Monday, June 4, 2007


Dante Rossetti is the most underrated poet in English literature. Period. I can't think of any other poet that combined an outstanding ear for melifluous syntax and pictorial sense of physical description with an attractive, if messy set of aesthetic principles that resulted in poems that seem both mystical and hopelessly enamored of their objects, yet who commonly merits only a few pages in most anthologies.

The following lines are from his 1870 collection, which has behing it one of the more rousing stories in poetic history; in 1862, Rossetti's wife Lizzie died of an opium overdose, and he, wracked with a mixture of grief and guilt, (and a notoriously manic personality) buried the manuscripts of several dozen of his poems in her coffin. Several years later, regretting that he had squandered some of his best work in the throws of the sort of macabre personal drama common amongst 19th century English poets, he exhumed her body in order to recover the poems. He subesequently published them and went on to fame, if not fortune, a laudanum addiction, bouts of paranoia, adultery with his best friend's wife, and death at the age of 54.

Here is some of his better work:

From "The Portrait":

Here with her face doth memory sit
Meanwhile, and look on day's decline,
'Til other eyes shall look from it,
Eyes of the spirit's Palestine,
Even than the old gaze tenderer;
While hopes and aims long lost with her
Stand round her image side by side,
Like tombs of pilgrims that have died
About the Holy Sepulcher.
"The One Hope":
When vain desire at last and vain regret
Go hand in hand to death, and all is vain,
What shall assuage the unforgotten pain
And teach the unforgetful to forget?
Shall peace be still a sunk dream long unmet-
Or may the soul at once in a green plain
Stoop through the spray of some sweet life fountain
And cull the dew-drenched flowering amulet?
Ah! When the wan soul in that golden air
Between the scriptured petals softly blown
Peers breathless for the gift of grace unknown-
Ah! Let none other alien spell soe'er
But only the one Hope's one name be there-
Not less nor more, but even that word alone.
Ah! Let not hope be still distraught
But find in her its gracious goal,
Whose speach Truth knows not from her thought,
Not Love her body from her soul.


Jeff Moss said...

Why do artists so often have horribly unhappy lives?

Why don't more of them live to a ripe old age with a happy (and large!) family -- like J. S. Bach?

Thomas Banks said...

I think that the idea of the artist as I think you are conceiving of him, as the self appointed Poet/Prophet who is destroyed by the intensity of his own vision, is often misleading; certainly, there are plenty of examples to support the archetype, but precious few of these lived before the 19th century. Prior to this, poets, novelists, composers, &c. were usually either dilletante gentlemen who pursued art as a mode of leisure (the Cavalier Poets, early novelists like Fielding and Sterne) or someone who wrote or painted simply because they were competent to do so, just as they might have been competent at any other job (here we have Bach, Shakespeare, and arguably Chaucer). The idea of the artist as visionary doesn't come along until later; at least not until Milton.

More to the point, artists prior to this didn't have that intensity of relation to their art that a Shelley or a Beethoven had, and were probably better advantaged in existing as normal human beings. Chesterton made a good point in one of his essays in saying that much of the world's greatest art was made by quite ordinary men (he mentions Shakespeare and Browning). I think the point holds, and that creativity may involve less suffering than we typically expect.