The point of departure for reading Rossetti's poetry has to be Walter Pater's essay published in 1883, shortly after Rossetti's death. Pater's was the strongest as well as the subtlest critical intelligence of the period in England. (Oscar Wilde, another Rossetti enthusiast, would soon emerge as the most brilliant).
The defining feature of Pater's Rossetti is his “poetic originality.” For Pater, he is a writer whose study of Dante and his circle led him to develop an “unmistakably novel” style. The chief quality of this sweet new style is what Pater calls a “transparency in language” devoted to “the imaginative creation of things that are ideal from their very birth.” Stylistic limpidity is crucial in Rossetti's case because his subjects and meanings are “always personal and even recondite, in a certain sense learned and casuistical, sometimes complex or obscure.”
Pater's essay investigates the paradox of a writer seen as both limpid and obscure. He wants to show how Rossetti's poetic idealizations are (paradoxically) tied to often extreme forms of “particularisation.” The work everywhere exhibits what Pater calls an “almost grotesque materialising of abstractions.” He covets these effects because his central subjects are Art and Love, where “matter and spirit ... play inextricably into each other.” Though Pater does not pursue the thought, these are also subjects that can only be taken up as activities, in performative and, finally, in interactive ways. The blending of the material and the spiritual, of soul and body, of idea and act, defines Rossetti's poetry as much as it does his pictorial work. Pater astutely calls Rossetti's poetry “sacramental”—despite its resolute “fleshliness”—exactly because of its performative character. Its extreme idealizations emerge in and through acts of writing, much as the meaning of prayer is the instantiated act of (textual) devotion itself.
Rossetti's juvenilia comprises a moderate corpus of poems, dramas, prose tales, and translations written in the 1830s and early 1840s. All of this work shows a thorough committment to romantic, not to say gothic, preoccupations. Much has not survived, and while little of the work before 1845 possesses any intrinsic value, it is important for what it shows about certain tendencies in his writing. Even more than his later friends Swinburne and Morris, Rossetti would eventually turn pastiche into a form of creative writing. His early translations and imitations are already playing with the art of pastiche, which will eventually get incorporated into his devotional method of work: that effort to turn writing (and art in general) into a magical act. (For a good example of Rossetti's use of pastiche see “Ave”).
The important original writing begins suddenly in 1847, the year he composed the earliest version of one of his masterpieces, “The Blessed Damozel”, as well as a number of other significant works like “My Sister's Sleep”. In the next few years—into 1851—Rossetti produces an astonishing body of poetry and imaginative prose, including the first versions of some of his greatest works— “Jenny”, “Hand and Soul”, the Sonnets for Pictures, “Dennis Shand”, “Sister Helen”, and many others. At that point, as he turned his main efforts and attention to his pictorial work, Rossetti had initiated what would become a recurring pattern in his creative output. That is to say, while he never altogether gives up either his art or his writing, he tends to concentrate on one or the other. There is no question that his predominant activity is artistic rather than poetical, and hence that the periods of writing come as intense eruptions, more or less extended in time, within his career as an artist. (On the other hand, there are as many who believe his greatest work was done as a writer rather than as an artist.)
The mature and finished character of Rossetti's poetry, not least in this early period of its flowering, was achieved because of the discipline he acquired translating Dante and the poets of the early stil novisti circle. These translations—probably begun as early as 1845—plunged him into a deep involvement with Europe's most significant body of love poetry. They also put him through a rigorous course in writing technique. Finally, they involved him with a group of writers—Dante and Cavalcanti being just the two most eminent—who had established unsurpassed models for a poetry addressing itself to what Shelley would later call Intellectual Beauty. We rightly think of Rossetti as a poet of love and physical passion. Nonetheless, he is also (like Dante) an intellectual writer pursuing a definite set of ideas. The period 1848-1851 is a distinctly programmatic one for Rossetti. His work and ideas inspired the founding of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, along with its polemical theoretical organ The Germ, which appeared in four numbers in 1850.
After the demise of The Germ, however, Rossetti's pictorial work became the focus of his imaginative life for a great many years. Although he continued to write (largely poetry) through the 1850s and 60s, the period is dominated by his work in painting, drawing, and graphic design. Significantly, he did publish one book in this period—his first book, the collection of his translations called The Early Italian Poets (1861). He also planned to publish another book, Dante at Verona and other Poems , which was advertised for publication at the back of Rossetti's book of translations. This publication was cancelled, however, because of the death of Rossetti's wife Elizabeth. His sense of grief (and guilt) at her death was such that he buried his original poems in a manuscript book in his wife's grave.
One other literary work of this period is notable: Alexander Gilchrist's Life of William Blake, which was published posthumously in two volumes by his wife Anne in 1863. The second volume contains Rossetti's commentaries on Blake's work as well as a selection of Blake's writings edited by Rossetti. The last chapter of the first volume is a wide-ranging essay on Blake by Rossetti.
In the late 1860s Rossetti was moved to turn back to his writing. A second period of vigorous poetical activity occurs in 1869-1871. It is forecast in 1867-1868 with a handful of sonnets that Rossetti writes on pictorial subjects, like “A Superscription”, or explicitly for (his own) pictures, like “Soul's Beauty”, “Body's Beauty”, and “Venus Verticordia”. Rossetti's poetry in this second period is predominantly in sonnets. That is to say, it orbits around The House of Life and the book in which that work first appeared, the Poems of 1870.
Just as The Germ centers Rossetti's first period of important writing, so this book centers the second. It was organized by Rossetti as a kind of summary of his work as a poet. It was to contain not only the best of his recent original work, but a gathering of the best of his earlier work as well.
The latter purpose was hampered because Rossetti no longer had copies of some of his most important early poems. These had been buried in 1862 in his wife's grave. With the encouragement of his friends, Rossetti had the grave exhumed in October 1869 and the manuscript volume of his poetry removed.
At that point Rossetti was able to carry through a process of printing and revising his texts that he had begun in the summer of 1869. The process evolved though a series of proof texts and “Trial Books” in which he experimented with different arrangements. The Trial Books, printed “for private circulation,” were sent to various friends for criticisms and suggestions. 1869-70 were devoted to the gradual construction of the book that would eventually become Rossetti's most celebrated and important work. It was designed by Rossetti from cover to cover and contained the first book version of his masterwork, The House of Life. The latter would be revised and augmented in a major way during his third and final period of literary activity.
The aftermath of the publication of the 1870 Poems proved almost as significant as the event itself. The book was received initially to a chorus of praise—much of it orchestrated by Rossetti, who saw to it that friends and friendly critics would write key reviews. In October 1871, however, Robert Buchanan published a sharply hostile notice of the book in the Contemporary Review, the (infamous) “The Fleshly School of Poetry”. The review raised a storm. It called out responses from Swinburne and Rossetti himself (who wrote a long rejoinder called “The Stealthy School of Criticism” which he published in The Athenæum in December 1871).
After 1871 Rossetti's poetical work once again subsided for a time as he turned to the execution of a series of major pictorial works. The only significant literary event was the publication in 1874 of a revised edition of his 1861 collection of translations, this time under the title Dante and His Circle.
In 1879-81 Rossetti had a new burst of literary activity. Most prominent here are the long ballads he wrote at this time, including “The King's Tragedy”, “The White Ship” and “Rose Mary” (the latter a work he had begun years earlier). At the same time he began to gather and re-work many of the sonnets and other poems he had written during the 70s. His primary object was to recast The House of Life sequence into a form that would incorporate sonnets written primarily in late 1870 and in 1871—sonnets that were inspired largely by his love for Jane Morris.
The ballads and other new work led Rossetti to make plans for a New Edition of the Poems volume that he had published in 1870. But finding that he had too much new material for one volume, he decided to separate the work into two books. Besides Poems. A New Edition, he published Ballads and Sonnets, which included the much expanded text of The House of Life, as well as many other new poems, including the new narrative poems. This came out in the fall of 1881, immediately preceding the New Edition of the Poems, which also contained some new work.
Rossetti died in 1882. Four years later his brother William Michael published the first of his series of editions, The Collected Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in two volumes. This work, which contained many unpublished writings, was repeatedly revised and augmented over the next twenty-five years, until it achieved its culminant form in the one-volume Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1911.
Although not all of his writing followed the same compositional protocol, Rossetti did have a distinct pair of preferred procedures. He kept notebooks in which he would spontaneously enter fragments of verse, quotations, thoughts, and even quotidian memoranda. He would subsequently mine these notebooks for more substantial acts of composition. Some of these notebooks survive intact but most have been disbound by Rossetti and others for different purposes. Poetical scraps of many kinds descend to us in these notebooks and their disbound remains. Rossetti also used the bound notebook format for most of his deliberated acts of composition. He would typically compose on the recto and leave the verso blank for additions and revisions.