On a Poetry Manuscript

In 1869, the English artist and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was working on a book of poetry from a manuscript he’d written almost a decade earlier. Much had happened to the famous founder of the Pre-Raphaelite artistic movement in that time, and he was looking for a re-kindling of his earlier muse to get his creative juices flowing. And that’s why he was re-visiting this old handwritten book of poetry.

Well, that and the fact that he needed the money.

The Pre-Raphaelites combined legend, history, religion, and a bit of romanticism (not romanticized) to create paintings and books and poetry in a sincere (and less stylized, thus, before the time of the Italian painter Raphael) manner. While often religious in tone, the movement was actually anti-church. They felt that a more natural and simplistic religion was more in keeping with their artistic temperament. That has led other artistic and social movements to claiming the Pre-Raphaelites as their spiritual forebears, everyone from Tolkien to Led Zeppelin to the hippies of the 1960s.

Rossetti had poured out his heart and soul into those old poems. His inspiration for them was a woman and fellow artist named Elizabeth Siddal. You’ve probably seen paintings of her (and possibly by her) because she inspired many of the artists of that time period with her look. You see, Rossetti was deeply in love with her as well as using her as a model for many of his works, both painted and written. In fact, he ended up marrying Elizabeth.

However, the poor woman had health issues and had died in 1862 at age 33 of an overdose of the drug laudanum. It was only a couple of years after the pair had wed. That untimely death of such an influential model and inspiration had only served to increase the myth surrounding her beauty and power over the artists of that movement. And Rossetti had not even looked at those poems since her death. Yet, here he was, seven years later, seeking to capitalize on the potential income that a book of poetry inspired by Siddal could bring.

So, he carefully took the handwritten book and began transcribing it and editing it for publication. The years had not been kind to the text. Worms had eaten holes through words in the manuscript. Mold and a foul smell emanated from it. Disinfectant had been used, but that only seemed to make the odor worse. The book had obviously been wet for some time. You could practically see the decay that overlaid every page. But Rossetti plowed through it, making the best of the poor situation, until he had copied out all that he could decipher. Then, when he’d finished, he had the original destroyed.

The resulting poetry book was published to in 1870 and received poor reviews for containing what was seen at the time as being extremely lewd poems.

And it makes sense that the manuscript had deteriorated over the seven years. That was because of where Rossetti had placed it when his wife died.

Elizabeth Siddal Rossetti famously had long, red hair. And, when she was put in her coffin, the artist placed the volume of poetry she’s inspired into her hair next to her face before the coffin lid was placed over his wife’s body.

Seven years later, he dug her up and took it back.