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  • The Pre-Raphaelites
  • Florence S. Boos (bio)

Many thoughtful articles, handbooks, editions and critical monographs devoted to one or another aspect of Pre-Raphaelitism have appeared in the last year.

In her learned and beautifully written overview of Poetry and the Pre Raphaelite Arts (Chicago), Elizabeth Helsinger asks whether the literary and artistic ideals of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris really gave rise to significantly different aesthetic insights or innovative forms of social critique, and formulates her answer as follows:

I single out three of the most influential Pre-Raphaelite strategies for renewing poetry: acts of attention, explored as a mode of perception demanded by poetry and the arts, but potentially crucial to social and cultural health . . . ; an emphasis on textual and historical patterns created through repetition; and translation, not only across languages and cultures but also across media.

(p. 2)

In response to critics who argue that Pre-Raphaelite art and poetry was "escapist," Helsinger suggests that Rossetti and Morris enjoyed heightened powers of eidetic "attention," a more clearly focused sense of liminal "possibility," and a shared talent for creation and circulation of works of art through networks of friendships and social relations, qualities she also finds in twentieth-century poets such as Ezra Pound, Charles Bernstein, and John Hollander.

In her second chapter, entitled "Acts of Attention," Helsinger applies her conjectural template to Morris' early poetry and Rossetti's well-known uses of liminal figures and marginal "standing points," and in "Lyric Color and The Defence of Guenevere," she explores Morris' uses of hue and color to represent his characters' agitated mental states. In "Chromatic States," she argues that Morris modulated this palette in his later poetry and decorative work "to suggest more ordered and gradual change" (p. 112), and finds these subtler shades and gradations in the Firm's wallpapers and tapestries as well as his design of the Green Dining Room for the South Kensington Museum. In "Repetition and Resemblance," Helsinger interprets Rossetti's early poem [End Page 356] "The Portrait" and gothic tale "St. Agnes of Intercession" as painterly evocations of pain and surprise, and in "Portraits and Poesie," she argues that he sought to interpret the many images of "Pre-Raphaelite" women he sold in the 1860s and 70s as visual embodiments of his poetry.

In "Designing The Earthly Paradise," Helsinger recalls the failure of Morris' early hope to design a fully illustrated The Earthly Paradise in collaboration with Edward Burne-Jones—a failure made good in part by the Kelmscott Press edition in 1896—and argues that Morris saw narrative poetry as a way to repair "the sensory damage inflicted by modern conditions of life and labor" (p. xiii), and prove that "an ornamental art can effect what too close an engagement with modern life cannot accomplish—it can restore hope for the world's future" (p. 217). In her final chapter, "Towards a Poem To Be Called 'The House of Life,'" Helsinger interprets Rossetti's many revisions and alterations as attempts to uphold Pre-Raphaelite ideals of attention, repetition and translation, to do justice to the "shock of otherness at the center of the dream of reciprocity and communion," and to enable "embodied experience . . . to touch the other side of beyond" (p. 230).

Poets who are also artists and/or designers may 'attend' to their subjects in acutely eidetic and synaesthetic ways, but some of Helsinger's visual and verbal patterns may be found in the work of other Pre-Raphaelites—Christina Rossetti, for example. Was she really less inclined to frame acts of "attention," and seek modes of "translation" across arts, cultures, and time periods? The most arresting arguments in Helsinger's volume may be found in her interpretations of Morris' and Rossetti's efforts to find a kind of contrapuntal harmony in visual and poetic experience, and her analyses of these attempts will influence students of Pre-Raphaelitism in years to come.

The penultimate volume of William Fredeman's Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, edited by Roger C. Lewis, Jane Cowan, Anthony Harrison, and Christopher Newall, gathers together in its 448 pages five newly discovered letters from earlier periods, as well as 184 letters Rossetti wrote from the beginning...


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pp. 356-365
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