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Romantic and Victorian Legacy and the Pre-Raphaelites

The relationship between literature and art has been thoroughly studied and it has been found that writers have been inspired by paintings as much as painters have by written works. Therefore, literature and art are similar activities that coincide in several creative principles (Díaz Morillo, 2020). The aim of this article is to explore John Keats and Alfred Tennyson as two of the most influential writers of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and to analyze to what extent the artists yield to the aesthetic notions of the Romantic and Victorian legacy.


The pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was an artistic and literary movement that focused on the figure of Raphael, the Renaissance painter. The artists belonging to this brotherhood wanted to imitate the painting techniques of the primitives, that is, those who came before Raphael (Sizeranne, 2008). Pre-Raphaelites shared Romantic principles, namely the rebellion against traditional conventions or the importance of the artist’s self. In this way, they tried to rebel against the Royal Academy and its demands to continue the revolution that the Romantics had already ignited in the late 18th century (Díaz Morillo, 2020).

Figure 1. Raphael Sanzio. Self-Portrait. 1506.

In this exploration of art and literature, the Pre-Raphaelites had already named the poet Alfred Tennyson as an “immortal”, and he even took part in the group’s aesthetic concerns (Stein, 1981). Tennyson’s poems offered the kind of emotional intensity and mysterious female figures that the Pre-Raphaelites wished for. Thus, several paintings were based on the poet’s work, such as The Lady of Shalott or Mariana, although what brought them together was their interest in landscapes. Psre-Raphaelites were known for their concern for picturesque detail and Tennyson’s poems embodied and shaped that obsession. The poet even referred to himself as an author or “English Idyls” ―also known as little picture, which was a characteristic poetic form of Tennyson’s style (Stein, 1981).


Tennyson’s Romantic poetry had clear similarities with some contemporary authors, including John Keats who was one of the Brotherhood’s major influences (Stein, 1981). As a Romantic, Keats highlighted the relevance and intensity of emotions in order to stress the artist’s persona. This raw exploration of feelings can also be appreciated in other painters from the century, namely William Blake or Joseph Turner. The importance given by the Pre-Raphaelites to Romantic literature was disregarded by the Royal Academy which encouraged classical motifs and, thus, the Brotherhood’s love for literature would later become one of their signature features (Díaz Morillo, 2020).


Figure 2. John Williams Waterhouse. The Lady of Shalott. 1897.

Pre-raphaelite’s paintings would be initially unappreciated because of their longing for the medieval period. The Middle Ages represented the qualities that these artists cherished and the atmosphere they wanted to portray. Their passion for medievalism traces back to the Arthurian cycle which had already made an impression on Romantic literature and on poets, such as Keats and Tennyson. The former has been deeply infatuated with 15th century-writer Geoffrey Chaucer whereas the Pre-Raphaelites drew their inspiration from chivalric romances. His poems Eve of Saint Mark and The Eve of St. Agnes, were both inspired by a medieval story and drew the attention of the Brotherhood, which was fascinated by the imagery and the medieval aesthetic (Díaz Morillo, 2020).


Similarly, the Pre-Raphaelites portrayed two medieval figures from Tennyson’s poetry, such as The Lady of Shalott and Lady Godiva. At first glance, neither woman is related in historical terms since the first one concerns a young girl who is condemned to be trapped and to observe the world surrounding her through a mirror, whereas Lady Godiva rides around naked on horseback in exchange for her husband lowering taxes for the citizens of Coventry. Nevertheless, both characters belong to existing stories that compromised the limits of everyday reality as well as making a great sacrifice. The similarities between the two stories lie in their ambivalence or duality: the motif is tragic, but apparently aesthetically seductive. On the one hand, from an external point of view, the plots present young and beautiful female characters that enhance the theme of beauty and attraction so present in the Pre-Raphaelite ideology. On the other hand, the inner perspective, i.e. that of the protagonists, is absolutely tragic and life-changing (Zavgorodnyaya & Zavgorodnii, 2019).


Figure 3. John Collier. Lady Godiva. 1897.

The movement's attention to seduction was such that Keats's poetry is named as the primary reference point for Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics. Keats was a direct reference for one of the Brotherhood's most prominent artists, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who also had an important career in literature. In Keats’ Ode to Psyche, very sensual imagery is used, which extols and emphasizes the power of the senses (Kilbride, 2015):


In deepest grass, beneath the whisp’ring roof

Of leaves and trembled blossoms, where there tan

A brooklet, scare espied:

‘Mid hush’d, cool-rooted flowers fragrant-eyed,

Blue, silver-white, and budden Tyrian,

They lay calm-breathing on the bedded grass;

Their arms embraced, and their pinions too;

Their lips touch’d not, but had not bade adieu (ll. 10-17)


Keats rejects empty, immediate eroticism and instead develops an aesthetic and a warm atmosphere that invites the senses to be aroused (Díaz Morillo, 2020). The Pre-Raphaelites preferred to explore sexuality by using images of women who, in the end, were the essential figures in their work. In this respect, they followed Victorian values, believing that women were biologically incapacitated for certain tasks and thus became the guardians of the home. In turn, this perspective comes directly from the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who argued for a radical difference between women and men in terms of physical and intellectual capacities. In one of his early works, Shakespeare also explored the figure of Mariana, although for his version there was a way out of a tragic ending and hope for a future. However, both Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites show her as a woman perennially in a state of despair at the abandonment of her love. (Rejano, 2022).


Figure 4. John Everett Millais. Mariana. 1851.

In conclusion, both art and literature were closely linked to the Pre-Raphaelites. For them, painting had a kind of poetic nature that allowed them to bring to life the works of their favorite poets. Likewise, Tennyson and Keats had a considerable passion for painting, which is evident in the imagery and picturesque detail of their verse. This relationship between the sister arts is a late continuation of the Romantic revolution, which was in its final stages in the middle of the 19th century, and Victorian conventions, whose morals regarding women would also find their way into the Brotherhood's paintings.



Bibliographical References

Díaz Morillo, E. (2020). The pre-raphaelites and their keatsian romanticism: An analysis of the renderings of 'the eve of st agnes and isabella'. Complutense Journal of English Studies, 28, 11-21. doi:https://doi.org/10.5209/cjes.66142


Keats, J. (2009). Bright Star: The Complete Poems and Selected Letters. London: Vintage Books.


Kilbride, L. (2015). The Pre-Raphaelite School: Recent Approaches: The Pre-Raphaelite School of Poetry: Recent Approaches. Literature Compass, 12(11), 615–626. https://doi.org/10.1111/lic3.12258


Rejano,R.(2022).“Her tears fell with the dews at even”: The Ekphrastic and Intertextual Dialogue between Victorian Poetry and Pre-Raphaelite Painting. Prague Journal of English Studies,11(1) 29-50. https://doi.org/10.2478/pjes-2022-0002


Sizeranne, R. D. L. (2008). The pre-raphaelites. Parkstone International.


Stein, R. (1981). The Pre-Raphaelite Tennyson. Victorian Studies, 24(3), 279–301.


Zavgorodnyaya, G., & Zavgorodnii, A. (2019). Two female images by A. tennyson: Biblical keys and interpretation facets (the pre-raphaelites, K. balmont, I. bunin). Primerjalna Knjizevnost, 42(2), 107-119. Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/two-female-images-tennyson-biblical-keys/docview/2264894121/se-2


Visual Sources

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Author Photo

Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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