Pre-Raphaelite: Literary Movements in Victorian Era

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      The Pre-Raphaelite movement began in 1848 as an organisation of painters who called themselves Pre-Raphaelites. The occasion of the founding of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood was a book of engravings which Holman Hunt and D. G. Rossetti saw at the house of Edward Millais, of certain Italian frescoes. As the name suggests, this brotherhood identified themselves artistically with the painters before Raphael, the early Florentines. They found in the works of these artists an individuality and sincerity alien to the art of Raphael's successors. About this time Ruskin in his Modern Painters had protested against the academic traditions which kept young artists making school copies of Raphael.

The Pre-Raphaelite movement began in 1848 as an organisation of painters who called themselves Pre-Raphaelites.
Pre-Raphaelite Painting

      Pre-Raphaelitism put this protest into a practical form. It was protest against the classical tradition and conventional art of the old masters. Rossetti was the leader of this group and the other painters were Holman Hunt, Edward Millais and Burne Jones; and later Christina Rossetti, Swinburne and William Morris joined this group. These writers and painters insisted that a painter should paint whatever he sees, regardless of the formal rules of painting. Hunt and Millais in particular adversely criticised Raphael's great painting Transfiguration and challenged the classical doctrines expounded by the celebrated English painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds. They extolled the superior purity and simplicity that characterised the primitive Italian painters before Raphael. They attempted to bring back to art not only the qualities of mediaeval Italian painting but also the "naturalistic accuracy of details which was thought to be appropriate to the dawning age of science". In their "firm attachment to truth in every point of representation", they achieved sharply realised details. Nature was to be portrayed just as it was experienced without being altered because of the traditional methods of previous painters. In their insistence on the freedom from rules and requirements laid down by Raphael for painting ideal figures, the Pre-Raphaelites were essentially romantic.

      But these painters gradually turned their eyes away from the hideousness of the contemporary industrial scene. By the fifties decorative neo-mediaevalism, subjectivity and dreaminess became the dominant style. They turned to a decorative and heroic world of the middle ages and to a poetry which by symbolism, imagery and music created a pictorial impression for a vague mood. Their main creed was art for art's sake and they looked upon the senses as the gateway to the realisation of the spirit. Beauty was to them sensuous and concrete and Keats's influence on the poets of this group was strong and deep. For the sensual elements of their poetry (cf. The Blessed Damozel by D. G. Rossetti), the poets of this group were condemned as the fleshly school of poets. The Pre-Raphaelites, however, rendered a distinct service to art by insisting that it is not the business of the artist to instruct or to solve social problems. They obliterated the frontier between poetry and painting and they "painted their poetry and wrote their pictures". But their complete withdrawal from contemporary life into the world of sensuous and decorative beauty made their poetry thin and bodiless. Their aesthetic goals influenced the decadents and the symbolist poets.

      Pre-Raphaelite poetry and painting has certain characteristics. The most important characteristic is extreme attention to realistic details. The Pre-Raphaelites painted their pictures as in frescos of mosaic work, finishing each portion with elaborate care. This unflinching realism characterises the earlier work of Rossetti but later on he gave fuller scope to imagination. Another characteristic of the movement was its love of symbolism. Rossetti learnt its secret from Dante. In his tamous poem, The Blessed Damozel, Christian symbols are worked into the poem and they give to the poem a mediaeval background. Medievalism is thus another characteristic of Pre-Raphaelite painting and poetry. But the most interesting characteristic is the combination of sensuousness and mysticism. This is exquisitely illustrated in The Blessed Damozel. There is all the splendour of heavenly life. Lovers are however depicted with sensuous details. They bathe together, embrace each other and behave in heaven as man and woman do on earth. Colourful pictures abound in the poem. The Blessed Damozel presses her bosom on the gold bar of heaven and makes it warm. But they experience mystical feelings in heaven. Sensuous elements are worked into the mysticism of heavenly existence.

      Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, Swinburne and Christina Rossetti belong to the Pre-Raphaelite groups of poets. D. G. Rossetti is the outstanding spokesman of this Pre-Raphaelite poetry. His chief poems appeared in 1870 and were violently attacked for their sensuality by Robert Buchanan. Rossetti's works consisted of sonnets and ballads. In the sonnets of The House of Life, he poured out his love for his young and beautiful wife. These sonnets are rich to the point of excess and subtle to the point of obscurity. In place of the mediaeval allegory they contain a sort of mystic symbolism which is unlike anything that had gone before it in English literature. Rossetti drew inspiration for his ballads from the popular poetry of the middle ages, but he transforms them by his artistic refinement. He strove after simple strength and dramatic movement, but he could not hide the artificiality of such imitations of a rude and simple poetry. Among his works mention is made or The Blessed Damozel, My Sister's Sleep, The Portrait, Jenny, The Burden of Nineveh. 

      Rossetti's work is extremely individual and original. It is distinguished in English literature by its rich Italian colouring and its warm sensuous quality. Its peculiar quality is the symbolic use of details to suggest a whole complex of feelings like the emblems used by the primitive Italian painters. His remarkable poem The Blessed Damozel contains the essence of Pre-Raphaelite spirit in its symbolism, mediaevalism, attention to details and above all in its combination of sensuousness and mysticism.

      William Morris found his earliest inspiration in the middle ages. He loved everything Gothic. When he turned to the past it was in the spirit of the story-tellers of the fourteenth century. Later on he treated the literature of Scandinavian sources" in the same manner. But all the great legends as he told them are wrapped in a dreamy atmosphere. Morris's true genius, his lyrical quality is revealed in his shorter poems. This is true of his earlier collection, The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems and his final Poems by the Way. Although he became prominent as a teller of famous stories he remained essentially lyrical. This is evident in his great compositions The Life and Death of Jason and The Ugly Paradise which have the colour and soft air of the Mediterranean. The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems has been called the best single volume of Pre-Raphaelite verse. Its subjects are almost entirely British and French mediaevalism, falling into four types - (1) decorative, aesthetic verse of the dreamy Rossetti style, (2) Pictorial verses that seem to describe the Pre-Raphaelite painting, (3) brutal realism derived from mediaeval chroniclers, (4) ballad imitations with a strong influence of Scott.

      Swinburne was the spoiled child of the Pre-Raphaelite group, at once its prodigy and its embarrassment. Unlike the other members of the group he was a musician rather than a painter. Swinburne's poetry lacks from rhymes and colours. The sonority of the rhymes or of the modulations is that which links the verses together Swinburne's passion was sincere but it was neither very personal not very mastery shone forth in the extraordinary lyrical fervour and exuberance of his poetry. The success of Atlanta in Calydon, a drama in Greek method was due to the beauty of the choral passages. Dramatic action and evolution of characters were outside his range.

      The boldness of the tone of sensuous pleasure in Poems and Ballads provoked a scandal. His characteristic poems in this period are Hymn to Proserpine, Laus Veneris, the Garden of Proserpine, Faustine etc. These poems breathe the spirit of sensuality. He was described as "The libidinous laureate of a pack of satyrs." The violent paganism broke in upon Victorian reserve. The pure aestheticism and paganism of the songs and ballads link Swinburne with decadent movement of Pater and Wilde. Like the Pre-Raphaelites, he demonstrated art for art's sake. But he manifested the decadent romanticism in his emphasis on pure aestheticism.

      Christina Rossetti represented more perfectly the idea of simplicity that was at the root of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. She showed a lyrical gift, a pure sense of melody and remarkable powers of versification in her short poems. But she possessed also a fanciful imagination and a love of the country which are revealed in the most popular of her child poem, Goblin Market. Elsewhere, though she avoided the conceits of metaphysical poetry, she often recalls religious poets of the seventeenth century, such as Herbert or Vaughan in their most pure crystalline verses.

      By 1854 the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had informally dissolved as its member's paths diverged, but its influence was strong upon the group (Morris, Swinburne etc.). The Pre-Raphaelite verse qualities appear in many poets - Tennyson, Gerard Manley Hopkins (in his earlier work) and even an opponent like Browning (The Flight of the Duchess). Its emphasis on sensuous details and moody preference for decay and desolation led to the Decadent movement.

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