Ronnalie Roper Howard (essay date 1967)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3937
SOURCE: "Rossetti's A Last Confession: A Dramatic Monologue," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. V, No. 1, Spring, 1967, pp. 21-9.
[In the following essay, Howard evaluates "A Last Confession " as a skillfully-crafted dramatic monologue.]
Critics have often suggested that Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poetic failures are connected with (or dependent on) his metaphysical problems, that there is no intellectual or emotional conviction behind his religious and supernatural symbols, which are then mere ornamentation, or behind his expressions of mystic union, which are then mere wishful thinking. Most recently and persuasively Harold L. Weatherby has analyzed Rossetti's failure as an inability to establish the proper relationship between form and content, as the poetic use of a spiritual and supernatural reality in which he did not believe.1 Weatherby finds Rossetti intellectually conditioned by the scientific scepticism of his age but emotionally compelled to follow out his strong predilections for both the supernatural and the flesh.
In at least one poem, however, Rossetti resolves his intellectual-emotional dichotomy, and is enabled to do so precisely because he chooses an objective, critical form which allows him his supernatural trappings without his having to be committed to them. "A Last Confession" is usually felt to be uncharacteristic of Rossetti, a pallid imitation of the Browningesque character study. But the main reason it has not been treated with more respect, I think, is that it has not been given the kind of painstaking attention paid to (and required by) a Browning monologue. A careful examination of the poem proves that Rossetti understood not only the external features of the dramatic monologue but also its essential nature, that he used it without giving up his characteristic sensuous detail or his predilection for the religious and supernatural, that in fact he made his personal predilections functional within the whole, objectifying and thus transcending them. Although Rossetti's failures have long been of greater critical interest than his successes, an estimate of his poetry must finally include both. If there are many poems in which his mysticism fails to convince, in which his religious symbolism seems to belie a basic scepticism, there are others in which he sees his materials steadily and sees them whole. The prevalent critical misunderstanding of "A Last Confession" is perhaps indicative of a general tendency to ignore in Rossetti's poetry most of what is detached and ironic.
The dramatic monologue, as described by Robert Langbaum, is identifiable by more than its external characteristics—a speaker other than the poet, a listener, a specific occasion, and an interplay between the speaker and the listener. More importantly the form involves a tension on the part of the reader between sympathy and moral judgment, disequilibrium between what the speaker reveals and what we understand, a strategic significance of the monologue in the present tense of the poem's occasion. That is, the speaker is a pole for the reader's sympathy precisely because he is the poem (there is no vision of the facts except his; there are no facts presented outside of his vision) and because, as Langbaum says, he is "so much particularized, because his characterization through contradictory qualities renders inapplicable the publicly recognized categories of character … since it is between the categories that we find the counterpart of our own life."2 Nevertheless, his contradictory qualities—villain and aesthete, criminal because he loves, etc.—also give rise to our moral judgment, a judgment conditioned by the discrepancy between what the speaker reveals and our perception of the limitations and distortions of his vision, and by our awareness of his strategy, his concern with the particular effect of his speech at the moment rather than with its truth. It is because it has these intrinsic qualities that "A Last Confession" is a true dramatic monologue.
The poem, Rossetti's longest work in blank verse, is a deathbed confession to a Catholic priest by an Italian wounded in the Italian resistance to Austria, 1848. The narrator tells of his adopting a little girl abandoned by her parents during the Austrian occupation, of his raising her and falling passionately in love with her when she was fourteen, of her gradually changing, growing away from him, and of his killing her at Iglio when she spurned his love. The framework of the poem is one of war and violence (both his original meeting with the girl and his approaching death are a result of the Austrian invasion), and the interrupted narrative flow reflects the disruption of Italian life during the occupation and the narrator's sense of guilt, his fear, his fever and hallucinations. Externally the narrative, loosely chronological but filled with apparently irrelevant flashbacks and digressions, is held together by the time sequence, climaxed by the account of the murder, and by leitmotifs signifying his sense of guilt—the knife, the sands of Iglio, the woman's scornful laugh. Internally the movement of the poem is determined by the narrator's strategy, his desire in the face of death to lessen the magnitude of his crime, to secure relief from the torments of his conscience, to obtain pardon, or at least sympathy, from the priest.
The dramatic monologue typically involves enough suspension of the reader's judgment that he can read himself temporarily into the narrator's point of view. Certainly the narrator of "A Last Confession" gains our sympathy, not only because he is a dying man with the torments of hell (as he believes) ahead of him, but also because the intensity of his nature draws us in. Even on his deathbed he can curse the enemy (ll. 184-185, 407-411) and be proud of having spent his adult life defending Italy, the "weeping desolate mother" (l. 254). His devotion to the girl, as it emerges in the poem, has been equal to his commitment to his country, and, paradoxically, he has murdered her out of love. The passionateness of his nature is oddly juxtaposed with the poetic, even ethereal, propensity of his imagination, as evidenced by his giving the little girl a glass figurine of Cupid and by his bright dream of heaven and a pleasant doomsday. He is thus particularized by intensity and contradictoriness. And, of course, there is no vision except his by which to test the sincerity of his confession, no other side of the story from the point of view of the dead girl, no judgment on the part of the priest to prompt us to judgment. Critics have long been sympathetically involved enough to arrest their judgments so completely as to lose the peculiar effect of the dramatic monologue, the tension between sympathy and judgment.
The monologue itself, however, prompts us to judgment from within. With no word from the priest we feel his presence: he is part of the immediate occasion for the monologue, the source of the irony of situation encompassing the poem, the reason for the particular strategy the narrator adopts. For the monologue is the confession of a murder of passion to a celibate, and the strategy involves gaining sympathy for a physical love resulting in murder from a man sworn to chastity in a spiritual cause. This is not to say that the narrator is himself fully aware of his strategy, his distortions, or even his original motivations. Rather, it seems as though the monologue is an attempt to justify the murder as much to himself as to the priest before he can finally confess it. The first verse paragraph introduces one leitmotif (the knife), the narrator's sense of guilt, and the first key to the tenor of the whole poem. About the ominous gift he explains matter-of-factly that Lombard girls carry daggers, "for they know / That they might hate another girl to death / Or meet a German lover" (ll. 2-4). But since he knew when he bought the knife that it might be a "parting gift" (l. 25), the instrument represents a desire, perhaps subconscious, to kill her. And the motive of jealousy (which becomes clearer later in the poem) is hinted in his suggestion that a Lombard girl might "meet a German lover." Thus part of his strategy involves from the beginning the concealment (or, at the very best, ignorance) of the true nature of his motivation.
Paragraph two represents a second facet of his strategy, the attempt to draw the priest sympathetically into his narrative—"O Father, if you knew all this / You cannot know, then you would know too, Father, / And only then, if God can pardon me" (ll. 17-19)—while at the same time he is aware that there is little common to both their experiences which would provide a basis for understanding. Too, there is the slightest implication in this first direct address to the priest that to know, to understand, would be to forgive.
His strategy in the next three paragraphs picks up the hint from the second of the great change in the girl (ll. 10-13) and directs attention, not to the murder, but to her attitude at Iglio, her proud posture—"Her neck unbent not, neither did her eyes / Move, nor her foot left beating of the sand"—and her scorn—"Only she put it by from her and laughed" (ll. 43-45). The laugh has become symbolic to him of the scene of parting, of her change toward him, of her scorn, and, as he finally tells it, of her degradation. It haunts him throughout the poem and is one means by which he seeks to justify the murder: "Father, you hear my speech and not her laugh; / But God heard that. Will God remember all?" (ll. 46-47)—implying that the provocation would serve to justify the crime, in part at least, to God.
The narrator stresses his point about the change in the girl by switching from his memory of her scornful laugh to his memory of her childish one and the story of how he first adopted her. There is no reason to doubt that his taking her in was motivated by the highest humanitarian sympathy, but his insistence here on his courage, patriotism, and piety seems strained, designed to put himself in the best possible light and to demonstrate to the priest his spirituality: "With that, God took my mother's voice and spoke … / And so I took her with me" (ll. 91, 94). Keeping her, he says, "doubled my own danger: but I knew / That God would help me" (ll. 99-102).
Though he excuses himself for the apparent irrelevancy of some parts of his narrative (ll. 103-105), he goes on with another digression about his last night's dream, a lovely wish-fulfillment dream in which the laughter that haunts him is transformed into the happy laughter of heavenly maidens. There are, however, no real irrelevancies in his narrative, which compulsively follows out its own logic, directed on the one hand by his strategy and on the other by his irrepressible fear and sense of guilt. The description of the dream ends with the first mention of his hallucinations (both dream and hallucination are expressions of his fear of hell fire), and by implication the contrast of the blessed maidens and the girl casts the girl with the demonic (part of his strategy).
The incidents from his past life with the girl which he now relates are those most significant to him and those which would best serve to justify him. From them we learn incidentally the overpowering strength of his physical passion for her and the motive for his crime. The story of the "earliest gift" he gave her, a glass image of Love (ironically the last is an instrument of death), is intended to show the priest the depth of their early mutual attachment. It suggests much more. How much his memory and his subconscious desire have distorted the actual incident we have no way of knowing, but as he tells it the story has strong overtones of sexual initiation and emphasizes the sensuality of his love. He makes it explicit that the image represented Cupid (Eros) and recalls how he told her about Cupid's ruling the loves of human beings, initiated her, in other words, into the knowledge of the strength of passion in human life. His words to her on discovering that Love's dart had pierced her hand—"'That I should be the first to make you bleed, / Who love and love and love you!'" (ll. 174-175)—suggest sexual initiation even more explicitly. And his recollection of her response is of a love speech: she sobs "'not for the pain at all, / … but for the Love, the poor good Love / You gave me'" (ll. 177-179). The significance for him of her words is underscored when he repeats them later (ll. 487-489) with "Love" in lower case.
As the narrative progresses and the dying man describes the growth of his love for the girl, the not yet extinguished sensuality of his nature becomes more and more apparent, and his passion for his country becomes intertwined with his passion for the girl. Thus paragraph fourteen (ll. 180-200) contains both his cursing of Metternich and his account of how the girl first aroused him physically: "She was still / A child; and yet that kiss was on my lips / So hot all day where the smoke shut us in" (ll. 198-200). But although in this and the next paragraph he seems to be talking to himself more than to the priest, dwelling on his memory of her womanly attractiveness, he is at least fitfully aware of his listener, enough to return to his strategy and to play down the underlying sensuality of his love, and subtly equate it with the spirit:
For now, being always with her, the first love
I had—the father's, brother's love—was changed,
I think, in somewise; like a holy thought
Which is a prayer before one knows of it.
His preface rings strangely false in juxtaposition with the following description of her "breasts half globed / Like folded lilies deepset in the stream" (ll. 225-226), her mouth "Made to bring death to life,—the under-lip / Sucked in, as if it strove to kiss itself" (ll. 230-231), and her "great eyes, / That sometimes turned half dizzily beneath / The passionate lids" (ll. 244-246). When the strategy begins to break down, as here, we begin to perceive the truth. Even as the narrator describes his love for his country (ll. 253-264) his remarks suggest sublimated sexual energy, for he speaks of his fight for Italy as "a love to clasp, … / All things together that a man / Needs for his blood to ripen" (ll. 261-263).
Thus, because he does indeed have a strategy, because he is perhaps himself confused about his motives and his nature, the reliability of the narrator is called into doubt. Significantly, the girl's actions as he relates them are sufficiently ambiguous to allow more than one interpretation. We have, of course, only his to go on. When he describes how once he almost chided her for leaping about and laughing, her song in answer is ambiguous in its intent; both it and her actions, as he relates them (ll. 337-341), suggest flirtatiousness. Yet her ostensible point is stated clearly in her question to him: "'Weeping or laughing, which was best?'" At any rate, we see in the narrator's complete memory of the song and in his tears (ll. 272-278) that he has interpreted it as a love song.
In the next incident we again have only his interpretation of her ambiguous action. She is now a woman, as he emphasized more than once, and he feels "some impenetrable restlessness / Growing in her to make her changed and cold" (ll. 370-371). When in the Duomo she prays before "Some new Madonna gaily decked, / Tinselled and gewgawed, a slight German toy" (ll. 385-386) rather than the one "wrought / In marble by some great Italian hand" (ll. 354-355), he is shaken, and "sharply" questions her of "her transferred devotion" (ll. 388-389). His interpretation is at odds with the fact that in Roman Catholicism one's devotion is not to the statue but to Mary, of whom the image serves as the visual reminder, but it is characteristic of him that his vision of the incident involves a confusion of patriotism, religion, and love. What he fears, what he sees symbolically in her praying before the "slight German toy" (echo of the "German lover") is the transference of her affection for him to someone else. He makes the fear of loss explicit when he describes their going out again into the square:
… and the face
Which long had made a day in my life's night
Was night in day to me; as all men's eyes
Turned on her beauty, and she seemed to tread
Beyond my heart to the world made for her.
At this point, with renewed fear of damnation and perhaps a sense of confessing too much, of drawing too dangerously close to the real motive for the murder, he bursts out that if the priest mistakes his words and so absolves him, the blessing will burn his soul. He repeats:
If you mistake my words
And so absolve me, Father, the great sin
Is yours, not mine: mark this: your soul shall burn
With mine for it.
Though he asks not to be absolved, the strategy is apparent. He has of course tacitly asked for absolution throughout his confession; he wants the priest to take over part of the responsibility for his soul. At the least he desires understanding, a human forgiveness:
How shall I make you know? You have not known
The dreadful soul of woman, who one day
Forgets the old and takes the new to heart.
To be understood and forgiven he becomes almost Machiavellian; to make the priest know the "dreadful soul of woman" he impassionedly and at length equates his loss with an imaginary situation in which the priest loses heaven after one year in it (ll. 460-474):
Even so I stood the day her empty heart
Left her place empty in our home, while yet
I knew not where she went nor why she went
Nor how to reach her: so I stood the day
When to my prayers at last one sight of her
Was granted, and I looked on heaven made pale
With scorn, and heard heaven mock me in that laugh.
—spiritual metaphor to describe earthly (even earthy) loss. His passion for her (even now that she has been some time dead)—more sensual, more powerful, more jealous than he admits—at last betrays him into blasphemy as he momentarily forgets both strategy and confession in addressing her: "Ah! be it even in flame, / We may have sweetness yet" (ll. 485-486). His confusion is apparent when he asks her to say, "As once in childish sorrow" (l. 487), what amounts to a declaration of love. What he seems to want is the child's devotion to a father—but from an adult, fully ripened woman. There is no evidence in his narrative (in fact it is noticeably absent) that she ever considered him as a lover or as anything but a father, which is perhaps why he, having nothing else, so emphasizes her child's love for him.
Nor are the ambiguities surrounding the girl resolved by the murder scene. In the village as he hides from the spies he hears the harlot's laugh, and three hours later the girl's laugh reminds him of it:
She had not left me long;
But all she might have changed to, or might change to,
(I know nought since—she never speaks a word—)
Seemed in that laugh.
To take this motive for the killing at face value—as critics have long done3—is to judge the speaker as he wishes to be judged, to ignore his strategy, to lose, in other words, the effect of tension between sympathy and judgment. In actuality we must judge him precisely because the motive as he gives it is false. The facts do not force us to conclude that the girl is either depraved or in danger of depravity; we have only his judgment to go on, and the soundness of that judgment is questionable. Because of the ambiguity of her actions, her guilt or innocence remains problematic. His very language as he confesses the motive—what she might have changed to, or might change to, seemed in her laugh—suggests his own uncertainty about her guilt, his unwillingness to commit himself unequivocally to a judgment distorted by his intense passion for her, his fear that she may take a lover, his frenzy at being rejected. It is not to save her soul that he kills her; it is to prevent her from taking "a German lover," from going "Beyond [his] heart to the world made for her." It is the strategy which demands that he spiritualize his motive.
Besides being incapable, finally, of confessing frankly to a crime of passion, he describes the murder as though it were an act devoid of volition, talking of fire and blood and of knowing that he had stabbed her when he found her "laid against [his] feet" (l. 538). At the very last, however, the strategy again breaks down, and the poem ends in hallucination and fear, a plea for the priest to tell him what hope there is, and the premonition—"but I shall hear her laugh / Soon, when she shows the crimson steel to God" (ll. 558-559). The final irony is that for all of the fearful and desperate manipulation of fact and emotion in his confession, the magnitude of his crime stands bare in the sight of God. And he knows it.
The poem is not only a skillful and subtle dramatic monologue; it is also characteristic of Rossetti in its details: Rossetti's penchant for the abstraction upper case "Love" becomes a means of objectively exploring the relationship between the narrator and the girl; his characteristic sensuous detail becomes in context an indication of the narrator's intense physicality; his predilection for the religious, transformed into the narrator's beliefs, provides the occasion for the poem, the reason and direction for the monologue's present tense strategy, the rationalization for the murder; his fascination with the supernatural and the demonic creates the hallucinatory apparition of the girl, symbol of guilt and fear. The success of the poem is perhaps a result of the fact that because of the dramatic monologue form, the poet is committed to none of these materials, but stays outside of his poem directing our judgment by demonstrating the distortions of the narrator's vision through the workings of his strategy. A form based on disequilibrium seems peculiarly appropriate for a poet of whom it has so often been protested that he does not believe in the symbols and trappings of his poems. It is a way out of the problem of belief and value while still allowing him the materials which appeal to his aesthetic sense, a legitimate artistic means of feeling one way and thinking another.
1 "Problems of Form and Content in the Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti," VP, II (Winter, 1964), 11-19.
2The Poetry of Experience (New York, 1957), p. 204.
3 For example, Lafcadio Hearn in Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets, ed. John Erskine (New York, 1922), p. 75, says that the narrator "has reason to suspect unchastity" of his beloved and kills her on the instant; Arthur C. Benson, Rossetti (London, 1916), p. 123, asserts that he kills her half in mad passion and half to save her from degradation; and—further off than all—Garnet Smith writes in "Dante Gabriel Rossetti," Contemporary Review, CXXXIII (1928), 629: "That he might save her soul, the penitent has slain his love."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 941
Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828–1882
(Born Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti) English poet, translator, and short story writer.
The following entry contains late twentieth-century criticism of Rossetti's works. For a chronological survey of earlier criticism, see NCLC, Volume 4.
Equally renowned as a painter and poet, Rossetti was the leader of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of artists and writers who sought to emulate the purity and simplicity of the Italian Proto-Renaissance school of art. A successful painter, Rossetti filled his canvases with richly colored expressions of human beauty, frequently characterized by elements of the supernatural. His poetry likewise features rich and sensuous imagery, vivid detail, and an aura of mysticism. Although the subjects of his verse are typically considered narrow, Rossetti is acknowledged as a master of the ballad and sonnet forms. "The Blessed Damozel," "Sister Helen," and the sonnet sequence "The House of Life" are often noted among his finest poetic achievements.
An exiled Italian patriot, Rossetti's father came to England four years before Rossetti's birth in 1828. Rossetti received his early education at home and was particularly influenced by Thomas Percy's Reliques, the works of Sir Walter Scott, and the medieval romances. Rossetti later attended King's College School and studied art at the Royal Academy. Displeased with the conventional methods of painting taught at the Academy, Rossetti left in 1848 to study with the English painter Ford Madox Brown. After a short time, however, he joined painters John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt in founding the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Rossetti quickly became the leader of the group and later inspired English poet and artist William Morris, painter Edward Burne-Jones, and poet Algernon Charles Swinburne to become members. In 1850, Rossetti published his first poem, "The Blessed Damozel" in the Pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ; other early verses also appeared in The Germ, as did his only complete short story, "Hand and Soul."
In 1860, after a nine-year engagement, Rossetti married Elizabeth Siddal, the subject of many of his
paintings and sketches. By the time of their wedding, however, she was obviously consumptive, and after two unhappy years of marriage, she died from an overdose of laudunum, a form of opium, which she had been taking regularly for her illness. In a fit of remorse and guilt, Rossetti buried the only manuscript of his poems with his wife. At the urging of friends, he finally allowed the manuscript to be exhumed in 1869. The following year, Rossetti published a collection entitled Poems. This volume, which contains much of his finest work, established Rossetti's reputation as a leading poet. Despite eliciting considerable praise from various sources, including his admiring associates Morris and Swinburne, the publication of Poems prompted the venomous attack of Robert Buchanan in his 1871 essay "The Fleshly School of Poetry." Devastated by Buchanan's criticism, Rossetti became convinced that he was the object of an undeserved and insidious campaign. Although he continued his work as a translator and poet, Rossetti's subsequent dependence on whiskey and the sedative drug chloral to alleviate his anxiety and insomnia precipitated a gradual decline in health that ended with his death in 1882 at the age of fifty-four.
Rossetti's early romantic ballad "The Blessed Damozel" is characteristic of much of his later poetry, with its sensuous detail and theme of lovers parted by death who long for reunion. The 1870 volume Poems includes the verses "Eden Bower," "The Stream's Secret," and "Sister Helen," the last of which is regarded as one of the finest nineteenth-century literary ballads. This work also contains versions of "Jenny," which centers on a young and thoughtless prostitute, and "The Burden of Ninevah," an acutely pessimistic poem aimed at the enduring faults of civilization. The influence of Rossetti's painting is felt throughout Poems. Just as his literary background prompted his choice of mythological, allegorical, and literary subjects for his paintings, his love of detail, color, and mysticism shaped much of his poetry. Rossetti's second collection, entitled Ballads and Sonnets (1881), contains the completed version of "The House of Life," a sonnet sequence primarily devoted to themes of love, which many critics praise as evidence of Rossetti's mastery of the sonnet form. Ballads and Sonnets also includes the passionate, melancholy poems of Rossetti's last years and the historical ballad "The King's Tragedy," a blend of romantic and literary themes reminiscent of his earlier "Dante at Verona." Among Rossetti's few prose works, "Hand and Soul" is an allegorical tale set in thirteenth-century Italy. In it, Rossetti describes the appearance of a mysterious woman who asks Chiaro deil'Erma to paint her beautiful form, which she suggests will reflect the painter's own soul.
Most of the positive criticism of Rossetti's poetry during his own lifetime was subsequently overshadowed by Robert Buchanan's essay "The Fleshly School of Poetry," in which he claimed that Rossetti's only artistic aim was "to extol fleshliness as the distinct and supreme end of poetic and pictorial art; to aver that poetic expression is greater than poetic thought, and by inference that the body is greater than the soul, and sound superior to sense." After his death, Rossetti's works suffered from critical neglect: Until relatively recently, few critical studies of his poetry were published. However, with the renewed interest in Pre-Raphaelitism, numerous new assessments have appeared. By the latter half of the twentieth century, critics had begun to focus on the cultural and ideological components of Rossetti's verse, particularly on the implications of the erotic, sensuous, and feminine elements in his writing. Modern critics have also recognized Rossetti as a distinguished artist and verbal craftsman whose work greatly influenced such notable contemporaries as Morris and Swinburne, as well as the Aesthetes and Decadents of the later nineteenth century.
D. M. R. Bentley (essay date 1979)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9111
SOURCE: "Political Themes in the Work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 17, No. 3, Autumn, 1979, pp. 159-79.
[In the following essay, Bentley studies the theme of modern indifference to God in Rossetti's political poetry.]
Max Beerbohm's well-known caricature of the young Dante Gabriel Rossetti "precociously manifesting … that queer indifference to politics which marked him in his prime and in his decline"1 embodies a basic untruth. For despite Beerbohm's and, indeed, Rossetti's own assertions to the contrary,2 Rossetti was far from indifferent to politics, either in his youth, in his "prime," or in his "decline." From almost the beginning to almost the end of his poetic and artistic career he manifested a sporadic but nevertheless keen and satirical interest in contemporary English and European affairs. In the following pages I will examine a number of poems by Rossetti which either deal directly with political subjects or contain references and overtones of a political and, as is often the case, of a socio- or religio-political nature. A brief examination of Rossetti's early essays into political satire and of his shorter political poems of the late forties will establish the background against which to view "The Burden of Nineveh," the longest and most important of the poet-painter's meditations on contemporary political, social, and, ultimately, religious problems.
The earliest artistic manifestation of Rossetti's satirical bent came in the early forties when he designed (c. 1840-41) and had lithographed (c.1845)3 a set of comic or punning "Playing-Cards" which, for the most part, are devoted to political satire. Since these cards were produced when Rossetti had barely entered his teens it would clearly be a mistake to place too great an emphasis on them. Yet they do provide evidence of a precocious interest in politics and related matters. The various satirical references to Prince Albert (the Knave of Diamonds) and to Sir Robert Peel (the Knave of Spades) in the pack suggest that the young Rossetti—perhaps reflecting the opinions of his politically radical father—viewed with dismay the conservative tendencies which were ushered in with the Queen's accession in 1837 and with Peel's second Ministry (1841-46). This would certainly accord with W. M. Rossetti's estimate of his brother as a liberal in ideals, though something of a conservative in practice.4 However, the depiction of the Prince Consort as a very Germanic Knave with a female personification of British Art impaled on his bayonet suggests a more specific target for Rossetti's early satire. In 1841 Peel appointed the Prince Consort as Chairman of the Royal Commission which was set up in that year with the general aim of promoting the arts in England.5 The Commission's most immediate task was to select the artists to decorate the new Houses of Parliament, which were then approaching completion. Although Rossetti enthusiastically approved most of the designs submitted for this purpose when they went on exhibit at Westminster in July, 1843—feeling that they gave "the lie to the vile snarling assertion that British Art is slowly but surely falling, never more to rise"6—his earlier cartoon suggests that in 1841 he had distinct misgivings about the possible effects of Prince Albert's Germanic influence on British art.7 Even in his early teens, then, at the time when he was enjoying a reputation among his fellow art students as a "sketcher of chivalric and satiric subjects,"8 Rossetti was sensitive to political issues, especially insofar as they affected the arts in England.
Something of the same use of cards as a vehicle for political satire is carried over from the "Playing-Cards" into "The English Revolution of 1848" (No connection with over the way). In this, his first directly satirical poem, Rossetti pokes fun at the last flickers of Chartism, which, as his brother recalls, "formed a transitory alarm to Londoners in the early months of 1848."9 Two stanzas of "The English Revolution of 1848" convey the overall tone of the piece (notice the use of cards in the first to denote the levelling tendencies of the Chartists):
Ho cock your eyes, my gallant pals, and swing your heavy staves:
Remember—Kings and Queens being out, the great cards will be Knaves.
And when the pack is ours—oh then at what a slapping pace
Shall the tens be trodden down to five, and the fives kicked down to ace!
It was but yesterday the Times and Post and Telegraph
Told how from France King Louy-Phil was shaken out like chaff;
To-morrow, boys, the National, the Siècle, and the Débats,
Shall have to tell the self-same tale of "La Reine Victoria."
(Works, pp. 261-262)
The imaginary Chartist from whose incendiary speech this is taken is finally "nailed by a policeman" when he incites his followers to burn down the "Exchange, or Parliament" or one of the fashionable "Squares" or Royal "Palaces" near "Trafalgar Square." The poem closes as he is led away pleading "Oh please sir, don't! It isn't me. It's him. Oh don't, sir, please!" "The English Revolution of 1848" is full of a certain cockney vitality and humor. Despite its conspicuous lack of political and poetic gravitas it nevertheless reveals that Rossetti was conversant with the personalities (he mentions several Chartist leaders by name) and the issues which were at stake in 1848, the year of widespread revolution in Europe. Since Rossetti himself clearly did not take "The English Revolution" at all seriously we may speculate that his poem was written, at least in part, to badger his new friends Millais and Hunt, who are known to have been sympathetic spectators at the great Chartist demonstration in April, 1848. Indeed, some of Rossetti's information on the Chartists may have been gleaned from these two artists, and more from the poet Ebenezer Jones, who, when Rossetti met him in 1848, "would hardly talk on any subject but Chartism" (Works, p. 614).
Rossetti's attitude toward the political events of 1848 was by no means as flippant or detached as "The English Revolution of 1848" might suggest. As amused as he was by the efforts of the Chartists in England, he took a more serious view of the revolutions "over the way." The European events of 1848-49 must have held much the same significance for Rossetti as did those which began in France in June and July of 1789 for young poets such as Coleridge and Blake. Certainly, in the three sonnets which will now be considered, Rossetti is, generally speaking, within the conventions of liberal Romanticism both in his optimistic attitude toward revolution and in his pessimistic interpretation of the post-revolutionary tendency towards restoration, retribution, and repression. But even in "At the Sun-Rise in 1848," a sonnet which shows that he to some extent "shared the aspirations and exultations of the year of vast European upheavals,"10 Rossetti is cautious in his endorsement of liberty at the expense of authority. In marked contrast to his brother William Michael's "unqualified support of revolutionary and democratic, national liberation movements,"11 there is something of the Mill of the essay on Alfred de Vigny in Rossetti's clear-sighted ability to see both sides of the revolutionary coin, to appreciate that what is gain to the peasant is loss to the king. Towards the end of the sonnet he cautions "Man, in [his] just pride" against the destructive aspect of revolution, urging him to remember that he was not made by God merely to destroy the authority of Churches ("priests") and monarchs (a "king … and yet another king") and to ensure that his "sons' sons shall ask / What the word king may mean in their day's task" (Works, p. 171). To stress the positive aspect of revolution implied by the metaphorical dawn of his title, Rossetti both begins and ends his sonnet with an allusion to the birth of light in Genesis 1.3. For Rossetti the revolutionary "Sun-Rise in 1848" is creative only insofar as it partakes of God's initial impulse to create a better order out of chaos: "if light [there] is," the sonnet concludes, "It is because God said, Let there be light." Rossetti's use of the Biblical account of the Creation in this context implies an acceptance, not just of God's primacy over man, but of an order—albeit an order of opposites ("If it is day with us, with them 'tis night")—through which the "round world keeps its balancing." It is indicative of Rossetti's fundamentally Christian consciousness of history that he places and judges contemporary revolutions in what may literally be termed the light of God. In Rossetti's early political poems, then—and this applies as much to "The Burden of Nineveh" as to "At the Sun-Rise in 1848"—light must be regarded (the imperative is Rossetti's own) as the symbol of God's continuing presence in the world.
The year 1849, which saw the collapse of the revolutions of 1848 and the re-establishment of the status quo in Europe, furnished the setting for two sonnets which are pessimistic and prophetic in character. Although the first of these, "Vox Ecclesiae, Vox Christi," deals generally with the brutal suppression of the revolutions of 1848, its primary target is "Christ's Church" (Works, p. 175), which used its altars to bless the weapons and to absolve the soldiers of the counter-revolutionary armies. In order to satirize the "Christian habit of using the 'not peace, but a sword' text to sanctify militarism"12 Rossetti draws a somewhat Blakean contrast in the sonnet between the teaching of the Church ("Vox Ecclesiae") and that of Christ ("Vox Christi"). The epigraph of the sonnet, from Revelation 6.9-10, a plea to the Lord to "judge and avenge" those who "were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony that they held," serves, once again, to refer contemporary events to a religious and, in this case, apocalyptic framework. According to Rossetti's analysis, the support given by the (Catholic) Church to the counter-revolutionary forces, particularly in Hungary,13 was a grotesque perversion of "Christ's law," a perversion made all the more reprehensible for being motivated by a "hate of truth" and for being perpetrated on "fierce youth" by "evil age." By making the seeds of good bear "fruit in wrong" the elders of the Church have so perverted Christ's teaching as to enact a Black Mass of bloodshed in which the "wine-cup at the altar is / As Christ's own blood indeed." (Of course there is a reference here to the Catholic belief in the Real Presence.) For Rossetti the blood of those who died "'neath the altar" (this phrase echoes Revelation 6.9 in the epigraph) is "as the blood of Christ's elect, at divers seasons spilt / On the altar-stone." Moreover, this blood has so tainted the Church as to make the altar itself a "stone of stumbling" (here the reference is to Isaiah 8.14) that must be "rent up ere the true Church be built." The implication is that the revolutionaries who were killed by "weapons blessed for carnage" by the established Church are, in fact, the martyrs of the "true Church." The quotation from Revelation which heads the sonnet thus becomes a direct appeal to the Christian God to recognize these martyrs of the "true Church" and to avenge their "blood on them that dwell on the earth."
"Vox Ecclesiae, Vox Christi" is a richer and more subtle sonnet than W. M. Rossetti's "The Evil under the Sun"14 (earlier called "How long Lord" and later entitled "Democracy Downtrodden"), which was also inspired by the Austrian suppression of Hungary in 1849. Indeed, in its very richness and subtlety, as well as in its subject matter and form, Rossetti's poem recalls and invites comparison with Milton's sonnet "On the Late Massacre in Piemont" which opens with the cry "Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughter'd Saints."15 "Vox Ecclesiae, Vox Christi" is finally remarkable, not just as a powerful indictment of the Church's role in the political events of 1848-49, but as the first example of Rossetti's tendency to draw upon the language and imagery of the Old and New Testament Prophets to give resonance to his condemnation of contemporary injustices.
The second of Rossetti's political sonnets of 1849, "On Refusal of Aid between Nations," was also occasioned by Austria's brutalization of Hungary and Italy in that year. As a statement about international apathy and non-intervention this sonnet has almost universal application. In 1869 Rossetti considered re-titling it "On the Refusal of Aid to Hungary 1849, to Poland 1861, to Crete 1867" (Letters, II, 721); and on March 21, 1940, it was reprinted in the Times16 as a comment on Russia's entry into Finland in that year.
"On Refusal of Aid between Nations" is particularly interesting within the corpus of Rossetti's political poems because, in its pessimistic and apocalyptic view of civilization on the brink of disaster, it bridges the gap between the guarded optimism of "At the Sun-Rise in 1848" and the unmitigated pessimism of "The Burden of Nineveh" (1850). The octave of the sonnet explores the perception that the "earth is changing," that the "seasons totter in their walk," and that the God who presides over both "nations" and "kings" is a Judge of the Last Day who, with just wrath, weighs "the rod / … in [His] hand to smite [the] world" (Works, p. 175). For Rossetti the realization that "Man is parcelled out in men," that mankind is no longer a unified body but a collection of individuals who excuse their lack of concern for the plight of others by pleading "'He is he, I am I'," is a sure and telling sign that the "earth falls asunder, being old." Rossetti's sonnet "On the Field of Waterloo" (1849) also closes on the perception that "the earth is old" (Works, p. 186). Moreover, several other poems that were either wholly or partly written in 1849 partake of this pessimistic sense of living in the last days. In "A Last Confession," for instance, the protagonist, who, it should be remembered, is an Italian maqui with a bitter hatred for "old Metternich" (Works, p. 47), also experiences a feeling of impending apocalypse. "In my dream," he tells the priest, "I thought our world was setting, and the sun / Flared, a spent taper" (Works, p. 46). An equivalent sense of an ending occurs at the conclusion of "The Bride's Prelude" where the priest assures the heroine that "The world's soul, for its sins, was sped / And the sun's courses numberèd" (Works, p. 34). In all these poems Rossetti equates the disintegration of moral values, whether at the political or personal level, with the irreversible running down of the sun; and in none of them does he give us any cause to think that the course of history offers any other, more optimistic possibility. If account is also taken of the fact that the lines from "The Bride's Prelude" just quoted were not written until 1869 and that "A Last Confession" is set in an Italy struggling against Metternich's reference to itself as a "geographical expression," it does not seem unfair to deduce that Rossetti's sense of an imminent, apocalyptic ending for the world arose directly from the awareness of political and social disintegration expressed so powerfully and concisely in "On Refusal of Aid between Nations."
It is worth taking a moment to view the political sonnets of 1848-49, the sonnets which comprise what might be called Rossetti's "revolutionary series," as a unit. This slight shift in perspective makes it clear that Rossetti sees political events as occurring within the Biblical scale of time that begins with the Creation in Genesis and ends with the Last Judgment in Revelation. The central symbol of this continuum is the sun, which, by Rossetti's analysis of contemporary socio-political events, is in 1849 well past its peak of energy. In none of the three sonnets in the "revolutionary series" does Rossetti question either the Christian conception of time or the moral and spiritual values that it implies. Rather, his criticism and, ultimately, his pessimism stem from a recognition of man's failure to take full account of the teleology and eschatology of Christianity. Although Rossetti's guardedly optimistic endorsement of revolution in 1848 probably owes a debt to his early reading of Shelley and Blake, both of whom proclaim the birth of a new world and the death of the old, his pessimism in face of the events of 1849 draws more on the Prophetic Books of the Old and New Testaments. Moreover, with "On Refusal of Aid between Nations" there emerges a concern for mankind as a whole that runs counter to the Romantic emphasis on individual liberty which, it has been suggested, contributed to Rossetti's earlier championship of revolution against the established political and religious orders. Without wholly endorsing H. N. Fairchild's somewhat simplistic analysis of nineteenth-century Catholic poetry, with its de-emphasis of individuality, as a "force opposed to Romanticism" (IV, 243), it is nevertheless true to say that Rossetti's lament over the breakup of mankind as a unified body suggests a vision that might well be classified as less Romantic than Catholic. Needless to say, this need not imply that Rossetti approved of the Catholic Church's role in the struggles of the late forties. "Vox Ecclesiae, Vox Christi" proves that he emphatically did not. However, if Pope Pius IX had condemned the principle of non-intervention soon after he acceded to the Papacy in 1846, and not waited until the Syllabus of 1864 to do so, he would unquestionably have had the support of the author of "On Refusal of Aid between Nations."17
Even with Rossetti's political poems of 1848 and 1849 firmly in mind, it is still astonishing to remember that he wrote "The Burden of Nineveh," his series of "reflexions humoristiques sur la chute des civilisations et des empires,"18 within only a few months of completing Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1849-50). When we move from the painting to the poem, we move from a world inspired by the gilt aureoles and white robes of early Christian art to a world dominated by the colossal form of an Assyrian "Bull-god" seen in the grey, contemporary setting of the British Museum:
Now, thou poor god, within this hall
Where the blank windows blind the wall
From pedestal to pedestal,
The kind of light shall on thee fall
Which London takes the day to be:
While school-foundations in the act
Of holiday, three files compact,
Shall learn to view thee as a fact.
(Works, p. 56)
Although "The Burden of Nineveh" was originally written and published (in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine for August, 1856) in a humorously satirical vein that recalls "The English Revolution of 1848," the version of the poem that appeared in Poems (1870)—from which the above is quoted—is more serious and, hence, more reminiscent of the political sonnets of 1848 and 1849. Oswald Doughty goes some way towards explaining the transition from Ecce Ancilla Domini! to "The Burden of Nineveh" when he remarks that the poem was written in the "anticlimax of recent humiliations," by which he means "the failure of The Germ and the [Pre-Raphaelite] Brotherhood, [and] the perpetual embarrassment of poverty."19 Doughty's explanation of Rossetti's state of mind at the time of writing "The Burden of Nineveh" would be more inclusive and accurate if it took into account both the disastrous exhibition of Ecce Ancilla Domini! in 1850 and—since the poem is at base about "la chute des civilisations"—Rossetti's general pessimism in regard to the state of European civilization in 1849.
It was propitious both psychologically and imaginatively for Rossetti that, at the time when he was acutely disillusioned by a combination of political, professional, and personal circumstances, he was confronted with an image, part man and part beast, which exactly suited his feeling of having been brutalized by a brutal society:
I have no taste for polyglot:
At the Museum 'twas my lot,
Just once, to jot and blot and rot
In Babel for I know not what.
I went at two, I left at three.
Round those still floors I tramp'd, to win
By the great porch the dirt and din;
And as I made the last door spin
And issued, they were hoisting in
A wingèd beast from Nineveh.
Rossetti's direct inspiration for "The Burden of Nineveh" could have been any one of the seven colossal figures which arrived at the British Museum between the end of 1850 and the beginning of 1852 "fresh from 'Layard's Nineveh'."21 However, Rossetti's description of the figure as a "Bull-god" with a "human face" later in the poem, coupled with his brother's recollection that the poem had its genesis in the "autumn of 1850" ("Notes," p. 649), provides good reason for associating its inspiration with one particular figure. Of the seven Assyrian colossi held by the British Museum only three are human-headed winged bulls (the remaining four have the bodies of lions), and of these three, two did not arrive at the Museum until towards the end of 1851.22 The remaining colossal winged bull arrived in London "at the end of September, 1850" (Gadd, pp. 58, 126) and, moreover, it was the only one which arrived at the Museum in one piece (the later ones were cut into segments to facilitate transportation).23 It thus seems certain that the "wingèd beast from Nineveh" which "they are hoisting in" through the entrance of the British Museum in the "autumn of 1850" was the human-headed winged bull (No. 118872) which to the present day is exhibited in the Nimrud Central Saloon on the ground floor of the Museum.
Rossetti's detailed description of the "wingèd beast" in the second stanza of "The Burden of Nineveh" agrees very well with the first of the human-headed winged bulls to arrive at the British Museum:
A human face the creature wore,
And hoofs behind and hoofs before,
And flanks with dark runes fretted o'er
'Twas bull, 'twas mitred Minotaur,
A dead disbowelled mystery:
The mummy of a buried faith
Stark from the charnel without scathe,
Its wings stood for the light to bathe,—
Such fossil cerements as might swathe
The very corpse of Nineveh.
(Works, p. 55)
There is, however, more to this stanza than meets the eye: we should not be deceived into thinking that it is merely a description of the "Bull-god." The fact that Rossetti uses some poetic license in comparing the human-headed winged bull with the Greek Minotaur—a creature which is usually represented with a bull's head and human body—was possibly intended to alert us to the symbolic overtones of the description. Not only does Rossetti compare the "Bull-god" with a "Minotaur" but he goes on to liken it to an Egyptian "mummy" and, perhaps more importantly, he (aptly enough) describes its head-gear as a "mitre." Taken together, these metaphorical aspects of the description suggest that Rossetti is using the Assyrian figure as a summary image for the extravagances of faiths, both buried and unburied. It is surely not fortuitous that the "mitred" head of the "Bull-god" has reminded several critics of a Roman Catholic prelate.24 Later in the poem, in stanza 8, Rossetti connects the "Bull-god" with "that zealous tract: / 'ROME'" (Works, p. 56). This is perhaps an allusion, by way of two puns—"Tract" / Tractarianism and "bull" / Papal Bull—to the religio-political controversies surrounding Tractarianism and Roman Catholicism which reached a peak in 1850 with the Gorham Case (Baptismal Regeneration) and the so-called "papal aggression" (the reestablishment of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales). Significantly, "ROME" is the only upper-case word that appears in the poem, and it is perhaps capitalized in stanza 8 to differentiate it from the lower-case "Rome" that is linked with "Greece" and "Egypt" in the succeeding stanza. In view of Rossetti's attitude toward the Catholic Church as expressed in "Vox Ecclesiae, Vox Christi" it is neither inconsistent nor surprising that he should implicate "ROME" in his condemnation of the pride and vanity of earthly empires in "The Burden of Nineveh." Indeed, it would be more surprising if he did not. Rossetti, it appears, shared with many Victorians, including the Ruskin of Notes on the Construction of Sheepfolds (1851) and the Hunt of Our English Coasts, 1852,25 a distrust, which was partly political, of the spiritual imperialism of the Catholic Church.
Although "The Burden of Nineveh" was directly inspired by the arrival of the "Bull-god" "fresh from 'Layard's Nineveh'," and many details in the poem seem to have been drawn from Layard's account of his excavations in Nineveh and Its Remains (1849),26 it was to the Prophetic Books of the Old Testament, particularly the books of Nahum and Jonah, that Rossetti went to vitalize his satirical portrait of a contemporary world whoring after false gods. That Rossetti intended "The Burden of Nineveh" to be an ominous comment on the state of England, filled with vague but familiar parallels with religions and empires past and present, is, it has been suggested, evident even in his metaphorical description of the "Bull-god" in the second stanza of the poem. The very title of the poem is in fact a direct transcription of the opening words of Nahum, the book that deals specifically with the fall of Nineveh. In the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine Rossetti appended a note to the title quoting a "Dictionary" definition of "Burden [as a] 'Heavy calamity; the chorus of a song'" (p. 514). This note serves not only to suggest the implicit gravitas of the poem but to direct the reader to its varying refrain (the last line of each stanza) where the parallel between Nineveh and London is developed with a weighty inevitability that, as R. L. Megroz suggests, makes each of the stanzas sound like "separate footsteps of that gigantic bull."27
For Rossetti, the chief cause of Nineveh's (and London's) fall is her proud and sinful indifference to the Christian God. To vitalize this perception he alludes several times to the attempts of Nahum and Jonah to warn the city of impending destruction. The description of Nineveh as a "Delicate harlot" in stanza 15, for instance, recalls the "whoredoms of [Nineveh] the well-favoured harlot" of Nahum 3.4. Like Blake before him, Rossetti connects social with sexual corruption; and he prepares the way for the condemnation of Nineveh as a "harlot" by alluding first to "Sardanapalus," whose epitaph "eat, drink and lust; the rest is nothing" is quoted by Layard, and then to "pale Semiramis," the queen who, again according to Layard, introduced the worship of Venus-Astarte to Nineveh.28 In stanzas 6, 12, and 15 the allusions to Jonah's futile attempt to bear "abroad / To Nineveh the voice of God" (Works, p. 57)—the "brackish lake [that] lay in his road" and the "gourd" which God sent to shelter him from the sun by the walls of Nineveh—are all drawn from the Prophet's own account in the four chapters of Jonah. Towards the end of his meditation on the destruction of Nineveh, Rossetti invokes Christ's temptation by Satan ("Pride's lord and Man's"), not only to suggest that it was pride that led to Nineveh's downfall, but to prepare the way for the suggestion, toward the end of the poem, that London in her pride and idolatry will be destroyed by a wrathful God as surely as was Nineveh.
In "The Burden of Nineveh" the eroding element of the wind, often in Rossetti's work a symbol for the passage of time, is the destructive agent of the omnipresent and omnipotent Christian God. The very same "callous wind" that whipped up "burial clouds of sand" around the "Bull-god" until "another land" covered "his eyes" and "blinded him with destiny" blows through the "dirt and din" of London and seems to sweep up the "shadow from the ground." The "Bull-god" in its mound of sand seemed immune to "Time [which] passed, of like import / With the wild Arab boys at sport." But its supposed immunity is merely relative, for all the while "older grew / By ages the old earth and sea" (Works, pp. 55-56). In the final analysis it is only the Christian God "before whose countenance / The years recede, the years advance" (Works, p. 57) who is immune to the ravages of time. Thus, although Rossetti is unquestionably pessimistic in his analysis of civilizations past and passing, he does not, as Harold L. Weatherby asserts, question "the very rudiments of religious thought"29 in "The Burden of Nineveh." Nor is there a "thoroughly sceptical sort of idea" (Weatherby, p. 17) at the heart of the poem. As in his political sonnets of 1848 and 1849, Rossetti's aim in "The Burden of Nineveh" is to point out, with the pessimism of a Spengler rather than the skepticism of a Hardy, the apocalyptic consequences of the contemporary failure to regard the message of Christianity. That is why, in the penultimate stanza of the poem, Rossetti describes the cuneiform inscription on the "Bull-god's" side, not as "runes," but as "those scriptured flanks it cannot see" ( Works, p. 58). It is the set, forward-looking visage of the colossus which prevents it from seeing either the message behind it or the sky above it. And it is this horizontal gaze, indifferent to scripture and light alike, that makes the "Bull-god" of Nineveh with its wings "which do not fly" and its feet "planted … [on] the sod," an appropriate symbol for the false gods of a progressive and materialistic30 London.
The central irony of "The Burden of Nineveh," then, is that the "Bull-god" with its horizontal gaze and flightless wings is enjoying a second coming as the god of London. This irony, which perhaps brings with it the suggestion that the discovery of the "winged beast" in some measure fulfills the reign of the Anti-Christ prophesied by the coming of the beast in Revelation 13, is given a final, knife-like twist in the last three stanzas of the poem. First Rossetti looks ahead to the day when "ships of unknown sail and prow," the ships perhaps of "some tribe of the Australian plough," will carry the "Bull-god" from the "desert place" where England's capital once stood as a "relic … / Of London, not of Nineveh" ( Works, p. 58). On finding the "Bull-god" in the ruins of London, he conjectures, these possibly antepodean people of the distant future "when / Man's age is hoary among men" might justifiably assume that the English "race / … walked not in Christ's lowly ways, / But bowed its pride and vowed its praise / Unto the God of Nineveh." The last stanza of the poem makes it clear that what initially arose as a fanciful comparison between Nineveh and London ("the smile rose first,—anon drew nigh / The thought") has now become so frighteningly real that the "Bull-god" seems all the time to have been the god of London rather than of Nineveh. The final twist of the knife occurs in the last two lines of the poem where Rossetti asks: "O Nineveh, was this thy God,—/ Thine also, mighty Nineveh?" By the conclusion of the poem the "burden of Nineveh" has indeed, in Oliver Elton's words, become "the burden of London."31
Only once more in his life did Rossetti use the arrival of an ancient monument in London as the occasion for a satirical poem. In 1878 Cleopatra's Needle was erected on the Thames embankment32 and three years later Rossetti used the historical associations both of Cleopatra and of the word "needle" itself to inveigh against what he saw as England's indifference to the "sweet speech" ( Works, p. 233) of its finest poets. In "Tiber, Nile, and Thames" (1881) he makes an extraordinary connection between the Egyptian "obelisk" and the "chill stone" of London's streets that "with poison froze the god-fired breath" of Keats, Coleridge, and Chatterton. The basic link in this connection is forged in the octave of the sonnet where Rossetti builds up the associations of Cleopatra's Needle by recounting the legend that "Fulvia, Mark Anthony's shameless wife" used "her sharp needle" to pierce the "god-like tongue" of the "murdered Cicero." Perhaps because the restrictions of the sonnet form allowed Rossetti to present only the bare essentials of the connection between Fulvia's needle and Cleopatra's, between the grisly fate of Cicero and the Romantic poets whom he mentions, "Tiber, Nile, and Thames" does not rise much above the level of the "grim anecdote" (Letters, IV, 1838) embodied in its octave. It is impos sible to say, and hence futile to ask, what the poem would have been like if Rossetti had developed its central metaphor—as he doubtless could have—with the ominous and pessimistic intensity of "The Burden of Nineveh."
Late in 1852, Rossetti took time off from his Marian and Dantean paintings then in progress to write what, in a burlesque, cockney spirit, he called "summat on the Dook" ( Letters, I, 116). The funeral of the Duke of Wellington took place on November 18, 1852, and the "public frenzy" surrounding it, he told Thomas Woolner a few months later, was sufficient to wring "something de rigeur" from even the "most apathetic" ( Letters, I, 133) of its spectators—Rossetti himself. In view of Rossetti's inability, laconically expressed in "On the Field of Waterloo" (1849), to respond either positively ("I believe one should have thrilled") or negatively ("Am I to weep?" [ Works, p. 186]) to the great victory and massive carnage of the Duke's most famous battle, it is indeed surprising that he should have written a poem thirteen stanzas long on "Wellington's Funeral." Of course Rossetti was writing as a contemporary of Tennyson, who was made poet laureate less than two years earlier; and it is of the "Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington" that we will be immediately reminded by "Wellington's Funeral." But it was not an "ode" that Rossetti intended to write. Characteristically, he uses the "duteous mourning" and "reverent mood" ( Works, p. 196) surrounding the state funeral as the occasion for a meditation, not on Wellington's military victories, but on the "solemn mirth" that accompanies a soul's "new birth" into Heaven. "If our eyes were opened," he asks—perhaps echoing Blake's "If the doors of perception were cleansed"—would the "escort [that] floats / Here" not appear as "Fiery horses, chariots / Fire-footed?" For Rossetti this particular "soul's labour shall be scann'd / And found good" by God because of the "peace which this man wrought / Passing well" in Europe. In the central stanzas of the poem Rossetti supplies the corrective to the Church's abuse of the "not peace, but a sword" text which he had so bitterly condemned in "Vox Ecclesiae, Vox Christi." The only valid reason for resorting to "bloodshed Christ abhorr'd," he maintains in "Wellington's Funeral," is to bring about peace:
"'Twas thus in His decrees
Who Himself, the Prince of Peace,
For His harvest's high increase
Sent a sword."
(Works, p. 196)
Rossetti brings "Wellington's Funeral" to a close—after saluting the "Veterans" of the Napoleonic Wars and using the French Coup d'Etat of December 2, 1851, to suggest the vanity of Napoleon's imperialistic hopes—by returning, once more, to Wellington, the man, whose "long tale of conquering strife / Shows no triumph like his life / Lost and won" ( works, p. 197).
Despite such memorable touches as the oxymoron "solemn mirth," there are several unsatisfactory images and metaphors in "Wellington's Funeral." The "banshee-strain" with which the dead at Waterloo are credited is only marginally less inappropriate than the comparison between Wellington's achievements and the "All Hail!'" with which Gabriel greeted the Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation. The impression left by the poem is that, as a poet, Rossetti is trying to participate in and comment on the pompous solemnity of Wellington's funeral but that his mind cannot entirely escape from the preoccupations of the Marian work with which he was engaged as a painter. However, although certain touches in the poem are regrettable it is difficult to deny the sincerity of Rossetti's hope that, with Wellington's "great work" in establishing the basis for European peace, "Michael's sword" ( works, p. 196), "once lent for human lack," will at last be "rendered back" to God.
History, of course, has not confirmed Rossetti's hope for a lasting peace in Europe. Two of his later sonnets, "After the French Liberation of Italy" (1859) and "After the German Subjugation of France, 1871," were occasioned by breaches of the peace which occurred in his own lifetime. The connection between a corrupt society and a whore, which occurs not only in "The Burden of Nineveh" but also in "Dante at Verona" (1848-50)—where Rossetti puns on the word Republic ("RESPUBLICA—a public thing: / A shameful shameless prostitute") to describe Florence who "takes by turn … / A night with each" ( works, p. 13) of her rulers—forms the central metaphor of both these later political sonnets. Although, as his brother records, Rossetti approved of the "French Liberation of Italy" in 1859, or, more strictly speaking, Napoleon III's expulsion of Austria from Lombardy in that year, "he objected to … other features of [Napoleon III's] Italian policy" ("'Notes," p. 667). Having observed Rossetti's pessimism develop out of the "revolutionary series" of sonnets into "The Burden of Nineveh" it is not surprising to learn that he wrote "After the French Liberation of Italy" "to commemorate his forecast of bad times for Europe generally" ("Notes," p. 667). In the octave of the sonnet the encounter between Europe, the "loveless whore," and Napoleon III's France is described with explicit and memorable pungency:
with a single kiss
At length, and with one laugh of satiate bliss,
The wearied man a minute rests above
The wearied woman, no more urged to move
In those long throes of longing.
(Works, p. 205)
The "forecast of bad times" comes in the sestet of the sonnet in the form of the "harlot's child," conceived in Europe's "bought body … to scourge her for her sin."
This "harlot's child" finally makes its presence felt in "After the German Subjugation of France, 1871," which is a subtler and more complex sonnet than "After the French Liberation of Italy." Here, after a gestation period of "years for months," the whore's "babe new-born; / Out of the womb's rank furnace" is present at her "wedding feast" ( works, p. 217). Parodying the "gospel-tongues of flame" (works, p. 179) which he had sensed in the "Place de la Bastille"—that symbol of liberation from repression—in 1849, Rossetti says that it is the "fiery tongues [of] … / Hell's Pentecost," coupled with a chorus of "scoffs" from such Biblical traitors as Absalom and Shimei, which provide the "tumultuous sound" to "hail this birth" of the "harlot's child." The poem closes on the terrible and apocalyptic image of the "closing teeth of Hell" ripping the flesh of the whore's "Lord of yesterday" (Napoleon III's France) to the accompaniment of the "vanished world's last yell." In the description of the whore's womb as a "rank furnace" there is perhaps something of Milton's Hell, which is also described as a "Furnace " in Paradise Lost I.62. But it is finally Blake's "London," where the "Harlot's curse … blights with plagues the Marriage hearse," that is most insistently recalled by "After the German Subjugation of France, 1871." Indeed there is something of the fiercely satirical connection between social and sexual evil in Blake's poem translated to the sphere of international politics in Rossetti's two sonnets of 1859 and 1871.
With only one exception, a sonnet on the assassination of "Czar Alexander the Second (13th of March 1881)," Rossetti wrote no poems on contemporary political events in the last decade of his life. This does not mean, however, that he abandoned completely the themes of his political poems of the late forties and early fifties. Rather, he transferred the central, overriding theme of all his political poems—the paramount importance of God over Man—to the realm of his two historical ballads—"The White Ship" (1878-80) and "The King's Tragedy" (1881). It is permissible to speculate that it was Rossetti's profound and increasing pessimism over political events in Europe between the late forties and the early seventies that led him, towards the end of his life, to express his religio-political ideas in an historical rather than a contemporary context. A brief examination of "Czar Alexander the Second" will show, not only that Rossetti maintained a consistent political position from 1848 to 1881, but also that his political thinking is central to the two historical ballads of 1878-81.
Rossetti's conviction that the assassination of Czar Alexander the Second "bears witness of his people's woe" ( Works, p. 233) to God is reminiscent of the warnings against regicide, delivered from the same religious platform, in "At the Sun-Rise in 1848." Rossetti makes it clear that his sympathy for the murdered Czar arose from the fact that "Alexander the Liberator,"33 as Swinburne sarcastically called him, had granted the Russian serfs "rich freedom, lifelong land, whereon to sheave / Their country's harvest." Rossetti clearly did not share Swinburne's estimation of Czar Alexander II as an "hypocritical oppressor" who, above all, was "guilty of monarchy" (Swinburne Letters, IV, 260, 203). To Rossetti the Czar's murderers are "the first / Of Russia's traitors." They are guilty, not only of regicide, but of using, and provoking the serfs to use on them, the very "torment"—the "knout's red-ravening fangs"—that the Czar's "edicts disallow'd." Here can be seen emerging clearly for the first time Rossetti's championship of a liberal monarch. It is surely no coincidence that in the same year that he wrote "Czar Alexander the Second" he chose as the subject of "The King's Tragedy" a monarch whom he also conceived to have been a liberal—King James I of Scotland. W. M. Rossetti, who in 1881 was encouraged by his brother to write his sequence of overtly political Democratic Sonnets (and then, for mainly practical reasons, discouraged by his brother from publishing them until 190734 ), tells us that it was not merely James I's "interesting combination of poetry and kingship" which attracted Rossetti but, perhaps more important, his "virtues … in vindicating the common people against oppression" ("Notes," p. 660). By Rossetti's conception of him. James I is the "King whom poor men bless for their King" ( Works, p. 149) because:
he … tamed the nobles' lust
And curbed their power and pride,
And reached out an arm to right the poor
Through Scotland far and wide.
(Works, p. 147)
Clearly Rossetti, as a liberal Royalist, saw King James I and Czar Alexander II in a similar light. To him both were just, humanitarian rulers whose liberal reforms in favor of the common people resulted in their murders by men who were traitors, not just to their respective countries and people, but to God. Moreover, Rossetti's James I is a Christ-like figure who calmly resigns himself to the "will" of the God "Who has one same death for a hind / And one same death for a King" ( Works, p. 149) and, at the end of the poem, goes to his death neither as a "King" nor as a "Knight" but as a "Man" (Works, p. 158). In the last analysis, it is the perception that all men, be they humanist rulers or humble peasants, are, in death, subordinate to the will of God that lies at the core of all Rossetti's political poems, be they contemporary or historical. Rossetti's most explicit statement of this fundamentally Christian view of existence is to be found in "The White Ship." Here "poor Berold" the "butcher of Rouen" (Works, p. 138) uses the drowning of King Henry I's son to exemplify the perception, expressed chorically at the beginning, middle, and end of the poem, that though "Lands are swayed by a King on a throne…. The sea hath no King but God alone" (Works, pp. 138, 141, and 144). It is this assertion of the omnipotence of a Christian God in the face of the evil, corruption, and death of the world that rescues Rossetti's political poems and historical ballads, pessimistic as they unquestionably are, from skepticism.
As a pessimist Rossetti may perhaps underestimate man's ability to choose right over wrong, to avoid the dreadful consequences of his own mistakes, but this does not preclude him from deferring final judgment to the just, wrathful, and omnipresent God who watches and waits to judge the world in the background of all Rossetti's serious religio-political poems. It is possible to ignore the many-sided sympathy and the compassionate sense of justice, that made Rossetti, in youth, cautious of the destructive aspect of revolution and, in maturity, the champion of liberal monarchs. It is possible to deplore the absurdities of his imagination when they occur in the wrong place, such as when Gabriel is brought in to give an "All Hail!" to the Duke of Wellington or when sex is used, perhaps a little too graphically, as a political metaphor in the sonnets of 1859 and 1871. But it is difficult either to ignore or to deplore the judiciousness and sincerity with which he examines and inveighs against what he saw as a contemporary failure to regard the teachings of Christ. In contrast to Tennyson and to Kipling—whose "Recessional" would furnish an interesting comparison with "The Burden of Nineveh"—Rossetti was chiefly a poet-painter rather than a poet-prophet. Perhaps because of the hostile reception of Ecce Ancilla Domini! in 1850 he could not feel any deep sense of identity with the reading public to which his warnings were directed. But like many politically and socially conscious men of his time Rossetti felt a sense of impending doom as Austria, France, and Germany spread their tentacles across Europe and as the brutal materialism and colossal bestiality of his own society took it away from the teachings of true Christianity. Living in a proud; pompous, and militaristic time Rossetti envisioned the world on the brink of the Apocalypse: he could find the solutions to contemporary problems only in the eschatology of Christianity. It was in the context of the ultimate and terrible consequences of man's indifferences to God that Rossetti viewed the battle between authority and liberty, between monarchy and democracy, between the institutional Church and the "true Church," between mankind and man, a debate which is as old as what, to him, was an aging world.
1Rossetti and His Circle (London, 1922), caption to frontispiece.
2 See, for instance, Rossetti's letter of 1880, quoted in T. Hall Caine, Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Boston, 1883), pp. 200-201, in which he writes, not without irony: "My friends … consider me exceptionally averse to politics; and I suppose I must be, for I never read a parliamentary debate in my life! At the same time I will add that, among those whose opinions I most value, some think me not altogether wrong when I venture to speak of the momentary momentousness and eternal futility of many noisiest questions. However, you must simply view me as a nonentity in any practical relation to such matters." The present essay bears out Caine's own comment, Recollections, pp. 270-271, that "it would, nevertheless, be wrong to say that [Rossetti] was wholly indifferent to important political issues, of which he took often a very judicial view."
3 See Virginia Surtees, The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882): A Catalogue Raisonné (Oxford Univ. Press, 1971), I, No. 4. Although none of the cards is illustrated by Surtees, two are reproduced in H. C. Marillier, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: An Illustrated Memorial of His Life and Art (London, 1899), pp. 214-215 and several in The Bookman (London), 40 (June, 1911), 130-131….
4 See Dante Gabriel Rossetti as Designer and Writer (London, 1889), pp. 135-136. It is notable that Rossetti's Knave of Spades (Peel) contains references to Free Trade, Catholic Emancipation, and the Irish Problem.
5 The Commission's statement of purpose is quoted in John Steegman, Victorian Taste: A Study of the Arts and Architecture from 1830-1870 (London, 1970), p. 130.
6Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. Oswald Doughty and John Robert Wahl (Oxford Univ. Press, 1965), I, 16. Hereafter cited as Letters.
7 Rossetti's Knave of Diamonds is inscribed "OVER-BECK PINXIT" in probable reference to the fact (see John Nicoll, The Pre-Raphaelites [London, 1970], p. 19) that "it was initially proposed" (doubtless with the approval of Prince Albert) that "Overbeck … should be asked" to decorate the new Houses with frescoes.
8 F. G. Stephens, cited by William M. Rossetti, ed., Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family Letters, with a Memoir (London, 1895), I, 96-97.
9 William M. Rossetti, "Notes," in The Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (London, 1911), p. 673. Hereafter cited as Works.
10 William M. Rossetti, "Notes," in Works, p. 663.
11 Leonid M. Arinshtein with William E. Fredeman, "William Michael Rossetti's Democratic Sonnets," VS, 14 (1971), 266.
12 H. N. Fairchild, "Dante Gabriel Rossetti," in Christianity and Romanticism in the Victorian Era, Vol. IV of Religious Trends in English Poetry (Columbia Univ. Press, 1957), 391.
13 See William M. Rossetti, "Notes," in Works, p. 664.
14 The sonnet on which the last issue of The Germ closes. See Arinshtein and Fredeman, p. 242n.
15 See John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York, 1957), pp. 167-168.
16 Kerrison Preston points this out in Blake and Rossetti (London, 1944), p. 67.
17 [J. C. Earle], "Rossetti's Poems," Catholic World, 19 (May, 1874), 271, sees "On Refusal of Aid between Nations" as an "exquisite vindication of one of the least popular of the condemnations in the Syllabus—that of non-intervention." It is worth noting that in August, 1847 (i.e. within a year of the accession of Pius IX) Rossetti expressed delight over the new Pope's attempts to take the lead in the struggle to achieve Italian unity and independence. Writing to his mother about the Austrians' forced retreat from Ferrara in Northern Italy at that time, he says gleefully: "The papers … affirm … that the Pope has said that, if the unjustifiable interference is continued, he shall first make a protest to all the Sovereigns of Europe against Austria; that, in case this should fail, he will excommunicate both Emperor and people; and that, when driven to the last extremity, he will himself ride in the van of his own army with the sword and the Cross" (Letters, I, 32). Of course, when Pius IX refused to make war on the Austrians in 1848, the liberal hopes which had been pinned on him were dashed, and not long after this the Pope himself largely abandoned his politically liberal ideas.
18 Gabriel Sarrazin, Poetes modernes de L'Angleterre (Paris, 1884), p. 238.
19A Victorian Romantic: Dante Gabriel Rossetti (London, 1949), p. 104.
20 This is the first stanza of "The Burden of Nineveh" as it appears in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, August, 1856, p. 512. The justification for quoting it here, in preference to the first stanza of the Poems (1870) version of the poem, is that it perhaps conveys more truly Rossetti's mood when he first confronted the "Bull-god" in 1850. The narrator of the later version of "The Burden of Nineveh" is a more serious student of ancient art who has spent several hours "rejoicing" over the art of "Dead Greece" (works, p. 55)—perhaps the Elgin Marbles.
21 This phrase occurs only in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, August, 1856, p. 514.
22 The details of the transportation and the dates of arrival of these colossi are given in J. Gadd, The Stones of Assyria (London, 1936), pp. 124-127 and 159-160.
23 See Gadd, p. 160; and see also the Illustrated London News, February 28, 1852, p. 184 for a picture of one of the human-headed winged lions being hauled up the front steps of the British Museum ….
24 See for example Victorian and Later English Poets, ed. James Stephens, Edwin L. Beck, and Royall H. Snow (New York, 1949), p. 1239.
25 See Leslie Parris, Landscape in Britain, 1750-1850 (London, 1973), pp. 127-128 for a discussion of the relationship between Ruskin's Notes and Hunt's painting. It is worth noting that Rossetti was not the only one amongst his family and artistic associates who was interested in Nineveh. In a letter from Brighton dated August 14, 1850—only weeks before the composition of "The Burden of Nineveh"—Christina Rossetti tells William Michael that she has borrowed "the first volume of Layard's Nineveh" (The Family Letters of Christina Georgina Rossetti, with Some Supplementary Letters and Appendices, ed. William Michael Rossetti [London, 1908], p. 14). And Hunt tells us that sometime earlier than this he had applied unsuccessfully for the post of draftsman on Layard's second expedition to Nineveh (see Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood [London, 1905-06], 1. 346). Moreover, in a letter to his brother of August 30, 1851 Rossetti compares the rusticated complexions of Hunt and Millais with the "'sun-dried bricks' of Nineveh" (Letters, I. 103)—a phrase that occurs continually throughout Layard's Nineveh—thus raising the possibility that a majority of the Pre-Raphaelite brothers were conversant with the book. Nor is it fortuitous that, in the version of "The Burden of Nineveh" that appeared and fascinated Ruskin (see "Notes," Works, p. 649) in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, Rossetti pointedly alludes to the controversy over "Whether the great R. A.'s a bunch / Of gods or dogs, and whether Punch / Is right about the P.R.B."
26 It is likely that the illustrations of the disinterment and transportation of the colossal winged bull which serve as frontispieces to both volumes of Austen Henry Layard, Nineveh and its Remains (London and New York, 1849) were a secondary source of inspiration for Rossetti's poem. Moreover, Rossetti's source for the image of the London crowds going past "as marshalled to the strut / Of ranks of gypsum quaintly cut" (works, p. 58), an image which forms a striking visual parallel between the people of London and Nineveh, is almost certainly the numerous illustrations of tablets depicting processions of one sort or another in Layard's Nineveh. Similarly the description, towards the beginning of the poem, of the "carven warriors" with their bows, "cymbals," and "chariots" (works, p. 55) which, Rossetti imagines, must have seemed to come alive when the "sculptured" courts of Nineveh were unearthed, is strongly reminiscent of tablets depicting war and hunting parties that are illustrated in Layard, II, 66. The suggestion in stanza 3 of the 1870 version of "The Burden of Nineveh" that the "Bull-god" was moulded ("rush-wrapping, / Wound'ere it dried, still ribbed the thing") is less accurate than the original lines: "some colour'd Arab straw matting. / Half ripp'd, was still upon the thing." For Layard's description of the matting woven by Arab women (Rossetti's "brown maidens [who] sing / From purple mouths" while moving "languidly") for the transportation of the colossus, see Layard, II, 67. Layard frequently describes his excitement at unearthing various Assyrian artifacts, alluded to by Rossetti in stanzas 4, 11, and 12: see Layard, I, 73 (the bull): I, 299, II, 14-16 and 206 (the "ivory tablets" of stanza 12): and II, 71-72. Many other details in the poem are taken from Layard's spirited account of the life of the expeditionary party. For the Christians kneeling in the shadow of the "Bull-god" (st. 8), see Layard, II, 293-294 and also I, 234 and 243; and for Layard's comments on Nineveh as Egypt's "antiquity" (st. 11), see II, 21-23. The "winged teraphim" of stanza 12 are probably the images of Baal described in Layard, II, 341. Many of the Biblical accounts of Nineveh's destruction used by Rossetti are also quoted in Nineveh and Its Remains; see, for instance, II, 192 and 338.
27Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Painter-Poet of Heaven in Earth (London, 1928), p. 304.
28 See Layard, II, 360-36 1 and II, 34 5 and 362n.
29 "Problems of Form and Content in the Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti," VP. 2 (1964), 17.
30 Rossetti's Queen of Hearts in his "Playing-Cards" is a gold sovereign engraved with the head of Queen Victoria to show the "real reigning … sovereign" of Victorian England; see The Bookman (London), 40 (June, 1911), 130-131.
31A Survey of English Literature, 1830-1880 (London, 1920), II, 5.
32 For an account of the shipment and installation of the Needle, by the man who financed it, see Erasmus Wilson, Our Egyptian Obelisk: Cleopatra's Needle (London, 1877).
33The Swinburne Letters, ed. Cecil Y. Lang (Yale Univ. Press, 1961), IV, 119 and 128.
34 See Arinshtein and Fredeman, pp. 242-246.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 55
"Hand and Soul" (short story) published in the journal The Germ, 1850
The Early Italian Poets from Ciullo to Dante Alighieri (1100-1200-1300) in the Original Metres, Together with Dante's "Vita Nuova" [translator; also published as Dante and His Circle] (poetry) 1861
Poems (poetry) 1870
Ballads and Sonnets (poetry) 1881
The Complete Poetical Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (poetry) 1903
D. M. R. Bentley (essay date 1982)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5714
SOURCE: "'The Blessed Damozel'": A Young Man's Fantasy," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 20, Nos. 3-4, Autumn-Winter, 1982, pp. 31-43.
[In the following essay, Bentley interprets "The Blessed Damozel" as a poem celebratory of "medieval-Catholic awareness."]
Early in 1848, Dante Gabriel Rossetti submitted several poems to Leigh Hunt for approval. Evidently the young poet did not find the older man's comments, though obviously "flattering,"1 particularly perspicacious. In a letter to his aunt Charlotte Polidori written a short time later he says, "Where Hunt, in his kind letter, speaks of my 'Dantesque heavens,' he refers to one or two of the poems the scenes of which are laid in the celestial regions, and which are written in a kind of Gothic manner which I suppose he is pleased to think belongs to the school of Dante" (Letters, 34). There can be little doubt that one of the poems to which Hunt was referring is "The Blessed Damozel" (the other is probably "Mater Pulchrae Delectionis," an early version of "Ave"). In a sense, Hunt's informal comments on "The Blessed Damozel" establish the precedent for most of the criticism on the poem published in the first half of this century. Critics have been "pleased to think" that "The Blessed Damozel" is indebted, not just to Dante and the other poets of his circle, but to a small galaxy of Romantic and Victorian writers, including Coleridge, Keats, Goethe, Musset, Blake, Shelley, Tennyson, and the Bailey of Festus. More frequently mentioned than applied is T. Hall Caine's dubious reminiscence that Rossetti himself gave Poe's "The Raven" as the direct inspiration and point of departure for his poem (p. 284).2 There is no need to rehearse here the various literary echoes that have been found singing together in "The Blessed Damozel" since Paull Franklin Baum has already done this in his lengthy introduction to The Blessed Damozel. The Unpublished Manuscript, Text and Collation which, though published over forty years ago, remains the "standard and only really useful edition of the poem" (WEF, 23.32). The point may be made, however, that the inspiration for "The Blessed Damozel" was pictorial as well as literary, and almost certainly includes such favorites of the young Rossetti as Filippo Pistrucci's Iconologia (with its "coloured allegorical designs" [Memoir, p. 85]3 of female figures with emblematic adjuncts), Richard Hurst's translation of Gombauld's Endimion, and the Aldine edition of Colonna's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (both of which contain striking illustrations of scenes where a female lover is depicted in "the celestial regions").4 Unquestionably there also lie in the background of the poem the medieval paintings "with two levels, a heavenly and an earthly one"5 to which Rossetti's later painting of The Blessed Damozel in the form of a diptych makes formal "reference."6 But a Lowesian journey along the road and across the bridge to "The Blessed Damozel" is not the aim of the present discussion; rather, the aim is to explore the dynamics and meanings of the poem with a view to elucidating the significance of the damozel herself for the male speaker and of the poem itself for the young Rossetti. The initial question in dealing with "The Blessed Damozel" thus comes to the fore: in this "young man's fantasy" (the phrase is John Masefield's)7 is it possible to differentiate fully and finally between the narrator and the author?
This question is complicated by the fact that between the first appearance of the poem in The Germ in 1850 and its publication in Ballads and Sonnets in 1881 Rossetti made a number of changes to it which to a large extent justify Kenneth L. Knickerbocker's argument that though "The Blessed Damozel" "had its inception as a form of poetic exercise" by 1869—which is to say, seven years after the death of Elizabeth Siddal Rossetti—it had "become freighted with biographical details."8 Although it is doubtful whether all the details added, and in some cases subtracted, in the course of Rossetti's creative career are as biographical as Knickerbocker maintains, it is difficult to doubt that in the years after his wife's death in 1862, "The BlessedDamozel" came to have an increasingly personal meaning for the poet-painter, that—to use Husserl's term as applied by E. D. Hirsh, Jr.9—the "horizon" of intention in the poem expanded to encompass its author's "fantasy" of joining his own lost love in a heaven of endless unity. To get an idea of how the meaning of "The Blessed Damozel" changed for Rossetti down the years, the evolution of one, particularly telling, stanza may be briefly rehearsed.10 In The Germ, the first four lines of stanza eight, a description of the pious activities of the new arrivals in Heaven, read as follows:
Heard hardly, some of her new friends,
Playing at holy games,
Spake gentle-mouthed among themselves
Their virginal chaste names.
Apart from the revision of the first line to read "She scarcely heard her sweet new friends" in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, this stanza remained substantially the same in 1856 as it had been in 1850. In the Trial Books of 1869 and in Poems (1870), however, the blessed Damozel's "new friends" are no longer engaged in "Playing at holy games" but are now depicted "Amid their loving games," and by 1881 the four lines have been completely recast to read:
Around her, lovers newly met
'Mid deathless love's acclaims,
Spoke evermore among themselves
Their heart-remembered names.
A slight variation of this, the final, version of the stanza is inscribed at the center of Rossetti's 1876 drawing for the background of The Blessed Damozel (S. 244G)11 which, like the finished painting, depicts several pairs of "lovers, newly met" embracing fervently amidst the lush greenery of Heaven. While they do not tell the whole story, the changes, first from "holy games" to "loving games" in 1869 and then from "virginal chaste names" to "heart-remembered names" in 1881, are, to a degree, symptomatic of how Rossetti's attitude toward "The Blessed Damozel" changed through the years, of how, increasingly, it partook of his urge to secularize his early poems and, moreover, assumed the burden of his wish-fulfillment fantasies.
The fact that Rossetti himself, a man for whom life imitated art, apparently came increasingly to share the sensual fantasies of the speaker of "The Blessed Damozel" provides the post-1870 poem with a context that justifies Jerome J. McGann's reading of it as a transvaluation of the "Christian idea of … Divine Love" through a replacement of "Love as agape with love as Eros" (48-52). A related, though different (because less personal), context of significance for the latter-day "Blessed Damozel" was provided for the last Romantics by the later habits and consequent myth of Rossetti as an unstable and obsessive visionary, as a figure preoccupied by an ethereal yet sensual ideal of woman, bent on both recapturing the vanished past in all its physical details and on projecting an earthly love into an eternity beyond death. "Yet now, and in this place, / Surely she leaned o'er me—her hair / Fell all about my face … / Nothing: the autumn fall of leaves…." These lines, given by Rossetti to the parenthetical speaker in all the published versions of "The Blessed Damozel," contain a combination of fantasy, sensuality, and longing in the midst of decay which, together with the emphasis on "hair" and, of course, on the glorified lady herself in the poem, draws attention to how easily the poem supports the romantic image of the "Pre-Raphaelite" poet. It is not an image of the implied poet that the relatively ascetic and religious Rossetti of the early Pre-Raphaelite period, of the years just before and after the publication of The Germ (January-May, 1850), would necessarily have countenanced; to accept it as a valid significance for the poem as originally conceived is, therefore, to accede to an inverted historicism which can only obscure the true significance of "The Blessed Damozel" as related to the context provided by its first publication in February, 1850, in the organ of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
The critical difficulties posed by the biographical and historical accretions that adhere to "The Blessed Damozel" are formidable but at least partly soluble. For while it is a moot and metaphysical point whether once alerted to a textual interpretation, however superadded or projective, a reader can regain his innocence, a choice can be made in the matter of text which holds out the promise of at least a gestural return to a pre-lapsarian state. A decision to focus on The Germ version of "The Blessed Damozel" may not guarantee a pure response to it but, on the most basic bibliographical grounds, it provides the firmest foundation for a discussion of the poem in relation to Rossetti's program of the Pre-Raphaelite period when, it must be noted, he was as far from being obsessed by his dead wife as not having met her allowed and almost as far distant from the recluse whose behavior fuelled the inferences of the last Romantics. The decision to focus here on The Germ version of "The Blessed Damozel" is not made in ignorance of the fact that in the aesthetics of texts there are both unfortunate and fortunate falls; however, the advantages to be gained for the present discussion by examining "The Blessed Damozel" in the form that can be assumed to reflect Rossetti's intentions in the days of the P.R.B. seem to outweigh the benefits of considering it in any of the later versions, where the aesthetic improvements are themselves an aspect of the poet's revisionist view of his own past. Like the Auden of "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" and, indeed, the Yeats of such a poem as "Leda and the Swan," the Rossetti of "The Blessed Damozel" (as well as of other significantly revised poems such as "My Sister's Sleep") calls into question the axiom that the last authorized text is for all intents and purposes definitive.
With all this in mind, it is worth returning to ponder Rossetti's description of "The Blessed Damozel" in his letter to Charlotte Polidori as a poem "written in a kind of Gothic manner," for herein resides a valuable clue to its initial conception and general character. The word "Gothic" points to the medieval dimension of the poem which Rossetti attempted to recreate through several means. There is, first of all, the title, which links the resonantly Catholic adjective "Blessed" with the Anglo-Norman word "Damozel," thus serving notice, like the Gothic script in which the title is printed in The Germ, of the antiquarian nature of what is to follow. Also "Gothic" in character is the stanza form of the poem, an extension of the common ballad quatrain to a sestet (a4b3c4b3d4b3), of which Joseph F. Vogel remarks: "It appears that [Rossetti] thought of the verse of 'The Blessed Damozel' as basically a ballad verse (the stanza itself he probably derived from ballads)"12—and, perhaps, intended as a formalistic allusion to the Middle Ages. Further, and more obvious, embodiments of the Gothic mise-en-scène of "The Blessed Damozel" are found in the archaic diction of the poem ("ungirt," "Herseemed," "Circlewise," and so on),13 in its dramatis personae ("Cecily, Gertrude, Magdalen, / Margaret, and Rosalys"), and in its stage furniture ("citherns and citoles"). To an ungentle reader it might seem that in "The Blessed Damozel" Rossetti has merely pieced together some stunning words from old romaunts to create a poetry with a vaguely exotic flavor. Yet the "Gothic" manner of the poem, its stylistic idiom and vocal coloring, is the signpost that points to one of its fundamental raisons d'être: the imaginative recreation of the young Rossetti's conception of a medieval "consciousness"14 and awareness. Richard L. Stein's astute observation that for Rossetti "the most important belief of the Middle Ages was the identification of flesh and spirit" and, moreover, an important "medieval theme" for him was "love" (pp. 127-128), suggests that the notoriously physical rendition of the spiritual Damozel and, indeed, the central love interest of the poem are key aspects of his attempt in this early "poetic exercise" to give form to his conception of the "nature of Gothic" which, as Stein argues, differs markedly from that of Ruskin.
A recognition of the fact that "The Blessed Damozel" was, at the outset, intended (perhaps argumentatively) as the re-creation of a medieval awareness throws into clear relief the relation between Rossetti and his narrator, or, better, between the implied poet and the historical percipient in the poem—an omniscient and speculative figure whose style and assumptions characterize him as the representative of the medieval-Catholic awareness that the reader is invited to enter. The function of the percipient of "The Blessed Damozel" is complex; like the implied poet of Rossetti's "Sonnets for Pictures" his task is to present a "picture" (in this case the "diptych" composed of the blessed Damozel and her earthbound lover) and to imagine the words and feelings of its personae (again, the damozel and her lover). Through his re-creation of a spatial and emotional relationship that is radically alien to the "modern" mind, the percipient inducts the reader-spectator into the medieval-Catholic awareness that he was designed by Rossetti to embody. In effect, he forces the reader-spectator to relinquish the demand for a fixed point of view from which to perceive the external world and asks him to accept (by the willing suspension of disbelief that is the artistic equivalent of an act of faith) a medieval-Catholic awareness in which Heaven and Earth are simultaneously knowable, spirit and flesh are identified, and so on. When William Michael Rossetti claimed that the title Songs of the Art Catholic, under which his brother sent a number of early poems to William Bell Scott in 1847, suggests that "the poems embodied conceptions and a point of view related to pictorial art [and] also that this art was, in sentiment though not necessarily in dogma, Catholic—medieval and unmodern" (Works, p. 661), he might have been thinking in particular of the function of the percipient in "The Blessed Damozel." And Rossetti's own later remark, regarding "Ave," that "the emotional influence … employed demands above all an inner standing-point" (Works, p. 661), could well stand as a gloss on the sympathetic response to the percipient's medieval-Catholic awareness that is demanded of the reader of "The Blessed Damozel."
Before proceeding to examine the poem itself, the point needs to be made that the role of the percipient in "The Blessed Damozel," like those of the parenthetical speaker and the damozel herself, is a dramatic and progressive one. Not only does he present and elaborate the scenario of the poem, but he reacts to it, moving from a clear perception, through a purposeful retention and a sensual apprehension, to a final loss of the bright vision of the heavenly damozel; indeed his reactions to what he envisages constitute both an important means of entering his awareness and an important element—a delicate subplot—in the mental drama of the poem. Neither the implied poet nor the assumed reader can be said or asked wholly to suspend judgment of the, by turns, fantastic and despairing responses of the parenthetical speaker. While the same may hold true for some of the speculative utterances of the percipient, it would be difficult and illegitimate either to claim that Rossetti, with his Pre-Raphaelite and Early Christian aims and ideals, does not endorse the essentials of the awareness that the percipient represents or to argue that "The Blessed Damozel" is other than a celebration of certain things: the ideals represented by and in the materialization of the Damozel herself, the intensity of the parenthetical speaker's love for her, and the devotion of the one for the other which, like the relationship between Dante and Beatrice, transcends death itself. No large ironies separate the percipient from Rossetti as they frequently do the speaker from the author of, say, a dramatic monologue. The very mention of dramatic monologue calls to mind "A Last Confession," the Browningesque poem of the Italian maqui that Rossetti apparently wrote shortly after "The Blessed Damozel," and might suggest that the depictions of mind(s) in action in the earlier poem are merely the feeble anticipations of the method that is more fully developed under the influence of Browning in the later one. If tenable, the foregoing discussion of the nature and function of the percipient in "The Blessed Damozel" indicates, however, that Rossetti's primary concern in that poem was not to make his historically distant narrator a fully rounded character as in a Browning monologue but to recreate a mental awareness which he admired to the extent that he felt it worth reexperiencing by his fellow Victorians.
In the opening stanza of "The Blessed Damozel" the reader is presented by the percipient with a vivid picture of the Damozel which is at once realistic and emblematic in the "Gothic manner":
The blessed Damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of Heaven:
Her blue eyes were deeper much
Than a deep water, even.
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.
Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem,
No wrought flowers did adorn,
But a white rose of Mary's gift
On the neck meetly worn;
And her hair, lying down her back,
Was yellow like ripe corn.
Thomas H. Brown is quite right in remarking that these two stanzas function as a "still-life within the framework of the poem" (p. 273). The Damozel is initially envisaged for the reader and by the speaker in a static posture and a physical form that is not only insistently pictorial but, in its emphasis on emblematic rather than sensual detail, entirely orthodox within Rossetti's intuitive yet knowledgeable conception of the Catholic Middle Ages. Just as Dante on the first anniversary of the death of Beatrice drew the resemblance of an angel (S. 42), so the percipient, on the tenth anniversary, it transpires, of the death of the Damozel, boldly envisages the dead woman as fit company for the Blessed Virgin. The explicitly and implicitly Marian tenor of the description emphasizes the virtue and purity of the angelic Damozel: her title of "blessed" indicates her saintliness and her affinity with the Virgin; her floral adjuncts, the "three lilies in her hand" and the "white rose of Mary's gift" are emblematic of her innocence;15 her eyes are blue, a color associated with the Virgin Mary; her unadorned robe, with its "clasp," is indicative of her purity;16 and even her yellow hair accords with traditional representations of the Blessed Virgin.17 It is little wonder that the Rev. Alfred Gurney, who was for many years the incumbent of the prominent Anglo-Catholic church of St. Barnabas, Pimlico, read "The Blessed Damozel" as "an exposition of the spiritual significance of Mary" and saw the Damozel herself as a representation of that "Beauty [which] is one with Purity [and] one with Charity" (Baum, p. liii). Several details of the description serve to consolidate the reader's awareness that the blessed Damozel is, indeed, in the "celestial regions": the seven stars in her hair (perhaps those of Amos 5.8 and Revelation 1.16 and 20) recall the starry crown of the Queen of Heaven in Revelation 12.1 (Baum, p. xxxiii); the white rose on her robe suggests the rose of Dante's Empyrean; and, perhaps, the lilies in her hand remember Pistrucci's depiction of "Celestial Beauty" as a female figure with lilies for an adjunct.18 As if to diminish the distance between Heaven and earth, as well as to emphasize the physicality of the Damozel, the percipient includes two comparisons with things in nature in the poem: the Damozel's eyes, he says, are "deeper … / Than deep water …" and her hair, he says, is "yellow like ripe corn." Now of course it is both inevitable and conventional that the heavenly be described in terms of the earthly, but in this instance the tropes of the percipient represent clear choices through which the reader understands his awareness to be naturalistic (for Rossetti a medieval characteristic) and, moreover, attuned to the physicality of the Damozel (though not as yet, to the sensual possibilities of that physicality).
Following the opening description of the Blessed Damozel, the percipient proceeds by means of a tension-building contrast between time conceived as an eternal day in Heaven and time on earth, "ten years" of which have passed since the Damozel's death, to an introduction of her emotional, earth-bound lover.
(To one it is ten years of years:
… Yet now, here in this place
Surely she leaned o'er me,—her hair
Fell all about my face….
Nothing: the Autumn-fall of leaves.
The whole year sets apace.)
The parentheses enclosing this stanza serve two purposes: they isolate the earth-bound lover in a typographical equivalent of a predella and, within that paratactic frame, they present the thoughts of the troubled and fantastic mind of the lover as separate from yet accessible to the percipient, as part of the awareness into which the reader enters. The painful intensity of the lover's devotion to the Damozel and his evident desire to renew contact with her, besides being a central node of feeling in the poem, serve a rhetorical function in that they provide the causal referente for the percipient's ensuing assertions that the damozel does indeed exist in a physical heaven ("It was the terrace of God's house / That she was standing on …") and that she, too, shares the desire to be united with her lover, albeit, necessarily, after this death. Such assertions, which take the form of the percipient's ever more detailed (and, therefore, reassuring and convincing) descriptions of the Damozel's Heaven, are the means by which the reader-spectator comes to share in the medieval-Catholic's vision, not only of Heaven (its location and components), but also of the soul's journey there (in the likeness of "thin flames").19
In the several stanzas following the intrusion of the parenthetical speaker, the percipient gives what, in essence, is the verbal equivalent of a "Gothic" painting of Heaven. Of these stanzas, the cumulative effect of which is to locate and, as it were, flesh out, a Heaven that is, at once, inconceivably distant and readily envisaged, quietistically spiritual and tangibly physical (indeed, palatial), the most controversial is the one containing the percipient's second description of the blessed Damozel:
And still she bowed herself, and stooped
Into the vast waste calm;
Till her bosom's pressure must have made
The bar she leaned on warm,
And the lilies lay as if asleep
Along her bended arm.
The last four lines of this delightful stanza are sometimes adduced to prove the depiction of Heaven in "The Blessed Damozel" to be excessively physical and sensual. It is crucial to realize that, as in the earlier, naturalistic comparison of the Damozel's hair with "ripe corn," the charmingly sensual and tenderly maternal components of the passage are the speculative and fanciful additions of the percipient: "her bosom's pressure must have made / The bar she leaned on warm …"; "the lilies lay as if asleep / Along her bended arm." The shift from the relative detachment of the opening stanzas to the sensitive empathy of the later description is interesting. It reveals a shift in the putative psychology of the percipient who, after prolonged exposure to the vision of the damozel and, perhaps also, in sympathy with the parenthetical speaker whose thoughts are a part of his own consciousness, is now preparing to enter more fully into the intense emotional life, the transcendent love, of the damozel and her lover. Needless to say, the percipient's ability to assume the damozel's point of view, and the resultant account of her speech that occupies the greater part of the remainder of the poem, provide a further means by which the reader-spectator enters into the awareness of a medieval-Catholic.
The Damozel's speech, in which she looks forward longingly to her lover's arrival in Heaven, demands that the reader-spectator adopt a point of view related to pictorial art and envisage the stages of the lover's initiation—his purification and purgation, the approach of the pair to "the dear Mother." and the intercession of the Mediatrix with Christ on behalf of their love—as a series of medieval paintings or panels. As in the opening stanzas of the poem, it is the stanza form itself which in the Damozel's speech exhibits a paratactic quality, framing within its regular contours the episodes of the solemnly imagined events:
When round his head the aureole clings,
And he is clothed in white,
I'll take his hand, and go with him
To the deep wells of light,
And we will step down as to a stream
And bathe there in God's sight.
… . .
Herself shall bring us, hand in hand,
To Him round whom all souls
Kneel—the unnumbered solemn heads
Bowed with their aureoles:
And angels, meeting us, shall sing
To their citherns and citoles.
In highly pictorial lines such as these the spirit of Early Christian art is captured. But while their technique is carefully pictorial, these and other lines in the Damozel's speech draw for imagery and resonance on literary sources, particularly the Divine Comedy and the Book of Revelation—the "deep wells of light" that are likened to "a stream," for instance, recalling both the "lume in forma di riviera" in the Paradiso, XXX and the "pure river of water of life" in Revelation 22.1.
At almost the exact center of the Damozel's orderly and stylized speech are two parenthetical stanzas given over to the earthly lover's doubts about his own worthiness to enter Heaven. It is easy to miss the fact that the first of these is a reflexive comment on the mentality of the Damozel and, by extension, on the awareness of the percipient:
(Alas! to her wise simple mind
These things were all but known
Before: they trembled on her sense,—
Her voice had caught their tone.
Alas for lonely Heaven! Alas
For life wrung out alone!
The function of these lines, and of the following stanza, is not just to provide an explicit gloss on the "wise simple mind" of the believing medieval-Catholic that is being presented and celebrated in "The Blessed Damozel" but also, through the interjected sorrows, anxieties, and questions of the earthly lover, to explore the form that doubt might take in a sceptical mind of the Middle Ages and, by so doing, to provide the passive or unbelieving reader of the Victorian period with a mimesis of his own mental processes:
Alas, and though the end were reached….
Was thy part understood
Or borne in trust? And for her sake
Shall this too be found good?—
May the close lips that knew not prayer
Praise ever, though they would?)
Although, ostensibly, this is a dialogue of one within the mind of the earthly lover, it also functions in a dialogic manner within the "inner standing-point" of the poem as a whole, posing rhetorical questions of the reader-spectator and forcing him to recognize whatever gap exists between his own mentality and the "wise simple" awareness embodied in the damozel and the percipient. If tenable, this possibility suggests that the earthly lover, no less than the damozel and the percipient, is a rhetorical device employed by the implied poet of "The Blessed Damozel" to argue the reader-spectator towards an appreciation and acceptance of the "Catholic—medieval and unmodern" "conceptions and … point of view" which the poem embodies.
The final lines of "The Blessed Damozel," where the Damozel has "mildly" concluded her speech and is hopefully awaiting the arrival of her lover in Heaven, also serve a distinctly rhetorical purpose:
The light thrilled past her, filled
With Angels, in strong level lapse.
Her eyes prayed, and she smiled.
(I saw her smile.) But soon their flight
Was vague 'mid the poised spheres,
And then she cast her arms along
The golden barriers.
And laid her face between her hands,
And wept. (I heard her tears.)
The "barriers" of this final stanza achieve special force when compared with the "golden bar" across which the Damozel leans at the beginning and middle of the poem. That "the … bar" has now become "The … barriers" indicates the percipient's recognition (which is also the damozel's) that between the quick and the dead there can only be visionary communication. Thus the Damozel's sorrow that her lover's soul is not amongst those being carried to Heaven by the Angels (whose flight does mediate between earth and Heaven) is bracketed by the simple affirmations of the parenthetical speaker who is, literally, given the last words in the poem. If the way the poem ends bequeaths a final validity on the transcendent love of the earthbound speaker, it does not at all negate those aspects of "The Blessed Damozel" which make the poem an unmistakable celebration, not merely of intense emotion, but of the Damozel herself, her meticulously pictorial Heaven, and, above all, of the wise, simple, and visionary consciousness of the percipient through whose eyes, ears, sympathies, and speculations the reader-spectator comes to participate in an awareness of the Catholic Middle Ages.
It should now be clear that, whatever significance "The Blessed Damozel" came to have for the later Rossetti or for later generations, the poem, at the time of its publication in The Germ, partook of the Pre-Raphaelite program to recover a mode of awareness that they associated with the Catholic Middle Ages and to make it accessible to their Victorian contemporaries. If the poem offers a Kantean answer to such conventional, empirical questions as "who is speaking?" and "what is real?" it does so as part of its strategy of demanding that the reader adopt an "inner standing-point" in order to reexperience its emotional influence. But if the percipient of "The. Blessed Damozel" was designed by Rossetti as a window into Gothic consciousness, he also offers glimpses of the implied poet and the real poet-painter of the Pre-Raphaelite period. So celebratory is the poem of a medieval-Catholic awareness that, when read beside The Germ version of "My Sister's Sleep" for instance, it justifies Swinburne's conception of the implied poet of the Pre-Raphaelite period as a "Christian" (Lang, ll, 105). Yet the articulation, through the meditations of the earthbound lover, of deep selfquestionings and all-questioning points to a Rossetti of the Pre-Raphaelite period who knew about religious doubt as well as medieval faith, about personal misgiving as well as idealistic vision, about despair as well as hope. A hundred years after his death the mercurial amalgam that can be sensed behind "The Blessed Damozel" continues to intrigue.
1 The text of Hunt's letter of March 31, 1848, which is indeed flattering (he hails Rossetti as an "unquestionable poet") is printed in Memoir, pp. 122-123; DGR's letter to Hunt is in W. H. Arnold's Ventures in Book Collecting (New York, 1923), pp. 211-215.
2 Caine quotes the now well-known statement, supposedly by Rossetti, that in "The Blessed Damozel" he had "determined to reverse the conditions" of "The Raven"; in his revised edition (1928) Caine omitted the statement (p. 186).
3 Rossetti was interested in the Iconologia (1821, 1824), a work devoted, in the words of its subtitle, to the "art of representing by allegorical figures the various abstract conceptions of the mind." Hereafter cited as Iconologia.
4 These were among the "libro sommamente mistico" ("supremely mystical books") in his father's library which, as William Michael recalls (Memoir, p. 62), the young Rossetti "inspected from time to time, with some gusto not unmingled with awe."
5 Ronnalie Roper Howard, The Dark Glass: Vision and Technique in the Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Ohio Univ. Press, 1972), p. 44.
6 Richard L. Stein, The Ritual of Interpretation (Harvard Univ. Press, 1975), p. 153.
7Thanks Before Going (London, 1946), p. 50.
8 "Rossetti's 'The Blessed Damozel'," SP, 29 (1932), 500.
9 See Validity in Interpretation (Yale Univ. Press, 1967).
10 See also P. F. Baum, "Introduction," The Blessed Damozel. The Unpublished Manuscript, Text, and Collection (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1937). Quotations from The Germ version of "The Blessed Damozel" are taken from Baum's edition.
11 Another study (S. 244M) for the painting depicts several figures playing cymbals, in a possible reference to Psalm 150.
12Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Versecraft (Univ. of Florida Press, 1971), p. 100.
13 Although J. A. Sanford, "The Morgan Manuscript of Rossetti's 'The Blessed Damozel'," SP, 35 (1938), 471-486 casts doubt on the authenticity of the supposed 1847 manuscript of the poem, it is worth noting that such period words as "Damozel" and "Circle-wise" appear in The Germ where the MS has "damsel" and "circle" since it was late in 1849 that Rossetti spent "several days" at the British Museum "reading up all manner of old romaunts, to pitch upon stunning words of poetry" (DW 43). One of the works that Rossetti may have encountered at this time is The Old English Versions of the Gesta Romanorum, edited for the Roxburgh Club by Sir Frederick Madden, which contains details subsumed into "The Staff and Scrip" as well as a picturesque, Anglo-Norman vocabulary of words such as "demeselle."
14 See Thomas H. Brown, "The Quest of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 'The Blessed Damozel'," VP, 10 (1972), 274-275 for the argument that the "entire drama" of the poem is "enacted within the single consciousness of the earthbound lover." In addition to Howard, pp. 43f. and Stein, pp. 147f., Paul Lauter, "The Narrator of 'The Blessed Damozel'," MLN, 73 (1958), 344-348 and W. Stacy Johnson, "D. G. Rossetti as Painter and Poet," VP, 3 (1965), 9-18 offer discussions of the narrative problem in "The Blessed Damozel."
15 See Works, p. 173 for the lily as emblem of "Innocence." The "three lilies" in the Damozel's hand bring to mind the "Threefold Plant" (works, p. 662) of "Mater Pulchrae Delectionis," The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini!
16 The garments of Rossetti's more earthly women—Ophelia, Guenevere, the prostitute in Found and the bride of "The Bride's Prelude"—have ornate dresses while the Virgin in Girlhood and Ecce Ancilla Domini! is plainly attired. The clasp (or cognate "loinbelt") appears as an emblem of virginity in "The Bride's Prelude" and Hesterna Rosa.
17 See Lucien Pissarro, Rossetti (London, n.d.), S. 44, and Mrs. [Anne] Jameson, Legends of the Madonna, as Represented in the Fine Arts (London, 1852), p. liv for Rossetti's breach of a "rule of the Brotherhood" in altering the color of the model's hair in Ecce Ancilla Domini! to accord with the traditional representation of the Virgin with yellow hair.
18Iconologia, No. 35. Pistrucci depicts "Astrology," No. 27, as a female figure with stars in her hair.
19 In the painting of The Blessed Damozel (1875-1878) three angelic figures clothed in flames carry palm branches—Rossetti's emblem for the soul's victory over death and triumph in Heaven.
John P. McGowan (essay date 1982)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7315
SOURCE: "'The Bitterness of Things Occult': D. G. Rossetti's Search for the Real," in Critical Essays on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, edited by David G. Reide, Twayne, 1992, pp. 113-27.
[In the following essay, originally published in Victorian Poetry in 1982, McGowan probes Rossetti's attempts to reconcile art and reality in his poetry.]
In his Autobiography, Yeats claims that Dante Rossetti, "though his dull brother did once persuade him that he was agnostic," was a "devout Christian."1 This description is wildly inaccurate, yet it indicates one way to read Rossetti's poetry. Rossetti accepts the traditional Christian notion that man confronts a created world which contains within it certain universal meanings. The artist's task is to uncover those meanings and to present them to an audience, a task which involves a certain amount of interpretation. Rossetti's problem is that he cannot get the world to speak to him; its meanings continually elude him, so that his poetry is unable to present the real fashioned in such a way as to make its true meaning evident. His poetry keeps falling away from the real and the universal toward the poet's personal experiences. This failure to find an adequate poetic subject might be attributed to Rossetti's lack of talent or lack of faith, but his struggles also suggest the predicament of the post-Romantic Victorian poets who found that the sources of Romantic poetry were no longer fruitful. The result is a poetry (which includes some excellent poems) constructed out of a recognition of its own failure, a poetry which undermines its own validity in face of the reality it has failed to express. Despite all the poet's efforts, reality keeps secret from him its hidden meanings.2
An early sonnet, "St. Luke the Painter" (later incorporated into The House of Life LXXV), describes a Christian aesthetic, one in which art "rends the mist / Of devious symbols," finding in "sky-breadth and field-silence" the way to God. Rossetti aligns himself with this art which acts to make apparent the meaning of experience, and accepts the priestly role given to the artist. Lamenting the fact that modern art "has turned in vain / To soulless self-reflections of man's skill," the poet piously hopes that art will return to that time when it was "God's priest." Art must learn to "pray again."
Two consequences of this Christian aesthetic should be noted. First, a thing is never its appearance merely: there is always something beyond or beneath what is present to the senses, and the artist searches out this deeper significance. William Rossetti characterized "the intimate intertexture of a spiritual sense with a material form" as "one of the influences which guided the [Pre-Raphaelite] movement."3 Holman Hunt would certainly have agreed with this statement, as well as with the aesthetic of "St. Luke the Painter." Hunt thought that the advantage of faithfulness to nature in pictorial representation was that such accuracy would make the symbolic import of the represented image more apparent.4
The inability to identify meaning simply as appearance, the need to represent the thing so that qualities not on the surface are manifested, leads to the second important feature of a Christian art: the identification of art with prayer. Luke is honored because he "first taught Art to fold her hands and pray" and the poet's hope is that art will learn to "pray again." The artist prays that hidden meanings might be revealed to him.
Resistance to Yeats's characterization of Rossetti as a Christian is based on Rossetti's having abandoned, after the early poems and paintings, specifically Christian themes or any adherence to Christian dogma. But Yeats's comment is true to Rossetti's retention, throughout his career, of his conviction in significances beyond sense and the need for "prayerful" poems. The problem becomes how to gain access to those hidden meanings. Hunt's belief that attention to physical detail reveals spiritual significance is, of course, derived from Ruskin, but this theory works only in the context of religious faith. Rossetti lacks Hunt's faith, if not the desires faith can satisfy, and his art strives to develop satisfactory means of access other than faith to the spiritual. Long after his art has been stripped of any Christian trappings, the poem as prayer remains one of Rossetti's stocks in trade.
What thing unto mine ear
Wouldst thou convey,—what secret thing,
O wandering water ever whispering?
Surely thy speech shall be of her.
Thou water, O thou whispering wanderer,
What message dost thou bring?
"The Stream's Secret" (from which this stanza is taken) presents Rossetti at his most listless. The poet's passive stance is broken only by the voicing of his plea, but even that action is languidly performed, and continually announces its imminent end. The poet hopes his own words will spur the stream to talk, to divulge its secret. He waits anxiously for his own voice to be replaced by the stream's. But in vain. "Still silent? Can no art / Of Love's then move thy pity? Nay" (ll. 199-200). The stream retains its secret, and the discouraged poet stops speaking to cry, adding his tears to the stream's "cold" water. This poem is hardly Rossetti at his best or most attractive, but it embodies that despair which gave rise to charges of morbidity. The poet, immersed in Dante and the Romantics, goes to nature to find an intimation (a symbol) of the larger significances which give experience meaning, and only finds dead material things which resist his prayer, remain silent, and refuse incorporation into art.
"The Woodspurge" is a famous example of how nature is dead for Rossetti in a way that it was not for Dante or the Romantics.5 The woodspurge's "cup of three" reminds the reader of the Christian synthesis which did unite the individual to the world around him, but the point of the poem is that this union no longer exists. The poet remains totally isolated in his grief, just as the individuality of the woodspurge remains inviolate despite the speaker's investigation. The poem might almost be read as a repudiation of the Ruskinian aesthetic adopted by Hunt. The poet has gone to nature and looked with care at the particular thing, and the result is neither an awakening of faith nor a feeling of greater participation in some unity which includes both poet and flower.
In "Jenny" it is not the natural world, but another person, who faces the speaker as an alien reality which he cannot get to speak. The speaker stops several times to inquire of the sleeping prostitute: "Whose person or whose purse may be / The lodestar of your reverie?" (ll. 20-21); "I wonder what you're thinking of (1. 58). Jenny, asleep, is unable to answer, and so the speaker supplies the answers himself, offering what he imagines her thoughts must be.
Nothing could more completely distinguish Rossetti from the Romanticism of Wordsworth than this failure to find a voice beyond himself. The speaker of "Jenny" is a scholar or writer who has hidden from the world in his "room … full of books" (ll. 22-23). On this night he has escaped from his study to confront "life" and cull a lesson from the confrontation, much as Wordsworth does from his meeting with the leech gatherer. But Rossetti's speaker, far from gaining new insights from his encounter, spends the night only with his own thoughts. His habit of self-involved meditation results in Jenny's playing the same role as a book to him. "You know not what a book you seem, / Half-read by lightning in a dream!" (ll. 51-52). Of course, the leech gatherer only fosters an intensely personal meditation in Wordsworth as well, but the difference is that Wordsworth finds in the encounter a way to transcend himself, to change the current of his thoughts. Rossetti's speaker achieves no such transcendence. Jenny is subsumed entirely into him, another manifestation of his thoughts.6
The futility of his thoughts, their emptiness and unreality, overcomes the speaker at various times in the poem: "… my thoughts run on like this / With wasteful whims more than enough" (ll. 56-57); "Let the thoughts pass, an empty cloud!" (l. 155). The reality of Jenny lies before the speaker, but he is painfully aware that her "truth" has escaped him.
Come, come, what use in thoughts like this?
Poor little Jenny, good to kiss,—
You'd not believe by what strange roads
Thought travels, when your beauty goads
A man tonight to think of toads!
Jenny, wake up … Why there's the dawn!
"Thought," travelling by "strange roads," strays from the real. Everything returns the speaker to the prison of self. The absence of sexual union in the poem points toward the absence of any corresponding spiritual union. Many of the sexual puns which would describe the situation also adequately describe the speaker's failure to effect a union between thought and reality, self and other. This meeting has been sterile; the speaker has not penetrated this incomprehensible other being whose thoughts remain completely unknown to him. These parallels between the physical and epistemological planes are suggested by the ending of the poem.
And must I mock you to the last,
Ashamed of my own shame,—aghast
Because some thoughts not born amiss
Rose at a poor fair face like this?
Well, of such thoughts, so much I know:
In my life, as in hers, they show,
By a far gleam which I may near,
A dark path I can strive to clear.
This passage is difficult because the reference of "thoughts" is ambiguous. Two readings are possible, each of which illuminates certain important features of Rossetti's poetry. The first possibility is that the "thought" which "shames" the speaker is lust, and he mocks Jenny because she has fostered that emotion in him. Much of the poem has focused, in no flattering terms, on "man's changeless sum / Of lust" (ll. 278-279). The last lines suggest, then, that the speaker (in Wordsworthian fashion) has formed a new resolution. The experience of lust has intimated to him (the "far gleam") the existence of love, a state which he might attain by "clearing" the "dark path" of base desires. (The path's darkness also indicates his ignorance and inexperience.) The speaker leaves Jenny to go seek love. We might call this the "Wordsworthian" or "optimistic" reading. Although union with this particular woman is impossible, the speaker has recognized that physical love is an analogue of spiritual love, and that through physical love he can move toward the realm of spiritual love. Love can be the solution to the radical split between self and other. The dead world can be brought to life by love, and much of Rossetti's later poetry explores both how physical love either symbolizes or leads to spiritual love, and how love serves to connect self to the world.
This "optimistic" reading must be qualified, however, since the poem does not exhibit a Wordsworthian confidence that any substantial contact with Jenny has been made. The second possible reference of "thoughts" (l. 385) is to the meditations contained in the poem. The speaker's shame is his chagrined awareness that, characteristically, his night with the prostitute was spent in "thought," not in bed. He recovers his self-pride by asserting his difference from Jenny, an assertion cemented by his placing the coins in her hair. Both the speaker and Jenny are thinking beings whose thoughts "show" the "far gleam" of a purity beyond this world's degradation, but the speaker sticks to his image of Jenny as "thoughtless" (l. 7) to suggest that only he will follow the "gleam" and clear the "dark path." The speaker leaves Jenny and her physical world behind to retreat into the realm of pure thought. The poem reveals a strong disgust with the bestial in man, so the final choice of purity by the speaker, even when seen as partly a defensive reaction to his inability to participate in Jenny's world, is not a total surprise.
While the reader's ironic understanding of the speaker's limits is deliberately set up by Rossetti, the tensions explored in the poem are Rossetti's as well as the protagonist's. At times able to find in the physical an analogue for the spiritual, at other times Rossetti can only see the physical and the spiritual as complete opposites. The speaker's attitude toward Jenny, with its strange mixture of sympathy and contempt, accurately reflects Rossetti's own confusions over the exact relations of thought to life. He longs for the correspondences between thought and world found by the Romantics. But those correspondences elude him, and the world constructed by thought seems far superior to the dead world discovered by the senses.7 However, Rossetti is rarely able to effect a retreat into pure thought with a clear conscience. He still believes in a reality which exists independent of thought, and which is also stronger than thought. If Rossetti's difficulty in finding a home in nature distinguishes him from the Romantics, his uneasiness with residence in the halls built by imagination equally demonstrates his separation from the moderns.
Poem after poem places the speaker in a position of readiness from which he strains to catch the message he is persuaded the world must hold. In "Love-Lily" the speaker's "life grows faint to hear" the approach of a "spirit" who "on my mouth his finger lays" and "shows" the silenced poet the "Eden of Love." "The Sea-Limits" is another listening poem, with "secret continuance sublime" identified as the sea's song. The poet here exhorts his readers to listen not only to the sea but also to a shell "which echo[es] … the whole sea's speech." When he emphasizes listening to the world, Rossetti's conception of poetry can be likened to this shell. Poetry should "echo" the voice of the world, not introducing personal or solipsistic reveries, but presenting the meanings of a world all men live in. The word "echo," which appears in many Rossetti poems, suggests a perfect harmony, a faithful reproduction of something given to the poet.8 Yet an echo is secondary and weaker than the original sound. Rossetti seems determined to find meaning in the external world rather than in a world created by imagination, even when it means accepting a secondary and passive voice for the poet. However, his voice is weakest, not when he echoes truths present in nature, but when he laments that the secret of life's meanings is being kept from him. "The bitterness of things occult" remains the greatest burden he must bear.9
That thoughts exist separate from the actual significance of reality afflicts Rossetti's notion of art. Far from being an "aestheticist" in the sense that he wishes art to have no relation to life, Rossetti continually bemoans art's failed attempts to embody the real. His poetry points the way toward modern "aestheticism" only insofar as it contemplates art's difficulties in reaching beyond itself and becoming real. In "Jenny" the speaker tries to imagine how Jenny's "true nature" might be portrayed by an artist. How would "Raffael" or "Leonardo" have painted the prostitute? The beautiful women painted by these masters showed to "men's souls" what "God can do" (ll. 238-240), but the artist who would portray Jenny must show a beautiful face which reveals the evil men have done while still showing that God cherishes the fallen woman. Such a portrait, the speaker concludes, could not be painted, for reasons which seem archetypally Victorian: religious doubt and the audience's prudery. How could an artist portray God's love for the sinner when he has "no sign" that such love exists. "All dark. No sign on earth / What measure of God's rest endows / The many mansions of his house" (ll. 247-249). This failure to see a way to paint Jenny is followed by the lament: "If but a woman's heart might see / Such erring heart unerringly / For once! But that can never be" (ll. 250-252). The flat despair of the second sentence falls limply after the soaring hope of the first. Even where reality could be made to speak, the cherished respectability of the Victorian audience would insure that the revealed meanings would never be heeded.
The relation of art to the real is complicated further when, continuing his lament that no Victorian audience would allow itself to contemplate the reality of Jenny, the speaker describes her as
a rose shut in a book
In which pure women may not look,
For its base pages claim control
To crush the flower within the soul.
This passage, on one level, links Victorian prudery to the horror of Jenny's existence. Society condemns Jenny to a particular life and death by turning on her, and yet this same society is hypocritical enough to claim that the book which would present Jenny faithfully will corrupt "pure" women.10
More interesting in terms of the argument presented here is how this passage develops the relationship between art and life. The metaphor of the rose which is killed when it is pressed into a book suggests that the artist kills reality when he transforms it into art. Has the poet not taken the "rose," Jenny, and shut her into his own book? Making Jenny the subject of a poem is an extension of the process by which the speaker has attributed all his own thoughts to the sleeping prostitute. Art is substituted for reality just as the speaker's thoughts were substituted for Jenny's. Everything—God's silence, society's fragmentation and prudery, the speaker's solipsism, and the poet's imposition of form and interpretation—conspires to leave life's secrets inviolate and to identify art as merely the domain of personal reveries.
Both poems entitled "The Portrait" consider how the artist, through his art, appropriates reality and controls the meanings it reveals.11 In the sonnet, the poet-painter glories in his ownership of the real.
Let all men note
That in all years (O Love, thy gift is this!)
They that would look on her must come to me.
The form the portrait painter has given to his love is how she will exist for others from this point on. The earlier poem is more troubled by the hubris implied by the artist setting up his art as the sole point of access to a particular reality. The poem opens by establishing that where art is, reality is no longer. "This is her picture as she was." And the reader learns that "only this, of love's whole prize / Remains." The painting is so lifelike that the poet can cry, "'Tis she!," but he quickly qualifies this ecstasy: "though of herself, alas! / Less than her shadow on the grass / Or than her image in the stream." The limitation of Art is that while it may faithfully represent the real, it always remains only a representation of the object represented. The portrait is what remains of the poet-painter's love, but these remains are incomplete since the painting has not captured "what is secret and unknown, / Below the earth, above the skies." Not only does the loved one's life elude the artist's attempt to capture it, but the portrait also fails to convey some "mystery" about the loved one which "takes counsel with my soul alone." Because the material image is not the living woman, the essential, spiritual truth about her is not conveyed.
It might seem a long way from the "living woman" of this poem to the "dead, thoughtless" prostitute of "Jenny." But these two ways of characterizing the other are linked for Rossetti. Jenny is dead insofar as the artist must enliven her to make her suitable material for poetry. The speaker has interpreted her, created an image of her in his thoughts, tried to imagine her reality. But, in doing all this, he worries that he has crushed the "rose" of the actual Jenny. The mystery which transcends the painted image of the woman in "The Portrait" addresses the same fear that the woman presented in art is only the artist's recreation of the real in terms of his art. Even where it means belittling his art, Rossetti needs to assert the existence of a reality which is other than the artist and his imagination.
In fact, "The Portrait" implies that life and art are inimical, that the living thing is never art, that art only holds images of the dead. The poem narrates how the two lovers first exchanged vows of love. The "next day" the poet-painter remembers his ecstasy and decides he "must make them all [his] own / And paint this picture." He begins the task immediately.
And as I wrought, while all above
And all around was fragrant air,
In the sick burthen of my love
It seemed each sun-thrilled blossom there
Beat like a heart among the leaves.
O heart that never beats nor heaves,
In that one darkness lying still,
What now to thee my love's great will
Or that fine web that sunshine weaves?
The speaker's feeling that all nature is alive as he paints is juxtaposed with the fact of the loved one's death. The "sick burthen" of his love is the need to make the previous day's perfection all his "own" by freezing it in a painting. The cause of the woman's death is never given, but the poet-painter's attempt to capture her in art results in his having exchanged her for the portrait with which he is left. The poem implies a choice between life and art. Where one is, the other is not. And since for Rossetti life comes first, the work of art becomes merely a surrogate for the reality which inspires it.
The last four stanzas continue this opposition between art and life, but the poet wavers as to which is most desirable. Reality is associated with "day" and "light," art with "darkness" and "night." Only in art can the speaker retain his memory of that once perfect love.
For now doth daylight disavow
Those days,—nought left to see or hear.
Only in solemn whispers now
At night-time these things reach mine ear.
Art, existing in the realm of dream, memory and night-time, remains a repository for contents which the harsh light of reality disavows. The speaker, preferring night-time, "delay[s] his sleep till dawn." But he cannot live entirely in the night world; the dawn is inevitable.
And as I stood there suddenly
All wan with traversing the night,
Upon the desolate verge of light
Yearned loud the iron-bosomed sea.
Implacable ("iron-bosomed") and desolate, reality returns, usurping the speaker's reveries and memories. The better world the poet establishes in art, the more satisfying realm of night in which desires are fulfilled in dream and imagination, must yield to the cold light of day. Reality both gives birth to the need to imagine something better than the real and acts to deny that imagined world's validity. The very fact that reality raises the question of meaning and then refuses to answer it makes the poet retreat to an artistic world full of significance. At the same time, the poet begins to suspect that the answer to the question of meaning is that reality is inimical to human desires.12 Rossetti's acceptance that there exists a reality independent of the self and its desires, and that art should depict that reality, necessitated his submission to the "bitterness of things occult."
The poet's goal in The House of Life is to ground personal experience in reality by finding in emotion and the loved woman symbols of general truths about Love, Life, Hope, and those other personified abstractions which occupy these sonnets alongside the detailed descriptions of individual things. Of The House of Life Rossetti wrote; "To speak in the first person is often to speak most vividly; but these emotional poems are in no sense 'occasional.' The 'life' involved is life representative, as associated with love and death, with aspiration and foreboding, or with ideal art and beauty. Whether the recorded moment exists in the region of fact or thought is a question indifferent to the Muse, so long only as her touch can quicken it" (Doughty, p. 379). Rossetti knew very well that he had trouble effecting this movement from the particular to the general, and we must take this statement as one of desire not of achievement, but there can be little doubt that the sonnets address this concern directly.
The importance of love for Rossetti lies in its seeming ability to elevate personal experience into the realm of the archetypal. The loved woman embodies all life and all truth. In "Heart's Hope" (V) the poet tells his readers that "one loving heart" can "signify" to "all hearts all things," that the present spring can represent "other Springs gone by." The poet dedicates himself to the task of symbolizing absent things and meanings in these given particulars; the woman serves as the symbol for which the religious poet has been seeking. The way in which the symbols work is left vague, but the poet claims to have experienced moments of "instantaneous penetrating sense." Dawn, birth, and imagery of spring dominate this sonnet, as they do many of Rossetti's happier love poems when he feels that love is granting him an insight into and union with a world beyond himself. The meaning of things dawns on the poet as he perceives the loved one: he is born into a new world which now makes sense to him. And this insight validates his art. The sonnet begins by asking, "what word's power" will allow the poet to realize and embody his new-found knowledge. However, "Heart's Hope," it should be noted, is set almost entirely in the subjunctive mood and stands as a statement of the poet's projects and hopes, not of what he has already accomplished.
There is no need to doubt that love (be it for Lizzie Siddal, Janey Morris, or any other woman) granted Rossetti a sense of being at home in a world in which the bitterness of hidden meanings was, at least temporarily, assuaged. But the success of much of the love poetry need not blind the reader to the problems the poet encounters in trying to make his love experiences "signify all things."13 The woman in these poems is often enough a shadowy figure, and she is almost always as silent as Jenny. (In fact, the emphasis on physical description turns the woman into a virtual icon, to remind the reader of Rossetti's other career as a painter.) Often the woman becomes a mystery herself, rather than a transparency through which all meanings are revealed, and the poet is reduced to contemplating a reality which excludes him, which he cannot know. Of "True Woman" (LVI) he writes:
How strange a thing to be what Man can know
But as a sacred secret! Heaven's own screen
Hides her soul's purest depth and loveliest glow.
More than any individual poem, however, the structure of The House of Life as a whole reveals Rossetti's uneasiness with immersion in personal experience. The poems move from the personal to the non-personal, from happy moments with the loved one to memories of her and meditations on the general significance of love after death.14 Most readers will agree that the sonnets of Part I, "Youth and Change," are better than those of Part II, "Change and Fate," but what is interesting is Rossetti's compulsion to relinquish his celebration of an individual love experience to write the more general poems of the second part. Rossetti is uneasy with the personal unless he can attach general significance to it, and so he consciously designs his sonnet sequence to move from the particular to the general.
Even in the first part, "Youth and Change," the harsh realities of change and death break in to show the youth that something beyond him exists. The beauty of a poem like "Silent Noon" (XIX) depends not only on its evocation of a perfect moment, but also on its suggestion of that moment's fragility. The lovers have succeeded in escaping for a brief instant (while the sun stops overhead) a reality which is indifferent to their needs.15The House of Life as a whole sequence denies the possibility of resting in the particular or in the moment, pleasant as such resting might be. Reality always crashes in and reestablishes a less satisfactory, but more real, world.
The sonnets often isolate intense moments but then work to reincorporate such moments into the general continuity of time.16 Rossetti's sonnet on the sonnet describes his attempt to capture moments of "instantaneous penetrating sense."
A Sonnet is a moment's monument,—
Memorial from the Soul's eternity
To one dead deathless hour.
The moment is both "dead" and "deathless" because it is past, lost forever, and yet the significance it offers, taken from the "eternal" realm which is the soul's domain, is timeless, always true. Art can "memorialize" that eternal significance. Here, then, is one solution to "the bitterness of things occult." Moments of revelation illuminate the true meaning of things in the world, and art can record these momentary insights.17
Twentieth-century readers are familiar enough with the consequences of an aesthetics of the moment. Inevitably, emphasis on the moment leads to a discontinuity between moments of revelation and the uniformative daily life of "habit" and "oblivion" (to use Proust's terms). Often enough, this aesthetic leads to a celebration of art's superiority to life, since art affords these glorious moments. Certainly some of Rossetti's sonnets find in the moment the only pleasures life offers. In "Severed Selves" (XL) the lovers look forward to the hour of reunion, "an hour slow to come, how quickly past, / Which blooms, fades, and only leaves at last / Faint as shed flowers, the attenuated dream." In this poem, life itself seems a dream when compared to passion's intense hour. Rossetti is close at times to Pater's advocation of concentrated moments of intense feeling, and to identifying those moments as the most real things ever encountered, with the resultant acceptance of art, which captures and sustains those moments, as more real than life.
But Rossetti exists on the Victorian side of Pater and it is the tension between art and life, along with the conviction that life is more real, which constitutes Rossetti's poetry. While the moment is an end in itself for Pater, and turns life into art for Proust, it exists for Rossetti as an exception, a wonderful but somewhat unreal escape from the boredom and pain of the everyday. A poet whose experience of radical discontinuities generates in him a desire for continuity, Rossetti will only be satisfied when the particular touches on the general. He strives to make the personal a fit subject for the public, art express the nature of the real, and the moment take its place in a temporal sequence. Whenever the particular cannot be linked to these larger frameworks, Rossetti suspects that these smaller entities do not partake of the real, and are only figments of the imagination.
Many of Rossetti's poems yield these figments, sponsored by desire, in the face of a reality which overwhelms the poet's aspirations. The poet who has been unable to get reality to speak when he pleads for it to do so discovers the voice of reality when it denies him what he wants. Recognizing reality in this resistance to his desires, the poet submissively yields.18 The "Willowwood Sonnets" (XLIX-LII) provide one example. The poet sits with "Love" by a well, listening for the "certain secret thing" Love has to tell. Turning Love's lute-playing into the "passionate voice" of his dead beloved, the poet is granted a vision of the lady in the water of the well. Now that the poet is absorbed in this vision, Love begins to sing, yet the message is a despairing one: "Your last hope lost, who so in vain invite / Your lips to that their unforgotten food." Love's advice is to forget the past since memory only causes the poet to feed longings which can never be satisfied. With the end of Love's song, the face seen in the well falls "back drowned," and the poet is alone once more. The reality which disperses his vision is a reality incompatible with the human desire for permanence.
It seems odd that when, uncharacteristically, Rossetti succeeds in getting a voice outside the self to speak, the message is so often dismal. The poet has begged life, reality, to reveal itself and its deepest meanings to him, and on the few occasions his request bears fruit, the lesson is that life's laws and man's hopes inevitably conflict.
There came an image in Life's retinue
That had Love's wings and bore his gonfalon:
Fair was the web, and nobly wrought thereon,
O soul-sequestered face, thy form and hue!
Bewildering sounds, such as Spring wakens to,
Shook in its folds; and through my heart its power
Sped trackless as the immemorable hour
When birth's dark portal groaned and all was new.
But a veiled woman followed, and she caught
The banner round its staff, to furl and cling,—
Then plucked a feather from the bearer's wing,
And held it to his lips that stirred it not,
And said to me, "Behold, there is no breath:
I and this Love are one, and I am Death."
In the octave of "Death and Love" (XLVIII), the "image" from "Life's retinue" possesses the poet utterly, granting him a "power" which he likens to being present at the mysterious origin of all life, the primal Spring. That origin is an "immemorable hour," its fundamental reality seemingly guaranteed by its transcending any incorporation into human memory or speech. Even when granted an insight into reality far beyond what he has enjoyed before, the poet can only distinguish "bewildering sounds." The mysteries here strain the poet's ability to articulate them.
In the sestet, the full consequences of this revelation become apparent. Even to have penetrated this far into "Life's retinue" is to have gone beyond the limits of the human, to have moved toward death. "Death" might be read metaphorically here. The poet could be saying that union with another in love, which results in the birth of new life (a child, his poetry), also involves a death to self which makes the new life possible. Tied as it is to birth, death here might even take on its Elizabethan, sexual meaning, with the "power" which possesses the poet being sexual passion. But the brutal and bare statement, "Behold, there is no breath," denies all metaphorical readings. The creative union the poet has hoped to find in love, a union beyond self with the real, is declared as identical to death: "I and this Love are one, and I am Death." Denied any experience of union in life, Rossetti comes to believe union can only be found in death.
Such a conclusion would seem preposterous if it were not for the evidence of the poems. The sonnets were written over a period of years, so they are not consistently gloomy. But a poem like "Michelangelo's Kiss" (XCIV) states clearly Rosstti's conviction that no satisfactory union will be experienced in this life: " … even thus the Soul, / Touching at length some sorelychastened goal, / Earns oftenest but a little." After such failure, the only question remains: "What holds for her Death's garner? And for thee?" At times, Rossetti welcomes the bitterest message of reality—the necessity of death with its annihilation of all hopes for this life—because at least this action to end life proves that the reality he seeks is out there. Determined to prove reality exists and is meaningful, Rossetti can find in the forces that thwart him a confirmation that something exists beyond self. Rossetti's need to yield his own desires and his imaginative art to a transcendent reality explains the presence of death, even the worship of and wish for it, in his poems. At times he even identifies himself with this overwhelming force. In "The Monochord" (LXXIX) he considers how "Life's self," imagined as the "sky's vast vault or ocean's sound," "draws my life from me," pulling his small self back into a larger, universal self. And the poet's ambiguous response to this dissolution is expressed by his experiencing "regenerate rapture" at the very moment he perceives the "devious coverts of dismay." In death, the poet's isolation, his sojourn in what one poem calls the "cloud's confines," will end, and he will participate in the reality he never quite penetrated during his lifetime. With death will come complete knowledge of the meaning of things occult: "Strange to think by the way, / Whatever there is to know, / That we shall know one day" ("The Cloud Confines"). In "The Portrait" that demystifying death is imagined as a birth into union and knowledge.
How shall my soul stand rapt and awed,
When, by the new birth born abroad
Throughout the music of the suns,
It enters in her soul at once
And knows the silence there for God!
A longing for death because it will rectify the painful ignorance of life would seem proof enough of a poet's failure to fashion through his art some sustaining meaning. But Rossetti's failure is both more complete—and more poignant. He cannot even affirm death wholeheartedly, because he does not know if it will satisfy the desire for union. Along with the poems which call on death as the solution are those poems which wonder if death, too, might cheat his hopes. "Cloud and Wind" (XLIV) contemplates the horrible possibility that death only reveals "that all is vain / And that Hope sows what Love shall never reap." Death might only be a "sleep" which "Ne'er notes" the very things the poet hopes to witness. Ignorant even here, Rossetti is forced back to prayer, pleading:
That when the peace is garnered in from strife,
The work retrieved, the will regenerate,
This soul may see thy face, O lord of death!
1 (New York, 1953), pp. 188-189.
2 The word "secret" recurs throughout Rossetti's poetry, revealing the poet's belief that some truth or meaning exists, which is being kept from him.
3 Quoted from John Dixon Hunt, The Pre-Raphaelite Imagination 1848-1900 (London, 1968), p. 129.
4 Carol Christ (The Finer Optic [Yale Univ. Press, 1975], pp. 56-62) discusses in detail how the Pre-Raphaelites, especially Hunt, understood the interconnection between "truth to Nature" and the functioning of individual objects as symbols.
5 McGann uses "The Woodspurge" as one example of his thesis that "Rossetti does not want us to symbolize," and he deliberately divests objects of meanings beyond themselves so that the reader is "restored to a kind, of innocence" of immediate response (p. 233). Obviously, McGann's understanding of Rossetti directly contradicts the interpretation being offered here, which sees the resistance of natural objects to a symbolic reading as an indication of the poet's desire to find such meanings, a desire which is often not satisfied. For another discussion of this particular poem and the "resistance" of details to interpretation, see The Finer Optic, pp. 40-44.
6 Writing on "Jenny," both James Paul Seigel ("'Jenny': The Divided Sensibility of a Young and Thoughtful Man of the World," SEL, 9 , 677-694) and James G. Nelson, ("The Rejected Harlot: A Reading of Rossetti's 'A Last Confession' and 'Jenny,'" VP, 10 , 123-130) discuss the speaker's distance from the woman, and the irony (set up by Rossetti) of his failure to make any significant contact with her.
7 The fullest description of Rossetti's separation of himself from the everyday world of Victorian England is Jerome Buckley's "Pre-Raphaelite Past and Present: The Poetry of the Rossettis" in Victorian Poetry, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies No. 15 (London, 1972), pp. 123-138.
8 Some poems which use the image of the "echo" are "Plighted Promise," "Farewell to the Glen" (LXXXIV), "A Day of Love" (XVI), "Stillborn Love" (LV), "Adieu," and "The Cloud Confines."
9 The lines quoted are from the sonnet written for the painting "Our Lady of the Rocks" by Leonardo da Vinci. Florence Saunders Boos (The Poetry of D. G. Rossetti [The Hague, 1976], pp. 224-228) offers a detailed reading of this interesting poem.
10 That "Jenny" would find a place within "a book in which pure woman may not look" reads like an anticipation of the "fleshly poet" controversy. See Seigel (pp. 677-680) for Rossetti's apprehensions about the reception this poem would receive.
11 The longer poem "The Portrait" is one of Rossetti's earliest poems; written in 1847, it was heavily revised for Poems (1870). The sonnet "The Portrait" is number X of The House of Life.
12 Edward Said, in chapter 4 of Beginnings (New York, 1975), discusses nineteenth-century literature in terms of an oscillation between "authority" and "molestation." Writers of the period were searching for an "authority" beyond self to justify their artistic visions, and are concerned about the "author" who sets himself up as creator of a world. Said finds in the novels of the period characters, such as Lydgate in Middlemarch and Ahab in Moby Dick, who try to create worlds out of themselves and who are finally "molested" by a reality which is larger than their individual visions. These characters embody urges found in the authors themselves, and nineteenth-century writers usually work to assure that their visions are "authorized" by the very nature of things; in other words, the authors align themselves with the forces that "molest" the character's desires. The suggestion here is that Rossetti's poetry reveals a similar need to "molest" the poet's more extravagant desires, and for reasons similar to those outlined by Said.
13 The fullest description of love's place in Rossetti's poetry is Stephen Spector's excellent essay "Love, Unity and Desire in the Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti," ELH, (1971), 432-448. Spector sees love as one expression of Rossetti's overwhelming need "to bridge the gap between the subjective and objective worlds" (p. 432), but he concludes that love does not afford such unity and that Rossetti's poems are about "the desire for unity," not the "experience of unity" (p. 443). If McGann is the critic whose understanding of Rossetti is most distant from that presented here, Spector's views are the most similar.
14 There has been a series of studies of the structure of The House of Life over the past fifteen years. The quick outline presented here is drawn from Robert D. Hume's "Inorganic Structure in The House of Life," PLL, 5 (1969), 282-295, and especially Houston A. Baker, "The Poet's Progress: Rossetti's The House of Life," VP, 8 (1970), 1-14.
15 Spector (pp. 445-446) offers a wonderful evaluation of these moments of escape in Rossetti's love poems and how they generally combine light and dark, suggesting that the peace of escape is also a retreat from the world into death.
16 George P. Landow, "'Life touching lips with Immortality': Rossetti's Typological Structures," SR, 17 , 247-265) argues at length (see esp. pp. 258-261) for the view presented here that isolated moments in Rossetti are always finally related to a larger temporal framework.
17 John Dixon Hunt ("A Moment's Monument: Reflections on Pre-Raphaelite Vision in Poetry and Painting" [in Sambrook, pp. 243-264]) offers an excellent discussion of the adherence to an aesthetics of the moment by various writers and artists associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The argument here, of course, is that Rossetti does not find the moment all sufficient. For another discussion of the functioning of the moment, specifically limited to a consideration of Rossetti's poetry, see Stanley M. Holberg, "Rossetti and the Trance," VP, 8 (1970), 299-314.
18 Apart from the Willowwood sonnets and "Death and Love" (discussed here), only six other poems in The House of Life introduce a transcendent voice: "Love's Bauble" (XXII), "The Morrow's Message" (XXXVIII), "Love's Fatality" (LIV), "Love's Last Gift" (LIX), "The Love-Moon" (XXXVII), and "The Sun's Shame" (XCIII). Of these, only "Love's Bauble" and "Love's Last Gift" could be considered "positive" in any way.
19 This essay was first written as part of an NEH Summer Seminar on Victorian and Modern Poetics directed by Carol Christ at the University of California at Berkeley. Thanks are due to the Endowment, and to Professor Christ and members of the seminar who read and helped in the revision of an early draft.
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Anderson, Amanda S. "D. G. Rossetti's 'Jenny': Agency, Intersubjectivity, and the Prostitute." Genders 4 (March 1989): 103-21.
Reading of Rossetti's poem "Jenny" that explores the ways in which the figure of the fallen woman operates in Victorian literature.
Boos, Florence Saunders. The Poetry of Dante G. Rossetti: A Critical Reading and Source Study. The Hague: Mouton, 1976, 297 p.
In-depth study of Rossetti's "The House of Life," narrative ballads, and lyrical poetry preceded by a survey of critical reaction to his work.
Brown, Thomas H. "The Quest of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 'The Blessed Damozel."' Victorian Poetry 10, No. 3 (Autumn 1972): 273-77.
Contends that "The Blessed Damozel" contains "three distinct voices or speakers" and that in the poem Rossetti endeavors to fuse naturalism and supernaturalism.
Gelpi, Barbara Charlesworth. "The Feminization of D. G. Rossetti." In The Victorian Experience: The Poets, edited by Richard A. Levine, pp. 94-114. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1982.
Analyzes several of Rossetti's poems in light of his close relationship with his mother.
Hardesty, William H., III. "Rossetti's Lusty Women." Cimarron Review 35 (April 1976): 20-24.
Examines the theme of frustrated feminine desire in "The Blessed Damozel," "Troy Town," and "Jenny."
McGann, Jerome J. "Rossetti's Significant Details." Victorian Poetry 7, No. 1 (Spring 1969): 41-54.
Probes Rossetti's unconventional use of Christian imagery to pursue the theme of human love.
Pfordresher, John. "Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 'Hand and Soul': Sources and Significance." Studies in Short Fiction 19, No. 2 (Spring 1982): 103-32.
Investigates the origins of Rossetti's tale "Hand and Soul" and its relation to the development of the Victorian short story.
Rees, Joan. The Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Modes of Self-Expression. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, 204 p.
Details the development of Rossetti's poetry, examining the poet's sources, influences, imagery, themes, and style.
Spatt, Hartley S. "Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pull of Silence." The Victorian Newsletter, No. 63 (Spring 1983): 7-12.
Studies Rossetti's unusual perspective as both a poet and a painter, which allowed him to create thematic paradoxes of silence and speech in his works.
Zweig, Robert. "'Death-In-Love': Rossetti and the Victorian Journey Back to Dante." In Sex and Death in Victorian Literature, edited by Regina Barreca, pp. 178-93. London: Macmillan, 1990.
Examines and evaluates the considerable influence of Dante Alighieri's works on Rossetti's poetry.
Additional coverage of Rossetti's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1832-1890; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 35; Discovering Authors; and World Literature Criticism.
Daniel A. Harris (essay date 1984)
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SOURCE: "D. G. Rossetti's 'Jenny': Sex, Money, and the Interior Monologue," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 22, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 197-215.
[In the following essay, Harris focuses on Rossetti's critique of Victorian culture through a poetic representation of silence, sexuality, and economic exchange in "Jenny."]
Rossetti's indictment of prostitution and male attitudes toward sexual exploitation in Victorian England is also the first interior monologue in English literary tradition unrecognized as such;1 the poem (1848-1870) breaks the ground for Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Molly's effusions in Ulysses, and Bernard's concluding monologue in Woolf's The Waves. Rossetti's protagonist names his discourse an interior monologue as he imagines addressing Jenny directly: "Suppose I were to think aloud,—/ What if to her all this were said?" (ll. 156-157). This unsounded self-questioning transforms his preceding language into silent thought and interiorizes what follows. Rossetti thus marks the speaker's ethical crisis—is a whore a person?—by a problem in language-use. Simultaneously, he alters the form of the poem from its earlier drafts and thereby changes the history of dramatic monologue. The protagonist of the first draft is a conventional "speaker"; he asks, "Nay, wherefor [sic] should such things be said?" (1. 58)—and his question, pointing his exterior speech, subverts the interior form Rossetti ultimately achieves.2 In the final version, instead of censoring an utterance, the silent protagonist thinks to breach his soundless discourse by direct conversational address—and retreats into silence. Rossetti, instead of representing a silencing of sound that renders the suppressed thought inaudible, toys with the protagonist's potential communication; tempting him to speak, he questions the kinds of social interchange that a purchaser can have with a whore. The participants in this deathly still life cannot or do not engage each other, linguistically or sexually. The prostitute sleeps; the protagonist keeps silence. Only money links them. When the protagonist gives Jenny "These golden coins," imagining her as "A Danaë for a moment"—and himself as a self-mocking Zeus (ll. 342, 379)—he uses his linguistic skills in mythologizing to make his coin a surrogate for sexual potency. The triangulation of language with sex and money, the enmeshing of silence and speech within dehumanizing systems of sexual and economic exchange, the treatment of all three categories along the same axis of giving and withholding, is the major ideological pattern in the poem; it transcends both the protagonist's moral ambivalence and his impulses to aestheticize his experience, problems Rossetti's commentators have already explored.3 The triangulation—even more than the subject, prostitution—is what makes "Jenny" radical, a cultural criticism of depersonation that treats the protagonist's modes of discourse as inseparable from his sexual, psychological, and economic quandaries. This essay will show, first, how Rossetti converts dramatic monologue into silent discourse and uses the tension between speech and silence to expose the lineaments of Victorian censorship. Then, it will examine the very different silences of Jenny and the protagonist: Rossetti deploys the interior monologue itself to reveal cultural values in the poem.
Rossetti's capacity to interiorize the dramatic monologue he inherited from Tennyson and Browning derives from Coleridge, whose "conversation poems" shape the modern history of dramatic monologue. Rossetti remembers "Frost at Midnight" in his first draft; the "exceeding silentness" of Jenny's chamber (1. 51) recalls the "extreme silentness" of Coleridge's cottage (1. 10).4 Rossetti, understanding the generic invitation in dramatic monologue that the interior auditor's formal silence become a psychological response to the monologist's utterance, intuits Coleridge's interest in an auditor whose silence is physiological as well as formal and psychological: like Coleridge's sleeping son Hartley, Jenny sleeps throughout the protagonist's discourse, leaving him in a soundless vacuum. As Rossetti eliminates Jenny's possible response, he develops (what Coleridge anticipates) a new poetic imagery that elicits the nuances of silence as they surround various potentialities of speech. The monologist encounters a speech situation that bars him from communication: the "auditor" is unconscious. He is thus liberated to create his world—indeed, his auditor—at will. Whether his freedom manifests itself as a generous bestowal (Coleridge) or a narcissistic self-indulgence (Rossetti) that terrifies the protagonist with his unrestrained imaginings, it requires the prevention of the auditor's response. But silent discourse and spoken utterance, each in the presence of an unresponsive auditor, differ. While silent discourse, no less than spoken utterance, can embody interpersonal relationships, it postulates an alienation of protagonist from auditor, a closure of speech possibility that is not demanded by the genre but poetically designed as a distinctively new element in its history. This is the possibility—beyond the enforced silence of the sleeper—that Rossetti elicits from "Frost at Midnight." Coleridge does not indicate whether his monologist's "meditation" (1. 9) is spoken, thought, or written; the poem tranquilly accepts the ambiguous status of its language. Rossetti, enacting the Victorian concern to designate linguistic status, reads Coleridge's poem as a silent discourse. When he considers how Hartley's "gentle breathings" fill the "momentary pauses of the thought" (ll. 45, 47), he construes "thought" as silent, envisages a subtle tension between the child's non-linguistic breathings and the father's language-filled silence, and creates a rhythmic correspondence between exterior silences that emblematizes the reciprocity between father and son. With such a silent protagonist, Rossetti can—by demarcating silent discourse as such, as in the final version of "Jenny"—make formally explicit, as a new advantage to dramatic monologue, the choice of speech underlying every poem in the genre.
"Jenny" shows Rossetti's understanding that writing, if it normally represents speech, can also represent silent thought. With a fine mimetic propriety, he knows that writing which imitates unspoken discourse can move toward speech far more easily than writing which represents speech can imitate its own cancellation: the "spoken" first draft of "Jenny" can embody silence only by erasing its own text. With a writing that represents silent discourse, moreover, Rossetti can characterize speaking itself as a decisive and momentous act, by withholding, in a powerful suspension of linguistically filled silence, utterance that threatens to break formal boundaries. The possibility of that suppressed speech continually points to the rich linguistic activity that occurs in silence. For interior monologue, particularly when conducted in the presence of an auditor, offers a double vision of silence: to the auditor, silence is an absence of sound that cannot signify; to the reader, it is the environment of cognition and language formation. "Jenny" demonstrates—with the acuity of nineteenth-century empiricism—the fallacy of the currently fashionable opposition between silence and speech. What differentiates silence from speech is hardly the presence of linguistic activity in the second and not the first, but rather the social aspects of each. Silence normally precludes the making of a speech-community (save in cases of ritual); speech is a social contract, a denial of alienation from communal relations. In "Jenny" the protagonist's dilemma is whether to treat the whore as a human being by addressing her "aloud." Observe Rossetti's mimetic trade-off in writing interior monologue: he sacrifices the outward representation of social relations permitted by conventional dramatic monologue (the auditor remains visible through the monologist's discourse) for an inner representation of the protagonist's mind. This sacrifice is consistent with the situation: the whore, having no valid social existence, need not be represented poetically save as a figure (trope, icon) in the man's imagination.
Rossetti's political satire in excluding Jenny from the exterior representation allowed typical auditors (e.g., Menoeceus in Tennyson's "Tiresias") permits him to develop a total privacy in which the protagonist can unfold his mind entirely. As he reviews the design of "Jenny" while dismissing Buchanan's charges in "The Fleshly School of Poetry," he rejects his earlier drafts:
Nor did I omit to consider how far a treatment from without might here [with the subject of prostitution] be possible. But the motive powers of art reverse the requirement of science, and demand first of all an inner standing-point…. The beauty and pity, the self-questionings and all-questionings which ["such a mystery"] brings with it, can come with full force only from the mouth of one alive to its whole appeal, such as the speaker put forward in the poem,—that is, of a young and thoughtful man of the world. ( Collected Works, l, 484-485)
Compared with Rossetti's standard dramatic monologues, "A Portrait" and A Last Confession," "Jenny" offers more than a "subjective point of view"; its interiority secludes linguistic activity itself: the poem is so subjective that its language is inaudible. Such fugitive silence—whether used for sexual fantasy or social analysis—contrasts radically with the outspokenness of "Jenny" the poetic artifact, and that "inner standing-point" is part of Rossetti's polemic. Despite an increased public discussion of prostitution, the subject was still largely interdicted when Rossetti wrote "Jenny."5 When he revised his drafts to make speaking about the topic "aloud" a major psychological issue, he found the precise formal means by which to imitate the public's general refusal to acknowledge the problem: the protagonist's silence satirically mimics public hypocrisies in blinking the issue. Further, having the protagonist worry about speaking "aloud," Rossetti accentuates his struggle to wrest free from a powerful public censorship so internalized that he cannot readily discover his own attitudes. Indeed, the protagonist's effort to breach that cultural taboo is so dangerously fraught that it leads him back to his most reactionary excoriation of Jenny in the discourse (ll. 158-170); his revulsion against speaking "aloud" is as pathetic and contemptible as his temptation to seek a relationship by speaking appears daringly humane.
The social repressions behind the protagonist's failure to speak underscore Rossetti's own forthright breaking of taboo to scrutinize prostitution and men's responses to it. He presents the very impulse to treat the topic as part of the political statement of the poem; he thus rejects the blandishments of a genre that characteristically, as in Browning, lets the writer evade responsibility for his utterance. Rossetti further points his violation of public silence through writing by raising the parallel issue of reading. Because the scholarly protagonist compares Jenny to a book (ll. 51-52, 125-129, 158-162, 253-266), Rossetti likens the reader's act of reading the poem "Jenny" to the protagonist's figurative "reading" of Jenny the auditor. The doubling here implicates the reader in the same dilemmas that beset the protagonist. Finding the courage to commit a prohibited and dangerous act—reading the poem, attempting to confront Jenny the prostitute without bigotry—are comparable rejections of censorship demanding integrity and self-knowledge; satirically, "pure women may not look" in Jenny's book (l. 254), associated as it is with the female genitals (ll. 158-162, 264-266). As the protagonist defensively substitutes a "reading" of Jenny for sexual activity, his literary approach to his subject—and with it, the reader's—becomes confused with sexual desire.6 The equation between the cognitive act of reading and the sexualized contemplation of a whore shows how, in a repressive society, reading is magnified into its sexual "equivalent" in a manner that erases all distinctions between mental and physical acts. The equation also questions the reader's motives for reading "Jenny": when does desire for aesthetic pleasure or intellectual knowledge turn into self-titillation, a fascination with pornography like the protagonist's?
Emphasizing by his form the difficulty of thinking freely against censorship, Rossetti simultaneously liberates his protagonist from psychic restraints: he silences Jenny entirely, puts her to sleep.7 By making Jenny unconscious, Rossetti neutralizes her as a source of censorship. While the protagonist's capacity to impute attributes to Jenny remains unimpaired, Jenny cannot respond: the inequity, typical of all monologues, particularly suits a poem about the imbalances of sexual power.8 If the protagonist actually spoke to Jenny awake, he would have to accept her responsive speech; her possible replies (dramatic monologue invites the reader to imagine the auditor's response) suggest the pressures the protagonist experiences so uneasily. If, indeed, "to her all this were said" (l. 157), her answer—whether grateful or hostile—would create precisely the linguistic, and thus human, bond the protagonist fears. First, Jenny might thank the protagonist for his understanding, welcome his sexual restraint, and tell him the pathetic history he barely intuits. This conventional response, palatable to a conservative ideology, would maintain the status quo of prostitution, male domination, and the use of sympathy in place of social reform. But the protagonist's response to his own thought of speaking "aloud"—vindictively comparing Jenny's mind to a sewer or vagina contaminated by sexual disease (ll. 165-169)—suggests that he anticipates an explosive and hostile reply. Here, she is critical, businesslike; she spurns his sympathy as liberal sentimentality; she exposes his hypocrisy—and perhaps his sexual anxieties—in coming to a whore for sex and using her, instead, for linguistic fantasies.9 She accuses him of arrogance in thinking he can envisage her work; she refuses further chatter. To conceive either the protagonist's outrage or his apologetic bafflement in being thus answered is to appreciate both the safety he finds in Jenny's silence and Rossetti's keen strategy in rendering Jenny unconscious. While this scenario does not characterize all the protagonist's reasons for contemplating speech, it helps explain why Jenny's silence cancels the protagonist's fear of censorship.
Jenny's silence, however, has attributes separate from the protagonist's needs. Except for Tennyson's "Tithonus," no poem in the genre so queries the ontological status of the auditor's consciousness. Jenny's unconsciousness renders her an object having a merely animal or natural existence; deprived of speech both by sleep and by generic function, she has, like the female culture she represents, "no voice"; her bodily passivity precludes even the gestural language usually given to auditors in place of speech.10 Rossetti shrewdly makes her body exhibit formally her oppression as a woman and as a whore: she is—as the "wild unchildish elf jeers—an unconscious "thing" (ll. 77, 79) that signifies the dehumanization of prostitution and (the protagonist learns) marriage (ll. 207-213). The obvious problem with the notion of the whore as object, however, is that it scants Rossetti's intellectual strength in representing Jenny as an object even when, asleep, she is not enacting her function as whore. A less acute poet would have represented sleep as an escape from objecthood, but Rossetti likens Jenny the sexual commodity (a thing to be bought) with Jenny the woman (a natural phenomenon lacking consciousness): objects both. Further, Rossetti implies that Jenny chooses to sleep: if she is her customer's commodity, she can choose another kind of objectification in refusing sex for money. Compared with Hartley's sleep in "Frost at Midnight," Jenny's is less a gaining of innocence than a sloughing off of social, moral, and economic roles. In the protagonist's conservative reading of this escape (ll. 67-69, 166, 343), as in Greg's influential accounts of prostitutes' lives, Jenny chooses oblivion from pain and self-hatred.11 More radically, and more consistently with Rossetti's incipient feminism, Jenny, choosing sleep, simultaneously rejects language use and the sale of her sexuality in an economic system that metonymizes her into the sole marketable part of her body. As she closes her mouth in silence, she also closes her other pouches: what the protagonist calls her "magic purse" (l. 344) and thus her genitals. This initiating action, shaping the protagonist's discourse, is the primary image by which Rossetti collocates language, sex, and money. Jenny is a whore who, during business, decides not to work; she thus abrogates the equations between time and money, sex and money, and regains her personhood. She frees herself from the linguistic naming that—as in the opening rhyme of "Jenny" with "guinea"—imprisons her in a code that equates selfhood with monetary value as established by sexual labor. This rebellious action, however, by which Jenny ironically deploys the male capitalist's power to choose when to sell, is costly. Jenny gains freedom from the objecthood designated by male culture only by accepting a self-objectification that magically replaces men's: her natural sleep spurns the humankind in which she has no personal identity. The pathos of this liberty is that it entails loss of self and will; unlike the protagonist in his silence, Jenny must choose a silence so extreme (sleep) that she must sacrifice the powers of self-creation he enjoys. The freedom Jenny finds in sleep cannot, because inactive, have positive value.
The protagonist misses this self-negating paradox in Jenny's freedom; he sees only an unconventional—nearly outrageous—denial of his presence and his demands. Her sleep affronts his male power, makes him a "thing" comparable to the prostitute. As his role as her temporary owner is threatened, he cannot understand her new status: she becomes a "riddle that one shrinks / To challenge" (ll. 280-281). Is a whore who sleeps a whore? The protagonist's anxiety in being cancelled is intense: he resorts to familiar intellectual images of books (ll. 23-24); he employs the passive voice to escape the scene (l. 29), refers to Jenny's subordinate pose (ll. 66, 93-94); seeking safe, conventional roles, he attempts to rouse her (ll. 89, 96, 303) so that he can evade the problems of interpretation her sleep presents; and he names her twenty-six times, as if to touch linguistically a figure who has already eluded him. His flippant query, "Whose person or whose purse may be / The lodestar of your reverie?" (ll. 20-21), temporarily conceals his discomfiture; but four paragraphs later he cautiously reaffirms his identity by naming himself the subject of her dreams: "If of myself you think at all, / What is the thought?" (ll. 59-60; see also ll. 336-339). Male power is thus hollow, fragile: the protagonist, to exist to himself, needs to be perceived.
Since Jenny cannot acknowledge his sexual and monetary power, he resorts to his compensatory imagination to validate his roles: the protagonist's silent discourse is a response to Jenny's virtual disappearance. Structurally—and psychologically—it occurs instead of sexual intercourse; indeed, in one manuscript the protagonist complains, "I meant a woman good to kiss / Tonight should yield me something more / Than bloodless perking metaphor."12 Language assumes a specifically sexual character and loses its identity as a general means of signifying; in linguistic fantasy, he gains the sexual power Jenny denies him. But because Jenny is a prostitute as well as a woman, his language use is simultaneously monetized: Jenny the person (the agent of sexual gratification) is the commodity (the economic unit he purchases); when he names Jenny a whore, he designates her sexuality a commodity having a specific value. When the protagonist gives Jenny money for sexual services not performed, his "golden coins" substitute for the ejaculation he does not have, as the Zeus/Danaë allusion indicates. The alignment of his unwilling continence with the silence of his discourse, collocating semen and language, is paralleled by the correspondence between money and language that emerges when, at the end, the protagonist makes his coins metonyms of his silent discourse. With linguistic functions promiscuously fused with other modes of valuation in an incestuous vacuum, the problem arises of releasing language from a self-reflexiveness of contingent and duplicative meanings that bars analysis and true perception. The protagonist confronts this situation because his initial intent to (re)place Jenny in her proper role and satisfy himself imaginatively gradually becomes a desire to understand sympathetically the person he initially discards so cavalierly; these contradictory aims, dividing him between the reactionary male jealous of his power and the compassionate liberal seeking social justice, render his language use ambivalent. But the conflict ends inconclusively, as it must, because the progressive side of the debate, as well as the reactionary, is contaminated by a language triangulated with the very categories of sex and money whose confusion accounts for Jenny's oppression.
The filiation of language with sex, and then money, is immediately evident in the first verse paragraph. As a "thoughtless queen" (l. 7), Jenny's unconsciousness grants the protagonist license to fill her mind with his own conceptions; nor can he perceive his imputations as such. When he conceives her as roses that should "unclose" "Their purfled buds" (l. 117) and then thinks of her brain "as a volume seldom read" whose pages might "Be parted" by his thoughts (ll. 158, 160-161), the fusion of image patterns makes the sexuality of his compensatory imagination obvious. His discourse is a linguistic fondling, no less abrasive and presumptuous because silent, in which he commercializes the sleeping prostitute by designating her values. He assigns her an extraordinary variety of poses. Caught in his self-pleasing alliteration, "Lazy laughing languid Jenny" (l.l) is not so much observed as stereotyped; the "queen / Of kisses (ll. 7-8) becomes a series of flowers in natural metaphors (ll. 12, 14, 16) that effectively blink urban prostitution; when the protagonist names her "Poor shameful Jenny, full of grace" (l. 18), he wittily combines the Queen of Heaven and Mary Magdalen in an outrageous parody that demonstrates his linguistic power to change the object of his imagination at will.13 Like the hapless model in Christina Rossetti's "In an Artist's Studio," who becomes the guises in which the painter dresses her, Jenny is the victim of an insistent linguistic fecundity that trumpets the sexual prowess the protagonist is literally denied. Jenny of course does not exist in this catalogue; as sacred and secular myths intermix self-referentially, excluding the person they are meant to signify, the language of sexuality achieves a radical self-enclosure in which reality barely intervenes. As the protagonist self-critically observes at a later point,
Yet, Jenny, looking long at you,
The woman almost fades from view.
A cipher of man's changeless sum
Of lust, past, present, and to come, Is left.
Rossetti's diction shows how the protagonist's fantasies have cancelled Jenny. She becomes a "cipher,""A person who fills a place, but is of no importance or worth" (OED). She is, next, a sign, not a person; her signifying refers not to herself but to male desire, the "lust" that negates her. As she objectifies male desire, she is reified as that destructive, "changeless sum" of lust that, like Keats's nightingale, remains immutable in human experience despite changes in its exemplars. Hideously, the cipher of lust is then animalized as a toad that covers her sexually, like a palimpsest (1. 282);14 the image, pointing to men's power to mold women to their imaginations, underscores the ugly sexuality men fear in themselves and thus project upon women. Perhaps most importantly, Rossetti's image interweaves the signifying modes of language, sex, and money in a closed system that compromises the open referentiality of language. Like the other monetary puns ("change," l. 186; "discounted," l. 359), "changeless" absorbs modes of perception and behavior that should be exempt from a merely economic valuation but, in Victorian England, are not. As a monetary sign distorts Jenny's body, sexual possessiveness and monetary acquisitiveness erase her literal reality. Looking at Jenny transmuted, a man sees the symbol of his own material desire, the self-confining reflection of his mind.
Because the assignation of monetary value changes everything into commodities, the linguistic disguises the protagonist gives Jenny are economic as well as sexual. Naming—as the protagonist names Nell a "prize" (l. 192)—alters personal character into economic worth and betrays language to a system in which the value of a commodity refers only to the price of other commodities; as with paper money that theoretically signifies a certain quantity of gold, the actual referent is lost. Rossetti brilliantly illustrates this process of cancelling a person as the protagonist criticizes the disguising of women in Western pictorial art:
Fair shines the gilded aureole
In which our highest painters place
Some living woman's simple face.
In the "preachings" of painting (l. 240), as with language, the mimetic process (evolved by men) conceals an ideology of male domination that conspires with organized religion to negate women while pretending to idealize them. But the idealization deceives—not only because it falsifies the "living woman's" true condition or because it offers the image of female purity as a sop to women's cancellation. The idealization is fraudulent because, while supposedly an icon of religious beauty, it actually emblematizes men's monetary desire and their habitual translation of the world into economic terms: worshipping the Virgin, they actually adore earthly treasures. For the aureole is a gold coin that monetizes the female model and the spiritual life alike; derived from Donne's "The Canonization" (l. 7), the image changes the woman's "real" into her minted, "stamped face." Ironically rhymed with "soul" (l. 229), the aureole visually separates the head from the body; the dismemberment, recalling Jenny's distortion into a "cipher," bespeaks the brutality couched in the idealizing stereotypes purveyed by art and the Church; to the protagonist, the representing of the woman's "stilled features" (l. 233) seems a killing. The metamorphosis of the woman's face into a coin parallels the transformation of the female genitals into the "magic purse" (l. 344). In both instances her body is wrenched into an economic emblem of male desire; both changes reflect a world in which "golden sun and silver moon"—the natural forces of the cosmos—are "Counted for lifecoins" (ll. 224, 226).15 Falsely spiritualized, women are sacrificed to men's deceptive devotion to a spiritual salvation that conceals an unregenerate quest for material wealth; the condition of women in the iconography of the Church, the protagonist's language suggests, is that of women on the streets. In such a monetized universe, no wonder that the protagonist's agonized question about Christian redemption—"Shall soul not somehow pay for soul?" (l. 229)—fails to transcend its literal meaning: spiritual salvation is a matter of economic exchange in which no one (including the protagonist at the end) gives "charity" for nothing.
The passage exemplifies the protagonist's gradual increase in critical understanding: he perceives the violent hostility in men's presumably aesthetic imaging of a woman's "stilled features." This murderous hatred characterizes language as he presents it generally. Language, the tool of false categorizations, misnamings, and fraudulent valuations, is the medium of sexual hatred, not only between the sexes, but among women and among men. Linguistic hostility (companioned by fear) even permeates the animal world: the image of "some sheep that jog / Bleating before a barking dog" (ll. 305-306) shows the natural order made noisily frantic by capitalist trade. Compared with the protagonist's silence or the "lullaby" he only imagines (ll. 245-247), the language-world of the poem is a "din" (l. 70). Jenny is assaulted by "envy's voice at virtue's pitch" (l. 71): the virtuous matron, masking her jealousy in the language of moral rectitude, resents Jenny's economic independence from men and thus reveals how a male power-system incites hatred among women. In a culture where the premium placed on virginity inverts the economic advantages of selling one's sexuality, the "pale girl's dumb rebuke" (l. 73) springs from similar motives: her "dumb" anger (suppressed; foolish) reiterates as self-hatred and jealousy the unspoken male injunction to remain chaste, powerless. When the "wise unchildish elf" designates Jenny a "thing" to the young "schoolmate lesser than himself" (ll. 77-78), deanimates life by instituting irrational categories, he shows how language, transmitting stereotypes, perpetuates social injustice; by proving his burgeoning sexuality in naming Jenny his potential purchase, he triumphs sexually over the younger male child. In this competition between men where women are pawns, the protagonist recognizes a sexual hostility that originates with men and then ramifies outwards. This difficult, important recognition sparks his sharpest condemnation of male speech and his most explicit effort to dissociate himself from male culture: "the hatefulness of man, /… / Whose acts are ill and his speech ill" (ll. 83-85) comprehends not only men's hatred of women but the vileness of men themselves.16 An ineradicable disease in the male mind contaminates everyone its language touches: male children who mimic their elders to gain power; women who, like the matron, unconsciously repeat male language as their own; prostitutes who must escape it by sleep or drink. Whatever its form, this linguistic barbarism is far more immune to healing than the "desecrated mind, / Where all contagious currents meet" (ll. 164-165) that the protagonist, imagining the mind syphilitic, attributes to Jenny. The pathos and repugnancy is that men cannot "hear" their own corruption. No wonder: their emblem is the toad Lust, seated "within a stone" (l. 282), "deaf" (l. 291), obsessively trapped in its alienated silence.
As the episode of the "gilded aureole" indicates, male language is deceptive as well as hostile. The protagonist shares Rossetti's negative Romantic suspicion that authentic speech is an illusion. This suspicion resounds most clearly at the end, when, self-mocking, he protests that his expression of love, not counterfeit, "rang true" (l. 380). But duplicitous speech emerges everywhere. Well-intentioned adults may have told the rural Jenny "a child's tale" of London's "broil and bale" (ll. 133-134) and thus hastened her doom.17 In London, a corrupted "child can tell the tale there, how / Some things which are not yet enroll'd / In market-lists are bought and sold" (ll. 136-138). The lists deceive by omitting mention of people bought and sold for sex; because the official male ideology maintains that human beings are not commodities, whores are not named. Rossetti's brilliant diction, like his carefully truncated epigraph (The Merry Wives of Windsor, I V.i),18 shows how Jenny's humanity is disputed linguistically as well as socially. Similar duplicities pervade the image of Jenny "Like a rose shut in a book," crushed (l. 253): with "each dead rose-leaf … , / Pale as transparent Psyche-wings" superimposed upon "the vile text" (ll. 257-259), one reads, as with a palimpsest, a language doubled and made morally contradictory and obscure. These are some of the deceptions in language, spoken, written, or implied, that lead the protagonist to distrust male linguistic culture.
The very silence of the protagonist's interior monologue thus reflects his revulsion with deceptive male speech. Other motives notwithstanding, keeping silent means escaping a hostile world where naming brutally curtails free thought; a refuge from the "din" of common life, silence rebels against male behavior and "ill" speech. Not to speak when all language use seems corrosive appears the only ethical means, if socially self-destructive, of preserving one's integrity. Rossetti considers the protagonist's attempt to elude male culture a positive sign of a willingness to change. Even the freedom to engage silently in fantasy, however sexist, becomes a way of self-discovery; by contrast, the matron, the pale girl, and the schoolboy all speak publicly the codified languages in which they have been indoctrinated. Spoken language reflects the instinct to establish fixed categories that exclude each other, boundaries that obscure perception and analysis. But the "dumb" protagonist finds freedom in silence. What he sees, uncensored, distresses and confuses him, but his vision is real: he sees that Jenny in her silence is "Just as another woman sleeps!" (l. 177). Courageously, he imagines "another woman" in the figure of his "cousin Nell," his possible bride (ll. 185-219): he silently dares to think of his wife and a whore simultaneously. His radical conjunction attacks, morally and socially, the roots of Western sexism.19 Temporarily, it renders language and thought chaotic: the protagonist, his previous conceptions thrown "in heaps / Of doubt and horror," does not know "what to say / Or think" (ll. 178-180). As he sees the natural kinship between Jenny and Nell, Jenny becomes a person for whom he can have affections. Conventional distinctions between corruption and purity dissolve. A whore is not naturally evil, nor can he distinguish evil from good; the resemblance between Jenny and Nell "makes a goblin of the sun" (l. 206), turns all conventional moralities topsy-turvy, and mocks the patriarchal principle itself. He recognizes the central role of money and class in shaping individual histories: while Nell may use marriage to save herself from the economic necessities that compel Jenny to sell herself, the family of her "fair tree" may need economic assistance from Jenny's grandchildren (ll. 211-213); married women without other professions may not have the "moral" luxury to refuse the "tainted" money for which men indifferently strive. Even more outrageously, Nell's husband may at the Last Judgment confront his bastard daughter by the prostitute, a daughter "lost" (l. 218) in her mother's profession. Will the husband/customer/father name his bastard "whore" or "daughter"? Here, in this oblique autobiographical speculation, the protagonist confronts Nell's imagined husband with the same dilemmas in naming that he himself does. The blurring of categories in this intense moral self-confrontation forces a creative reexamination of existing codes of perception; in this explosion of the pieties of Victorian family life, the blurring has its being through a silence that eludes predetermined mental patterns.
The protagonist thus correlates silence with the possibilities of discovering truth or thinking clearly; utterance—including its artifactual forms as paintings or texts—means falsehood and deception. Rossetti's design implies a profoundly negative view of outward speech: if the linkage of speech and truth is structured to seem rare or impossible, if it is silence that is normatively associated with honesty and purity, then humankind's capacities for significant communication are severely limited. But these equations do not hold absolutely; both at the crisis of utterance ("What if to her all this were said?") and at the closure, Rossetti breaks them to assay a coincidence between speech and truth. These calculated near breaches of the silence stipulated by interior monologue warrant attention.
When the protagonist contemplates speaking "aloud," he risks self-exposure to attempt honesty, clarity in self-expression. His possible speech act reflects a need for catharsis derived directly from recognitions he cannot suppress: knowledge of human commodities (ll. 135-144), the vacant wastage of the whore's aging into disease (ll. 148-150), his own vision of the Chelsea Embankment as a "fiery serpent" (l. 154; see Numbers 21.4-9), an image of England's shamefully hypocritical infection by an evil it can purge only through an uncensored understanding. To voice such a knowledge would violate the social and personal taboos surrounding prostitution, name England's responsibility, and appraise honestly his own ambivalence as both a user of women and a potential reformer without a plan. With such a sounded publishing of unwanted truths, he would attempt to circumvent his education long enough to discover his own perceptions. Escaping from "ill" male speech, brutal and deceptive, he would seek a new language, desexualized and demonetized, liberated from the constraints against its power to shape rather than obey cultural laws; speaking out to Jenny, he would dismiss their traditional roles as buyer and seller to acknowledge Jenny's realness. While one may sentimentalize the protagonist's motives for speech—forget his constant lapses into stereotypical thinking, his prurience, his callow toying with Jenny as his property—his basic striving for some kind of honesty remains plain. But as Rossetti harshly demonstrates, the protagonist's courage to speak flags as it surfaces; the passive self-erasure in "What if to her all this were said" attests his uneasiness in criticizing a cultural system in which he, together with other men, enjoys dominance. He immediately retreats into a virulent attack against Jenny; his failure to speak "aloud," to break the form of interior monologue, constitutes a profoundly political balking at any alteration in the imbalances of sexual and economic power. He swallows his "true" speech back into an outward silence that resembles that of Lust, "deaf, blind, alone."
In the speech climax of "Jenny," personal reformation is thwarted by an inveterate sexism and the protagonist's inability to breach his interior monologue with a "true" outward language free from male prejudices. By comparison, the closing attempts at utterance are more ambiguous. Here, self-conscious in his language use, increasingly critical of "ill" speech, he is nevertheless intermittently obtuse about the connotations of his discourse; yet he simultaneously displays a rare wit whose self-satire suggests a new capacity for analytic thought. The protagonist's linguistic behavior in the closure encapsulates the major themes and ambivalences of the poem; that he reaches no satisfactory resolution reflects Rossetti's pragmatic—and pessimistic—understanding that the revising of one's psyche cannot come instantaneously.
The protagonist makes two surrogate efforts to "speak" his feelings; both make sounds—a kiss, the "tinkling" of coin—that breach the silence of interior monologue without gaining the semantic content of spoken language. The first—"only one kiss" (l. 391)—is Rossetti's mordant comment on the form of his poem: the protagonist finally moves his mouth to demonstrate the interiority of his monologue. But this surrogate signifies poorly: if the kiss expresses affection, he also uses his mouth, not to speak, but to validate his masculinity by getting some sex for his money; his previous (illusory?) self-ennoblement in behaving chastely here yields to conventional desire. This intermixing of motives indicates that gesture itself cannot signify accurately; it requires speech to mean clearly. This problem recurs in the protagonist's other attempt to project his emotions outwards: is the money he leaves Jenny a gift or a payment? As another speech surrogate, coin tells less than gesture; it lacks the intrinsic affection of a kiss. What does this act mean? how is it related to sex and language use? how does the protagonist construe it?
First, the protagonist's giving money is a sexual act. As he carefully places his coins in Jenny's hair (l. 340) and then alludes to himself as Zeus showering Danaë's lap with his fertility, Rossetti again points to the protagonist's confusion of Jenny's head with her genitals.20 Using money to enact a sexual event that never occurred, he reestablishes objectified relations between buyer and seller and bonds himself with other men in an approved male behavior. The implicit equation of semen with coin—as when the protagonist names sun and moon "life-coins" (l. 226)—sterilizes life forces. Thus monetized, the sexual instinct is reduced to its most universal and least kindred denominator, its market value. As with the Virgin's face in the "gilded aureole," sexual desire masks avarice: the "spending" of "coin" can never exhaust the "changeless sum" of lust (l. 278); this "money" moves from one hoard to another, from the male genitals to Jenny's "magic purse" (l. 344). Even if giving money is a charitable gesture, its value is defined by conventional sexual and monetary behavior. Giving charity instead of payment replaces contemporary Victorian values with a Christian behavior visible but barely actualized in the poem; here, the protagonist again rejects male culture by using money to express personal value, personal affection. Thus engaging in paradox—using a universal equivalent to embody particularities of tenderness—he seeks quixotically to change the "language" of money into a mode of signification it can never achieve. Money can only become a language, and not merely a contextual gesture, when it is enmeshed in a real language that states the emotions the coin represents.
The protagonist's gift/payment is also a specific linguistic act. Not only does he use money in place of spoken utterance, coins instead of words. With money he purchases time for new linguistic activity. Money sparks his fantasies of what Jenny will do with it; having bought Jenny's physical body, he also purchases license to imagine (and control?) her sexual future. Money, permitting his fantasy, also shapes its form: what he imputes to Jenny—dreams of power, economic independence, well-being (ll. 346-364}—are imaginings that all return to their point of economic enablement instead of transcending it. Similarly, religious worship is subliminally hostage to mercantile self-interest; like the beauty of religious icons, the elegance of these linguistic fantasies disguises the dehumanized labor of prostitution and "confers / New magic on the magic purse," by providing an attractive metaphor for the "Grim web … clogged with shrivelled flies!" (ll. 343-345). If the protagonist criticizes his trope for concealing economic realities, he pursues his linguistic decorations anyway; for all his easy wish that Jenny—given the proper clothes, carriage, economic freedom to maneuver—may marry and thus escape prostitution, he remains fundamentally more allured by the niceties of his own silent arabesques than by her history.
This predilection for linguistic self-seduction is particularly evident as he describes Jenny's transition from prostitute to wife:
For even the Paphian Venus seems
A goddess o'er the realms of love,
When silver-shrined in shadowy grove:
Aye, or let offerings nicely plac'd
But hide Priapus to the waist,
And whoso looks on him shall see
An eligible deity.
To remember that this crucial passage connects prostitution and marriage is to see how much the protagonist, prettifying his language, takes a self-conscious literary pleasure in removing the topic from Victorian England. As he subsumes Jenny's dreams to classical allusion, as the cash-rich Venus of ritual prostitution pimps for Jenny, an elegant linguistic surface disguises an analysis that the protagonist makes trenchant almost despite himself. The allusive language misnames the phenomenon, "covers for" corrupt and monetized sex. Ritual prostitution, acceptable to classical religion, is foreign to contemporary England: the Keatsian chiaroscuro, peaceably erasing ugliness, belies London prostitution as contemplated earlier. Such a glozing imagination is not purchased cheap; this one costs an Oxford education or its like. In this desperately arch view of prostitution, even the gods can be bribed to go straight. The tacit attack on religions for acquiescing in women's prostitution shows a "silver-shrined" goddess illumined by a moon denatured into coin; encased in the precious metal—like Priapus, like Lust—she is paralyzed by her mercantile identity. This conversion of sexual desire into avarice recurs in the pun that takes the "shadowy grove" genitally, enshrines it in coin, and fills it much as Jenny's "magic purse" is filled. The same meanings inform the image of Priapus, whose genitals are concealed by coin in hilarious modesty that accurately values his denatured sexuality.21 Note the hypocrises: Priapus' monetary dress, as obscene as his sexual lust, does not offend Victorian pruderies; women marrying for money apparently love a chaste god but also seek the sexuality hidden behind the monetary disguise. Both Venus and Priapus are hoards to their respective lovers; the money they represent compensates for their grotesque sexual passions.
The verse paragraph is whimsically serious; its tone and diction evade the realities it embodies. When, mock-heroically, the protagonist casts himself and Jenny as Zeus and Danaë (ll. 376-379), he once again deploys ancient mythology to mask a situation he thinks shameful (ll. 92, 384). No matter that irony laces both passages, that Jenny as Danaë "for a moment" undercuts his mythologizing to show the tawdry melodrama of his imagination. At issue is the honesty of the protagonist's self-awareness: does he understand what his language implies? In all the images that beautify prostitution, his language remains thoroughly monetized; the core of economic transaction is irreducibly present, like the "changeless sum" of lust. Even when the protagonist expresses a genuine emotion, he cannot escape the monetized language by which he has treated all relations thus far. Yet he protests extravagantly:
Jenny, my love rang true! for still
Love at first sight is vague, until
That tinkling makes him audible.
In this discrimination between true and counterfeit coin (or feeling), his language of emotion is reified and quantified, made such by Victorian culture: human experiences are interpretable solely in monetary terms. As the protagonist renames his discourse "coinage," he levels the medium of communication to a universal equivalency that, because it can designate a value for all things, it cannot distinguish between particulars. Emotion, mind thought have no reality without material tokens.
This dark conclusion pertains directly to Rossetti's form and the protagonist's attitude toward his silent discourse: language has no being, silence cannot signify in a social context without physical signs as indicators; the personification Love has no credible existence until his grotesquely inappropriate attribute, the "tinkling" of coin, makes him physically "audible." The sound of money substitutes for sounded speech. As the protagonist worries about the disappearance of his interior monologue—the fact that it is nonexistent because not heard—he imagines that "These golden coins" can make Jenny realize his presence. This final maneuver substitutes money for both his imagined discourse and the speaking aloud he has refused. But coin mediates between silent monologue and the outer world in destructive ways. Money, cancelling genuine sex or emotion, also cancels the protagonist's discourse; Rossetti deploys this final mediation to stress the reality of that interior monologue. As the sole token of the protagonist's presence, money excludes all reference to speech or its possibility; what Jenny, waking, will see is neither the person who left it nor his thoughts; as Rossetti compares what Jenny sees with what the reader sees, he affirms the richness of silent discourse. Money may symbolize the discourse but, for all its "tinkling," cannot "speak" it. Static, fixed in its valuations, money negates variety, struggle, and all the protagonist's vacillations. The metonymic disguising of the monologue as a few coins, coming after such a tumultuous and sometimes courageous meditation, constitutes a brazenly false metaphor. But Rossetti's ultimate irony is that coin cancels the protagonist along with his discourse. Having chosen the "wrong" means of becoming "audible," he will be known only by his money; to Jenny, he will have reduced himself and his feelings to shiny metallic things. He becomes, like the prostitute, an object. With this final turn in the relations between silence and false speech, Rossetti's skill in shaping his form to his themes emerges afresh. The protagonist's silencing of his own discourse—not by keeping silent but by leaving money—is a censorship no less insidious than the censorship of public silence, for it pretends to have revealed and made open what in fact has been suppressed. Next to this negation of interior monologue, the artifactual reality of Rossetti's poem and its audacity in speaking out seem all the more impressive.
1 Only Jan B. Gordon, "A Portrait of 'Jenny': Rossetti's Aesthetics of Communion," HSL, 1 (1969), 90, correctly names the poem an interior monologue; he follows the hint of William Clyde De Vane, "The Harlot and the Thoughtful Young Man: A Study of the Relation between Rossetti's Jenny and Browning's Fifine at the Fair, " SP, 29 (1932), 469, who writes of "the speaker of the poem, or rather the thinker of it." By contrast, Jules Paul Seigel, "Jenny: The Divided Sensibility of a Young and Thoughtful Man of the World," SEL, 9 (1969), 685, misses the interiority of the poem by calling it a spoken "dialogue of the mind with itself in which "it makes little difference to the young man whether [Jenny] hears." Robert Buchanan ["Thomas Maitland"], "The Fleshly School of Poetry: Mr. D. G. Rossetti," Contemporary Review, 18 (1871), 344, calls the poem a "soliloquy"; so does R. G. Howarth, "On Rossetti's 'Jenny'," N&Q, 173 (1937), 20. Lise Rodgers, "The Book and the Flower: Rationality and Sensuality in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Jenny," JNT, 10 (1980), 159, thinks the poem a "dramatic monologue"; so also G. L. Hersey, "Rossetti's 'Jenny': A Realistic Altarpiece," YR, 69 (1979), 17. Ronnalie Roper Howard, The Dark Glass: Vision and Technique in the Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Ohio Univ. Press, 1972), p. 100, calls it a "dramatic reflective poem"; Rosalie Glynn Grylls, "Rossetti and Browning," PULC, 33 (1972), 239, unaccountably claims that the poem is in "narrative form."
2 Paull F. Baum, "The Bancroft Manuscripts of Dante Gabriel Rossetti," MP, 39 (1941), 50.
3 For the protagonist's tendency to aestheticize his experience, see Gordon, passim; for his self-division, see in particular Seigel, passim. Rossetti's radical perspective in this poem derives partly from his engagement in revolutionary issues at the time of the first draft, 1848; his reformist interest in prostitution is reflected in his friendship with Josephine Butler, the crusader for prostitutes' rights (see Glen Petrie, A Singular Iniquity: The Campaigns of Josephine Butler [New York, 1971], p. 35). Rossetti owned Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor (1861), with Bracebridge Hemyng's long article on prostitution (see Helen Simpson Culler, "Studies in Rossetti's Reading," Diss. Yale Univ. 1943, p. 314). Nevertheless, Florence Saunders Boos, The Poetry of Dante G. Rossetti: A Critical Reading and Source Study (The Hague, 1976), p. 158, writes that "it does not occur to [the protagonist] that acts which the prostitute commits may be … the result of economic coercion rather than choice."
4 Baum, p. 50. Nicholas Shrimpton, "Rossetti's Pornography," EIC, 29 (1979), 331, rightly observes that the poem derives from Coleridge's "conversation poems"; but he sees the conversation poem as "reflective" (p. 333) rather than dialogic and claims that "if 'Jenny' is a dramatic monologue it is not a very good one" (p. 325). In Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Collected Works, ed. William Michael Rossetti (London, 1897), I, xxvi, W. M. Rossetti remarks that "In the long run [Rossetti] perhaps enjoyed and revered Coleridge beyond any other modern poet whatsoever."
5 Among the treatments of prostitution contemporaneous with "Jenny" are William Bell Scott, "Rosabell" (1837); Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton (1848); William Holman Hunt, "The Shepherd Hireling" (1852) and "The Awakened Conscience" (1854); J. B. Talbot, The Miseries of Prostitution (London, 1844); William Acton, Prostitution. Considered in its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects (London, 1857); [W. R. Greg,] Prostitution, The Westminster Review, 53 (1850), 448-506; and Henry Mayhew's various letters to The Morning Chronicle (1849). Buchanan, p. 343, typifies writers who would have preferred that prostitution remain undiscussed; De Vane, p. 472, minimizes the daring of "Jenny" in 1870.
6 Compare Rodgers, p. 157, who equates the "book" with "rationality," as opposed to sensuality. Robert N. Keane, "Rossetti's 'Jenny': Moral Ambiguity and the "Inner Standing Point," PLL, 9 (1973), 276, observes more subtly that the protagonist's "own occupation as a writer [gives] him a strength that allows him to feel superior to Jenny."
7 To the protagonist, Jenny falls asleep gradually. But the standard irony of dramatic monologue, that the monologist knows less than he might, suggests that Jenny sleeps throughout; the protagonist indifferently fails to notice.
8 Rossetti's commentators, misunderstanding the dynamics of imputation in dramatic monologue, have taken the protagonist's subjectivity as objective truth. To Boos, p. 156, "Jenny is a weak, trivial person, attracted solely to money, personal finery, and gaudy luxuries"; for D. M. R. Bentley, "'Ah, Poor Jenny's Case': Rossetti and the Fallen Woman/Flower," UTQ, 50 (1980-81), 192, thinks that the protagonist sees Jenny "as she really is—a prostitute with the dreams of a prostitute." Compare Stephen J. Spector, "Love, Unity, and Desire in the Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti," ELH, 38 (1971), 435: ironically, "the speaker has no knowledge at all of Jenny's mind, even though he pretends to read her thoughts."
9 Compare Keane, p. 276, who accepts the protagonist's notion that Jenny's "mind is sluggish and corrupted"; Rodgers, pp. 161-162, argues of this passage that "He no longer assumes that her thoughts are designing, but simply that she has none." Both readings miss the dynamics of recoil in this section.
10 Her pose, derived from Sara Coleridge's in "The Eolian Harp" and the speaker's in Browning's "Porphyria's Lover," suggests her submissiveness; but Shrimpton, p. 336, argues that Jenny's position paralyzes the protagonist.
11 Greg, p. 452 n. 2, cites a prostitute's "Verses for My Tombstone, If Ever I Should Have One" thus: "My thoughts were racked in striving not to think"; See also p. 454: "If we did not drink, we could not stand the memory of what we have been, and the thought of what we are, for a day."
12 "Jenny" (1858-59), MS, p. 11, in the Fairfax Murray Library, Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge; in a later ms in the Fitzwilliam Museum, p. 31, the protagonist blames himself for talking so much. Quoted by the kind permission of Mrs. Imogen Rossetti Dennis and the Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
13 Compare Harold L. Weatherby, "Problems of Form and Content in the Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti," VP, 2 (1964), 17: "'Jenny' does not commit [Rossetti] to the specific use of any sort of spiritual machinery"; Rossetti in fact pinions Jenny between specific Christian types to show how they compromise personal identity.
14 Compare Rossetti's more callous first draft, whose syntax runs, "Like a toad within a stone … So art thou in this world, ma belle" (ll. 84, 99; Baum, pp. 50-51). Commentators have ignored the palimpsest of Rossetti's final version; Jenny herself has been incorrectly viewed as the symbol of lust. See, e.g., Rodgers, p. 164; Bentley, p. 179, 191; Gordon, p. 101; Seigel, p. 687.
15 Commentators have avoided the monetary content of this image: see, e.g., Rodgers, p. 163; Gordon, pp. 98-99, both of whom explain the image away; Bentley, p. 190, calls the "gilded aureole" simply a "sign of sanctity."
16 Rossetti revised this central line many times: "Whose acts are foul and his speech hard" (Bancroft MS, line 35; Baum, p. 49); "Whose nets are foul and his speech hard" (Fairfax Murray MS, p. 3). He did not reach the final text until the so-called Exhumation Proofs for Poems (1870), first proofs (second issue), after October 14, 1869 (Firestone Library, Princeton University).
17 Rossetti conceived Jenny as a temporary, socially mobile prostitute, not caught for life; she exemplifies the kind described by Judith Walkowitz, "The Making of an Outcast Group," in Martha Vicinus, ed., A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles of Victorian Women (Indiana Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 72-79, particularly those who move to the city rather than face rural impoverishment.
18 As Hersey, p. 18, observes, Rossetti deliberately omits Mistress Quickly's concluding clause, "if she be a whore." He thus has her cancel Jenny entirely, in a censorship that leaves no room for the ambiguity—the "if—of Jenny's situation; the irony of Mistress Quickly posing as staunch moralist is delicious. Compare Bentley, p. 185; Keane, p. 273.
19 Bentley, p. 189, strangely suggests that this passage "could be dismissed as a simple error of taste"; but Rodgers, p. 162, rightly identifies it as the moral climax of the poem.
20 Shrimpton, p. 325, takes the giving of money only as "an act of charity"; so also Rodgers, p. 165.
21 Compare Gordon, p. 102, who argues that Jenny herself becomes "an eligible deity," whereas it is the god Priapus himself who grossly lures the ladies.
Jean Wasko (essay date 1987)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4683
SOURCE: "The Web of Eroticism in Rossetti's 'Troy Town,' 'Eden Bower,' and 'Rose Mary,'" in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer, 1987, pp. 333-44.
[In the following essay, Wasko explores Rossetti's alignment of eroticism with themes of death, destruction, and deceit in three ballads written between 1869 and 1871.]
In the introductory sonnet to The House of Life Dante Gabriel Rossetti suggests that the sonnet pays "tribute" or addresses itself to a threefold theme—life, love, and death, a focus which his ballads share.1 Several of his early ballads, written between 1848 and 1854 when he was also busy translating the Vita Nuova, offer variations on a Dantesque vision of love as the creative, dynamic force in this triune complex. Thus love, as a source of heavenly salvation in "The Staff and Scrip," triumphs over death in a setting characterized by ornate medievalism. In the more earthy "Stratton Water," love—this time physical rather than spiritual—is a natural, vital force, a prime mover in the cycle of life. And "The Bride's Prelude," a third ballad from this early period, shows that life has no force, no vivifying movement, without the saving power of love. But in mid-life, no longer content with the vision of the Vita Nuova, Rossetti added a new dimension to his old theme, focusing in the ballads from this period on the destructive potential of love in its relationship to life and death. In "Troy Town," "Eden Bower," and "Rose Mary," written between 1869 and 1871, the medievalism that Rossetti found useful in presenting the spiritual quality of creative love gives way to a new metaphor—emphatic eroticism.
Many critics have written about the erotic qualities of Rossetti's art, but his own comments prove most telling. In response to Robert Buchanan's charge of "fleshliness," Rossetti defended the sensual elements in his poetry. Admitting that the sonnet now called "Nuptial Sleep" embodies a "beauty of universal function" (482), Rossetti argued that the spirituality of the greater part of The House of Life outweighs the sensuality of this one stanza: "here all the passionate and just delights of the body are declared—somewhat figuratively, it is true, but unmistakably—to be naught if not ennobled by the concurrence of the soul at all times" (482). Further, he notes:
That I may nevertheless take a wider view than some poets or critics of how much, in the material conditions absolutely given to man to deal with as distinct from his spiritual aspirations, is admissible within the limits of Art,—this I say, is possible enough; nor do I wish to shrink from such responsibility. But to state that I do so to the ignoring or overshadowing of spiritual beauty, is an absolute falsehood…. [485-86]
When Rossetti speaks of "material conditions" in relation to love, he speaks of physical passion, the concrete manifestation of an always more important spiritual relationship. This particular argument presents none of the irreconcilable tension that certain scholars find between themes associated with "Body's Beauty" and "Soul's Beauty" in Rossetti's works.2 It gives credence instead to Yeats's view of the morally satisfying aesthetic synthesis that Rossetti creates: "He listens to the cry of the flesh till it becomes proud and passes beyond the world where some immense desire that the intellect cannot understand mixes with the desire for a body's warmth and softness." Thus physical passion becomes rarified, but as Bowra notes, never "so rarified that it seems to have no relation to any familiar world." For, he concludes, "Rossetti knew that there is one beauty of the flesh and another beauty of the spirit," which "in the end … are united in a single harmony," so that ideally, "each fulfills and glorifies the other."3 Although Rossetti, as a painter and poet, is often accused of sensual excesses, three of his most sensuous poems, "Troy Town," "Eden Bower," and "Rose Mary," show a moral perspective which condemns sensuality that is unalloyed with a more powerful spirituality, even as Rossetti seems, finally, to question the redemptive power of spiritual love.
"Troy Town" and "Eden Bower" are each designed to illustrate an upset in the ideal balance between the worship of beauty of the spirit and beauty of the flesh, a dichotomy drawn in the sonnets written to accompany two paintings. These sonnets, "Soul's Beauty" and "Body's Beauty," clarify the stories behind the beautiful women in Sibylla Palmifera and Lilith. In Sibylla Palmifera Rossetti intended "to embody the … Principle of Beauty which draws all high-toned men to itself, whether with the aim of embodying it in art or attaining it in life."4 The worship of the lady in "Soul's Beauty" has an uplifting effect on her "bondsman" since following ideal beauty gives form to his life. On the other hand, the Lilith figure, in the painting for which the sonnet "Body's Beauty" was written, uses her beauty to destroy. She "draws men to watch the bright web she can weave / Till hearts and body and life are in its hold" (216). When the spiritual component in the quest for beauty is absent, the impulse toward that beauty becomes erotic rather than uplifting, and the outcome, according to Rossetti's essentially moral perspective, is destruction and death.
In "Troy Town" Rossetti presents the two faces of beauty and shows the destruction which results when beauty elicits a purely erotic response. Although the poem is a ballad, its narrative action is limited by Rossetti's focus on the moment of pause between two well-known stories. Prior to the Trojan War Helen, in the temple of Venus, offers the goddess a cup in the shape of her breast. In return for her gift, she asks for the love of Paris, to whom Venus owes a debt. Venus, with a smug awareness of future catastrophe, grants the wish, and Cupid's arrows strike the ill-fated pair. In the final stanza, Paris, caught in a web of desire, longs "to clasp" Helen's "golden head!" (307). Helen's reminder to Venus of her debt to Paris recalls the story which precedes the poem. The echoing refrain forecasts the fall of Troy, the story to come when Helen's beauty is rewarded as she wishes. The refrain—"O Troy Town! … Troy's down, / Tall Troy's on fire!"—and other repetitive devices do more than merely add to the suspense and the sense of inevitability. As Ronnalie Roper Howard comments: "The refrain has its own kind of music, a harsh clanging which suggests catastrophe … the refrain is the poem's comment on the destructiveness of eroticism and briefly sums up the whole theme of the poem in every stanza."5 The refrain functions as the warp of a fabric having alternating strands of eroticism and death.
The first stanza of "Troy Town," which establishes the thematic tension between "soul's beauty" and "body's beauty," is formally split by the alternating refrain lines. Helen is both "Heavenborn" and the earthly queen of Sparta. Her "two breasts" are "the sun and moon of the heart's desire," suggesting opposing forces (305).6 "Love's lordship" lies between the two poles of beauty and may by drawn in either direction. The refrain, which divides the stanza and focuses on the fall of Troy, serves to emphasize the destruction which results when eroticism, the attractive force of body's beauty, is out of control. The images of beauty in the stanza contrast sharply with the images of destruction in the refrain which laments the fall of Troy, "O Troy Town!, " and suggests spent passion through phallic and fire images, "O Troy's down, / Tall Troy's on fire!"
In addition to developing the idea of duality, the refrain links death with eroticism in the texture of "Troy Town." Those critical statements that have not been kind to this refrain seem based on a misunderstanding of Rossetti's intention. Friedman, who views the poem only as it relates to the ballad tradition, writes: "When Helen in the early passages is negotiating her translation to Troy, the burden … stimulates lively forebodings; in the later stanzas, it contributes nothing." But he does not see the refrain in terms of a sustained pattern of eroticism and death. Robert Cooper calls the refrain "monotonous." Waugh, who finds the poem effective when read aloud, notes that the refrain exercises "a hypnotic effect on the hearer, drawing him into the poem."7 This, it seems, is the effect Rossetti wished to create, in order to show, through the form of the poem, the seductive power of eroticism which ensnares "the hearts and body and life" (216) of those who are enthralled by body's beauty.
Rossetti uses repetition, another ballad device, to weave the stanzaic web more tightly. Howard names "repetition, sexual suggestion, and sexual symbolism" as the major poetic devices, noting that "repetition emphasizes physical passion, suggesting obsessive force."8 Further, these devices serve to enhance the already tight stanzaic structure. Each seven-line stanza has only three rhymes. Two of these are repeated in all fourteen stanzas, and, in addition to the refrain, every fourth line ends in "heart's desire." The prominent beat of the trochaic tetrameter lines alternates with the shorter, heavily stressed refrain. And the tetrameter lines often begin and end with stressed syllables in order to heighten the beat. This tight, almost metronomic, stanzaic pattern is augmented by repetitions which tend to group at points of erotic intensity. The conclusion of the poem, for example, is replete with repetition and added internal rhyme:
Paris turned upon his bed,
(O Troy Town!)
Turned upon his bed and said,
Dead at heart with heart's desire—
"Oh to clasp her golden head!"
(O Troy 's down,
Tall Troy's on fire!)
With the rhyme of "bed," "dead," and "head," Rossetti knots the strands of eroticism and death woven throughout the poem.
At another point of erotic intensity the imagery works with the repetition and internal rhyme to draw diverse elements in the narrative together. Specifically, the image of the apple unites the stories that precede and follow the incident narrated in the poem. Helen reminds Venus that "Once an apple stirred the beat / Of thy heart with heart's desire" (306). As Venus had coveted an apple to reward her beauty, Helen covets Paris, the ill-fated Trojan prince, as a reward for her own. The lines also suggest the biblical story in which, traditionally, an apple leads to sexual passion and another fall. Further, Helen relates the image of the apple to the earlier image of her breasts in a purely sensual stanza:
"Mine are apples grown to the south,
(O Troy Town!)
Grown to taste in the days of drouth,
Taste and waste to the heart's desire:
Mine are apples meet for his mouth."
(O Troy's down,
Tall Troy's on fire!)
The erotic nature of the relationship Helen seeks is clear. With the link between the apple, sexual passion, the garden of Eden, and the fall established, the web is complete. In the subsequent stanzas, with the prominent ballad rhythm suggesting inevitability, Venus and Cupid do their work, and when Paris falls victim to body's beauty, Troy falls with him.
In "Eden Bower," like "Troy Town" in its use of eroticism, Rossetti focuses directly on the Adamic myth. Lilith, a snake given woman's form for Adam's pleasure, has been cast outside the garden upon the creation of Eve, his human wife.9 In a long, seductive monologue culminating with her description of the Fall, Lilith tries to persuade the snake, her former mate, to exchange his shape for hers so that she can tempt Eve. Motivated by hatred and the desire for revenge, Lilith uses her sexuality as her strength, and the power of eroticism is once again the focus of the poem.
While "Troy Town" focuses on the fatal attraction of eroticism, Lilith's passion is repulsive or "grotesque."10 It is not simply body's beauty that ensnares in "Eden Bower." In its portrayal of the potentially destructive side of love, "Eden Bower" shows love's power to deceive. The central problem the poem presents is our inability to distinguish erotic attraction from love's spiritually uplifting passion. Here deceit leads man into the erotic death trap.
The element of deceit begins in the title of the poem, which plays upon the double significance of "Bower." In its relation to Eden the word suggests prelapsarian shelter, but it also evokes the connotation of a lady's bedroom, particularly to those familiar with Rossetti's "Song of the Bower." Thus, the drama of the poem takes place in a setting which combines innocence and experience. The changeable figure of Lilith introduces a further element of deception, for although "Not a drop of her blood was human, / … she was made like a soft sweet woman" (308). The form that eroticism takes, then, is problematic because passion so closely resembles love. Yet as the next stanza suggests, the consequences of mistaking the two are grave:
Lilith stood on the skirts of Eden;
(Alas the hour!))
She was the first that thence was driven;
With her was hell and with Eve was heaven.
Following Eve leads to salvation while the worship of Lilith results in damnation.11
Throughout the poem the refrain relates the theme of deceit to the consequences of eroticism. The refrain line, "Sing Eden Bower!" is a final condensation of two earlier versions, "Sing the bower in flower, " and "Eden Bower's in flower. "12 Although Rossetti came to see that the longer lines would interrupt the movement of the poem, the spirit of the original lines, which suggest that Eden is fruitful, happy, and safe, is retained. The alternate lines, "Alas the hour!" revised from "And it's the day and the hour!" emphasize the deception in the first lines by hinting at the impending fall. Thus Eden, like Lilith, seems to change its shape from stanza to stanza.
Rossetti adapts the incremental repetition techniques of the traditional ballad in order to create a pattern of duplicity and deceit. The ninth stanza, for example, which begins "O thou God, the Lord God of Eden!" echoes blasphemously in the tenth stanza, "O thou Snake, the King-snake of Eden!" as Lilith worships good and evil with the same words (309). Repetition draws a similar parallel in another pair of stanzas in which Lilith addresses the snake as "O my love, thou Love-snake of Eden!" and then "O bright Snake, the Death-worm of Adam!"(312). Much has been made of these lines as the link between eroticism and death, but they are also a part of the pattern of deception.13 The love that leads to hell often takes the same form as the love that leads to heaven. Further, the incremental series beginning "Lend thy shape for the love of Lilith!" and continuing, "for the hate of Adam … for the shame of Eden!" suggests a confusion of motivating emotions (310). The repetitive line "Lo God's grace, by the grace of Lilith!" (313) is far-reaching in its duplicity. The concept of grace figures prominently in several ballads that develop variations on the love theme. Death in "The Staff and Scrip," for example, becomes the lady's "gift and grace" (80) because dying for true love leads to salvation. In "Troy's Town" Venus laughs at Helen and taunts, "Thy gift hath grace" (307), suggesting that Helen will be rewarded with the love she requests, a grace that will lead, ironically, to destruction. "Eden Bower" draws upon both uses of "grace," emphasizing the duplicity in a relationship that can lead to eternal happiness or eternal damnation.
The biblical story in "Eden Bower" is, after all, a story of deceit. The serpent in the garden, whether it be the devil or Lilith, deceives Eve, who deceives Adam, who, in turn, tries to deceive God. But as Lilith points out in an imagined taunt to Eve, God will not be fooled although Adam will try to blame Eve who will accuse the snake. Both are cast out of Eden into a new life, but the pattern of duplicity continues. Eve will be both "bride" and "mother" (313); the pair will produce "two babes" who will be both "travail and treasure." Part of the tragedy of the poem's conclusion is the ambiguity regarding the nature of love that remains both a blessing and a curse.,
In "Rose Mary," written in 1871, Rossetti reworks the theme of deceit and attempts to resolve the problem left open at the end of "Eden Bower." This poem is staged once again in a medieval setting. Traditional gothic trappings—a crystal from the exotic East, a secret shrine full of symbols, a seer, and an atmosphere of mystery—adorn this poem as the elements of medieval romance decorate "The Staff and Scrip" and Bride's Prelude." Rose Mary, at her mother's urging, looks into the beryl stone to see if danger lurks on the path that her lover James will follow on his way to make shrift before their wedding day. Only a virgin, according to the tradition that Rossetti draws upon, can see into the beryl.14 Because Rose Mary is not a virgin, the vision that the beryl allows her is false. She sees an ambush in the valley where James's sworn foe, the Wardin of Holycleugh, waits. Advised to take the high road to avoid him, James is killed in an ambush on a misty hill. Evil spirits had entered the beryl stone and deceived the sinful seer. Watching over the dead knight's body, Rose Mary's mother finds a letter in his pocket wrapped in a lock of golden hair, not one of her daughter's dark tresses. The hair, she discovers, belongs to Jocelind, sister of the Wardin of Holycleugh, whom James intended to marry. Rose Mary, unaware of James's treachery, enters the shrine of the beryl. Conscious of the evil in the stone, she cleaves it with a sword, knowing that the act of destroying the stone will bring her death. Because she has remained faithful, she is transported to heaven while James is consigned to hell.
In keeping with the ballad tradition, "Rose Mary" begins with dialogue which is employed at intervals throughout. At times, particularly when the narrative advances, the language is beautifully and appropriately simple in the best ballad style:
Daughter, once more I bid you read;
But now let it be for your own need:
Because to-morrow, at break of day,
To Holy Cross he rides on his way
Your knight Sir James of Heronhaye."
The stanza, with the tetrameter rhythm of the traditional ballad, is once again Rossetti's own five-line variation. Vogel notes that the alternation of couplets and triplets and the limited enjambment produce the effect of a refrain ballad, which he describes as "a kind of inexorableness—a feeling of advancing steadily through the tale's ominous events to its final catastrophe."15 Rossetti avoids the abrupt transitions that are characteristic of the ballad only by introducing the Beryl Songs to link the sections.
Although "Rose Mary" has much in common with the traditional ballad both in form and in narrative development, like Rossetti's other ballads it is not simply a poem that tells a story. Although the unifying force of the erotic metaphor in the earlier ballads is absent in "Rose Mary," the same human passions concern Rossetti. The idea of love as a deceiver, developed in "Eden Bower," is broadened in "Rose Mary" where life itself becomes a mystery to be read and interpreted. After Rose Mary has been deceived by the beryl, her mother's words sum up the theme of the poem:
"Ah! would to God I clearly told
How strong those powers, accurst old:
Their heart is the ruined house of lies;
O girl, they can seal the sinful eyes,
Or show the truth by contraries."
It has been said that Rossetti's The House of Life might more appropriately be called The House of Love; here in keeping with the theme of deceit, the same human sphere becomes a "house of lies." Howard describes this poem as "Rossetti's largest treatment of the essential opacity of the universe and human life," an opacity which, it would seem, becomes actively malevolent at times.16
The difference between appearance and reality lies, as Howard suggests, at the center of this poem, where each section presents a central deceit.17 In the first section, the mother believes that her daughter is pure so she encourages her to read the beryl. The girl's very name testifies to her purity.18 The mother's ironic words "A bride you'll be, as a maid you are" (104) capsulize the element of deceit and forecast the tragic conclusion, for Rose Mary is not a maid, nor will she be a bride. Toward the conclusion of this section Rose Mary expresses relief: "Thank God, thank God, thank God I saw" (117). But she has not seen the truth. In the second section, where the mother knows of her daughter's sin, James's betrayal becomes the central deceit, again underscored by an ironic remark: "Be sure as he loved you, so will I!" (117). But James did not love Rose Mary, and love, like sight, cannot be trusted. In the third section the mother learns of James's betrayal, but Rose Mary never does. Her last words reveal her delusion:
"One were our hearts in joy and pain,
And our souls e'en now grow one again.
And my love, if our souls are three,
O thine and mine shall the third soul be,—
One threefold love eternally."
She cleaves the beryl and dies for the sake of a spiritualized, idealized love, but love has deceived her.
The beryl lies at the center of the theme of deceit, for as soon as the stone is introduced, the pattern of narrative simplicity breaks down. Descriptive similes, images of cloud and shadow, and an element of mystery accompany the beryl stone. The mother's words as she addresses the beryl, in sharp contrast with the earlier simplicity in her dialogue, take on the tone of incantation and share the opaque quality of the beryl:
"Ill fare" (she said) "with a fiend's faring:
But Moslem blood poured forth like wine
Can hallow Hell, 'neath the Sacred Sign:
And my lord brought this from Palestine."
The descriptive passages relating to the secret shrine of the beryl are intricate, symbolic and gothic:
To the north, a fountain glittered free;
To the south, there glowed a red fruit-tree;
To the east, a lamp flames high and fair;
To the west, a crystal casket rare
Held fast a cloud of fields of air.
Although the beryl songs have met with much adverse criticism, including, finally, Rossetti's own condemnation, they fit into the pattern of confusion that surrounds that stone.
For Rossetti, the beryl represented a microcosm of the world. To his old friend Dr. Thomas Gordon Hake, Rossetti wrote: "Many thanks for your information about the Beryl. I had no idea what the stone was really like, but perceive that for my purpose the elements must be somehow mystically condensed in it as a sort of mimic world."19 In the poem itself the description of the beryl evokes the idea that the stone reflects the world:
Shaped it was to a shadowy sphere,—
World of our world, the sun's compeer,
That bears and buries the toiling year.
The world that the beryl reflects is the world of half-truths, of shadows, and of mists. Rose Mary, who hides her own sin, fears that the pastoral vision may hide a terrible reality:
"Ah! vainly I searched from side to side:—
Woe's me! and where do the foemen hide?
Woe's me! and perchance I pass them by,
And under the new dawn's blood-red sky
Even where I gaze the dead shall lie."
The fear that sin will obscure her vision is justified; the sins of the flesh prevent her from seeing the truth, which for Rossetti is spiritual love.20
The problem of reading the signs in a confused opaque world is developed further through the images of sight and blindness. When Rose Mary saw the vision of death, she "shrank blindfold in her fallen hair" (108). The significance of hair in relation to the image pattern of sight is particularly evocative. In "Body's Beauty," "Eden Bower," and "Troy Town," hair has been associated with eroticism; here too James's betrayal is discovered through a telltale lock of hair. It is fitting, then, that Rose Mary's blindness, the result of her sin, is evoked with the image of hair. Ironically, the mother advises her daughter to "Fear no trap you cannot see" (110), and Rose Mary, reassured, expresses her relief: "thank God I saw!" (112). But she has been deceived by appearances.
The vision of salvation through love in "Rose Mary" lacks the conviction behind a similar salvation in "The Staff and Scrip." The lines regarding heavenly reunion, resonant with religiosity—"And our souls e'en now grow one again … One threefold love eternally" (132)—must be read ironically. The erotic vision of love's dark deceitful side developed in "Troy Town" and "Eden Bower" ultimately foils Rossetti's attempt to return to the Dantesque ideal. As a synthesis of spirituality and eroticism, "Rose Mary" fails because the happy ending is undercut by irony.
Thus these three ballads show the process through which Rossetti's early Dantesque faith in love evolves into a more complex vision. "Troy Town" suggests that the saving power of love, prominent in the early ballads, is balanced by an equally powerful destructive impulse, embodied in the metaphor of eroticism. In "Eden Bower" our inability to distinguish between spiritual love and erotic attraction defies resolution. In "Rose Mary" the power of the erotic vision and the dilemma that it presents undercut the salvation offered by love. Rossetti's exposure, in the erotic ballads, of love as a two-faced deceiver prohibits our faith in its gift of grace.
1 Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Collected Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. William Michael Rossetti (London: Ellis and Elvey, 1887) 1: 176. All future references to Rossetti's poetry are to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text.
2 See Philip McM. Pittman, "The Strumpet and the Snake: Rossetti's Treatment of Sex as Original Sin," Victorian Poetry 12 (1974): 46-47; David Sonstroem, Rossetti and the Fair Lady (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1970) 16; and Masao Miyoshi, The Divided Self: A Perspective on the Literature of the Victorians (New York: New York UP, 1969) 252.
3 W. B. Yeats, "The Happiest of the Poets," Essays and Introductions (New York: Collier, 1973) 53; Cecil Bowra, The Romantic Imagination (1949; New York: Oxford UP, 1961) 211-12.
4 Rossetti cited by Oswald Doughty, A Victorian Romantic: Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1949; London: Oxford UP, 1960) 347.
5 Ronnalie Roper Howard, The Dark Glass: Vision and Technique in the Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 1972) 142.
6 To note just a few examples, the sonnet "Passion and Worship" in the concluding sestet associates the sun with passion and the moon with worship. The two sonnets "Silent Noon" and "Gracious Moonlight" seem to contrast physical with spiritual love.
7 Albert B. Friedman, The Ballad Revival: Studies in the Influences of Popular on Sophisticated Poetry (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1961) 323; Robert Cooper, Lost on Both Sides: Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Critic and Poet (Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 1970) 202; Evelyn Waugh, Rossetti: His Life and Works (New York: Dodd, 1928) 157.
8 Howard 141.
9 Pittman notes the sources for the Lilith legend as Jewish folklore and Talmudic legend (47).
10 Howard 144; Pittman 52.
11 Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi, in "The Feminization of D. G. Rossetti," The Victorian Experience: The Poets, ed. Richard A. Levine (Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 1982) writes about Rossetti's "ambivalence" toward women: "The goddess of one painting turns siren or betrayer in another—or … a combination of the two" (102).
12 Paull Franklin Baum, ed., Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Poems and Ballads and Sonnets: Selections from the Posthumous Poems and Hand and Soul (Garden City: Doubleday, 1937) 55.
13 Howard 148.
14 Clyde K. Hyder, "Rossetti's 'Rose Mary': A study in the Occult," Victorian Poetry 1 (1963): 205. Hyder discusses crystal-gazing and legendary sources associated with it.
15 Joseph F. Vogel, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Versecraft, U of Florida Humanities Monograph 34 (Gainsville: U of Florida P, 1971) 57.
16 Howard 155.
17 Howard 153-54.
18 For comment on Rossetti's use of the name Rose Mary, see Doughty 447; Howard 153; Hyder 199; and Sonstroem 101.
19 Rossetti, Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. Oswald Doughty and John Robert Wahl (London: Clarendon, 1965) 3: 1010.
20 For quite a different reading, which presents this poem as Rossetti's triumph over Victorian morality that would condemn Rose Mary for her sexual sin, see David G. Riede, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Limits of Victorian Vision (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1983) 171-78.
Jerome McGann (essay date 1988)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10687
SOURCE: "Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Betrayal of Truth," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 26, No. 4, Winter, 1988, pp. 339-61.
[In the following essay, McGann traces Rossetti's career-spanning concern with disillusionment and the betrayal of artistic ideals.]
Rossetti has a notebook entry dating from the early 1870s in which he speaks of certain "Days when the characters of men came out as strongly as secret writing exposed to fire."1 What is illuminating and complex in this figure centers in the pun on the word "characters," where both people and writing are imagined as encrypted forms—indeed, as encrypted transforms of each other. Their respective truths appear only when the false innocence of the surface is removed.
As with Blake, when he spoke of a similar process in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the agent of revelation here is fire, and a fire associated, as in Blake, with hell. But in Blake there is nothing sinister in such fire, which is seen as a "divine" agency (that is to say, as part of the human process of engraving). In Rossetti, however, the fire threatens because the "characters" are sinister and threatening. Lurking below Rossetti's metaphor are suggestions of torture and even damnation, of a world in which "the characters of men" practice concealment and deceit.
This is not an image which Rossetti would have produced when he began to test his imaginative resources in the 1840s. But it has arrived at the heart of his work, and it can help to guide us should we choose to approach him from more customary angles—for example, down the avenues of his early prose works like "Hand and Soul" or the fragmentary "St. Agnes of Intercession." These tales seem typically Rossettian in their treatment of the relation between love and art; but their extreme deceptiveness, their preoccupation with false appearances, is equally central to what they are doing, and equally a Rossettian trademark.
Like its companion tale "Hand and Soul," "St. Agnes of Intercession" anatomizes the character and situation of a young painter whose "impulse towards art" was "a vital passion" (1:400).2 When he falls in love with a young woman of comfortable means—as he puts it, "of more ease than my own" (1:402)—he is driven to seek "such a position as would secure me from reproaching myself with any sacrifice made for her sake." That is the young man's painfully delicate way of saying that he set about trying to become a commercially successful painter, which meant, in practical terms, submitting his work for exhibition. To this end he "laboured constantly and unweariedly" for many days and nights on a work whose "principal female figure" was his betrothed, Miss Mary Arden.
In these initial details we glimpse the characteristic tension which will dominate Rossetti's story: between an exalted ideal of art, on one hand, and certain quotidian practical exigencies on the other. The young man's reflections on the opening day of the exhibition make these contradictions very explicit:
My picture, I knew, had been accepted, but I was ignorant of a matter perhaps still more important,—its situation on the walls. On that now depended its success…. That is not the least curious feature of life as evolved in society,—… when a man, having endured labour, gives its fruits into the hands of other men, that they may do their work between him and mankind: confiding it to them, unknown, without seeking knowledge of them … without appeal to the sympathy of kindred experience: submitting to them his naked soul, himself, blind and unseen. (1:403)
Centrally at issue here is the public and commercial "success" of the work, as opposed to its "artistic achievement" or "intrinsic value." Or rather, the passage shows how the sensibility of a man who is committed to the "intrinsic values" of art suffers a crucifixion of the imagination when he feels compelled to operate in and through the mediations "evolved in society." His initial anxiety about whether his picture will even be accepted for exhibition succeeds to a whole train of others which crystallize in one immediate concern: whether the painting will be prominently displayed—in the jargon of the day, whether it will be "on the line"—or whether it will be relegated to some less prestigious, or even less visible, position.
These misgivings surface as soon as he begins to make a tour of the exhibition with another man, also unnamed in the story, whom the painter accidentally encounters. This man, a poet and an art critic, gives a further turn of the screw to the young painter's anxieties. Rossetti's painter fears and respects his companion's power in the culture-industry of their world, but he has only contempt for the man's artistic taste and poetic skills. He is able to conceal his actual views and feelings until the poet-critic pauses in their tour of the exhibition, pulls out a sheaf of his poems, and asks the painter for his opinion. After reading them hurriedly the young man manages an answer. It is a nice moment:
"I think," I coolly replied, "that when a poet strikes out for himself a new path in style, he should first be quite convinced that it possesses sufficient advantages to counterbalance the contempt which the swarm of his imitators will bring upon poetry."
My ambiguity was successful. I could see him take the compliment to himself, and inhale it like a scent, while a slow broad smile covered his face. It was much as if, at some meeting, on a speech being made complimentary to the chairman, one of the waiters should elbow that personage aside, plant his knuckles on the table, and proceed to return thanks. (1:407)
This passage dramatizes the deep connections joining the painter's artistic fastidiousness and "idealism" to his tortured duplicity and servile cowardice. "Successful" is just the right word, in this context, to describe his wary but contemptuous reply to the other man's fatuous request for praise. If he wants to be "successful" as an artist, he cannot afford to offend this man. Indeed, he even has to cultivate him to some extent. So the young painter stays with him throughout the exhibition, suffering his absurd displays of self-importance. Through it all, however, the young painter keeps his distance from the man—inwardly, spiritually, in secret. He practices a fraud on his companion when he equivocates about the man's bad verse. That false representation is his way of preserving his sense of integrity and his commitment to true art. The moment is troubled and troubling, however, because it sets those key Rossettian values quite literally on a false ground.
The entire scene from "St. Agnes of Intercession," written in 1848-50 (but revised in 1870),3 is thus an emblem of Rossetti's career as an artist and poet. Later I will return to deal with the matter of Miss Mary Arden—that is to say, with Rossetti's habit of linking his artistic ideals and imaginative practices to the women whose images dominated his life. For now I wish to concentrate on the problem of the material conditions of artistic production as Rossetti experienced them in his age. Unlike Blake's and Byron's, Rossetti's work does not foreground the artistic opportunities which are offered when an artist seeks to utilize the physical and institutional structures within which all such work is necessarily carried out. Rossetti is as self-conscious as they are about those media, but to him the structures more often rose up as obstacles to be overcome rather than adventures to be risked. "St. Agnes of Intercession," in the scene I have been recapitulating, pays greatest attention to the difficulties raised by the institutions of imagination: most particularly, those means of production which establish the possibility, or the terms, on which a painter or a poet is able to encounter an audience.
If Rossetti's feeling for those difficulties makes him a less innocent poet than either Blake or Byron, it also set him in a position where he could explore, far more profoundly than any English poet had previously done, the significance of imaginative work in an age of mechanical reproduction, in an age where "the best that has been known and thought in the world" is seen to be quite literally a product, the output of what we now call the "culture" or the "consciousness industries." Like Baudelaire in France, Rossetti was the first poet in England to see this very clearly; and, again like Baudelaire, he recoiled from it, and tried to imagine ways for evading those institutional powers, and for recovering an ideal of artistic and poetic transcendence. But like Baudelaire once again, what he accomplished was far otherwise and far more important. What he accomplished was a critical definition of the symbolistic imagination when its work has been forced by circumstance to be carried out within a marketing and commercial frame of reference.
In that context, Rossetti is constantly driven to work by indirection. This happens because he operates in the belief—the ideology—that life is one thing, art another. Art for Rossetti appeared to him—as in Chiaro's vision in "Hand and Soul"—as life in its finer tone, the one certain means by which human beings can soar beyond the confusions of a mortal and veiled existence. His ideology of the sacred character of the poetic life made him an acute observer of the illusions of the quotidian world—in this he is like his sister Christina. But whereas, for her, sacramentalism—the ritually practiced religious life—was the one fundamental necessity, for Dante Gabriel that necessity was located in the practice of art.
This point of view established the basic contradiction within which Rossetti's work was to develop. The practical dimension of the contradiction can be expressed as follows: how does one paint or write poetry when the world of getting and spending constantly impinges, transforming the fair illusion of a pure pursuit of Beauty into other, darker forms—at worst unworthy, at best distracting, but in any case equally illusionistic? This is the great contradiction raised by poetry in the age of Victorian commercial imperialism, and first given profound expression in Tennyson's 1832 Poems. Rossetti would not find a solution to that problem, any more than anyone else would. In fact the problem has no solution, because its importance as a problem lies not in any realities it consciously questions but in the illusions it unwittingly exposes. It is a problem without a solution because it is a problem framed within its own rooted misunderstanding about the nature of art and imagination: that these are transcendental forms standing free of the sublunary orders of human things.
One face of the illusion appears as the idea that "effort and expectation and desire," or striving, seeking and finding, will eventually produce a solution. Rossetti is the first Victorian poet to show clearly the falseness of such convictions. The important secondary illusion is that the sublunary world and the world of art differ from each other in every important respect—as the material world is thought to differ in all important respects from the world of spirit. This illusion Rossetti will also discredit, at first with excitement and confidence, in his explorations of erotic experience, but finally in fear and trembling, as the full import of his erotic explorations slowly dawns upon him. In the end Rossetti's poetry (and his art as well, though I shall not be concentrating on that aspect of his work)4 will repeat Dante's journey in the opposite direction, descending from various illusory heavens through a purgatory of unveilings to the nightmares and hells of his greatest work, the unwilled revelations arrived at in The House of Life.
It is important to realize that Rossetti did not set out to discredit that ideology. "Hand and Soul," for example, tells a story of the triumph of art and the artistic life over base circumstances. The problem is that the story doubts the truth of its own apparent theme. It is a hoaxing tale in more ways than one. It is a hoax, formally speaking, in that it consciously imitates the hoaxes of Edgar Allan Poe—those tales like "Von Kempelen and his Discovery" which present themselves to the reader as nonfictions. Rossetti's work is written to secure a real belief in its fictional representations. Written in the form of a personal essay, it deceived "more than one admirer … who made enquiry in Florence and Dresden after the pictures of Chiaro" (2:524).
Like Poe and Baudelaire, Rossetti catches the reader out by feeding him the illusions he wants to believe. The ultimate effect of such a story is to expose the structure of those illusions. But, unlike Poe and Baudelaire, Rossetti himself more than half believed in the illusions he was calling out. For Rossetti, then, the story is not initially conceived as a hoax at all but as a serious conjuring trick. R. L. Megroz was acute to see that "in his imaginative adventures, Rossetti was always casting the horoscope of his life."5 "Hand and Soul" is in this respect, at least initially, a serious act of magic, an effort to put into writing a story that might prove to be the actual plot of Rossetti's own life. If the story could be imagined to be true, in the second half of the nineteenth century in England (either as a piece of "past" history or as the sketch of the true "future"), then art could be said to transcend circumstance. And Rossetti was not the only one who sought to turn the fictions of that story into truths.
The greatness, as well as the horror, of Rossetti's career can be traced to his insistence upon interrogating that cherished belief in the mission of art to unveil, or achieve, transcendence. To discover the truth of that belief Rossetti made an experiment of his life and his life's work, where his deepest convictions were put to a series of empirical tests. Rossetti's work is an effort to confirm empirically those narrative imaginings he had initially set forth in "St. Agnes of Intercession" and "Hand and Soul."
The experiment led Rossetti to complete the curve of the demonic imagination outlined half a century before by Blake when he showed that "he who will not defend Truth may be compelled to / Defend a Lie, that he may be snared & caught & taken" (Milton 8:47). For the truths Rossetti discovered did not confirm the story he was committed to. In the first place, the artist's life Rossetti came to know in those years had none of the mythic purity of Chiaro's tale. Rossetti had to scramble for success, seek out commissions, constantly resupply himself with the money he loved to call "tin" (thereby dismissing it from the serious concerns he kept imagining for himself). The more he made his way as an artist, the more difficult he found the demands that such a life placed upon him. These were not the grandiose spiritual difficulties laid upon the high-minded Chiaro; they were crass and quotidian demands, nightmarishly worse even than those glimpsed in "St. Agnes of Intercession."
Rossetti had various tricks by which he held off the enormity of this experimental life that he was pursuing. He paraded his refusals to exhibit in the ordinary professional ways, and nurtured the myth, both for himself and for others, of bohemian genius. But while Millais, Brown, and Edward Jones were making their way by more conventional means, Rossetti was nonetheless making his way—in certain respects, not least of all monetary, even more successfully. But it was a way that left only ashes in his mouth.
Nothing shows his situation so well as his relations with the people whose commissions he was seeking. It began with the earliest of them, Francis McCracken for instance, in the early fifties. Perceiving McCracken as "an absolute Guy—worse than Patmore" (L 1:185),6 Rossetti manipulated him into buying things at grossly inflated prices, and then ridiculed him to his friends—for example in his contemptuous parody of Tennyson's "The Kraken" which Rossetti called "MacCraken."7 Throughout the fifties and sixties Rossetti cosseted and condescended to his buyers. They seemed, most of them, altogether too easy marks: eager, relatively ignorant, contemptible in the end. To Ford Madox Ford, for example, he remarked, "I'll forebear from springing at the unaccustomed throat of Trist, if possible; but really a man shouldn't buy pictures without nerving himself beforehand against commercial garotte" (L 2:520). This sort of thing is a refrain in his letters. Yet his own idealization of the practice of art turned his behavior into a kind of self-immolation. If Trist and the other buyers were suffering executions in their pocketbooks, Rossetti's "commercial garotte" was strangling his own soul.
By 1865-66 Rossetti had become a very successful painter indeed, measured both in terms of his celebrity and his income. At the same time it had become apparent to himself, in any case, that his experiment with his life and his ideals had not gone well. The course of his commercial career had its parallel in the course of his devotional life—by which I mean his love life. Elizabeth's suicide in 1862 was no more than the exponent and capstone of his disastrous quests for the Beatrice which his experiment required. Their life together had not been an "ideal" in any sense, either before or after the marriage, though his initial imagination of her meaning for him was—just that, that she was to be deeply meaningful. Then too there were his infidelities, we do not know exactly how many. In a sense they were not infidelities to Elizabeth at all, since his attachment to her was never personal. What he worshiped was her image, and that he had himself created, first in his imagination, and then later, in the series of incredible drawings and paintings which he devoted to that image. His were infidelities, therefore, to his own soul, to his idea of himself, to the vision which had come to Chiaro in the late 1840s.
The extent of those infidelities were defined for him in the death of his wife and unborn child. The most celebrated act of his life—burying his volume of largely unpublished poems in the coffin with Elizabeth—was a form of expiation, of course, but its full significance has to be understood in the context of his artistic and poetic careers. His steady success as a painter became for Rossetti an index of how he was betraying his mission as an artist. The greater his success in securing commissions, the more erratic his output as a painter became. His cynical attitude toward his various patrons was matched only by his scandalous failure to meet obligations even after he had been paid. Through it all, however, he began to imagine that what he was betraying as a painter he was preserving as a poet. His paintings were hopelessly entangled with commercial affairs, but his poetry, it seemed to him, had been nurtured apart from worldly concerns. When in the fall of 1860 he sent a manuscript book of his original poetry to William Allingham for comments and criticism, his accompanying remarks are revealing:
When I think how old most of these things are, it seems like a sort of mania to keep thinking of them still, but I suppose one's leaning still to them depends mainly on their having no trade associations, and being still a sort of thing of one's own. I have no definite ideas as to doing anything with them, but should like, even if they lie at rest, to make them as good as I can. (L 1:37.7)
After he published, successfully, his 1861 The Early Italian Poets, a volume of his original work, Dante at Verona and Other Poems, was advertised. But Elizabeth's death intervened, along with the accompanying sense that his unfaithfulness was not simply, or even fundamentally, marital. The gift of his book of poems to Elizabeth's corpse was a gesture asserting that his artistic soul was still alive, and that he still had the integrity to preserve its life. He sent his poems out of the world.
But this left him more painfully in the world than ever, and the years 1862-68 are a record of what Oswald Doughty once labelled "Disillusion" and "Success."8 For Rossetti these were two faces of the same reality. Doughty's terms apply to Rossetti's artistic career, but they carry ironical overtones because, so far as Rossetti was concerned, his very success as a painter only multiplied his sense of moral disillusion. In this connection, though we must be very clear about the commercialism of the paintings, we are precisely not to judge the significance of those paintings through Rossetti's contradicted Victorian ideology. He despised the commercial face he saw in his work, but we must read and judge that work in another light.
If the paintings were commercial to a degree—and they were—they triumph in and through that commercialism. Like the poems, they are deceptions, sometimes even self-deceptions. Formally considered, they often appear to us as genre paintings; but the appearance is fraudulent. Rossetti's paintings come forth showing different kinds of representational faces. In every case the representational surface is distorted or disfigured, however, and those disruptions signal the truth about his work which Rossetti was concealing, partly from himself, and wholly from his contemporary audience. For his oils are not at all representational, they are abstract experiments in the use of color and (most importantly) the conventions of painterly space. Critics have never seriously faulted Rossetti's composition and his use of color, of course, but many have complained about his draughtsmanship. It is the drawing, however, which most graphically reveals the experimental character of his work, for it is the drawing which tilts his pictures out of their conventional structures. These paintings seduce and then abandon the corrupted eye of the conventional viewer, and in the process they contrive to deliver a secret meaning through the surface of betrayed appearances.
In this way Rossetti experienced an overthrow of certain traditional ideas about success and failure in art, illusion and disillusion in life. His success and disillusion are both real. But in his work we observe success being measured by disillusion, and disillusion being founded on success.
This pattern is recurrent and graphically displayed in the case of his poetical work as well. In 1868-69, finding it impossible to paint at all, he began writing poetry again. After much urging by relatives and friends, he published sixteen of these new sonnets in the Fortnightly Review (March 1869), and in the succeeding months he continued to write. Eventually he began to articulate the possibility of exhuming the book he had buried with Elizabeth, as part of a project to print "some old and new poems … for private circulation" (L, 2:716). Rossetti's tentative moves toward returning his poetry to the world were given a crucial impetus when he read an anonymous article on his verse in Tinsley 's Magazine in August 1869, at the very time he was working on the proofs for his "Trial Book" of poems. Once again he clearly describes the dialectic which is driving his new writing:
So after twenty years one stranger does seem to have discovered one's existence. However I have no cause to complain, since I have all I need of an essential kind, and have taken little trouble about it,—except always in the nature of my work,—the poetry especially in which I have done no pot-boiling at any rate. So I am grateful to that art, and nourish against the other that base grudge which we bear those whom we have treated shabbily. (L 2:729)
It is an astonishing passage for a man who, in 1869, had the kind of celebrity and success which Rossetti enjoyed. That H. Buxton Forman—the young author of the Tinsley's piece—would write an essay on Rossetti's poetry, when so little had appeared in print, and most of that in relatively inaccessible places, testifies to the kind of attention which his name commanded. Yet to Rossetti it seemed that his very existence had only just then been discovered, after twenty years of—what, invisibility? Yes, this was the way he saw it: the blankness which his commercial work as a painter had left where the image of his soul had once appeared.
Late in 1869, therefore, Rossetti began putting together a book of poetry which was to recoup those losses and betrayals he had been accumulating since the early fifties. He was full of anxiety about every detail of this project. Between mid-August 1869 and March 1, 1870, he received for correction and revision at least three sets of initial proofs (August 20-September 21), two so-called Trial Books (October 3-November 25), and a final complete proof of the first edition. The changes made in these proofs and Trial Books were massive: many poems were added and some were removed; large additions were written into the proof materials at all six major stages; titles were changed, and numerous local corrections and alterations were made; and finally, not least significant, the ordering of the poems underwent important and radical transformations. In the next two months, April and May, Rossetti continued to harass his publishers with extensive revisions and large-scale alterations of every kind. Nor was the physical appearance of the book a matter of small moment: the paper, the binding, the cloth, the color, the kind of dies to be struck for the embossed cover designs, and so forth—all these matters engrossed his attention. Rossetti's Poems of 1870 were bringing the whole soul of the man into activity.9
To Rossetti's imagination, that soul was the one he had almost lost through his life of betrayal—through his worldliness. But in objective truth it was another, more demonic soul to which his life's work had been devoted, and entirely faithful. Rossetti's concern that his book make a good appearance, in every sense, reflects his desire that it be a perfect image of beauty, of finishedness, of his commitment to perfection. His notorious efforts to control as completely as possible the immediate critical reception of the book must be understood as part of this obsession with the appearance of his work, the impression it would create. By 1870 he had a large network of friends and friendly acquaintances who were well-connected in the periodical press. All were enlisted to launch the book into the world—in pre-publication reviews wherever possible—not simply to a chorus of praise, but in terms that were to represent Rossetti's Poems as a work of the greatest artistic moment—indeed, as the very exponent and symbol of what "a work of art" means.10
In this sense, Rossetti's Poems (1870)—even more than Swinburne's Poems and Ballads (1866), which had created such a sensation four years earlier—is a manifesto for what Pater would call "Aesthetic Poetry." Comprised in that event, however, as Walter Benjamin so acutely observed in his great work on Baudelaire, is the understanding that the "work of art" has now identified itself with, and as, the commodity.11 The work was to be so carefully prepared, so thoroughly worked and polished, so packaged and promoted that it would ravish its audience and establish Rossetti's fame. The book was meant to "succeed" in the same way, only far more absolutely, that the painter, in "St. Agnes of Intercession," set out to succeed. Consumed for months with his corrections and revisions, Rossetti was perhaps able to blink the commercial forms and "trade associations" that were concealed in this attention to his craft, but the commodity-status of his work emerges very clearly in those other investments: his obsession with the physical appearance of his book, on one hand, and—crucially—his campaign to manage the reviews, on the other.
But if Rossetti's Poems (1870) return and re-establish the contradictions he had begun to explore in the late forties and early fifties, the intervening years had made an enormous difference in his work. In those years a happy liberal view might look for, and might even discover, signs of a "growing artistic maturity," of a "development" toward some "greater self-consciousness" in his work which could suggest that he had "transcended" in some measure the network of initial contradictions.12 But in fact Rossetti's "development," if one can call it that, is in the opposite direction—toward a more complete immersion within the contradictions, indeed, toward an enslavement to them. In twenty years Rossetti had moved from the margin to the very heart of his culture: as Blake would have said, "he became what he beheld." In tracing that movement, Poems (1870) achieved its greatness. The analogy to Les Fleurs du Mal is quite exact, so that what Benjamin said of the latter can be applied, pari passu, to Rossetti: "Baudelaire was a secret agent—an agent of the secret discontent of his class with its own rule."13 In Rossetti's case as well, therefore, "the point of departure is the object riddled with error" (Benjamin, p. 103). And in the nineteenth century there are few English books of poetry more secretly discontented, more riddled with error, than this book of Rossetti's.
We may begin to unriddle that error by a critical retracing of the history of the book. In his reply to Buchanan's "The Fleshly School of Poetry," Rossetti defended his dramatic monologue "Jenny" by a general argument about the nature of art. When he first wrote the poem "some thirteen years ago," he says, he understood that the subject-matter—a young man's visit to a prostitute—might have called for "a treatment from without." Such an objective treatment would have set a critical distance between the poem and its problematic subject. Rossetti rejected the option because "the motive powers of art reverse the requirement of science, and demand first of all an inner standing-point such as the speaker put forward in the poem,—that is, of a young and thoughtful man of the world" (2:484-485). This is more than the classic defense, that poems are not to be read as "personal expressions." Rossetti is rather speaking as a student of Browning, whose work with the dramatic monologue Rossetti so much admired. In that form an effort is made to confine subjectivity to the core of what Coleridge once called the "dramatic truth of such … situations, supposing them real."14 The dramatic monologue moves to take the "lyrical" out of the "ballad." Rossetti's "inner standing-point" is thus a Victorian explanation of what Keats called "negative capability," or the process by which the author's conscious separation from his subject—the typical structure of a poem by, say, Rochester or Pope—is canceled in a process of deep sympathetic engagement. In Rossetti's case, however, as in Browning's, the chameleonic turn involves a transfer of sympathy from the poet to some figure or character who is concretely imagined in the poem. The so-called "poetry of experience" becomes, in Victorian hands, a form for introducing modes of subjectivity into historically removed materials, or into contemporary materials which might be, for various reasons, problematic.
In the Victorian dramatic monologue, this transfer of sympathy cancels the traditional structure on which the identity of the poet, formally speaking, depends. Browning was not especially interested in, or perhaps even aware of, the crisis (and therefore the opportunity) which was emerging for poetry in this dismantling of the conventions of sincerity. But Rossetti was. Browning's spy will succeed to the absent gods of Flaubert and later Joyce, who stand apart from their creations, paring their fingernails. This is the theory, or rather the ideology, in which Rossetti too has taken his stand.
But as with Baudelaire's flaneur, Rossetti's disengagement becomes an exponent of social alienation, as is quite clear in "Jenny" itself. The sympathy of Rossetti's "young and thoughtful man of the world" is for a sleeping figure, a prostitute who never responds and who in the poem cannot respond. Her condition merely replicates the incompetent thought and limited sympathies of the young man, however. He does not understand her, or her "case," because she exists for him in an aesthetic condition alone, that state where sympathy appears as the indifference of appreciation. In the end, both prostitute and young man are figures of the latent structures of alienation of poetry itself as these structures have descended into Rossetti's hands. In fact, he here reveals the image of that "thoughtful" young man's soul as self-contradicted, an image with the face of a prostitute superimposed on the face of his sister.
In "Jenny," the frame erected by the dramatic monologue works to reveal alienation rather than establish sympathy, and to suggest—ultimately—that the dramatic monologue is a construction of Chinese boxes. More than recording a failed quest for sympathetic engagement, the poem judges this to be the failure of poetry (or art) itself. This judgment is an extremely critical one, in the nineteenth century, because poetry and art were then generally regarded as the ultimate depositories, and even the creators, of spiritual and human values. In calling that ideology into question, Rossetti's work has contrived to imagine the experience of being distanced altogether from experience. It is to have fashioned a vehicle for conveying, quite literally, the feeling of the absence of feeling.15
Nowhere is this experience more clearly visible than in The House of Life, which must be the most alienated, and probably the most horrifying, major poem in the language. This culminant achievement is so integrated with his whole life's work, and in particular with the project that became Poems (1870), that the connections have to be sketched. Poems (1870), we may recall, is separated into three parts. The initial section is composed principally of a series of longer pieces—dramatic monologues, stories, ballads, and a few translations. Here the deployment of Rossetti's "inner standing-point" is most clearly shown—not simply in monologues like "A Last Confession" and "Jenny," but in all the literary ballads ("Troy Town," "Stratton Water," "Sister Helen," and so forth), where the use of the ballad convention historicizes the style and voicing as well the narrative materials. The point of view in "Dante at Verona," similarly antiqued, is much closer to Dante's age than to Rossetti's. Likewise, Rossetti employs translation, here and elsewhere, as yet another depersonalizing convention. The third section of Poems (1870), which follows The House of Life, is largely devoted to a variant type of Rossettian translation: "Sonnets for Pictures," so-called.
Paradoxically, Rossetti's use of these nonsubjective verse forms intensifies the aura of poetic self-consciousness. He turns away from his own age and self, but in doing so the contemporaneous relevance of his acts of historical displacement is only heightened. "Dante at Verona" is in this respect a clear allegory, but an allegory which deconstructs itself. Dante's alienation has its contemporary (Rossettian) analogy in the speaker of the poem, who celebrates Dante's critique of luxurious society. But whereas the Dante of Rossetti's poem speaks out openly and plainly against the world of Can Grande, there is no plain speaking at the contemporary level, merely gestures and vague allusions.
Yet "Dante at Verona" does not exemplify what is best and most innovative in Rossetti's poetry. To see that, in the nonpersonal and antiqued material, we have to look at some other things—for example, the excellent "An Old Song Ended," which begins by quoting the last stanza of an antique ballad and then "ends" it with four more stanzas. The story, rendered in the convention of a dialogue between a dying lady—a Mariana figure—and an unnamed interlocutor, lets us know that she will die before her lover returns. The poem finishes with the lady's last reply to the final question put to her:
"Can you say to me some word
I shall say to him?"
"Say I'm looking in his eyes
Though my eyes are dim."
This is quintessential Rossetti, an ambiguous icon constructed from a play on the phrase "looking in." Henceforth the lady will be haunting her absent lover, in the same way that Rossetti is haunted by the old song. (That connection between lady and old song, in fact, makes the absent lover an obvious figura of Rossetti and the contemporary poet.) Henceforth an "external" presence who will be looking into his eyes as he observes the external world, she becomes as well an internal ghost who, though dead, is destined to live on in the way he looks at his world.
This haunted and self-conscious figure is at the heart of all Rossetti's poems and paintings. We rightly see a poem like "The Blessed Damozel" as typical work for just that reason. Of all the verse printed in the first section of Poems (1870), "The Stream's Secret" is closest to The House of Life. But "The Blessed Damozel" is more relevant for understanding the sonnet sequence because its antiqued character highlights how the "inner standing-point" works in those sonnets. Rossetti disjoins himself from the first-person speaker in "The Blessed Damozel" by invoking the formalities of the ballad convention; but because he does not historicize his materials as clearly and resolutely as he does, for example, in "Stratton Water" or his other old tales, the scenes in the poem appear to float in a kind of abstraction, outside space and time. That ambiguous condition, where one feels unmoored and alienated even as one seems to live a determinate and eventual existence, defines what we know as The House of Life.
The House of Life is more than a mere presentation, or case history, of personality dismemberment. It is that, of course, but it is also part of a project—an execution—of such dismemberment, an active agent in the destructive project it is unfolding. This complicity is what makes the work, and the whole volume which it epitomizes, so fearful and so magnificent. The sonnets record a history by which "changes" associated with a period of "Youth"—these are figured principally as the changing experiences of love—are finally transfixed in (and as) the immobilized forms of "Fate." The history unfolds through a set of losses and disintegrations which culminate as the loss of identity.16
At the outset of the sequence, the notorious "Nuptial Sleep" appears far removed from the terrible images which emerge in the concluding six sonnets:
At length their long kiss severed with sweet smart:
And as the last slow sudden drops are shed
From sparkling eaves when all the storm has fled,
So singly flagged the pulses of each heart.
Their bosoms sundered, with the opening start
Of married flowers to either side outspread
From the knit stem; yet still their mouths, burnt red,
Fawned on each other where they lay apart.
Sleep sank them lower than the tide of dreams,
And their dreams watched them sink, and slid away.
Slowly their souls swam up again, through gleams
Of watered light and dull drowned waifs of day;
Till from some wonder of new woods and streams
He woke, and wondered more: for there she lay.
Here is the supreme imagination of triumph in the work. One might not appreciate this fact because the previous sonnet, "The Kiss," represents an actual experience of erotic consummation. It is, moreover, an experience recorded for us in the first person:
I was a child beneath her touch,—a man
When breast to breast we clung, even I and she,—
A spirit when her spirit looked through me,—
A god when all our life-breath met to fan
Our life-blood, till love's emulous ardours ran,
Fire within fire, desire in deity.
(6/4, 11. 9-14)
After those lines, the movement to the third person in "Nuptial Sleep," a modulation from major to minor, comes as a shock, since it conveys the impression of incredible detachment on the part of the speaker, whom we associate with the lover. That shock is the rhetorical equivalent of the "wonder" recorded at the end of the sonnet, where—following an experience of ecstatic physical union—the beloved appears to the eyes of the lover as a unique identity, wholly individuated despite the previous moments of mutual absorption. The lover's (actual) "wonder" is thus reduplicated, or realized, in the rhetoric of the speaker, who is spellbound before his imagination of the separate lovers. "Nuptial Sleep" argues, in other words, that the heart of the "poignant thirst / And exquisite hunger" ("Bridal Birth," 2/1) of this work is an ecstasy which culminates not in the extinction but in the establishment of individual identities through love. This argument is clinched by the tense shift executed between the sonnets, which transfers to identity and self-consciousness the values associated, both traditionally and in the previous sonnet(s), with intense feeling: immediateness, and spontaneity.
But the achievement in the sonnet is tenuous and fragile, and finally self-conflicted. Lover observes beloved much as the young man in "Jenny" observes, lovingly, the sleeping prostitute; and the perspective is here explicitly revealed as the perspective of art and poetry. This "wonder" matches passivities to passivities, and thus contradicts the developing energetic impulses of the poem itself. Furthermore, although the watery medium of sleep and dreams does not here directly threaten the ideal of self-identity in the sonnet, those forms prefigure the conditions of loss later realized in "Willowwood."
As in "Hand and Soul," then, the apparitions here are images of the artist's "soul," or that to which he is ultimately committed. That is to say, the sonnet raises up an imagining of self-identity achieved through artistic practice. As The House of Life gradually delineates the features of that soul, however, a hollowed-out figure emerges from the expectant shadows of Beauty. For the story told by the sequence is that the images are insubstantial: literally, that the supreme moment of "Nuptial Sleep" was a supreme fiction only. In this respect The House of Life is the story of betrayed hopes; and if that were all it had to tell us, it would scarcely deserve to hold more than our minimal interest. As we shall see, however, what Rossetti's work ultimately reveals are not its betrayals but its self-betrayals.
The instabilities we glimpse in "Nuptial Sleep" initiate the sequence of illusions that forms the ground of the conclusive nightmares of the work. These will culminate in the terror of "He and I" (98/47), the definitive representation of identity-loss in the sequence. The sonnet operates through the simple contradiction of first- and third-person pronouns, both of which are "identified with" the poet. They are the residua of the first- and third-person narrators whose careers in The House of Life we initially traced in "The Kiss" and "Nuptial Sleep." Here they emerge as the obverse and reverse of a single self-conflicted figure, the schizoid form of a disintegrated identity which has lost itself in a house of mirrors.18
Pronouns, those ultimate shifters, figure largely in Rossetti's sonnet sequence. The iconographical status of "He and I," however, contrasts with the more fluid pronominal ambiguities which play themselves out in most of the earlier sonnets. This happens because Rossetti depicts first the process and then the achievement, first "Change" and then "Fate." "He and I" is the "Fate" that awaits Rossettian "Change," an entropic nightmare immortalized in one dead deathless sonnet.
"Life-in-Love" is very different, a not untypical instance of Rossettian deconstruction observed in a "changing" phase.
Not in thy body is thy life at all,
But in this lady's lips and hands and eyes;
Through these she yields thee life that vivifies
What else were sorrow's servant and death's thrall.
Look on thyself without her, and recall
The waste remembrance and forlorn surmise
That lived but in a dead-drawn breath of sighs
O'er vanished hours and hours eventual.
Even so much life hath the poor tress of hair
Which, stored apart, is all love hath to show
For heart-beats and for fire-heats long ago;
Even so much life endures unknown, even where,
'Mid change the changeless night environeth,
Lies all that golden hair undimmed in death.
The second person pronoun here slides from ambiguity to ambiguity. Isolated thus, in solitary quotation, we register the simple alternative that it may be taken to refer either to "the poet" (a.k.a. D. G. Rossetti) or to the "old love" (a.k.a. Elizabeth Siddal Rossetti), with "this lady" standing as the "new love" (a.k.a. Jane Morris).12 The "meaning" in each case is that both "poet" and "old love" are resurrected in the experience of "new love," which revivifies and redeems what would otherwise be encorpsed forever.
Were we to restore the sonnet to its larger (1881) context in the sequence, we would observe a further fall into ambiguity; for it is impossible to read "Lifein-Love" after the preceding sonnet, "The Lamp's Shrine," and not respond to the inertia of the latter's second person pronouns, which all refer to the allegorical figure "Lord Love." Finally, because Rossetti rhymes this sonnet with the soon to follow "Deathin-Love," yet another nominal presence comes to fill the shifting pronoun, and even names itself: "I am Death."
In this case, the fact that "The Lamp's Shrine" was only added to The House of Life in 1881 reduces by one the number of substantive options in the 1870 sequence, but its addition also calls attention to the unstable and shifting form of the work as a whole. In Rossetti's lifetime The House of Life appeared in no less than four relatively coherent forms: as a sequence of 16 sonnets; as a sequence of 50 sonnets and 11 songs; as a sequence of 25 sonnets and 5 songs; and as a sequence of 101 sonnets. Rossetti treated that last as the finished sequence even though it lacked the crucial sonnet "Nuptial Sleep."20 Today, as for many years, most readers enter the work through the 102 sonnet version, where "Nuptial Sleep," sequenced with the appropriately unstable number 6a/5, is restored.
And indeed this ambiguous presence of "Nuptial Sleep" in The House of Life is singularly appropriate, for only in that sonnet is the ultimate ideal of the work, self-identity through love, defined. That Rossetti repeatedly unsettled the forms of the sequence emphasizes the overall lack of resolution of the work, but that he should have removed "Nuptial Sleep" from his last imagination of the work is a truly remarkable revelation of his loss of faith in the identity he set out to fashion and represent. Needless to say, this surrender of faith, this betrayal, is the ambiguous sign under which the work will triumph.
Poems (1870) is the first chapter in Rossetti's history of ultimate dissolution/disillusion. But the book is more than the record of a personal and psychic catastrophe, it is the portrait of an age. We glimpse this most clearly, if also most simply, when we recall that the book is full of various social and political poems with distinct, if obliquely presented, points of contemporary reference. "The Burden of Nineveh," an unusually direct work, involves an ironic meditation on England's imperial imagination. This fact is glossed in the multiple pun of the title. At the proof stage Rossetti set an explanatory headnote under that title to emphasize his word play: "BURDEN. Heavy calamity; the chorus of a song.—Dictionary"21 Rossetti directs us to read the poem as a "burden" in the Old Testament prophetic sense, with a relevance for England emphasized by the storied names (Thebes, Rome, Babylon, Greece, Egypt) called in the roll of the poem. Finally, that Nineveh is also "a burden to" England, an example of the self-destructive imperialism under which she currently labors, is made all but explicit at the conclusion of the poem. It is particularly apt, in Rossetti's book, that the focus in the poem on decadence should be the British Museum, the repository of the nation's cultural treasures. Rossetti's poem reflects the excitement of cultural imperialism with a special force because the British Museum, at that time, was relatively small, so that recent acquisitions of Near Eastern treasure were peculiarly visible and celebrated occurrences. "The Burden of Nineveh" draws out the implications of what Byron, sixty years earlier, had already sketched in The Curse of Minerva.
But this is a unique poem in a book which generally proceeds by careful, not to stay stealthy, indirection. "Troy Town" generates an entire network of references to that fabled history of a civilization which, according to the myth, found destruction through indulgence and illicit love. This Troy theme plays a key role in linking The House of Life poems to the less personal material, as Rossetti must have realized: through all the proof stages "Troy Town" was the opening poem. In that position it would have emphasized more strongly the social dimensions of the book. But at the last minute Rossetti replaced it with "The Blessed Damozel."
Changes of that and other kinds are the hallmark of Rossetti's discontented book. This is why, from a social point of view, the steps that Rossetti takes to marginalize his "social themes" are in the end more important, more significant, than the themes themselves. They remind us that works like "Troy Town" are in themselves even more obliquely mediated, as pieces of social commentary, than The Idylls of the King. What we should attend to, here and throughout Poems (1870), are not any of the "ideas" but what the book is doing and being made to do, how carefully its materials are managed, packaged, and polished. Unlike Swinburne in his deliberately outrageous Poems and Ballads, Rossetti does everything in his power to make sure his book will behave.
This manic sense of decorum makes the book not more "crafted" but more "crafty." It is a monument to its own shame, a kind of whited sepulchre. We can see how this comes about if we trace the structure of change in Rossetti's book. We begin by reflecting once again on those disintegrative mechanisms we observed earlier. One notes for instance that they are heavily "languaged," so to speak, and that the extreme level of the verbal artifice is a mode that holds off, brackets out, "reality." All is arranged so that what occurs seems to occur at the level of the signs alone, as a play of signifiers and signifieds. No names are given, no definite events are alluded to, no places, no times, no "referential" concretions of any kind—other than the (1870) book in which The House of Life is printed. Many of the works in that book have points of reference, as we have seen, but not The House of Life poems, which occupy the abstract space first clearly delineated in "The Blessed Damozel." Yet, paradoxically, these sonnets and songs constitute the most "personal" work in the entire volume.
The book itself, in other words, provides the key referential point which alone really clarifies what is happening in The House of Life. Critics have often observed the claustrophobia and abstraction of the sonnets, but if we consider the sequence wholly in itself, we would have to see it simply as an event in language. By printing and publishing the work when and how he did, Rossetti provided the local habitation which could give social and ethical names—rather than merely technical ones—to the sonnets.
In simplest terms—they are critical for Rossetti—the act of printing and publishing establishes the "trade associations" of his work. These associations are, however, what he wants to avoid or cancel out, in order to "prove" that art occupies a transcendental order. Rossetti wants to establish what the Romantics called "the truth of imagination," but Poems (1870) ends by showing instead how that "truth" is rather "an imagination" of imagination—and an imagining which, when carried out in the world, can have disastrous consequences. The most prominent sign of disaster in the book is psychic disintegration, but the social significances of that sign are never far to seek. Perhaps the greatest "moral" of Rossetti's book, for instance, could be expressed as follows: that active moves to escape "trade associations"—to evade or avoid them rather than to oppose, in concrete and positive ways, the compromised "world" they represent—inevitably involve a complicity with that world. It was a truth Rossetti glimpsed early in "St. Agnes," but in Poems (1870) it is fully exposed. Indeed, it is executed. In the horrors of his book Rossetti carried out the (concealed) truth of imagination for his age: that it has a truth, that it serves the world even in fleeing the world, that the truth is both a dream and a nightmare, and that it destroys the individual.
The marvel of Rossetti's work is that he chose to follow his own "inner standing-point" in declaring those contradictory truths, that he submitted to their "execution." We therefore trace the choices made by his work even in what must seem (for Rossetti) the least likely of places, the early reviews. One observes initially that they mirror the contradictions exposed in Rossetti's book. Whether written by friends or enemies, accomplices or neutral observers, two lines of understanding are repeated. Poems (1870) is a celebration of art, on one hand, or of love on the other; and to the degree that a mediation of the two is carried out, the book is said to be devoted to Beauty. But the mediating concept of Beauty merely resituates the contradictory registrations elsewhere. Thus, we can alternately see the book as a manifesto of "fleshliness" and eroticism, or of "mysticism" and spirituality. The contradictions are multiplied: what many find labored and obscure others see as crafted and sharply defined; and so the descriptive terms proliferate: abstract, ornate, pictorial, self-conscious, impersonal, and so forth.
These varied responses are the integrals of Rossetti's differential achievements. So much finish at the surface, so much apparent control—in a work that is also, plainly, nervous and highly unstable. Rossetti's perpetual acts of revision at every level, in the months immediately preceding publication, are but a dramatic instance of the consummate lack of resolution in the book. The book shifts and changes as it seeks its ideal of articulation, that monochord of which audience approval is the tonic, reciprocity the dominant. It is a mad, an inhuman ideal—what Marx ironically called "the soul of the commodity": a form crafted so as to be universally irresistible. It is the nineteenth-century's revenant of Dante's summum bonum, the encorpsed form of what was once alive.
Rossetti was more deeply complicit with his immediate institutions of reception than appears even from his attempt to manage the reviews. This became most obvious when the voices of negation began to be heard, the critical notices which culminate in Buchanan's famous review. Its date of publication—well over a year after the initial appearance of Poems (1870)—is quite important, because it tells us how far Rossetti identified himself with Buchanan. "The Stealthy School of Criticism" shouts back at the champion of late Victorian moral and poetic order, but it does not challenge that order, or argue that Rossetti's book challenged it. Furthermore, the poem particularly singled out by Buchanan for denunciation, "Nuptial Sleep," which was also the key sonnet of The House of Life, was removed from the sequence by Rossetti when he published his new and (otherwise augmented) version of the work in 1881. Like the young painter in "St. Agnes," Rossetti despised and sneered at the "poet-critic" who attacked his work, but Rossetti too, in the end, deferred.
It is an illuminating act of bad faith and betrayal, reminding us of the fear and trembling in which Rossetti worked out his damnation. We might wish that he would have done otherwise, that he would have braved it and defied his critics. But in fact he took the better part, for the shame of that betrayal is an eloquent sign of the ambiguous situation Rossetti's book has exposed. Buchanan is what Shelley would have called "The Phantasm of Rossetti" in a play where Prometheus does not appear as a character. What is Promethean in Poems (1870) is not "Rossetti" but what Rossetti has done. Assuming the inner standing point throughout, the book dramatizes Rossetti's enslavement to the commercial culture he despises. That culture thereby grows again in Rossetti's book, like some terrible virus in a laboratory dish. Poems (1870) is a coin "whose face reveals / The soul—its converse, to what Power 'tis due."
Rossetti's work set out to prove the Victorian theory of cultural touchstones which Arnold was developing elsewhere in his ideological prose: to prove that Ideal Beauty was transcendent. His achievement was to have shown that the theory was a confidence trick which Victorian society played on itself. Thus, the clear path to fulfillment sketched in "Hand and Soul" becomes, in the empirical testing of that prediction which Rossetti's work carried out, a field of endless wandering—in Rossetti's recurrent figuration, a maze.22 Similarly, the Beatricean vision which was to mediate the quest for perfection continually shifted out of focus, or turned into nightmare forms.
The characteristic experience here is to be found in various pictures which Rossetti, obsessively over-painting, turned into palimpsests and cryptic surfaces. Somewhere beneath the face of Alexa Wilding hovered the unseen head of Fanny Cornforth, or Elizabeth Siddal would float about the canvas occupied by the face of Jane Morris. Rossetti fled his haunted and haunting canvasses and sought relief in poetry, which for a brief time seemed open to pure forms, transparent expressions. But the hope turned to illusion as his poetry delivered up its secret and invisible texts to the fire of his art. In the 1870s, as he plunged deeper into that abyss of Beauty, neither poetry nor painting offered any sustaining fantasies of escape.
"An untruth was never yet the husk of a truth," Rossetti argues at the conclusion to "The Stealthy School of Criticism" (I.488) as he makes a final dismissal of the various deceits of Robert Buchanan. Perhaps that relation of truth to untruth never held before, but the observation—the metaphor—is wonderfully apt for Rossetti's work, which tells the truth of false appearances, the truth that is in the husks of beauty and truth. Rossetti's poetry crucifies itself on its own infernal machineries. These always want to appear otherwise, as benevolences, but for the sake of truth Rossetti chose an unusual and lonely path: to will a suspension of disbelief in those inherited lies of art. Thence the nightmares of paradise appear in his work in their many forms, the most critical being called, commonly, Love and Art. They are dangerous and deceitful names, like the realities they denote, and in Rossetti's work none—neither names nor realities—are ever just what they seem.
This is an art difficult to practice, the index of a world not easy to survive. Rossetti allegorized both in a dramatic figure which became familiar to us only much later. It appears in another of Rossetti's notebooks, an entry of uncertain date, though it was clearly written a few years later than the passage I quoted at the outset. This time Rossetti copies a passage from Petronius and then translates it to his own verse.
I saw the Sibyl at Cumae
(One said) with my own eye
She hung in a cage to read her runes
To all the passers-by
Said the boys "What wouldst thou Sibyl?"
She answered "I would die"!23
That scene of cultural desperation Eliot later made famous as the epigraph to a poem about another wasted world. To find it written almost fifty years before in a Rossetti notebook will surprise us only if we read as twentieth-century literary historians, that is to say, if we continue to misunderstand what Rossetti's poetry is actually about.
1 This is from one of the notebooks in the British Library (Ashley 1410; Notebook I, 4r), much of whose material remains unpublished, though W. M. Rossetti reproduced large portions of it in his 1911 edition of the works of his brother; see below n.2.
2 My texts for Rossetti's work will be taken from The Collected Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (London, 1886), 2 vols. For texts not available in this edition I have used The Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (London, 1911). Both collected editions were edited by W. M. Rossetti. Where necessary, page numbers are given in the text.
3 According to W. M. Rossetti (Works 1:525-526).
4 See David Riede, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Limits of Victorian Vision (Ithaca, 1983) for an excellent handling of the parallel forms of Rossetti's imaginative work.
5 Rodolphe L. Megroz, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Painter Poet of Heaven and Earth (London, 1928), p. 185.
6 References to Rossetti's letters are from Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. Oswald Doughty and John Robert Wahl, 4 vols. (Oxford, 1965), cited in the text as L followed by volume and page number.
7 The poem is printed in L 1:164.
8 These are the titles of Chapters I and II in Book III in Doughty's biography Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Victorian Romantic (London, 1949).
9 The best account of the Trial Books and the publication history of the 1870 volume is Janet Camp Troxell's "The 'Trial Books' of Dante Gabriel Rossetti," reprinted from The Colophon, New Series III, no. 2 (1938) in The Princeton University Library Chronicle 33 (1972): 177-192; but see also Robert N. Keane, "D. G. Rossetti's Poems, 1870: A Study in Craftsmanship," Princeton University Library Chronicle 33:193-209.
10 See Doughty, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, pp. 439-453 for a good account of Rossetti's campaign to control the reviews.
11 See Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London, 1973).
12 In a sense, of course, Rossetti's work does make an advance from the relative unselfconscious and even innocent work of the early years. What I mean to indicate here is the inadequacy of the commonplace idea that Rossetti's poetry, as it develops, gains some kind of wisdom or imitable moral depth. Indeed, it seems to me that the climax of his career was "penultimate" in the sense that, after completing the work for the 1870 volume and the associated House of Life poetry, Rossetti's poetry experienced a sharp falling-off, a collapse that parallels the curve of his last years.
13 Benjamin, p. 104n. The quotation immediately following is from p. 103.
14 See Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and W. J. Bate (Princeton, 1983) 2:6.
15 Rossetti's paintings—and Burne-Jones's, for that matter—are similarly charged.
16 Joan Rees has an excellent general comment on Rossetti's significance as a poet: "A slight shift of position, and what has been taken as an emblem of salvation becomes a mark of damnation. This is the central moral insight of Rossetti's work" (Joan Rees, The Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Modes of Self-Expression [Cambridge, 1981], p. 101).
17 In identifying the sonnets I always give two numbers: the second being the number in the 1870 volume, the first the number in 1881. The one exception is for this sonnet, the so-called 6a (a number which indicates that Rossetti removed it from the sequence printed in 1881, though later editors, perceiving its centrality, have always restored it).
18 See Henry Treffry Dunn, Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and His Circle, or Cheyne Walk Life, ed. Rosalie Mander (Westerham, 1984), p. 14: "Mirrors and looking-glasses of all shapes, sizes and design lined the walls. Whichever way I looked I saw myself gazing at myself."
19 I refer here to the traditional "biographical" level of exegesis, which plots the poem as a story of Rossetti's relations with Elizabeth Siddal (the Old Love) and Jane Morris (the New Love). The fullest treatment of this subject is in Doughty, but the best discussion of the subject in terms of the formal structure of the sonnet sequence is William E. Fredeman's "Rossetti's 'In Memoriam': An Elegiac Reading of The House of Life," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 47 (1965): 298-341.
20 The twenty-five sonnet, five-song version is the MS Rossetti made of the poems he wrote in 1870-71. He made a gift of it to Jane Morris, the person who had inspired most of the work. The MS (Bodleian Library) was printed (most of it) in The Kelmscott Love Sonnets of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. John Robert Wahl (Capetown, 1954).
21 The following discussion depends heavily upon a study of the MS and proof material in the Ashley Library (British Museum) and the Fitzwilliam Museum.
22 The central "maze" poem by Rossetti is "Troy Town," whose title means (at one level) a labyrinth (see OED).
23 W. M. Rossetti printed these lines in 1911; his text differs slightly from the Notebook's (II.12v).
Andrew Leng (essay date 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2909
SOURCE: "Behind 'Golden Barriers': Framing and Taming the Blessed Damozel," in The Victorian Newsletter, No. 77, Spring, 1990, pp. 13-16.
[In the following essay, Leng investigates narrative technique and its relation to gender themes in "The Blessed Damozel."]
Some time after 1866 Dante Gabriel Rossetti formulated this eroticized theory of ut pictura poesis:
Picture and poem bear the same relation to each other as beauty does in man and woman: the point of meeting where the two are most identical is the supreme perfection. (Works 606)1
Most discussions of Rossetti and the sister arts mention this quotation: Richard Stein sees Rossetti's statement as a "fragment" which "seems to outline and analogy between an intellectualized concept of love and his composite art" (196-97); and Maryann Ainsworth believes it is particularly applicable to "the most successful instances of the picture-poem idea" which "came to him during his last ten years," that is, between 1872 and 1882 (6-7).
Perhaps the fullest and most perceptive analysis of Rossetti's formulation of ut pictura poesis has been made by Ian Fletcher, who suggests that
The "beauty" of the picture is reciprocated by the "identical"—if superficially dissimilar—beauty of the poem resulting in an indivisible ideal unity, comparable only to the state of love. In Rossetti's sonnets for pictures of women, the metaphor is actualized as an encounter between observer-poet and portrait-beloved. (28-29)
Certainly Rossetti's emphasis on a reciprocal, identical beauty indicates that his hypothetical point of "supreme perfection" occurs at a moment of higher, aesthetic synthesis. That is, a kind of vicarious, erotic union occurs between male artist-spectator and female art-object, an aesthetically creative rather than a procreative dialectic.
The fictional artist's desire for reconciliation and identity with the female subject of his art—his anima—is, as Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi has shown, a central Rossettian topos. Rossetti's anima first appeared in the selection of poems he sent to William Bell Scott for his perusal in November 1847 under the title "Songs of the Art Catholic," in her guises as the speaker's sister, Margaret, in "My Sister's Sleep," as the Virgin Mary in "Mater Pulchrae Delectionis," and as the eponymous heroine of "The Blessed Damozel." Gelpi argues convincingly that in the poems which feature versions of his anima Rossetti was striving to achieve "union of the self by uniting masculine and feminine principles within the self," claiming that this "internal drama" (1) lends psychological coherence to his work.
Gelpi feels that while it may be coherent "The Blessed Damozel" is problematic. She points out that if the anima "becomes an end in herself, the imaginative symbol of all that the conscious self desires, then she is dangerous," and concludes that the poem "ends not with a union of self achieved but with such a union still hoped for, and in that obsessive, unfulfilled wish for union lies the danger" (4). However, I shall be arguing that although the union of male and female fails to occur in "The Blessed Damozel" the "danger" of the anima's domination of the male is averted because of two factors not considered by Gelpi: firstly, because the poem's "two" male speakers, the omniscient and the parenthetical narrators, eventually unite to form a single voice, a dominant male discourse; and secondly, because as the male position consolidates, the once vociferous and dominant Damozel is neutralized, eventually losing her voice and weeping.
The nature, unity and function of the narrative voices in "The Blessed Damozel" have been the subject of continued debate among Rossetti critics. In his analysis of the first published version of the poem, which appeared in the second number of The Germ (80-83) in February 1850, D. M. R. Bentley claims that the poem was intended as an almost polemical exercise in "the re-creation of a medieval awareness" which throws into relief the relationship between "the implied poet and the historical percipient in the poem." Bentley defines this "historical percipient" as
an omniscient and speculative figure whose style and assumptions characterize him as the representative of the medieval-Catholic awareness that the reader is invited to enter. The function of the percipient in "The Blessed Damozel" is complex: like the implied poet of Rossetti's "Sonnets for Pictures" his task is to present a "picture" (in some case the "diptych" composed of the blessed Damozel and her earthbound lover) and to imagine the world and feelings of its personae…. Through his re-creation of a spatial and emotional relationship that is radically alien to the "modern" mind, the percipient inducts the reader-spectator into the medieval-Catholic awareness that he was designed by Rossetti to embody. (6)
This ingenious critical construction of a poem equipped with an implied poet, percipient narrator, parenthetical speaker and Damozel, fails to take sufficient account of the fact that as one of Bentley's own footnotes concedes, many commentators see the "entire drama" of the poem as being "enacted within the single consciousness of the earthbound lover," the parenthetical speaker. In part our perception of the whole poem as a product of the parenthetical speaker's schizophrenic consciousness may be a response to Rossetti's failure completely to control point of view in "The Blessed Damozel." This lack of control is sufficient reason to regard Bentley's view that there are four levels of narration as being somewhat optimistic; a more convincing case has been made by Paul Lauter and Thomas Brown for the earthbound, parenthetical-print speaker being the presiding consciousness, the former arguing that the poem's vision "can be regarded entirely as the grieving … lover's projection" (346).
With her "blue grave eyes," "three white lilies" and "white rose of Mary's gift" (Il. 3, 5, 9), the Damozel is evidently a Marian anima figure. What the narrator does in an attempt to unite himself with his anima is to activate the simultaneous processes of aesthetic and erotic unification which bring the poem and picture and man and woman into Rossetti's reciprocal state of ideal conjunction. Thus as the poem begins poetry and painting become nearly identical, as the top part of the Rossettian "diptych," the initial description of the Damozel, is presented as a monumental tableau. But this vision is not totally static: the lady's "still look" (l. 16) is, paradoxically, still full of "wonder" (l. 15), a characteristically Rossettian attribution of psychological animation to a static, pictorialized figure. The Damozel's powerful gaze strives to penetrate and thus to overcome the "steep gulph" of time and space which separates her from her beloved.
Consequently she leans out from "the gold bar of heaven" (l. 2) in an effort to escape the confines of pictorial stasis which the frame-like heavenly barrier imposes. Realizing that she is consigned to remain perpetually silent and still within her golden frame the Damozel immediately challenges the limitations of her condition by leaning and gazing outward, and warming her pictorial barrier with the pressure of her bosom. Eventually and inevitably, after ten stanzas, the Damozel breaks her pictorial vow of silence with a petulant outburst:
"I wish that he were come to me,
For he will come," she said.
"Have I not prayed in solemn heaven?
On earth has he not prayed?
Are not two prayers a perfect strength?
And shall I feel afraid?"
The Damozel's prayers have been reciprocated and, significantly, anticipated by her earthly lover, who is encased, as Bentley points out, in parentheses which are the "typographical equivalent of a predella" (39). The parenthetical typography of "The Blessed Damozel" is the most striking example of Rossetti's literary pictorialism, a device which complements the pictorial image of the "gold bar," and appears virtually to have dictated the bipartite form of Rossetti's Early Renaissance style depiction of The Blessed Damozel (1875-8).2
Bentley claims that the "fantastic mind of the lover" is "separate from yet accessible to the percipient" narrator, but if anything the reverse is true: the parenthetical speaker, who becomes the reclining figure in the painting's predella, has access to the scene described by the seemingly omniscient narrator. He adds an important coda to the initial description, emphatically qualifying it in terms of immediate first-person, present tense experience:
to them she left, her day
Had counted as ten years.
(To one it is ten years of years:
… Yet now, here in this place
Surely she leaned o'er me,—her hair
Fell all about my face …
Nothing: the Autumn-fall of leaves.
The whole year sets apace.)
The bland omniscience of the first voice which explains that a day for the Damozel counts as ten years for those left behind is abruptly corrected by "one" who apparently knows better, the hyperbolical lover for whom the Damozel's "day" is "ten years of years." Because the main narrative and the parenthetical one substantially overlap there is a sense of reciprocity, and a point of intersection and interaction is thereby established.
Momentarily her lover is convinced that the Damozel has been in contact with him and he fantasizes that it is her hair—the yellow hair of a corn goddess—which fell about his face. In "Body's Beauty" "one strangling golden hair" ensnares Lilith's victims but here the Damozel's hair is a reassuringly tangible token of her reality. Rapunzel-like it links heaven and earth almost as if it would draw the man heavenward, and like the gold bar of heaven the yellow hair defines the world of its two inhabitants, not as a barrier but as an inclusive and natural frame, embracing both lovers. As this fantasy dissolves it is replaced by a natural correlative for the falling hair, falling leaves, which are an ironic earthly equivalent of the corn image, signifying decay instead of fertility. Both the "hair, lying down" (l. 11) the Damozel's back and the dead leaves of the parenthetical speaker's world are featured in the appropriate heavenly and earthbound sections of Rossetti's painting, reinforcing the reader-spectator's sense of a close correspondence between bipartite poem and painting.
Although he says relatively little directly the parenthetical narrator in fact controls the movement of "The Blessed Damozel." Rather like the sestet in a sonnet the parenthetical speaker's comments initiate a volta, changing our point of view and perception of the Damozel by meditating upon particular aspects of her existence. Subsequently this speaker interrupts the Damozel as she anticipates teaching him in heaven, and again it is evident that he hears or knows what is said in the main body of the poem because he comments directly upon it:
"And I myself will teach him—
I myself lying so,—
The songs I sing here; which his mouth
Shall pause in hushed and slow,
Finding some knowledge at each pause
And some thing new to know."
(Alas! to her wise simple mind
These things were all but known
Before: they trembled on her sense,—
Her voice had caught their tone.
Alas for lonely Heaven! Alas
For life wrung out alone!
Alas, and though the end were reached …
Was thy part understood
Or borne in trust? And for her sake
Shall this too be found good?—
May the close lips that knew not prayer
Praise ever thought they would?)
The lady's certainty that her lover's mouth shall "'pause in'" between her songs "'finding some new knowledge at each pause'" is clearly a cue to the earthly lover to rehearse his lines for heaven. He duly responds with a lament which reveals an interesting aspect of their former relationship: with "her wise simple mind" the Damozel had had intuitive foreknowledge of heaven's songs, whereas he had been doubtful. Therefore in the second stanza of his second speech the lover engages in an intense self-interrogation, asking himself: "was thy part understood?" "May the close lips that knew not prayer / Praise ever, though they would?" Evidently the earthly lover remains as yet unable to make the leap of faith necessary to re-unite him with the Damozel, and we therefore return to the speaker who knows her part.
When Rossetti published "The Blessed Damozel" in the 1870 edition of Poems these parenthetical stanzas were revised, condensed, and I think, clarified:
(Alas! We two, we two, thou say'st
Yea, one wast thou with me
That once of old. But shall God lift
To endless unity
The soul whose likeness with thy soul
Was but its love for thee?)
In this stanza the prospect of endless unity with the Damozel's soul seems even more unlikely to her lover because his sense of inferiority has been intensified, and in the oil painting the male's inferiority is graphically established by the small scale of his figure in comparison with the Damozel's above him: his head is about the same size as one of her lilies.
The problem which the poem tries to resolve, but which the static painting does not and cannot deal with, is how to subordinate the confident decisive Damozel to a weak, passive male. In The Germ version of the poem this problem is particularly acute because it is evident that "her" mind is decidedly more wise than simple, while his wallows in repeated lamentation. Rossetti's revisions of The Germ text go some way towards eliminating the repetitive histrionic quality from his voice but in both versions of the poem the male is dominated by the female, and both texts reverse this situation in almost identical concluding stanzas:
She gazed and listened and then said,
Less sad of speech than mild:
"All this is when he comes." She ceased;
The light thrilled past her, filled
With Angels, in strong level lapse.
Her eyes prayed, and she smiled.
(I saw her smile.) But soon their flight
Was vague 'mid the poised spheres.
And then she cast her arms along
The golden barriers,
And laid her face between her hands
And wept. (I heard her tears.)
Given the final words in "The Blessed Damozel" the parenthetical speaker is uncharacteristically assertive, and because his statements are affirmations of the percipient's descriptions they read like parenthetical asides by him. Thus the juxtaposition of the impersonal, "Her eyes prayed, and she smiled" with, "I saw her smile," constitutes a significant convergence of "objective" and "subjective" points of view.
The ultimate integration of the twin aspects of the male psychology represented by Rossetti's main and parenthetical speakers is predicated upon a decisive shift in the latter's perception of the Damozel. Previously she had been vastly superior and therefore dominant inducing in her earthly lover a sense of inadequacy which results in his identity crisis. Objectively he recognizes her manifest superiority, but subjectively and parenthetically he is disturbed by this perception, at first rejecting the existence of his vision as "nothing." However, having heard the Damozel speak he is forced to admit her existence and question his worthiness of her.
The strategy finally adopted for reconciling the male to his anima is not to elevate him but to neutralize her. The Damozel's "gold bar" of the first stanza becomes the imprisoning "golden barriers" of the final one behind which she now retreats, becoming "mild" of speech, and regresses into the passive mode of Mariana, waiting for him to come. She becomes silent and therefore meek and benign, praying with her eyes and smiling and although the smile pleases the earthly lover his final triumph occurs when the Damozel cries. Seeing the smile and hearing the tears the earthly lover gains complete control of his vision and her mind. She ceases to be wise and becomes simple, crying for her beloved instead of threatening to teach him.
For the observer-poet of "The Blessed Damozel" the moment of "supreme" perfection occurs only when he is in complete harmony with himself, when his two voices virtually match, and when his anima is entirely subordinated to him. In a more covert fashion "The Blessed Damoze!" makes a similar point to Browning's "My Last Duchess": total male power resides in the complete control of a female art-object. The Duke is only happy when "all smiles" have stopped and Rossetti's earthly lover is happiest when the Damozel smiles contentedly but cries helplessly.
1 The 1974 edition of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics translates Horace's dictum ut pictura poesis thus: "as is painting so is poetry"; and it gives a brief history of the topos.
2 This version is in the Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University, and is reproduced by Surtees no. 244.
3 There are a few minor changes in punctuation in the 1870 version of "The Blessed Damozel." In addition, "the light thrilled past her" becomes "the light thrilled towards her," the angels are in "strong level flight" instead of "lapse," and "their path was vague in distant spheres," instead of "vague 'mid the poised spheres."
Ainsworth, Maryann Wynn. "Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Double Work of Art." Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Double Work of Art. Ed. Ainsworth. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1976. 6-7.
Bentley, D. M. R. "'The Blessed Damozel': A Young Man's Fantasy." Victorian Poetry 20 (Autumn-Winter 1982): 31-43.
Brown, Thomas. "The Quest of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 'The Blessed Damozel.'" Victorian Poetry 10 (Autumn 1972): 273-77.
Fletcher, Ian. Swinburne. London: Longman, 1973.
Gelpi, Barbara Charlesworth. "The Image of the Anima in the Work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti." Victorian Newsletter No. 45 (Spring 1974): 1-7.
The Germ: A Facsimile Reprint of the Literary Organ of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Published in 1850 Ed. William Michael Rossetti. London: Elliot Stock, 1901.
Lauter, Paul and Thomas Brown. "The Narrator of 'The Blessed Damozel.'" Modern Language Notes 73 (1958): 344-48.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. The Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Ed William Michael Rossetti. London: Ellis, 1911.
Stein, Richard. The Ritual of Interpretation. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975.
Surtees, Virginia. The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Catalogue Raissonné. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.
Antony H. Harrison (essay date 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6388
SOURCE: "Dante Rossetti: Parody and Ideology," in Victorian Poets and Romantic Poems: Intertextuality and Ideology, University Press of Virginia, 1990, pp. 90-107.
[In the following essay, Harrison discusses the parodic nature and self-consciously aesthetic ideology of Rossetti's poetry.]
In a recent essay, Claus Uhlig comes to the problematic conclusion that many literary works, because of their deliberate intertextuality, concern themselves preeminently with their own histories or genealogies. "It is doubtlessly true, and all the more so since the Romantic era," he insists, "that the aging of poetic forms and genres constantly increases their selfconsciousness as knowledge of their own historicity. Through this progressive self-reflection, whose sphere is intertextuality, literature is in the end transformed into metaliterature, mere references to its own history."1 For Uhlig views of history and of the self in relation to history—especially our creations or works in relation to past works—are deeply ideological.2 As has often been observed, it was during the nineteenth century that "the modern discipline of history first came fully into its own as a truly rigorous inquiry into the past."3 Ultimately, however, because of "the very success of scientific history at reconstituting the past," the powerful awareness of the past itself became "burdensome and intimidating … revealing—in Tennyson's metaphor—all the models that could not be remodeled." In fact, the apocalyptic aims of the Romantic poets early in the century begin to reflect "the idea that history, simply by existing, exhausts possibilities, leaving its readers with a despairing sense of their own belatedness and impotence. And this despair in turn leads to anxious quests for novelty, to a hectic avant-gardism, and in the end to an inescapable fin de siècle ennui."4
As self-appointed heirs of the Romantics, the Pre-Raphaelite poets—Dante Rossetti foremost among them—display in their works an extraordinary degree of historical self-consciousness, as would seem appropriate to their concept of themselves as a transitional, literary avant-garde.5 Once observed, the powerful effects of Rossetti's own historical self-consciousness upon his poetry compel us to look at his work in new ways. Many of his poems are deliberate intertexts, works that manipulate palimpsests parodically in order both to resist the social actuality which obsessed his contemporaries and to open up new tracks for future writers. This is a fundamentally Romantic, specifically Wordsworthian project.6 There is a crucial difference, however, between Rossetti's project and that of Wordsworth—or Blake, Shelley, and Keats, for that matter. Whereas these historically hyperconscious Romantics were visibly dedicated to supplanting the ideologies of their literary precursors with their own literary and political ideologies, Rossetti attempts uniquely to employ the intertextual dimensions of his work to create the illusion of altogether eliding and superseding ideology, as it is commonly conceived. Moving beyond even Uhlig's formulation of the metaliterary implications of intertextuality, Rossetti appears virtually to embrace intertextuality as a coherent and self-sufficient ideology. The intertextual dimensions of his poetry enable him seemingly to marginalize "those modes of feeling, valuing, perceiving and believing which have some kind of relation to the maintenance and reproduction of social power,"7 by refocusing all such modes of experience on the structure, history, and intrinsic qualities of literary textuality itself, propounding as a supreme value the creation and deciphering of texts that are highly ornamental, artistically complex, and layered. Since no text is autonomous, all texts being derivative (as are all creators of texts), this dialectical activity becomes for Rossetti the preeminent mode of self-definition, intellectual inquiry, social understanding, and spiritual self-generation.
In a brief preface to his translations of the early Italian poets (1861), Rossetti laments the deteriorating form in which thirteenth-century Italian poems have become available to nineteenth-century readers because of "clumsy transcription and pedantic superstructure." He insists that, "At this stage the task of talking much more about them in any language is hardly to be entered upon; and a translation … remains perhaps the most direct form of commentary."8 Here Rossetti quite properly implies that a translation is an interpretation, but one which most closely echoes or contains an originary text. These remarks may, in fact, be seen as Rossetti's first comments in print to broach matters of literary appropriation, transvaluation, and intertextuality. That his first published volume consists entirely of translations suggests a useful starting place for any study of Rossetti's own poetic works, whose sources in the poetry of Dante, Petrarch, Milton, Poe, Keats, Shelley, and even the Gothic novelists have been thoroughly discussed by critics, but without helping us to grapple in genuinely productive ways with the unique difficulties presented by Rossetti's verse.
The more often we read certain poems by Rossetti, the more puzzling, uncertain, and ambiguous their tone, their purpose, and of course, therefore, their meaning seems to become. Such is the case with works that we sense are to some extent derivative, referring to earlier texts formally, imagistically, or ideologically. Some of Rossetti's most important poems, these works are often pervasively self-reflexive, and their original versions date from the late 1840s and early 1850s when, as David Riede has made clear, Rossetti was still intensively searching for "an idea of the world." During this period, "gradually, Rossetti was beginning to distill a personal style and voice from the multitudinous mass of literary and artistic precedents and from his own mixed ethnic heritage, but despite his uneasy balancing of traditions, he remained uncertain about his artistic direction and purpose. For this reason, in both his writing and his painting, his best works of the late 1840s and early 1850s are all attempts to explore or expound the relation of the artist to his art, to nature, to society."9 A short list of these works would include the "Old and New Art" sonnets, "The Portrait," "Ave," "The Staff and the Scrip," "Sister Helen," "The Bride's Prelude," numerous other sonnets from The House of Life, "Jenny," "The Burden of Nineveh," and "The Blessed Damozel." In these poems, as in the bulk of Rossetti's paintings, stylistic mannerisms, tonal ambiguities, and echoes of form and conventions from certain of his literary precursors—Keats, Browning, Milton, and Dante especially—so obtrude that the intertextual effects upon the reader are disorienting and for some readers distracting. That is to say that the poem's ostensible subject matter and purpose seem to be subsumed and overpowered by such an extreme degree of artistic self-consciousness that the poetic project itself is surrounded by uncertainty.
We finish the last stanza of "The Portrait," for instance, trying to unravel a constellation of interactive images and elaborate conceits that invite symbolic or even allegorical interpretation and that vaguely echo Poe, Browning, and Petrarchan tradition. By the poem's conclusion the speaker has fully demonstrated the depth of his passion for his dead beloved. He has done so while contemplating the portrait he had painted of her when alive and remembering the circumstances that led to its creation:
Here with her face doth memory sit
Meanwhile, and wait the day's decline,
Till other eyes shall look from it,
Eyes of the spirit's Palestine,
Even than the old gaze tenderer:
While hopes and aims long lost with her
Stand round her image side by side
Like tombs of pilgrims that have died
About the Holy Sepulchre.10
Once we have deciphered this stanza and the poem that it concludes, attention has shifted altogether from the ostensible subject of the poem (the prospect of salvation through the haunting memories of a dead beloved)—to the hermeneutic project itself. The problems of reading, interpreting, making sense of the elaborate ornamental surfaces of the poem have thrust themselves so far forward and required such "fundamental brainwork" of us, that we become finally more interested in surfaces, in techniques and their employment, than in the subject matter being presented. Issues of aesthetics—symbolism, form, style, tone, etc.—fully displace and supersede matters of substance—theme or philosophy or ideology. Rather than a "willing suspension of disbelief," Rossetti seems bent at every turn on enforcing disbelief and distraction upon the reader in ways that remind us of the new generation of radically self-conscious parodic novelists—Fowles, Barth, Borges, or Eco, for instance.
One simple explanation of the purpose and effect of Rossetti's deliberate destabilization and subversion of his own texts might fall properly into line with Jerome McGann's insistence (some twenty years ago) that Rossetti's procedures serve to reinforce his central aestheticism: literature's last gift, like love's, is merely literature itself.11 Art and artistry must, therefore, like a beautiful woman, draw attention to themselves—their elaborate, complex, ornamental surfaces—in order to enthrall or seduce us. This explanation, however, does not finally do justice to the complex of responses that Rossetti's best poems evoke. The frequent reader of these texts finds them not only ornate and beautiful but also rich and deep in their allusiveness to other texts and to the entire literary enterprise. He finds them simultaneously sincere and parodie; derivative yet original; fraught with ineffable philosophic weight yet somehow hollow; ambiguous; ironic—and finally, elusive.
A general approach to Rossetti's poems that proves more adequate in explaining their complex operations than those of the past—biographical, new critical, or aestheticist—derives from recent expansions of our modes of critical thinking that have emerged from the concern among semioticians, deconstructionists, and new historical critics with all matters related to intertextuality and self-reflexiveness in literature. Rossetti's best known poem, "The Blessed Damozel," serves as an illuminating exemplary text.
As all readers of this inverted elegy know, it dramatizes the craving for reunion felt by two lovers separated by death. The central dialogue is between the full-bosomed Damozel—lamenting her separation while leaning earthward from the gold bar of heaven—and her distant beloved who thinks about her from below. The poem's pathos derives, for some readers, from the fact that for the Damozel the distance between the two is finally insuperable; however, her lover, whose voice and perspective gradually merge with that of the narrator, ironically claims to. hear her voice, her words, her tears, but their communication is one-sided, and the Damozel remains a victim of Heaven's exquisite torture of separation, as her languorous suffering is exacerbated by witnessing the pairs of joyous lovers reuniting around her. As all readers of the poem also know, the lovers' dialogue is embedded in an elaborate setting and is at various levels fantastical: the narrator's cosmic vision seems so portentous, and at once detailed yet ambiguous, as to be fantastic; each lover fantasizes about the present circumstances of the other; and the Damozel fantasizes about the pair's future together after reunion in heaven.12
The reader of this poem is likely to scrutinize it with special attention, because a number of its features strike us as curious—hyperconscious, oddly derivative, even self-mocking. The more we contemplate the poem's possible purpose and meaning, the more unsettling and disorienting we find the work. As almost every commentator on the poem has noted, we are puzzled, for instance, from the very first stanzas by the unorthodox combination of the spiritual and the sensual or erotic. The former elements include an array of traditional religious symbols and an insistence upon medieval numerology, while the latter elements are introduced into the poem with images of the Damozel's gown "ungirt from clasp to hem," her hair "yellow like ripe corn," and her "bosom" pressing against the bar of heaven (Poetical Works, p. I). Further, the attempt at cosmological mapping early in the poem is accomplished in such deliberately vague terms that it seems disorienting rather than helpful. That the "rampart of God's house" looks downward over absolute Space toward the solar system is clear enough from stanza 5. That Rossetti insistently refines upon this scheme in stanza 6, using redefinitions even more abstract than their originals (Space becomes a "flood of ether"), along with mixed metaphors, seems altogether to undercut the project of mapping the cosmos, however. We are no wiser afterwards than we were before. The language of stanza 7 is so trite and hyperbolic—invoking such phrases as "deathless love" and "heart-remembered names"—that it verges on the ironic, especially as the associations of spirituality that such terminology elicits are abruptly truncated in the next stanza's notorious description of the Damozel's palpably "warm" bosom. Such startling pseudoeroticism, seemingly determined to explode all former theological concepts of heaven, culminates in mid poem when the Damozel describes the rebaptism of their love at the anticipated moment of reunion: "As unto a stream we will step down. / And bathe there in God's sight."
Unsettling descriptions and events punctuate the last third of the poem as well. How are we to respond to the moment at which the earth-bound lover, for the first time with certainty, perceives the sound of the Damozel's voice in a continuation of what is presumably "that bird's song" of stanza II: "We two, we two, thou says't?" he says. Somehow the source of this light chirrup seems incommensurate with the lover's insistence (in an allusion to II Corinthians 6:14) upon the eternal union of his and the Damozel's souls. The presentation of the heavenly court in the next stanza also seems overly literal. Indeed, the depiction of Mary and her five handmaidens sitting round to pass judgment on the cases of lovers is deflated by the scene's evocation of the historical courts of love presided over by Eleanor of Acquitaine in late twelfth-century France. This association is reinforced by the image of an audience of angels playing citherns and citholes, as well as the poem's pervasive archaisms, including its title. The penultimate demystification of the poem's issues comes with the damozel's plea "Only to live as once on earth / With Love"—surely a radical literalization of Keats's antitraditional notion of enjoying "ourselves here after by having what we call happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone."13 And the poem's final perplexing move—drawing our attention away from its substance to the problem of narrative form—is the last stanza's perspectival sleight of hand, in which the identity of the omniscient narrator merges with that of the aggrieved lover. This formal trick for some readers makes the conclusion seem as equivocal or hollow or contrived as it is full of pathos.
How then does the reader deal with this curious poem whose tone seems to exist in some unexplored grey area—some void of linguistic ether—between sincerity on the one hand and parody, as it is traditionally understood, on the other? He may go so far as to conclude that "The Blessed Damozel" is, in some rare and complex fashion, a hoax; that it was written with tongue partially in cheek; or that it awkwardly presents itself as at once serious and mocking and thus a novel kind of parody for the mid-nineteenth century, a work that is self-reflexive and self-parodic while densely allusive—echoing, imitating, or parodying a number of originary or enabling texts and traditions. That is to say, it is pervasively, complexly intertextual and dialogic. Given the extent to which tonal ambiguities, dialogism, and intertextuality are striking features of other major poems by Rossetti as well as "The Blessed Damozel," it is worth investigating, in theoretical as well as practical terms, the full implications of the parodic horizons in Rossetti's verse.
Some especially useful theoretical discussion of parody has appeared in recent years in the writing of Barthes, Genette, Riffaterre, and Bakhtin. But these theorists have done work that serves, finally, to marginalize, bracket, or in other ways delimit and deflate parody both as a literary genre (or subgenre) and as a medium for self-conscious ideological discourse. Linda Hutcheon's recent book, A Theory of Parody, however, largely succeeds in rehabilitating parody by cogently redefining it as a specific mode of discourse and by enlarging our notions of what constitutes parody and what literary parody can accomplish.14 In doing so, she forcefully demonstrates the interrelations between parody and some central issues that emerge in recent semiotic, formalist, and new historical approaches to literature and literary theory.
According to Hutcheon, in her own appropriation and reification of recent theorists, "a parodic text [is] defined as a formal synthesis, an incorporation of a backgrounded text into itself. But the textual doubling of parody (unlike pastiche, allusion, quotation, and so on) functions to mark difference…. on a pragmatic level parody [is] not limited to producing a ridiculous effect (para as 'counter' or 'against'), but … the equally strong suggestion of complicity and accord (para as 'beside') allow[s] for an opening up of the range of parody."15 Thus, there exist "both comic and serious types of parody." Indeed, as Hutcheon points out, "even in the nineteenth century, when the ridiculing definition of parody was most current … reverence was often perceived as underlying the intention of parody."16 Further, parody "is never a mode of parasitic symbiosis. On the formal level, it is always a paradoxical structure of contrasting synthesis, a kind of differential dependence of one text upon another." Parody, moreover, can involve a whole ethos or set of conventions rather than a single text: paradoxically, "parody's transgressions [or transvaluations of a text or a set of conventions] ultimately [are] authorized by the very norm it seeks to subvert…. In formal terms, it inscribes the mocked conventions onto itself thereby guaranteeing their continued existence." But, of course, "this paradox of legalized though unofficial subversion … posits, as a prerequisite to its. very existence, a certain aesthetic institutionalization which entails the acknowledgment of recognizable, stable forms and conventions."17 But the texts, conventions, traditions, or institutions encoded by an author in a parodie text require a sophisticated reader to recognize them and to decode the text, that is, to perceive the work at hand as parodie and dialogic, as transcontextual and transvaluative. Most works thus understood are also perceived finally as avant-garde. They engage in a form of what Barthes termed "double-directed" discourse, often "rework[ing] those discourses whose weight has become tyrannical." (For Rossetti, these would include the traditions of Dante and Milton.)
I would argue that these descriptions of parody powerfully illuminate the operations of many poems by Rossetti that clearly present themselves as avant-garde works. The dominant traditions with which they are in dialogue and which they attempt to transvalue are those of Petrarchism, Christianity, and Romanticism—especially in its exotic or supernatural and its medievalist guises.
In the case of "The Blessed Damozel" a unique equilibrium between preservation and subversion of originary texts, their conventions and values, is achieved. As I have already suggested, formally Rossetti's poem inverts the traditional conventions of the pastoral elegy; here it is primarily the dead beloved who grieves volubly for her lover who remains alive. The expected natural details of the genre's setting are also displaced: that is, they are either thoroughly etherealized or replaced with deliberately artificial props, such as the gold bar of heaven and its fountains of light. Symbolism full of potentially Christian meaning—such as the seven stars in the Damozel's hair and the three lilies in her hand—are drained of all such meaning and become merely ornamental.18 Courtly and Petrarchan conventions, like the poem's pseudo-Dantean cosmology with its heavenly vistas, are thrust upon us with such literalness that they become at best disorienting and at worst absurd. The bizarre deployment of the supernatural here, too, displaces our usual conceptions of God, Heaven, angels, and the rituals conventionally associated with them. This heaven of lovers is a nontraditional fantasy, a bricolage of previous religious and literary conventions, images, values, and beliefs here appropriated and reformulated to authorize a new romantic ideology. This ideology is entirely aesthetic and insists that internalized sensory responses to experience alone constitute the spiritual. But such responses require a sense of loss or separation as a catalyst for their generation and thus seem to become wholly solipsistic and self-reflexive, as does the art which undertakes to represent them. In the world(s) of this poem, fantasy finally subsumes experience, and the most powerful fantasies emerge as much from previous art and literature as from experience itself. "The Blessed Damozel" read in this way must be seen finally as seriously parodic of its pretexts. The poem presents various dialogues—with medieval, Miltonic, Romantic, and Gothic precursors; with the traditional elegy; with the lovers who are themselves in dialogue. Finally, however, the poem appears to be in inconclusive dialogue with its own tentative values, images, and aspirations which emerge from its self-conscious reworkings of past artworks and their ideologies. Rather than asserting explicit positions on the amatory, religious, and philosophical questions it raises, the poem elides such questions in favor of emphasizing through its self-reflexivity the purely literary and aesthetic ones which emerge from its complexly dialogical operations.
Such inconclusiveness, equivocation, and ambiguity are common qualities of Rossetti's poems drafted early in his career, as might be seen from analysis of other important works. "The Burden of Nineveh," for instance, is an interior monologue triggered by archaeological events. The speaker contemplates their meaning upon leaving the British Museum, where he has just viewed the Elgin Marbles, "the prize / Dead Greece vouchsafes to living eyes." As he makes "the swing-door spin" and issues from the building, workers are "hoisting in / A winged beast from Nineveh." By the end of the poem the speaker's thoughts have led him to an epiphanic historical vision:
… on my sight … burst
That future of the best or worst
When some may question which was first,
Of London or Nineveh.
In the course of the poem other questions of historicity and ideology are contemplated explicitly, alongside implicit questions about parody and self-referentiality as qualities that inevitably inhere in every religious artifact and, indeed, every work of art. Ultimately, according to this poem that invokes and argues against Ruskin, art is only an illusory index of the culture which produced it. Art defiantly rejects its originary historical contexts and transgresses—by transcending and eliding—the ideological values of the culture from which it emerges.
Paradoxically, this activity can take place only by means of parodie procedures, which precisely define the texts—as well as their historical positions and their ideologies—that Rossetti's poem presents itself as supplanting. This set of simultaneous moves within the poem draws attention to the phenomenology of the text itself as layered artifact. Just as the "meaning" of the Assyrian Bull-god (and every artwork) depends upon the contexts, the historical and ideological vantage points from which it is read or observed, so the sequence of parodie strategies within the poem draws attention to the phenomenology of this text as an accretive fabrication: its "meaning" can be construed only by deciphering the text as palimpsest. The speaker concludes that,
… it may chance indeed that when
Man's age is hoary among men,—
His centuries threescore and ten,—
His furthest childhood shall seem then
More clear than later times may be:
Who, finding in this desert place
This form, shall hold us for some race
That walked not in Christ's lowly ways,
But bowed its pride and vowed its praise
Unto the god of Nineveh.
The smile rose first,—anon drew nigh
The thought: … Those heavy wings spread high,
So sure of flight, which do not fly;
That set gaze never on the sky;
Those scriptured flanks it cannot see;
Its crown, a brow-contracting load;
Its planted feet which trust the sod: …
(So grew the image as I trod:)
O Nineveh, was this thy God,—
Thine also, mighty Nineveh?
Like the phenomenon of the Bull-god, Rossetti's poem reconstitutes hermeneutics as a branch of archaeology. But also like the Assyrian artifact, this poem, which subsumes all of its pre-texts, appears self-sufficient and elusive: "From their dead Past thou livs't alone; / And still thy shadow is thine own." The Bull-god as text provides a commentary not only upon its progenitors and successors along with their respective contexts but also upon itself as an accommodation of all possible historical and ideological contexts. It is a "dead disbowelled mystery" with "human face," with "hoofs behind and hoofs before," and "flanks with dark runes fretted o'er."
The parodied texts that Rossetti appropriates—the "fretted runes" Rossetti frets over—in his speaker's questions to the Bull-god include works by Shelley and Keats, who are echoed here, but also (and more generally) works by Ruskin and biblical books. By the time Rossetti began reshaping "The Burden of Nineveh" in 1856, Ruskin's absolutist and evangelical view that art is a clear embodiment of the historically specific spiritual and moral values of the culture which produced it had been fully elaborated in The Stones of Venice. Against that general position, Rossetti here argues a historically relativistic case. Similarly, references to the book of Jonah and Christ's temptations by Satan (p. 27) serve—especially in light of the poem's conclusion—as an ironic commentary on the myopic absolutism and the ahistoricism of Christian "orthodoxy." They also serve, however, to insist on the much greater longevity of Christian texts (its art) than the historically limited spiritual beliefs that inspired them. These texts, again in a general way, are parodied here in the mock-prophetic tone and substance of the last three stanzas.
Rossetti's appropriations of Shelley's "Ozymandias" and Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" are more direct and specific. His procedure with respect to these texts is deliberately self-parodic, as well: the author in his relation to these pre-texts behaves as the English have behaved in appropriating and assimilating into their own gigantic cultural monument (the British Museum) the works of art from many great civilizations that preceded the British Empire:
And now,—they and their gods and thou
All relics here together,—now
Whose profit? whether bull or cow,
Isis or Ibis, who or how,
Whether of Thebes of Nineveh?
At the same time Rossetti's use of Shelley and Keats is parodic in the sense of working with and extending the conventions as well as the apparent insights of their poems.
Near the end of "The Burden of Nineveh" Rossetti invokes the central image of "Ozymandias": the half-buried monument to the pharaoh, around which "the lone and level sands stretch far away." Rossetti's speaker retrospectively envisions "the burial-clouds of sand" which, centuries past, "Rose o'er" the Bull-god's eyes "And blinded him with destiny" (p. 29). Rossetti is in a position, however, to update Shelley's historically limited view of the "collossal Wreck" that is Ozymandias's monument. This artifact, too, or portions of it, might well be plundered and given new life as a historical "fact / Connected with [a] zealous tract" in the British collection, as Rossetti gives new life to Shelley's poem and enriches its central irony.
In stanza 3 of "The Burden of Nineveh" Rossetti similarly parodies Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," appropriating a Romantic text that also concerns itself with the transcontextualization of an artifact from an ancient civilization and the hermeneutical problems that result. Rossetti borrows Keats's strategy of asking questions of the artifact and answering them in a way that only proliferates questions. At the same time Rossetti heightens the historical self-consciousness of this project by introducing into his stanzas parodic echoes of Keats's "Ode to Psyche" as well. Rossetti's historical questions—
What song did the brown maidens sing,
From purple mouths alternating,
When that [rush-wrapping] was woven languidly?
What vows, what rites, what prayers preferr'd,
What songs has the strange image heard?
—echo not only the concluding questions of stanza I in "Ode on a Grecian Urn," but also Keats's catalogue of rituals and service belatedly needed for the proper worship of Psyche, who has no temple,
Nor altar heap'd with flowers;
Nor virgin-choir to make delicious moan
Upon the midnight hours;
No voice, no lute, no pipe, no incense sweet
From chain-swung censer teeming;
No shrine, no grove, no oracle, no heat
Of pale-mouth'd prophet dreaming.19
The questions both poets ask can be answered only with precise and extensive historical knowledge which both poets refuse to supply, insisting that the present artifact supersedes such concerns, as well as all cultural works and rituals that have enabled its production. This text annuls and supplants such absences (to which it paradoxically draws attention) by its exclusive presence.
With its parodies of the Bible, Shelley, and Keats, the "burden" of Rossetti's "Nineveh" thus becomes a weight of critical and self-critical meaning that elides traditional ideologies; it is also a refrain, as an inevitable and recontextualized reenactment of historically layered creative moments and their patterns of meaning. This poem tells us not only of the burdens of the past as they are appropriated by the present but of the fact that all parodies as artistic reenactments are burdensome: weighted with critical commentary on all historical eras, all relevant works of art, all ideologies of all writers and readers, including the present ones.
In such poems as "The Blessed Damozel" and "The Burden of Nineveh," begun early in his career, Rossetti was searching not only for an "idea of the world," as David Riede has argued, and a coherent system of aesthetic values; he was also searching with extreme caution for a secure idea of a discrete self, as well as an idea of the self in relation to others.20 The latter part of this quest, in the early versions of his poems, focuses almost exclusively upon explorations of the amatory self and the artistic self, that is, the self in its highest or quintessential synchronic relations with society individualized in the form of a lover; and the self in its supreme, because creative, diachronic relations with the great creative selves of the past. While the quest for love reveals psychological compulsion, the quest for position displays a willed ambition to demonstrate unique talent.
In the 1848 sonnets included among the three "Old and New Art" poems of the House of Life, "Not as These" grapples with the young artist's yearning to distinguish himself from contemporaries and precursors alike. It insists in the end, however, that artistic greatness in the future can be achieved, not by looking to one's contemporaries, but by confronting the "great Past":
Unto the lights of the great Past, new-lit
Fair for the Future's track, look thou instead,—
Say thou instead, "I am not as these are."
The implication here is unmistakable: the track to the future is in every sense over that of the past. In order to become the future the prospective artist must reillumine the works of his great precursors; that is, he must appropriate, transvalue, and transcontextualize them. The same point is made, albeit abstractly, in the final sonnet of this subsequence, "The Husbandman." Here the possibility is raised of regenerating in oneself those whom God "Called … labour in his vineyard first." For,
Which of ye knoweth he is not that last
Who may be first by faith and will?—yea, his
The hand which after the appointed days
And hours shall give a Future to their Past?
These poems suggest what Rossetti's translations in 1861 and other early works such as "The Blessed Damozel" and "The Burden of Nineveh" confirm: that as early as 1848 Rossetti had formulated at least the outlines of an avant-garde program to achieve success and importance as an artist. And that program was deeply intertextual and dialogic, requiring parodic reworkings of those earlier poets and poetic ethos he reverenced most. This program is visible even in a poem as ostensibly self-referential, ahistorical, and nonideological as "The Portrait."
In this poem Browning's "My Last Duchess" is the pre-text being simultaneously displaced and admired. On a grander scale, however, Rossetti's work sets out obliquely to destabilize and subvert the entire Dantean ethos, especially the orthodox Christian conventions of belief associated with Dante, Petrarch, and their imitators. In form, theme, and characterization, Rossetti's poem presents itself as a sequel to Browning's, which it deliberately echoes from the first stanza. A monologic meditation rather than a dramatic monologue, "The Portrait" presents a speaker whose character is the obverse of the duke of Ferrara's: rather than merely an admirer of art, he is an artist for whom the portrait serves as a potential mode of communion with his dead beloved, not her replacement and a controllable improvement upon the original. Before her death the artist's beloved herself constituted the ideal, while her portrait is "Less than her shadow on the grass / Or than her image in the stream." This speaker is, moreover, a genuine lover rather than one concerned with wives as "objects," symbols of wealth, power, and social station. While Browning's duke is a thoroughgoing materialist, Rossetti's artist-lover is obsessed with the ephemeral and spiritual dimensions of his relationship: having "shrined" his beloved's face "Mid mystic trees," he anticipates the day when his soul shall
… stand rapt and awed,
When, by the new birth borne abroad
Throughout the music of the suns,
It enters in her soul at once
And knows the silence there for God!
Ultimately, Browning's duke is concerned with marriage vows as a means to increased wealth and power, while for Rossetti's painter the twice-spoken words of love—"whose silence wastes and kills"—though "disavowed" by fate, are merely precursors to permanent, visually communicated vows.
In these ways, then, Rossetti's poem responds directly to Browning's, presenting the positive amatory and aesthetic values absent from "My Last Duchess." Like all true parodies, Rossetti's is thus authorized by and dependent upon its pre-text, but it also supersedes it. At the same time, "The Portrait" appropriates and supersedes the Petrarchan and Dantean conventions of love's spiritualizing influence which inform the value system of the poem and to which it adheres. That is, after unquestionably accepting both the Dantean language and situation that serve to apotheosize a dead beloved as an agent of salvation, Rossetti displaces them from their originary Christian contexts by presenting the moment of the speaker's own apotheosis and reunion with her in a parodic sexual image of penetration. The "knowledge" of God that he hopes to attain in uniting with his beloved's soul is transcendently carnal. Yet, such parodic qualities upon which the full "meaning" of Rossetti's poem depends are ambiguously encoded and require decoding by a sophisticated reader. They are embedded in variously vague, abstract, or merely generalized language and metaphors that allow "innocent" readings of the text, thus appearing to elide ideological commitment.
From such a perspective the parodic qualities of Rossetti's early poems, including "The Portrait," "The Blessed Damozel," and "The Burden of Nineveh," seem to be largely self-protective. Through their reliance upon great and familiar literary precursors, his poems accrue authority. Through their self-reflexivity and circularity they preempt any judgment that might easily be passed on matters of ideology. Moreover, through their transvaluation and transcontextualization of the forms, conventions, imagery, and typological structures of originary texts, Rossetti's poems locate their existence at the boundaries of the avant-garde and of ideological commitment. They simultaneously assert and elide values which might, presented differently, be seen to confront and displace the fundamental values embodied in the historically specific texts and traditions Rossetti parodies. Such a visible subversion of the ideological dispositions of his pre-texts, however, would make Rossetti's poem, like those of his precursors, subject to imprisonment by history. To elude such a fate Rossetti employs intertextual strategies to generate poems that present themselves as avant-garde intertexts, whose deep consciousness of historicity itself is deployed to defuse any delimiting ideological or historical critique.
But despite initial appearances, Rossetti's poems do embody a historically specific ideology. As I have suggested, the tentative and oblique repudiation, sub-version, and devaluation of conventional ideological statement in Rossetti's work lead to a reconstitution of ideology in exclusively aesthetic terms. Through the processes of allusion, parody, and self-parody by which "new art" is generated, Rossetti's poems individually exalt purely aesthetic valuation above political or social or religious valuation. Art is represented as the unique source of fulfillment, permanence, and transcendence in life. Thus, as a unified body of work, Rossetti's productions do bear a definable "relation to the maintenance and reproduction of social power." They actively participate in the competitive, historically localized phenomenon of poetic supersessions. In doing so they reinforce the aesthetic ideology they inscribe and (revising Shelley and Wordsworth) relocate the structures of immutable worldly and spiritual power in the exclusive habitations of the artist's studio and the poet's study.
1 Claus Uhlig, "Literature as Textual Palingenesis: On Some Principles of Literary History," New Literary History 16 (1985): 503.
2 On this topic see, for instance, the recent work of Jerome J. McGann and Hayden White, as well as that of Marilyn Butler, Terry Eagleton, Frederick Jameson, and Jane Tompkins.
3 Elliot Gilbert, "The Female King: Tennyson's Arthurian Apocalypse," PMLA 48 (1983): 866. Also see A. Dwight Culler, The Victorian Mirror of History (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1985), and Peter Allen Dale, The Victorian Critic and the Idea of History: Carlyle, Arnold, Pater (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1977).
4 Gilbert, "The Female King," p. 866.
5 See Herbert Sussman, "The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and Their Circle: The Formation of the Victorian Avant-Garde," The Victorian Newsletter 57 (1980): 7-9, and, by the same author, Fact into Figure: Typology in Carlyle, Ruskin, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1979), pp. 44-45, 55.
6 In Michael, for instance, Wordsworth dedicates his work expressly to "youthful Poets, who … / Will be my second self when I am gone." Wordsworth: Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchinson, rev. Ernest de Selincourt (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969), p. 104.
7 Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 15.
8 Dante G. Rossetti, The Early Italian Poets, ed. Sally Purcell (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), p. 1.
9 David Riede, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Limits of Victorian Vision (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1983), pp. 34-35.
10The Complete Poetical Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. William Michael Rossetti (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1887), pp. 132-33. Hereafter all poems by Rossetti will be cited parenthetically in the text to page numbers from this edition.
11 Jerome J. McGann, "Rossetti's Significant Details," Victorian Poetry 7 (1969): 41-54; reprinted in Pre-Raphaelitism: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. David Sambrook (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1974).
12 An essay which also concerns itself with matters of fantasy and one which takes a view of "The Blessed Damozel" opposed to my own is D. M. R. Bentley's "'The Blessed Damozel': A Young Man's Fantasy," Victorian Poetry 20 (1982): 31-43.
13 Keats to Benjamin Bailey, Nov. 17, 1817, in The Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder E. Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1958), 1:185.
14 Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody (London: Methuen, 1985).
15 Ibid., p. 54.
16 Ibid., p. 57.
17 Ibid., p. 75.
18 See McGann, "Rossetti's Significant Details."
19The Poems of John Keats, ed. Jack Stillinger (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1978), p. 365.
20 See Riede, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, p. 273.
J. Hillis Miller (essay date 1991)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7625
SOURCE: "The Mirror's Secret: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Double Work of Art," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter, 1991, pp. 333-49.
[In the following essay, Miller offers an analysis of "the double mirroring structure" of Rossetti's poetry.]
And still she sits, young while the earth is old,
And, subtly of her self contemplative,
Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,
Till heart and body and life are in its hold.1
If Rossetti's Lilith looks only, speculatively, at her own image in the mirror, she also looks self-consciously aware of the looks of all those men whom she draws by her indifference into her fatal net. Rossetti's source here is that text from Goethe which he translated:
Hold thou thy heart against her shining hair,
If, by thy fate, she spread it once for thee;
For, when she nets a young man in that snare,
So twines she him he never may be free.
("Lilith—from Göthe," W, p. 541)
Lilith's mirroring of herself and our fatal mirroring of ourselves in the painting are doubled by the mirror imaged on the canvas. Moreover, the painting mirrors a Victorian Pre-Raphaelite boudoir, and also Rossetti's feelings about Fanny Cornforth. The painting, in addition, mirrors the poem, "Body's Beauty," Sonnet 78 of The House of Life, of which it is an "illustration." Or is it the other way around, the poem a "caption" for the painting? Ultimately, both poem and painting are mirrors of, mirrored by, other works, echoing before and after, works in painting and in poetry by Rossetti himself, and multitudinous works in a complex tradition—graphic, literary, and philosophical—going back to the Bible and to the Greeks, in one direction, and forward, to our day, for example to John Hollander's admirable The Head of the Bed. In this tangled network of relations, "Mirror on mirror mirrored is all the show."2
These mirrorings are all, however, in one way or another odd, ambiguous, subversive, irrational. The mirrored image undoes what seeks its image there. Each mirrored image is somehow different from the exact reflection which tells the truth unequivocally, as when I look at my face in the mirror in the morning. There I am, as I am. "I am that I am." The mirror tells me so. I suffice to myself, like God. Or do I?
Far from producing an emblem of such fullness and completion, image matching image, Lilith's subtle contemplation of herself weaves a net, and behind the net there is a gulf. Into this abyss the men she fascinates will fall. This gulf is that "orchard pit" which was Rossetti's constant dream, that ugly ditch beside the apple tree with the Lilith or Siren figure in the crotch of its branches, offering a fatal apple and a fatal kiss. Why is it that when we men contemplate not ourselves in the mirror but our incongruous other self, a desirable woman contemplating herself, our own integrity is mutilated, destroyed?
Men tell me that sleep has many dreams; but all my life I have dreamt one dream alone.
I see a glen whose sides slope upward from the deep bed of a dried-up stream, and either slope is covered with wild apple-trees. In the largest tree, within the fork whence the limbs divide, a fair, golden-haired woman stands and sings, with one white arm stretched along a branch of the tree, and with the other holding forth a bright red apple, as if to some one coming down the slope. Below her feet the trees grow more and more tangled, and stretch from both sides across the deep pit below: and the pit is full of the bodies of men.
They lie in heaps beneath the screen of boughs, with her apples bitten in their hands; and some are no more than ancient bones now, and some seem dead but yesterday. She stands over them in the glen, and sings for ever, and offers her apple still. ("The Orchard Pit," W, pp. 607-608)
If Lady Lilith mirrors Fanny Cornforth and a certain kind of Victorian decor (its furniture, costume, and psychosocial structures, its domestic economy), this mimetism is peculiar, since this Victorian boudoir, with its mirror, double candlestick, cosmetic bottle, chest, and settee, seems to be out of doors. What is mirrored in the mirror on the wall is not an interior but an exterior woodland scene, a scene of branches going from left to right matching in reverse Lilith's tresses, which spread from right to left. The branches duplicate themselves in smaller and smaller repetitions out to invisibility in a mise en abîme. The scene in the mirror is in fact the orchard pit. Or is the mirror a window? No, it cannot be so, since the roses and the candles are reflected there. How odd, however, that the Lady Lilith should be combing her hair outdoors, surrounded by all those bedroom appurtenances and by roses and poppies which might be either inside or out. In Eden there was no inside or out, but this scene is the diabolical mirror image of Eden, as Lilith is of Eve.
The confusion of interior and exterior, mirror and window, is characteristic of all that art Walter Pater called "aesthetic." In such art, nature has been made over into the images of art, and those images made over once more, at a double remove. As Pater puts it in a splendid formulation:
Greek poetry, medieval or modern poetry, projects, above the realities of its time, a world in which the forms of things are transfigured. Of that transfigured world this new poetry takes possession, and sublimates beyond it another still fainter and more spectral, which is literally an artificial or "earthly paradise." It is a finer ideal, extracted from what in relation to any actual world is already an ideal. Like some strange second flowering after date, it renews on a more delicate type the poetry of a past age, but must not be confounded with it. The secret of the enjoyment of it is that inversion of home-sickness known to some, that incurable thirst for the sense of escape, which no actual form of life satisfies, no poetry even, if it be merely simple and spontaneous.3
In "aesthetic" poetry and painting even the most meticulously naturalistic scene, in what Pater calls, apropos of Rossetti, an "insanity of realism" (p. 209), is emblematic. Such a scene is absorbed into a spiritualized human interior, inside and outside at once, since the distinction, uneasily, no longer exists, just as the distinction between the spiritual and material no longer exists. To go outside is not to be outside but to remain claustrophobically enclosed, and the interior is no safe enclosure. It is exposed to the dangers of a fatal encounter. The orchard pit is within and without at once, just as the window in Sir John Everett Millais' Mariana (an illustration of Tennyson's "Mariana") is also a mirror of her state, and just as the same ambiguity functions in the mirror of Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott," in this case illustrated by Holman Hunt. Pater, with his characteristic genius as a critic, has once more provided a definitive formulation of this aspect of Rossetti's work:
With him indeed, as in some revival of the old mythopoeic age, common things—dawn, noon, night—are full of human or personal expression, full of sentiment. The lovely little sceneries scattered up and down his poems, glimpses of a landscape, not indeed of broad open-air effects, but rather that of a painter concentrated upon the picturesque effect of one or two selected objects at a time—the "hollow brimmed with mist," or the "ruined weir," as he sees it from one of the windows, or reflected in one of the mirrors of his "house of life" (the vignettes for instance seen by Rose Mary in the magic beryl) attest, by their very freshness and simplicity, to a pictorial or descriptive power in dealing with the inanimate world, which is certainly also one half of the charm, in that other, more remote and mystic, use of it. For with Rossetti this sense of lifeless nature, after all, is translated to a higher service, in which it does but incorporate itself with some phase of strong emotion. Every one understands how this may happen at critical moments of life; what a weirdly expressive soul may have crept, even in full noonday, into "the white-flower'd elder-thicket," when Godiva saw it "gleam through the Gothic archways in the wall," at the end of her terrible ride [Tennyson, "Godiva"]. To Rossetti it is so always, because to him life is a crisis at every moment (pp. 532-533).
What that "crisis" is, cutting off before from after, and dividing the moment too within itself, and what feeling every moment as a crisis has to do with this particular version of the pathetic fallacy, remains to be identified. Window or mirror, as Pater has seen, are means to the same vision. What is seen there is natural, human, and spiritual, all at once. The framed image is always, as Pater's brilliantly chosen quotations from Rossetti indicate, some version of the orchard pit, the "hollow brimmed with mist," the "ruined weir," or that maelstrom into which the lovers are swept in the poetic fragment of "The Orchard-Pit":
My love I call her, and she loves me well:
But I love her as in the maelstrom's cup
The whirled stone loves the leaf inseparable
That clings to it round all the circling swell,
And that the same last eddy swallows up.
(W, p. 240)
In "Lady Lilith" the mirroring of a boudoir which turns out to be an abyssal wood of storm-tossed branches also mirrors the reflection of Lilith in her hand-held mirror. Though the back of that mirror is turned toward the spectator, the image in the mirror on the wall tells him what chasm is no doubt pictured there behind the screen of reflected hair. This chasm is imaged over and over throughout Rossetti's work by way of displaced figures in the "outside" framed in a window or in a mirror.
The other mirrorings are equally alogical. The relation between Rossetti's painting and his poetry is asymmetrical, skewed. This is true not in the sense that one overtly contradicts the other, but in the sense that each exceeds the other, however deliberately they may be matched, as in the case of Lady Lilith and "Body's Beauty." Each says more or less than the other, and says it differently, in ways which have only in part to do with the differences of medium. Either may be taken as the "original" of which the other is the "illustration" or the explanatory poetic "superscription," writing on top of another graphic form. This relation does not depend, of course, on the chronology of Rossetti's actual creation of the two works in question. In each case, however, the secondary version in the other medium is always in one way or another a travesty, a misinterpretation, a distorted image in the mirror of the other art.
The relation to "the tradition" of the double, self-subversive work of art is, once more, a false mirroring. Whether one takes the more immediate context of Rossetti's other work or, as does John Dixon Hunt in The Pre-Raphaelite Imagination, the wider context of Pre-Raphaelite work generally, or Rossetti's relation to his immediate predecessors, Shelley and Tennyson, or the relation of his work to the whole Western tradition, this relation of work to context, as the passage from Pater quoted above suggests, is not a straightforward copying, continuation, or reflection. It is a strange second flowering after date, a sublimation or rarefaction which is also a swerving, a distortion.
Nonetheless, this subversive mirroring is already part of the tradition, traditional even in Plato or Milton, however much that deconstructive mirroring may have been apparently suppressed. "Aesthetic" poetry was already a part, though sometimes a secret part, of "ancient" and "modern" poetry. Pater's chronology of the development of Western poetry in fact describes a synchronic tension within it among patterns which may not be reconciled in any synthesis, dialectic, or historical movement. Rossetti's false mirroring of the tradition does but tell a secret which is already there, everywhere within that "tradition," but often hidden.
What is the secret that the distorting mirror always tells and keeps? Loss. All Rossetti's work is haunted by an experience of devastating loss. That loss has always already occurred or is about to occur or is occurring, in memory or in anticipation within the divided moment. It occurs proleptically, antileptically, metaleptically, the feared future standing for the already irrevocable past, and vice versa, in a constant far-fetching reversal of late and early. The longed-for future may not be. The poet of "The Stream's Secret" knows or is told by the mirroring stream that it may not be. The past was disastrous, even if it held moments of joy. Those moments have passed, their joy turned into the desolation of their loss. "What whisper'st thou?" the poet asks that moving and murmuring, mirroring stream:
Name the dead hours? I mind them well:
Their ghosts in many darkened doorways dwell
With desolate eyes to know them by.
("The Stream's Secret," W, p. 114)
The loss in question is experienced perpetually in that everlasting moment of crisis (in the etymological sense of division) in which the mind dwells. Of that division the mind makes an emblem in those natural scenes glimpsed through a window or reflected in a mirror. These scenes in turn become human figures which then become those personified abstractions, Life, Death, Time, and so on, which populate, as Pater observed, Rossetti's work. These personifications constitute in their humanized particularity the "insanity of realism" in Rossetti. "And this delight in concrete definition," says Pater, "is allied with another of his conformities to Dante, the really imaginative vividness, namely, of his personifications—his hold upon them, or rather their hold upon him, with the force of a Frankenstein, when once they have taken life from him. Not Death only and Sleep, for instance, and the winged spirit of Love, but certain particular aspects of them, a whole 'populace' of special hours and places, 'the hour' even 'which might have been, yet might not be,' are living creatures, with hands and eyes and articulate voices" (Pater, "Dante Gabriel Rossetti," p. 531).
These personifications result from a process miming the progressive sublimation of aesthetic poetry. They are a further refinement of what is already a transfigured or humanized nature. Their meaning is always some aspect of that absolute loss which is exacerbated, always, by having almost been its opposite, like a swimmer who almost makes the shore and then is swept away:
Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been;
I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell;
Unto thine ear I hold the dead-sea shell
Cast up thy Life's foam-fretted feet between;
Unto thine eyes the glass where that is seen
Which had Life's form and Love's, but by my spell
Is now a shaken shadow intolerable,
Of ultimate things unuttered the frail screen.
("A Superscription," W, p. 107)
The figure in the glass, "Might-have-been," is one's own face, just as Pater's metonymic "mistake" in naming the monster with the name of its creator catches accurately the relation between Doctor Frankenstein and his creature, the made making and unmaking the maker. Rossetti's personifications keep their hold upon him because they are figures for himself. All those persons, personifications, and scenes—the orchard pit, the ruined weir, the stormy branches—are one's own face in the mirror, caught in the eternal moment of crisis as the confrontation of a perpetual loss.
Loss of what? Loss as such, total and irrevocable. Absence. To name this loss one's own death or (fear of) castration, or the confrontation with the woman who has (or who does not have) the phallus (Lilith as snake), or the death of the beloved, or that betrayal by the beloved which is always the story of love for Rossetti, is only to conjure one more shadow in the glass, one more frail screen, like all the other images in Rossetti, for "ultimate things unuttered," and, in any literal way. unutterable. It is as if I looked in the mirror and saw nothing there, or were to see an image which is not myself but a figure of my absence or of my incompletion.
Precisely this happens in a little poem, "The Mirror." Here the poet's failure to find a reciprocating feeling in the lady he loves is imaged as the unsettling experience of seeing what he thinks is his own image in a distant mirror and then finding it is not himself, so that he is for the moment imageless:
She knew it not:—most perfect pain
To learn: this too she knew not. Strife
For me, calm hers, as from the first.
'Twas but another bubble burst
Upon the curdling draught of life,—
My silent patience mine again.
As who, of forms that crowd unknown
Within a distant mirror's shade,
Deems such an one himself, and makes
Some sign; but when the image shakes
No whit, he finds his thought betray'd,
And must seek elsewhere for his own.
("The Mirror," W, p. 194)
"For his own": the phrase has a straightforward enough grammatical ellipsis and yet, dangling uncompleted in the open as it does at the end of the poem, possessive adjective without a noun, it shimmers with alternative possibilities. He must seek elsewhere for his own image, and the missing noun mimes the absence of what the speaker seeks. As the logic of the figurative relation between first and second stanzas affirms, however, his missing image is a trope for the female counterpart who would complete him. Her absence or indifference, her failure to match feeling with his feeling, is in turn a figure for something missing in himself. It is as if for Rossetti "the mirror stage" were not the discovery of one's self (the Ideal-Ich) in the mirror but the discovery of a vacancy there, an empty glass.
The structure of "The Mirror" is "the same" as that in "Body's Beauty." In fact, all Rossetti's work consists of two intersubjective patterns, a desired one "which might have been, yet might not be," and its asymmetrical mirror image, which always and irrevocably exists. This double intersubjective structure is, like all such models, with difficulty distinguished, if it may be distinguished at all, from a solipsistic relation of the self to itself. The Other, however totally other, is still experienced as part of myself or as something I wish were part of myself. In "Willowwood," the four-sonnet sequence within The House of Life, Love grants the Narcissus-like poet the privilege of kissing his beloved's lips. These rise to meet his lips at the surface of a "woodside well": "her own lips rising there / Bubbled with brimming kisses at my mouth" (W, p. 91). It is a phantom kiss, though, and of course he kisses his own imaged lips.
The desired side of this mismatched pair of patterns is expressed in "The Stream's Secret." It is a wish for future joy, the Might-still-be which stands as a future anterior for Might-have-been. This Might-still-be remains always Not-quite-yet. The mirror, which has been vacant of any images but hollow shadows of unful-filled desire, will (or will never) become suddenly full, the reflection of a double, completed image. The lovers, in this impossible imaginary encounter, will view their joint image in the stream's mirror and then, no longer needing the mediation of any mirror, will look only in one another's eyes:
So, in that hour of sighs
Assuaged, shall we beside this stone
Yield thanks for grace; while in thy mirror shown
The twofold image softly lies,
Until we kiss, and each in other's eyes
Is imaged all alone.
Still silent? Can no art
Of Love's then move thy pity?
("The Stream's Secret," W, p. 117)
The stream is still silent and does not tell Love's secret, since there is no secret to tell. The mirror's secret is that there is no secret. "Love's Hour," the hour when "she and I shall meet … stands … not by the door" (p. 117), however much the poet strains to believe that it does. The ultimate things unuttered are here and now, on the surface of the stream's mirror, not at the bottom of some abysmal depth. The stream will always remain vacant of any twofold image. Instead there is always, as the present without presence of crisis, the contrary image there. This image is the incongruous double of the desired one. It is the pattern, in fact, of "Willowwood," or, altered, of "Body's Beauty," or, in a different form, of "The Mirror," or, in a different form again, of "The Portrait," or, different still, of "Love's Nocturn." In this antithetical system, I look in the mirror and see not my own image but that of my female counterpart who looks not at me but at herself, subtly of herself contemplative, or, as in "The Portrait," I see her image still remaining after her death. This death is experienced, uncannily, as if my own image should remain in the mirror when I was no longer standing before it:
This is her picture as she was:
It seems a thing to wonder on,
As though mine image in the glass
Should tarry when myself am gone.
("The Portrait," W, p. 169)
In "Love's Nocturn," the counterstructure takes the form of the poet's imagining that he meets his own image "face to face," as he is "groping in the windy stair" leading down to the place where all dreams are.4 That image he would send to his lady's sleep, but he fears another image already usurps his place. His image must return then to the dream-fosse, having enjoyed one kiss not of the lady's lips but of their reflection in her mirror:
Like a vapour wan and mute,
Like a flame, so let it pass;
One low sigh across her lute,
One dull breath against her glass;
And to my sad soul, alas!
Cold as when Death's foot shall pass.
("Love's Nocturn," W, p. 72)
I have emphasized the differences among all these versions of the counter-pattern not only to confirm what I said earlier about the relation of incongruity between any work and the context it "mirrors," even the immediate context of other work by the same maker, but also to suggest that this counter-pattern always manifests itself differently. More precisely, each of its exemplars must be aberrant and none must be governed by an archetype. This pattern denies the existence of any archetype or model, the exact repetition of which might turn loss into completion. Ultimately, this structure may never be fixed in a definitive version, any more than Rossetti's personified beings, Love, Death, Sleep, and so on, may be systematized into a coherent counter-theology. Against this perpetually wandering structure is always set the primary structure of lover and beloved meeting face to face in a perfect match.
"Structure" here is a misleading term, not only because of its currently fashionable resonances, and not only because it does not cover all that is in question here, but because, like any possible term, it begs the questions it should keep open. It reinstates the metaphysical or "logocentric" assumptions that this "double triangle" dismantles. This "structure," "system," or "figure," this "emblem," "hieroglyph," "polygram," or "multigraph," is a complexity that cannot be unified. It remains incoherent or heterogeneous, always doubled and redoubled in repetitions that subvert rather than reinforce. Its heterogeneity lies not only in its resistance to conceptual unification or logical interpretation, but in its combining in an uneasy mélange: concept ("speculation"); figures of speech (the mirror image as image for image); figures, in the sense of persons in their relations (those reflected in the mirror); graphic or representational elements (the mirror itself, the Pre-Raphaelite woman, her landscape); and narrative material (the story of disastrous love Rossetti always tells). How can one name this except reductively, or in a figure that refigures the problem?
Perhaps Rossetti's own final figure for a sonnet, combining as it does graphic and verbal elements, might do best. Having called the sonnet a "moment's monument," carved "in ivory or in ebony," with "flowering crest impearled and orient," like some ornate coat of arms, picture and words combined, he defines the sonnet, in the sestet of his sonnet about the sonnet, as a coin. The obverse and converse of this coin combine a double, simultaneous orientation toward the experiences of the self or "soul" and toward that unnameable power, or absence of power, "Life," "Love," "Death," that governs the Soul. It is the coin itself, the double work of art—not the soul which one side of it reveals—which is, in all senses of the idiom, "due to" the Power. If the coin's face "reveals / The Soul," the "Power" is that unutterable thing of which the coin's converse is the revelation. At the same time, the converse acts as a frail screen protecting the Soul from that revelation. Or perhaps one might better say that it is the dumb silver of metal between which keeps obverse and converse, Soul and Power, apart, both for good and for ill:
A Sonnet is a coin: its face reveals
The Soul,—its converse, to what Power 'tis due:—
Whether for tribute to the august appeals
Of Life, or dower in Love's high retinue,
It serve; or, 'mid the dark wharf's cavernous breath,
In Charon's palm it pay the toll to Death.
("Introductory Sonnet," W, p. 74)
A final, concentrated "example" of this double-faced coin is "Memorial Thresholds." This poem substitutes doorway for window or mirror and proposes two possibilities: that the threshold remain permanently vacant, or that it be filled once more, in the memorial reduplication of a déjà vu, with the form of the beloved. Here, she is imagined as having once actually stood in the same doorway somewhere, of which the new threshold is a repetition:
City, of thine a single simple door,
By some new Power reduplicate, must be
Even yet my life-porch in eternity,
Even with one presence filled, as once of yore:
Òr mocking winds whirl round a chaff-strown floor
Thee and thy years and these my words and me.
("Memorial Thresholds," W, p. 101)
Why is it that the doorway, in Rossetti's numismatics of art, remains always empty? What is the meaning of the discovery that the mirror's secret is its vacancy? A placing of Rossetti's double-pattern of presence mirrored by absence in relation to the long tradition of such doublings may help to unriddle the secret of this secret. My discussion must be brief and incomplete because there would be no end to the labyrinthine wanderings of the critic who attempted the absurd task of a topographical mapping of all the "ways and days" intricately interwoven in this topos of the memorial threshold, window, or glass.
The places within this place would include: the glasses of the Apostle Paul in First and Second Corinthians, with their echo of Genesis, a passage in 1 James (1.21-25); the paradigm of the mirror in Book 10 of The Republic and the mirror in Sophist (239d); the speech of Aristophanes in The Symposium; the Narcissus story in Ovid's Metamorphoses; the great passage on "Speculation" in the interchange between Ulysses and Achilles in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida; Eve's admiration of her own image in Book 4 of Paradise Lost; passages in Rossetti's more imediate predecessors, such as Shelley's "Alastor" and "Epipsychidion"; the Fuseli of so many nightmarish doors, windows, and mirrors; Tennyson's "Mariana" and "The Lady of Shalott." Finally, among Rossetti's contemporaries or successors, there would be: George Meredith, who recapitulates and reinterprets the interplay between Ovid and Milton, Narcissus and Adam, in The Egoist; Baudelaire's Dandy who "doit vivre et dormir devant un miroir";5 Whistler's The Little White Girl and Swinburne's poem on this painting, "Before the Mirror"; Mallarmé's Herodiade; a splendid passage at the beginning of Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd; Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray; Yeats's "Ribh Denounces Patrick"; all those mirrors in Picasso; the eerily uncanny moment in Freud's "Das Unheimliche" when he sees his own image in a mirror but does not recognize it as his own, and detests it (the reverse of the pattern in Rossetti's "The Mirror," where the image is not his own); Benjamin's essay on the photograph and the loss of aura in Baudelaire;6 Beardsley's illustrations for Belinda's toilet in The Rape of the Lock; and lastly all those paradigmatic mirrors of our own day, in Jacques Lacan's "The Mirror Stage," or in Luce Irigaray's Speculum of the other woman, an investigation in part of the whole tradition of the mirror-structure from Plato to Freud as it bears on the question of the male interpretation of sexual difference.7
This seemingly diverse and miscellaneous set of references, discontinuous points in the sky of Western culture, are in fact rigorously organized into a repeated constellation, or rather a double constellation, a Gestaltist duck-rabbit, like that big dipper which is either Charles's wain or the great bear, depending on how one looks at it. In all these texts, a complex asymmetrical structure is present in one form or another, in one degree or another of completion of explicit expression. Indeed, this structure is "fundamental" in all Western "thought" and "literature," in the sense that it both affirms and endangers any fundament or ground. The structure involves a pair which becomes potentially subverted by a triangular relation among three persons or images, though it remains precariously balanced. This stable triangle is then incongruously mirrored in another triangle which parodies it and so undermines its stability.
This complex structure is the speculative as such, the reflective or the theoretical, the positing, hypothetically, as an image, of what may be seen and known, in a movement of thinking and seeing which is also a working or making. This movement goes out from itself in order to strive to return to itself in a confirmation of itself by way of an other which is or should be the perfect image of itself, not really other than itself. Even God, it seems, cannot know himself until he has gone outside himself and so can see himself outside himself.8 Speculation (from speculum, mirror), theory (theoria, seeing, as in "theatrical"), art or poetry (poesis, making), and imitation (mimesis, miming, as in the great mirror/doorway scene in the Marx brothers' Duck Soup)—all come together in the crisscross of reflections in the mirror of this double paradigm.
The pattern of completion within this paradigm is the perfect mirroring of one male figure by another, by its own image in the glass. To the speculative, the theoretical, the poetic, and the mimetic can be added the self-generating, self-sustaining, and constantly self-transcending relation of the dialectical as another name for this system of reflections. The image of the mirrored and mirroring pair, in the tradition of this motif, oscillates between being the mirroring of male by male, in perfect match, Narcissus completing his own image is the pool, and being the mirroring of male by female, in another form of perfect matching, concave matching convex, as in the androgynous couple in Aristophanes' speech in The Symposium.
My focus here will be on a version of this paradigm which in one way or another adds a third figure, Echo in the Narcissus story, the fascinated male watching the woman who is subtly of herself contemplative in Rossetti's poem, or, as in a novel by a male author with a female protagonist, the intimate relation of indirect discourse in which a male narrator follows the thoughts and feelings of the heroine as she thinks about herself, as in the chapter of "Clara's Meditations" in Meredith's The Egoist.
Such a triangle remains stable, a sure support for ontological ground, only so long as it is all male or only so long as the female is defined as the adequate "image" of the male, a case of good rather than bad mimesis. An example of the all-male triangle is the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; the One, his filial image, and the relation between them; or God, his perfect image, the Son, and that creation fabricated by God in the image of the Son, so that the world as a whole and every part of it separately has the countenance of God and is signed with his genuine signature. An example of the second would be the definition of Eve in Paradise Lost as created in the image of Adam, who is in turn created in the image of God: "He for God only. She for God in him."
The female as third, however, or, more dangerously yet, as the doubled pair watched by a male spectator, the woman as two out of three, always introduces the possibility of a mismatching, a deflection of the closed circuit of reflections. The female, according to a sexist tradition going back to Plato and Aristotle, is an imperfect male, missing one member. The female introduces the deconstructing absence, the perpetual too little or too much that makes it impossible for the balance to come right and so keeps the story going, whether it is the story of an unassuaged desire which Rossetti always tells, or whether it is the story of thought which that love story tropologically represents. Theoretically, the woman opens up the triangle beyond any hope of closing it again or of filling the gap. This gap is the echoing cavern where false images are, that place of shades and shadows, for example, in Rossetti's "Love's Nocturn" which doubles the real bodies of men, "as echoes of man's speech / Far in secret clefts are made" (W, p. 71).
It should be clear now, as clear as one's own face in the glass, what this double triangle of mirrored images in Rossetti "means." Or is it? The double triangle records the moment of confrontation with the loss of the Logos—head sense or patron of meaning, caption. Its meaning is the absence of meaning, decapitation, decollation. God in speculation looks at himself in the mirror of the world, having engendered his material counterpart, the creation, by way of his mirror image, the Son. Man, too, along with the rest of the world, is "in the image of God created," as Lilith says sardonically in Rossetti's "Eden Bower" (W, p. 110). Man, then, in imitation of God, as God's mimic or mime, looks in the mirror and sees a sister-image there that does not fit him. Or, in the version of this that has been my interest here, the male writer or artist takes an interest in the situation of the female who looks in the mirror and discovers her lack, the missing man, as when Tennyson's Mariana says, finally, "He will not come." This interest in what is more than or different from himself becomes, for such a male artist, fascination. It is fascination by a plus-value which in the end leads to the loss of all in spend-thrift speculation.
The prolonged instant of specular fascination, drawing the male spectator into the abyss, is a version of what I call "the linguistic moment." This is the moment when signs are cut off from any extralinguistic grounding and become fascinating in themselves, in their self-sustaining and self-annihilating interplay. The momentum of this moment may make it an eternal instant. It becomes the prolonged, persisting time of poise or lack in a present which is no present. It has no presence, since it engages the signs of something missing, that is, signs as such. The sign by definition is the presence of an absence. There is nothing beyond such a moment. It cannot be gone beyond in any dialectical or speculative Aufhebung. It remains balanced interminably in sterile repetition, in a horrible parody of the self-engendering and self-mirroring of God.
The specular encounter, when the male looks in the mirror and does not find his image there, does not even find the answering look of his female counterpart, but sees a woman seeing herself, is the linguistic moment. In this moment occurs the dismantling of that male speculative system which ought to lead to absolute knowledge of the self by itself. Possession becomes dispossession; appropriation, expropriation. The male is entangled in the web of Lady Lilith's hair, drawn by the Siren in the tree into the Orchard Pit, put into a perpetual state of Might-have-been or Might-yet-be. What he writes or paints thereafter is constructed over the abyss of his loss, as Rossetti rescued the manuscript of The House of Life from his self-slain wife's coffin. He had put the manuscript just between her cheek and her hair. Such writing is without ground, like the words whirled by the mocking wind round a chaff-strewn floor in "Memorial Thresholds," in a repetition of the failure of poetic language at the end of Shelley's "Epipsychidion." As in the case of the imagined long love embrace in "The Stream's Secret," the linguistic moment suspends things over the gulf of their absence, as a matter of Might-have-been and Might-yet-be but never Is-now. The Now is an empty mirror, a stream that tells no secrets.
The speculative moment of fullness and its subversive counterpart are necessary to one another. Each implies the other and is surreptitiously present in any of its expressions. Nevertheless, they may not be combined or reconciled in any way, dialectically or otherwise. Rather, they set up in their relation an ungovernable oscillation that inhibits thought from proceeding, short-circuiting it in a feedback phenomenon. One finds oneself in a double blind-alley of thinking and feeling in which one cannot decide which corridor to take, since each corridor leads, manifestly, to a blank wall. Aesthetic art, the art of Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites generally, is, as Pater says, an art which satisfies that strange inversion of homesickness known to some, the desire to get as far away from home, from the "real world," as possible. Home, for Rossetti, figures death, the Orchard Pit. Therefore anyone would wish to escape from it into a world of shadows or of signs referring to prior signs, for example, into that poetry about poetry or strange second flowering after date Pater describes. The world of shadows or of signs, however, lies in the pit. Lilith and her counterparts in Rossetti's work draw men, precisely, into a realm of shadows. Either way, you have had it. The Medusa face of Rossetti's woman, since she draws her power from the annihilating energy of signs, is equally fatal in face-to-face or in mirrored encounter.
To mention Medusa is to remember Freud's "Medusa's Head" and "The Taboo of Virginity."9 According to Freud, the male fears equally that the female will or will not possess the phallus. For Lacan, the phallus is not the penis, but what the penis stands for, the head or source of meaning, and therefore the grounding of the interplay among signs. The double horror of the phallic female makes up an essential part of the mirror structure I am discussing here. It is present, for example, in Herodias' image of herself as a reptile, in Mallarmé's poem, and in the terror that her own hair inspires in her. It is present as one moment in John Hollander's splendid version of the Lilith story in Canto 7 of The Head of the Bed:
He dared not move
Toward her one leg, toward her covered places
Lest he be lost at once, staring at where
Lay, bared in the hardened moonlight, a stump
Pearly and smooth, a tuft of forest grass.10
The emblem of the girl with the penis is present in Rossetti, too, in the Lilith of "Eden Bower," who whispers to the snake: "To thee I come when the rest is over; / A snake was I when thou wast my lover. / I was the fairest snake in Eden" (W, p. 109), or in the monumental figure of Mnemosyne. In Rossetti's painting, the shape and position of Mnemosyne's lamp mime an erect phallus. Rossetti's caption for the painting calls attention to the winged mobility of this oddly shaped lamp: "Thou fill'st from the winged chalice of the soul / Thy lamp, O Memory, fire-winged to its goal" (W, p. 229). The doubleness here is the double-ness of the two-faced coin: the soul, on the one hand, and the source of energy for the activity of memory on the other hand. The relation between soul and memory is that coming and going, toward the past, toward the future, in a perpetual interchange moving toward a "goal" it never reaches, by way of a recollection of the permanent "Might-have-been yet might not be."
In Rossetti's version of the game of "Phallus, Phallus, who's got the Phallus?," the balance among a set of alternating possibilities never comes right. There is always one too many or one too few, not enough to go around, or one left over. This always leaves an Old Maid, or a Wild Card that governs the game but remains outside it, always somewhere else, neither King nor Queen, but Jack of Displacement. If the woman does not have the phallus, there is no ground. If she has it, she must have it as phantasm, as shadow, as that which is never where it is, hence there is no ground. If she has none, then I do, or do I? If she has one, then I must, mustn't I? If she does, then I don't. She's got it. If she doesn't, then I don't, or fear I may not. Either way, I've had it, or haven't had it, in a constant oscillation of possession and dispossession which can never be stilled into a stable, motionless system.
The Medusa solidifies me, turns me to stone, and so, as Freud says, I have no loss to fear. On the other hand, as he also says, my petrifaction is my horror at my confrontation of an absence, and so I fall into the Orchard Pit. On the one hand, art may be the result of the Medusa's effect, a fixed thing in language or in graphic form of what can then safely be confronted in mirror images or in the shadows of art. This submission to the Medusa is both good and bad, both true and false art, undecidably. On the other hand, art may itself be the Medusa's head that petrifies and makes permanent the flowing and the soft, so that Mnemosyne stands there permanently for the beholder safely to see, as though she were reflected in a mirror. This in its turn is both good and bad, both submission to the Lilith figure and triumph over her.
The uncanniness of the double mirroring structure lies in this permanent undecidability. Does the art of poetry which presents this system induce a loss? Does it force me as spectator to submit to Lilith's snare? Or does it ward off this loss apotropaically? Does it serve as a frail screen keeping me from unutterable things? Does it save me by mirroring the Medusa or the Lilith figure, freezing her in the double mirror of an art which moves back and forth from painting to poetry in a play of reflections which does not stay still long enough to be caught? There is no way to tell. It is always both and neither. The mirror keeps its secret to the end.
Medusa, it happens, is present as such in Rossetti's work, present as a double work of art in which picture and verse give form once more to all that double system, the two-faced coin of the mirror motif in Rossetti. This double work of art expresses once more the double attitude toward that double system I have tried to catch. With the final ambiguous admonition of "Aspecta Medusa"—against seeing, against theory, and in praise of mirror images—I shall end:
Andromeda, by Perseus saved and wed,
Hankered each day to see the Gorgon's head:
Till o'er a fount he held it, bade her lean,
And mirrored in the wave was safely seen
That death she lived by.
Let not thine eyes know
Any forbidden thing itself, although
It once should save as well as kill: but be
Its shadow upon life enough for thee.
(W, p. 209)
1 Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "Body's Beauty," ll. 5-8, Sonnet 78, The House of Life in Works, ed. William M. Rossetti (London, 1911), p. 100. Further citations will be from this edition, identified as W, followed by the page number.
2 William Butler Yeats, "The Statues," l. 22, Collected Poems (London, 1950), p. 323.
3 Walter Pater, "Aesthetic Poetry," in Walter Pater: Three Major Texts, ed. William E. Buckler (New York, 1986), p. 520.
4 See A. Dwight Culler's excellent discussion of Rossetti's motifs of the windy and winding stair: "The Windy Stair: An Aspect of Rossetti's Poetic Symbolism," Ventures Magazine 9, no. 2 (1969): 65-75.
5 Charles Baudelaire, Oeuvres Complètes (Paris, 1961), p. 1273.
6 Walter Benjamin, "Über einige Motive bei Baudelaire, " in Illuminationem (Frankfurt am Main, 1969), pp. 201-245; trans. Harry Zohn, "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," in Illuminations (New York, 1969), pp. 155-200.
7 See Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the other woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca, 1985); and Jacques Lacan, "The mirror stage as formative of the function of the 'I,'" in Écrits, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, 1977), pp. 1-7.
8 For the Hegelian recapitulation of this movement of speculation and the word-play it involves, see Jean-Luc Nancy, La remarque spéculative (Paris, 1973).
9 Sigmund Freud, "Medusa's Head," trans. James Strachey, International Journal of psycho-Analysis 22 (1941): 69-70; and "The Taboo of Virginity," trans. James Strachey, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London, 1957), 9:191-208.
10 John Hollander, The Head of the Bed (Boston, 1974), p. 11.
Ernest Fontana (essay date 1992)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1562
SOURCE: "Rossetti's 'On the Field of Waterloo': An Intertextual Reading," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 30, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 179-82.
[In the following essay, Fontana examines Rossetti's "On the Field of Waterloo" in relation to William Wordsworth's earlier poem on the same subject.]
As many of his critics have demonstrated, most recently Antony H. Harrison, 3 forms of intertextuality constitute a central feature of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poetry.1 For Harrison, many of Rossetti's poems, such as "A Portrait" (whose chief pre-text is in his view Browning's "My Last Duchess"), are "deliberate intertexts, works which manipulate palimpsests parodically in order both to resist the social actuality which obsessed his contemporaries and to open up new 'tracks' for future writers." For Harrison, what is distinct about Rossetti's use of intertextuality is its "tentative and oblique repudiation, subversion, and devaluation of conventional ideological statement" and its "reconstitution of ideology in purely aesthetic terms."2
One poem that demonstrates some of the intertextual patterns described by Harrison, but which he ignores, is Rossetti's sonnet "On the Field of Waterloo." Unpublished in Rossetti's lifetime, the sonnet is part of a sequence of verse and prose epistolary travel Notes, written for his brother William Michael, in late September and October of 1849 during his trip to France and Belgium with Holman Hunt, "the longest and most extensive continental wandering" of his life.3
So then, the name which travels side by side
With English life from childhood—Waterloo—
Means this. The sun is setting. "Their strife grew
Till the sunset, and ended," says our guide.
It lacked the "chord" by stage-use sanctified,
Yet I believe one should have thrilled. For me,
I grinned not, and 'twas something;—certainly
These held their point, and did not turn but died:
So much is very well. "Under each span
Of these ploughed fields" ('tis the guide still) "there rot
Three nations' slain, a thousand-thousandfold."
Am I to weep? Good sirs, the earth is old:
Of the whole earth there is no single spot
But hath among its dust the dust of man.4
The most salient pre-text for this sonnet is Wordsworth's sonnet "After Visiting the Field of Waterloo," which appears, as does Rossetti's later poem, in a sequence of travel-inspired verse—in Wordsworth's case Memorials of A Tour on the Continent 1820 (1822). Rossetti's sonnet does not, however, merely reconstitute the ideology of Wordsworth's earlier sonnet "in purely aesthetic terms," but actively questions its universalized humanitarianism.
Significantly, Wordsworth's sonnet is a reflection on feelings after the event, whereas Rossetti's dramatizes in the present tense the feelings of the speaker as he visits the storied field. In the octet of Wordsworth's sonnet the speaker imagines the conventional iconographic personification Victory, "a winged Goddess—clothed in vesture wrought / Of rainbow colours"5 hovering, diaphanously, over the battlefield and, suddenly, vanishing:
She vanished; leaving prospect blank and cold
Of wind-swept corn that wide around us rolled
In dreary billows, wood, and meagre cot,
And monuments that soon must disappear.
The ephemerality and evanescence of the English victory, symbolized by the vanished personification and the "monuments that soon must disappear," are counterposed against images of enduring, but drearily monotonous and repetitive, natural processes that survive the symbols of human ambition, glory, and power. These are the images, not the imagined personification of Victory, that the Wordsworthian speaker encounters directly at Waterloo.
With the coordinate conjunction "Yet," the Italian sonnet turns, belatedly, in meaning in line 10:
Yet a dread local recompense we found;
While glory seemed betrayed, while patriot-zeal
Sank in our hearts, we felt as men should feel
With such vast hoards of hidden carnage near,
And horror breathing from the silent ground!
Although the English speaker does not perceive the "glory" or "patriot-zeal" he anticipated, he feels something more ethical and universally human, "as men should feel." The concluding lines move from the distancing visual imagery of the extended octet to more immediate auditory and kinesthetic imagery. The silence of the field and the buried dead becomes an audible murmur of wasted human life. Instead of the glory of English victory, the speaker feels and hears the horror of human carnage.
For Rossetti's speaker as for Wordsworth's, Waterloo is storied ground; for the later Victorian, a name resonant with associations from childhood. Rossetti's speaker observes his response to both the battlefield and his theatrical guide, who seeks to elicit from the speaker a response of Wordsworthian sublimity. As the sun sets the guide refers to the strife which "grew till sunset." Yet the speaker who "should have thrilled" does not, though he recognizes—with considerable understatement—"'twas something" that the English "held their point, and did not turn but died." In the octet, the speaker fails to respond to the Wordsworthian imperative of sublime, universal human feeling.6 If Wordsworth's speaker and companion "felt as men should feel," Rossetti's speaker fails to thrill as "one should have thrilled"; if Wordsworth italicizes and thereby foregrounds his auxiliary of obligation, Rossetti, in his failure to oblige, does not.
In the sestet of Rossetti's narrative sonnet, the guide continues his attempt to elicit from the Rossettian speaker the appropriate universal, sublime "should" feelings by remarking that the dead of three nations, "a thousand-thousand fold," rot at Waterloo. Once again the speaker does not respond appropriately nor does he know how to respond: "Am I to weep?" He appears to lack the normative human feeling that the Wordsworthian speaker refers to as "what men should feel." The empirical, skeptical Rossettian speaker knows too much to feel as the Wordsworthian speaker, who himself had felt too deeply to respond merely as a conventional and insularly patriotic English visitor. Rossetti's speaker dismisses the Wordsworthian sublime by observing the scientific fact that Waterloo, despite its storied associations, is not unique; the whole earth, not merely Waterloo, is a burial ground: "of the whole earth there is no single spot / But hath among its dust the dust of man."
Rossetti's self-regarding speaker rejects the humanitarian sublimity of Wordsworth's earlier sonnet, which itself had rejected a parochial patriotism, for the sake of a skeptical, anti-ideological empiricism. The fact that the entire earth is a burial ground, and that the visitor who knows this cannot respond to Waterloo as he should—as a dramatic special case—subverts and devalues the ambitious, universalized humanitarianism of Wordsworth's "After Visiting the Field of Waterloo," substituting for it a dogged empiricism of observation and feeling. Rossetti's reevaluation here is not overtly "aesthetic" as Harrison argues are many of Rossetti's post-texts, but empirical to the point of extreme skepticism. "On the Field of Waterloo" "creates the illusion of altogether eliding and superseding ideology," not for the sake of textual "self-reflexivity and circularity" (Harrison, pp. 746, 759), but for the sake of fidelity to both emotional and scientific fact. For Rossetti, Wordsworth was "good, but unbearable" (Letters, 1:361), and it is against this "unbearable" and overbearing universalizing of humanitarian feeling, Wordsworth's emphasis on what man "should feel," that Rossetti's sonnet reacts.7
In the prose section of his letter to his brother (October 18, 1849) that includes this sonnet, Rossetti confesses "Between you and me, William, Waterloo is simply a bore" (Letters, 1:81). This confidence, this "se cret," Rossetti dramatizes and extrapolates, through intertextuality, into an accomplished sonnet utterance. Although sympathetic to the progressive movements of 1848, both to Chartism in England and republicanism in France (Doughty, pp. 71-72), Rossetti's insistence on fidelity to his own inner emotional life rendered him skeptical of political abstractions and the universalizing moral-political discourses of a previous generation, the generation not only of Wordsworth but of his father, a liberal political exile from the post-Napoleonic Naples of Ferdinand IV.8 This skepticism is enacted pointedly in "On the Field of Waterloo."
1 The most complete discussion of sources and influences on Rossetti's poetry is to be found in Florence S. Boos, The Poetry of Dante G. Rossetti: A Critical Reading and Source Study (The Hague, 1976), pp. 259-286.
2 Antony H. Harrison, "Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Parody and Ideology," SEL 29 (1989): 746, 760. See also his Victorian Poets and Romantic Poems (Charlottesville, 1989).
3 Oswald Doughty, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A Victorian Romantic, 2nd ed. (London, 1960), p. 86.
4The Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. Oswald Doughty and John Robert Wahl (Oxford, 1965), 1:80-81. The sonnet was not published in either the 1870 or 1881 editions of Rossetti's poems, nor included in William Michael's 1886 edition of The Collected Works. It first appears in William Michael's edition of The Family Letters (London, 1895), 2:78-79, and has since been reprinted in Doughty's edition of The Letters and as part of the entire verse sequence entitled "A Trip to Paris and Belgium," in The Essential Rossetti, ed. John Hollander (New York, 1990), pp. 112-133.
5William Wordsworth: The Poems, ed. John O. Hayden (New Haven, 1981), 2:411.
6 David G. Riede has noted "a necessary diminishment from the bardic Wordsworthian stance" in Rossetti's poetry (Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Limits of Vic torian Vision [Ithaca, 1983], p. 117).
7 A similar rejection of seer-like generalization can be seen in "The Woodspurge," which David Riede designates a "poetry of nonstatement" (p. 57), "a kind of minimalist poetry" in which "meaning cannot be focused beyond the reach of the senses" (p.58). Riede in his chapter "Diminished Romanticism," from Dante Gabriel Rossetti, argues that in Rossetti's poetry "the more manageable province" of male-female love comes to replace the ambitious Wordsworthian themes of the '"vast empire' of nature and the universal" (p. 121).
8 For an account of Gabriele Rossetti's somewhat operatic political career in Naples, see Doughty, pp. 20-21, pp. 28-29.