Victorian Period – Pre Raphaelite Poetry

In 1848, a group of three young artists namely Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais founded a brotherhood known as “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” to reform the artistic establishment in Victorian era by restoring the medieval art which bears purity and simplicity. They disenchanted with the contemporary academic painting which emphasized on grand style. They opposed Royal Academy’s promotion of Raphael. They were greatly inspired by the theories of John Ruskin who told artists to ‘go to nature‘. Later four more members became the part of this brotherhood, and they are William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner.

Early Italian painters became their model. To infuse naturalness and simplicity in art and literature was their prime object. ‘Extreme attention to realism‘ and ‘love of symbolism‘ were the salient characteristics of Pre-Raphaelite movement.Pictorial depiction‘ is the one of those features that make the Pre-Raphaelite poetry stand apart. They presented poetry as speaking picture. Pre-Raphaelites presented, as stated by Rickett, “images and impressions as the Japanese arrange flowers, so that each may keep the perfect independence and colour.” The Pre-Raphaelites started their own periodical entitled The Germ to disseminate their ideas, but unfortunately the periodical did not fetch success as it only survived for four issues. The Pre-Raphaelites also faced a strong criticism for the extreme sensuousness from the poet Robert Buchanan. Buchanan called them as ‘The Fleshy School of Poetry‘ in an essay published in 1871 in The Contemporary Review under the pseudonym ‘Thomas Maitland’.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the eldest of the Pre-Raphaelites, was a painter as well as a poet. Initially he took up poetry writing as repose from the painting. Later he indulged himself in penning poetry earnestly. He went through medieval literature, religious works of William Blake, and Shakespearean literature voraciously. The poems composed by him are found in two volumes – Poems (1870) and Ballads and Sonnets (1881). His remarkable craftsmanship is found in his remarkable poem The Blessed Damozel. This poem, a dramatic lyric poem, was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. The qualities like pictorial depiction, and the passionate religious note enthrall the readers. Pater opines, ‘the gold bar of heaven‘ from which she leans, ‘her hair yellow like ripe corn‘ is a word picture, not less vivid than a picture with pigments. Like Keats’s poetry sensuouses and pictorial quality are the integral part of Rossetti’s poems. He composed a sonnet sequence titled The House of Life containing 101 sonnets. Excessive sensuousness, passionate love, and physical beauty prompted Robert Buchanan to call Pre-Raphaelite poetry as ‘Fleshy School of Potery‘. Moody and Lovett state that Rossetti’s love poetry “achieves a subtle synthesis of almost oriental sensuousness, emotional intensity and spiritual elevation.”


William Morris, immensely influenced by D.G. Rossetti, had strong interest in medieval literature. His affinity with medievalism was vividly traced in The Defence of Guinevere and Other Poems (1858) which was published in 1858 when he was only 24 years old. The Life and Death published in 1867 is a romantic narrative which helped him attain fame. His another important work was The Earthly Paradise (1868–70), a series of narrative poems, which is based on classical and medieval events. The mournful introductory poems on the months make this work very interesting for the readers. Reflection of Chaucer‟s language is evident in this work. His remarkable narrative poem is The story of the Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs which is based on the Norse sagas. In the last phase of his life he wrote many prose romances which include A Tale of the House of Wolfings (1889), The Roots of the Mountains (1890), The Story of the Glittering Plain (1891) and The Sundering Flood (1898).


Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) was notable for prosodic innovations. As Rossetti injected pictorial sensuousness to his poetry, he presented his poetry musically sensuous. His first poetic work was Atalanta in Calydon (1865) which is an English translation of a Greek tragedy. Rhythmic energy, persistent alliteration and variation of stress are the salient characteristics of his poetry. His second book titled Poems and Ballads (1866) was noteworthy for unusual subject matter. Songs before Sunrise (1871), another collection of poems, extols Italian liberty. In 1876, Erectheus was published, and it was modelled on a Greek tragedy. In 1882, his another poetic work, Tristram and Other Poems, which was written in heroic couplet got published. Legouis finds: “Vowels call to vowels and consonants to consonants, and these links often seem stronger than the links of thought or imagery.”


Christina Georgina Rossetti, sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, penned five poems under the pseudonym of Ellen Alleyne for the PreRaphaelite journal- The Germ in 1850. Her two most important works are Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862) and The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems (1866). She could be successor to Tennyson as the poet laureate, but the fatal disease cancer debarred her. Like her brother he infused sensuousness and pictorial detail in her works.

The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood survived only for a decade. But the contributions of Rossetti, Swinburne and Morris to Victorian poetry are still appreciated.


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