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.

Unlike his greatly gifted but undemonstrative sister, Dante Gabriel’s work is driven by programmatic ideas and conceptual goals, as his contemporaries well knew. ‘Exhaustless invention’ is how Ruskin described his work, which he learned to admire but came to deplore as it plunged on through its Faustian pursuits. Recall that he began his career as catalyst to the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood through the force of his ideas and personality, which everyone at the time – even those, like Ford Madox Brown and Holman Hunt, who were teaching him how to paint – could not stay or resist. The Germ was his brainchild, and he placed in its first number one of his most remarkable writings (and one of the signal aesthetic documents of the century), his artistic manifesto ‘Hand and Soul’.

Two things about this work are notable. First, its argument is cast in an imaginative rather than a discursive form – a fact that will bear serious reflection in itself, but also signals what Rossetti would try to do throughout his life with his double works of art. Rossetti’s translations – the ‘most direct form of commentary’ and exegesis, as he called them – follow an analogous procedure. In each case interpretation follows a performative line. Consequently, his translations tend to be relatively free with respect to semantic literalness and relatively strict with respect to metrical imitation. A final ‘fidelity’ would be measured by the following rule (set out by Rossetti in his preface): ‘a good poem shall not be turned into a bad one.’

Second, ‘Hand and Soul’, modest though it seems, in fact undertakes to overhaul the entire edifice of art history as it was formulated by Vasari and thence handed down, even to this day. The argument with Vasari concentrates on the idea – for Rossetti, the illusion – of progress in the arts. In Rossetti’s tale, primitive Italian art undergoes a revisionary reading through the story of Chiaro, who refuses the promise of the coming glories of the Renaissance. A modern incarnation of what Trotsky would call ‘the privilege of historical backwardness’, Chiaro serves the 19th century as an imaginative resource precisely because of his retrograde commitments – all those features that would come to be judged crude and incompetent by later art historians, with their enlightened and progressivist myths of art. Chiaro’s work has two consummate virtues, according to Rossetti’s parable: integrity of vision and spirituality. These emerge in the selva oscura of Chiaro’s decision to paint the truth of his soul in ‘the grain of its own coarseness’ and to make the work – not the art object but the work, the act of art – a devotional offering to the ideal it can only ever seize by desire. Rossetti would break with Ruskin in the mid-1860s over a disagreement about how to manage the inheritance of Venetian art. But he remained to the end Ruskinian, rather than Paterian, in treating art and writing as a scene of intellectual action.

This use of imaginative form to express and instantiate arguments and ideas is characteristic of all his work, Modernist legend notwithstanding. Consider for a moment the question of linear perspective, which is still sometimes used as an index of Rossetti’s technical deficiencies. The issue here is not one of laziness or deficiency, however; it is one of deliberate choice. As his brother William Michael pointed out very early, while Rossetti was well aware that correct perspective was ‘required in order to make a picture conformable’ to accepted standards, ‘the fact is that he is preferred the tone of mind which governed the treatment of such elements of the subject in olden art.’ This was a programmatic preference that his early friend and mentor Holman Hunt noted and deplored. ‘To induce him to put the perspective right was ... a business needing constant argument,’ Hunt observed, because of Rossetti’s admiration for ‘the childlike immaturities and limitations of the German and Italian quattrocentrists’. (Hunt’s condescension here, which reflects the judgments of the early reviewers, is retrospective, and partly reflects his belated effort, in 1905, to define Pre-Raphaelitism in relation to himself and Millais rather than Rossetti and Burne-Jones.) So as his brother pointed out in his biographical memoir (1895), Rossetti ‘denounced the science’ of perspective and ‘objected strongly to each result of its application, declaring that what it proved to be wrong was obviously better’.

Nothing illustrates more clearly Rossetti’s ideas on this matter, or indeed his use of the artistic medium to carry an argument, than his famous Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee. The drawing is a kind of dialogue between the claims and authority of a primitive style as against a realistic perspectivism. Rossetti represents worldliness as the illusionist space organised on the left of the drawing. This is the recessive area of street, procession, high road and distant river. Opposed to it is the world, moral as well as artistic, fashioned on the right side of the drawing and centred on the iconic head of Christ. That centring locates a key moment of pictorial contradiction. Abutting the right edge of the picture, and wholly framed within the window space, the head can be seen at the level of the picture plane itself. But it occupies a fundamentally ambiguous position, and we are also invited to see it as a head in a window that opens into a room with other figures, or, finally, as an artistic image like a religious icon. In this last view the image of Christ is placed on the forward plane defined by the exterior wall of Simon’s house, as if it were hung there like a picture.

Rossetti said that the drawing ‘represents two houses opposite each other’, by which he literally meant the opposition between the house of feasting (worldliness) and the house of Christ and Simon (spirituality). But he meant something more, for spatial recession is made an emblem of worldliness, while an icon of the head of Jesus is the emblem of spirituality. In this sense, the two pictorial areas also represent two procedures of artistic representation.

That stylistic opposition argues for a more catholic way of thinking about pictorial space than either the Albertian inheritance authorised in the academy or the doctrinal/moralistic approach favoured (for instance) by Holman Hunt and Victorian narrative art. In this picture Rossetti’s appropriation and translation of these two traditions is located in the third structural area: the field dominated by the grazing faun. In a formal sense the animal joins the ‘two houses opposite each other’. Its spatial field accomplishes the jointure, just as its technical treatment replicates the effect. We register the minute realism of the drawing, on the one hand, and the animal’s symbolic value, on the other. (To an initiated religious mind, the beast is a figural representation of the Eucharist with its Biblical source in Psalms 42.1.) But the pointing treats both these symbolic systems so elaborately that the faun assumes a grotesque, surreal appearance. It centres a moment of pictorial excess, literally foregrounded, where the authority of art as an order of independent and deliberate creation is being represented. The ‘two houses’, whether interpreted in moral or in stylistic terms, are joined together under that authority.

The sonnet Rossetti wrote to accompany the picture replicates this dynamic. The ‘two houses’ re-emerge through the division between octave and sestet: the former is spoken by the Magdalene’s worldly lover, calling her back; the latter by the Magdalene, who longs for Christ. The sonnet as a unit joins these two parts, and the ‘double work’ of picture and sonnet dramatises the presence of art as the authoritative agency in the entire field of action. In this respect we should note an important moment in the sonnet, when the Magdalene’s desire receives a remarkable form of expression as she speaks of ‘my Bridegroom’s face/That draws me to him’. Playing on the word ‘draws’, Rossetti makes an arresting claim for the drawing discussed by the sonnet. The words lie open to various readings, but all assert the spiritual authority of a certain kind of art – and of this picture particularly.

‘Fundamental brainwork’ is what Rossetti called that sort of artistic procedure. For Rossetti is essentially an artist and a poet of ideas who is always setting forth on relentless and impossible quests. Consequently, what most distinguishes his work is its imaginative vigour. He was justifiably proud of the watercolour method he and Madox Brown called ‘the dry brush style’, an innovation he worked out and taught in the 1850s at the Working Men’s College. As he told Ernest Gambart in 1864, ‘I painted in the style which I originated, for years, when no works at all resembled mine but my own.’ Martin Hardie has defined that originality as an assumption of new technical licences. ‘The central tradition of watercolour meant nothing to Rossetti,’ Hardie observes. ‘He started out to hack his way to expression,’ achieving ‘an unusual depth, glow, and translucency of colour’. He and Burne-Jones, his great student, ‘made free use of moist colours, rubbing and scrubbing them on the paper, with the most meagre intervention of water, as if they were oils’. In such works one is struck, as Hardie was struck, by the drama of an artistic action rather than – as with Millais – a display of craftsmanship.

Rossetti himself called this approach the art of ‘the inner standing point’. I think he must have come to this idea through his study of Browning’s dramatic monologues, where the work sustains itself through a convention of absolute, non-subjective aesthesis. Rossetti’s innovation was to reintroduce the action of the subjective artist (and poet) into the critical space of the work. In Rossetti’s texts, the masks of Browning or Flaubert are put on display. The consequence is not a Joycean panache, however, because Rossetti’s ‘inner standing point’ signals his desire not to manage his artistic practice but to be engulfed by it.

Certain famous pictures – they have seemed infamous to many – like Astarte Syriaca illustrate Rossetti’s Faustian programme with great clarity. It is a magical work, a profane prayer or a summoning, ceremonial rite. We might bring academic standards to bear on it but the work has, like Byron’s Manfred, made its commitments elsewhere. Its great precursors – Bocca Baciata, say, or Monna Vanna, or the early Ecce Ancilla Domini – are explicated through this late, shocking act of art. Those earlier pictures will stay, have stayed, for aesthetic reports. But they are all disturbing pieces, haunted by contact with some uncanny and perhaps forbidden force or presence they have deliberately sought to access. Fastidious critics recoil from this kind of work, and not without reason. Such work is at its foundation a betrayal of art – a betrayal in both senses of the word. It is important precisely for that reason. Is it ‘great’ for that reason? Perhaps. The problem is that greatness in art is at best a value of culture and at worst advertiser’s copy. It is not an artist’s word or category.

As often as not the writing, too, makes itself difficult for us. From the beginning Rossetti’s readers have felt the need to draw up paraphrases for his sonnets. It is one of the principal lines of Rossetti criticism. The astonishing sonnet ‘A Superscription’, for instance, is almost impossible to retain in the memory. It is easily memorised but not at all easily remembered. One could sit down (as I have) and write out a paraphrase. But at every new encounter the poem seems absolute as a literal thing, beyond memorial reconstruction, and most especially that favourite kind of reconstruction we execute when we read a poem and come away with its ‘meaning’. The tradition of trobar clus, which Rossetti inherited from Cavalcanti, Dante, and the other early Italian poets, deeply informs all of his work.

Like Astarte Syriaca, ‘A Superscription’ is one of Rossetti’s defining works. By no means does he always cultivate this kind of recondite text. But all his writings, produced according to the rule he called ‘fundamental brainwork’, are extensions of a fiercely mentalist/materialist art bent on fashioning its meanings through meticulous artisanal attention to the letter of the work. Given such apparently ‘technical’ urgencies, we can easily mistake Rossetti’s rhetoric. A display of craft is not the point. Neither is the construction of an aesthetic, or even a symbolic, space – although all those forms of attention come to our attention. Fundamentally, Rossetti is a magician and a ritualist. Pastiche, imitation, translation: these are the textual orders that come readiest to his mind; nor are they lightly undertaken. ‘Hand and Soul’ and ‘St Agnes of Intercession’ are not simply imitations of Poe, any more than ‘Jenny’ is just a brilliant reprise on Browning. In these works the art of Poe and Browning is being critically anatomised. The case of ‘Jenny’ is particularly interesting. What Rossetti has done here is force the Browning monologue to rerun itself through its immediate precursors – through ventriloquist Romantic works like The Lament of Tasso, The Prophecy of Dante and ‘Julian and Maddalo’. In the latter the ‘poet’ is plunged within the text he seems to authorise and create, whereas in Browning’s monologues the ‘author’ is abstracted away, as if he were not subject to the moral accounting raised in the work. So in a poem like ‘My Last Duchess’, both Browning and, through Browning, ‘art’ itself is saved from judgment and ideology precisely because the poem offers itself as privileged, set apart from the scene of wickedness it constructs for us. ‘Jenny’ does not do that. The young man, artist and bohemian intellectual, ‘is’ Rossetti in exactly the same way – we’re talking about stylistic conventions here – that Julian ‘is’ Shelley. Invoking that model after Browning had revised it, Rossetti invented his ‘art of the inner standing point’.

It is an art he saw clearly in ‘the early Italian poets’, especially in Cavalcanti and Dante. The elaborated forms of Dante’s texts are well exhibited in a brilliant canzone like ‘Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore’. Wonderfully translated by Rossetti, the poem offers a model of poetic writing that transcends its own subjectivities and personal occasion by pouring itself completely into them. In the poem Dante becomes one voice among various voices, one creature among many, including the poems themselves, whose independent being is figured (imaged) through the allegorical tropes. As the texts continually address themselves, Dante’s authorising processes are made part of a larger drama in which he is both author and participant.

In the end, however, Rossetti’s art is much more like Cavalcanti’s than Dante’s. This comes about because Rossetti, very like Cavalcanti, is an artist with few illusions. Indeed, his tormented life seems an index of his disillusions. Infamous as a man who cavalierly took from and used other people – an image, one is happy to report, that Jan Marsh coolly modifies – Rossetti was perhaps a man who had much to be forgiven. What is clear is that he saved little forgiveness for himself. Read biographically, his work is a pursuit of some means – some place, some authority, some achievement – to escape his own terrible and pitiless judgments, both aesthetic and moral.

Those judgments grew more dark and more severe as Rossetti’s life unfolded. The House of Life, his literary masterwork by nearly all accounts, is also one of the most terrifying poems in the language. We do well, therefore, to set it next to that very different work, the translations gathered together in The Early Italian Poets. All done before Rossetti’s guilt-ridden years, and many when he was still in his teens, the poems explain why Pater said of Rossetti that his writing altered the stylistic landscape of English poetry. It did so in great part because he found a way to gain quantitative effects in an accented language. Italian rhythms haunt Rossetti’s texts, which gain thereby a regular infusion of the ‘uncanny’. In these early poems, however, the effects seem brilliant and witty rather than, like their later equivalents, recondite and tormented with elusive secrecies. One of the best things about Jan Marsh’s edition is that it gives us the entire text of Rossetti’s translation of the Vita Nuova, as well as generous selections from the rest of the translations. There is no better – indeed, no more important – way into his writing.