Pre-Raphaelite Poetry or Brotherhood
The Pre-Raphaelite poetry during the Victorian era was an idealistic reaction against the didacticism, moral fervor, and pre-occupation of poets and novelists with contemporary society. A group of high-hold artists who disapproved of making literature a handmaiden of social reform and an instrument for the propagation of moral and spiritual ideas and who cared more for art and than for propaganda formed the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. They sought to regain the spirit of simple devotion and imitation of nature that they found in Italian religious art before Raphael and the high Renaissance. The group of poets who are called the Pre-Raphaelite poets is Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Moris, Algernon Swinburne, Christina Rossetti, and others. They were repelled by the sordidness, ugliness, and materialism that had governed the minds of the leading Victorians. They sought to escape from this world of vulgar realities to a land of beauty, art, and loveliness, where they would satisfy their urge for art and the creation of beautiful things.
The Pre-Raphaelite poets drew their inspiration from the works of Italian painters before Raphael, in whom they found the simplicity, religiosity, and humble adherence to the truth which were alien to the sophisticated art of Raphael and his successors. They sought to free literature from the shackles of purposive bias and reformative zeal and strove to return it to the simplicity, mysticism, and symbolism of the medieval age. They loved the past and were not concerned with the present. Nothing of the present-day Society is reflected in their poetry. Their thought and mind were concentrated on art and the creation of beauty. Originally the Pre-Raphaelite Movement was one for the regeneration of painting on the models of the early Italian painters. They in fact wanted to encourage originality of conception and freshness of execution which Raphael discouraged. D.G Rossetti was the leader of both the Pre-Raphaelite painters and poets and was deeply influenced by Italian literature, especially by Dante, Poetical Pre-Raphaelitism consists of an attitude of the artist and a system of expression. The attitude is that of ecstasy or an emotion deep enough to offer the characteristics of religious worship, while passion itself is sublimated into spiritual exultation. There is a persuasive calm about this emotion because it is deep and controlled nothing betrays its intensity, save an occasional term in the words employed, a tone, and insisting stress, which suffers from meaning even the simplest expression.
Medievalism is a pronounced feature of Pre-Raphaelite poetry. The Middle ages with their love, chivalry. Romance, superstition and a strange combination of the material and the mystical deeply influenced them as they did upon those of the romantic poets. There was a psychological reason behind this nostalgic looking back to them, The skepticism and dilettantism of the Victorian age were too much for their sensitive minds to bear. They sought to escape from the darkness and sordidness of contemporary Society by turning their eyes to the good old days of medievalism The real home of Rossetti was the Florence of Dante’s age as he was dissatisfied and vexed with the London of the Victorian age. His poems The Blessed Damozel and Sister Helen? are medieval in outlook and form.
Art is the soul of the Pre-Raphaelite poetry. Legouis remarks: “The Pre-Raphaelties were above all artists Art was their religion”. They were the votaries of art for art’s sake. They did worship art for its own sake. They did not aim at morality to preach and they had no reforms to introduce through the medium of their poetry. They are as free from any moral or didactic purpose as Keats, who was a constant source of inspiration for them. They aimed at the perfect form and finish.
Pictorialism is the dominant characteristic of the Pre-Raphaelite poetry. The Pre Raphaelite poets were pictorial artists, and their paintings as well as poems, in fact, were symphonies in colour. It abounds in word pictures, sensuous and vivid. They painted every blade of grass and every part of the human body with scrupulous care and precision. In The Blessed Damozel the lady, as she cast her arms along the golden barriers and laid her face between the hands, is beautifully delineated. Only a painter of the first water could have given us lines like these from The Blessed Damozel:
“The blessed damozel leased out
From the golden bar of Heaven
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even;
she had three lilies in her hand
and the stars in her hair were seven…
Her hair that lay along her back
Was yellow like ripe corn.”
The Pre-Raphaelite poetry is rich in music and melody. The Pre-Raphaelite poets cultivated it deliberately and sometimes senses come to be drowned beneath the wave of melody. The free flow of the swift-moving lines is remarkable in Swinburne. He is the supreme melodist among this group of poets. The flow of musical language in him is racy and profuse and with him, we seem to be gliding in a river of music and melody. Legouis writes, “Vowels call to vowels and consonants to consonants and these link often seem stronger than the links of thought or imagery.”
Sensuousness marks the Pre-Raphaelite poetry. Love of beauty is the striking feature of Pre-Raphaelite poetry. The Pre-Raphaelite poets are lovers of beauty. In this respect, they are the followers of the tradition of Keats. In their rich sensuousness, they are also found to carry on the tradition of great romantic poetry. Rossetti is both sensuous and passionate. While Shelley and Browning gave sensuousness to feeling, Rossetti gave sensuous expression to thought. Quite a number of Morris’s poems Show a sensitive response to natural beauty and the beauty of the seasons, Swinburne gave a touch of sensuousness to poetry, and the poems included in Poems and Ballads were colored by sensuous thoughts and expression in which the Pre-Raphaeite poets found special delight.
The charge of fleshliness and voluptuousness is commonly brought against the Pre-Raphaelite poetry. The description of the human body and physical passion by the Pre-Raphaelite poets smacks of fleshliness Rossetti’s poetry has been exposed to the charge of voluptuousness and sensuousness belonging to the “leshly school of poetry” Some of his poems such as Troy Town and The House of Life are characterized by fleshliness. The House of Life is full of frank voluptuousness which results from the explicit portrayal of sexual passion, Swinebume by his protracted adolescence rather than by his adult passion paints “the bitter blossoms of fierce kisses, the lips intertwined and bitten the bruised threats and bosoms, the heaving limbs, the dead desires, and barren lusts.”
This movement declined because the poets of this school were divorced from the life around them and they showed their interest in building for themselves an ivory tower of art, beauty, and sensuousness. The Pre-Raphaelite poetry is lacking in humanism and the Idealistic vision of art, But yet we cannot deny that it has not rendered any service to art. It has asserted the aesthetic value in art and their aesthetic goals influenced the Symbolists poets.