Comparing Dante Rossetti and Alfred Lord Tennyson's Artistic Views

Dante Rossetti combines two great works to highlight his pre-Raphaelite artistic views, through his poem “The Blessed Damozel”. The pre-Raphaelite brotherhood was a group of painters, poets, and art critics, who seeks to reform the artwork that was being made at Raphael’s time. Rossetti incorporates blended imagery of purity and impurity in his artwork by combining the works of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and Dante Alighieri's “Divine Comedy”. The two artworks go hand in hand to manifest Rossetti's artistic views and idealistic outlooks. On the contrary, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s artistic views differ as he believes that art should be beautiful and utilitarian. In “The Lady of Shallot”, Tennyson depicts the "art for art's sake" aspects of his piece when the Lady overlooks the negative aspects of Camelot through her mirror. However, Tennyson incorporates functionality through art when the Lady exits her tower and inspires the outside world with her beauty. Rossetti and Tennyson both exemplify beauty through their art, however, Tennyson adheres closely to functionality in art, unlike Rossetti who focuses solely on idealism and artificial conventions.

The pre-Raphaelites philosophy focuses on the group's idea to reform previous art to what they conceived as unimaginative and boring. The artist Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, commonly known as Raphael, created popular artworks, alongside Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci during the Renaissance era. During his time, Raphael’s art was famous for establishing paintings which depict scenes of reality in everyday life, [change to semicolon] that was considered good art at the time. However, his artwork is constantly criticized by artists and critics for its visual clarity and dreary nature, that essentially leads to the formation of the pre-raphaelite brotherhood. Dante Rossetti, William Hunt and John Millais are the principal members of the brotherhood in 1848, that takes defiant actions against the falling state of the art being produced during this era. The Brotherhood seeks to bring back the artistic approach that was perceptible in art before Raphael’s time. Since the brotherhood values previous art, they sought to use principles of previous arts with other works to create a new form of art that revolves around the notion of “escapism”. The pre-Raphaelites use impressions as a basis for their art rather than reality; and so, in a sense, the art for art’s sake ideology expresses a reality more true than the attempts made through realism. Rossetti believes that art is not a means to reflect or to imitate reality. Rather, he and his group believe that the idealism and vivid images that art produces is where an individual could find contentment and happiness.

In “The Blessed Damozel”, the Damozel in Heaven is in distress and desires to have what she has on Earth. The Damozel wishes to reunify with her lover who is sitting under the tree looking up at the sky “Only to live as once on earth/ With Love, only to be”. Rossetti's deceased wife seemingly reflects upon the Damozel desires, which leads to their ideology of living in illusions. Although Rossetti was an atheist, he uses intricate Christian imagery like Heaven to adopt a mindset of living the ideal, rather than facing the harsh reality. Dante Rossetti fuses blended images in his artwork and combines old art to introduce the idea of the attics and cellars of Camelot. Rossetti's “The Blessed Damozel” uses a juxtaposition of Beatrice’s spiritual imagery and Lenore’s Earthly imagery to create new art that manifests his philosophy. In Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy”, Alighieri presents Beatrice as a heavenly character similar to an attic, indicating her purity. Beatrice guides her male lover on Earth through Heaven and will reunify with her, acting in a similar manner to a guardian angel. The reconciliation between Beatrice and her lover exhibits Alighieri's work as “comedy”, which means “happy ending”. Similar to Beatrice, Rossetti embodies the Damozel with images of extreme purity and innocence, “She had three lilies in her hand/A white rose of Mary’s gift”. The presence of the Virgin Mary establishes the Damozel purity, as Mary was a highly influential figure and virginity was a sign of purity at the time. Although, Damozel is significantly similar to Beatrice as spiritual figures. Rossetti also describes the Damozel with qualities opposing to an angel: “Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem”. The Damozel’s sexual objectification and erotic nature taint the angelic qualities she contains.

In addition, the negative image of an angel deteriorates her immaculate and angelic persona in the poem. The Damozel’s discontent in Heaven as “she cast her arms along/ the golden barriers” demonstrates her impurity that draws upon Rossetti's inspiration from “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. Since Poe is not a pre-Raphaelite, he does not seek to create new art, rather his works reflect on his personal beliefs of an empty afterlife. Poe depicts Lenore similar to a cellar, as she is buried underground with no afterlife: “Surely, said I, surely that is something at my window lattice; Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore Tis the wind and nothing more!” In contrast to eternal happiness, Poe pioneers harsh reality about the male lover in the chamber pinning the loss of Lenore and the realization that he will never unify with her. Therefore, the concept of the attic and cellar is seen through "The Blessed Damozel". As the male lover under the tree drowns into the world of illusion where he is content: “Surely she lean’d o’er me – her hair. Fell about my face…. Nothing: the autumn-fall of leaves”. A brief of consolation seemingly occurs, however, the male lover is gone to the artwork of the “perfect world”, as he confuses the Damozel’s hair with the autumn leaves. At the end of the story, the male lover states that he “saw her smile” and “I heard her tears”, demonstrating the influence of idealism in the “The Blessed Damozel”. This is similar to how attics have a nature to idealize events and see them in a positive degree than they really are.

On the other hand, the essence of “The Raven” partakes when the Damozel is stuck within the “golden barriers” of Heaven and no reunification happens, indicating total despair. The influence of Lenore on the Damozel represents the cellar. The cellar represents cold and harsh reality where idealizing beautiful images is nonexistent. The blended imageries of pure and impure in the poem aids Rossetti to create new art that orbits around the notion of “art for art's sake”. According to Wilde, drawing into the world of illusions is where one could find true decadence, he says: "Art should not be held to any external standard; its only motive is the creation of beauty. However, Tennyson critiques this and sees beauty and functionality in art, and he wants them both to work in harmony. Alfred Lord Tennyson represents the "art for art sake" concept of his artwork through Part 1 and Part 2 of "The Lady of Shallot". Tennysoncritiques Rossetti's outlooks for its ineffectiveness in the outside world, he believes that art should be beautiful and down to earth. Also, he describes the lady who is stuck in her tower as an "artist" as "she weaves night and day.

The Lady is an artist who is intrigued by the wonders of the imagination and weaves with no practical purpose. At one point, the people of Camelot gauges her existence and treats her like a mythical figure: "But who hath seen her wave her hand? Or at the casement seen her stand? r is she known in all the land, The Lady of Shalott?" The major flaw that Tennyson critiques about this concept is that it is impossible to progress through life when an artist is isolated and removed from life and the reality that surrounds it. Since art for art sake revolves around beautiful things, the Lady in her tower overlooks Camelot through her mirror as a medieval and a utopian place: "Thro' the wave that runs for ever By the island in the river Flowing down to Camelot".

Tennyson crafts her vision through the mirror as an art for art sake artist, since she idealizes Camelot without physically seeing it. The Lady idealizes and perceives things in a positive degree more than they really are, reverting back to the concept of attics and cellars. As Tennyson opposes his vibrant description of Camelot to the Island of Shallot as having "Four gray walls, and four gray towers/ overlook a space of flowers". The image she is seeing through the mirror is not the reality but is an illusion and a distorted image. This relates to Plato's "Allegory of the Cave", which is about a group of prisoners who are chained their entire life watching images project behind them in a cave. Eventually, the prisoners breakfree out of the chains and like the Lady of Shalott they both realize that their world is made out of shadows.

As the Lady realizes that creating art in a tower and seeing life through a mirror is meaningless, "I am half sick of shadows", she snaps out of the world of her own illusions and enters the world of reality outside her barriers. In the second half of "The Lady of Shallot", the Lady shifts from an artist who is stuck in her own illusions into a utilitarian artist who uses her beauty to inspire others. As she looks through the forbidden window she sees Lancelot: "A red-cross knight for everkneel'd To a lady in his shield, That sparkled on the yellow field". During that time, religious figures were significant as the Christian religion highly influenced art at the time. Tennyson purposely leaves the reader to think whether if the lady on his shield is the Virgin Mary or Queen Guinevere of Camelot. If it happens to be Virgin Mary, then it would represent his purity and idealization, just like the attic. However if it was Queen Guinevere, then it would undermine his immaculate image and create a corrupt image of the cellar. Tennyson uses the technique of blending images of ideal and grotesque to present the idealism with purpose, as the Lady leaves her tower. When the Lady is cursed as she says "The cursed is upon me", this is the moment when the artist moves into reality, as she sees the darkness of Camelot through her own eyes. Since, she is an artist she signs her name on the boat "And round about the prow she wrote The Lady of Shallot”. Tennyson uses her autograph to not only foreshadow her death, but to utilize it in a way that her art has significance in the outside world. The people of Camelot sees her physical art, which is her beauty as Lancelot says "She has a lovely face". Her art places Lancelot and the people of Camelot into a deep thought and even tears to an extent that confirms her as a utilitarian artist.

Beforehand, her artwork in the tower is just pleasing shadows and is not seen by anyone but herself. Tennyson is critiquing that the pre-Raphaelites artistic views is useless as at the beginning of the poem she is the art for art artist pleasing shadows and making art through illusions. However, by the second half of the poem her involvement in the reality makes her a utilitarian artist. According to Tennyson, idealism should be used as an obstructive measure. Tennyson believes that it is positive to use idealism to show people what a "perfect world" looks like and incline to is as close as possible, just like how the Damozel escapes her island to get close to reality.

15 July 2020
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