The Fleshly School of Poetry was "the phrase that Robert Buchanan coined for Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his imitators in a scathing review in The Contemporary Review in 1871."[1]


Buchanan's essay ran in the October 1871 issue (in Volume 18) of the Review under the pseudonym of Thomas Maitland.[2]

Rossetti wrote an equally nasty rebuttal, titled "The Stealthy School of Criticism," in the December 1871 issue of The Atheneum.[3]

The following year Buchanan expanded his criticism into a 100-page pamphlet, called The Fleshly School of Poetry and other phenomena of the day, which was printed by Strahan & Co.[4] Swinburne replied with a pamphlet called Under the Microscope.[5]

The ControversyEdit

“Nuptial Sleep” is a sonnet written by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; it was the final addition to "The House of Life: A Sonnet-Sequence" in Rossetti’s Ballads and Sonnets (1881).[6] The sonnet employs natural and effortless imagery to depict the moment after two lovers consummate their marriage. D.G. Rossetti’s explicit topic matter and the eloquent calmness with which he addresses the topic of lovemaking underwent severe criticism by Buchanan. In “Nuptial Sleep” Rossetti manipulates imagery of ‘the everyday’ as well as employs metaphors that depict calmness, love, and sensuality.

The metaphor most evident in the poem is the one that compares water droplets, dripping from eaves after a storm, to that of the slowing pulses of the two lovers’ heartbeats after intercourse. The storm is equated with lovemaking and the droplets with heartbeats. This metaphor is exemplary of D.G. Rossetti as well as his contemporary Pre-Raphaelite brothers. Pre-Raphaelitism, beginning with painting/visual art and eventually encompassing the literary endeavors of the ‘brotherhood,’ was founded on one of the basis of pure, natural imagery. The Pre-Raphaelites were highly influenced by the natural world and the desire to break away from rigid rules/boundaries around what was accepted as ‘art’.[7]. The refusal to conform and abide by societal expectations, norms, and, more significantly, established moral ideals, by D.G. Rossetti and his brethren, manifested itself in their poetry in terms of sexual imagery and erotic content.

Pre-Raphaelite thought, as any forward thinking or norm breaking school of thought would be, was met with disapproval and challenge. "Nuptial Sleep," as well as other sonnets and ballads by Rossetti, met with opposition. Most famously his work was assaulted and challenged by Robert Buchanan in his publication: The Fleshly School of Poetry.

"The Fleshly School of Poetry" (1871), which was published in The Contemporary Review, was a written attack on specific poets , including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and Algernon Charles Swinburne.[8] Buchanan published this critique under the pen name Thomas Maitland; this became his most well known piece because of the response that it elicited from both Rossetti, in a letter that he wrote to the Athenaeum, “The Stealthy School of Criticism,” and from Swinburne in "Under the Microscope"[9]

The term ‘Fleshly,’ as used in the title of The Fleshly School of Poetry” and its derivatives, refers to “bodily appetites and indulgences; carnal, lascivious, [and/or] sensual;” thus the title’s use of the word “Fleshly” was directed at the explicit nature of topic matter as well as erotic imagery depicted in the poetry put forth by these poets[10] D.G. Rossetti, being the focus of "The Fleshly School of Poetry", is critiqued heavily for his openly sexual images, topic matters, and expression. Buchanan protested against the lewdness of these poets’ poetry, critiquing their openness in expressing sexuality. He was disturbed by the descriptions of women biting, scratching, screaming etc.[7] He insinuates that Rossetti’s poetry is so radically inappropriate that it taints and harms society. Rossetti use of images such as “…their mouths, burnt/ red,/ Fawned on each other where they lay apart” make it hard to negate the claims made by Buchanan; the language and imagery employed is erotic, sensual, and possibly, for some readers, inappropriate.[7] Buchanan critiques Rossetti’s audacity in coming “forward to chronicle his amorous sensations” he questions the intentions of Rossetti as “a full grown man, presumably intelligent and cultivated, putting on record for other full-grown men to read, the most secret mysteries of sexual connection”.[11] It can be assumed that many readers at the time would side with Buchanan although they may have been intrigued by the sexually explicit topics and language.

Buchanan singled out “Nuptial Sleep” as the most worth critique; possibly because it depicts what should be a personal, intimate, hidden and sacred moment between newly weds. Regardless of Buchanan’s motives in reprinting and fully challenging Rossetti in reference to this poem it made quite the impact on Rossetti. Rossetti responded to Buchanan’s attacks by writing his own article for the Athenaeum, titled “The Stealthy School of Criticism,” he responded to Buchanan “line by line, passage by passage, refuting the charge of eroticism”.[7] Rossetti chose to remove “Nuptial Sleep” from his sonnet cycle in his final version of The House of Life.[12] Whether this is because the subject matter of two lovers settling after an erotic moment was met with too much criticism we don’t know. We do however view “Nuptial Sleep” and it’s explicitly, inappropriate splendor as being a significant part of Rossetti’s sonnet cycle, regardless of his choice to remove it from the final published version.

See alsoEdit


  1. "The Fleshly School of Poetry ," Ian Lancashire, Glossary of Poetic Terms, Representative Poetry Online,, Web, July 19, 2011.
  2. Thomas Maitland, "The Fleshly School of Poetry: Mr. D.G. Rossetti ," Contemporary Review, Vol. 18 (August-November 1871), The Victorian Web, Web, July 19, 2011.
  3. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, [The Stealthy School of Criticism]," Atheneum December 1871,, Web, July 17, 2012.
  4. Robert Buchanan, The Fleshly School of Poetry and other phenomena of the day (London: Strahan & Co., 1872),, Web, July 17, 2012.
  5. Algernon Swinburne, Under the Microscope (London: D. White, 1872, ,, Web, July 17, 2012.
  6. Thomas J. Collins and Vivienne Rundle, eds., The Broadview Anthology of Victorian Poetry and Poetic Theory (Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Press, 1999): 828.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Richard Cronin, Alison Chapman, and Antony H. Harrison, eds., "Reviewing," in A Companion to Victorian Poetry. (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Pub., 2002): 385-387.
  8. Patrick Regan, "Robert Buchanan: Biographical Materials," The Victorian Web: An Overview. (accessed March 27, 2012).
  9. Isobel Armstrong, "Another Culture? Another Poetics?," in Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics (London: Routledge, 1993): 385-387.
  10. "fleshly, adj. and adv.". OED Online. March 2012. Oxford University Press.
  11. Thomas J. Collins, and Vivienne Rundle, eds., The Broadview Anthology of Victorian Poetry and Poetic Theory.
  12. Jerome McGann, “Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Betrayal of Truth,” Victorian Poetry. 26 4 (Winter 1988): 354

External linksEdit

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