The Pre-Raphaelite Lie

First, you must be a woman in pain
saved by a knight, of course,
or comforted by a dowager
in tableau grief.

Or float like Ophelia,
mouth open, hands supplicant,
to a Browning heaven.
Pretty, but not long for this world,
spurned forever in love.

Waiting to die for art’s sake.
Corny. Confined. Forlorn.
Wronged women
in posed melancholy.

Under the tree
she looked into his eyes
(and so did his dog)
with a blind, utter devotion.

The man clearly knew it,
but looked off regardless,
his ideal exceeding his grasp:
damsel and decorative pining.
The Pre-Raphaelite lie.


Pre-Raphaelitism was a late nineteenth-century art movement which harkened back to an imagined mediaeval past for its views of love and romance. Quotes by Victorian poet Robert Browning alluded to–“God’s in His heaven–/All is right with the world!” “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?”. Some famous subjects included Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”.  Betrayed love and death are common themes; the more mixed together, the better! Often there are also animals in the paintings, looking similarly melancholy.

Sometimes romantic roles are more dishonest and more for performance effect than anything else. The pre-Raphalites believed there was a beauty and truth to death and many generations of art fans and lovers would probably agree. This in itself was nothing new given Romeo and Juliet and other doomed or tragic lovers. But the great lesson of looking at this art movement may be the simple point–that a role can be fake, a stereotype, or basically just a mask or style–something that lacks a heart or the sincerity and truth of reality and real experience.

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