Pre-Raphaelites in The City: A Pre-Raphaelite Prescription

Dinah Roe

A Pre-Raphaelite Prescription

Unhappily, this week I found myself in my doctor’s surgery. The waiting room was decorated with pamphlets containing alarming line-drawings of unsightly illnesses. I was trying not to touch anything because the prospect of sickness is stressful for teachers. We worry that cancelling even one lesson will encourage a permanent Lord of the Flies atmosphere to reign in the classroom. Or perhaps that’s just me. So: Doctor’s appointment. Frightening reading material. Germophobia. You get the picture. And then a little yellow pamphlet entitled ‘Poems in the Waiting Room’ caught my eye. Inside I found a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti called, ‘Sudden Light’. It began:

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 …

(Click here to read the whole poem)

And suddenly, I was no longer in my doctor’s surgery. I was looking out at a stretch of green grass through an open doorway and catching the scent of the ocean. Because that’s what poetry can do; poetry in general and Pre-Raphaelite poetry in particular.

Other Victorian writers like Charles Dickens or Elizabeth Gaskell are famous for drawing attention to grinding urban poverty, industrial bleakness and social breakdown; the Pre-Raphaelites inhabited another landscape entirely. For them, cities were places of transformation, inspiration and infinite possibility. In art and poetry, the Pre-Raphaelites presented a challenge and a counterpoint to the dreary functionality of the modern metropolis. They took their cue from William Blake, who wrote: ‘You have only to work up imagination to the state of vision, and the thing is done’.

The Pre-Raphaelites wanted people to follow their lead in working up their imaginations to the state of vision. And as they were obliging enough to leave us instructions in their poetry and art, the least we can do is to give it a shot. The next time you’re in a waiting room of any kind, try working up your imagination to the state of vision. It may be a different prescription from the one your doctor gives you, but it’s just as effective.

What do you enjoy reading to pass time in a waiting room, or when you are under the weather?

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Pre-Raphaelites in the City

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This blog explores the thriving Victorian cities which inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, and were shaped by them in turn. While the Pre-Raphaelites produced poetry and art praising the natural world, most were born and raised in urban environments, and their work retained a cosmopolitan sensibility. Although this blog will sometimes take excursions into the countryside, its focus will remain on city life. If you want more information on images or sources, please get in touch.