It’s the birthday of poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (books by this author), born in London in 1828 to Italian exiles. He was born Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti but changed the order of his names to emphasize his kinship with the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri. He and his sister, poet Christina Rossetti, grew up drawing, painting, and writing poetry in both English and Italian.
In 1851, he became engaged to Lizzie Siddal, but they weren’t married until 1860. During that time, he fell in love with Jane Burden, the wife of poet William Morris, and he idealized both Lizzie and Jane in his bold, bright paintings. Lizzie died just two years after she and Rossetti were married, probably by suicide. Rossetti placed all of his unpublished poems in her coffin, only to dig them up a few years later so he could publish them. He wrote: “No one so much as herself would have approved of my doing this. Art was the only thing for which she felt very seriously. Had it been possible to her, I should have found the book on my pillow the night she was buried; and could she have opened the grave, no other hand would have been needed.”
After his wife’s death, he lived in a house with the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne and novelist George Meredith. He collected exotic china and kept a zoo in his backyard that included wombats, owls, woodchucks, parrots, peacocks, rabbits, kangaroos, wallabies, and a Brahmin bull.
In 1871, Robert Buchanan attacked Rossetti’s poetry in a famous article called “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” and Rossetti was so affected by the criticism that he sank into a deep depression, made worse by drug addiction. He continued to paint and write poetry until his death in 1882.
He said, “Color and meter: these are the true patents of nobility in painting and poetry, taking precedence of all intellectual claims.”
And he wrote, “A Sonnet is a moment’s monument, / Memorial from the Soul’s eternity / To one dead deathless hour.”