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  • Ana Savković

Dante Gabriel Rossetti! The Blessed Damozel/Sonnets of Farewell

Updated: Apr 14, 2021

Not in thy body is thy life at all But in this lady's lips and hands and eyes; Through these she yields thee life that vivifies What else were sorrow's servant and death's thrall.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (later known as the Pre-Raphaelites) was an association of painters founded in 1848 that had a major influence on Victorian art. Members of the movement were known for breaking with the traditional values of their time and, wanting to bring in new ideas, they painted straight from nature. They also expressed a strong inclination towards medieval art and values. The Pre-Raphaelites sought inspiration from the Bible, classical mythology, legends, history, and poetry for which the painter, poet and one of the founders of the movement, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was best known for. Apart from his painting skills, Rossetti is also known for his poetic skills, which were expressed in his exceptional sonnets. In this week's ZiNger we will study in detail the life and work of an artist who, through his pioneering and innovative work, tried to emphasize the symbiotic connection between painting and literature.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (12 May 1828 - 9 April 1882) was an English painter, poet, playwright and translator. Understanding Rossetti’s art is crucial to understanding the kinship of his paintings with the poetry he created. To Rossetti the two were inseparable and interdependent, like his relationship with his muse and eternal inspiration Jane Morris. Rossetti's paintings can be interpreted as "literature on canvas", and this is supported by the fact that they were often accompanied by poems without which their interpretation was incomplete because together they formed a conceptual whole.

He came from an extremely gifted family. His father, Gabriel Rossetti was an Italian poet who was exiled from Naples for writing politically engaged poetry. Rossetti’s older sister Maria was the author of A Shadow of Dante, his brother William Michael was an editor and writer, and the youngest sister Christina Georgina, a famous and influential poet. Rossetti's success and the success of his sisters and brother were certainly due to their mother, Frances Mary Lavinia, a governess who paid great attention to the education of her children.

Already as a child Rossetti showed a strong interest in both painting and literature. He was home educated and from an early age he read the Bible, along with the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, Lord Byron... After graduating from King's College, he studied under the famous English painter Ford Madox Brown, with whom he remained friends for the rest of his life. He continued to read poetry, especially poets such as Blake, Keats, Coleridge, Poe, Shelley, Browning, Tennyson... and translated German and Italian medieval poems. During this period, he also began working on some of his famous poems such as The Blessed Damozel, My Sister's Sleep, The Bride's Prelude, Ave, On Mary's Portrait, Jenny, Dante at Verona and A Last Confession.

The blessed damozel lean'd out From the gold bar of Heaven; Her eyes were deeper than the depth Of waters still'd at even; She had three lilies in her hand, And the stars in her hair were seven.

He also began to write sonnets for which he was famous and which he perfected over the years. Initially, his poetry was influenced by Keats, but later Blake’s influence came to the fore through Rossetti’s desire to complexly connect thoughts and feelings like those in the sonnet series The House of Life, a work that is considered to be his greatest poetic achievement.

A sonnet is a moment's monument, -- Memorial from the Soul's eternity To one dead deathless hour. Look that it be, Whether for lustral rite or dire portent, Of its own arduous fulness reverent: Carve it in ivory or in ebony, As Day or Night may rule; and let Time see Its flowering crest impearled and orient.

A Sonnet is a coin: its face reveals The soul, -- its converse, to what Power 'tis due: -- Whether for tribute to the august appeals Of Life, or dower in Love's high retinue, It serve, or, 'mid the dark wharf's cavernous breath, In Charon's palm it pay the toll of Death.

In 1848, he founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, artists who shared his love for painting and poetry, but also his creative vision and philosophy. Over time, they were joined by other artists and although the movement lasted only ten years, it left a lasting impact on the art world. Rossetti shaped the group's literary tendencies and encouraged the founding of The Germ, a periodical in which he published some of his poems. He insisted on emphasizing the connection between the two passions that occupied his life and found an ingenious way to express his original ideas while emphasizing the unbreakable bond between painting and literature.

Two separate divided silences, Which, brought together, would find loving voice;

It was during this period that he met the painter and poet Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal who became his muse and wife. Elizabeth was a model for other Pre-Raphaelites, including Millais for perhaps the most famous painting of the Pre-Raphaelites, Ophelia, for whom Elizabeth posed for hours in a tub full of water, which eventually made her ill. During their marriage, Elizabeth suffered from depression and developed an addiction to laudanum (opium tincture), and after their daughter was born dead she fell into even deeper despair and committed suicide by taking an overdose of the tincture. After her death Rossetti laid a manuscript of his poems in her grave, but seven years later he regretted that decision, had them exhumed, and published them in 1870 under the title Poems by D. G. Rossetti. Rossetti himself suffered from depression after Elizabeth's death and developed an addiction to chloral hydrate.

Come back, dear Liz, and looking wise In that arm—chair which suits your size Through some fresh drawing scrape a hole. Your Valentine & Orson's soul Is sad for those two friendly eyes.

During his engagement to Lizzie he met Jane Burden, who in the years that followed became his greatest inspiration, muse and the main theme of his works. From the first day he saw her until his death, Rossetti remained enchanted with Jane and created many pre-Raphaelite masterpieces while she posed calmly for him. Her enigmatic appearance was a mystery to Rossetti with which he became obsessed, and which forced him to re-paint and glorify Jane in his poems for the rest of his life.

Genius In Beauty

Beauty like hers is genius. Not the call Of Homer's or of Dante's heart sublime, -- Not Michael's hand furrowing the zones of time, -- Is more with compassed mysteries musical; Nay, not in Spring's Summer's sweet footfall More gathered gifts exuberant Life bequeaths Than doth this sovereign face, whose love-spell breathes Even from its shadowed contour on the wall.

As many men are poets in their youth, But for one sweet-strung soul the wires prolong Even through all change the indomitable song; So in likewise the envenomed years, whose tooth Rends shallower grace with ruin void of truth, Upon this beauty's power shall wreak no wrong.

Due to a combination of circumstances, Rossetti introduced Jane to her future husband, the Victorian poet William Morris (read more about the famous English writer and innovator in ZiNger at: After seeing her in the theater, Rossetti became obsessed with Jane and begged her to pose for his group of young painters enchanted by the Middle Ages, chivalry and maidens. Although reluctant, Jane agreed and, in addition to Rossetti, posed for William Morris, who fell in love with the Pre-Raphaelite muse, and soon after that they were engaged, but it seems that the feelings were not mutual. Morris and Jane got married, had two children and stayed together for the rest of their lives but their union was not a happy one. Jane seemed to be in a love affair with Rossetti, and they even moved to Kelmscott Manor together, forcing the devastated Morris to withdraw and suppress his feelings.

ENTER Skald, moored in a punt, And jacks and tenches exeunt.

In his poems, Rossetti paid tribute to various people who left a strong impression on him throughout his life. One of them was his sister Christina who was also a member of the Pre-Raphaelites and just like Rossetti, greatly influenced by Dante Alighieri (Rossetti, whom the family named Gabriel Charles Dante, put Dante's name first in honor of the Italian poet). Christina was a famous and respected poet, and in his verses Rosseti tried to evoke her strong spirit, which was most evident through her social engagement. THERE'S a female bard, grim as a fakier, Who daily grows shakier and shakier.

Rosseti was considered to be "the father of the Pre-Raphaelites” and he largely shaped what the members of the group created, read, and aspired to do. Naturally, his admiration for the poet and painter William Blake influenced other members as well. Reading Blake left a strong impression on Rossetti, who was fascinated by his poetic mysticism, but also by his bold attitudes towards painting, which he gladly embraced. He bought his notes known as The Notebook (later as The Rossetti Manuscript) and gave them to the poet Algernon Swinburnes and the writer Alexander Gilchrist with whom he began work on one of Blake’s most important early biographies; Life of William Blake.


To the memory of William Blake, a Painter and Poet, whose greatness may be named even here since it was equalled by his goodness, this tablet is now erected – years after his death, at the age of sixty-eight, on August 12th, 1827, in poverty and neglect, by one who honours his life and works.

Epitaph ALL beauty to pourtray Therein his duty lay And still through toilsome strife Duty to him was life – Most thankful still that duty Lay in the paths of beauty.

Reading Keats also had a great influence on Rossetti and it was reflected in his work through the desire to paint directly from nature and trough the creation of sentimental verses. Like Blake, Keats incited Rossetti's admiration and respect, and in a letter to his brother he expressed his satisfaction with the poet's knowledge of painting skills and techniques. Keats's statement that the early masters surpassed Rafael meant a lot to Rossetti given his aspirations with the Pre-Raphaelites and he certainly felt a great connection to the last Romantic poet. Rossetti expressed his views and opinions in detail in John Keats: Criticism and Comment by D.G. Rossetti, but also in his poems.

An Epitaph For Keats

THROUGH one, years since hanged and forgot Who stabbed backs by the Quarter, Here lieth one who—while Time's stream Runneth, as God hath taught her, Bearing man's fame to men,—will have His great name writ in water.

Towards the end of his life, Rossetti's addiction to chloral hydrate worsened, as did his paranoia and depression. He suffered from a variety of health ailments: obesity, neuralgia, poor eyesight, mental instability, and anxiety that intensified further after poor reviews of his collection of poems. He suffered a mental breakdown and attempted suicide after which he was visited by Morris and Jane who stayed with Rossetti and cared for him. After that dark period, his poetic productivity increased and he continued to write and paint Jane, who, upset by his growing addiction, began to distance himself from Rossetti, which further worsened his already fragile mental state. He left Kelmscott Manner and spent the last years alone and isolated from the world. He died April 9, 1882, of kidney disease and was buried in the churchyard of All Saints at Birchington-on-Sea in Kent.

Rossetti found his greatest inspiration in tragic love. It was his version of the chivalrous worship of the exalted maiden that was at the same time inaccessible and ubiquitous. The incomprehensible Jane Morris was an inexhaustible source of inspiration for Rossetti, and his idealization of a woman who should (actually) be inaccessible to him led to feelings of frustration, disappointment and anxiety that he released by transferring them in poems and on canvas while creating masterpieces. What represented pain, suffering, and collapse in his private life was a continuous driving force for his art. His work became a catalyst trough which the tortured artist could finally unite with his muse by giving her immortality, and to himself the eternally desired unbreakable bond with the beloved.

Sudden Light

I have been here before, But when or how I cannot tell: I know the grass beyond the door, The sweet keen smell, The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

You have been mine before,-- How long ago I may not know: But just when at that swallow's soar Your neck turn'd so, Some veil did fall,--I knew it all of yore.

Has this been thus before? And shall not thus time's eddying flight Still with our lives our love restore In death's despite, And day and night yield one delight once more?


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