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  • Reading Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Painter as Poet by Brian Donnelly
  • Elizabeth Helsinger (bio)
Reading Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Painter as Poet, by Brian Donnelly; pp. 204. Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015, £62.99, $107.00.

In Reading Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Painter as Poet, Brian Donnelly approaches Rossetti fully aware of the difficulties of talking about one aspect of his aesthetic production (poetry) without reference to the other (painting). To explicate Rossetti’s work, he chooses to employ a form of the “pictorial narrativity” (a term he borrows from Mieke Bal) that he attributes to Rossetti himself (4). Donnelly suggests that the image for Rossetti should always be understood not as the “illustration of a narrative that is already around,” but instead as “the production of a narrative that would necessarily be new or different, a result of the pictorial gesture folded into the viewer’s compulsion to read” (4). What Donnelly means, I take it, is that Rossetti himself is such a reading viewer, particularly of women; he constructs new and different narratives about women as a result of “pictorial gestures folded into a compulsion to read,” a compulsion that is at once verbal and visual (4). This is an intriguing way of describing Rossetti’s visualizing imagination.

For Donnelly, that imagination is always also narrative. Donnelly believes that narratives of the visualizing imagination remain necessarily implicit in Rossetti’s work, accepting G. E. Lessing’s caveat that pictures (and pictorial gestures) cannot themselves easily narrate past and future, although they attain an immediacy of presence that poetry may envy. Rossetti’s pictorial narratives, Donnelly suggests, are more than can be expressed by any picture, poem, or story alone. They exist in an “intermedial intertext” formed by clusters of verbal and visual works taken together (3). For this image of a potentially fruitful gap between image and text, or text and text, he draws on W. J. T. Mitchell’s typographic shorthand for three possible varieties of the relations between word and image: image-text, image/text, and imagetext. Donnelly, obviously, is most interested in the first two. Teasing out the new narratives he believes Rossetti produces by working in several media and returning again and again to the same subjects, Donnelly inscribes these narratives into that typographic intermedial gap, making it the place, one might say, of criticism.

Donnelly’s close attention to multiple texts and images clustering around a single figure indeed produces some suggestive narratives, even when, at times, one begins to fear that the critic has licensed himself to trespass creatively on the text of the artist or poet in ways that a more rigorous scholarship in either medium might find dubious. (An intertextual space is perhaps a dangerous region precisely because it is, by definition, other than that of any particular poem or painting.) The four chapters in this study more [End Page 539] or less follow this model, however, spelling out possible “pictorial narratives” by considering Rossetti’s various representations in verbal and visual works of the Virgin Mary and Dante’s Beatrice (in the first two chapters), of the “fleshly” woman of his 1860s paired poems and pictures (in chapter 3), and of the fallen woman, particularly in “Jenny” (1848) and Found (1854–81) (in chapter 4).

Rossetti’s many versions of Mary, Donnelly points out, are, like his Beatrice figures, endowed with an obscure yet powerful knowledge of past and future. His Mary acquires at the Annunciation a troubled foreknowledge of the death of Jesus, while his Beatrice (like his Blessed Damozel) is able to look back toward the world and the lover she has left while also seeing forward into a Paradise her lover does not know. Mary, Beatrice, and the Blessed Damozel are all figures who stand at the junction between secular and spiritual worlds. Thus, for Rossetti they become figures of (and agents for) possible transformation, rebirth, and change. (The burden of their strange knowledge, more emotional than rational, is presumably why Mary and the Blessed Damozel often appear afraid or troubled or sad.) Donnelly links Mary’s mediating placement between two orders of secular and spiritual time, as of Old Testament and New...


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