Dinah Roe

Did Keats invent Pre-Raphaelitism?

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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Christina Rossetti on the Radio!

This coming Thursday’s broadcast of 'In Our Time' promises to feature ‘the life and work of the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti.’ I’m not sure who Melvyn Bragg’s guests will be, but let’s hope they give full credit to her technical skill and sophisticated metaphysics, rather than going down the well-trodden route of dismissing her religious commitment as dogmatic, self-hating and detrimental to her creativity. The blurb mentions that she was ‘best known for her ballads and religious poetry’. I do hope the programme will give full credit to her as a writer of sonnets. In my opinion, there is no superior Victorian master of the form. There is also the matter of Goblin Market, a poem which defies easy classification …

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Christina Rossetti and the Leveson Inquiry

‘Christina Rossetti became a brief star of the Leveson inquiry this morning’, the article began. When I saw a story about Christina Rossetti in my Evening Standard ‘Londoner’s Diary’ for 28 November, I thought I was hallucinating. I am not accustomed to seeing one of England’s greatest poets featuring next to photos of Lily Cole and ‘Mollie King, of girl group “The Saturdays”’. At first I reasoned that writing, teaching and blogging about Christina Rossetti had finally brought on some sort of nerdy breakdown. But then I read on, and realised that in fact Christina Rossetti was part of the collective consciousness today. Once again, the media have delighted in pointing out the spurious connection between Christina Rossetti’s poetry and suspected murder. Innocent landlord and English teacher Chris Jeffries was originally under suspicion for the murder of Jo Yeates, basically because he had an unfashionable haircut and enjoyed reading Rossetti. If you think I’m exaggerating, google ‘Rossetti and Chris Jefferies’ and see for yourself.

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In An Artist's Studio: Poetry Analysis

When I was a university freshman (long ago, when mastodons bellowed to each other across primeval swamps), a professor of mine once remarked that people are often afraid of poetry because they haven’t really been taught how to read it. This makes sense to me; unlike the Victorians, we are not bombarded with popular periodicals and annuals containing classic and contemporary poems. We are not taught to recite poetry at school, and rarely do we read it in any great depth. But I don’t want people to be scared of poetry anymore. I want people to love it! And if they can’t love it, then at least I want folks to be able to face it down. So in order to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, I’m going to experiment with a ‘Poetry Workshop’, in which I will closely analyse a Pre-Raphaelite poem.

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'In An Artist's Studio': Analysis Part 1

In An Artist's Studio (by Christina Rossetti)
One face looks out from all his canvasses, One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans; We found her hidden just behind those screens, That mirror gave back all her loveliness. A queen in opal or in ruby dress, A nameless girl in freshest summer greens, A saint, an angel; – every canvass means The same one meaning, neither more nor less. He feeds upon her face by day and night, And she with true kind eyes looks back on him Fair as the moon and joyful as the light: Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim; Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright; Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.
When coming to a poem for the first time, it’s tempting just to plunge in and start reading. The trouble with this approach is that you risk overlooking a major part of the poem: its title. Consider Rossetti’s title here: ‘In An Artist’s Studio.’ Without looking at the poem, what can we immediately gather from the title? Let’s close read it word for word and find out.

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'In An Artist's Studio: Analysis Part 3

In An Artist's Studio (by Christina Rossetti)
One face looks out from all his canvasses, One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans; We found her hidden just behind those screens, That mirror gave back all her loveliness. A queen in opal or in ruby dress, A nameless girl in freshest summer greens, A saint, an angel; – every canvass means The same one meaning, neither more nor less. He feeds upon her face by day and night, And she with true kind eyes looks back on him Fair as the moon and joyful as the light: Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim; Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright; Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.
Speaker and Tone This is a pretty cynical tour of an artist’s studio, which brings us to another important point for analysis. Who is the speaker of this poem? Who is telling us this story? The only clue is in line 3: ‘We found her’. So the speaker is also in the artist’s studio, is not alone, and he or she is feeling pretty sceptical about the artistic process. This brings us to an irony of this poem: the speaker is criticising the artist for portraying the model ‘not as she is’, but isn’t the poet falling into the very same trap? Isn’t writing a poem about someone roughly equivalent to painting a picture of her? Is it possible for poet or painter to portray any model ‘as she is’? This is an irony Rossetti wants us to notice, and this irony is the poem’s true subject. In seeking to capture the essence of another person, artists tread a fine line between interpretation and objectification. Can an artist ever portray a subject ‘as she is’? Or will that portrayal always be, in some sense, the artist’s ‘dream’?

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Happy Birthday Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts on 10 December, 1830, only five days after Christina Rossetti. But these two poets share more than a birth month. Both poets are known as virtual recluses whose sedate daily routines concealed fierce interior lives. Neglected for much of the twentieth century by academics and literary critics, they retained a loyal readership nonetheless, and were respected among poets. See, for example, Edith Sitwell’s backhanded compliment: ‘Women’s poetry, with the expection of Sappho … Goblin Market and a few deep, concentrated but fearfully incomplete poems of Emily Dickinson, is simply awful ...'.

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'Spring Quiet'

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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Preraphsrule On LitBits Podcast

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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'Winter: My Secret' (Poetry Analysis)

After consulting the statistics for this blog, I am delighted to report that my faith in the reading public’s enthusiasm for poetry has been repaid. The most frequently visited entries are my close interpretations of poems. So a big nanny nanny boo boo followed by a hearty nyuk-nyuk to those who discouraged me from starting a blog on the grounds that no one cares about poetry these days. People do care, and I can use google analytics to prove it. A very big thank you to readers who have written in about (or simply quietly enjoyed) close-reading poetry along with me. In gratitude, my Christmas offering to you is a seasonally appropriate Christina Rossetti poem called ‘Winter: My Secret’. I hope you will join me in reading, thinking about, and delighting in this poem.

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'Winter: My Secret' (Analysis Part 1)

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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Winter: My Secret (Analysis Part 2)

If I had to choose one poem that captures the spirit of Rossetti, it would be this one. A study in contradiction, ‘Winter: My Secret’ is simultaneously withholding and revealing; earnest and teasing; spontaneous and scheming; sincere and ironic, just like the great poet who made it. Here it is again. (The analysis continues after the poem).

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'Proserpina', by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Analysis Part I)

When I posted a close analysis of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Winter: My Secret’, I imagined that the next poem I selected would be on the happy subject of springtime. However, it is currently 3 degrees in Oxford and it is snowing. The radio keeps insisting that spring has officially sprung, yet it is so cold in my house that I have to wear fingerless gloves to type. Twiddling my fingers and humming, ‘Reviewing the Situation’ while imitating Ron Moody as Fagin in Oliver! has provided some small measure of comfort in these dark days, but enough is enough. Who do I speak to about bringing back spring? In keeping with this lament, let’s look at a poem which grapples with the absence of spring: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's ‘Proserpina’ (1881). Inspired by the Roman myth of springtime and by, well, himself, Rossetti wrote this poem to accompany his painting ‘Proserpine’.

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'Proserpina', by Dante Gabriel Rossetti: (Analysis Part 2)

Biographical Context Critics have made much of this sonnet’s biographical context, and indeed, it is worth noting that Rossetti was in love with the picture’s model, Jane, wife of William Morris. It is not a stretch to imagine that Rossetti’s interest in a goddess who is sometimes permitted to escape the clutches of her underworld husband had its roots in the painter’s personal feelings. Rossetti was not the subtlest of artists, or of men, and it is right in character for him to mythologize his affair in this way. However, this picture continues to fascinate because it engages with themes of desire and distance suggestive of something more profound and less particular than a Kelmscott Manor ménage à trois. This analysis will therefore concentrate on the literary and pictorial aspects of this artwork. For more on this picture’s biographical background and production history, see the Rossetti Archive.

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'A Dirge', by Christina Rossetti

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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Poetry Analysis: 'Christmas Eve'

It is a well-known fact that Christina Rossetti is very good at writing about Christmas (see ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’). Like her contemporary Charles Dickens, she realises that the power of the season does not come from jolly elves and the purchasing of shiny objects. For the devout Rossetti, the true appeal of Christmas lies in the acknowledgement of its darkness, both material and spiritual. After all, the birth of Jesus Christ contains the seed of his horrific demise. What Rossetti understands is that the dark heart of Christmas makes Christ’s sacrifice and mankind’s salvation shine even brighter.

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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.

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