Sunday, August 16, 2009

Week 11, Browning, Hopkins, the Rossettis

General Notes on Gerard Manley Hopkins

In the anthology I used as a beginning student of Victorian literature (Victorian Poetry and Prose), Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling suggest that Hopkins is a late-romantic poet, a practitioner of the poetics of grand failure. They suggest that he regrets the loss of a strong Christian world view and that he is an isolated aesthete trying to reappropriate the ancient religion’s framework. But even in the so-called terrible sonnets, which, if I recall correctly, Bloom and Trilling describe as stormy Byronism, Hopkins is not necessarily a self-divided romantic. Instead, it might be better to see him as working through his isolation within the much larger theological framework available to him—he is dramatizing a spiritual problem, not complaining about it to himself. Ultimately, the differences between Hopkins and Keats or Byron or Wordsworth seem more important than the similarities.

As a nature poet with great regard for the particularity of things, Hopkins follows Keats to some extent, but the medieval author Duns Scotus provides Hopkins with the theological support for his interaction with nature. Humility in the presence of nature is important to Hopkins, but this humility is of a Christian sort and does not amount to Carlylean self-annihilation. Rather, this Christian poet aims to experience and to convey an experience of being as grounded in God. We can experience our existence in this manner when we observe the natural world, although that is only one way it can be experienced.

Hopkins may follow Keats and Tennyson, but he rejects sensuous simplicity and smooth rhetoric. His poetry is memorable but can be difficult going. It reflects a complexity of language and mental process chosen to honor the particularity of each natural thing and made appropriate to the difficulty of salvation. The act of seeing is redemptive, and redemption is not easy.

Hopkins’s journals show his concern to clarify and refine his impression-taking powers. “Cleansing the doors of perception” is a romantic formula that applies well to Hopkins—the world of objects is dynamic without being unstable, but Hopkins often dramatizes the way the human mind fails to appreciate nature’s energy. We simply do not see what is really there.

Hopkins tasks words with marking, catching, and celebrating the particularity of things, most especially the particularity of classes of things. He often speaks of nature in the plural—dappled things, brinded cows, dragonflies, and so forth. The goal is not to dominate natural things or annihilate them, not to assert our raw power over the creation. Doing that would be impious—the Bible explains that humanity long since tried to do it in the most disrespectful manner, with disastrous consequences, and we might infer the lesson that our failure to cherish the natural world is part of the pattern of our sinfulness. Hopkins apparently considers precise impressions of things respectful towards God; imprecision of speech testifies to the roughness of the eye that perceives. To see something correctly is at least partly redemptive—Hopkins does not aim to describe abstractions, and does not give us a vague sense of mystery—“a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused.” Rather, each thing, to borrow a phrase from Martin Heidegger, “stands into the lighting of Being.” It catches God’s energy as it goes about its business, a phenomenon Hopkins calls “selving.” The beauty of God exceeds change, but he has suited the human mind to the minute apprehension of particularities.

The Norton editors provide an excellent gloss on Hopkins’s terms inscape and instress:
Drawing on the theology of Duns Scotus, a medieval philosopher, he felt that everything in the universe was characterized by what he called inscape, the distinctive design that constitutes individual identity. This identity is not static but dynamic. Each being in the universe ‘selves,’ that is, enacts its identity. And the human being, the most highly selved, the most individually distinctive being in the universe, recognizes the inscape of other beings in an act that Hopkins calls instress, the apprehension of an object in an intense thrust of energy toward it that enables one to realize its specific distinctiveness. Ultimately, the instress of inscape leads one to Christ, for the individual identity of any object is the stamp of divine creation on it. In the act of instress, therefore, the human being becomes a celebrant of the divine, at once recognizing God’s creation and enacting his or her own God-given identity within it.
Hopkins’s terminology allows him to move beyond a romantic emphasis on the isolated individual. He is a Christian nature poet who turns Romantic particularity back towards God’s language, the “syllables” of God, to borrow a phrase from Coleridge. Since Hopkins is writing from a theological perspective, it helps to include the Catholic Catechism’s statement on humanity’s relationship with nature:
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part One Chapter 1/IV.40-43


40. Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so. We can name God only by taking creatures as our starting point, and in accordance with our limited human ways of knowing and thinking.

41. All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man, created in the image and likeness of God. The manifold perfections of creatures—their truth, their goodness, their beauty—all reflect the infinite perfection of God. Consequently we can name God by taking his creatures’ perfections as our starting point, “for from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.”

42. God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God—“the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable”—with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.

43. Admittedly, in speaking about God like this, our language is using human modes of expression; nevertheless it really does attain to God himself, though unable to express him in his infinite simplicity. Likewise, we must recall that “between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude”; and that “concerning God, we cannot grasp what he is, but only what he is not, and how other beings stand in relation to him.”
Hopkins’ favorable view of Duns Scotus is often mentioned, so I will include here a summation of that theologian’s differences with the even more influential Saint Thomas Aquinas. I draw from David Walhout’s fine essay “Scotism in the Poetry of Hopkins” (113-132 in Saving Beauty: Further Studies in Hopkins, edited by Michael E. Allsopp and David Anthony Downes. New York and London: Garland, 1994.) Walhout identifies nine areas in which Scotus differs substantially from Aquinian thought, but here are the ones that seem the most significant, along with my paraphrases of his explanations:

1. The priority of singulars as objects of knowledge (Thomism = universals, not singulars)

Scotus says that sensory experience gives us not simply raw data but “genuine objects of cognition.” Thomism says we do indeed begin with particulars, but we need to make abstractions or general concepts to think. We cannot grasp particulars directly as objects of understanding and knowing.

2. The priority of intuition in cognition (Thomism = abstraction, not intuition)

The second doctrine is that Scotus says we know singulars by intuition not abstraction. Knowing is not necessarily mediated through universals or concepts. First we know things by intuition and then we make abstractions and concepts, judge and reason about things.

3. The reality of the individual essence (haecceitas) (Thomism = general essence)

The third doctrine involves haecceitas, which refers to the idea that the individual essence is just as real as the generic essence in things. The individual essence is not one property among many in the object but rather the overall uniqueness or individuality of the thing.

6. The primacy of the will (Thomism = intellect as primary)

The primacy of the will is the sixth doctrine and it means that divine will is the supreme executive attribute in God, with reason knowing its prescriptions and being its repository of truth. The notion is that the will guides and reason assists—the same would be true for humans. Moreover, without the assistance of the will, the intellect cannot conceive the infinite. But we are made for the infinite, so the will expresses the whole man: first because it is free and secondly because its proper object is the infinite.

7. The unconditional freedom of the will (Thomism = qualified freedom)

The seventh doctrine concerns freedom of the will: St. Thomas says that when the highest good is presented clearly the will chooses and loves it necessarily. Scotus would deny this. See Hopkins’s letter to Robert Bridges of 4 January, 1883. He says that while the intellect may see necessity, the will remains free to acknowledge or apply a truth.

9. Incarnation as cosmological directing power (Thomism = … as a response to sin)

The ninth doctrine involves the incarnation of Christ. Scotus treats this cosmological doctrine as implying that Christ wasn’t just incarnated into a body but into the whole of the creation. Evidently God had meant to redeem the world even before the contingent historical event known as the Fall. For Hopkins this means there’s a “cosmic energy center” that activates other “centers of energy” impelling creatures to realize the individuality of their being.

To sum up this introduction to Hopkins as a nature poet, I should add that Hopkins’ nature poetry, in which his subjectivity is so finely attuned to the world’s particularities and so sensitive to beauty, is not so much idealist as realist—nature is there, and what the mind does is use its god-given powers to actively catch or instress the inscapes, the dynamic “thisness” of the natural world. There’s no need, in his view, to replace God or to say that the mind spins reality from itself. Hopkins’ patron saint Ignatius, the 16th-century Spanish founder of the Jesuit order or “Society of Jesus” (see his biography at, writes at the outset of his Spiritual Exercises,
Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.

And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.

From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.

For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.
By implication, nature is worthwhile so long as it is useful to the soul’s salvation and the greater glory of God, but otherwise it is to be dismissed. It is a means to an end, and one must dismiss it brusquely if some other means would serve the end better. This imperative is softened somewhat by Hopkins’ favorable reading of Duns Scotus, as discussed above, but the poet’s late work shows that it was not forgotten. And it is to that later work that we turn to conclude this introduction. Hopkins is among those Victorians (like John Henry Newman) who responded to Victorian doubt by affirming their belief in traditional Catholicism. Hopkins was subject to periods of deep depression and was most likely afflicted with the cyclical illness now called “manic depressive disorder” (see Kay Redfield Jamison’s book Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Free Press, 1996). As his depressive episodes worsened, Hopkins seems to have found that his first priority was no longer the bond with external nature but rather his own spiritual state, his inner being in its relation to God. There is no need to suppose that he felt any disappointment in the beauty of the natural world or even that he lost the ability to respond to it—though severe depression can surely have that “anhedonic” effect on a person. Neither need it be thought that Hopkins is in a state of despair that causes him to defy the universe in Byronic fashion.

Instead, in the dark depressive sonnets, what sounds to many modern readers like suicidal despair follows the well-scripted lines of St. John of the Cross’ “dark night of the soul” and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Christian meditative practice is quite familiar with depressive episodes, and knows how to embrace them and work through them. Christ’s life ends on the Cross, after all, with the scriptural echo from a Psalm of David, “why hast thou forsaken me?” One would have to presume that the expression was both genuinely human and at the same time an acting-out of human anguish for the edification of sinners who need a pattern to follow. Hopkins’ darkest poetry imitates this final utterance, at least to some extent. So it isn’t prideful isolation, mere hopelessness, or even doubt that we find in his poetry. Hopkins never seems to have doubted God’s existence or benevolence, as so many of his contemporaries did, and his career as a poet might be construed in strictly theological terms as his particular “way of the cross,” his imitatio Christi.

Notes on Hopkins’ Poems

“God’s Grandeur”

The poem’s first verse is perhaps the key to much of Hopkins’ nature poetry: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” This poem shows nature energized, crackling with directionality from God’s primal love, or what Dante calls “il primo amore.” Nature does not need the human mind to animate it. It is already charged like a battery, and Hopkins’ sonnet sets forth images of gathering force pulsing through the world, the Holy Spirit as creative power rising with the dawn. The problem is that individual human beings in their repetitive, self-isolating actions do not perceive nature’s variety and therefore fail to celebrate God. Human beings set up a dull, self-regarding rival order that contrasts with divine particularity, with the diversity and fullness of creation. In Hopkins, spiritual error and perceptual error are closely intertwined, as are their healthy opposite states.

“The Starlight Night”

Usually, astronomy is an attempt to derive intelligibility from the stars. But there is perhaps a different motive in this poem, with its concentration on the far recesses of sky, distant points of light. The poem celebrates the power of God’s energy to excite wonder. The point doesn’t seem to be logical consistency or the reduction of things to order. Instead, it represents a person’s excited mind patterning the stars and appreciating the grandeur of God.

“As Kingfishers Catch Fire”

When the sun glints upon the wings of a dragonfly or a bird, the animal catches divine energy simply by acting out its “thisness.” Each animate thing as an individual follows the pattern of its species and is validated as an individual thereby. The purpose of each living thing is to be what God intended it to be, whether it knows that or not. Human beings are at the top of the hierarchy because they have been given the gift of choosing to celebrate and worship God. They do so in many ways, and the expressive act we call poetry is one of those ways. Hopkins put away his poetry writing for about seven years after he went into the priesthood, but the relative approval of the church made him go back to it, and I suppose the relation of humanity to nature alluded to in the present poem must have been sustaining as well.


The regenerative power of nature strikes the soul; the poem tries to capture the energy, the movement, the “juice” or overflow from Paradise to earth. In the second stanza, the implication is that nature offers us a glimpse of Paradise; children experience a brief time of innocence, and should grasp the significance of such times and scenes. Victorians generally treated children as if they were little adults. This poem cuts both ways: children are invoked and asked to understand something we might think most appropriate to adults, yet at the same time the freshness of perception evoked belongs to children in the fine tradition of Blake and Wordsworth.

“The Windhover”

The material world provides an analogy for spiritual splendor. Compare this poem to Tennyson’s “Eagle” or George Herbert’s “Affliction.” In the context of the poem, “to catch” means to instress the bird’s inscape. The bird is not turned into a direct emblem of Christ (Hopkins does not write allegorical or emblematic poetry; he is inclined to respect nature enough not to subsume it too easily into his symbolic system), but Christ is obviously in the background as the chevalier, the hero-king and sacrificial sufferer whose splendor flashes after his redemptive deed. The speaker “catches” the bird, and then it catches him up in its amazing plunge. The plunge may allude to Christ’s incarnation and consequent heroic suffering; as the next-to-last stanza suggests, Christ himself is “a billion / Times told lovelier,” like the fire that breaks from the bird during its lightning-fast approach to earth.

Christ is often depicted in terms of light, as when he sets out in his flaming chariot in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book 5. There is also in this poem something of John Donne’s way of describing God’s effect upon the human spirit in violent terms, as something that brings hearts “out of hiding.” How does the final sestet complete the poem’s meaning? I would suggest that the references to the well-worn plough and the ashes falling upon the ground point to the idea that a thing is most worthy of apprehension, is most itself, just when it is about to pass away or just when its fundamental task is achieved.

“Pied Beauty”

This is another poem that underscores the ability to appreciate nature’s “thisness,” and it seems important to the speaker that we not superimpose a domineering or romantic self-consciousness upon nature, saturating it with ourselves and tamping it down with our problems. Refraining from such impositions is in part an atonement for causing the fall that alienated us from nature.

Nature is not simply our expressive vehicle; instead, we should appreciate it as God’s free expression. We should appreciate nature’s sheer diversity as a kind of joyful excess. God creates because he wants to create, not because he must—the central concept here is Christian charity, generosity. Understanding nature this way turns it into a door that opens to Christ, not a mirror that reflects back to us our own self-division, alienation from others, and alienation from God. The grammar in the final line—whether it be set down as a “:” or a “;”—implies that all of the dappled things lead up to the simple statement “Praise him.” This is all the explanation that is necessary for nature’s diversity. And the term “dappled,” of course, has Impressionist overtones.

“Hurrahing in Harvest”

The line, “These things, these things were here and but the beholder / Wanting” emphasizes Hopkins’ tact: again, nature is already alive and does not need us to make it come alive. Our task is to appreciate; Hopkins would probably say that is our way of helping to complete God’s continual acts of creation, as he allows us to do.

“Binsey Poplars”

The failure of those who have cut the trees down to “instress” the stand of trees denies God’s creative power, his stamping of a thing with its own living individuality. The final stanza sets forth contrasting repetitions—the strokes of the saw and the speaker’s own laments over what has been done. The felling of trees in this manner is yet another effect of the Fall, and something has been permanently taken away even from the speaker who actually appreciates nature as he should.

“Duns Scotus’ Oxford”

The ugly buildings put up around Oxford seem to have instilled in Hopkins much the same agony as the Italians’ treatment of their cultural heritage created in John Ruskin. Once upon a time, the natural environment and the college town made up a unit of mutually reinforcing or complementary inscapes. But modernity confounds our ability to instress this land-and-cityscape, and, by implication, it keeps us from understanding Duns Scotus’ insight into the individual vitality of natural things as a kind of energy that praises and returns to God. Hopkins casts Duns Scotus as a bygone hero. To a limited extent, this gesture links Hopkins to Thomas Carlyle, the greatest Victorian proponent of hero-worship. As for architecture, Hopkins’ notion is similar to that of John Ruskin—buildings express the spiritual state and aspirations of an entire people.

“Felix Randal”

This poem is a meditation on the brevity of life and the need to “look to end things”—not something that would have been easy to do for an active man like Felix Randal the blacksmith. The priest-speaker reflects on his relation to this former parishioner, now that he is gone and there is time to do so. One seldom thinks in this way when in the thick of life.

“Spring and Fall”

Hopkins wrote this poem when he was in Liverpool; the observations probably express his own feeling that the place was “museless.” The speaker addresses Margaret’s eventual fall into adulthood, when she will experience the dark side of symbolic meaning. As Margaret will see herself in the decay of nature, the speaker expresses grief at his own mortality. We will come to correlate death in the natural cycle with our own demise.

“Carrion Comfort”

This is a sonnet of desolation because of its near assent to spiritual death. The poem flows from Hopkins’ propensity to blame himself for his depressive states—we have far less control over our “affective will” than our “sheer will,” but still bear some responsibility in both cases. Here, the speaker seems to have just emerged from a severe depression, and begins to will his assent to God’s plan for him, however feebly. He has at least taken on the burden of ceasing to struggle against Christ—the blame gives way to bleak affirmation in hopes of regaining his energy, that “primal love” sent by God.

“No Worst, There Is None”

The speaker is in a hell of his own making, and his grief brings on still intenser grief, with no catharsis in sight. What serves as comfort “in a whirlwind”? Only the statement that “all / Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.” This “comfort” is as grim as the comfort King Lear derives while exposed to the storm, or Swinburne’s pagan speaker derives from the sentiment that “There is no god found stronger than death, / And death is a sleep.” But this isn’t a view to which Hopkins could subscribe. The point seems to be that there really is no ordinary comfort in the face of death—nothing in nature, anyway; only Christ will serve that end, and at present the speaker isn’t able to feel the connection to him that he should.

“I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day”

This poem works from the traditional exploration of “The Dark Night of the Soul,” as in Saint John of the Cross. Hopkins certainly understood the psychology of profound depression. The speaker addresses his own emotions, which have a life all their own and which therefore generate inner discord. He is in a hellish state of his own making, or at least that’s the way he interprets the problem. The third stanza implies a threat that the speaker’s body has become worse than nothing—it has become a “sign” leading nowhere, and the same might be said of his words, which only turn back in upon his anguish and do not help him reconnect with Christ. In the final stanza, the speaker compares his state to a Dantean Inferno, wherein God’s primal love is experienced in ever-more perfect degree as pain and anguish appropriate to the sinner. The speaker experiences this energy as profound alienation, and suffers the intensification of his “self-taste,” the taste of his own unhappy inner self. This is not mere apathy he’s describing; it is suicidal near-despair. To experience despair is perhaps not to lose the desire for salvation, but rather to lose all hope of it and to believe that relief will never come. In this situation, the spirit turns back upon itself, isolating itself from God in destructive fury. The speaker apparently feels trapped in himself, and since suicide is against God’s will, he may be angry with God, too. It isn’t possible for him to say, as I recall Cesare Pavese wrote just before he died, “No more words—an act.” What is the point of writing a poem like this? Does it bring relief? Clarity?

“That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection”

Light and shadow, earth, air, fire, and water, are all in play here. The Resurrection of the Dead will put an end to natural history and human history, swallowing up everything that is suffering and mortal in one grand “wildfire” that will “leave but ash” of materiality’s dead clay. The energy flowing through nature in the poem’s first half is thereafter described as flowing through the soul, and the speaker’s aim seems to be to align his desires with this “being-towards-destruction” of fallen nature. He can do so because he trusts that God’s will is being done. The pressure of suffering, the constant “imitation of Christ,” will at last turn the soul to “immortal diamond,” just as carbon turns to this gem under great pressure over vast stretches of time. This is a very Augustinian poem—there’s no point here in trying to salvage nature or anything earthly; it must all be burned in the end time to make way for the grand spiritual consummation. That this should be the case with “manshape” seems contradictory to the speaker, but he knows he must embrace contradictions in order to transcend them.

“Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord”

This poem was written in Ireland, where Hopkins felt out of sorts. This isn’t so much pure lyric expression as performance, a dramatized expression that lends the speaker some perspective on his state of mind. The quotation from the Latin or Vulgate bible suggests as much, as I’ve found in the criticism on Hopkins’ poetry—the speaker in Jeremiah’s prophetic book is foolish to question God, and by implication so is the speaker in Hopkins’ poem. But the final triplet seems intimate and in its way legitimate—I don’t read it as merely the acting-out of a wrong-headed speaker.

“The Wreck of the Deutschland”

What lesson is the speaker trying to learn from the tragedy he recounts? The first part of the poem concerns the manner in which he was called to the Catholic faith, while the second part deals with the shipwreck itself. Five Franciscan nuns were among the passengers aboard the Deutschland; they were leaving the persecution of Catholics in Germany and heading to America, but the ship sank in the Thames River during an awful storm.

In the midst of his reflection on such a disaster, the speaker turns to an imaginative projection of one who suffered and died in it to answer his own question, “How do we know God—or do we know him at all?” See Stanza 24, where the Nun invites Christ to “come quickly.” She heroically sees the shipwreck as hastening her union with God. Imitatio Christi is the traditional pattern: life as preparatory suffering. The speaker, too, is trying to come to grips with the event and unite in sentiment with the nuns against the storm’s terrible destructive power. Hopkins hadn’t written any poetry for seven years, thinking it not right considering his vocation as a Jesuit priest. But a superior told him he should write it after he heard about the wreck from a newspaper account. Traditional Christian theology describes nature as a hostile, alien element, though Hopkins usually doesn’t treat it that way. In this poem, nature is full of fury and confusion that might make it seem pre-eminent, but at the center of the storm is the wonderful clarity of the Nun who sees it for what it is.

Notes on Christina Rossetti

“Song—When I am dead, my dearest”

This is a wistful poem coming from a devout Anglican, but it’s appropriate in theological terms, I think. The speaker is perhaps just saying that there’s no point in becoming obsessive about states after death, especially is that obsession attaches to the departed person’s “final resting place.” The speaker will be elsewhere anyhow. Doctrinally, the point is that to mourn excessively is to show that one was attached to the most perishable component of a person (whether we mean the body or the personality), not the one that a Christian considers immortal.

“In an Artist’s Studio”

The speaker finds Elizabeth Siddal and meditate on the difference between her and the one ideal (in many guises) of an aesthetic, sensuous medieval lady. Christina distances herself from the Brotherhood. She refers to the relationship between Siddal and Dante Gabriel. It may be that all erotic relations involve a degree of objectification of the other, but the Brotherhood carries this tendency much farther than necessary.

“Winter: My Secret”

As Isobel Armstrong writes in her book Victorian Poetry, the poem “turns on the refusal of expression. It is about and is itself a barrier” (357). The speaker refers to wraps and masks, coverings that are also representational. Rossetti plays with the image of a spinster with a secret of some sort, possibly one about love. Armstrong says that the poem is concerned with the way “the sexuality of the speaking subject is created and bound” (359), but I don’t think that need be the case—it seems more carefree than that kind of heavy framework suggests. It’s been said that a person with no secrets has no self, that a secret is the core around which personality is built.

“No, Thank You, John”

This witty poem makes fun of the stereotypical male “puppy dog” sensibility about relationships: obsessive, jealous, possession-oriented. I don’t suppose Christina Rossetti would have agreed with Stendhal’s dictum that “In love, possession is nothing; it’s enjoyment that makes all the difference” (En amour, posséder n’est rien; c’est jouir qui fait tout). Here, the offer is friendship of a rather businesslike sort—which of course the immature male addressee seems unlikely to consider worthwhile. Friendship requires reciprocity, whereas the kind of “love” this particular male wants is reductive, based on simple object relations.

Below are some introductory remarks on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. There are a few references to material we haven’t studied because this was originally written for a Victorianist seminar at Chapman.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: Introduction

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which formally lasted only a few years around the beginning of the mid-Victorian Period and included painters such as D.G. Rossetti, Holman Hunt, Edward Burne-Jones and John Everett Millais, is an early form of aestheticism or “art for art’s sake,” so it makes sense to connect the PRB to the 1880’s-90’s movement including Pater, Wilde, Beardsley, and others.

Both the precursor movement and the later flowering of aestheticism amount to a rejection of bourgeois sensibilities in art—a rejection of the facile demand that everything should “make sense” and be “realistic” in the contemporizing and vulgar sense of that term. The aesthete’s disgust at artists who copy mid-to-late Victorian “reality” and reflect back to the middle class what is already familiar to it may be seen in Wilde’s delightfully elitist comment that “in art we do not wish to be concerned with the doings of the lower orders” or his infamous quip about the public’s anger at certain caustically realistic works of art being no more than “the rage of Caliban seeing his face in a glass.”

This context should remind us that like its offshoot or revival later on, the PRB movement may be placed in the tradition of semi-romantic or “conservative” reactions against modernity. Consider the writings we have studied so far: Newman, Carlyle, Ruskin. Despite their differences, all are lovers of mystery and the realm of spirit, and all strongly oppose what they see as misguided modern demands for facile clarity and pointless precision, for vulgar materialism and soulless instrumentalism, for a world increasingly designed to fit a radical and artificial conception of human nature and not an organic one. They see all this as the breakdown of any true principle of authority by which ordinary people and their governors may be guided, and in reaction these “conservatives” attempt to reconstruct what they believe are more workable and truer principles by which to live. While the PRB does not voice such grand claims as the mid-Victorian sages, certainly their rejection of modernity stems from the same kind of discontent with the status quo.

The PRB rejected the Royal Academy’s conventionalism, which was allied with the rules (privileging “rationality, selective verisimilitude, simplicity, and balance”) proffered by High Renaissance painter Raphael (1483-1520). Ruskin-like, they see Raphael’s theory of painting as an indicator of spiritual and cultural decline, and want to turn back the literary and artistic clock. They adopt as their models the medieval painters who lived around the time of Dante Alighieri, and also draw sustenance from religion and literature—Dante, Shakespeare, Keats, Tennyson, and Arthurian romance. DGR in particular liked the richness of color, the vividness of imagination, and the intensely spiritual rendering of the human body one can find in these painters. It is as if Giotto and others of that time would agree with Wilde: “those who find any difference between spirit and body have neither.” (You can see some fine examples at the Getty Museum and online at Olga’s Gallery.) Here’s a good online definition of Pre-Raphaelite painting:

The Pre-Raphaelite painters insisted that a painter should paint whatever he sees, regardless of the formal or academic rules of painting. The effort at fidelity to nature and experience was manifested in clarity, brightness, and sharply realized details in their paintings. However, despite its use of naturalistic detail, Pre-Raphaelitism in both painting and poetry turned away from realism, the ugliness of modern life in the 19th-century industrial society in England . The Pre-Raphaelites took no account of the life of contemporary England ; instead, they turned to a heroic and decorative world of the Middle Ages, the art of which was destroyed by Raphael and the Renaissance. (

I think that Herbert Tucker and Dorothy Mermin are right in pointing out the tenuousness of the “transcendence” and mystery they want to see in nature, but let’s supplement this with something that shows the PRB exhibiting a bit more of the “courage of other people’s convictions.” I’ll refer to the aesthetic critic Walter Pater’s analysis of the poetry of DGR:
Walter Pater characterizes “The Blessed Damozel” as follows:
[I]n The Blessed Damozel, written at the age of eighteen, a prefigurement of the chief characteristics of that school, as he will recognise in it also, in proportion as he really knows Rossetti, many of the characteristics which are most markedly personal and his own. Common 205 APPRECIATIONS to that school and to him, and in both alike of primary significance, was the quality of sincerity, already felt as one of the charms of that earliest poem—a perfect sincerity, taking effect in the deliberate use of the most direct and unconventional expression, for the conveyance of a poetic sense which recognised no conventional standard of what poetry was called upon to be.[…]—an accent which might rather count as the very seal of reality on one man’s own proper speech; as that speech itself was the wholly natural expression of certain wonderful things he really felt and saw. Here was one, who had a matter to present to his readers, to himself at least, in the first instance, so valuable, so real and definite, that his primary aim, as regards form or expression in his verse, would be but its exact equivalence to those data within. That he had this gift of transparency in language—the control of a style which did but obediently shift and shape itself to the mental motion, as a well-trained hand can follow on the tracing-paper the outline of an original drawing below it, was proved afterwards by a volume of typically perfect translations from the delightful but difficult 206 DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI “early Italian poets”: such transparency being indeed the secret of all genuine style, of all such style as can truly belong to one man and not to another. His own meaning was always personal and even recondite, in a certain sense learned and casuistical, sometimes complex or obscure; but the term was always, one could see, deliberately chosen from many competitors, as the just transcript of that peculiar phase of soul which he alone knew, precisely as he knew it.

One of the peculiarities of The Blessed Damozel was a definiteness of sensible imagery, which seemed almost grotesque to some, and was strange, above all, in a theme so profoundly visionary. The gold bar of heaven from which she leaned, her hair yellow like ripe corn, are but examples of a general treatment, as naively detailed as the pictures of those early painters contemporary with Dante, who has shown a similar care for minute and definite imagery in his verse; there, too, in the very midst of profoundly mystic vision. Such definition of outline is indeed one among many points in which Rossetti resembles the great Italian poet, of whom, led to him at first by family circumstances, he was ever a lover—a “servant and singer,” faithful as Dante, “of Florence and of Beatrice”—with some close inward conformities of genius also, independent of any mere circumstances of education. It was said by a critic of the last century, not wisely though agreeably to the practice of his time, 207 APPRECIATIONS that poetry rejoices in abstractions. For Rossetti, as for Dante, without question on his part, the first condition of the poetic way of seeing and presenting things is particularisation.
As you can see from what I’ve quoted, Pater casts Rossetti as an impressionist, a painter and poet true to his own internal impressions.