Wordsworth and HS2

wordsrail2At the marvellous Romantic Locations conference in Grasmere recently, I heard  paper by Helen-Frances Pilkington from Birkbeck about Wordsworth’s opposition to the Kendal and Windermere Railway (by which transport I travelled to the conference). Wordsworth conducted his own literary campaign against the railway in 1844, notably by the writing of the sonnet ‘On the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway’ as well as other poems and a number of letters to the Morning Post. For the poet who wrote ‘The world is too much with us’, it’s not surprising that he was opposed to a railway line which would bring yet more people to his beloved Cumbria (and there is more information on the railway and its opponents on the Wordsworth Trust’s website here). This sonnet uses the emotive language familiar from his other poems which eulogise the landscape, drawing on a tradition of pastoral which seeks to conjure up an already-fading rural idyll, soon to be destroyed. Wordsworth condemns those who place a ‘false utilitarian lure’ above the ‘beautiful romance of nature’. These arguments sound all too familiar, as HS2 draws ever closer (and, as I come from the Chilterns and work in Birmingham, HS2 is something I frequently hear discussed). Some of the arguments against the building of HS2 relate to the destruction of ancient woodland and beautiful countryside, and, set against the requirements of business and commerce, it’s not difficult to imagine which side Wordsworth would take. The parallels between the building of the two railways, nearly a century and a half apart, are striking, though the situations are in many Photo046.ways different, but the conflict between the local economy and the countryside is one that is still being evoked. The nature of poetic protest is perhaps not as strong as other forms; ultimately, Wordsworth was unsuccessful (as I’m afraid the less beautiful poetic offerings on the Stop HS2 website will also be) but Wordsworth’s sonnet does, at least, give us the opportunity to think about what might be lost and what might be gained, and about the value of the countryside.

‘On the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway’

Is then no nook of English ground secure
From rash assault? Schemes of retirement sown
In youth, and ‘mid the busy world kept pure
As when their earliest flowers of hope were blown,
Must perish;–how can they this blight endure?
And must he too the ruthless change bemoan
Who scorns a false utilitarian lure
‘Mid his paternal fields at random thrown?
Baffle the threat, bright Scene, from Orresthead
Given to the pausing traveller’s rapturous glance:
Plead for thy peace, thou beautiful romance
Of nature; and, if human hearts be dead,
Speak, passing winds; ye torrents, with your strong
And constant voice, protest against the wrong.

Christina Rossetti’s Gothic

31XvJYSEdGL__I am very excited because my monograph, Christina Rossetti’s Gothic, is published today by Bloomsbury. This book has been a long time coming: it is based on my Ph.D. research, and has been through much rewriting, rethinking and editing to get to this stage. The process of turning a thesis into a book is often a confusing one, but ultimately it has been one that I have enjoyed and learned a lot from.

The book blurb says:

The poetry of Christina Rossetti is often described as ‘gothic’ and yet this term has rarely been examined in the specific case of Rossetti’s work. Based on new readings of the full range of her writings, from ‘Goblin Market’ to the devotional poems and prose works, this book explores Rossetti’s use of Gothic forms and images to consider her as a Gothic writer. Christina Rossetti’s Gothic analyses the poet’s use of the grotesque and the spectral and the Christian roots and Pre-Raphaelite influences of Rossetti’s deployment of Gothic tropes.

Contents: Introduction \ 1. The Spectrality of Rossettian Gothic \ 2. Early Influences: Rossetti and the Gothic of Maturin \ 3. ‘Goblin Market’ and Gothic \ 4. Rossetti, Ruskin and the Moral Grotesque \ 5. Shadows of Heaven: Rossetti’s Prose Works \ Bibliography \ Index.

I have worked on Rossetti for about six years now, and have been reading her poetry for much longer. The impetus behind my research was that so much criticism of her work considers her primarily as shadowed by the Pre-Raphaelites, or as a delicate, sentimental lady-poet whose work is rather sweet instead of fierce. ‘Goblin Market’ has attracted the most attention, of course, and that is quite a fierce p95d30/huch/1282/hk0122oem, but many of her other poems are read, or misread, as sentimental, and this is not the whole picture. Rossetti was very keen on Gothic novels as an adolescent, and these influence her early work directly, when she engages with the novels of Maturin in her poems, and then takes the aesthetics and tropes of Gothic forward into her later work, combining it with her Tractarian faith to create something quite unexpected. Ultimately, I argue in my book, Rossetti sees the world itself as Gothic, and Heaven as the ideal beyond it to which we should aim.

There are many excellent books on Rossetti available, from biographies to scholarly works which engage with particular aspects of her work, and I owe an enormous debt to these writers, though they are too numerous to name.

From my work on Rossetti springs my next project, on graveyard poetry, because through my work on Rossetti’s poetry I became interested in the interactions and relations between poetry and Gothic. I don’t think I can quite bring myself to leave Rossetti behind, however.

The book is available on Amazon.

Gray and Graveyards

20130722-095212 PM.jpgYesterday we visited St Giles Church at Stoke Poges, where Thomas Gray is believed to have written his ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’.  Gray was at school at Eton, not far from Stoke Poges, having grown up in London, and spent many months staying with his aunt and uncle at Stoke Poges. It is fabled that he wrote his Elegy under the ancient yew tree just outside the church (below), and I must admit I spent some time trying to catch the mood of his poem, but the scorching heat and brilliant sunshine seemed somehow inappropriate.

Gray is also buried at St Giles, though interestingly his tomb is unnamed. His mother and aunt are buried in one tomb, on which he inscribed his grief, and later he was interred in the same place, and it seems somehow fitting, or perhaps ironic, that the author of the ‘mute inglorious Milton’ should have been buried without a me20130722-095546 PM.jpgmorial.  However, a memorial has since been created, and quite an ostentatious one, just outside the grounds of the church. Now surrounded by a fence, it is a huge edifice topped with an urn, and with extracts from the Elegy inscribed upon it.

Gray’s Elegy is one of the most popular in the English language, apparently, which causes it to be the subject of some scorn, but it’s popularity cannot (to my mind) change its beauty and significance. Part of the school of ‘graveyard’ poetry, the poem expresses sadness at loss, the brevity of life, the passing of time, whilst also celebrating the pastoral landscape and the fleeting beauty we have around us. Significantly, Gray’s poem also celebrates those who are unknown to history, whose lives go unrecorded in the annals of time. His poem is infinitely sad, and yet his letters are often humorous, and what I have learned of him so far makes him seem an appealing character (see, for example, his ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat’). A friend of Horace Walpole, he is involved in the movement towards the inception of Gothic literature, something which is evident in the Elegy and also his ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’. Gray’s finely-wrought melancholy is delivered with a light touch, in many ways very unlike the other poems of the graveyard variety.

Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;
Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
 
20130722-095840 PM.jpg
You can read the rest of Gray’s Elegy here, and also visit the excellent Gray online archive, which offers a searchable archive of Gray’s prose and poetry as well as letters and other information. For further background on Gray’s life, as well as an absorbing read, I’d suggest Robert L. Mack’s Life of Gray.

Going back in time

971042I am very much a nineteenth-century specialist, and although I have read and studied fairly widely in other periods, it is with the Victorians that I feel most comfortable. However, my research interests have been gradually creeping backwards with my work on Gothic, and I am now beginning a new project which places me firmly in the latter part of the eighteenth century. As I am currently staying at the marvellous Gladstone’s Library, I decided to begin my work by reading through the enormous New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse. I must admit I didn’t read every single poem, but revisiting the eighteenth century – in many cases, for the first time since my undergraduate days – was a delight.
Eighteenth-century writing seems to defy categorisation in many ways, and humans like to pigeon-hole. There is the ‘age of reason’ that we think of in works by Johnson, Swift and Addison, often in prose. The novel saw its rise during that time; think of Defoe and Fielding, for example. There is the elegant, witty neo-classicism of Pope, the regretful, nostalgic rural idylls of Goldsmith, the sublime melancholy of Gray, not to mention the political satire, the landscape poetry, the epitaphs, and the humour. Oh, the humour – some of these poems are really funny. And some made me cry.
I think, perhaps, while I remembered the satire and the classicism of the period, I had forgotten the humanity. Poems oGrayn children (read Joanna Baillie’s ‘A Mother to her Waking Infant’, for example), on the dead, on the nostalgia for your home, on the moving beauty of the landscape – I had forgotten how touching these can be. I think perhaps this is particularly so because I felt a little adrift in the eighteenth century. With the Victorians, I am comfortable: I know them and their ways; I know their history, their politics and religion, their homes and their cultural touchstones, as well as their art and literature. I also know how critical views have changed over time, and what the current thought is on many aspects of the nineteenth century. In the eighteenth, I know some of this, but less so, and it occurs to me that this defamiliarization, this sense of being in a place that I know but which is not quite how I remember it, is actually a gift to the literary critic, because never again will I read these poems with such a fresh eye or receptive mind. Having devoted much of my life to building up knowledge which allows me to contextualise work, it’s rather liberating to start again in a place where I don’t yet know much. And I am looking forward to finding out more.

Pre-Raphaelite Poetry in the Snow

Last Saturday I went, along with some intrepid members of the Pre-Raphaelite Society, to hear poet Sarah Doyle, the PRS’s poet-in-residence, read her poems inspired by Pre-Raphaelite painters. As you will know if you have ever attended one, poetry readings can be quite intense events, and also very exciting. Even if you already know a poem, hearing it read aloud can be a very different experience (I mean this in a good way, although under some circumstances it can also be an excruciating experience!) This was, I’m pleased to say, a very good experience indeed. Sarah is an excellent and experienced reader of her poems, as is her husband Allen Ashley, who also read.
This was, for me at least, a very special event, as I spend so much time researching and writing that I find it very exciting to see that there are other, creative ways of responding to art and literature. Sarah’s poems respond in very different ways to Pre-Raphaelitism, not only to paintings but also to poetry and the lives of the artists. She began with ‘Reflections of Ophelia’, with which she won the inaugural PRS Poetry prize, and which I still find a remarkable poem (and you can read it at the bottom of this page). Sarah went on to read other poems, some of which had been commissioned by the PRS (you can read more of them here), and others which belong to a collection of poems inspired by the paintings of Waterhouse.
What I find so engaging about Sarah’s poetry is that what she is offering in these poems is a genuine reaction to the paintings, some which seem spontaneous and others which have probably developed after careful reflection. Sarah talked about the research that she does for her poetry, and also the way in which she looks for an ‘angle’ to write about. The result is a surprising range of poems, 220px-WHH_Isabella_Pot_of_Basil_DelArtencompassing different poetic forms, styles, voices and concepts. Some are funny, such as ‘The Ballad of Echo and Narcissus’, a traditional rollicking ballad which retells the story of the myth with delightful rhyming humour; some are sadder, such as ‘John Ruskin: Body and Soul’. And some are shaped like pots, such as the concrete poem ‘Isabella: A Bitter Harvest’.
In response to the big Pre-Raphaelite exhibition last year, Sarah wrote ‘On Seeing Rossetti’s Self-Portrait, Tate Britain, October 2012′. This offers her personal reaction to the portraits, particularly of Rossetti, which appeared near the beginning of the exhibition. There is something very intimate about this poem, which communicates the spell that a painting can cast, and the connection that can be formed whilst one looks at an image, a concept familiar to all art lovers. The poem contains the line ‘the viewer and the viewed’, offering us the idea that, for once, we may look at Rossetti, just as he looked at his models. Poetry offers us the chance to see things differently, more clearly, then, even if sometimes that means back-to-front. The poems we heard on Saturday (not literally in the snow, by the way – we were in the Cathedral) encouraged me to look at very familiar works differently, and to think again about what I thought I knew.

Reflections of Ophelia
I’m drawn towards the water’s edge
as one who teeters on a ledge,
regarding on the water’s skinophelia_1910-400
my strange, distorted, rippled twin
who, beckoning to me, bids me Come in.
I falter at the reedy lip,
persuaded, yet afraid to slip.
And so, to slip, perchance to drown -
to cast aside my weed-spun crown
and let the water’s fingers bear me down.
Entwined within my hands, like jewels,
dear Columbine, the bloom for fools,
like bitter-yellow buttered Sun,
makes sport of mornings fresh begun –
though new-born days before me?  I have none.
For I was foolish, as a child
who, wide-eyed, finds herself beguiled
by clownish jests, but can’t discern
the wise man’s words from jester’s turn,
and such a fool as I will never learn.
For flatterers, a fennel stalk,
a silver stem for golden talk,
whose cruel and pungent spikes will weave
a heady spell of make-believe,
its base intention solely to deceive.
Yes, I was prey to flattery,
a victim of my vanity,
believing every honeyed word
he spoke, no matter how absurd;
I swallowed all and never once demurred.
My daisies, white for innocence,
pale, fragile, pink-tipped recompense
for injuries that I have borne,
for purity, their petals torn
and, one by one, replaced with vicious thorn.
My reputation robbed from me,
in payment for naivety.
My value as a daughter, nil,
and even if I had the will,
a flower, once it’s plucked, won’t flower still.
For thought, behold the pansy’s face;
it ponders on my fall from grace
and, nodding like a judging sage,
finds no excuse in tender age,
and thinks that I deserve my actions’ wage.
I must confess, I had no thought
that I’d be, like a minnow, caught
within a filigree of lies,
a plaything, dangled like a prize
by one whose thoughts wore layers of disguise.
Remembrance? Here is Rosemary,
in faint hope that my memory
remains an icon, true and strong,
a symbol lasting ever-long
of one who, wronged against, still did no wrong.
Though I remember, sharp and clear,
the vows of those that I held dear,
who promised me they’d keep me well
and vowed they would ensure I’d dwell,
cocooned, within a safe, protective shell.
My poppies, red with blackened eyes,
foretell my imminent demise.
Their paper petals represent
fragility, a brief lament
for life, though few in years, now fully spent.
For what is death but welcome sleep,
descent into the unknown deep?
Release at last from earthly pain,
a freedom from life’s bitter bane,
no consciousness or feeling to remain.
The chill meniscus bears my weight
but briefly, and I contemplate
that human life is but a loan,
an interlude, a meadow sown
with flowers that, cut down, can’t be re-grown.
Relinquishing my lifeblood’s hold,
submitting to seductive cold,
my life’s bouquet in death now wreathed,
like petals on the breeze, bequeathed
then gone; as though I’d never lived, nor breathed.

The uneventful life of Thomas Hood

bookOccasionally one sees a book that just has to be bought, which is how I felt when I saw W.M. Rossetti’s edition of the poems of Thomas Hood (1799  – 1845) in a bookshop at the weekend. Not only does it combine a poet I keep meaning to find out more about with an editor I am interested in, it’s also a rather handsome book (I think it looks better in the paper, so to speak, than in the photo). It also has illustrations by Gustave Dore, which I have also attempted to photograph.

Besides its appearance, it has other interesting aspects, not least being WM Rossetti’s ‘critical memoir’ of Hood. In my research on Christina Rossetti I frequently warn people to take  her brother’s critical memoir of her with a pinch of salt, since he was clearly attempting to shape his sister into what he saw as an appropriate poetess. I don’t know enough about Hood to know if he is doing the same thing here (and indeed he admits that his information is a270px-Thomas_Hood_from_NPGlmost entirely from Hood’s children’s Memorials of their father), but I do know WMR well enough to know when he is a bit unsure of what to say. The Memoir begins: ‘There were scarcely any events in the life of Thomas Hood.’ Rossetti also admits his subject was not a prepossessing chap (see right), and dogged by ill-health and money worries. So far, so unappealing. However, if, like me, your main acquaintance with Hood is ‘The Song of the Shirt’ and ‘The Bridge of Sighs’, what comes next is surprising. “His excessive and immeasurable addiction to rollicking fun, to the perpetual ‘cracking of jokes’ … is a somewhat curious problem. … The influence of Charles Lamb may have had something to do with it – probably not very much.” Reading the Memoir, it is clear that Rossetti is confused and a little put out by the humour of Hood’s personality and much of his work, and doesn’t really know how to approach it.

When one comes to the poems, this humour is apparent in many of them, though since these are less famous than his melancholic works, one feels that perhaps posterity, on the whole, agrees with WMR. ‘Miss Kilmansegg and her Precious Leg’ is perhaps the best known of his humorous works, and parodies the sentimental tone that he uses in seriousness elsewhere. ‘Faithless Nelly Gray: A Pathetic Ballad’ is an excellent example of Hood’s ability to parody traditional forms, producing a poem which is simultaneously macabre and grotesque, humorous and parodic, and a demonstration of his skill. But there are other serious works, too, such as his ‘Ode to Melancholy’, which seems to owe something to Milton’s ‘Il illusPenseroso’, but at the same time gives you the uncomfortable impression that the poet is laughing at you across the centuries, for taking seriously his high-flown sentiment. ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Clapham Academy’ clearly satirises Gray’s poem, but others, such as ‘I Remember, I Remember’, which I learned as a child, offer a genuine sentiment which is difficult to dismiss as parody or irony.

There are too many poems that I find interesting in this book for me to do justice to them all in a blog post, so I will close with one I found particularly unusual. ‘The Haunted House’ is one of the longer poems, and one which takes a deserted Gothic mansion for its setting. It’s evocative, drawing on the tropes and aesthetics of the Gothic genre – and yet it leads nowhere. It is, ultimately, an exercise in revealing the futility of searching for an ‘atmosphere’ in a poem, for this poem, well-constructed, allusive and enjoyable, is nothing but atmosphere. It goes nowhere, tells no tale, and ultimately refers any mystery back to the reader. Such games can only be played by a poet confident of his craft, and Hood’s collected poems show that he was most certainly that, and a remarkably versatile and enjoyable poet who deserves, in my opinion, to be better known.

Reading ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ as Gothic

As today is National Poetry Day, I thought I would celebrate by re-reading Keats’s poem ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, and am struck anew by the poem’s Gothic atmosphere and use of Gothic tropes (my research focuses on the use of Gothic in poetry). The poem is a narrative of the ‘courtship’, for want of a better word, of Madeline by Porphyro, although it is in fact the account of a seduction which is tantamount to rape, and, eventually, she leaves behind her family to be with Porphyro. Like Tennyson’s poem of the same name, it opens in the cold, with the Beadsman praying in the chapel, where the ‘sculptur’d dead … seem to freeze’; the contrast between heat and cold reflects the poem’s approach to sexuality.

The chapel is indeed a sanctuary, a liminal space that is neither inside nor outside: it is cold, but it is safe, and the action there seems also frozen, for it is not until the poem moves into the house that the colour and movement of the poem really begin. Yet the poem seems to employ the Gothic trope of the threshold: to cross the threshold is to enter a different world which may be full of threats, but may also offer a freedom previously unknown to the heroine. The thresholds in this poem are numerous: Keats seems to take us on a journey from outside to chapel to public chambers to Madeline’s room. Porphyro stands ‘Beside the portal doors’, on the threshold, longing for a glimpse of his beloved. He enters the castle, and reaches its inmost place, the bedroom of Madeline. Crossing this threshold offers him a view of the forbidden – Madeline undressing – and the thresholds that he has already crossed are transformed into a metaphor for rape. She seems constructed in the poem as a passive, cloistered heroine whose function is decorative or at most figurative, associated both with heaven and metaphors for birds: the ‘spirits of the air’ and the ‘tongueless nightingale’. The poem manifests her desire for freedom from her cage, yet it is uncertain what freedom will bring.

The reader is closeted within the bedroom with Madeline and Porphyro, and also within Madeline’s dream-like trance: it is, after all, the Eve of St Agnes, when young women hope to dream of their future husband, and the dream causes her to be vulnerable to Porphyro. While the poem can be read as the triumph of young love over a repressive, unkind family, akin to Romeo and Juliet, Madeline shows little emotion or even enthusiasm: the poem leaves me with an uncomfortable sense that for the heroine to cross the threshold with Porphyro  may mean freedom, but it may also mean danger, and as the lovers leave the castle, like ‘phantoms’, the very bolts and chains of the door seem to be on their side.

The poem is structured to reflect thresholds, like Keats’s poem ‘This Living Hand’; we cross them as we read, and we are also spectators of the passive heroine, which constructs an uncomfortably voyeuristic paradigm. Perhaps it is this element, combined with the Gothic nature of the poem and its remarkably visual descriptions, which so appealed to the Pre-Raphaelite painters.

Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market ‘

Since I am currently at the marvellous Gladstone’s Library writing a chapter on Christina Rossetti’s most famous poem, ‘Goblin Market’, I thought perhaps I should write about it here. First published in 1862, it’s her most anthologised and taught poem, not to mention her most popular (the other favourites are ‘In the Bleak Midwinter‘ and ‘Remember’ – this last most often read at funerals). So for readers and critics alike, ‘Goblin Market’ has come to be seen as emblematic of Rossetti’s oeuvre. This is misleading, in  my opinion – her other poems take very different approaches, use different poetic styles, and, most importantly, focus much more on Christianity, full of biblical references. However, there are two very good reasons why ‘Goblin Market’ has become so central to Rossetti’s work.

1. It’s good. Really good; it has an irregular style which doesn’t appeal to everyone (Ruskin didn’t like it), but there are passages which follow a regular rhythm which can almost be chanted, followed by passages of irregular rhythms, cross-rhymes and para-rhymes, which give the poem an interesting texture and make it appealing to read. The poem also has a plot, unusually: it tells a story, of two girls, Laura and Lizzie, who are tempted by enchanted fruit offered to them by goblins. Laura succumbs, and wastes away, seeming likely to die; Lizzie offers herself to the goblins, and eventually both girls are saved. The threat, the fear, the fall, and the happy, moral ending, have had a strong appeal for over a century. It also lends itself to illustrations: there have been lots, from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Arthur Rackham, to Kinuko Craft in Playboy in 1973 (yes, I know). It’s also been set to music several times, and dramatised.

2. It’s open to interpretation. This is the main reason it’s so popular with critics and lecturers: you can read it in so many different ways, and use it to illustrate a huge range of points about Victorian life and literature. Although Rossetti herself said that she ‘did not mean anything profound by this fairy tale – it is not a moral apologue’, that hasn’t stopped people reading a remarkable range of theories into it, some more far-fetched than others. Some of these (frequently overlapping) theories are:

  • It’s a metaphor for anorexia
  • It depicts covert lesbianism (and incest, for that matter)
  • It’s about the economy and the marketplace in Victorian Britain
  • It represents the Anglican Eucharist
  • It’s a critique of gender relations and demonstrates the importance of sisterhood
  • It’s a proto-feminist text
  • It’s based on events which occurred after Rossetti (hypothetically) nearly ran away with a married man
  • It absolves fallen women
  • It condemns fallen women
  • It warns girls not to become fallen women
  • It critiques patriarchal ideology
  • It supports patriarchal ideology
  • It’s an analogy for the Garden of Eden
  • It was inspired by John Polidori‘s The Vampyre (he was her uncle)
  • It’s just a children’s fairytale and means nothing

You can read the poem here if you want to make up your own mind about it!

Titian’s Metamorphosis

In 2008, I posted about the National Gallery‘s purchase of Titian‘s Diana and Actaeon, wondering whether they were worth the money, and concluding that although they probably were, I didn’t find the paintings particularly moving or interesting. Now, the NG are exhibiting Titian’s series together, reuniting Diana and Actaeon, Diana and Callisto and The Death of Actaeon for the first time since the eighteenth century. As a celebration of this, and as part of the Cultural Olympiad London 2012 festival, the National Gallery are doing some unusual things with the Titians. Describing it as ‘A multi-faceted experience celebrating British creativity across the arts’, ‘Metamorphosis: Titian 2012’ includes new art, poetry and even ballet in the name of reimagining and re-engaging with Titian’s work in 2012. The exhibition is on until 23rd September, and I have to admit I haven’t yet managed to see it, but the idea of it is so interesting that I thought I would blog about it. My interest was sparked by Imagine on BBC1 on 24th July, which followed the artists working on the project.

Diana and Callisto depicts the moment when Diana reveals that her servant Callisto is pregnant, and banishes her. The Diana and Actaeon and The Death of Actaeon paintings depict the story of Diana’s revenge, also based on Ovid‘s Metamorphoses, and there is useful information and discussion of the paintings on the NG’s website. Actaeon, a young hunter, accidentally sees Diana naked whilst she is bathing with her nymphs. In a fit of what seems like unreasonable fury, Diana pursues him to his death: he is transformed into a stag and torn to pieces by his own hounds. The paintings are full of portent and symbolism, which, it turns out, is ripe for inspiring fresh work, and the idea of this chain of ideas, art inspiring art, appeals to me.

The ‘Metamorphosis’ project includes new paintings inspired by artists Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger, which are currently on display at the National Gallery. The artists were also asked to produce set designs and costumes for three short ballets based on the paintings. Imagine interviewed the artists, who pointed out the life and movement of the paintings, which, combined with comedy and tragedy, expression and emotion, make the paintings ideal for such an artistic collaboration. The artists collaborated with choreographers and composers to create the ballets (one of which includes a robot-Diana!), although the new works, both dance and art, are not narrative or figurative, but loosely inspired by the paintings and largely abstract.

The project also includes a range of new poems by poets including Carol Ann Duffy, Jo Shapcott, Simon Armitage, Wendy Cope and Seamus Heaney. (You can watch some of the poems being read by their authors here). The poems, from what I have seen, rely more on narrative and characterisation than the other works, and owe a lot to the ‘violent transformations’ of Ovid’s work as well as to Titian. I love this idea, of Titian being inspired by Ovid to produce something that, at the time, was new, cutting-edge (as well as a kind of respectable erotica), and subsequently inspiring all this new work. Perhaps there was some public doubt about whether so much money should have been spent on the Titians back when they were first for sale, but it seems to me that such new artistic engagement with the works, and the level of public interest in them, more than justifies it.

The Rossettis in Wonderland

I have just written a review of The Rossettis in Wonderland: A Victorian Family History by Dinah Roe (Haus Publishing, 2011). I won’t write too much here as I don’t want to pre-empt my review (which will appear in the Autumn issue of The Review of the Pre-Raphaelite Society) but I have thoroughly enjoyed it and thought I would mention it on my blog. I am pretty familiar with the Rossetti family, having completed my Ph.D. on Christina Rossetti’s poetry (soon to appear in book form – watch this space!) However, Roe’s book offers a different kind of biography – one which draws on a wide range of sources and thus tells even the reader familiar with the subject some new things. I don’t even know where her information about what Uncle John Polidori said in a seance came from, for example, but I’m pleased to find out! (He was ‘not exactly’ enjoying the afterlife, as I recall). There is also a wealth of contextual information, which makes the book more informative and enjoyable.

Roe writes engagingly, with an eye for the kind of details, tragic, entertaining and everyday, which make biography an enjoyable art form. For example:

‘Things at Tudor House were taking a decidedly Gothic turn. Animals in Gabriel’s menagerie were turning sinister, like something out of his sister’s Goblin Market. The raven bit the head off the barn owl; the deerhound ripped up a servant’s dog; cats ate the rabbit … When the hedgehog turned up dead, Gabriel suspected foul play by the servants.’ (p. 244)

Without jumping to conclusions, as some other biographers have done (particularly about Christina’s love life), Roe presents us with the facts, combined with contextual detail and also sympathetically drawing on the painting and writing of the Rossetti siblings, including the frequently-neglected William and Maria. If you’re interested in the Pre-Raphaelites, whatever your knowledge of them, this is the book to read.