Dante Gabriel Rossetti Critical Essays


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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...

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