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The Pre-Raphaelite city and the trap of modernity

Raphaël Rigal


The poetic and pictorial works of the “Pre-Raphaelite galaxy”, as one might call the group formed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and their artistic kindred, exhibit an ambiguous relationship to Victorian modernity and 19th-century technical and political “progress”, especially British urbanisation. As urban-living people, the Pre-Raphaelites were always in direct contact with the modern city and its evolutions, and if the urban context is not their one major topic, the paintings and poems that come to grasp with it from the late 1840s onward are the strongest proponents of what could be called an alter-modern philosophy: the acceptance of some aspects of modern society, combined with the rejection of its dehumanizing and alienating excesses, to form a via media, an alternative to untamed Progress and unchecked urbanisation. The return to Nature they advocate is not just a nostalgic look backwards, but a real way of life based on simplicity, common decency, and the equality of all mankind – a vision which comes to life in the 1880s in William Morris’s socialist pamphlets and proposals for a new city. We shall base our demonstration on a set of four poems: Christina Rossetti’s “The Dead City” (1840) and “Goblin Market” (1862), Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny” (1848-1869), and William Bell Scott’s “Maryanne” (1854), and compare them with D. G. Rossetti’s painting The Gate of Memory (1857-1864) and some of William Morris’s essays. This corpus constitutes an ensemble of works answering one another, and openly attacking the alienating artificiality of the modern world and its consequences.This paper will successively focus on three aspects of the Pre-Raphaelite relationship to the modern city. The first aspect is its representation: the city is a fatal beauty which seduces and corrupts, winds its network around the characters, and whose façades hide only death. This criticism opens the way to an attack against urban modernity, characterised by unnatural excess and human alienation. Beings are reified and despised, used and abused, and finally lost in a haze that separates them from any source of meaning – all this the fruit of a capitalist vision of the world. After this criticism comes a proposal: a return to what is the essential part of humanity. The definition of this “human essence” may vary depending on the author, but always centres on intimate knowledge of oneself, God, or others. The modern city is not absolute evil: even its corruption is a thing of beauty. But it is only a half-drawn canvas that the Pre-Raphaelite project tries to achieve, by opening the way for humanity to realize its full potential.

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1In 1841, a few years after Victoria became Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, approximately 50% of the English and Welsh population still lived in a rural setting – understood here as a place which might be slightly urbanised, but had not yet been fully industrialised – and over 20% of the available labour force worked in the agricultural sector. When the Queen died in 1901, these figures had fallen to 20% and 9% respectively, the evolution bearing witness to the higher mobility of British citizens, the increasing appeal of urban centres, and the growth and industrialisation of these centres. According to J. A. Banks (Banks 1968), whose 1968 article “Population Change and the Victorian City” provided the figures I used, this radical change in the socio-demographic landscape is not due to a rural crisis per se, but rather to the concentration of economic and social opportunities in the cities, and the construction throughout the era of a first-in-history civilisation of the town – to use a phrase Banks borrows from Thomas Freeman.

2Such a revolution in the structure and organisation of society had wide-range effects on architecture, mindset, health, and governance. Some readers of the literature of the 1841-1901 era might think that this change did not matter to most Victorian poets: the combination of modernist and formalist opinions on authors such as Tennyson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, or Swinburne has resulted in a long-standing and influential view of their work as a purely, or mainly, aesthetic endeavour, devoid of political influence and impact. More recent approaches have fortunately corrected this opinion, by showing how Victorian poets – even, or maybe especially, those belonging to the Pre-Raphaelite or symbolist groups – engaged with contemporary social issues.

3Despite being quite often very discreet, this political stance is generally strong, and appears quite clearly between the lines of many a poem. Mostly concerned with the evolution of society, Pre-Raphaelite poets and artists often fill their works with references to the place of science in life (including the schism between Natural Theology and Darwinian science), prostitution, women’s rights, or international politics (European and Imperial). Urbanism, or more generally the evolution of cities during the Victorian era, seems to receive only the tiniest speck of light coming from the Pre-Raphaelite lamp. There are cities in their works, urban landscapes suggested in a few words in poems or painstakingly depicted in paintings; but they might easily be dismissed as mere backgrounds for the narratives. But such a dismissal would not be completely honest. Whether imagined, reconstructed, or real, the city represented by the Pre-Raphaelites is the foundation of both their criticism of modernity and the alternatives they offer.

4As I intend to show in this paper, cities in the Pre-Raphaelite corpus constitute an ambivalent topos, both dangerous and alluring – the actual Pre-Raphaelite femme fatale – and this portrayal of urban landscapes is the groundwork for a politically renewed and refurbished (semi-)urban world.

  • 1 C. Rossetti and Bell Scott are not technically Pre-Raphaelites; however, it is my opinion that thei (...)

5I will focus on a few poems that clearly illustrate the Pre-Raphaelite distrust towards urban landscapes: “The Dead City” (1840) by Christina Rossetti, “Jenny” (1848-69) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and “Maryanne” (1854) by William Bell Scott.1 I will also refer to the painting The Gate of Memory (1857-64), by D. G. Rossetti, and to C. Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” (1862), both of them dealing with the theme of the dangerous city. If they do not include such explicit political proposals as expounded a few years later by William Morris in his essays and lectures, for example “A Factory As It Might Be” (1884), they testify to the social and human damage caused by urban and capitalist modernity.

6Through the study of this chronologically far-ranging corpus, I intend to make visible a progressively constructed criticism of the modern city as well as options for a more humane urbanisation. I shall first present the depiction of cities as “belles dames sans merci”, mixing evil, deception, and a paradoxical sense of beauty; I shall then move on to the highlighting of alienation and abuse as direct consequences of industrial and capitalist urbanism; finally, I will single out the alternatives suggested by the Rossetti siblings and by Bell Scott, and bring them into perspective with Morris’s political proposal to make the industrialised urban landscape humane and inclusive again.

The city, a “belle dame sans merci”

Cities built on deception

7A huge number of Pre-Raphaelite works focus on interiority and feeling, and the mechanisms of the human psyche. Yet, and because of their professed love of truth to nature, the Rossettis and Scott present the city by what first appears to a visitor’s eye: its façade.

8“The Dead City” and “Jenny” both feature a seminal scene of arrival, which serves as a setup preparing the eventual payoff of the poem:

By that gate I entered lone
A fair city of white stone;
And a lovely light to see
Dawned, and spread most gradually
Till the air grew warm and shone.
Through the splendid streets I strayed
In that radiance without shade. (“The Dead City”, l. 86-92)

  • 2 This is taken from the 1881 version; out of the two main versions of this poem, this is the one I s (...)

… there may rise unsought
Haply at times a passing thought
Of the old days which seem to be
Much older than any history
That is written in any book;
When she would lie in fields and look
Along the ground through the blown grass,
And wonder where the city was,
Far out of sight, whose broil and bale
They told her then for a child’s tale. (“Jenny”, l. 125-1342)

9Whereas the first extract gives a straightforward description by a first-person narrator, the second turns it into an indirect and nostalgic evocation, as it is a vision reimagined by the narrative voice after meditating on the fate of the woman. But the foundational quality of the scene endures. In both cases, the city looks charming, appealing, almost magic: it is a world apart, separated from the character’s previous place by a “gate” (in “The Dead City”) or “far out of sight” (in “Jenny”); it is a dreamlike construction, fitted to a “child’s tale”, rather than an actual place.

10There is no such scene in “Maryanne”, which is constructed in chapter-like snapshots of the main character’s life with a narrative ellipsis shadowing the arrival into the city. But a similar sense of wonder and displacement shines through the first interaction the titular character has with a “townie”. Country and city are referred to as “old” and “new world” (“Maryanne”, l. 67), the former having left some vague trace on the character in the form of “the freshness of new hay [on her] hair | And the withdrawing innocence of home” (l. 63-4), all these differences being stated by “a well-bedizened dame” (l. 70).

11However, these appealing façades do not hold. In Christina Rossetti’s “The Dead City”, the discovery of the city and its beauty is immediately followed by the realization that this city is dead: “Yet I heard no human sound; | All was still and silent round | As a city of the dead” (“The Dead City”, l. 93-95). In Scott’s “Maryanne”, the “well-bedizened dame” quickly turns into a “dragon”, locking the young girl up in a “cell”, and her mentions of the countryside whence the character comes are not motivated by kindness, but by an attempt at identifying the limits of a country girl’s coarseness: she is called a “simple girl”, her headwear is a “shapeless cap”, the “dame” asks her if she can read, write, dance, or sing, as if a country girl was not supposed to know all this.

12In the Rossetti siblings’ poems, the initial description itself is a warning, playing on double entendre and hidden meanings: the “radiance without shade” of the “Dead City” can be a thing of beauty, unmarred by any plague or sin; but it can also be a thing of oppression, a place where there is no respite from a scorching sun. In “Jenny”, the “tale” could be both something to wonder at, a marvel of escapism, or a nightmarish story of man-eating ogres – both of them plausible, when one considers the fairy tales written at the time (Newton 2016).

13The suggestion of the city’s danger is more subtle in “Jenny” – partly because the first visualisation of the city as a whole comes too late in the narrative to be actually a warning. The city is not only an innocent “child’s tale”, but a tale of sound and fury, of “broil and bale”, of turmoil and evil; imagining the city from Jenny’s lying position on “the blown grass” is like looking at a threateningly chaotic alternative universe – but only for a mind which is already aware of the evils of the city, and is able to overcome the experience of it and transcend it.

The evils of modern abundance

  • 3 The main source for this poem was apparently the Arabian Nights (Humphries 2008, p. 402-3); but I t (...)

14The necessity of going beyond the first impression is confirmed by the metatextual contrast between what the poets show of modern cities and what the reader knows of the Victorian reality. In “The Dead City”, the beautifully and richly decorated buildings suggest luxury and wealth: “a palace for a king [...] | [Its] great porch was ivory, | And the steps were ebony; | Diamond and chrysoprase | Set the pillars in a blaze” (“The Dead City”, l. 118, 121-3); the tent in the second half of the poem is also very luxurious, and holds a magnificent and bountiful banquet. But emptiness reigns supreme in the houses and in the entire city, and the “utter loneliness” and “deathless desolation” mentioned lines 104 and 105 conjures up images of a city deserted after some cataclysmic event. One might think of the Irish Famine, which reached its climax around the time the poem was written3 and which transformed a bountiful country into a desolate land.

15The contrast is similar in “Maryanne”, where the city that once looked rosy and sunny progressively becomes what it really is: an industrial hub, where smoke clouds out the sky, and where the destitute – shown in the last section of the poem, lines 532 to 560 – are stowed away in cold, hostile rooms, “tenanted by pain” (l. 534). And yet there is abundance in the city: Maryanne’s one-time boyfriend, Archer, his friend and her next fiancé, Thorn, the various nondescript characters that the reader meets along the story are ostensibly wealthy; they can all afford being idle, and their lives seem devoted to drinking wine, laughing, and chatting time away. These people stand in stark contrast to Maryanne’s family and friends from the countryside, especially Andrew, her first suitor, who upon visiting her brings a gift which “[had cost] two weeks of labour” (l. 124).

16The corrupting power of abundance becomes visible once Andrew leaves Maryanne; the humble and almost estranged family is replaced by a figure, probably Archer, who stands behind her devilishly and introduces her to a life of pleasure and idleness:

A face bends over her drooping neck,
So close, its breathing stirs her hair:
Her red lips leap, her eyes expand,
Her young heart flutters, throbs:—ah! Now
She can both smile and weep!
Her hand and heart, her body, her life
She would give him—freely give.
Smother up the thoughts of ill!
Heaven is around her, as he lisps
‘All is prepared; come Marian,
For ever come with me.’ (“Maryanne”, l. 131-141)

17The image of the man’s face near the young woman’s neck, the closeness, the threatening intimacy suggested by the hair stirred by his breath, the woman’s physical reactions to his presence suggest the existence of some dangerous power; even the change in her name – from “Maryanne”, combining the names of Christ’s mother and grand-mother, to the more modern “Marian” – suggests some deep, essential evolution in the woman’s personality, a change enacted thanks to the quite obviously vampiric presence of Archer.

  • 4 “[Langeweile] hat nichts Spielhaftes mehr, sondern rennt mit einer tollwütigen Besessenheit, in ewi (...)

18It is indeed highly suggested that these face, breath, voice are Archer’s, who occupies the young woman’s thoughts in the following sections. Now, Archer is the perfect opposite of Andrew: while the latter endures a two-day walk and sacrifices himself to see Maryanne and please her, the former leaves her pent up in a hired room; while the latter is repeatedly described as hard-working, serious, and sincere, the former is pictured as a player, a languid, Dorian Gray-like decadent who thinks of pleasure first and other people afterwards; both have a gloomy side, but it is justified in Andrew’s case by his sense of displacement when going to the city, or by the gap that he sees between him and Maryanne, while Archer’s gloom is a mix of boredom and taedium vitae, both fueled by wealth and idleness – a consequence of abundance that Zweig also analyses: “Boredom [...] is not playful anymore, it runs with obsessive and eternal rage away from Time”.4

An inhumane and immoral city

19These questions of abundance, decadence, and corruption are tightly linked to a change in how the worth of things and beings is appraised, and to a major change in moral values. Wealth and abundance are indeed not only corrupting; they are the results of a twisting of the world. In the preindustrial world, represented by Maryanne’s family and Andrew in “Maryanne”, by the dyad Laura-Lizzie in “Goblin Market”, or by the increasingly vague memories of Jenny in Rossetti’s eponymous poems, worth is directly derived from humanity: Laura and Lizzie, Andrew, or the young Jenny live in direct contact with nature; they cultivate it, earn their lives thanks to an understanding of natural rhythms and natural laws, and the effort which their bodies endure yields a pragmatic result – Laura and Lizzie for instance gather honey and milk, bake bread and cakes, churn butter.

20In contrast with these rural activities, the same poems feature a hallmark of urban or half-urban setting: the market. In Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”, it is represented by the goblins, who are described as “merchant m[e]n”, and whose cry “come buy” echoes throughout the poem. In “Maryanne”, this image is more discreet: it appears in section VI, at the climax of the young woman’s apparently blissful relationship with Archer, when her enthusiasm and wonder spread to the narrative voice which states that “these market-men are scarce divine” (l. 204) – “scarce” being understandable as “just short of”. In “Jenny”, the market is one of the main characteristics of the city, as recalled by the narrative voice immediately after re-imagining Jenny’s life: “A child can tell the tale [in the city], how | Some things which are not yet enroll’d | In market-lists are bought and sold | Even till the early Sunday light” (l. 136-9). Even “The Dead City”, despite being more dreamlike than the others, keeps trace of a former market, now just a “noiseless market-place”, emptied of the usual “care-worn busy face[s]” (l. 106-7).

21In all cases, the market is not only a place where things are sold and bought; it is an offence to what nature and/or God has ordained. Faces are damaged by it (in “The Dead City”), merchants become animalistic monsters (in “Goblin Market”), symbols of innocence are slaughtered (the bleeding lamb in “Maryanne”, l. 205). But markets have an even worse effect; in “Jenny”, they disrupt the flow of time and make night and day interchangeable:

Some things which are not yet enroll’d
In market-lists are bought and sold
Even till the early Sunday light,
When Saturday night is market-night
Everywhere, be it dry or wet,
And market-night in the Haymarket. (“Jenny”, l. 137-142)

22The rapid repetition of “light”, “night”, and “market” in these lines draws the reader in, reflecting the dizzying effect of commercial agitation – the very same agitation and dizziness at the centre of Laura and Lizzie’s interactions with the goblin men. The priority of selling over classifying and enrolling, the confusion between light and darkness, and the disrespect towards Saturday and Sunday – Jewish and Christian holy days – help turn this representation of modern markets into a clear warning, that modernity, as exemplified by the habits and behaviours of the city, is an offence towards all that is sacred.

  • 5 See works by Anne-Lise François (François 2020).

23The same offence against the order of nature can be found in “Goblin Market” and in “The Dead City”, not only in the anthropomorphic appearance of the monstrous goblin creatures, but also in the wares themselves: some of the fruits offered by the goblins or displayed in the dead city are exotic fruits (citrons, pineapples, pomegranates...), which mature at fairly different periods of the year, between May and October. The fact that they are all offered at the same time and place rejects any idea of seasonality or locality, and reveals the importance of the Victorian mode of living in mankind’s shift towards the Anthropocene.5

  • 6 And, one could say, of imperialism (Collingham 2017).

24But neither the Rossettis nor Scott seem particularly aware of any man-made climate change; their concern lies elsewhere, and particularly in the spiritual effect of this modern vision of the world. The development of market constitutes a way of twisting and controlling nature and humanity; as such, it is a symbol of man’s hubristic and demiurgic activity, which progressively bends and controls the world. If this is particularly visible in “Goblin Market”, it might also be understood as the reason for the doom which struck the dead city: the breeze that guides the narrative voice through the deserted streets claims that this desolation was due to pride and luxury – “Go and see the end of pride” (l. 100), “Enter in, and look, and see |How for luxury and pride | A great multitude have died” (l. 162-4). The thirst and hunger for exotic fare, coupled with the arrogant notion that man owns and rules over nature, is both one of the hallmarks of modernity6 and an offence to God, which must be punished – in the case of “The Dead City”, it is reminiscent of the biblical episode of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gommorrah (Gen.19:24) and also of the curse that strikes Coleridge’s ancient mariner: stillness, oppressive eternity, inescapable entrapment in a world of both abundance and starvation.

Alienating modernity and abusive city

25The urban and modern distortion of the world is only part of what ails the characters of “The Dead City”, “Goblin Market”, “Maryanne”, and “Jenny”. The city is rife with abuse and alienation; it is a place where violence, born of industrial and capitalist modernity, strikes hard.

Urban systemic violence

26Two systems of oppression are particularly present in those poems: the mindset imposed by a capitalist society, and a specific set of social relationships rooted in misogyny. Capitalist oppression is closely linked, in “Maryanne”, with the arrival of the young woman in the city. Her first contact with her new surroundings, the millinery, is marked by signs of the capitalist alienation of the individual: she has no choice but to work there (“You are to be a semstress [sic] now”, l. 59); the innocence associated with her old home is already fading (“the withdrawing innocence of home”, l. 64 – highlighting mine); the owner of the factory owns the workers as well, and is explicitly depicted as an oppressive force (“her thimbled girls with needles and shears | were trimming silks with gimp and lace. | Anon the dragon leaves the cell”, l. 73-5). The workers, turned into alienated tools by force of habit, are not any better: they surround Maryanne in a threatening crowd (“about the stranger girl they press”, l. 76), they insist on using her body in a productive way (“How to turn her smiles to use [...] I know the best”, l. 78 and 80, “her looks refresh | Like oranges in a theatre”, l. 80-1), and they suggest ways to make her conform to the urban mindset (“[how] to braid fair locks unbound before”, l. 79).

27Although Scott’s is the only poem directly picturing an industrial environment, a consequence of the alienation it produces can also be found in “Jenny”. The sleeping prostitute is characterised by her lost innocence and her status as a social pariah, but also by her obsession with money: it is thought of as her passion (“fond of a kiss and fond of a guinea”, l. 2), it is supposed to occupy her dreams (“whose purse might be | The lodestar of your reverie”, l. 20-21), and it taints the way she is seen by the narrative voice (“[your] hair | Is countless gold incomparable”, l. 10-1, “your wealth of loosened hair”, l. 47, “[your flesh] | All golden in the lamplight’s gleam”, l. 50). This close link between Jenny and money is progressively replaced by a more humane painting of the woman; but it is suggested to be the direct consequence of her arrival in the city, and her transition from a dreamlike, pastoral world of dreams to a transactional world of hardship and monetization. The world has become a machine, in which all humans are cogs: “die modern Weltmaschine”, “the modern machine of the world” (Zweig 2021, p. 9).

  • 7 There are no substantial changes between this and the earlier Delaware Manuscript text, only minor (...)

28However, capitalism is not the only oppressive force in the city: Jenny also suffers from “the hatefulness of man” (l. 83), also called “the beastliness of man” in the 1848 Delaware Manuscript version of the poem (l. 33 in this earlier text). Before even imagining Jenny’s former life, indeed, the narrative voice realizes how others might behave: the typical client, “drunk or ruffianly” (l. 65), is a brute “who spares not to end what he began, | Whose acts are ill and his speech ill, | Who, having used you at his will, | Thrusts you aside, as when I dine | I serve the dishes and the wine” (“Jenny”, l. 84-8).7 The capitalist perception of human beings as tools, instruments devoid of any humanity, dawns on the narrative voice in two stages: first, an awareness of the misogynist violence of prostitution, which transforms women into sexual toys for the sole pleasure of men; then, a realization that the narrator himself might reproduce this behaviour, maybe unwittingly, but by simply getting used to taking advantage of human labour. This second stage expands social criticism: the comparison between the other clients’ behaviour and that of the narrator suggests that the “others” are not the only ones to blame, and that the narrator himself needs to become aware of his commercial interactions with other people.

29The evils of both capitalism and misogyny are avatars of another evil: the deceit of modernity and abundance. This is explicitly presented in “Goblin Market”: when she buys fruits from the goblins, Laura falls into a never-ending circle of consumption and need, and experiences unquenchable hunger and thirst. In a reworking of the myth of Tantalus, she is tortured by her untameable yearning, the food she desires being always out of reach, turned invisible after her first experience of it. Lizzie, however, does not suffer from this curse, because she did not submit to the same system. Laura accepted the alienation of her body, by transforming a lock of her hair into a form of money; Lizzie refused to give any form of transactional value to her body, with the intention of paying the merchants with actual money. Of course, Lizzie is assaulted by the goblins, who reject her money and only want her body; the scene, quite a crude image of rape, can be understood as a metaphor for a capitalist system in which bodies are used and abused, the physical force of the worker being de facto the origin of all transactions and the basis on which value is given to any product. The plentiness claimed by the goblins is just a lure: it is a temporary abundance, conditioned by the sacrifice of bodies and lives, and always calling for more sacrifices and more violence.

Deceptive cities for deceptive people

30The systemic twin oppressions of capitalism and misogyny are supported by a collusion between urban and human deceit. Even when the people encountered by the characters are not violent, they are indeed deceptive – and the men seen in “Maryanne” are the epitomes of such deception. Archer, Maryanne’s new suitor, sounds good and honest at first: although he is first presented as a devilish seducer, he explicitly helps her, ensuring that she has a roof over her head and that she can live a quiet life far from the hustle of work – “all is prepared”, he says, l. 140. And all is prepared indeed: the next section, “one short year” (l. 146) after this statement, shows Maryanne “in a neat suburban room” (l. 142), free and “careless” (l. 144). Her new life is clearly happy, and though most of it seems spent waiting for Archer to visit her, it is filled with songs and dance and laughter. It is an entirely new world, which sweeps away her former life, as indicated by lines 169 to 174:

A new sun seemed to smile on her,
And a new moon, more earnest than the old,
And stars more numerous; and kindly lips
Seemed ever smiling on her from that day,
And merry voices sounded merrier.
For the first time free will seemed hers. (“Maryanne”, l. 169-74)

31This epoch of bliss lasts for some time, and the narrative insists on its quality: scents, colours, sounds, sights, all sensations are coloured by the rosiness of novelty, love, and sophistication –Maryanne following Archer’s advice on everything, as shown by the short dialogue lines 201-202: “‘Will you take a little wine?’ | ‘Whatever you like shall be mine.’” Even when Archer abandons her, Maryanne’s life remains easy and agreeable: her friend Joan reminds her of it (“How richly all our wants are filled | Since he is gone”, l. 238-9), and Maryanne herself does not seem displeased to see more of Thorn, “[Archer’s] handsome friend” (l. 236), than of her first lover.

32The narrative voice presents the reasons for this change to the reader, and in doing so points an accusing finger at the carelessness and cruelty of the modern young men: Thorn explicitly considers the young woman as a possession (“Marian is yours”, l. 223), possibly something to consume (“she has gained | A taste like pure simplicity”, l. 228, highlighting mine), and suggests that he would like to spend more time with her. Archer concurs, talking about Maryanne as if she were some raw material transformed through urban industry (“she is perfect grace, refined | Yet marvellously fresh”, l. 229-30), and almost explicitly lending her to Thorn (“‘You must know her.’ – ‘And must love?’ | ‘Ah! why not?’”, l. 232-3). This carelessness is not the result of Archer’s gloominess; another dialogue later in the poem shows it to be his own dismissive nature, as he answers the news of Maryanne’s fall from wealth with a curt judgment on her simplicity:

She had no wit, no management,
It might have been presaged;—
I fear she never will retrieve;
She meets the rapids in the stream:
The world’s eye now will turn on her
Like slingers from an old town-wall
Inflicting useless wounds. (“Maryanne”, l. 349-355)

33The matter-of-fact tone of his remark, confirmed by the narrative voice which presents the dialogue as “[speculating] on her fate with listless ease” (l. 357), is a strong change from the loving moments mentioned earlier. But it is his nature, as the end of the poem emphasizes: a last overview of the unchanging urban modernity mentions the “youths who have not souls, [but] have beards” (l. 555), a group which includes all the young men who pretended or might have pretended to love Maryanne. There isn’t even any explicit evil in Archer’s behaviour; only a dismissive neglect, born of his position as a wealthy young man in a society where everything has a price, everything is disposable, and everything is always available to those who can afford it. This is a one-way abuse: once Maryanne has fallen prey to the city and its inhabitants, there is no going back, and no way for her to revert the mechanisms of power she is subjected to. A remark made by Rossetti’s narrative voice about Jenny in the Delaware Manuscript can actually be applied to Maryanne too, and to all the victims of Victorian modernity: “thou being all men’s, yet no man thine” (l. 39); the abundance, wealth, freedom that the new city promises – a promise which was a major force behind the rural exodus of the mid-19th century – is all for naught, a mirage which tempts but does not deliver, and whose deceit is only revealed when it is too late.

Direct and indirect abuse

34This abuse echoes other forms of violence, inflicted not by the male and capitalist usual suspects, but by other social groups and by the city itself. Jenny and Maryanne are indeed mocked and despised by children and by other women: the former suffers from “the pale girl’s dumb rebuke” (l. 73) and, in the earlier text, from “the din | Of woman’s envious mocking” (Delaware Manuscript, l. 24-25). The latter finds herself isolated and despised, with passers-by calling her “Thorn’s Marian, – | Madame Marian [...] | Questionable, clumsy too” (l. 254-6), words that fall just short of insult; Maryanne herself realizes this, as she discovers that she is alone, far away from her family, and that “those who are [near] | Scoff at her, cheapen her” (l. 274-5).

35Some elements are suggested to explain these insults and mockeries. In Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem, the attacks appear to come from envy, jealousy, and a perceived injustice in front of labour – the “pale girl” mentioned earlier despising Jenny because the latter’s occupation is presumed to be less physically taxing than the industrial job the former holds. Scott’s poem, on the other hand, alludes to deeper-set prejudices that are also mentioned in Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”: a common injunction to decency and modesty. Maryanne’s judges seem to mock everyone equally; but the young woman specifically deviates from one set of norms, laid out early on by her mother: no looking at strangers, no talking too loud, no fancy clothes or originality of dress or behaviour – “a long | Unmentionable creed” (l. 162-3). This so-called advice is actually a form of social pressure, an obligation of property the rejection of which makes Maryanne the logical target of abuse and mockery. In “Goblin Market”, the injunction is similar, although expressed differently: Lizzie reminds her sister of a previous example of a young girl fallen prey to the goblins, “Jeanie”, who tasted the goblin fruits and yearned for them for a few months before dying. This example, later remembered by Laura, is explicitly that of a woman who tried to liberate herself: “[Laura] thought of Jeanie in her grave, | Who should have been a bride; | But who for joys brides hope to have | Fell sick and died” (l. 311-4).

  • 8 I am thinking here of paintings such as Reflections on the Thames, Westminster (1880) or Hampstead (...)

36This is all pretty explicit, but there is another, more hidden form of violence lurking inside these poems. The city’s very walls and buildings and street-lights reject the main character after she has been used and tossed aside by society. The violence inflicted by the city is even more oppressive, almost toxic; in “Jenny”, “the cold lamps at the pavement’s edge | Wind on together and apart, | A fiery serpent for your heart” (l. 152-4), form a luminescent trap that, in the Victorian context of the poem, announces John Atkinson Grimshaw’s paintings of foggy urban scenes and wet cobbled streets lit by moonlight and public lamps.8 Section XIII of “Maryanne” opens on the same image, a series of lamplights gleaming mournfully (“Down the wet pavement gleam the lamp”, l. 431); but it is followed by a more aggressive image:

The rain-drops from the eaves are blown
Against her face: she turns;
The wind lifts up her dripping scarf,
Faded now with its ragged fringe,
And flings it over her head. (“Maryanne”, l. 436-40)

  • 9 See (Waugh 2008) for a lengthier discussion on the presence of these changes in literature, and (Ts (...)

37Even though the weather seems more to blame than the city itself, one must remember not only the role of Victorian industrialisation in global climate-change, but also the impact of cities and urban planning on the creation of microclimates – the heat and smoke from hundreds of factories contributing to the creation of the infamous “London fog”, for instance9. Maryanne has been used and rejected by Archer, abandoned by Thorn, de facto banished by society, and is now assaulted by the city itself.

38Rossetti’s watercolour The Gate of Memory, inspired by Scott’s poem, gives a good illustration of these urban conditions. A young woman, who, one can assume, is Maryanne, is standing on a threshold, in a dimly lit alley, and leaning forward to watch a group of young girls dancing. The scene, radically urban, with no sign of nature except for a crown of flowers on one of the girls’ head, leaves no possibility of escape to the viewer’s eye, thus representing the oppressive weight of the city on the young woman. Furthermore, the entire alley is filled with a soft fog that places all the characters in a space between reality and memory, in a surreal place of limbo.

39“The Dead City” does not feature such aggression – mostly because there is no one left for the narrator to be attacked by. But the sense of unease experienced as the voice explores the city, growing with each step or stanza, and grimacing in the rich central palace works in a similar way. Of course, the emptiness and silence of death are important factors in the oppressive quality of Christina Rossetti’s city; but more than that, what really seems to be the cause of unease is the contrast between the richness of the overall place and its desolation. This is part of the city’s deceptive appeal, as we have already seen; but it also contributes to the impression, reinforced by the regular interventions of the breeze, that there is something there, some depth of wealth to be found, and that it will always be out of reach, the sternness of the dead buildings rejecting the narrator and preventing their possible enjoyment. Death is the main cause of this hostility; but it is fully revealed at the very end of the poem, and most of it is spent in “awe and wonderment” (l. 112) at the sight of the unresponding walls.

Renewing the city through alter-modernity

  • 10 This interpretation is based on the concept of Pre-Raphaelite alter-modernity forged and explained (...)

40These poems are not pamphlets against modernity, as French antimodern writings of the time would be, according to Antoine Compagnon’s analysis of 19th-century French literature. They do not just reject modernity and its selfish creed of progress and profit, neither do they oppose it through a systematic argument attack. They are complex and paradoxical narratives, building up both criticism and proposals for an alternative way of life. As such, they do not perfectly exemplify the concepts of anti-modernity or counter-modernity, but they display what could be termed an alter-modern view on life, based on moral values, like intimacy, decency, and simplicity, and above all a more humane consciousness of the other.10

Salvation through intimacy

41The first remedy that is offered against modernity is also the most obvious one: religious intimacy. The concluding stanzas of “The Dead City” insist on its necessity:

Full of fear I would have fled;
Full of fear I bent my head,
Shutting out each stony guest:–
When I looked again the feast
And the tent had vanished.

Yes, once more I stood alone
Where the happy sunlight shone
And a gentle wind was sighing,
And the little birds were flying,
And the dreariness was gone.

All these things that I have said
Awed me, and made me afraid.
What was I that I should see
So much hidden mystery?
And I straightway knelt and prayed. (“The Dead City”, l. 261-75)

42As already mentioned, there is a parallel to be made with Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: after all the hardships and trials, prayer has become the only possible discourse, God the only escape from the absurdity of the world and, in Christina Rossetti’s poem, from the frightening supernatural events that the narrator has just witnessed. In front of something that cannot be made sense of – as some of the changes and innovations of the Victorian era might have been perceived – there is no other remedy than faith, the only bulwark against modernity.

43However, the efficiency of prayer seems lost on Scott’s and Dante Rossetti’s characters – or on the girls from “Goblin Market”. In “Jenny” and “Maryanne”, religion seems to literally be a thing of the past, a tradition belonging to the old, scarce remembered countryside childhood. This doesn’t mean that religion is altogether absent: Jenny lies with her head on the narrator’s lap, forming a new Pietà which contrasts starkly with the frequent image of the golden rain, which would be more reminiscent of the pagan Danae.

44This link with religion established through physical imagery opens the way to a new kind of religion, one that can more easily be transferred from rural to urban settings: a mystical intimacy, replacing institutional religion with personal devotion. This profane avatar of the sacred is the primary force of salvation for Laura and Lizzie in “Goblin Market”: in order to save Laura, Lizzie sacrifices herself, by buying fruits from the goblin men and submitting to their assault, and then by inviting her sister to almost literally eat her. This Christ-like action is what cures Laura from the curse of the goblin fruits – and also a renewal of the body, which is not something to be taken advantage of anymore, a transactional object, but the path to salvation.

45There is an erotic dimension in Lizzie’s sacrifice, and even in the two sisters’ behaviour in general; this dimension has already been studied (Carpenter 1991; Hill 2005). But it is not restricted to “Goblin Market”: in “Jenny”, carnal knowledge of the prostitute is what triggers the narrator’s thoughts, and ultimately convinces him of the essential connection between all human beings. The narrator does not understand the woman’s plight through cold analysis, which could be as alienating as industry, but through intimate knowledge of himself and others. This is accomplished by the symbolic superimposition of the narrator’s spinning book-filled room and the dance he shared with Jenny, by the materiality of her half-exposed body, by the close union between the woman, books, nature, and even Time itself, all of these elements helping the narrator enter a sacred space of eroticism and intimacy.

Simplicity and common decency

46An issue remains: salvation might be achieved through the self and through religious or profane intimacy, but it is restricted to a couple of people – Jenny and her client, Laura and Lizzie, the narrator of “The Dead City” and God. In order to establish a true political project, which would go beyond a sphere that is barely more than individual and make the whole society better, other values must be summoned.

47In “Maryanne”, there is hardly any religion – save in the very beginning, when the young girl goes to mass and sees old men gossiping severely. There is hardly any intimacy either: Maryanne’s life with Archer and, later, Thorn is purely unidirectional, and quite toxic in its absence of reciprocity; even her friendship with Joan, one of the other seamstresses, is too shallow and abusive to really warrant any social change.

48There is however salvation to be found elsewhere, in the characters who did not move to the city, and were thus sheltered from its corruption: Maryanne’s mother and Andrew. Both are shown as simple, decent, caring, honest people; a few sections show them waiting for Maryanne, or news of her, or busying themselves with fieldwork and simple daily life. One of these sections is particularly meaningful: starting with a general reflection on the nature of love, it moves on to a description of Andrew, “the youth who wooed of old” (l. 399), which contrasts with Maryanne, “Her who is now forgot by all” (l. 400). Andrew’s life is marked by normalcy, habit, humility; he lives in “a home of every day” (l. 403), which he knows perfectly, and which is almost a friend to him. Everything is peaceful, and Andrew’s future years are supposed to be radiant too, and spent surrounded by epitomes of beauty and health – “Stalwart sons with shoulders broad, | And daughters with long Eve-like hair” (l. 421-2).

49This section is made particularly meaningful by those that surround it: a gloomy image of Maryanne lying upon the floor in her room, drunk and snoring, on a Sunday morning, and another of her walking in the streets at night, assaulted by the weather and the walls. A similar contrast can be seen in Andrew’s section, in the part that discusses love: two definitions of it are given, the first one insisting upon passionate love and extreme feelings, the second one stressing love’s power as a guide through life. The former ends in tears and pain, echoing Maryanne’s own life; the latter, however, is a soothing and continuous presence, which brings peace to the mind and rest to the soul and body.

50But once again, this form of salvation is limited: not only is it restricted to a small number of individuals relying on one another, but it implies a complete separation from the city. The end of Scott’s poem is pretty explicit: despite Andrew’s best effort, Maryanne dies, and society will keep on using, abusing, and judging countless girls just like her under the cold eye of the streetlights: “every lamp on every street | Light them like Maryanne” (l. 559-60).

Intimacy and simplicity: the basis of a political project

51The key might be found in a combination of both solutions, unified in a more directly political project, such as Morris’s socialist proposals. His three-part article “A Factory as it Might Be”, despite focusing on the ideal factory instead of the ideal city, solves the issues exposed in Scott’s, Christina Rossetti’s, and Dante Rossetti’s poems. The main reasons behind the suffering of Maryanne, Laura, and Jenny, and behind the turning into stone of the inhabitants of the dead city, are a thirst for power (over nature and human beings), profit (derived from nature and human beings), unnecessary luxury (characterized by an excess of good things and an infinite variety of unseasonal products), pride and carelessness (hubris in some cases, neglect and mockery of lower social classes in others), cruelty (especially regarding the human body, abused and turned into an instrument to be used for profit), and hostility (displayed not only by people, but also by the buildings themselves, threatening, aggressive, sometimes ugly).

52Each of these issues is answered by Morris. Thirst for power is solved by an abolition of the hierarchy between factory-owner and workmen. As a consequence of a better division of work, whatever is burdensome could be undertaken in turns, “and so distributed could cease to be a burden” (Morris 1884b). This is explored in more details in “Useful Work versus Useless Toil” (Morris 2008), in which Morris explains how a better distribution of work could make sure that no profiteers take advantage of the workers’ toil and ensure equal contribution of all people to society. This organisation could directly address part of the oppression Maryanne and Jenny suffer from: the prison of capitalism in which Maryanne finds herself upon being hired as a seamstress, and the inequality that makes young working girls despise Jenny for her apparently comparatively less taxing work. It could also contribute to solving the matter of abuse, by making everyone more equal and thus suppressing the arrogance and neglect displayed by Thorn, Archer, or Jenny’s clients.

53Putting an end to profit would also entail a better understanding of nature, and more harmony between humanity and its surroundings. Morris’s ideal factory would be set in the countryside, since it would be “no longer necessary to gather people into able sweltering hordes for profit’s sake” (Morris 1884a); the lives of all workers would thus be closer to the simplicity of Andrew or Laura and Lizzie than to the hustle and bustle of Maryanne’s city. Being set in the countryside, work in the factory would also mean working on gardens and in nature and tending to nature: “it follows on this garden business that our factory must make no sordid litter, befoul no water, nor poison the air with smoke”, this being made possible by the substitution of profit for human advancement as the main leading force of industry. This would solve what appears to be minor issues: the climate change brought about by the industrial cityscape, for instance; but it would also usher in a more ecological mindset and make humans more in tune with nature, thus also stopping the hubristic displays of exotic fruits that are shown in “The Dead City” and “Goblin Market”, and the disruption of natural cycles mentioned in “Jenny” or “Maryanne”.

54Ending profit, ending inequality, ending the roots of all neglect and scorn between humans and the division between classes were the main political objectives of William Morris. But his project was not only social: in his essays, politics go hand in hand with aesthetics, and include a change in the way factories – and cities – look. Not only would the world be made better by ending the concentration of people in a few overcrowded hubs; the buildings themselves should be changed:

It is usually supposed that [buildings] must of necessity be ugly, and truly they are almost always at present mere nightmares, [because they are] temples of overcrowding and adulteration and over-work [...]. Our buildings will be beautiful with their own beauty of simplicity as workshops, not bedizened with tomfoolery as some are now which do not any the more for that hide their repulsiveness. (Morris 1884a)

55This aesthetic change will establish a correspondence between a city’s appearance and what it actually is; no more deceptively appealing façades such as those seen in “The Dead City”, then, nor any falsely rosy perception of urban landscapes such as what appears in “Maryanne”. Beautiful simplicity and delicate ornament would join forces to create places that feel and are welcoming, like Andrew’s house in Scott’s poem.


56Despite the oppressive landscapes presented in “The Dead City”, “Jenny”, or “Maryanne”, and as shown by William Morris, the city itself is not evil – and neither is human industrial activity. Both are malleable things that can be modified and adapted to fit a specific view of humanity; the problem, as we have seen, resides in what cities are built for and on: capitalist oppression and systemic violence. Solving these issues implies a complete renewal of the urban landscape as well as of society, since they both reflect the underlying forces of industrial urban modernity; but it would be too short-sighted to sum up Pre-Raphaelite views on the modern city as a conflict between what was and what shouldn’t be: as made explicit in “Maryanne”, “Goblin Market” or “The Dead City”, this would mean focusing on “pleasant days long gone | Of not-returning past” (“Goblin Market”, l. 550-1). The Pre-Raphaelite project focuses rather on how to change what is into what might be, and on offering ways to achieve this change – reconnecting with one’s deepest self, whether through religion, selfhood, intersubjective intimacy, or humble acceptance of others, and establishing a new political project.

57This project, which stems from a humane view of mankind and the self, does however imply a radical change of the Victorian city: its ultimate form, as can be seen in the poems studied, in Morris’s works, and in countless other Pre-Raphaelite writings, is not a mere city, but a community based on absolute continuity of individual subjectivities. In this ideal world, architecture is the continuation of both nature and culture, reflecting the inherent goodness of all things, all men, and all projects, and people collaborate, accepting both the radical differences between their selves and the essential common ground that links them. The result is not the anti-individualist hive that some 19th-century projects offered, a uniform society an example of which could actually be seen in the crowd of seamstresses at the beginning of “Maryanne” or in the throng of goblin merchants in “Goblin Market”; it is a united society focused on collective profit and the advancement of humanity.

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1 C. Rossetti and Bell Scott are not technically Pre-Raphaelites; however, it is my opinion that their collaborations with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and with the rest of the Brotherhood and the general concordance of their styles qualify them as Pre-Raphaelite poets.

2 This is taken from the 1881 version; out of the two main versions of this poem, this is the one I shall refer to, unless otherwise indicated.

3 The main source for this poem was apparently the Arabian Nights (Humphries 2008, p. 402-3); but I think the influence of contemporary accounts of the Great Famine might be worth examining too, given the political mindset of the Rossetti family.

4 “[Langeweile] hat nichts Spielhaftes mehr, sondern rennt mit einer tollwütigen Besessenheit, in ewiger Flucht vor der Zeit” (Zweig 2021, p. 27, author’s translation).

5 See works by Anne-Lise François (François 2020).

6 And, one could say, of imperialism (Collingham 2017).

7 There are no substantial changes between this and the earlier Delaware Manuscript text, only minor variations in phrasing and rhyme.

8 I am thinking here of paintings such as Reflections on the Thames, Westminster (1880) or Hampstead Hill, Looking Down Heath Street (1881).

9 See (Waugh 2008) for a lengthier discussion on the presence of these changes in literature, and (Tsoka et al. 2020) for a more contemporary, but still relevant discussion on the links between urban planning and climate change.

10 This interpretation is based on the concept of Pre-Raphaelite alter-modernity forged and explained in my PhD thesis, Combler la faille. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, les Préraphaélites, et la modernité, defended in December 2020 and available on HAL.

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Electronic reference

Raphaël Rigal, The Pre-Raphaelite city and the trap of modernityAngles [Online], 15 | 2022, Online since 15 November 2022, connection on 30 May 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Raphaël Rigal

Professeur Agrégé, Université Gustave Eiffel. Raphaël Rigal graduated from the École Normale Supérieure de la rue d'Ulm in 2015, and defended a PhD thesis at Sorbonne Université in December 2020; his work, under the supervision of Pr Pascal Aquien, focuses on “Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelites, and modernity”. He previously published papers on the linguistic echoes of Rossetti's multiple cultural identities and on the representation and incarnation of life by art in Pre-Raphaelite poetry. He teaches English at Gustave Eiffel University in Champs-sur-Marne. Contact: raphael.rigal [at]

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