- The Substance of Shadows:Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Mimesis
"You knew that figure, when painted, had been seen; yet it was not a thing to be seen of men."—Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "Hand and Soul" (1850)1
At the end of his 1883 essay on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Walter Pater notes that poetry has historically exercised two distinct functions. "It may," he writes, "reveal, it may unveil to every eye, the ideal aspects of common things . . . or it may actually add to the number of motives poetic and uncommon in themselves, by the imaginative creation of things that are ideal from their very birth." While Rossetti, according to Pater, made significant contributions to the poetry of common things, his most characteristic work lay "in the adding to poetry of fresh poetic material, of a new order of phenomena."2 Earlier in the essay, Pater had suggested that Rossetti's chief gift in this regard is his "sincerity" (p. 206), the ability to find exact poetic equivalents for certain private inner states. Yet because the "peculiar phase of soul" the poem reproduces is known to the poet alone, it can be grasped only by way of its poetic imitation (p. 207). Pater's figure for this paradox is suggestive: it is, he says, akin to the way "a well-trained hand can follow on the tracing-paper the outline of an original drawing below it" (p. 206). This image displaces the opposition between the original and the copy that dominates traditional accounts of mimesis, for it attributes the precision of detail conventionally associated with a strictly mimetic poetry (the tracing-paper) to a style that begins not with the real but with another work of art (the original drawing), a work that cannot be known apart from the traced copy. Rossetti's poetry faithfully reproduces a world unknowable by any other means. It is referential, but paradoxically describes a referent that can be grasped in no other way.
Rossetti never composed extended theoretical treatises, unlike so many other writers in his intellectual milieu, but he did, as Jerome McGann notes, treat his poetry and painting as a rigorous form of theoretical practice. His works draw on traditional forms and conventions but incessantly manipulate them to explore the nature of artistic production, dissemination, and response.3 These works may not seem obviously radical to artistic sensibilities [End Page 167] trained by modernist and post-modernist experimentation, but they are no less powerful in their questioning of entrenched theoretical traditions. Taking McGann's observation and Pater's image of the tracing paper as my starting points, I want to look in what follows at Rossetti's manipulation of the traditional theory of mimesis in a number of works that specifically evoke it. My two central examples will be the important early painting, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849; Tate Britain), and the short poem "Aspecta Medusa" (1870). These works powerfully reframe the Platonic opposition between art and the real. Far more than a stereotypically "aestheticist" reversal of mimesis—art over reality, the copy over the original, the artificial over the natural—Rossetti in these works radically questions Plato's insistence on the fundamental unreality of art and literature. They are akin to Pater's tracing paper: manifest copies that have the paradoxical status of originals.
According to Plato's canonical claim, works of art mime the appearance of something else and do not have a specific nature of their own. They are reducible to the function of illustration or expression, of depicting reality or conveying images of behavior worthy (or more often unworthy) of emulation. "The maker of the phantom, the imitator," Plato writes in the Republic, "understands nothing of what is, but rather of what looks like it is."4 Either mirror or messenger, the work is inevitably lacking, secondary and dependent. It tries in vain to depict the real but is not real itself. Rossetti's works incessantly evoke the traditional theory of mimesis: mirrors, shadows, doubles, and reflections—all the machinery of Platonic theory—are pervasive in both the poetry and the painting. But these figures are never simply mimetic in their effect or their implications. The...