Pre-Raphaelitism actually means a certain type of painting in imitation of the great Italian painters who flourished before the time of Raphael (1488-1823) and who were said to be simple, sincere, and devoted.
The term was first used by a group of German artists who had worked together with the avowed idea of restoring art to medieval purity and simplicity. The term is now generally applied to a group of seven young painters – D. G. Rossetti, his brother William, W. H. Hunt, Thomas Woolner, F. G. Stevens, J. Cettinson, and J. E. Millais. They formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in England in 1848. They took, for their models, early Italian painters before Raphael. Their purpose was to restore simplicity and naturalness in art, against the growing artificiality and materialism of the age. They turned to the middle ages for their models, and one of their professed aims was to express wonders and reverence, and awe that characterize medieval art. They condemned strongly the mechanized style in painting, then in vogue, and rather preferred individuality and naturalness to make art really free, true, and graceful. They took for their models, Giotts, Bellim, and Fra Angelico, whose art had the marks of individuality, sincerity, and naturalness- those very qualities, which were absent in the works of the successors of Raphael.
Pre-Raphaelitism, which originated in painting, appeared in the poetical world, in course of time, in the Victorian age. In the latter half of the 19th century, under the impact of the Industrial Revolution, Pre-Raphaelite poetry appeared, with the basic endeavor to unify poetry and painting.
Pre-Raphaelite poetry is found to follow the concept of Pre Raphaelite painting, as laid down by Rossetti. The Pre Raphaelite poets are all found word-painters, and the essence of their poetry is perceived in their pictorial quality. In this respect, they appear to be the devout followers of the great Victorian, Lord Tennyson, and bear the Keatsian romantic tradition. It is their fidelity to painting, their genius in the pictorial representation in art, that may be looked upon as the chief element of merit in their poetry.
The Pre-Raphaelite poets came in an age, troubled with social and moral speculations. The relation between religion and science, faith and rationality, mysticism and materialism, was the key question of the age. The Pre-Raphaelites, however, did not participate in that great debate of the age. They kept themselves apart and aloof from the conflict between faith and materialism and from the growing social problems of Victorian life and society. They kept themselves away from Tennyson’s spiritual convictions, Browning’s optimistic speculations, Arnold’s criticism of life, or Newman’s faith in the old religious order.
The Pre-Raphaelite poets, in fact, appear, above everything else, artists, and their only religion seems to be art. In fact, Pre Raphaelite poetry envisages a sort of escapism and is found imbued with the Keatsian principle of ‘art for art’s sake.
Another element in Pre-Raphaelite poetry is perceived in love for beauty. The Pre-Raphaelite poets are lovers of beauty. Here they are the followers of the great poetic creed of Keats. In their rich sensuousness, they are also found to carry on the tradition of great romantic poetry. They are also found to be medievalistic in their attachment to the medieval past. This also constitutes another romantic aspect of Pre-Raphaelitism. Their attempt to follow Byron’s revolutionary spirit and Shelley’s inspiration for loveliness do not appear to have much succeeded, yet these elements are not ignorable in them. Pre-Raphaelite poetry, in this respect, appears to be the second phase of Romanticism in the nineteenth century. This, however, appears to lack in humanism and in the idealistic vision of human life, so much marked in romantic poetry.
In another matter, the Pre-Raphaelite poets seem to follow their romantic predecessors. Like them, they, too, suffer from a hand with death. A tender note of melancholy characterizes their romantic aspiration and adds to their poetic appeal.