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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4224

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poetry is conventionally divided into three periods. The first ends in 1850, with the publication of some of his best early poems in The Germ and the beginning of his relationship with Siddal. The second ends with her death in 1862; most of the poems from this...

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poetry is conventionally divided into three periods. The first ends in 1850, with the publication of some of his best early poems in The Germ and the beginning of his relationship with Siddal. The second ends with her death in 1862; most of the poems from this period, however, were written between 1850 and 1854. The third and last group of poems date from 1868, when Rossetti began writing again after several years of relative inactivity, until his death in 1882. Again, however, most of the poems from this period were written during its first five years.

While these three periods can be differentiated, the actual placement of individual poems is often problematic. Since Rossetti did not publish a book of original verse until 1870 and habitually revised his poetry over the years, a particular work might in fact belong to more than one period. “The Blessed Damozel,” for example, was written in 1847 and published first in The Germ in 1850; then in revised form in The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine (edited by William Morris) in 1856; next, with further revision, in the 1870 Poems; and finally, revised yet again, in the 1881 Poems.

This habit of lifetime reworking and revision, which extended to certain paintings as well, evidences two characteristics of Rossetti’s work—a meticulous craftsmanship that defines the poem as a labored artifact rather than the spontaneous expression of feeling, and an intense personal identification with his own writing, that explains both his reluctance to publish and his extreme vulnerability to criticism. These two characteristics are contradictory if one assumes that personal identification with a text is a function of its truth to prior experience. Rossetti’s case, however, argues that identification is not a function of mimesis, but of the act of writing. He identified with his poetry because he himself had written it. To acknowledge a poem “complete” was for him equivalent to acknowledging the end of one of his own life processes. To bury the manuscript of his poems with the body of Siddal was not simply to bury his own past or sacrifice its achievement; it was, in a real sense, to bury a part of himself alive with her.

This is not to say that personal experience is not the subject matter of Rossetti’s poetry—it often is—but that readers should expect to reach that experience only through the mediation of highly wrought style, the presence of which becomes, in his best poems, an index to the intensity of feeling it conceals. His concern with style makes Rossetti a difficult poet. It is difficult to naturalize his poetry—to reduce it to day-to-day familiarity. He offers no personality for the reader to admire—or hate. Indeed, this absence of self is a central concern of his creative effort. Rossetti’s poems do not merely hide the self behind the artifice of verse making; they explore a fundamental opposition between language and feeling—the teasing ability of language almost to control reality and the disillusionment that necessarily follows from recognizing its failure to do so; the apparent communication embedded in a work of art turns out to be a denial of communication.

In its awareness of the limits of communication, Rossetti’s poetry is contemporary. In its basic distrust of—and therefore fascination with—sexuality, it remains solidly Victorian. In its fondness for allegory and contrivance, it exemplifies the Pre-Raphaelite commitment to the Middle Ages. In its concern for the intense experience of the moment, it anticipates the poetics of the last years of the nineteenth century. Rossetti’s numerous sonnets on paintings—a genre particularly successful in distancing the reader from the poet—echo similar poems by the French Symbolists. His ballad narratives link him to William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; his concern for the self-sufficient consciousness, with Percy Bysshe Shelley. Rossetti can be said, therefore, to exemplify aspects of many periods but to be typical of none. He is typical only, perhaps, of himself, but it is a self carefully concealed behind, not expressed in, his writing. The study of Rossetti leads to an understanding not of his own personality or philosophy of life or of the age in which he lived, but of poetry itself—an understanding both of its strengths and of its liabilities. For this reason, his work remains a spur to the imagination.

“The Blessed Damozel”

“The Blessed Damozel,” the most familiar of Rossetti’s early poems, illustrates this pattern of imaginative effort and disillusionment. The “Damozel” leans out “From the gold bar of Heaven,” looking down through space for her earthly lover. Space, however, is vast. The moon itself is no more than “a little feather/ Fluttering far down the gulf.” Because she cannot see him, she speaks, imagining the reunion that will come “When round his head the aureole clings.” Then “Will I ask of Christ the Lord . . . Only to live as once on earth/ With Love.” Imagination proves an unsatisfactory substitute for real love; despite a Dantesque vision of angels in flight, she “laid her face between her hands./ And wept.”

The poem turns on the old notion that lovers separated by death can take comfort in the hope of meeting again in the world to come. Rossetti, however, reverses the perspective. It is the lover in heaven who longs for earth; it is the spiritual world that is tormented by desire for the physical—and remains, for all its beatitude, “warm.” Moreover, the consolation of hope is, it turns out, no consolation. It merely leads to an intense awareness of loss—not only on the part of the “Damozel” but for the speaker of the poem as well. For the “Damozel” is a fiction, and the parenthetical first-person interjections ground the poem in the fantasy of the earthly lover himself. He claims to “see” “her smile” and “hear” “her tears,” but the protestation emphasizes the wishfulness of his dream. If her imagined reunion leads her to “tears,” his imagined “Damozel” leads him to a heightened sense of separation from her. The “Damozel” is, as his attempt to visualize her suggests, unknowable. Her death is a barrier he cannot overcome by the language of the poem. The sensuousness of his conception—the “fleshliness” of which Rossetti was later accused—is not a radical characterization of the afterlife, but an implicit mark of the inadequacy of the earthly imagination.

“The Blessed Damozel” specifies the opposition between language and feeling as an opposition between poetry and eros. The poet’s vision attempts to overcome the separation of lovers. His text is an act of desire that confronts him with the fact of desire—hence, of an unfulfilled and perhaps unfulfillable need. The world of Rossetti’s poetry is thus one in which desire—generally sexual—defines itself by coming up against its own furthest limit—the verge of satisfaction. It asks the reader to experience the pain of near but never complete realization. It offers a nightmare world, in which all apparent realities are disclosed as expressions of the poet’s desire.

The theme of frustrated eros is directly related to the tension between his father’s bohemianism and his mother’s puritanical morality. It enabled Rossetti to express his erotic sensibility while at the same time punishing himself for its existence. The inadequacy of poetic language is thus a function of the guilt that, in his own life, blocked Rossetti’s personal happiness.

“The Bride’s Prelude”

“The Bride’s Prelude,” which was begun in 1848 and returned to later in the 1850’s but never completed, illustrates the link between eros, guilt, and the failure of language. The poem, even in its fragmentary form, is Rossetti’s longest narrative. It records the conversation between two sisters in an unspecified medieval setting: Aloÿse, the elder, whose wedding day it is, and Amelotte, the younger, who is helping her dress. Aloÿse is strangely silent; then, having knelt in prayer with her sister, she reveals the story of her past life. She had, years before, while her sister was being educated in a convent, fallen in love with a young man, a distant cousin who had yet to make a name for himself in the world, then staying with her powerful family. When her family lost a political struggle and was forced temporarily to flee its ancestral seat, the cousin had deserted them, leaving her with child. Discovering the situation, her father and brothers had reluctantly spared her life but, it would seem—the poem is deliberately vague—killed her illegitimate child. Now, circumstances have changed again; the family is back in power, the cousin has returned, and it is he—Urscelyn—whom she is about to marry. With this revelation, the poem ends. Rossetti wrote a prose summary of a missing conclusion, which his brother later published. Urscelyn, he explains, having become a skilled soldier of fortune and therefore of use to her family, wanting to ally himself with them once more, has offered to marry Aloÿse. Aloÿse, meanwhile, had fallen in love with and secretly betrothed herself to another man, whom Urscelyn, knowingly and treacherously, killed in a tournament. Thus, the enormity of marrying a man who had both betrayed her and murdered her lover is the message she wishes to convey to her sister. In conclusion, Rossetti states that “as the bridal procession appears, perhaps it might become apparent that the brothers mean to kill Urscelyn when he has married her.”

The “perhaps” tells all. “The Bride’s Prelude” is incomplete because Rossetti was unable to imagine an appropriate ending, and his prose summary is merely an evasion. The poem is also Aloÿse’s story, and she, too, cannot bring her narrative to completion. Significantly, the text as it stands makes no mention of the second lover. Urscelyn’s flight labels him a betrayer—but Aloÿse suggests that his motives were political and does not indicate that he knew she was pregnant. In other words, without Rossetti’s prose summary, what seems to block Aloÿse’s happiness is less the character of Urscelyn than her own sense of guilt. The conclusion that Rossetti claims he intended but could not bring himself to write would have radically altered the moral perspective of the poem. With it, Urscelyn is a clear-cut villain; Aloÿse, despite her youthful indiscretion, is a victim. Without the conclusion, “The Bride’s Prelude” is a poem about Aloÿse’s own reluctance to accept a happy ending to her years of suffering—to marry the man she had loved and from whom she has been separated by war and family pride. By telling her story to her sister, she confesses and thus overcomes the guilt that is the only obstacle to her happiness. Indeed, when in the closing line of the poem Aloÿse admits that her prayer has been to be able to “Show her what I hide,” it appears that confession of the past, not complaint about the present, has been her leading motive. This purgation, however, is precisely what Rossetti does not grant her. She tells her story, but the poem breaks off before the consequences of the telling can be felt.

The ballad form of “The Bride’s Prelude” is typical of Rossetti’s narrative poetry. He was particularly fond of stanzaic patterns that include a slightly varying refrain. The mode was both satisfyingly medieval (and therefore Pre-Raphaelite) and conveniently disjunctive. Breaking narrative into a series of discrete, artificially defined units obviated the need for a coherent narrative personality. In poems such as “Sister Helen” and “Eden Bower,” the repetition of the verse form replaces development of the speaker’s point of view as a unifying device. Even in “The Burden of Ninevah,” an uncharacteristically ironic “modern” poem of social comment, patterns of repetition qualify the immediacy of the first-person speaker.

“A Last Confession”

In Rossetti’s two “modern” narratives, “A Last Confession” and “Jenny,” he uses the more typically Victorian mode of dramatic monologue to achieve comparable distancing. Both are poems about erotic failure; in both, erotic failure is related to the failure of language to communicate.

“A Last Confession,” which is given the setting “Regno Lombardo-Veneto, 1848,” is unique in its treatment of the political issue—the Austrian occupation of Italy—with which Rossetti’s father was identified. Its confessional mode is comparable to that of “The Bride’s Prelude”; what it confesses, however, is not illicit passion but murder by a rejected lover. The speaker had adopted a little girl deserted by her parents, who, under the rigors of the Austrian regime, no longer had the bread with which to feed her. In time this foster fatherly love becomes sexual, but whether she responds in kind is uncertain. At length, they are separated and she appears to have taken up flirting with Austrians. On the way to meet with her for the last time, the speaker buys her the parting gift of a knife, such as “Our Lombard country-girls . . . Wear” to defend themselves against each other and the possibility of “a German lover.” When she laughs at the gesture—another example of failed communication—he is enraged and plunges the knife into her heart. It is not certain that she is the “harlot” he believes she has become; the act of confession is a strategy aimed at exonerating the speaker, but since only his unreliable point of view is provided, his words can never fully realize their intention. The priest who listens to him is allowed no response. The reader is left with an uneasy feeling that the speaker’s words, instead of unburdening his conscience, merely reiterate the crime.

“Jenny”

The speaker of “Jenny” is a man who has gone home with a prostitute, who, instead of making love, falls asleep on his knee while he meditates on the meaning of her condition and consequently his own. Among the ironies of the poem is the fact that his audience is sleeping. His words, whatever their merit, go unheard. Moreover, Jenny, who might well have added a significant point of view to the discussion, is necessarily mute, so the speaker remains trapped in his own consciousness.

What the speaker thinks he has learned is easily summarized. He begins with an ironic assessment of “Lazy laughing languid Jenny,/ Fond of a kiss and fond of a guinea,” and moves on to a more sympathetic recognition of the plight of a prostitute. She is, after all, not essentially different from other women; like them, she is a victim “of man’s changeless sum/ Of lust”: “Like a toad within a stone/ Seated while Time crumbles on;/ Which sits there since the earth was curs’d/ For Man’s transgression at the first.” Finally, he sees that even her love of money is merely a reflection of the economic forces at work throughout English society. Then, leaving a few gold coins in her hair, he kisses her sleeping form and departs in the morning light.

However, even in acknowledging that his own irony is a sign of being “Ashamed of my own shame,” the speaker fails to achieve enlightenment. He remains ignorant of his own role in the situation and never gives credit to Jenny for being more than an attractive automaton. He does not blame himself for creating prostitution (although this is not his first such visit); he blames an abstract male “lust,” and thus alienates himself from his own desire. The subject of the poem may be somewhat daring, but its inability to come to terms with female sexuality not only betrays Rossetti’s participation in a Victorian stereotype, but also, and more significantly, betrays his tendency to treat women as counters in a process of masculine self-discovery. To acknowledge the full humanity of Jenny would legitimatize sexual relations with her: She would no longer be a victim, but a willing partner. She remains asleep, and the speaker’s meditation has no practical consequences. The language of the poem, instead of effecting, across social and economic barriers, a relationship with Jenny, further insulates the speaker from significant behavior. He will return to his book-lined room—the books are emphasized in the poem—confident in decent feeling, incapable of decent action.

“The Stream’s Secret”

Rossetti’s love poetry, in which the speaker is closely identified with or indistinguishable from the poet himself, contains his most painful accounts of the inadequacy of language. “The Stream’s Secret,” written in 1869, has been called at once his most revealing and his most concealing poem. Certainly it is a quintessential statement of the dilemma at the heart of his poetry. The speaker, who addresses the stream, exemplifies noncommunication. The stream’s “secret” is, finally, that it can neither hear nor speak; that to confide in nature is to confide in a vacuum, not only denying oneself the possibility of a response, but also deluding oneself in the false hope that language is a medium of communication.

“The Stream’s Secret” is also one of the most deliberately artful of Rossetti’s poems, and its complex play with figures of speech makes it one of his most difficult. Rhetorical trope circles back on rhetorical trope, as in this typical stanza:

    Dark as thy blinded wave  When brimming midnight floods the glen,—Bright as the laughter of thy runnels when  The dawn yields all the light they crave;Even so these hours to wound and that to save   Are sisters in Love’s ken.

Midnight, compared metaphorically to the stream, is itself a means of characterizing the stream; with dawn, it provides a figurative characterization of the personified hours that are “sisters” to allegorized “Love.” The reader is encompassed in a world defined by poetic devices. The speaker, in addressing the unanswering flow of water, attempts to anchor this continuum of language in concrete reality, but reality continues to elude him. The poet, who begins by asking when he and his love will be reunited and moves into an imaginary depiction of their reunion, is led, in the poem’s final stanzas, to the recognition that Love, whom he first saw as a figure of passionate life, is synonymous with death, and that hope itself, as in “The Blessed Damozel,” is a source of tears.

The House of Life

The lesson of “The Stream’s Secret” is borne out in Rossetti’s major work, the collection of sonnets he called The House of Life. Originally published as a group of sixteen sonnets in 1869, extended into a group of fifty “Sonnets and Songs, toward a work to be called ’The House of Life’” in Poems; and finally published as a collection of 102 sonnets titled “The House of Life: A Sonnet-Sequence” in Ballads and Sonnets, the precise status of the work remains a problem. As ordered, the collection follows a general pattern of youth to age, love to loss, hope to disillusionment. Whether this ordering represents an organic sequence or is merely an adequate solution to the problem of arranging a large group of related but independent poems written over many years remains the object of critical debate.

The very existence of this critical debate argues that, if there is an organic sequence, it is not self-evident. Moreover, if there is no easy way to put the poems together, that difficulty may be an essential feature of Rossetti’s conception. The untitled 1880 sonnet that introduces the collection suggests that the sonnets were written with deliberate reference to the limitations of their medium. “A Sonnet,” Rossetti proclaims, “is a moment’s monument,— Memorial . . . To one dead deathless hour.” Such a poem is not a gesture of communication, but one of memorialization or arbitrary symbolism. Its message, explicit in the poem’s leading similes, is akin to the carving on a tomb or the engraving on a coin. Verbal meaning is thus subservient to a role for which verbal meaning may in fact be irrelevant. The workmanship of the artifact increases its value, but one may appreciate the form of an inscription without in fact “reading” its message.

The introductory sonnet does not suggest that readers should look only at the form and not consider the expressive content of the sonnets that follow. Rather, it defines the limited role of the poet’s art in the reader’s experience of his poetry. Like the figures on John Keats’s Grecian urn, the sonnets of The House of Life come into passionate being only insofar as the reader invests them with sympathy or understanding. The passion a reader can expect to experience in responding to the work of art will not be that of the poet/artificer who has provided its material cause, but his or her own. For, like a monument “in ivory or in ebony,” the sonnet is not a recapturing of the past but an acknowledgment of its loss, not the living voice of its maker but an obstacle between its maker and the reader of the poem; the poem is like a coin, not of real value, but the sign of goods and services in a potential act of human exchange.

The notion of “a moment’s monument” also offers a rationale for the atomistic structure of the collection. Limited to the depiction of discrete events, the poet’s format cannot link individual experiences into a total rendering of human life. The whole is inevitably less than the sum of its parts; the work in its entirety cannot overcome the poet’s fragmented experience of love and love’s loss. (In this respect, the form of The House of Life is comparable to the “Short swallow-flights” of Tennyson’s In Memoriam, which deny the possibility of an integrated response to death, even when the ordering of the poem seems to provide one.)

“Silent Noon” (sonnet 19) exemplifies the notion of “a moment’s monument” and thus typifies the collection. Two lovers pause in a summer landscape, the painterly details of which compose “visible silence, still as the hourglass.” Recognizing the special nature of such moments, the poem ends by disrupting the landscape with the imperative cry, “Clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower,/ This close-companioned inarticulate hour/ When twofold silence was the song of Love.” The ultimate experience of love is silence—the postcoital oblivion of “Nuptial Sleep” (the sonnet singled out for its “fleshliness” by Buchanan and so deleted from the 1881 version of the collection). Language itself is therefore necessarily at odds with such states of being. The poet’s description of landscape replaces the description of feeling denied here by the nature of feeling. The closing lines of the poem, in which he addresses his feelings, acknowledge their loss. Articulated self-consciousness implies that the “Inarticulate hour” has passed. Time, like the sand in the hourglass, only passes; it does not develop. Thus, the development of the poem—the formal demand of the sestet—disrupts the special experience of the time it seeks to “clasp.”

To memorialize love as verse is thus to admit the loss of love—not only because there is no need to memorialize the living present, but also because language itself is a sign of loss. The laurel, as Rossetti admits, in a trope borrowed from Petrarch, is “Love’s Last Gift” (sonnet 59), not the sign of continuing favor. If poetic language celebrates not the absent loved one but the poet’s isolated self, why then write poetry? This question, which Rossetti poses implicitly in “The Stream’s Secret,” is central to The House of Life.

The four sonnets grouped under the heading “Willowwood” (49-52) suggest an answer when they identify erotic desire as a longing for submergence in self. The poet who leans over a well to kiss the image of Love which has become the image of his lover is a version of Narcissus, unable to resist the reflection of his own image. Fittingly, the imagery of the four sonnets is derived from the Wood of the Suicides (canto 13) in Dante’s Inferno (in La divina commedia, c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). To dwell in the “Willowwood” of unfulfillable desire is to deny wholeness of self and cultivate in its place a self-destructive illusion of personal emptiness. Art, which once confronted humans with spiritual truths, has turned, as Rossetti argues in “St. Luke the Painter” (sonnet 74), “To soulless self-reflections of man’s skill.”

Thus, the earlier sonnets of sexual fulfillment and momentary happiness give way to poems of loss. Through memory, the poet attempts to idealize and thus recapture lost passion, but memory, as the introductory sonnet suggests, is itself a confirmation of hopelessness. At the same time, even this overreaching logic is impotent in the face of individual experiences. Moreover, the love poems of The House of Life, written with at least three very different women in mind, reflect a range of diverse experiences. No summary of the collection is adequate even as a summary.

Like Rossetti’s poetic achievement as a whole, The House of Life is elusive and, largely for that reason, difficult. It offers a solipsistic world defined totally by the self, a world in which no external reality functions as a measure of the speaker’s perceptions. For this very reason, however, it blocks the consciousness of the poet from the reader. The dreamer turns out to be the most elusive element in the dream.

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Rossetti, Dante Gabriel (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)