Fundamental Brainwork

Jerome McGann

  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Collected Writings edited by Jan Marsh
    Dent, 531 pp, £25.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 460 87875 1
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Painter and Poet by Jan Marsh
    Weidenfeld, 592 pp, £25.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 297 81703 5

‘Your fame is the colour of grass, which comes and goes, faded by the sun that drew it from the unripe earth’ (Purgatorio XI, 115-117). Dante Gabriel Rossetti did not translate that particular text, but he might have; perhaps he should have, given his cultural history.

For Rossetti was, according to his age’s two most imposing critics, Ruskin and Pater, the period’s central artistic presence and leading intelligence. Their judgments are borne out by Rossetti’s imaginative legacy: by all those he brought from obscurity to attention, like Blake, Poe, Browning and many others; those he brought to self-attention, like Swinburne, Morris, Burne-Jones; and everyone from Whistler to Yeats – there were many – whose imaginations were shifted or shaped by his ideas and practice. Though not much now remembered, between approximately 1848 and 1912 Rossetti was, in Whistler’s phrase, ‘a king’. And his imperium was very broad. It encompassed the leading intellectuals of the period as well as a popular audience created and nourished by many cultural entrepreneurs.

As with Walter Scott and so many others, that success and influence would eventually count against Rossetti. Anglo-American Modernists took much from the Aesthetic Movement that they did not always acknowledge, but Rossetti’s pre-eminent status almost demanded that his work be called in question. Jan Marsh is exact in writing that Rossetti’s influence was ‘denied and then erased by the critical dominance of Modernism in the 20th century’. He would be drawn and quartered between the two poles of Modernist self-definition: on the one hand, tradition and Neoclassical standards; on the other, innovation and ‘individual talent’. Rossetti came to seem lost on both sides of that division: too romantic and idiosyncratic, on the one hand, and too mired in inherited conventions on the other.

The innovations of pictorial abstraction once seemed far removed from the literary cast of Rossetti’s pictures. We now see – at least some have seen – how illusory that difference actually is. Indeed, a Post-Modern vantage point has restored our access to the power of artists such as Moreau and Rossetti, in whose work-abstraction comes erotically charged in human forms, and the concept of ‘fetish’ escapes the blind insights of the ‘Voodoo’ (Nabokov’s word) cast off from Marxian and Freudian models. For many Modernists these compulsive forms had proved too difficult to manage, perhaps too dangerous and revelatory.

The situation is similar with respect to Rossetti’s poetry. The extreme artifice of his style, grounded in imitation and pastiche, was rejected in the Modernist verse horizon as merely mannered, at once too weird and too correct. It took the emergence of a Post-Modern vantage to reveal the point of such a stylistic proceeding. And then there were key moral ideas at stake – ‘the Definition of Culture’, as Eliot famously put the matter. Eliot came to loathe the fact that no one had ever translated Dante, or his immediate precursors and contemporaries, more brilliantly than Rossetti had done. So Eliot worked to prevent Rossetti’s Dante from infecting the Christology of the culture Eliot wanted to define. His position is fair enough so long as we see it as an argument with Rossetti and not a description of the work. It is to Pound’s credit that he never depreciated Rossetti, even if he never acknowledged that his immensely influential theory of translation was fashioned out of Rossetti’s preface to The Early Italian Poets (1861).

So Jan Marsh’s books come to us now mapping ways to recover something we have sorely lost. Her edition of the selected writings, a hefty volume, takes the verse and prose, difficult and immensely strange as it often is, with a seriousness we have not seen since the 1930s, when Paull Baum kept the Rossettian vision in that time of trouble. No more of those thin, precious little volumes of selections that have come to market from time to time during the past twenty years. Marsh knows that Rossetti isn’t an easy poet. He treats language as if it had the materiality of paper, paint, canvas, wood: in this sense, and no other, I think, he is a ‘painterly’ writer. Marsh also knows that his translations are beyond praise, and that one of his great achievements was to have collapsed the distinction between original verse and verse translation. Marsh brilliantly, bravely, rightly gives more than 120 pages to Rossetti’s remarkable first book, The Early Italian Poets.

Restoring Dante Gabriel’s work to its original pre-eminence may prove a difficult task, despite the aid of a biography written without spite or condescension and this good edition of the writings. But is that restoration desirable? Probably not, at least if we want to recover from Rossetti and his work the values he has to give. For Rossetti holds us in the same way we are held by the restless and brilliant Stephen Dedalus, who was – as he told Mr Deasy – a ‘learner’ rather than a teacher. To read or look at his work is to enter a demanding intellectual force-field.

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