Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Temptations of the Fleshly

We confess a certain affection for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and for their schoolmaster John Ruskin.  They were preoccupied with two of the Egg's stated concerns, religion and sex.  And William Morris was a socialist, so that really covers all our bases, dunnit?

That said, we further confess that they seem like a bunch of degenerates.

We aren't speaking so much about their complicated amours, detailed in a new book by Franny Moyle (click up top for a review).  These are titillating, no doubt:  Ruskin couldn't consummate, Rossetti couldn't stop consummating; those gorgeous models seem to have been street urchins shanghaied, seduced and serially betrayed.

But no, that's not the true degeneracy.  We're speaking of the paintings themselves, and -- even more -- the poems, which always seem to us like bruised fruit, picked from the Romantic tree and then left sitting in the sun for a few weeks.  Think of everything wrong with Keats, and then kick it up a few notches. 

A contemporary review of D.G. Rossetti by Robert Buchanan, called The Fleshly School of Poetry, does a fine job of describing the problem.  Buchanan begins with the obvious Victorian objection:

Here is a full-grown man, presumably intelligent and cultivated, putting on record for other full-grown men to read, the most secret mysteries of sexual connection, and that with so sickening a desire to reproduce the sensual mood, so careful a choice of epithet to convey mere animal sensations, that we merely shudder at the shameless nakedness. We are no purists in such matters. We hold the sensual part of our nature to be as holy as the spiritual or intellectual part, and we believe that such things must find their equivalent in all; but it is neither poetic, nor manly, nor even human, to obtrude such things as the themes of whole poems. It is is simply nasty.

But he has more to say. Much of it is on target, and quite funny:

We cannot forbear expressing our wonder, by the way, at the kind of women whom it seems the unhappy lot of these gentlemen to encounter. We have lived as long in the world as they have, but never yet came across persons of the other sex who conduct themselves in the manner described. Females who bite, scratch, scream, bubble, munch, sweat, writhe, twist, wriggle, foam, and in a general way slaver over their lovers, must surely possess some extraordinary qualities to counteract their otherwise most offensive mode of conducting themselves. It appears, however, on examination, that their poet-lovers conduct themselves in a similar manner. They, too, bite, scratch, scream, bubble, munch, sweat, writhe, twist, wriggle, foam, and slaver, in a style frightful to hear of. Let us hope that it is only their fun, and that they don't mean half they say.

Perhaps the most perceptive passage is one that connects form to substance:  

It is in all respects a sign of remarkable genius, from this point of view, to rhyme "was" with "grass," "death" with "lièth," "love" with "of," "once" with "suns," and so on ad nauseam. We are far from disputing the value of bad rhymes used occasionally to break up the monotony of verse, but the case is hard when such blunders become the rule and not the exception, when writers deliberately lay themselves out to be as archaic and affected as possible. Poetry is perfect human speech, and these archaisms are the mere fiddlededeeing of empty heads and hollow hearts. Bad as they are, they are the true indication of falser tricks and affectations which lie far deeper.

Rregarding these affectations, Buchanan remarks that "to paraphrase the words which Johnson applied to Thomas Sheridan, Mr. Rossetti is affected, naturally affected, but it must have taken him a great deal of trouble to become what we now see him — such an excess of affectation is not in nature." Perhaps the very unnaturalness is what we find ever-so-faintly repulsive.

What Buchanan doesn't touch upon, because it has little to do with D.G., is the role of religion in Pre-Raphaelite poetry.  For this, we look to Ruskin, Morris and, especially, Christina Rossetti.   As a teen, she collapsed from "religious mania," whatever that may have been, and much of her poetry is unremarkable Anglo-Catholic stuff.  Or it would be unremarkable, if she were not also the author of Goblin Market,  one of the most erotically-charged poems of the nineteenth century (or, we suppose, any other).  Talk about your overripe fruit:

Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me ....

Okay, so maybe Lizzie is a Christ-figure, with  dash of Proserpine.  Or maybe -- and this is what we've been trying to say -- the Pre-Raphaelites were a bunch of degenerates.

No comments: