Review of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Poems

By William Morris

Ten year ago with the publication of his beautiful and scholarly volume of translations from the early Italian poets, Mr Rossetti announced the preparation of a volume of original poems. This book, so eagerly looked for by those who knew the author by his great works in painting, has now been given to the public; nor is it easy to exaggerate the value and importance of that gift, for the book is complete and satisfactory from end to end. And in spite of the intimate connection between one art and another, it is certainly to be wondered at, that a master in the supremely difficult art of painting should have qualities which enable him to deal with the other supremely difficult one of poetry: and to do this not only with the utmost depth of feeling and thought, but also with the most complete and unfaltering mastery over its material; that he should find in its limitations and special conditions, not stumbling-blocks or fetters, but just so many pleasures, so much whetting of invention and imagination. In no poems is the spontaneous and habitual interpenetration of matter and manner, which is the essence of poetry, more complete than in these. An original and subtile beauty of execution expresses the deep mysticism of thought, which in some form and degree is not wanting certainly to any poets of the modern school, but which in Mr Rossetti's work is both great in degree and passionate in kind; nor in him has it any tendency to lose itself amid allegory or abstractions; indeed, instead of turning human life into symbols of things vague and not understood, it rather gives to the very symbols the personal life and variety of mankind. No poem in this book is without the circle of this realizing mysticism, which deals wonderingly with all real things that can have poetic life given them by passion, and refuses to have to do with any invisible things that in the wide scope of its imagination cannot be made perfectly distinct and poetically real. Of all turns of mind this must be the fittest to give the concentration and intensity necessary for lyrical work, and the corresponding patience and untiring energy to carry them out: nothing but this could have given us the magnificent collection of sonnets at the end of this volume, which, though they are some among upwards of eighty that are not free from obscurity, the besetting vice of sonnets, are nevertheless unexampled in the English language since Shakespeare's for depth of thought, and skill and felicity of execution. A mediocre sonnet is more hateful to gods and men than any other versified mediocrity, a crabbed one is harder to read than any other form of crabbed verse; and complete success is not common even when the thought is not over-deep. But to express some deep piece of thought or feeling completely and with beauty in the narrow limits of fourteen lines, and in such a way that no line should be useless or barren of some reflex of the main idea: to leave the due impression of the whole thought on the mind by the weight and beauty of the ending, and to do all this without losing simplicity, without affectation of any kind, and with exquisite choiceness of diction and rhyme, is as surely a very great achievement and among the things most worth doing, as it is exceedingly rare to find done. But few of these sonnets fall short of this highest standard; and they seem withal the most natural and purest expression of the peculiar mysticism spoken of above. Two poems are to be named here, as having in them much of the feeling of the strongest of the sonnets, with a sweetness and simplicity of their own, A Little While, and The Sea Limits; the completeness with which the thought is grasped, amid its delicate flux from stanza to stanza, is very characteristic of Mr Rossetti's best work. Love's Nocturn classes itself with these and the sonnets also. It is a very beautiful and finished piece of work, and full of subtle melody, but something obscure with more than the obscurity of the dreamy subject and sometimes with a certain sense of over labour in it. Both these faults may be predicted also of a poem of the same class, The Stream's Secret, which nevertheless iswonderfully finished, and has very high musical qualities, and a certain stateliness of movement about it which coming among its real and deep feeling makes it very telling and impressive.

Among pieces where the mystical feeling is by necessity of subject most simple and most on the surface, The Blessed Damozel should be noticed, a poem in which wild longing, and the shame of life, and despair of separation, and the worship of love, are wrought into a palpable dream, in which the heaven that exists as if for the sake of the beloved is as real as the earthly things about the lover, while these are scarcely less strange or less pervaded with a sense of his passion, than the things his imagination has made. The poem is as profoundly sweet and touching and natural as any in the book, that is to say, as any in the whole range of modern poetry. At first sight the leap from this poem to the Jenny may seem very great, but there is, in fact, no break in the unity of the mind that imagined both these poems; rather one is the necessary complement to the other. The subject is difficult for a modern poet to deal with, but necessary for a man to think of; it is thought of here with the utmost depths of feeling, pity, and insight, with no mawkishness on the one hand, no coarseness on the other: and carried out with perfect simplicity and beauty. It is so strong, unforced, and full of nature, that I think it the poem of the whole book that would be most missed if it were taken away. With all this, its very simplicity and directness make it hard to say much about it; but it may be noticed, as leading to the consideration of one side of Mr Rossetti's powers, how perfectly the dramatic character of the soliloquizer is kept; his pity, his protest against the hardness of nature and chance never make him didactic, or more or less than a man of the world, any more than his shame of his own shame makes him brutal, though in the inevitable flux and reflux of feeling and habit and pleasure he is always seeming on the verge of touching one or other of these extremes. How admirably, too, the conclusion is managed with that dramatic breaking of day, and the effect that it gives to the chilling of enthusiasm and remorse, which it half produces and is half typical of; coming after the grand passage about lust that brings to a climax the musings over so much beauty and so many good things apparently thrown away causelessly.

The dramatic quality of Mr Rossetti's work has just been mentioned, which brings one to saying that, though it seemed necessary to dwell so strongly on the mystical and intensely lyrical side of his poems, they bear with them signs of the highest dramatic power, whatever its future application may be. This is shown not merely in the vivid picturing of external scenes - as that of the return of the humbled exiles to Florence in the noble poem of Dante at Verona - but most conclusively still in the steady purpose running through all these poems in which character or action, however lyrical, is dealt with; in ripeness of plan, and in the congruity of detail with which they are wrought out; all this, of course, in addition to their imaginative qualities. This is well seen in Sister Helen, which is, in fact, a ballad (the form of poem of all others in which, when it is complete, the lyrical and dramatic sides of art are most closely connected), and in which the wild and picturesque surroundings, and the growing force of the tremendous burden, work up surely and most impressively to the expected but still startling end, the effect of which, as almost always in Mr Rossetti's poems, is not injured by a word too much. As widely different as it may be in character of execution to this, there is the same dramatic force amidst the magnificent verses of Eden Bower, where the strangest and remotest of subjects is wonderfully realized by the strength and truth of its passion, though the actors in it add supernatural characteristics to the human qualities that make it a fit subject for poetry. The Last Confession, whose subject connects itself somewhat with these two last, is the poem in the book whose form is the leastcharacteristic of Mr Rossetti's work, the most like what is expected of a poet with strong dramatic tendencies; it is, however, most complete and satisfactory, and the character of the man is admirable imagined and developed, so as both to make the catastrophe likely, and to prevent if from becoming unpoetical, and just merely shocking: a character, elevated and tender and sensitive, but brooding, and made narrow both naturally and by the force of the continual tragedy of oppression surrounding his life; wrought upon by the necessary but unreasonable sense of wrong that his unreturned love brings him, till despair and madness, but never hate, comes from it. Well befitting such a character, but also indicating the inevitable mystical tendency of the author, as small as the indication may be, is the omen of the broken toy of Love that sheds the first blood, and that other typical incident of the altars of the two Madonnas. In speaking of a book where the poems are so singularly equal in merit as this, it has been scarcely possible to do more than name the most important, and several even must remain unnamed; but it is something of a satisfaction to finish with mentioning the Song of the Bower, so full of passion and melody, and more like a song to be sung than any modern piece I know. To conclude, I think these lyrics, with all their other merits, the most complete of their time; no difficulty is avoided in them: no subject is treated vaguely, languidly, or heartlessly: as there is no commonplace or second-hand thought left in them to be atoned for by beauty of execution, so no thought is allowed to overshadow that beauty of art which compels a real poet to speak in verse and not in prose. Nor do I know what lyrics of any time are to be called great if we are to deny that title to these.

Academy, 14 May 1870.

The reference to this piece of work in the Chronology