‘The P.R.B.’ was written by Christina Rossetti in November 1853 following the fractured breaking up of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood throughout that year. This circle of artists and writers included her brothers Dante Gabriel and William Michael, and Christina was further entwined with the group as artist’s model, magazine contributor, friend and, to James Collinson, sometime-fiancée.
In this sonnet Rossetti contrasts the directions taken by each member, highlighting how incompatible they had each become. There are sharply humorous observations here – the image of Woolner ‘cook[ing] his chops’ is followed by Hunt ‘yearning for the land of Cheops [Egypt]’ – as well as notes of satire and disapproval towards ‘the champion, great Millais’ who now ‘Winds up his signature with A.R.A.’, the art institution initially rebelled against by the circle and whose initials echo ‘P.R.B.’. For all its wit, however, the sonnet is tinged with regret at the loss of this energetic, unorthodox and once solid movement. It ends by drawing on natural phenomena – ‘So rivers merge in the perpetual sea, / So luscious fruit must fall when over ripe’ – to suggest that their collapse is something inevitable that Rossetti must resolutely accept.
The sonnet remained unpublished during Rossetti’s lifetime. It first appeared in print as shown here, in William Michael Rossetti’s 1895 edited collection of Dante Gabriel’s letters. As one of the sonnet’s subjects, William Michael’s interpretation ought to be approached with some caution.