The year 1848 witnessed the establishment of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood "with a view of adopting a closer study of nature and as a protest against academic dogma" [Barnhart 1956:892].
Although the Pre-Raphaelites [who embraced the arts as they were practised before Raphael's school changed its tenor] disbanded some five years later, they made a decisive mark on the painting and poetry of the era.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The leader of the movement was Dante Gabriel Rossetti [1828-1882]. His organization, which was from all accounts a loosely-organized one with fluid parameters, drew vituperative criticism.
It may have been Rossetti's Italian roots that drew him so powerfully to the mediæval Italian heritage, which represented to him "a vast storehouse of stately imagery in which his deepest personal emotions could array and recognize themselves"
He and his sister, the poetess Christina Rossetti [1830-1894], belonged to a family of four children, born of a free-thinker Italian father who, while respecting the moral and spiritual Gospel teachings, had little truck with religion, and a devoutly Anglican mother who, though English on the distaff side, was Italian on the paternal side. According to Cary [199:4], she belonged to the Polidori family.
Christina Rossetti wrote verse in honour of the Blessed Virgin. The first poem title refers to the feast of the purification of Mary a number of days after she bore her first son in terms of the Jewish law.
The poem from its first line focuses on the baby. Christ is the Purity born of a maid . Mary figures in the poem in the background of her Son, who is the central figure.
THE PURIFICATION OF ST MARY THE VIRGIN
Purity born of a Maid:
Was such a Virgin defiled?
Nay, by no shade of a shade.
She offered her gift of pure love,
A dove with a fair fellow-dove.
She offered her Innocent Child
The Essence and Author of Love;
The Lamb that indwelt by the Dove
Was spotless and holy and mild;
More pure than all other,
More pure than His Mother,
Her God and Redeemer and Child.
Turning to focus on Christ in the [untitled] poem which follows, Christina Rossetti employs the floral imagery of rose and lily, the celestial body imagery of sun and morning star and the water and stone imagery to emphasize the contrast between the mother and her divine Son.
Herself a rose, who bore the Rose,
She bore the Rose and felt its thorn.
All Loveliness new-born
Took on her bosom its repose,
And slept and woke there night and morn.
Lily herself, she bore the one
Fair Lily; sweeter, whiter, far
Than she or others are:
The Sun of Righteousness her Son
She was His morning star. 10
She gracious, He essential Grace,
He was the Fountain, she the rill:
Her goodness to fulfil
And gladness, with proportioned pace
He led her steps thro' good and ill.
Christ's mirror she of grace and love,
Of beauty and of life and death:
By hope and love and faith
Transfigured to His Likeness, Dove,
Spouse, Sister, Mother, Jesus saith. 20
The poem with its lilting flower imagery and its suggestions of pools of limpid living water is superior in literary merit to The Purification of St Mary the Virgin.
Christina Rossetti writes a similar poem, titled: Feast of the Annunciation at an uncertain date somewhere before 1886.
FEAST OF THE ANNUNCIATION
Whereto shall we liken this Blessed Mary Virgin,
Fruitful shoot from Jesse's root graciously emerging?
Lily we might call her, but Christ alone is white;
Rose delicious, but that Jesus is the one Delight;
Flower of women, but her Firstborn is mankind's one flower:
He the Sun lights up all moons thro' their radiant hour.
'Blessed among women, highly favoured', thus
Glorious Gabriel hailed her, teaching words to us
Whom devoutly copying we too cry 'All hail'
Echoing on the music of glorious Gabriel.
Christina's brother wrote the poem Ave. The version given below [Wahl 1953:12] was a revised  verson of
a counterpart in verse of 'The Girlhood of Mary Virgin' and
'Ecce Ancilla Domini' [two paintings by the poet]. In its
original form it was a hymn to a remote Queen of heaven.
What we have now is a dramatic lyric on the life and passion of
Our Lady here on earth.
The entire poem, the second version of this Ave, is an extended part-soliloquy, part-address to the Blessed Virgin by the poet, who puts his own vision of the mother of God in the words fashioned like us, yet more than we .
Ego Mater pulchrae delectionis et timoris et agnistionis, et
Mother of the Fair Delight
An handmaid perfect in His sight
Who made thy Blessing infinite,
For generations of the earth
Have called thee Blessed from thenceforth,
Now sitting with the Ancient THree,
Thyself a woman-Trinity;
Being the daughter of Great God,
Mother of Christ from stall to rood,
and wife unto the Holy Ghost: - 10
Oh, when our need is uttermost
And the long sorrow seems to last,
Then, though no future falls to past
In the still course thy cycle runs,
Bethink thee of that olden once
Wherein to such as Death may strike
Thou wert a sister, sisterlike:
Yea, even thou, who reignest now
Where angels veil their eyes and bow, -
Thou, scarcely to be looked upon 20
By saints whose footsteps tread the sun, -
Headstone of this humanity,
Groundstone of the great Mystery,
Fashioned like us, yet more than we.
Mind'st thou not (when June's heavy breath
Warmed the long days in Nazareth)
That ere thou wentest forth to give
Thy flowers some drink, that they might live
One faint night more among the sands?
Far off the trees were as dark wands 30
Against the fervid sky, wherefrom
It seemed at length the heat must come
Bodily down in fire: the sea
Behind, reached on eternally,
Like an old music soothing sleep.
Then gloried thy deep eyes, and deep
Within thine heart the song waxt loud.
It was to thee as though the cloud
Which shuts the inner shrine from view
Were molten, and that God burned through 40
Until a folding sense like prayer,
Which is, as God is, everywhere,
Gathered about thee; and a voice
Spake to thee without any noise,
Being of the Silence: 'Hail', it said,
'Thou that art highly favoured;
The Lord is with thee, here and now,
Blessed among all women thou.'
Ah! knew'st thou of the end, when first
That Babe was on thy bosom nurst? 50
Or when He tottered round thy knee
Did thy great sorrow dawn on thee?
And through His boyhood, year by year,
Eating with thee the Passover,
Didst thou discern confusedly
That holier sacrament when He,
The bitter cup about to quaff,
Should break the bread and eat thereof?
Or came not yet the knowledge, even,
Till on some night forecast in heaven, 60
Over thy threshold through the murk
He passed upon His Father's work?
Or still was God's high secret kept?
Nay but I think the whisper crept
Like growth through childhood, and those sports
'Mid angels in the Temple-courts
Awed thee with meanings unfulfilled;
And that in girlhood something stilled
Thy senses like the birth of light
When thou hast trimmed thy lamp at night, 70
Or washed thy garments in the stream;
For to thy bed had come the dream
That He was thine and thou wert His
Who feeds among the field-lilies.
Oh solemn shadow of the end
In that wise spirit long contained!
Oh awful end! and those unsaid
Long years when It was finished!
Mindst thou not (when the twilight gone
Left darkness in the house of John ) 80
Between the naked window-bars
That spacious vigil of the stars?
For thou, a watcher even as they,
Wouldst rise from where throughout the day
Thou wroughtest raiment for His poor:
And, finding the fixt terms endure
Of day and night, which never brought
Sounds of his coming chariot
Wouldst lift through cloud-unexplored
Those eyes which said, 'How long, O Lord?' 90
Then that disciple whom He loved,
Well heeding, haply would be moved
To ask thy blessing in His name;
And thy thought and his thought, the same
Though silent, then would clasp ye round
To weep together, - tears long bound,
Soft tears of patience, dumb and slow
Yet, 'Surely I come quickly', - so
He said, from life and death gone home.
Amen: even so, Lord Jesus, come! 100
But oh what human tongue can speak
That day when Michael came to break
From the tired spirit, like a veil,
Its covenant with Gabriel,
Endured at length unto the end?
What human thought can apprehend
That mystery of motherhood
When thy beloved at length renewed
The sweet communion severed, -
His left hand underneath thine head 110
And His right hand embracing thee?
For henceforth thine abode must be,
Beyond all mortal pains and plaints
The full assembly of the Saints.
Is't Faith perchance, or Love, or Hope
Now lets me see thee standing up
Where the light of the Throne is bright?
Unto the left, unto the right,
The cherubim, ordered and joined,
Float inward to a golden point, 120
And from between the seraphim
The glory cometh like a hymn.
All is aquiet, nothing stirs;
The peace of nineteen hundred years
Is within thee and without thee,
And if the Godshine falls about thee.
Oh if that look can stoop so far
It shall reach down from star to star
And try to see us where we are;
For this our grief cometh swift as death, 130
But the slow comfort loitereth.
Sometimes it even seems tobold when thus
We cry and hope we shall be heard;
Being surely less than a short word, -
Mere shadow that abideth not, -
A dusty nothing, soon forgot.
Yet, Lady Mary, be not loth
To listen, thou whom the stars clothe!
Bend thine ear, and pour back thine hair, 140
And let our voice come to thee there
Where, seeing, thou mayst not be seen;
Help us a little, Mary Queen!
Into the shadow lean thy face,
Bowing thee from the secret place
St Mary the Virgin, full of grace!
It has been pointed out earlier that Byron's shaky relationship with his mother reflected on his Marian poem. By the same token, Rossetti's loving relationship with his own mother and the Italian roots they shared is revealed in the tenderness of the passage in which Christ's reunion with His mother is recounted:
His left hand underneath thine head/And his right hand embracing thee? [110-111].
This conjures up a picture of the Pietà in reverse, Michelangelo's sculpture of the Virgin, her expired Son on her lap, mourning His death, turned into the joy of the Resurrection where the poet visualises her as being held by the Risen Christ.
Dr Luky Whittle
Image by Rev Catherine