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The Pre-Raphaelites in Art and Poetry

Updated on April 7, 2013
One of the most popular Pre-Raphaelite paintings was John Everett Millais' painting "Ophelia" (1851-2), based on Shakespeare's Hamlet.
One of the most popular Pre-Raphaelite paintings was John Everett Millais' painting "Ophelia" (1851-2), based on Shakespeare's Hamlet. | Source

The Brotherhood

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood began as a very small group of English painters, poets and critics in the mid-1800s. Early membership totaled only seven members, but the influence that this literary and artistic movement had was immense and long-lasting. The founding members (1848) William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, shared a common dislike for the art of the Renaissance, which they believed focused too heavily on order and structure, making it too cold and academic in nature. As the name of the Brotherhood suggests, this group of men sought to revive the artistic style of art prior to the artist Raphael, which primarily included art of the Medieval era (Middle Ages), and these stylistic elements also found their way into the literary world, primarily into poetry. First though, as one of my favorite styles of art, I want to include a little bit about the painters and works of the movement before moving into the poetry.

"Lady Lillith" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1866-68)
"Lady Lillith" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1866-68) | Source

Artistic Style of the Pre-Raphaelites

As mentioned, the goal of the Pre-Raphaelites was to move away from the style of artists prior to High Renaissance artist, Raphael, who art tended to be too mathematical and ordered. The Renaissance painters felt a strong desire to revive Classical elements of antiquity, such as clean lines, columns, and symmetry, which the Pre-Raphaelites felt was too distinct from nature. The movement became Britain's first true avant-garde movement.

The style of the Pre-Raphaelites paintings took on a very organic and natural feel, one more closely related to the paintings of the Middle Ages. They attempted to imitate nature as closely as possible. There was a close attention to detail, such as in representations of nature and in elements such as fabrics and people's hair. There was use of vibrant and clear colors, which gave the paintings a liveliness that they felt was lacking in Renaissance paintings. There was an overall more sensual feel to the paintings, as they often used women as subjects making a variety of gestures, each with a very life-like and fluid feel.

In terms of subject matter, the Pre-Raphaelites focused their paintings as well as their poetry on four major subjects: Shakespeare, Dante, Arthurian legend and the Bible. As mentioned, they structured their movement on the Middle Ages, which was a time of great religious zeal in Europe, so Biblical scenes were very common. Pre-Raphaelite painters shared these four large themes with the literary figures of the movement, producing a body of poetic works relatable in style to that of the Romantic period (~1800-1850).

"The Lady of Shalott" by William Holman Hunt based on the poem "The Lady of Shalott" by Lord Alfred Tennyson.
"The Lady of Shalott" by William Holman Hunt based on the poem "The Lady of Shalott" by Lord Alfred Tennyson. | Source

The Poetic Movement

As a critical English student, I have mixed emotions concerning the Pre-Raphaelite poets. The poetry of the leading Pre-Raphaelite writers, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, George Meredith, William Morris and Algernon Charles Swinburne, is overflowing with lyrical ornamentation, vivid detail, and entrancing characters and emotion. I also find it to be somewhat lacking in substance. Aesthetically, it is one of the most beautiful genres of poetry in the history of the written word. In terms of depth and meaning, I find them to be generally wanting. However, this genre of poetry follows the same ideals as the artistic movement, which focuses on an art for art's sake mentality. It focuses on aesthetic appeal primarily, so my analysis of the poetry as somewhat shallow in meaning should be taken with a grain of salt.

That being said, here are the leading poets of the age, an overview of their style and subject matter, and some of my favorite poems/lines.There are some other poets that are loosely associated with the movement, but these are the primary contributors to the literary canon.

D.G. Rossetti's painting "The Blessed Damozel", based on his poem
D.G. Rossetti's painting "The Blessed Damozel", based on his poem | Source

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The poet and artist

D.G. Rossetti was at the center of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, as a founder and as a poster-child for the stylistic elements of the movement. D.G.'s style and subject matter varied greatly but consistently represented his dislike of the industrial age, and they consistently joined the erotic and the spiritual. His poetry was frequently laden with tormented emotion of desire and desperation. D.G. as an artist, converted many of his poems into works of art as well. He was often criticized for his "fleshliness" or sensual details in his poetry. He also frequently used religious imagery and symbolism, but he was not particularly religious. He merely used the imagery primarily to provide a larger effect.

D.G.'s most famous poem, titled The Blessed Damozel, is an example of this use of religious imagery, as a woman waits desperately at the gates of Heaven for her lover to join her. The poem is highly visual and aesthetically pleasing to read.

"The blessed damozel leaned out/ From the gold bar of Heaven/ Her eyes were deeper than the depth/ Of waters still at even/ She had three lilies in her hand/ And the stars in her hair were seven/ Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem/ No wrought flowers did adorn/But a white rose of Mary's gift/ For service meetly worn/ Her hair that lay along her back/ Was yellow like ripe corn." (Lines 3-12)

The poem, The Woodspurge is very similar in style to poetry of the Romantic Era, and it is meant to instill the lesson that we learn more from nature than from any other source.

"From perfect grief there need not be/ Wisdom or even memory/ One thing then learnt remains to me/ The woodspurge has a cup of three" (Lines 13-16)

Other popular poems by D.G. Rossetti that I recommend reading are Jenny and My Sister's Sleep.

Christina Rossetti and a line from her poem "I dream of you, to wake"
Christina Rossetti and a line from her poem "I dream of you, to wake" | Source

Christina Rossetti

Unlike her brother, Christina Rossetti was highly religious which can often be determined from her poetry. It is my personal opinion that the poetry of Christina Rossetti is far more deeply profound than that of her brother's. For those familiar with the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti's poetry is very similar in style. Her style is very readable and direct. Her most famous poem Goblin Market was the Pre-Raphaelite movement's first literary success. Goblin Market is a narrative poem resembling a fairy tale in theme, about temptation and sisterly love. Some literary criticism has made the claim that the poem is a feminist stance against men, but that is debatable as is all poetic interpretation.

"For there is no friend like a sister/ In calm or stormy weather/ To cheer one on the tedious way/ To fetch one if one goes astray/ To life one if one totters astray/ To lift one if one totters down/ To strengthen whilst one stands" (Lines 561-566)

Christina Rossetti's poetry is often romantic or devotional in theme, and often expresses some form of moral. She was wildly popular in the Victorian era, primarily for her child-like fairy-tale narrative style. There is a very playful nature to her writing. This is seen most clearly perhaps in the poem Winter: My Secret, which is my personal favorite poem of Rossetti's.

"I tell my secret? No indeed, not I/ Perhaps some day, who knows?/ But not to-day; 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/ To-day's a nipping day, a biting day/ In which one wants a shawl/ A veil, a cloak, and other wraps"

Other wonderful poems by Christina Rossetti worth reading are Song, Remember, and A Christmas Carol among many others.

George Meredith
George Meredith | Source

George Meredith

Meredith's most known poetic work is a series of sonnets titled Modern Love which was inspired by his wife's leaving him and their child. Meredith produced little poetry but wrote many novels, which were revered highly by intellectuals but not by the general public. His style was witty and elaborate but often difficult to read and comprehend. I personally think that though it is somewhat difficult, Meredith's poetry is absolutely stunning.

Sonnet I of Modern Love

"Be this he knew she wept with waking eyes:
That, at his hand's light quiver by her head,
The strange low sobs that shook their common bed,
Were called into her with a sharp surprise,
And strangled mute, like little gaping snakes,
Dreadfully venomous to him. She lay
Stone still, and the long darkness flowed away
With muffled pulses. Then, as midnight makes
Her giant heart of Memory and Tears
Drink the pale drug of silence, and so beat
Sleep's heavy measure, they from head to feet
Were moveless, looking through their dead black years,
By vain regret scrawled over the blank wall.
Like sculptured effigies they might be seen
Upon their marriage-tomb, the sword between;
Each wishing for the sword that severs all."

William Morris
William Morris | Source

William Morris

More so perhaps than any other Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian writer, William Morris believed in not only the importance but the necessity of beauty in everyday life. As founder of what eventually became known as "arts and crafts", Morris advocated for aesthetically appealing fabrics, cookware, furniture etc. He believed that Victorian life too often neglected the part of human life that needs beauty and pleasure, and he felt that the result was an era of humanity that was generally unhappy.

Morris had a strong passion for the Medieval era and legends in general, but especially Arthurian, and his poetry is credited with helping to develop the modern fantasy genre in literature. His best known works include The Defense of Guenevere and The Earthly Paradise, and I also recommend Two Red Roses across the Moon.

"The heavy trouble, the bewildering care/ That weighs us down who live and earn our bread/ These idle verses have no power to bear/ So let me sing of names remembered/ Because they, living not, can ne'er be dead/ Or long time take their memory quite away/ From us poor singers of an empty day." -from The Earthly Paradise (Lines 14-20)

Swinburne | Source

Algernon Charles Swinburne

Central themes of Revolutionary prolific writer, Algernon Swinburne, include fatal women, destructiveness of love, cruelty or indifference of the gods, and the appeal of death. So basically, he was a very joyful and positive literary figure...

(See The Leper for an example of his bitter and disturbing criticism of the idea of love)

Needless to say, many moralists had problems with his writing, believing him to be advocating immoral and harmful things (which in their defense, he basically was). Swinburne's writing though is passionate, stirring and vibrant, and he is arguably my favorite of the Pre-Raphaelite movement in terms of his poetic ability (not necessarily for his subject matter). His somber tone and dark imagery is very relatable to Edgar Allen Poe.

Swinburne frequently makes use of Classical Roman and Greek mythological figures, gods, goddesses and tales. See Hymn to Prosperine and The Garden of Prosperine for examples of this literary motif.

"I shall go my ways, tread out of my measure/ Fill the days of my daily breath/ With fugitive things not good to treasure/ Do as the world doth, say as it saith/ But if we had loved each other- O, sweet/ Had you felt, lying under the palms of your feet/ The heart of my heart, beating harder with pleasure/ To feel you tread it to dust and death" (Lines 377-384 of The Triumph of Time).

Exhibit at the National Gallery of Art

The National Gallery of Art in D.C. is currently housing a Pre-Raphaelite exhibit, called Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design 1848-1900. It is the first major exhibit focused solely on this artistic movement in the United States, and it features over 130 works. The exhibit also acknowledges the prominence of the Pre-Raphaelite art movement in the literary world, and there is an installation which includes books of poetry by D.G. Rossetti and William Morris. The exhibit began February 17th and will run until May 19th.

I have not been able to go see the exhibit yet, but I plan to, and when I do I will be sure to update this Hub about my trip! For more information on the exhibit, visit the National Gallery's site here.

Who is your favorite Pre-Raphaelite poet?

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    • uNicQue profile imageAUTHOR

      Nicole Quaste 

      5 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      I'm so glad you enjoyed it. Thank you so much!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      5 years ago from USA

      I learned so much from reading this. Artfully explained, fabulous topic. Voted up and more.

    • DaffodilSky profile image

      Helen Lush 

      5 years ago from Cardiff, Wales, UK

      Very good hub - about my favourite art movement. I certainly agree with you about the wonderful poems of Christina Rosetti. Voted up and interesting :)

    • uNicQue profile imageAUTHOR

      Nicole Quaste 

      5 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      Thank you very much. I wasn't sure how popular this one would be, and that still remains to be determined, but I really appreciate your feedback.

    • whonunuwho profile image


      5 years ago from United States

      Very beautiful art and informative. This is a quality that is uncommon here and I am so glad to see this caliber of presentation. Thank you for sharing this wonderful information. As a writer and artist, I certainly appreciate it.whonu


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