dyeing and weaving, who pioneered the Arts and Crafts movement, and ran a commercial firm which successfully marketed such products. He was finally a Marxist agitator and propagandist, preaching Revolution while still designing flowered chintzes. In literature, his prose was as important as his verse. It included short stories, some very long romances, lectures on art, society, and politics, a satirical play, and a Utopian novel, News from Nowhere (1890).

His central impulse had always been Utopian, an urge to live in a better world than his own, or at least in a different one. ‘Apart (p.127) from the desire to produce beautiful things,’ he wrote in 1894,’the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.’ All his practical, commercial, and political activities were attempts to improve the existing environment, and the constant search for better worlds to inhabit, if only in imagination, led to the medievalism of his early fiction and poetry, the romantic Hellenism of Jason, the Utopian theme of The Earthly Paradise, the effort to recreate the world of the sagas in Sigurd the Volsung, and the final rejection of paradise in The Story of the Glittering Plain.

His attitude to poetry reflected his concern with applied art. In a lecture on ‘Pattern-designing’ (1881) he seemed to imply that both art and literature were a kind of wallpaper, to clothe ‘the bare walls’ of a man’s life, and make them ‘pleasant and helpful to him’. For such ordinary purposes one needed not ‘the best art’ but the more restful ‘lesser art’ of ‘ornament that reminds us of the outward face of the earth, of the innocent love of animals, or of man passing his days between work and rest as he does.’ Most of his own poetry was equally unassuming, and his approach to writing it correspondingly casual: ‘if a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he’s weaving tapestry’, said Morris, ‘he had better shut up.’

The earliest poems, written under the influence of Tennyson, Browning, and Rossetti, and published in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, are less interesting than the accompanying short stories. The setting is usually medieval, and the quasi-archaic simplicity of style shows Morris’s passion for Malory and Froissart. The environment is pictorially described, with much stress on primary colours. The action is mostly presented by a first-person narrator, so that Morris can project himself psychologically, physically, and emotionally into the period. The main themes are loving and fighting, the latter bloodthirsty, and sometimes savage to the point of sadism. Dreams, nightmares, and confused states of consciousness abound. Despite much juvenile ardour, the stories tend to be too long, too slow, and too shapeless to give much pleasure, but there are two exceptions. ‘The Story of the Unknown Church’, told by a thirteenth-century master-mason, convincingly relates his emotional experience to his architecture and sculpture. ‘Lindenborg Pool’, based on a Danish legend of a castle miraculously destroyed for the wickedness of its (p.128) inmates, is remarkable for its nightmarish atmosphere, and still more for its dramatic-monologue form. This vividly enacts the process of a weird personality change, by which Morris suddenly finds himself a thirteenth-century priest, riding through the darkness with a drunken jester. Ί watched him in my proper nineteenth-century character, with insatiable curiosity and intense amusement; but as a quiet priest of a long past age, with contempt and disgust enough, not unmixed with fear and anxiety.’

The medieval world of The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems (1858) was shown in the same double perspective, both from inside and from outside the characters concerned. Besides pieces based on Malory and Froissart, and one, ‘Rapunzel’, on a Grimm fairy-tale, there were some drawn almost entirely from Morris’s imagination, quasi-surrealist fantasies, part-musical, part-pictorial. Two of these, ‘The Blue Closet’ and ‘The Tune of Seven Towers’, were suggested by pictures of Rossetti, to whom the volume was dedicated. The most effective of the Malory-pieces was the title-poem, a Browning-type ‘apology’ in terza rima. Unlike Tennyson’s ‘Guinevere’ (1859), Guenevere is quite impenitent. Instead of trying to refute the charge of adultery, she glories in her physical passion for Lancelot, and in her own physical beauty: ‘say no rash word | Against me, being so beautiful’. Morris had recently been Rossetti’s model for a Tennyson-illustration of Lancelot, and he seems to have written the poem in that character. Its compelling rhetoric of language, imagery, and bodily movement suggests the intense sympathy of a lover, rather than the probable feelings of the lady herself.

Of the Froissart-pieces, ‘Sir Peter Harpdon’s End’ is a gripping drama that stresses the brutality of medieval warfare; but the best of the group is ‘The Haystack in the Floods’. Possibly inspired by Froissart’s account of the atrocities committed by the Jacquerie, the story ends with a girl seeing her lover’s head cut off and beaten to pieces on the ground. The impact of the poem results not merely from its horrific content but also from its simple and neutral style, almost free from archaisms, its severely detached tone, its meteorological symbolism, and its ironic structure, by which the opening lines are echoed with new meaning at the close. ‘Rapunzel’ is a kind of operetta, with metrical variety for music, which transforms a disturbing original into a picturesque image, recalling both ‘The Blessed Damozel’ and ‘The Lady of Shalott’, (p.129) of a maiden on a tower. Even the bleeding corpse below her is registered aesthetically: ‘Some crimson thing had changed the grass from bright | Pure green I love so.’ The Prince, who has hitherto spent most of his time dreaming, seems to confirm Morris’s remark of 1856: ‘My work is the embodiment of dreams in one form or another’, and the fourth type of poem in the volume is particularly dreamlike. In some, the musical but meaningless refrain contributes to this effect. In others, like ‘The Wind’, harshly irrational imagery produces the sense of nightmare, and in ‘Golden Wings’ an initially Tennysonian castle-paradise comes to a deliberately jarring end:

  • The draggled swans most eagerly eat
  •      The green weeds trailing in the moat;
  •      Inside the rotting leaky boat
  • You see a slain man’s stiffen’d feet.

The 1858 volume has appealed to the modern taste for violence, obscurity, and surrealistic effects. It certainly shows great originality and imaginative exuberance, with a grasp of metrical and dramatic techniques surprising in a poet of twenty-four. But for Morris such poetry was a dead end: the way ahead was the mass-production of much simpler and less concentrated narrative verse, as in The Life and Death of Jason (1867). Mostly written at night, as a relaxation from the practical work of the Firm, it became instantly popular, and is still his most attractive major poem. Though based on a Greek myth, Jason shows little influence of any classical author that handled it; and though Morris calls Chaucer his ‘master’, he seems much closer to the Keats of Endymion in the rambling fluency of his couplets, and the incidental felicities that decorate the narrative. These take the form of pictures, sharp in focus though seen through a mist of dream or distance in time, with a characteristic emphasis on primary colours and on weather conditions. But there is no emotional detachment. The reader is made to share the characters’ feelings, and every exciting moment in the story, like the nocturnal escape from Æa, is exploited to the full. The reader is also made aware of Morris’s own non-literary interests. Architecture, art-processes, and artefacts are given prominence, while the Argonauts’ practical problems are solved quite inventively. Instead of carrying their ship for twelve days and nights on their shoulders, as in Apollonius Rhodius, they (p.130) construct ‘a stage with broad wheels’ for it, and, working in shifts of twenty men at a time, pull it along with cables.

Predictably, Guenevere’s advocate does all he can to exculpate Medea, clearing her, for instance, from the charge, in Kingsley’s Heroes (1856), of cruelly murdering her brother. For the heroism of the Argonauts themselves Morris shows some boyish enthusiasm; but the general tone of the poem is not epic, but elegiac. The pervasive theme is the irony of human life, the vanity of human wishes. The final comment on Jason is that ‘he had hoped that hope in vain’, and the final message of the poem, perhaps suggested by the failure of Morris’s marriage, is that all hopes are disappointed. The message is often put in the form that all Utopias are false. Æa seems at first ‘an earthly Paradise’, but proves a death-trap; and the process of disillusionment continues with a series of quasi-Utopias: the ‘happy summer isle’ that Phrixus thinks of, the ‘happy place’ beneath the water where Hylas drowns, the ‘dream’ of the Golden Age, the ‘lovely land’ of Circe with its garden ‘Paradise’, the ‘glorious land’ of the Sirens, the ‘lovely’ land of the Hesperides, the ‘golden age, free from all fear and pain’ that Pelias promises himself, before being killed by his equally deluded daughters.

The false Utopia of The Earthly Paradise (1868–70), like that imagined by Pelias, is free from death. The twenty-four tales in this four-volume, composite poem are supposed to be told in a slightly more realistic Utopia, ‘A nameless city in a distant sea’, where mortality is not evaded, but only made easier to bear. The framing story, mostly related in the Prologue, but continued in short passages between the tales, and concluded in the Epilogue, is set in the time of Chaucer. In a desperate attempt to escape death during a plague, some Norwegians set off in search of a legendary paradise where no one dies. They never find it, but after wasting the best years of their lives looking for it, have to make do with the ‘nameless city’. There they become resigned to the human condition, and try to enjoy what is still left to them: the beauty of seasonal changes, the kindness of their Greek-speaking hosts, and the imaginative delights of mythology, both Greek and Northern—for two stories are told every month, one by a Greek and one by a Norwegian.

In the Preface the future revolutionary poses as an ‘idle singer of an empty day’, a ‘dreamer of dreams’, unable to put things right in (p.131) the real world, and merely trying to ‘build a shadowy isle of bliss | Midmost the beating of the steely sea’. But the poem’s philosophy is not exactly escapist, since it insists on facing facts and making the best of them. The structure, though clearly suggested by The Canterbury Tales, is highly original and subtly integrated. Each tale, for instance, is related in spirit to the month in which it is told, and the whole series forms a seasonal cycle of moods, beginning and ending with the cheerfulness of Spring. The tales themselves are well chosen and well told but, as fiction, they now seem to move much too slowly, and as poetry, to be too reliant on stock Romantic phraseology. For the modern reader, the best of The Earthly Paradise is probably to be found in the Prologue, in the personal poems that introduce each monthly story-telling, and seem to reflect Morris’s unhappiness about his wife, and in the bleakest of the individual tales, appropriately told in late November, ‘The Lovers of Gudrun’, from the Laxdaela Saga.

When Morris wrote this tale, he had never been to Iceland, though he had started learning Old Norse. But in 1871 he saw the place where Gudrun was said to have lived, in the course of a six-weeks’ exploration of Iceland on horseback, graphically recorded in his journal. He returned to Reykjavik lousy but exhilarated, and the whole experience combined with the Sagas to change his attitude towards his personal problems from one of romantic melancholy to one of courage and vitality. The theme of Love is Enough (1872) was still superficially romantic: the quest, as in Shelley’s Alastor, for a woman loved in a dream. But King Pharamond’s love is in conflict with his social responsibilities; and his final decision that ‘love is enough’ is justified by the fact that during the three-years’ quest his people have turned against him. He feels there is no point now in trying to win back ‘the semblance of love that they have not to give me’. One is tempted to see here a reversed image of Morris’s own situation. Pharamond settles for love, after failing in public life: Morris has failed in love, but now finds public success ‘enough’ to compensate. The intricate form of the poem, a play within a play within a play, with a Rossetti-type personified Love acting as compère, and lyrical interludes of ‘Music’ serving as Chorus, suggests an attempt to distance private emotion. Apart from the charm of the dactylic ‘Music’, and the interest of the experiments in alliterative verse, the poem is impressive chiefly as a piece of book-production, half-way between (p.132) poetry and decorative art. Its ingenious structure has almost the same effect as the pattern of interlacing willow-leaves that the poet designed for its green-and-gold binding.

The same year, he started writing what he called his ‘abortive novel’. The plot, in which two brothers are in love with the same girl, was clearly based on his own situation with his wife and Rossetti. One brother is a ‘dreamy’ type, but the character of the other, ‘whistling in sturdy resolution to keep his heart up’, reflects Morris’s new feeling for the cheerful stoicism of the Sagas. With his Icelandic friend Magnússon he had already published a prose translation of the Volsunga Saga, and after translating the Aeneid in the metre of Chapman’s Homer (1875) he now produced his own Northern epic, Sigurd the Volsung (1876). He thought it his highest achievement in literature, and some critics have agreed. But only Wagnerians and old Norse specialists are likely to enjoy its plot, the pseudo-archaic diction is tiresome, and the versification awkward—though the regular hiccup in the third foot of its six-foot, iambic-anapaestic line might theoretically be defended, as simulating the caesura in a classical hexameter. The poem contains, however, some striking scenes, such as the battles and fires in Siggeir’s and Atli’s halls, the tipping of the whole Niblung treasure into a lake (an improvement on the original Saga prefiguring Morris’s later attitude to private property), and the richly symbolic picture of Gunnar, singing a song of triumph while awaiting death in a snake-pit: ‘And I fought and was glad in the morning, and I sing in the night and the end…’.

From then on Morris himself virtually stopped singing, and did his best work in prose. But he started fighting, almost in Gunnar’s spirit, first for a less hideous world, and then for a juster society. As he put it in ‘Art and Socialism’ (1884), ‘These, I say, are the days of combat, when there is no external peace possible to an honest man’. The satisfying combustion of Siggeir’s and Atli’s halls was translated into artistic, and then political, terms. ‘The Art of the People’ (1879) called for most of the furnishings of ‘any rich man’s house’ to be thrown on a ‘bonfire’, and ‘Art, Wealth and Riches’ (1883) recommended the same treatment for the ‘pestilential rubbish’ in the ‘fair house’ of England, ‘lest some day there be no way of getting rid of it but by burning it up inside with the goods and house and all.’ The transformation of the art-critic into the socialist agitator was a process initiated by Ruskin’s ‘The (p.133) Nature of Gothic’4 and confirmed by the study of Marx from 1883 onwards. The underlying train of thought can be traced through a series of highly persuasive lectures given between 1877 and 1894. It began with a protest against the destruction of natural beauty by industrialization, and against the ugliness of so-called manufactured goods. It ended with the conviction that ‘the beauty of life’ could never be restored without a radical change of the economic system. Whatever may be thought of Morris’s political prescriptions, his criticisms of modern civilization are undeniably sound; and his propagandist purpose had a splendid effect on his prose style. In the effort to communicate with ‘those whom the stupidity of language forces me to call the lower classes’, he learned to express himself with admirable simplicity and vigour.

Another literary by-product of his political campaign was a new type of imaginative fiction, in which the ‘dreamer of dreams’ joined forces with the more realistic author of the ‘abortive novel’. The first of two such works published in the Socialist League’s magazine (which Morris edited), The Commonweal, was A Dream of John Ball (1886–7). The opening is relaxed and humorous. Morris dreams that he is addressing a large open-air audience in his night-shirt, ‘reinforced…by a pair of braceless trousers.’ He then drifts convincingly into an earlier phase of Marx’s ‘history of class struggles’, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The heart of the work, both as propaganda and as fiction, is the conversation in a moonlit church between the medieval priest and the Victorian author. Sharing a social ideal, they have very different attitudes to life and death, and Ball can hardly grasp the idea of a tyranny not feudal but economic. The imaginative power shown in this weird confrontation of period-dreams (‘thou hast been a dream to me as I to thee’, says John Ball) is considerable; but the effect is partly spoilt by the pseudo-medieval jargon into which Marxist theory is incongruously translated.

In the later prose romances this type of language became almost habitual; but News from Nowhere, by far the best of Morris’s contributions to Commonweal (1890), was mercifully free of it. Here he imagined, again in the form of a dream, a world that would satisfy his socialist aspirations, his tastes in art and architecture, (p.134) and his interest in handicrafts. He goes to sleep one night, after a meeting of the Socialist League, and dreams of waking up in the twenty-first century, to a post-Revolution England, purged of the evils of capitalism, industrialization, and urbanization. His Nowhere, named after More’s Utopia, resembled it in its communism, but made far more allowance for individual impulse, for the aesthetic sense, and for the sexual instinct. Its substitution of anarchy for regimentation, in society, politics, and morality, was a reaction not only against More, but also against Edward Bellamy, whose version of a socialist Utopia in Looking Backward: 2000–1887 (1888) had conscripted every individual into an ‘industrial army’. For Bellamy’s urban paradise, enriched by such blessings of technology as piped music in every home, Morris presented an England where everyone could do what he liked, where ‘immensely improved machinery’ was used only for jobs ‘which would be irksome to do by hand’, and where everything was beautiful, because everyone worked in the spirit of an artist, and the environment was almost entirely rural.

That communism is enough in itself to bring out the best in human nature, and create a heaven on earth, has not been confirmed by twentieth-century experience, and News from Nowhere is full of other improbabilities, e.g. ‘Most children, seeing books lying about, manage to read by the time they are four years old.’ But it has one great advantage over the vast majority of Utopian novels: it creates a world that would really be pleasant to live in. It is also unusually successful in giving that world the reality of a personal experience. This is done largely by dramatizing the author’s emotional involvement with his ideal society, notably in his relationship with Ellen. The closing passage, where all consciousness of his existence gradually fades from her face, transforms Morris’s sad feelings about his wife into a moving image for the transition from Utopia to reality.

The relative value of these two worlds was finally reassessed in The Story of the Glittering Plain (1891). The Plain is a kind of earthly paradise that the hero, Hallblithe, does not find satisfactory. Like Odysseus, when he prefers his less beautiful human wife to Calypso, Hallblithe prefers his own betrothed (whose name implies that she is ‘a hostage to fortune’) to the daughter of the Undying King. He rejects the passive ‘bliss’ of the Plain, and opts for a heroic struggle with the fortunes of human life, aided by an (p.135) enigmatic ‘big red man’, who reminds one of Sir Gawain’s Green Knight.

Morris produced five other prose romances. Written in his own brand of Wardour Street English, at great length and with little variety of tempo, they told vaguely allegorical tales of fantastic quests and adventures. Some modern readers have found them irresistible, and in a paperback reprint of 1975 The Well at the World’s End (1896) was described as ‘Morris’s masterpiece’. Those who like structural economy will find The Glittering Plain more rewarding than its successors. Relatively brief, it tells an exciting story, and its symbolic drift suggests a healthy conclusion to Morris’s quest for Utopia. When Hallblithe turns his back on the ‘land of lies’, and goes off to fight for a real human being, he is accused of ‘still seeking a dream’. Ί seek no dream,’ he replies, ‘but rather the end of dreams.’

‘Now we are four and not three’, Burne-Jones had said at Oxford in 1857, when Swinburne was first introduced to him and Morris and Rossetti. Sure enough, Swinburne soon formed close links with the second group of Pre-Raphaelites.5 He modelled for Rossetti, who liked his red hair. He imitated Morris in a poem called ‘Queen Yseult’. Later, he dedicated his Poems and Ballads to Burne-Jones, enthusiastically reviewed Rossetti’s Poems (1870), and shared with him Robert Buchanan’s abuse in ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry’. But Swinburne was a Pre-Raphaelite by friendship and association only, not by the character of his work. This, whether in poetry, prose-fiction, or criticism, was essentially sui generis, whatever features it owed to Tennyson, Shakespeare, Shelley, Baudelaire, the Bible or the Marquis de Sade.

As a poet he showed a remarkable gift for verbal and rhythmical spell-binding, a taste for sensational subjects, and a lack of interest in structure. ‘What a mess little Swinburne would have made of this!’ said Tennyson, pleased with his own treatment of eroticism in ‘Lucretius’. Swinburne did make a mess of such things, by his (p.136) obsession with sexual perversion. Paid £10 by Rossetti to ‘make a man’ of Swinburne, a girl aptly named Dolores had to confess failure: she ‘couldn’t make him understand that biting’s no use’. Nor, for most readers, is flagellation, or any other form of sadomasochism. So this element in his poetry, when not merely monotonous, seems repellent or ridiculous. His form can be as messy as his content. Even his best poems tend to ramble. Brilliant in parts, and in their continuous hypnotic effect, they are disappointing wholes.

In this respect his first great success, Atalanta in Calydon (1865), was exceptional. Its structure was determined by that of Greek tragedy, but, unlike Arnold’s Merope, it had an air of spontaneity. Swinburne’s handling of the myth suggested a concern with family tensions, as in his novel, Love’s Cross-Currents: his Althaea kills her son, not just to avenge her brothers, but also from jealousy of the girl he loves. Like Euripides as well as Shelley, Swinburne attacked orthodox religion, notably in a chorus denouncing the ‘supreme evil, God’. He effectively exploited the myth’s dramatic possibilities, developing Althaea into a powerful character, part Clytemnestra and part Iago, who stoically accepts herself and her destiny: Ί did this and I say this and I die.’ There is equal strength and dignity in much of the blank-verse dialogue; but Swinburne’s greatest gifts are most evident in the choral lyrics, where wonderfully fluent and inventive rhythms combine with constant alliteration to induce a mood of great intensity, enjoyable but almost devoid of intellectual meaning.

  • When the hounds of spring are on winters traces,
  •     The mother of months in meadow or plain
  • Fills the shadows and windy places
  •     With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain;
  • And the brown bright nightingale amorous
  • Is half assuaged for Itylus,
  • For the Thracian ships and the foreign faces,
  •     The tongueless vigil, and all the pain.

In Poems and Ballads (1866) the same vague mood was created by the same stylistic and prosodie virtuosity, but the choice of subjects was deliberately shocking. Of numerous variations on the theme of unnatural sex, ‘The Leper’ was typical: a thirty-five-stanza (p.137) monologue by a necrophile, whose loved one has died of leprosy. To outrage religious as well as moral conventions, this kind of material was often treated in the language of Christianity. Thus ‘Dolores (Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs)’ parodied a hymn to the Virgin Mary, in a spirit described by the poet as ‘half-humorous’. There was indeed a touch of Byronic wit, when ‘Our Lady of Pain’ turned ‘Our loves into corpses or wives’; and few poems in the volume deserve to be taken seriously, except ‘The Triumph of Time’ and ‘A Leave-taking’, which seems to reflect a real personal experience; ‘Itylus’, a convincing expression of grief in a verbal simulation of bird-song; and ‘The Garden of Proserpine’, a memorable image for a state of emotional inertia.

Swinburne went on to write political poems in support of the Risorgimento, a pantheistic verse-sermon called ‘Hertha’, some quasi-Elizabethan blank-verse tragedies, and a long, slow, narrative poem in couplets, Tristram of Lyonesse (1882). The last poem, however, to show his special gifts with a minimum of dilution was ‘A Forsaken Garden’ (1878). Here a haunting symbol of human transience develops into a wider vision of geological change, and ends (like Tristram) with an apocalyptic glimpse of a world obliterated by the sea.

If the best of Swinburne’s poetry can be found in Atalanta and a few short lyrics, his best work as a novelist was done in Love’s Cross-Currents: A Year’s Letters. The fragments of Lesbia Brandon have little to offer readers not fascinated by incest, lesbianism, and flagellation. Written in 1862, though not published in full until 1974, Love’s Cross-Currents was preceded by an amusing parody of a publisher’s rejection-letter, which tacitly acknowledged a debt to such authors as Stendhal and Choderlos de Laclos. An epistolary novel, it describes the adulterous love-affairs that develop between two pairs of aristocratic cousins. The plot is dominated, and the lovers manipulated, by a grandmother-cum-aunt called Lady Midhurst. She is a splendidly vital character: cruelly witty and psychologically acute; stoical, sceptical, rational, realistic, and ruthless in defence of the family reputation. Ί wish to heaven’, she writes, ‘there were some surgical process discoverable by which one could annihilate or amputate sentiment.’ By delicate blackmail she finally frustrates her grandson’s ‘first love’, and complacently plans his future: Ί shall simply reconquer the boy, and hold him in hand till I find a woman fit to have charge of (p.138) him.’ His treatment may be based on some early experience of Swinburne’s but, if so, bitterness was transmuted into satirical comedy. The whole novel was a brilliant performance, economically structured and entertainingly, even epigrammatically written. Except for one unpleasant passage about floggings, one would hardly believe it was written by the author of Poems and Ballads.

Swinburne the critic was both like and unlike the poet. In criticism, too, he never knew when to stop, and, anxious ‘to do homage wherever it may be due’, tended to go into rhapsodies, full of superlatives and hyperboles, but empty of specific judgements. He showed, however, intellectual acuteness, objectivity, and a surprisingly catholic taste. Defending Les Fleurs du Mal in 1862, he claimed that ‘a poet’s business is presumably to write good verses, and by no means to redeem the age and remould society’; but in discussing ‘the doctrine of art for art’ (1872) he was tolerant of authors who had a didactic aim. He was thus prepared to forgive Aeschylus, Dante, Milton, and Shelley for having a message, and thought Dickens ‘the greatest Englishman of his generation’. Despite such breadth of sympathy, his finest critical work was done on an author with whom he could instinctively identify, as a heretic in both religion and sexual ethics. William Blake: A Critical Essay (1868) was a pioneering study. Rejecting the excuse for ignoring the Prophetic Books that Blake was mad when he wrote them, Swinburne took ‘a blind header into the midst of the whirling foam and rolling weed of this sea of words’. Though only The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was interpreted in detail, he made the investigation of Blake’s meaning seem an exciting project, and offered at least a helpful outline of his philosophy. Even so, his enthusiasm was tempered with realism: ‘Seriously, one cannot imagine that people will ever read through this vast poem [Jerusalem] with pleasure enough to warrant them in having patience with it.’

His most enjoyable criticism took the form of parody. Praising Arnold’s Empedocles for its atheism, he burlesqued the theology of In Memorian in an amusing quotation from a non-existent Trench critic’ (1875). Satirizing the absurdities of certain French novels with an English setting, he wrote (1860) a hilarious imitation, ‘La Fille du Policeman’, about a coup d’état attempted by Prince Albert. And Specimens of Modern Poets: The Heptalogia, or, The Seven Against Sense (1880) included some of the best and funniest (p.139) verse-parody of the period. Inevitably, the Specimen of Browning contains a comic rhyme for ‘flagellate’. But much can be forgiven the author of the superb self-parody, ‘Nephelidia’: ‘From the depth of the dreamy decline of the dawn through a notable nimbus of nebulous moonshine…’.


(1) Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1818–82, was born in London, the son of a political refugee from Naples. From King’s College School he went to the Academy Schools, where with Millais and Holman Hunt he founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), 1848. In 1850 he met and eventually married Elizabeth Siddal, who died, 1862, of a laudanum overdose, possibly intentional. He then took a house in Chelsea, where he was joined for some months by Swinburne and Meredith. Having worked with Morris on the Oxford Union frescos, 1857, he shared Kelmscott Manor with him, 1871. He was now in love with Mrs Morris. Soon afterwards he had a nervous breakdown, precipitated by chloral, alcohol, and Buchanan’s ‘Fleshly School of Poetry’, and from then on his health continued to decline.

(2) Christina Georgina Rossetti, 1830–94, was born in London, the younger sister of D. G. Rossetti. She was educated at home and, apart from one trip to Italy and one to France, spent her life there. A devout Anglican, she broke off her engagement to James Collinson, a member of the PRB, when he reverted to Roman Catholicism, 1850, and refused to marry C. B. Cayley, although she loved him ‘deeply and permanently’, according to her brother William, because she found his religious views unsatisfactory. After her childhood she never enjoyed good health.

(3) William Morris, 1834–96, was born in Walthamstow, the eldest son of a rich stockbroker. He went to Marlborough and Exeter College, Oxford, where he met Burne-Jones. He studied architecture under G. E. Street, and worked with Rossetti on the Oxford Union frescos, 1857–8. In 1859 he married Jane Burden, a groom’s daughter who had modelled for the frescos, and had the Red House built as their home. In 1861 he founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Co., which marketed his designs, and, 1871 took a joint lease of Kelmscott Manor with Rossetti, and first visited Iceland. From 1877 he was active in the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and next year moved into his last London home at Hammersmith. He joined the Social Democratic Federation, 1883, and headed the breakaway Socialist League, 1884. He founded the Kelmscott Press, 1890.

(4) See Chap. 12.

(5) Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1837–1909, was born in London, the son of a naval captain from an old Northumbrian family. After Eton he went to Balliol College, Oxford, where he met Morris, Burne-Jones, and Rossetti. His other friends included Whistler and Burton, and his heroes, Mazzini, Victor Hugo, and Baudelaire. His odd personality contributed to the Aesthetic movement, and his criticism was also influential. His health broke down, 1879, after which he lived with his friend Watts-Dunton at No. 2, The Pines, Putney. There he ceased to be an alcoholic and became a respectable and very prolific author.