Songs of the Art Catholic

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1847 or 1848

Scholarly Commentary


The “Songs of the Art Catholic” comprised a series of poems DGR gathered together in 1847 as part of an early project in imaginative historical reconstruction. The project clearly forecast the central pursuits of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The longest contemporary account of this work is William Bell Scott's, to whom DGR sent a manuscript copy of the “Songs” in late November 1847: “a bundle of MSS. [including] the ‘Blessed Damozel’, ‘My Sister's Sleep’, and other admirable poems, marshalled under the title ‘Songs of the Art-Catholic’, still making sunshine in the shady places of my memory. . . . The mastery in rhythm and the invention in these poems were both equally astonishing to me, especially in a youth of manifest immaturity, as apparent in certain peculiarities evidently cherished as his favourite characteristics. But the title applied to the poems collectively—‘Songs of the Art-Catholic’—was most perplexing. To one who had written and published a long poem founded on the progressive development of humanity, a believer in the three watchwords of the French Revolution too, it seemed that somehow or other the Oxford tractarianism just then distracting weak intellects had possibly already undermined that of this wonderfully gifted boy!” (see Scott, Autobiographical Notes, I. 245-246 ).

The most self-conscious of writers and artists, even as a young man, DGR must have sent his packet to Scott with a purpose—perhaps indeed to test out the intellectual strength of his remarkable poetic experiment on a man who would have little sympathy with such a project.

We know for certain that the contents of the packet included the two poems mentioned by Scott as well as “Mater Pulchrae Delectionis”. But other works must have been included: almost certainly “For an Annunciation, Early German”, probably some of the translations that would later appear in the Early Italian Poets, and perhaps Henry the Leper, for which DGR always kept a certain fondness, or “A Prayer”. “Retro Me, Sathana!” may also have been written as an Art Catholic work, though there seems little in it that could be called specifically Catholic.

The “Songs of the Art Catholic” anticipate DGR's early Pre-Raphaelite paintings and drawings, especially the Marian works, as well as the related stories and poems. This entire body of materials, which includes the translations of Dante and his circle, is of first importance for understanding DGR's programmatic attitude toward his work. In this initial, and defining, stage, DGR was articulating an historicist aesthetic along Poe's and Browning's lines. Unlike those precursors, however, DGR was aiming for a sacramental art in the strictest sense—i.e., an art which, when practised, would generate sacred consequences. Like Scott (and his father Gabriele), DGR was a completely secular man. But like Ruskin and Morris, he felt keenly the spiritual emptiness of his age, and of the art and poetry of his age. He was interested in “the Art Catholic” not as a means to recover its institutional or sacerdotal set of forms, but as the (historical) site and example of a living, sacred art.

Textual History: Composition

The known works were written in 1847, but an extensive corpus of probable works, and related materials, extends out from that year. When DGR abandoned the project for the program of early Pre-Raphaelitism, the materials that had formed parts of the “Songs of the Art Catholic” were redistributed into fresh forms—most notably the “Sonnets for Pictures”, which were first printed (in The Germ) through the same inspiration that created the “Songs of the Art Catholic”

Printing History

The “Songs of the Art Catholic” never went beyond their manuscript existence. DGR seems to have gathered them together in a manuscript book that he sent to William Bell Scott late in 1847 (it may have been late in 1848).


At the time DGR was constructing this body of work he was beginning his study of the early Italian painters. This study would not become serious, however, until 1848-1849 when DGR came under the tutelage of Ford Madox Brown and William Holman Hunt. DGR's dissatisfaction with the Royal Academy and its historical approach to art was, however, well developed in 1847, and had been energized early in the year when he discovered the work of William Blake.


As William Bell Scott observed (see Autobiographical Notes, 245-246 ), these works testify to the impact that the Tractarian Movement was having in England at the time. DGR's mother and sisters were heavily influenced by it, and the secularist DGR plundered its urgencies for his own purposes. One of the direct descendants of the Songs of the Art Catholic, the “Songs of One Household” project that DGR initiated and then abandoned, underscores the contemporaneity of this project: the one “Household” song that DGR printed was the erstwhile “Art Catholic” piece “My Sister's Sleep” (published in The Germ no. 1).


DGR's earliest literary influences were old romances and ballads, as well as the poetry of Dante and his circle. The sacred elements in all such work, even the most secular forms of it, made a strong and lasting impression of DGR's aesthetic attitudes. Also important at this time was the work of Poe and, beginning in 1847, of Browning.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 11-1847.raw.xml