McGann (Media/Univ. of Virginia) examines the poetry and paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in an effort to determine why the artist’s stature, so high between 1850 and 1910, fell dramatically with the rise of Modernism.
McGann cautions that “[i]t is perhaps a bad idea to try elucidating Rossetti’s work with the blunt instrument of critical prose,” but with that dull tool McGann manages to create a precise portrait of Rossetti and his contributions to the cultural milieu of Victorian England. Praising Rossetti for his aesthetic tastes and his confidence in his artistic judgment, McGann sketches a portrait of this artist who dominated the worlds of both art and letters: Rossetti’s poems and paintings are analyzed side by side in order to illustrate the interconnection of word and image. As a member of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Rossetti desired a return to the direct and unmediated depiction of nature, as evidenced in Italian painting prior to the High Renaissance and the literary work of Dante. Beyond his work as a painter and poet, McGann describes how Rossetti was concerned with the form of art: textual materiality and graphic design provided impetus for much of his innovation. Modernists rebelled against Rossetti since he represented the height of Victorian art, but McGann uncovers overlaps between Modernism and Rossetti suggesting that Modern tenets of art were present in Rossetti’s work. Although not a biographer, the author includes moments from Rossetti’s life that illuminate his ouevre (such as when he buries a manuscript of poetry with his dead wife but then later digs it up to revise his words).
The “game” that McGann refers to is art, which can never fully fulfill its mission or be rendered perfectly in its execution. Nonetheless, if both Rossetti and McGann must eventually lose their game, their efforts are stronger than most.