Comparing the Similarities and Differences in the Works of William Blake and Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Categories: PoemsWilliam Blake

The double works created by William Blake and Dante Gabriel Rossetti are evidence of the immense amount of work and great attention to detail these two artists dedicatedto both their literary art andtheir pictorial art. Although both artists created memorable compositions, the difference in how they created their pieces is crucial in understanding the different levels of the audience’s analysis pertaining to the work’s central themes. William Blakeused illuminated printing to create his double works in the Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

Joseph Viscomi described illuminated printing as “text and image… executed together, on the same surface, with the same tools, by the same artist” (Viscomi). Through this style of production Blake allows the words on the page to interact with the colors and drawings, as seen in the title pages for the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience. The way the words on the “Title Page for Songs of Innocence” are decorated and embellished with green plant-like formations establishes a sense of life and youthfulness (Blake).

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On the other hand, the “Title Page for Songs of Experience” has visibly less adornment and less interaction with the picture. Making the text seem more likea grave stone headingessentially gives the piece a melancholy tone (Blake). The interaction between the progression of both poems and pictures,evident in many of Blake’s illuminated works, can be seen in the Songs of Innocence poem, “The Divine Image”(Blake), and the Songs of Experience poem, “Holy Thursday”(Blake).

Both poems use the positioning of little figures bordering the text to create movement through the piece.

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Therefore, as we progress through the poem, the pictures progress as well andthe double work seems to come alive to tell us a story. “The Divine Image” uses the growth of the vine to show upward movement from the oppressing scene depicted at the bottom of the page (Blake), while “Holy Thursday” uses downward movement to emphasize the tone of depression and reality, with the last image showing death(Blake). Although Mike Goode suggests that Blake’s works “fragment and disorganize themselves… evident in the clutter of tiny images that often populate the margins” (Goode), (3) the images can be seen as limbs to the body of poetry; they help in either understanding the poem or in questioning it’s naivety.

The artistic development of illuminated printing can also give the artwork a deeper sense of unity, allowing elements of the content to either build upon or contradict the points made by other features. In “The Tyger”, the image is contradictory to how the tiger is represented in the text. The poem uses words like “fearful”, “dread”, and “deadly” to describe the animal, while the image depicts a tiger in the wooded area with no terrible features in it’s demeanor and no death surrounding it (Blake). In The Songs of Innocence, theilluminated work“The Chimney Sweeper”has a dark, foreboding blue hue at the top left corner, as if “experience” is threatening to destroy the established innocence of the text (Blake).

In both cases the images surrounding the poems are used to contradict the points made by the text. The image of the tiger refutes the idea that this horrible creaturedoes not belong in this world, consequently bringing a new level of awareness to the fact that not all is black or white, innocent or dreadful. This tiger can be beautiful, innocent, dreadful, and deadly in it’s own way. Similarly, “The Chimney Sweeper” image alludes to the deeper meaning of the text and indicates to the audience that not all is right in the described situation of the poem. On a second read, we see that these orphaned children are living a life where their only escape from poverty and responsibility is a dream of their own death.

This “innocence” poem is not so innocent when looked at a second time. Thus, the use of both supporting and contradictory images in Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience allows the audience to subject the double work to a multi-dimensional level of analysis. It makes us question the meanings of “innocence” and “experience” and how those two can mix to create a more realistic view of the world. As a result, Blake leaves us questioning different facets of the complex ideas presented to us in his illuminated works.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in most of his double works, did not use illuminated printing. Instead, he would create one piece first and then the other to describe or illustrate the previous work of art. Excerpts from his poems would be placed under the adjoining paintings in displays and, more often than not, he would write poems to accompany specificpieces. Contrary to Blake’s work, Rossetti’s paintings and poems have less interaction and movement between the two art types and more descriptive allusions to the related pieces. For instance, the poem “Fiammetta” is used to depict what Rossetti wants you to see in the painting that accompanies it. He directs the audience’s attention with words like “behold” and “lo” to the features that he deems important to recognize(The Blake Archive).

In like manner, the piece “Venus Verticordia” also makes use of the poem as a direct description of the painting. Rossetti, again, slightly dictates the audience’s experience by making references to specific details in the painting, like “the apple in her hand” and “her eyes” (The Blake Archive). Although Rossetti leaves the audience to analyze why he emphasizes certain objects, thoughts, or feelings, the roles of the two pieces are more representative of one another than independently supportive. The “Blessed Damozel”, arguably one of the most recognizable pieces of Rossetti’s collection, was an exception to the established production order; the poem came before the painting(The Blake Archive).

However the relationship of direct depiction still exists. The tension of the poem, created by the multiple views of consciousness, and the mixture of a spiritual love with a fleshly love is still translated to the pictorial form. The two parts of this painting, the main picture and the predella, can be seen as representing the multiple vantage points, while the golden bar that separates them in the poem is an actual golden bar of the frame that adorns the picture. The tensions of spiritual and fleshly love are clearly represented by the clashing images of angels in the foreground and lovers engaging in risqué activities in the background (The Blake Archive). Although the order in which the two pieces were produced changed, the paintings are still “pictorial equivalents of ‘lyrical poem[s]””, as F.G. Stephens stated in his article “Mr. Rossetti’s Pictures” (qtd. in Bentley).

Furthermore, having two pieces of art interact only in mimicking one another can lead the level of the audience’s analysis to be deeply one dimensional. Even though both artists created conflicts in their works and had an interesting way of not resolving them in the end of the poems or in the entirety of the paintings, as Dr. Hoagwood pointed out in his lecture (Hoagwood), Rossetti’s more direct relationship between the two art types guides the audience’s attention to the main ideas of the double works and leaves little room for personal interpretation. Both William Blake and Dante Gabriel Rossetti ultimately show that a difference in artistic production can lead to differences in artistic ideas.

While Blake is trying to address the “contrary states of the human soul”, adopting a more interpretive style in his work and allowing room for questioning and contradiction, Rossetti writes and paints about subjects in his life, like his love interests, the Victorian depictions of women, and questions that surround his daily thoughts, leaving a more direct imprint of ideas onto the audience’s interpretations. It leaves us to question which type of production produces a more unified effect; a production, like Blake’s, that sets out to create multifaceted ideas that end with no assertion, or a production, like Rossetti’s, that gives a deeper view of the main idea but leaves the rest of the sub-themes to be questioned.

Works Cited

  1. Bentley, D.M.R. “Making an Unfrequented Path of Art His Own: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Paintings in the Aesthetic Mode.” The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 17 (2008). JSTOR. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.
  2. Blake, William. The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, copy AA, pl. 1-54. The William Blake Archive. Ed. Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi. 2008. Web. 10 April 2015.
  3. Fredrick, Margaretta. “Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Drawing for ‘Sister Helen’: The Visual Metamorphosis of a Poem.” Master Drawings 44.1 (2006): 77-86. JSTOR. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.
  4. Goode, Mike. “Blakespotting.” PMLA 121.3 (2006): 769-86. JSTOR. Web. 29 Mar. 2015.
  5. Hoagwood, Terence. “Double Works of William Blake and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.” Literature and the Other Arts. The College of Liberal Arts. College Station. 25 March 2015.
  6. Discussion. The Rossetti Archive. Ed. Jerome McGann. 2007. Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, U of Virginia. 9 April 2015.
  7. Viscomi, Joseph. “Blake’s Illuminated Word.” Joseph Viscomi: Blake’s Illuminated Word. University of North Carolina. Web. 26 Apr. 2015.

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Comparing the Similarities and Differences in the Works of William Blake and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (2021, Sep 21). Retrieved from

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