Arthurian and Grail Poetry
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born in London, England on May 12, 1828 and died
on Easter Day, April 9, 1882. He spent his entire working life in or near the city of his
birth, leaving England only three times. Though his work is steeped in Italian traditions,
Rossetti never visited Italy. His father was the celebrated Dante scholar and Italian political
exile Gabriele Rossetti. His mother, Frances Polidori, was much younger than her husband but
also came from a distinguished and literary family.
Rossetti showed talent even at a young age in writing and painting. He went to
Sass's Drawing School in 1841; and in 1845, transferred to the Antique School of the
Royal Academy. In 1848, he dropped out of school altogether. But it was an important year
that would produce his first important painting as well as some of his literary writings.
When he left the school, he apprenticed himself for a short time to Ford Madox Brown. At the
1848 Royal Academy Exhibition, he became enthralled by William Holman Hunt's "Eve of
St. Agnes" and struck up a friendship with the painter. He moved in with him and worked
under Hunt's supervision to finish his first important painting, "The Girlhood of
Mary Virgin" and to create the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
In 1850, Rossetti met the beautiful Elizabeth Siddal, who became almost his
obsession. He painted and used her as his model in all his early works. For the next decade,
poverty and Rossetti's occasional wandering eye prevented their marriage. Throughout
that decade, Rossetti worked on his painting, first in oils and later when he felt unable to
express his desires, in water colors. In 1857, while working on the project to paint the
walls of the Debating Hall of the Union Society in Oxford, he met some of his greatest
friends, including Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, and Charles Algernon Swinburne. As
it turned out, the murals were completed but faded and disappeared because Rossetti did not
understand how to properly prepare the walls for the paintings. Two other projects of these
years were also important. In 1856, William Morris and his friends published The Oxford
and Cambridge Magazine, a sequel to earlier publication The Germ. The other event
was the publication of Moxon's edition of Tennyson's selected poetry, which appeared
early in 1857. The book carried illustrations by various artists of the day. Rossetti's
contributions, which illustrated "The Palace of Art" and several other poems,
defined him as an established artist.
Even during these troubles, Rossetti's devotion to Elizabeth never failed
and they married in 1860.
In 1861, Rossetti finished the poetical translations of medieval Italian poetry
that he had been working on since the 1840s, The Early Italian Poets (later revised
and reissued in 1874 as Dante and his Circle). The death of Elizabeth of an overdose
of laudanum early in 1862 brought disarray to Rossetti's life. His plan had been to
publish an accompanying volume of original poetry, a volume to be called Dante at Verona,
and other Poems. In grief, he buried the manuscript in the coffin with his wife.
During the 1860s, Rossetti returned to oils and produced a great deal of work
as a painter. This was the period when his reputation as an artist grew and he began to
command remarkable sums for his work. The Arthurian and Dantes subjects were slowly replaced
by a series of erotic female portraits. He moved to 16 Cheyne Walk and there with Swinburne
began a decline, retreating from life, his friends and the world, and drifting violently
into addiction to chloral. These were also the years of his involvement with Fanny Cornforth,
one of the women who attracted his eyes during the period before his marriage to Siddal and
who was his principal model in this cloistered life.
In 1866 and 1867, he wrote two sonnets for recent oil works, "Soul's
Beauty" and "Body's Beauty", which appeared in print in 1868, along with
a sonnet for the picture, "Venus Verticordia". The poems stimulated his desire to
see his original writings in print. He moved to the countryside to dry out and escape the
depression of London. Since much of his poetry had been buried with Elizabeth, and as he had
kept no copies, Rossetti's friends assisted in having the body exhumed to retrieve the
manuscript. Rossetti copied and revised these older works and added several new poems which
were printed up in a series of proofs, and eventually published together in his 1870 volume
of Poems. The volume was a stunning success but brought criticism for supposed
indecencies of character. The volume is dominated by Rossetti's two great love
obsessions, his deceased wife, Elizabeth, and his new love, Jane Morris (the wife of William
Morris), whose full-lipped sultry beauty and very earthly existence seemed to bring Rossetti
back to life.
Between 1871 and 1874, the relationship with Jane Morris reached an extreme
intensity. Rossetti spent much of his time at the Morris' house in Kelmscott; and much of
that time, William was not at home. Rossetti wrote a great deal of poetry in these years and
almost all of it focuses on his love for Jane. In the end the romance began to dissipate, and
Jane left Kelmscott with her family in July 1874.
With that separation, the final phase of his troubled life began. During these
final years which his brother, William Michael, called "the chloralized years",
Rossetti's eccentricities and manias began to dominate his existence. Although he
continued to paint, he had a renewed burst of poetical vision. The body of work proved so
large, in fact, that Rossetti eventually decided two volumes should be published, Ballads
and Sonnets, and a "new edition" of his earlier Poems. Both appeared in
1881. After these last volumes were published, he made two vain efforts to restore his health.
He went to the Lake District in the fall of 1881 and later, on doctor's advice, went to
stay with a friend at his country house in Burchington. Another account has him at a resort
near Margate in Kent. There he died in 1882.
Arthurian Art Section