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Rossetti Incomplete


ISSUE:  Winter 1934

No one except the meticulous historian is interested to-Poor Splendid Wings. The Rosseitis and Their Circle. By Frances Win,war. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $3.50. The Wife of Rossctti. By Violet’ Hunt. New York: E. P. Duttoi and Company. $4.00. The Pre-Raphaelite Comedy. By Francis Bickley. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $2.50.

Eighty-five years ago British art was stagnate. The brilliant Constable and the precocious Boning-ton had left their disciples rather in France than in England. Turner too, almost an outcast in spite of the devotion of the eloquent John lluskin, had bequeathed few discernible traces of his originality and his daring to the men whose paintings darkened the walls of the Academy’s galleries. A dry and conventional artificiality, producing highly moral and very dull subject pictures, landscapes of a monotonous drabness, and portraits sadly devoid of individuality, ruled stubbornly in all the schools and closed the doors of the Academy to all but the respectfully subservient. Pure colors were anathema, and composition must obey the laws of the rigid and experienced orthodox. Youth, of course, as it always will, rebelled, and a society of seven ardent young men was born to revolutionize painting and, incidentally, to quicken the pulse of poetry. These seven young men, not all of whom were painters, agreed only in believing that rebellion was necessary. In personality, in background, in purpose, and in talent they were poles apart, but for the sake of solidarity they adopted the none too original theory that a firm adherence to the simple facts of nature was the first requisite of the highest art. Since all painters from Raphael to their own time had forgotten this truism, and since therefore they could give their admiration only to these early practitioners of their creed, they called themselves, rather infelicitously, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

day in the theory and philosophy of the Pre-Raphaelites. As thinkers they were too callow, too disunited, and their doctrines had too little to do with their final success. Of their number only the pedestrian Holman Hunt had the temperament to live and to work systematically according to principles. Millais, with an easy talent and an uncommonly pliant will, soon lowered his flights to the level of the masses. Neither Hunt nor Millais was possessed of the true stuff of genius. Rossetti alone of the seven brothers had that, and if theories and principles ever directed his work, they were of so volatile and impermanent a nature that they failed to modify, more than ephemerally, his natural bent. Yet Rossetti was the life of the movement. It was to him that the younglings flocked—strange bedfellows, Morris and Swinburne, Burne-Jones and Simeon Solomon; even, for a brief spell, the austere Meredith. It was no theory that could attract such diversities; it was the magnetism, the luminosity of genius. The Pre-Raphaelite movement did succeed in revivifying the picturesque in British art and, to a lesser degree, in British literature, but its success is mainly attributable to the vividness of one man’s personality and to the enthusiasm with which he could fire his friends and followers.

Therefore it is not strange that studies of the movement should occupy themselves principally with Rossetti—with the waywardness and willfulness of his conduct, with the vagaries of his dreamings, with his wild indulgences and passionate repentance, with his almost diabolical inconsistencies. He is the perfect subject for the biographer who loves complexity. No one who digs in the English mid-nineteenth century can resist his attractions, and, once known, he leaves the investigator either his perfervid admirer or his equally perfervid detractor. There have been many books about him and there will be many more, for his fascinations are inexhaustible, and no biographer will ever succeed in presenting his character in all its richness, both of virtues and vices. One will fall into the trap of love and will minimize the vices; another will succumb to hatred and will overlook the virtues. Some facet will be left unillumi-nated, and Rossetti will be incomplete. This is the defect, or the merit, of all personalities that cannot be measured by the usual rules, that conform to none of the standards of ordinary human simplicity, but that include in themselves a vast contrariety of moods and motives.

Frances Winwar’s “Poor Splendid Wings” and Violet Hunt’s “The Wife of Rossetti” attempt to embody an impressive and convincing Rossetti against the background of the movement which he dominated and among the friends who were drawn like moths to his lamp. Miss Winwar and Miss Hunt contrive to fill out portraits that are large and lively enough to mimic reality and to counterfeit completeness. Their resulting Rossettis, however, are very different creatures. Both have the stature of the great and the magnificence of genius, but Miss Winwar’s is a kind of frustrate angel, Miss Hunt’s a hauntingly provocative devil. Mr. Bickley, whose “The Pre-Raphaelite Comedy” is much less satisfactory, is a very apathetic interpreter. He endeavors to trace the development of Pre-Raphaelitism by the mere parade of facts (which he sometimes reports erroneously) and by dwelling mainly upon the two mediocrities, Hunt and Millais. To Rossetti a certain amount of space must be accorded, but the imaginative insight which has difficulties with the simpler and lesser figures cannot cope effectively with the complexities of the dominant.

Miss Winwar’s book, as a brilliant piece of craftsmanship, more than deserves the prize which it has won in The Atlantic Monthly’s non-fiction contest. It is a model of technical ingenuity, to which the loose Swinburnean title does scant justice. Its gossipy narrative and glib rapidity are things of the surface only. Underneath is a foundation of solid information and a critical acumen worthy of trust. Rossetti is, of course, the central figure, around which are clustered the many who were to bear through life the marks of their contacts with him. Each of these is pictured intimately and in psychological perspective that throws Rossetti into prominence. They are his complements and, at the same time, the instruments through whom we see the master. Rus-kin, Swinburne, Morris, even Howell and Watts-Dunton, each dramatically and individually presented, contribute their knowledge and understanding to the better elucidation of Rossetti. We are frequently almost aghast at the agility with which Miss Winwar speeds from personality to personality, and always without confusion or loss of clarity. The conclusion to which we are led by this well contrived series of characterizations and episodes is that Rossetti was the kind of emotional idealist whose dreams are forever occupied with the attainment of some subtle desire, usually involving a woman. He was both an intellectual and a sensual lover, both an ascetic and a voluptuary. For ten years he loved Elizabeth Siddall, the “Blessed Damozel,” before he married her, and the real nature of his passion for her we can only surmise from the contradictory evidence of the numerous representations of her in his pictures, and the seemingly burning but queerly elusive sonnets of “The House of Life.” There can be little doubt, however, that during her life she remained the ideal of his aspirations, the mystically unapproachable Beatrice. Cruel, exacting, inhuman as he may have been in his relationship to her, still she was the embodiment of a divinity which he worshiped. With her death he was deprived of his religion and left to suffer unspeakable regrets until time allowed her place to be taken, in a mildly a?sthetic fashion, by Janey Morris. During the whole period of this Petrarchian devotion to Elizabeth Siddall or to Janey Morris, distraction could be found in a world which supplied women instead of goddesses, and sometimes the two kinds of love became inextricably tangled one with the other, with the resulting complex emotions finding their outlet in the esoteric strangeness of the poems and paintings.

Miss Violet Hunt, whose book is a dramatization of Elizabeth Siddall’s relationship to Rossetti, is a novelist, and the methods and point of view of the novelist remain with her even when she is not professedly writing fiction. In her childhood and early youth she was thrown frequently into the society of members of the Pre-Raphaelite clan, and this book is based mainly upon the memories retained from that time. With a novelist’s fertility she has succeeded in remembering some things that have not been elsewhere recorded and which have brought forth indignant protests from the friends and family of Rossetti. But whether accurate or inaccurate, she has created a brilliant and picturesque story that has the merits of a highly morbid psychological novel. To her, Rossetti is equally the undisputed genius and the undisputed beast; the Siddall, a cold, fragile, spiritually immaculate virgin. Their life together is unrelenting tragedy. The egoism and vainglory of the man do not repel the woman, blinded by the graces of his glamorous passion. The woman’s unearthliness, strengthened by her physical frailty, fascinates the man. But, in spite of these attractions, there is constant warfare induced by the man’s infidelities and the woman’s jealousy, all the worse for being usually unacknowledged.

To read these various interpretations of Rossetti is to be more than ever conscious of his complexity. Both Miss Winwar and Miss Hunt have conveyed more than a little of his infinite variety, one sympathetically, the other with considerable feminine rancor. In both presentations he is clearly a Rossetti; in neither, the complete Rossetti, who was that almost unimaginable personality made up both of the angel and the devil.

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