The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Pre-Raphaelitism: A literary movement propagated by a group of English writers of the Victorian Period who shared the aesthetic values of Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti (who was also a poet), Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Ford Madox Brown, and Edward Burne-Jones. What these and other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, formed in 1848, shared was the belief that European art in general and English art in particular were hidebound by traditions that had dictated an increasingly tired aesthetic since the Italian High Renaissance, the birth of which they associated with the painter Raphael.

The Pre-Raphaelites greatly preferred the originality, simplicity, freshness, sharp lines, and strong colors of painters who preceded Raphael to the often idealized images and chiaroscuro coloration (involving the atmospheric mixture of light and shadows) characteristic of both the High Renaissance and those English painters whose work grew out of that tradition, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds (President of the Royal Academy), Sir George Beaumont, and Sir John Constable. In their own paintings, the Pre-Raphaelites strove to reveal truth through nature carefully observed and rendered brightly and precisely. Rossetti established his own version of Pre-Raphaelitism, one involving medieval images and themes and elevating beauty above all else.

The literary tradition that emerged out of this artistic movement is noted, on one hand, for its crisp descriptions and sensuous details and, on the other, for its power to suggest metaphysical states, to indicate philosophical and theological truths unobtrusively. In Pre-Raphaelite poetry, the sound of chairs being pushed back from a table, the sight of coins in a sleeping woman’s hair, or the number of petals in a blossom can be symbolically suggestive, calling to mind the spiritual dimensions that lie behind the most commonplace objects or situations. The Pre-Raphaelite emphasis on sensuous detail led some critics to dub the movement the “fleshly school of poetry.”

Major writers associated with Pre-Raphaelitism include Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and William Morris, who was also a designer and is now best known for his lush wallpaper patterns and the still-popular “Morris Chair.” Pre-Raphaelitism had a considerable influence on the late-Victorian medieval revival and on Aestheticism, the movement sometimes summarized by the rallying cry art-for-art’s-sake.

EXAMPLE: The following lines, spoken by Queen Guenevere in Morris’s poem “The Defence of Guenevere” (1858), exemplify Pre-Raphaelitism through the medieval setting, the intensified experience of nature in the garden, the garden’s subtly symbolic suggestiveness, the idea of weary thoughts giving way to sharp new perceptions, and the overriding emphasis on beauty:

I was half mad with beauty on that day,

And went without my ladies all alone,

In a quiet garden walled round every way;

I was right joyful of that wall of stone,

That shut the flowers and trees up with the sky,

And trebled all the beauty: to the bone,

Yea right through to my heart, grown very shy

With weary thoughts, it pierced, and made me glad… .