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Life wreathes flowers for death to wear. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), who said as much, is dead and gone, his sonnets deader still, if we may judge by classroom syllabi and the infrequency with which his name appears in the leading periodicals. He still crops up half a dozen times a decade in the London Review of Books, and BBC Two broadcast a miniseries in 2009 about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but the English are built different when it comes to the canon. On our side of the pond, Rossetti’s name is less familiar, and he is known chiefly for his visual art, not his poetry. (His sister Christina rates more mentions, thanks in part to the sapphic overtones of her long poem, Goblin Market. Less discussed are her asceticism and devout Christian faith.)

When Rossetti is remembered, it’s most often as a painter given to lush works of fancy, which some find overwrought. Yet Rossetti burned for verse. It was a supreme sacrifice when, upon the death of his wife Elizabeth Siddal in 1862 from an overdose of laudanum, he placed in her coffin the manuscript of his unpublished poems. “I have often been writing at those poems when Lizzie was ill and suffering, and I might have been attending to her,” he told Ford Madox Brown, “and now they shall go.” Years later, at the urging of friends, he dug up the work he had buried in that black mood and brought it into print, thereby playing Max Brod to his own Kafka.

Several of those texts would appear in the 1870 volume Poems, which established Rossetti as a major poet. But his great poetic achievement is The House of Life (1881). A dense interweaving of secular and spiritual love, religious imagery and eroticism, exaltation, and despair, this long sonnet sequence was completed in the year before Rossetti died, at age fifty-three, in a bungalow lent by a friend at a seaside resort near Margate. By then he was a near recluse: largely bedridden, partially paralyzed, his health ruined by chloral hydrate—a sedative hypnotic that he took to overmaster insomnia so chronic it destroyed his ability to paint and drove him to the brink of suicide—and by whiskey, which countered the taste of the chloral hydrate. His kidneys were shot. The famous sensualist’s body was now a torment to him. Up to the end, he was dosing himself with morphine.

Even housebound, “his life fast flickering to extinction” (in his brother William’s words), the leader of the Pre-Raphaelites roused himself to paint, make sketches of his father, finish a ballad (in which a hard-hearted Dutchman loses a smoking contest with the devil and is carried off to hell), and regale his friend’s sister with tales from the Arabian Nights. By then Rossetti esteemed his poetry above his painting. Many of the individual sonnets in The House of Life had been written much earlier, but a handful—including the collection’s introductory sonnet—were composed in Rossetti’s last years. Put in order very near the end, the complete work was wrested by utmost effort from encroaching death. Wilfrid S. Blunt deemed it “the greatest of all the great Victorian poems.” Suffused with the romantic archaism that arose from Rossetti’s revaluation of artistic values and which after the Great War the modernists would scorn, still the cycle is not as soppy as one might suppose. Its wintrier verses—compounded of heartache and hard-won wisdom—read like ornate Housman. Other sonnets indulge in “the bliss of being sad.” Often the mood is interrogative, though at times the poet’s questions are so embellished, so syntactically suspended, that a first-time reader may lose track of their import. Stymied by the unanswerables of love and death, which increase in urgency and intensity as the sequence draws to a close, Rossetti several times avoids answering his own queries.

The House of Life serves as a seismograph of Rossetti’s emotional life, or at least of its larger shockwaves. Each sonnet, Rossetti tells us, is “a moment’s monument.” In the final lines of “Without Her,” drawing on Dante’s image of the selva oscura, the poet imagines himself as a “wayfarer” climbing a steep and barren track, where “the long cloud, the long wood’s counterpart, / Sheds doubled darkness up the labouring hill.” Speaking to his secretary and companion Hall Caine, Rossetti said, “I cannot tell you at what terrible moment it was wrung from me.”

Reading a Rossetti sonnet can feel at times like laboring uphill yourself. The dense growth of syntax, the root-systems of allusive wordplay sunk into the loam of a mythic past, bar your path to meaning. Lines like recurved branches blossom overhead, as Rossetti’s statements bend back on themselves: “Once more the changed year’s turning wheel returns.” Death especially brings out his tendency toward restatement and contradiction: “Memorial from the soul’s eternity / To one dead deathless hour” is how he describes, in one poem, the sonnet form itself. “As thy love’s death-bound features never dead / To memory’s glass return” is another typical reversal. Rossetti has no wish to write simply. He traffics in, and his language enacts, subtle shadings of irony, ambiguity, paradox. Some poems, such as “The Love-Moon,” may flummox readers with their jeweled intricacies.

But Rossetti can be gripping, too. The poem “Through Death to Love,” from 1871, with its heavy alliteration, compound adjectives, and violent drama, may remind today’s readers of Hopkins. It begins with one of Rossetti’s long suspended similes:

Like labour-laden moonclouds faint to flee
From winds that sweep the winter-bitten wold,—
Like multiform circumfluence manifold
Of night’s flood-tide,—like terrors that agree
Of hoarse-tongued fire and inarticulate sea,—
Even such, within some glass dimmed by our breath,
Our hearts discern wild images of Death,
Shadows and shoals that edge eternity.

“Like multiform circumfluence manifold”—not a line Shakespeare would have put in a sonnet. Rossetti’s syntactical trickery started with his own name. Son of an Italian poet and Dante scholar, the man born Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti cannily switched the order of his Christian names when taking his nom de plume and proceeded to build a reputation as Dante Gabriel.

His first book was a translation of medieval Italian poetry. Beginning in 1848, when he founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, his revolt against the conventional academic painting and poetry of his day was an irruption into the Victorian age of a sensibility steeped in the medieval. As a synthesis of art and life, the old guild model seemed to offer Rossetti and his peers an alternative to the institutionalized learning of the Royal Academy, just as Ruskinian naturalism—heavy on themes of love and death, often portraying medieval or literary subjects—became the style they pursued in opposition to genre painting and the idealized moral content then in vogue. Fidelity to nature and emotional authenticity were prized. The industrial age, which many Britons viewed as a time of boundless material progress, medievalists such as Rossetti imaged as a twilight. The true poet and the true painter are visionaries. “Ere the night cometh,” they must bring forth the future out of the great-souled past.

The House of Life is divided into two parts: “Youth and Change” and “Change and Fate.” (Mutability is a constant theme.) The sonnets are not arranged in chronological order of composition, but the earliest (1848–62) bear witness to the high ambitions of the Pre-Raphaelites to revive tradition, to be guided in their work by “the lights of the great Past, new-lit / Fair for the Future’s track.” They also testify to the delights of consummated passion. In “Nuptial Sleep”—which Evelyn Waugh, in his acid way, mocked as a schoolboy composition—a honeymooning couple lie in postcoital bliss. The sestet of “A Day of Love” depicts the face of the beloved:

Now many memories make solicitous
The delicate love-lines of her mouth, till, lit
With quivering fire, the words take wing from it;
As here between our kisses we sit thus
Speaking of things remembered, and so sit
Speechless while things forgotten call to us.

It was such sensuous verses that provoked the critic Robert Buchanan, writing in 1871 in the Contemporary Review, to the charge—later recanted—that Rossetti represented gross animalism, “the fleshly school of poetry.” The Atlantic Monthly’s review of Rossetti’s 1870 Poems began: “It will always be a question, we think, whether Mr. Rossetti had not better have painted his poems and written his pictures; there is so much that is purely sensuous in the former, and so much that is intellectual in the latter.” The truth is more complex. What nature was for Wordsworth, the beloved’s face was for Rossetti: magic mirror, longed-for landscape, book of revelation. The ultimate object of contemplation, inexhaustible.

Later sonnets transmute physical into spiritual love with a new delicacy of feeling, but at a cost. Lizzie Siddal’s death fused romance with tragedy in Rossetti’s mind. Here in abundance are vain hopes, disappointment, tragic loss, despair. Mutability—“There is a change in every hour’s recall,” he notes sorrowfully—offers a constant reminder of irrevocable loss. Shadows lengthen: In poem after poem, he presents himself as a living necropolis of unlived lives. “Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been; / I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell; / Unto thine ear I hold the dead-sea shell.”

The image of the shell is notable. Nature was for Rossetti more a storehouse of metaphors than a living environment. His images are rich and varied, yet the lavish detail embroiders not particular features of the world, but abstractions, states of mood and mind. “He was emphatically a painter,” wrote the scholar Frederick M. Tisdel, “with the painter’s habit of visualizing emotion.” Some contemporary critics thought The House of Life sonnets to be, as a whole, unrivaled; others dismissed the emotions as inauthentic. Still others objected to Rossetti’s style. Franz Hueffer, the father of Ford Madox Ford, criticized the sonnets as clad “in a mode of expression, in short, which a poet of Dante’s age might have used if he had been able to read Shakespeare.”

In a portrait of Rossetti at twenty-two by William Holman Hunt, the eyes are greatly enlarged—sensitive, lambent, vatic. His visionary gaze goes right through you. In 1848, at age twenty, he had gathered several early verses under the title Songs of the Art Catholic. This was the time of Tractarian ferment and John Henry Newman’s conversion to Catholicism, but the religious debates of Rossetti’s day “passed by him like the idle wind,” his brother William reported. “He was never confirmed, professed no religious faith, and practised no regular religious observances; but he had . . . sympathy with the abstract ideas and the venerable forms of Christianity.” Rossetti meant by his title to suggest that his art was “in sentiment though not necessarily in dogma, Catholic—medieval and un-modern.”

Heterodox artists have given us some of our most enduring religious images. Rossetti joins Milton and Blake in his concern for last things: No fewer than twelve sonnets in The House of Life concern the destiny of the soul. “What is the sorriest thing that enters Hell?” he asks. “None of the sins,—but this and that fair deed / Which a soul’s sin at length could supersede.” Since few of us are wholly good or evil, a sinful soul might bear to perdition any number of good acts committed in that person’s life on earth—a life that, tragically, is nevertheless unredeemed. Rossetti pictures the damned “in snake-bound shuddering sheaves / Of anguish.” Near the end of his life he caused his irreligious friends much consternation by requesting a priest to give him absolution for his sins. Waugh considered Rossetti “a mystic without a creed; a Catholic without the discipline or consolation of the Church.” Hall Caine thought of him as “by religious bias, a monk of the middle ages.” So potent was his inner life that when in 1881 he was struck by paralysis on his left side, his friends at first took it for a somatic effect produced by a flight of fancy, as though Rossetti had performed on himself a miracle in reverse.

What is unmodern in Rossetti lies at the heart of his power and is allied to his uncanny relevance. To the disdain for our inherited past, the misreadings of history that now deform our education and our discourse, his work offers a powerful corrective. True, some poems are cloying; there are tortured similes; inspired octets dwindle into anticlimactic sestets. Yet Waugh’s judgment of Rossetti as possessing a “turgid and perverse genius” is wrong. He believed, however confusedly, in a life to come, and took up seriously the question of what a restored tradition might look like in his own time. The third of three sonnets titled “The Choice” urges humility on a rising generation:

Think thou and act; to-morrow thou shalt die.
Outstretched in the sun’s warmth upon the shore,
Thou say’st: “Man’s measured path is all gone o’er:
Up all his years, steeply, with strain and sigh,
Man clomb until he touched the truth; and I,
Even I, am he whom it was destined for.”
How should this be? Art thou then so much more
Than they who sowed, that thou shouldst reap thereby?
Nay, come up hither. From this wave-washed mound
Unto the furthest flood-brim look with me;
Then reach on with thy thought till it be drown’d.
Miles and miles distant though the last line be,
And though thy soul sail leagues and leagues beyond,—
Still, leagues beyond those leagues, there is more sea.

The poem addresses an idle fool who is content to believe that the work of history culminates in him. Condescension toward the past is not new, but having the chance to reap the harvest earlier generations sowed is hardly a mark of worth. Time past is no more boundless an ocean than time future; some later generation will one day look back on us with scorn or gratitude.

Today, it is fashionable to literalize Rossetti’s “flood-brim”: We see the oceans rising inexorably to drown, not our thought, but our grandchildren. Bleak is the forecast for our wave-washed mound, since our TED-Talk prophets can ­envision only a negative apocalypse. But ­disaster is not a place where we can dwell; even amid decline, the work of life goes on. How to swerve from that watery waste? From where will a positive vision of the future come? Rossetti, the “monk of the middle ages” who mined old romaunts for striking words with which to stud his poetry, shows that the revival of tradition can be a revolutionary act. If there is always more sea ahead, so there is always more sea behind.

The untimely man may sometimes be the man of the ­moment.

Brian Patrick Eha is a widely published essayist and journalist.

Image by Metropolitan New York Library Council - METRO on GetArchive licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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