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  • Poetics and Layers of Meaning in Rossetti's Forced Music
  • Jorge L. Contreras (bio)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's (1828-1882) large pastel drawing Forced Music (1877) (Fig. 1) has long puzzled scholars and historians. The model for the half-length nude figure is unidentified and appears in only one other Rossetti drawing. The narrative subject of Forced Music is reputedly based on a "Rosicrucian" story by Rossetti's friend Theodore Watts-Dunton (1832-1914), but the story has not previously been identified. The work's enigmatic title, as well as its alternate name Violante, have been equally mystifying.

To understand Forced Music, one must look beyond the drawing's surface. At a narrative level, it is most likely based on Watts-Dunton's little-known sonnet "The Rosy Scar." The title Forced Music, however, draws upon Watts-Dunton's conceptualization of the sonnet form in melodic terms. The work's alternate title Violante plays still further with the dual imagery of music-making and sonneteering. Forced Music, then, jests with the viewer on multiple levels, offering a compelling visual commentary on both the "art" of poetry and the music of rhyme.

I. Background: Rossetti, Watts-Dunton and Forced Music

In order to discuss Forced Music, it is first necessary to consider Rossetti's relationship with two individuals beyond the usual circle of his Pre-Raphaelite associates: the poet, critic, and novelist Theodore Watts-Dunton, for whom the drawing was made, and the young Scottish writer William Sharp (1855-1905), who gave the work the name by which it is known.

In autumn 1872 Rossetti returned to London after a period of convalescence in Scotland.1 He was soon confronted by a minor legal matter in which he required the assistance of a solicitor.2 Rossetti's friend and physician George Hake introduced him to Watts-Dunton,3 forty years of age and four years Rossetti's junior, who resolved the matter adeptly. But Watts-Dunton was no mere legal scrivener. As William Michael Rossetti recounts, his brother's new acquaintance was "a man of letters, poet, and critic; and very soon my brother found that this gentleman's converse and sympathy in literary matters were quite as welcome to him as his mastery of the law" (W. M. Rossetti, p. [End Page 189] 322). Though Rossetti already enjoyed significant celebrity and was widely lauded for his artistic and literary accomplishments, he gave surprising deference to the solicitor's poetic sensibility, particularly his mastery of the sonnet form. Rossetti effusively referred to Watts-Dunton as "the most original sonnet-writer living,"4 and it is Watts-Dunton's influence that is said to have renewed Rossetti's own interest in the composition of sonnets during this late period in his life.5 As evidence of this strong influence, Rossetti dedicated to Watts-Dunton his 1881 volume of poetry Ballads and Sonnets, which included his monumental sonnet cycle The House of Life.

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Figure 1.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Forced Music (1877) (Reproduced in Dante Gabriel Rossetti: An Exhibition. Tokyo, 1990; private collection).

By 1876-77, Watts-Dunton was among Rossetti's closest friends and companions.6 It was during this period that Rossetti made two unique drawings for Watts-Dunton: The Spirit of the Rainbow and Forced Music.7 The Spirit of the Rainbow is a chalk drawing depicting a full-length nude female figure encircled by a gauzy veil representing a rainbow, her head tilted carelessly to [End Page 190] the left as an invisible wind blows through her luxuriant hair. The drawing illustrates a sonnet by Watts-Dunton entitled "The Wood Haunter's Dream."

The second, larger, drawing, Forced Music, is executed in pastels and depicts a half-length nude playing an ornate double-stringed lute.8 The figure is seated before a luminous, open window through which a hazy landscape is visible. To her left hangs a small, plain scroll bearing a crucifix and over her right shoulder can be seen a leafy plant. A pink scarf entwines her left arm and the neck of the lute, evoking the rainbow in Spirit of the Rainbow.

The model for both pictures is the same...


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