Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Professor D.M.R. Bentley


This dissertation studies representations of the body in the first two published volumes of Pre-Raphaelite poetry, William Morris’s The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems (1858) and Algernon Charles Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, First Series (1866). These two volumes (along with Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1870 Poems) were disparaged as the work of the “Fleshly School of Poetry” by the critic Robert Buchanan in 1871, and this dissertation seeks to understand through close reading how the depiction of the body in the poetry of Morris and Swinburne so perturbed their contemporaries and why it continues to elude modern readers. Particularly, this study considers how representations of the body and its demands in these two works constitute a Pre-Raphaelite challenge to social, scientific, and aesthetic theories that involve sexuality, gender, and identity in relation to the body. The first chapter of the dissertation explains the development of an aesthetic of the flesh for the early Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which directly affects the way in which Morris and Swinburne would approach the problem of the body and perception in their poetry. This chapter also explains how Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s ideas on phenomenology inform the analysis of the Pre-Raphaelite body’s direct and active engagement with the world in poems of Morris and Swinburne. The second chapter focuses on Morris’s The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems and its depiction of the experiences of the body as they strike the perceiving subject, particularly in moments when the body comes under a sexual strain that complicates its standing with the soul. The third chapter focuses on Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, First Series as a wide-ranging experiment in eroticism, and considers the volume’s treatment of desire and sexuality in the performance of identity through gender and memory. The final chapter summarizes and synthesizes the readings of Morris’s and Swinburne’s “fleshly” poems to place them within a continuum of changing attitudes towards the body and identity in the nineteenth century.