Poems, 1870, 1881
Ballads and Sonnets, 1881
Collected Works, 1886
The Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1911 (William Michael Rossetti, editor)
Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1965–1967 (4 volumes; Oswald Doughty and J. R. Wahl, editors)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Jane Morris: Their Correspondence, 1976 (John Bryson and Janet Camp Troxell, editors)
Dear Mr. Rossetti: The Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Hall Caine, 1878–1881, 2000 (Vivien Allen, editor)
The Early Italian Poets, 1861 (revised as Dante and His Circle, 1874)
Gabriel Charles Dante Gabriel Rossetti (roh-ZEHT-ee) was born in London, May 12, 1828, the son of Gabriele Rossetti, a political refugee from Naples, and the brother of Christina Rossetti, the poet, and of William Michael Rossetti, later to be the historian of the Pre-Raphaelites. Rossetti attended King’s College School in London and then various art schools, finally becoming a student of Ford Madox Brown. In 1848 Rossetti and others founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which was to be a storm center in English art for many years. In 1850 they began their magazine, The Germ, in which Rossetti published some of his early poems. The paintings of the group were bitterly attacked by Charles Dickens and by the conventional critics; it was only through the influence of John Ruskin, then the aesthetic dictator of art and culture, that the public finally accepted the Pre-Raphaelites and their work. The group’s objective–to paint from nature and thereby overcome artificiality–led to a new style featuring spiritual, meditative qualities as expressed through beautiful women such as Christina Rossetti and other models.
In 1851 Rossetti became engaged to Elizabeth Siddall, whose peculiar beauty had fascinated him and who had become his model, and they were finally married in 1860. She suffered from tuberculosis; their marriage was unhappy because of Rossetti’s increasing indifference and infidelities, and in 1862 she died of an overdose of laudanum, probably a suicide. Then followed the melodramatic gesture of Rossetti’s burying the only manuscript of his poems in her coffin and the gruesome sequel of their exhumation in 1869.
Very early, Rossetti came under the influence of Thomas Percy’s Reliques (1765), the poems of Sir Walter Scott, and various medieval romances. These influences, plus the avowed medievalism of the Pre-Raphaelites, gave to his poetry its particular tone. He excelled in the imitation or adaption of the border ballads; his “Sister Helen” has been considered one of the best literary ballads of the nineteenth century. To the stark language of the old poems he added the luxuriant coloring and mysticism of the Pre-Raphaelites. His sonnet sequence, “The House of Life,” inspired by his love for Elizabeth Siddall and Jane Morris, has also been highly praised.
After 1868 Rossetti became subject to fits of melancholia, aggravated by the attack on him in 1871 by Robert Buchanan in an anonymous essay titled “The Fleshly School of Poetry” and reissued the next year in an expanded form as a pamphlet. Buchanan’s complaint was that Rossetti’s 1870 volume, Poems, placed more emphasis on the value of erotic love than on the value of spirituality and aesthetics. Indeed, poems such as “Love’s Nocturne,” “Troy Town,” “Eden Bower,” and “Sister Helen” all dwell on the erotic power of beautiful women. They also betray Rossetti’s fear of such power and its potential to destroy.
Rossetti’s failing eyesight eventually made him abandon painting for poetry. His last years were made bearable only through the devoted attention of his brother. He died April 9, 1882, at Birchington, near Margate.