'The Fleshly School of Poetry', an attack on the Pre-Raphaelites


‘The Fleshly School of Poetry’ is a fierce attack on the Pre-Raphaelite school. Written in 1871, the essaywas first published in The Contemporary Review under the pseudonym ‘Thomas Maitland’. Principally, ‘Maitland’ focuses on the art and poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, brother to Christina Rossetti. After being publicly accused by Rossetti, the poet Robert Buchanan confirmed that he was the author.

What aspects of Pre-Raphaelitism does Buchanan criticise?

Buchanan believed that Pre-Raphaelite art was excessively ‘sensual’ (p. 338) implying ‘that the body is greater than the soul …’ (p. 335). Appalled at what he saw as highly sexualised imagery, Buchanan declared Pre-Raphaelitism a source of moral corruption (see p. 336). A rather melodramatic vocabulary is used to convey his disgust, with Rossetti’s work described as ‘nastiness’ (p. 338), ‘trash’ (p. 339) and ‘morbid’ (p. 337).

Furthermore, Buchanan accuses the Pre-Raphaelites of being imitators of contemporary poets such as Tennyson, and asserts that the Brotherhood’s popularity has been forced by its members slyly agreeing to praise and publicise each other (p. 335). 

Although Buchanan does grant Rossetti some praise (p. 340), it is always brief and often double-edged (see p. 339).

The problem with Buchanan’s attack

In addition to seeming prudish and, in Rossetti’s words, ‘malicious’, Buchanan’s criticism contains other flaws.

As Rossetti points out in his response, ‘The Stealthy School of Criticism’, Buchanan unfairly draws on short quotations that are removed from the wider context of the poem and the collection they are published within.

Secondly, Buchanan looks at the poetry as purely biographical without an attempt to understand it as art. As Rossetti argues, ‘no such passing phase of description as the one headed ‘Nuptial Sleep’ could possibly be put forward by the author […] as his own representative view of the subject of Love’.

Full title:
'The Fleshly School of Poetry: Mr D. G. Rossetti' from The Contemporary Review
October 1871, London
The Contemporary Review, Robert Williams Buchanan
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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