Rossetti never wrote; a poem that was fine throughout. There is nothing to correspond to The Skylark or the Ode to a Grecian Urn or Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came in his work. The truth is, he was not a great poet, because he was not a singer. He was capable of decorations in verse, but he was not capable of song. His sonnets, it may be argued, are more than decorations. But even they are laden with beauty; they are never, as it were, light and alight with it, as are Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? and Where lies the land to which yon ship must go? They have flagging pulses like desire itself, and are often weary before the fourteenth line. Only rarely do we get a last six lines like:—
O love, my love! if I no more
Thyself, nor on the earth the shadow of thee,
Nor image of thine eyes in any spring,—
How then should sound upon Life’s darkening slope
The ground-whirl of the perished leaves of Hope,
The wind of Death’s imperishable wing?
And, beautiful as this is, is not the imagery of the closing lines a little more deliberate than we are conscious of in the great work of the great singers? One never feels that the leaves and the winds in themselves were sufficiently full of meaning and delight for Rossetti. He loved them as pictorial properties—as a designer rather than a poet loves them.
In his use of the very mysteries of Christianity, he is intoxicated chiefly by the beauty of the designs by which the painters have expressed their vision of religion. His Ave is a praise of the beauty of art more than a praise of the beauty of divinity. In it we are told how, on the eve of the Annunciation,
Far off the trees were as
Against the fervid sky: the sea
Sighed further off eternally
As human sorrow sighs in sleep.
The poem is not a hymn but a decorated theme. And yet there is a sincere vain-longing running through Rossetti’s work that keeps it from being artificial or pretentious. This was no less real for being vague. His work is an attempt to satisfy his vain-longing with rites of words and colour. He always sought to bring peace to his soul by means of ritual. When he was dying, he was anxious to see a confessor. “I can make nothing of Christianity,” he said, “but I only want a confessor to give me absolution for my sins.” That was typical of his attitude to life. He loved its ceremonies more—at least, more vividly—than he loved its soul. One is never done hearing about his demand for “fundamental brainwork” in art. But his own poetry is poor enough in brainwork. It is the poetry, of one who, like Keats, hungered for a “life of sensations rather than of thoughts.” It is the poetry of grief, of regret—the grief and regret of one who was a master of sensuous beauty, and who reveals sensuous beauty rather than any deeper secret even in touching spiritual themes. Poetry with him is a dyed and embroidered garment which weighs the spirit down rather than winged sandals like Shelley’s, which set the spirit free.