Pre-Raphaelites in The City: Literature

Dinah Roe

New Book On Christina Rossetti! An Interview With the Author, Dr Serena Trowbridge

Those of you who are fans of Christina Rossetti will be as delighted as I am to learn that there is a brand new book exploring Christina Rossetti’s Gothic, an area of study that is screaming from a crumbling turret for the greater attention it deserves. Its author, Dr Serena Trowbridge, has very kindly agreed to be interviewed about Christina Rossetti’s place in her own writing life.

You can learn more about Serena and her work by reading her blog, Culture and Anarchy, which I highly recommend, as it often features the Pre-Raphaelites. She is a Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University. Her research interests include:poetry, particularly of the nineteenth century; women’s history and writing; Gothic literature; nineteenth-century Anglican theology; Ruskin; children’s literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; Pre-Raphaelitism in art and literature; literary theory. She is also editor of the Review of the Pre-Raphaelite Society. You can follow her on twitter @serena_t.

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‘A Dirge’, by Christina Rossetti Analysis Part 2

Health Warning: In part 2 of this analysis, we’re going to look at meter. No wait! Come back! I know you may have had painful experiences with scansion in the past, but this blog is not here to belittle or punish you for struggling with this sometimes difficult art. 

We’re simply going to look briefly at two different kinds of metrical feet: the dactyl and the trochee. Then we’re going to discover how they help contribute to the poem’s meaning. Easy peasy. There will be no pop quiz afterwards, and I assure you I have nothing up my sleeve except the wish to spread the joy of scansion. If such a thing can be contained in the sleeve of my moth-eaten cardigan.

Let’s begin.

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‘A Dirge’ by Christina Rossetti (Analysis Part 1) JK Rowling goes cuckoo for Rossetti poem

Some might imagine that JK Rowling publishing a crime novel under a pseudonym (Robert Galbraith) is the most important part of the story of the genesis of A Cuckoo’s Calling. But I say Galbraith, Schmalbraith. The real story here is that JK Rowling has borrowed her onomatopoetic, alliterative title from the Christina Rossetti poem, ‘A Dirge’ (1865).

She has also reproduced the complete poem as the novel’s epigraph. Taken together with the neo-gothic overtones of the Harry Potter series and the George Eliot-esque realism of The Casual Vacancy, Ms. Rowling’s acknowledgement of Rossetti bespeaks an acquaintance with nineteenth-century literature that makes this Victorian scholar’s heart beat faster under her sensible cardigan.

Without further ado, I would like to offer a close-reading of ‘A Dirge’ for those interested in following where JK Rowling is gently leading her more curious readers. And I do mean ‘curious’ in multiple senses of the word.

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‘Winter: My Secret’ (Analysis Part 1) Poetry Workshop

Winter: My Secret
(by Christina Rossetti) 

I tell my secret? No indeed, not I:
Perhaps some day, who knows?
But not today; it froze, and blows, and snows,
And you’re too curious: fie!
You want to hear it? well:
Only, my secret’s mine, and I won’t tell.

Or, after all, perhaps there’s none:
Suppose there is no secret after all,
But only just my fun.
Today’s a nipping day, a biting day;
In which one wants a shawl,
A veil, a cloak, and other wraps:
I cannot ope to everyone who taps,
And let the draughts come whistling thro’ my hall;
Come bounding and surrounding me,
Come buffeting, astounding me,
Nipping and clipping thro’ my wraps and all.
I wear my mask for warmth: who ever shows
His nose to Russian snows
To be pecked at by every wind that blows?
You would not peck? I thank you for good will,
Believe, but leave the truth untested still.

Spring’s an expansive time: yet I don’t trust
March with its peck of dust,
Nor April with its rainbow-crowned brief showers,
Nor even May, whose flowers
One frost may wither thro’ the sunless hours.

Perhaps some languid summer day,
When drowsy birds sing less and less,
And golden fruit is ripening to excess,
If there’s not too much sun nor too much cloud,
And the warm wind is neither still nor loud,
Perhaps my secret I may say,
Or you may guess.

Poetry Analysis: Getting Started

As Maria Von Trapp might remind us, we should start at the very beginning, because it is a very good place to start. Some people will tell you that a poem begins with its first line. This is not, generally speaking, true. A poem begins with its title. ‘But what about untitled poems?’ I hear the swot at the back objecting. To which I reply, a poet’s decision NOT to include a title is still an omission worth thinking about.

Christina Rossetti and Titles: Not a Love Story
In the case of today’s poem, we should remind ourselves that Christina Rossetti was not always at her most inspired when making up titles. For instance, the actual title of poem we know as ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ is ‘A Christmas Carol’, while ‘My heart is like a singing bird’ is rather forgettably called, ‘A Birthday’. Dante Gabriel Rossetti despaired of his sister’s attraction to generic titles; he tactfully suggested that his sister rechristen ‘The Last Hope’ and ‘Anne of Warwick’ as ‘Death’s Chill Between’ and ‘Heart’s Chill Between’ for the poems’ publication in The Athenaeum in 1848.

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Bros With Mos Celebrate Movember With a Tribute to the Pre-Raphaelite Moustache

As some of you may be aware, it is officially Movember, the month during which men grow moustaches to raise awareness of prostate and testicular cancer, and of men’s health in general. You can support and find out more about this great cause HERE. ‘Pre-Raphaelites In the City’ applauds this movement’s effort, both on the grounds of compassion and aesthetics. Victorian facial hair was a wonder to behold, and we will probably never see its like again. In a spirit of tribute, I would like to take this opportunity to celebrate the noble Pre-Raphaelite soup-strainer.

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Preraphsrule On LitBits Podcast In Which I Discuss Art, Literature and the Pre-Raphaelites With Most Distinguished Podcasters

The erudite and irreverent folks at LitBits, a podcast billing itself as ‘somewhere between the pub and the seminar room’, recently invited me on to discuss the topic ‘Literature and Art.’ As you’ve probably guessed, I talk at some length about Pre-Raphaelitism. The podcast’s delightful hosts not only made me feel very welcome, they also made me think about art and literature in new ways. And I hope you’ll have the same experience. Click HERE to listen. You can also download this podcast as an MP3. And while you’re on their site, why not listen to them discussing literature ‘from odd and surprising angles’ with a fantastic lineup of guests, including an advertiser, a chef and a poet (among many others)!

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Pre-Raphaelite Perspectives for the Jubilee Weekend Morris and Swinburne on Queen Victoria's Jubilee

The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee is dominating the weekend news in Britain, and no doubt in the United States as well, where there is an insatiable appetite for the British Royal Family and its doings.

Of course we twenty-first century citizens are not the only people to have witnessed lavish celebrations to commemorate a long-standing British monarch. George III was the first to have his Golden Jubilee commemorated in 1809, but Queen Victoria saw Golden and Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Her reign (1837 – 1901) is still the longest in the history of Great Britain, though admittedly Elizabeth II is catching up fast.

Victoria, whose portrait hung in the family home when the Rossettis were children, was on the throne long before and long after the Pre-Raphaelite movement. During her reign, the Crown awarded a baronetcy to John Everett Millais (1885) and Edward Burne-Jones (1894). Though Burne-Jones said of his honor, ‘I half like it and half don’t care tuppence’, the half that liked it won the day. He accepted the baronetcy, despite his own reservations, and those of his wife Georgiana and fellow-artists George Frederick Watts (who twice turned down a baronetcy) and William Morris.

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‘Spring Quiet’ Christina Rossetti poem inspires my sister-in-law!

My sister-in-law Alyse recently told me that Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘Spring Quiet’ moved her to produce a lovely drawing which she has entitled ‘Spring Inspiration’, and I wanted to share it with you. Alyse is a young American artist who is just beginning her career. Having grown up in New York State’s Hudson Valley, she takes her inspiration from the natural world. She is also starting to become inspired by poetry.

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Pre-Raphaelite News Round-Up

Recent articles and items on the Pre-Raphaelites range from the predictable (Florence Welch described as ‘Pre-Raphaelite’) to the wildly original (Dimbola Museum’s ‘Best Bohemian Beard’ awards).

What emerges from these disparate approaches is the sense that its kaleidoscopic nature has helped keep Pre-Raphaelitism vital. Its refusal to remain in one category (fine arts, literature, music, decorative arts) means Pre-Raphaelitism continues to appeal to film-makers and fashion designers as much as art gallery visitors and poetry lovers.

And beard-fanciers. 

In the News
11 Feb 2012
The Times chooses Christina Rossetti sonnet for ‘Love Poems Everyone Should Know.’

15 Feb 2012
Jan Marsh: ‘Did Rossetti Really Need to Exhume His Wife?’ In TLS

20 Feb 2012
Pre-Raphaelite Works from 7 Liverpool art museums newly available on the ‘Your Paintings’ website. Get tagging!

9 March 2012
Islington Tribune appeals for funds to preserve Ford Madox Brown’s grave


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Virginia Woolf and Holman Hunt go To The Lighthouse St. Ives Guestbook Up for Auction at Bonhams

Get out your chequebooks: on Tuesday 22 November, a guestbook from Godrevy Lighthouse in St. Ives goes on sale at Bonhams in London’s New Bond Street. The guestbook boasts not only the childhood signature of Virginia Woolf, but also the signature of William Holman Hunt, who was one of her family’s party during their visit on 12 September 1892. Hunt was an old suitor of Woolf’s mother, Julia Jackson, a great beauty. Virginia Woolf’s father Leslie Stephen cattily noted that Holman Hunt married his second wife because of her resemblance to Julia. Hunt was well-known to Woolf’s family: he sat alongside Stephen on the original Committee for The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

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Mary Wollstonecraft: Vindicated

London commuters were surprised during yesterday’s evening rush hour to see an image of Mary Wollstonecraft projected onto the Houses of Parliament. The author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and mother of Mary Shelley, Wollstonecraft was far ahead of her time in promoting women’s civil and political rights, espousing radical ideas such as: ‘Women ought to have representatives, instead of being arbitrarily governed without any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of government.’ Her appearance on the Houses of Parliament on 16th November 2011 is a timely reminder, both of how far women have come, and how far they have to go to achieve true equality.

William Rossetti would have been thrilled to see this display, and almost certainly would have contributed to the Mary on the Green campaign to raise funds for a statue of the Mother of British Feminism. As a tribute both to William Rossetti and to Wollstonecraft, I’m making a donation, and I hope you will too. Click here to donate.

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Rossetti Attempts to Lead Tennyson Astray Come Into the Casino, Maud

In the autumn of 1855, the forty six year-old Alfred Tennyson read his new poem Maud outloud to a small literary audience at Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s London home. Listeners included the Rossetti brothers. Gabriel produced a spontaneous pen and ink sketch which showed the poet seated on a couch, reading from a small book in his right hand. The affectionate yet irreverent sketch reveals Rossetti’s feelings toward the Poet Laureate, which were a mixture of envy and admiration.

After this recital, Tennyson recklessly allowed himself to be escorted home by the twenty seven year-old Gabriel Rossetti. The age gap began to show around High Holborn, when Tennyson remarked on the abundance of cabs crowded round the Casino de Venice. What, he wondered, was going on inside?

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Did Keats invent Pre-Raphaelitism? On This Day - 31 October 1795: Birth of John Keats in London

When he was a young man in the 1840s, William Holman Hunt discovered a cheap first edition of John Keats’s poems in a bargain bin labeled ‘this lot 4d.’ It seems unbelievable that the great Romantic poet who wrote ‘Ode To A Nightingale’ and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ was so little esteemed, but until the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood came along, he was in danger of being forgotten.

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Unidentified Christina Rossetti Poem - Calling All Literary Detectives!

The Victorian era saw the rise of the private detective in both real life and in fiction. Long before Sherlock Holmes’s adventures in ‘The Strand Magazine’ kept London’s commuters on the edges of their seats, Ignatius Paul Pollaky’s real-life investigations caught the city’s imagination. Known as ‘Paddington’ Pollaky after his office at Paddington Green, the Hungarian-born detective became famous in the 1860s when he began to use the London Times ‘Agony’ column to publish cryptic communiqués such as ‘Marquise, have patience; 10 minutes after midnight – POLLAKY’. He was immortalised in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience in the lyric: ‘the keen penetration of Paddington Pollaky’.

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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.