THE SONGWRITER AS POET:
IAN MCCULLOCH AND THE PRE-RAPHAELITE TRADITION
Kristin F. Smith
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Chapter 2: Pre-Raphaelite People and Principles
Led by the mercurial and passionate painter poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelites stirred up a ruckus in mid-Victorian London. Their purpose: to restore integrity to British Art, which they believed had become banal and corrupt.
Headstrong and young (Rossetti was twenty when the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood came together in 1848), they scorned conventionality -- in their case, the 'Rules for Painting' promulgated by the Royal Academy of Art and its founder, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Sir Joshua had been dead since 1792, but his 'Rules' lived on. Based on the work of Sir Joshua's hero, the Renaissance painter Raphael, they specified every detail of picture creation. Young artists were thus relieved of the need to think at all. As William Blake, little read in 1848 except by the Pre-Raphaelites, noted in a scathing critique, "On the Foundation of the Royal Academy":
"You say their pictures well-painted be,
And yet they are blockheads you all agree:
The errors of a wise man make your rule
Rather than the perfections of a fool." [WB; On Art and Artists; THE COMPLETE WORKS OF WILLIAM BLAKE]
Inspired by the great Victorian critic John Ruskin and his book MODERN PAINTERS, as well as some engravings they saw in another book, the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to bring Art back to the 14th Century, to the time before Raphael, when everyone painted honestly and with meaning, and life was good. (They knew little of the 14th Century.)
Their own tenets were few, fiercely held, and interpreted in the same way by none of them:
· Truth to Nature: Ruskin extolled this, and the Pre-Raphaelites carried it out enthusiastically - in two divergent directions. They did agree that Nature intended colors to be clear and bright, not brown tones swathed in shadows as the Academy dictated. But what else constituted being 'true'? For William Holman Hunt, sternly moral, resolute and unbending, even at twenty-one, 'Truth to Nature' meant the meticulous rendition of everything exactly as Nature made it (never mind that some things look best when seen fuzzily.) Hunt had a reason for this. He held the Tractarian (and Ruskinian) view that God speaks to man through Nature, a symbolic language. Realism, while necessary to transmit meaning accurately, was not an end in itself. For nineteen-year-old John Everett MillIais, boy wonder of the Academy before his friend Hunt drafted him into the Pre-Raphaelites, it was all a grand game. Painting came so easily to him, he could take up any style -- and rebellion was fun. For Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite of most interest to us here, 'Truth' meant staying true to the visions in his own head, his own heart. He was interested in communicating emotional states and hidden meanings, not making a tree look exactly like a tree, however symbolic.
· A Preference for Significant Themes: these were often moral and religious. The Pre-Raphaelites, as did Victorians generally, viewed Art as a means of conveying high moral principles and ideals to the people. (The Pre-Raphaelites mainly wanted to convey Tennyson, Shakespeare and Keats to the people.) Rossetti (who wanted to convey Dante Alighieri to the people) initially accepted this notion, but soon began using his poems and paintings to sort out his own moral and spiritual dilemmas and uncertainties. Unlike Hunt, he felt neither equipped nor inclined to lead anyone in the paths of righteousness. His works often reflect an inner dialog, and offer no pat solutions.
· Detail and Complexity: Pre-Raphaelite works brim with 'stuff'' (to employ a fine old Shakespearean word) -- a mouse scuttling across the floor of a castle room; a beautifully ornate little wooden screen set casually upon a table; a weed pushing through a crack in a rock wall; a 'damozel' carefully outfitted with seven stars, three lilies and a single white rose. Many details are symbolic, put in to add layers of meaning. The Pre-Raphaelites were also craftsmen, who valued completeness. They did not just decorate canvases with pleasing combinations of color, or put rhymes upon a page. They opened windows to other worlds. These are small windows, giving only glimpses of what lies beyond them, and they capture only brief moments in time. The rest is left to the imagination.
· Love of Beauty: "I have no politics and no Party and no particular hope," wrote Edward Coley Burne-Jones to his friend William Morris; "only this is true: that beauty is very beautiful, and softens, and comforts, and inspires, and rouses and lifts up, and never fails." [EBJ to WM; letter; 1894] Burne-Jones, a painter, and Morris, poet, designer, Socialist leader and founder of the arts and crafts movement, were second generation Pre-Raphaelites, disciples of Rossetti. Like their mentor, they wrought beauty from moody atmospheres and strange, inner landscapes of their own creation. Pre-Raphaelite beauty, especially in the work of Rossetti and his followers, is often fragile, ethereal, a wash of pure color somehow not faded by time. It holds a melancholy quality, and yet it comforts. Jane Morris's dark, somber eyes still gaze down at the museum visitor just as they did in the 1870s when Rossetti painted her. And Lizzie Siddal's vibrant, red-gold hair remains, as he wrote in a sonnet, "undimmed in death." [DGR; Life-in-Love; 1870]
· Honesty and Feeling: these burn to the very core of Pre-Raphaelite thought. John Ruskin excoriated what he termed "picture-manufacturing....a little bit of all that is pretty, a little sun and a little shade, a touch of pink, and a touch of blue…." [MODERN PAINTERS II]. For Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites, when British Art began catering to popular taste and convention at the expense of the artist's own vision, it lost its heart, its passion, its true beauty. Today we use the word 'soul'. The best Pre-Raphaelite works practically vibrate with it, and may bring tears to the eyes of the tenderhearted. An often disparate group of artists and writers united around these principles, and they believed in them deeply enough to put their careers and their reputations on the line.
Strong similarities exist between the Pre-Raphaelites and Ian McCulloch, particularly between McCulloch and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. We must distinguish between theme and subject matter; attitude and expression; thought and vocabulary. The kinship lies on the broader canvas, and in the realm of ideals, and that elusive-to-define word, 'heart'.
Rossetti, like all artists, was shaped not only by his times, but by the particular circumstances and events of his life. The comparison with McCulloch should not be too finely drawn. Fate - and his own nature - dealt Rossetti savage blows.
He was stunningly unlucky in love. The London-born son of an Italian political refugee and Dante scholar, the young Rossetti took as his own Dante's La Vita Nuova ("The New Life"). The great poet's story of his love for the idealized, doomed Beatrice sent Rossetti in search of his own Beatrice. In 1850, at the age of twenty-two, he found her in the person of a London shop girl.
Lizzie Siddal began dying of some nonspecific Victorian malady soon after Rossetti met her, and continued to be dying of it through years of tempestuous courtship and a twenty-month marriage which produced a stillborn daughter [Note 1]. Lizzie killed herself with a drug overdose in 1862. Overwhelmed by grief and guilt, Rossetti buried with her the manuscript volume of his poems, but at the urging of his friends had the poems retrieved for publication seven years later.
Rossetti's second great love, Jane Morris, was the wife of his friend and protégé William Morris. She eventually ended the relationship when the emotionally erratic Rossetti became too troublesome. Nightmares and insomnia led him to take chloral hydrate, a highly addictive and dangerous drug which contributed to his death in 1882, at the age of fifty-three.
We must also bear in mind that Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites, however rebellious, came out of Victorian society, and were partly formed by that. Ian McCulloch is a man of our time, not theirs. His subject matter, his lexicon, his imagery (though he shares the Pre-Raphaelite fondness for angels and other religious iconography) are his own. He is not obsessed by Dante, or Tennyson, or red hair. He writes a good deal about love, but the phrase "love's emulous ardours" appears nowhere in his works. The god Love does not take on human form and wander through his songs like a character in a play. (The god Love is there.)
But similar minds move in similar directions. Such McCulloch songs as The Cutter, A Promise, The Killing Moon, Ocean Rain, Ship Of Fools, The Holy Grail, Nothing Lasts Forever and Supermellow Man are strongly Pre-Raphaelitic. Many of the same patterns of thought, ideals and values which defined the Pre-Raphaelites run throughout his works. Should he and Rossetti ever meet, in some poet's Valhalla, they will find much to talk about. And they will understand one another.
[Note: one must not confuse the writer with the 'I' character in his works. They may not be the same. That is for the biographer to sort out. Accordingly, I refer to McCulloch's 'I' characters as "the Poet". In Rossetti's case, the biographers have sorted it out, but for consistency, I use the phrase "Rossetti's Poet". The woman figure in works by both men I term "the Beloved"].
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Note 1: "Saw Miss Siddal," noted Rossetti's friend Ford Madox Brown in his diary on October 6th, 1853, "looking thinner and more deathlike and more beautiful and more ragged than ever." In April, 1860, Rossetti wrote to Brown from a health resort where he and Lizzie were staying: "She has seemed ready to die daily and more than once a day…. It makes me feel as if I'd been dug out of a vault." Just what ailed the lady is entirely unclear. Ruskin's doctor, who examined her in 1856, found no serious disease. Georgiana Burne-Jones, a very perceptive woman, noted that she could never understand how "poor dear Lizzie" could be so ill for so long and never develop any particular symptoms. Back to text
An Annotated Discography: Works by Echo and the Bunnymen, Ian McCulloch, Will Sergeant, Electrafixion and Glide (off-site link)
Echo and the Bunnymen, Ian McCulloch and Electrafixion: Album Reviews (off-site link)
The Bunnymen Concert Log: A comprehensive, annotated listing of concert dates, venues and set lists for Echo and the Bunnymen, Ian McCulloch and Electrafixion (off-site link)
Bunnymen.info - The (Unofficial) News Source (off-site link, run by Charles Pham)
Aldems' Political Quotations: Apt and Otherwise
BlindFool and Scruffy Dog: Dilettantes-at-Large
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