Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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Thomas Maitland (essay date October 1871)

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SOURCE: Maitland, Thomas. “The Fleshly School of Poetry: Mr. D. G. Rossetti.” Contemporary Review 18, no. 3 (October 1871): 334-50.

[In the following excerpt, Maitland (a pseudonym of Robert Buchanan), negatively critiques the poetry of Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites.]

If, on the occasion of any public performance of Shakspere's great tragedy, the actors who perform the parts of Rosencranz and Guildenstern were, by a preconcerted arrangement and by means of what is technically known as “gagging,” to make themselves fully as prominent as the leading character, and to indulge in soliloquies and business strictly belonging to Hamlet himself, the result would be, to say the least of it, astonishing; yet a very similar effect is produced on the unprejudiced mind when the “walking gentlemen” of the fleshly school of poetry, who bear precisely the same relation to Mr. Tennyson as Rosencranz and Guildenstern do to the Prince of Denmark in the play, obtrude their lesser identities and parade their smaller idiosyncrasies in the front rank of leading performers. In their own place, the gentlemen are interesting and useful. Pursuing still the theatrical analogy, the present drama of poetry might be cast as follows: Mr. Tennyson supporting the part of Hamlet, Mr. Matthew Arnold that of Horatio, Mr. Bailey that of Voltimand, Mr. Buchanan that of Cornelius, Messrs. Swinburne and Morris the parts of Rosencranz and Guildenstern, Mr. Rossetti that of Osric, and Mr. Robert Lytton that of “A Gentleman.” It will be seen that we have left no place for Mr. Browning, who may be said, however, to play the leading character in his own peculiar fashion on alternate nights.

This may seem a frivolous and inadequate way of opening our remarks on a school of verse-writers which some people regard as possessing great merits; but in good truth, it is scarcely possible to discuss with any seriousness the pretensions with which foolish friends and small critics have surrounded the fleshly school, which, in spite of its spasmodic ramifications in the erotic direction, is merely one of the many sub-Tennysonian schools expanded to supernatural dimensions, and endeavouring by affectations all its own to overshadow its connection with the great original. In the sweep of one single poem, the weird and doubtful “Vivien,” Mr. Tennyson has concentrated all the epicene force which, wearisomely expanded, constitutes the characteristic of the writers at present under consideration; and if in “Vivien” he has indicated for them the bounds of sensualism in art, he has in “Maud,” in the dramatic person of the hero, afforded distinct precedent for the hysteric tone and overloaded style which is now so familiar to readers of Mr. Swinburne. The fleshiness of “Vivien” may indeed be described as the distinct quality held in common by all the members of the last sub-Tennysonian school, and it is a quality which becomes unwholesome when there is no moral or intellectual quality to temper and control it. Fully conscious of this themselves, the fleshly gentlemen have bound themselves by solemn league and covenant 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; and that the poet, properly to develop his poetic faculty, must be an intellectual hermaphrodite, to whom the very facts of day and night are lost in a whirl of aesthetic terminology. … [The] fleshly school of verse-writers are, so to speak, public offenders, because they are diligently spreading the seeds of disease broadcast wherever they are read and understood. Their complaint too is catching, and carries off many young persons. What the complaint is, and how it works, may be seen on a very slight examination of the works of Mr. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. …

[Mr. Rossetti] belongs, or is said to belong, to the so-called Pre-Raphaelite school, a school which is generally considered to exhibit much genius for colour, and great indifference to perspective. … Judged by the photographs [of his paintings], he is an artist who conceives unpleasantly, and draws ill. … [He] is distinctively a colourist, and of his capabilities in colour we cannot speak, though we should guess that they are great; for if there is any good quality by which his poems are specially marked, it is a great sensitiveness to hues and tints as conveyed in poetic epithet. These qualities, which impress the casual spectator of the photographs from his pictures, are to be found abundantly among his verses. There is the same thinness and transparence of design, the same combination of the simple and the grotesque, the same morbid deviation from healthy forms of life, the same sense of weary, wasting, yet exquisite sensuality; nothing virile, nothing tender, nothing completely sane; a superfluity of extreme sensibility, of delight in beautiful forms, hues, and tints, and a deep-seated indifference to all agitating forces and agencies, all tumultuous griefs and sorrows, all the thunderous stress of life, and all the straining storm of speculation. … [The] mind of Mr. Rossetti is like a glassy mere, broken only by the dive of some water-bird or the hum of winged insects, and brooded over by an atmosphere of insufferable closeness, with a light blue sky above it, sultry depths mirrored within it, and a surface so thickly sown with water-lilies that it retains its glassy smoothness even in the strongest wind.

[In “Nuptial Sleep,” Rossetti puts] on record for other full-grown men to read, the most secret mysteries of sexual connection, and that with so sickening a desire to reproduce the sensual mood, so careful a choice of epithet to convey mere animal sensations, that we merely shudder at the shameless nakedness. We are no purists in such matters. We hold the sensual part of our nature to be as holy as the spiritual or intellectual part, and we believe that such things must find their equivalent in all; but it is neither poetic, nor manly, nor even human, to obtrude such things as the themes of whole poems. It is simply nasty.

It must not be supposed that all Mr. Rossetti's poems are made up of trash like this. Some of them are as noteworthy for delicacy of touch as others are for shamelessness of exposition. They contain some exquisite pictures of nature, occasional passages of real meaning, much beautiful phraseology, lines of peculiar sweetness, and epithets chosen with true literary cunning. But the fleshly feeling is everywhere. Sometimes, as in “The Stream's Secret,” it is deliciously modulated, and adds greatly to our emotion of pleasure at perusing a finely-wrought poem; at other times, as in the “Last Confession,” it is fiercely held in check by the exigencies of a powerful situation and the strength of a dramatic speaker; but it is generally in the foreground, flushing the whole poem with unhealthy rose-colour, stifling the senses with overpowering sickliness, as of too much civet. Mr. Rossetti is never dramatic, never impersonal—always attitudinizing, posturing, and describing his own exquisite emotions. … In petticoats or pantaloons, in modern times or in the middle ages, he is just Mr. Rossetti, a fleshly person, with nothing particular to tell us or teach us, with extreme self-control, a strong sense of colour, and a careful choice of diction. Amid all his “affluence of jewel-coloured words,” he has not given us one rounded and noteworthy piece of art, though his verses are all art; not one poem which is memorable for its own sake, and quite separable from the displeasing identity of the composer. The nearest approach to a perfect whole is the “Blessed Damozel,” a peculiar poem. … In spite of its affected title, and of numberless affectations throughout the text, the “Blessed Damozel” has great merits of its own, and a few lines of real genius. … The steadiness of hand lessens as the poem proceeds, and although there are several passages of considerable power …, the general effect is that of a queer old painting in a missal, very affected and very odd. What moved a British critic to ecstasy in this poem seems to us very sad nonsense indeed, or, if not sad nonsense, very meretricious affectation. … On the whole, one feels disheartened and amazed at the poet who, in the nineteenth century, talks about “damozels,” “citherns,” and “citoles,” and addresses the mother of Christ as the “Lady Mary.” … A suspicion is awakened that the writer is laughing at us. We hover uncertainly between picturesqueness and namby-pamby, and the effect, as Artemus Ward would express it, is “weakening to the intellect.” The thing would have been almost too much in the shape of a picture, though the workmanship might have made amends.

We would rather believe that Mr. Rossetti lacks comprehension than that he is deficient in sincerity; yet really, to paraphrase the words which Johnson applied to Thomas Sheridan, Mr. Rossetti is affected, naturally affected, but it must have taken him a great deal of trouble to become what we now see him—such an excess of affectation is not in nature. There is very little writing in [Poems] spontaneous in the sense that some of Swinburne's verses are spontaneous; the poems all look as if they had taken a great deal of trouble. … Mr. Rossetti is a poet possessing great powers of assimilation and some faculty for concealing the nutriment on which he feeds. … [He] may be described as a writer who has yielded to an unusual extent to the complex influences of the literature surrounding him at the present moment. He has the painter's imitative power developed in proportion to his lack of the poet's conceiving imagination. He reproduces to a nicety the manner of an old ballad, a trick in which Mr. Swinburne is also an adept. Cultivated readers, moreover, will recognise in every one of these poems the tone of Mr. Tennyson broken up by the style of Mr. and Mrs. Browning, and disguised here and there by the eccentricities of the Pre-Raphaelites. … [That] the sonnets have been largely moulded and inspired by Mrs. Browning can be ascertained by any critic who will compare them with the “Sonnets from the Portuguese.” Much remains, nevertheless, that is Mr. Rossetti's own. We at once recognise as his own property such passages as this:—

                                                                                I looked up
And saw where a brown-shouldered harlot leaned
Half through a tavern window thick with vine.
Some man had come behind her in the room
And caught her by her arms, and she had turned
With that coarse empty laugh on him, as now
He munched her neck with kisses, while the vine
Crawled in her back.

Or this:—

As I stooped, her own lips rising there
          Bubbled with brimming kisses at my mouth.

Or this:—…

What more prize than love to impel thee,
Grip and lip my limbs as I tell thee.

Passages like these are the common stock of the walking gentlemen of the fleshly school. We cannot forbear expressing our wonder, by the way, at the kind of women whom it seems the unhappy lot of these gentlemen to encounter. We have lived as long in the world as they have, but never yet came across persons of the other sex who conduct themselves in the manner described. Females who bite, scratch, scream, bubble, munch, sweat, writhe, twist, wriggle, foam, and in a general way slaver over their lovers, must surely possess some extraordinary qualities to counteract their otherwise most offensive mode of conducting themselves. It appears, however, on examination that their poet-lovers conduct themselves in a similar manner. They, too, bite, scratch, scream, bubble, munch, sweat, writhe, twist, wriggle, foam, and slaver, in a style frightful to hear of. … We get very weary of this protracted hankering after a person of the other sex; it seems meat, drink, thought, sinew, religion for the fleshly school. There is no limit to the fleshliness, and Mr. Rossetti finds in it its own religious justification. … Whether he is writing of the holy Damozel, or of the Virgin herself, or of Lilith, or Helen, or of Dante, or of Jenny the streetwalker, he is fleshly all over, from the roots of his hair to the tip of his toes; never a true lover merging his identity into that of the beloved one; never spiritual, never tender; always self-conscious and aesthetic. … “Jenny” [is] in some respects the finest poem in the volume, and in all respects the poem best indicative of the true quality of the writer's humanity. It is a production which bears signs of having been suggested by Mr. Buchanan's quasi-lyrical poems, which it copies in the style of title, and particularly by “Artist and Model.” …

What we object to in this poem is not the subject, which any writer may be fairly left to choose for himself; nor anything particularly vicious in the poetic treatment of it; nor any bad blood bursting through in special passages. But the whole tone, without being more than usually coarse, seems heartless. There is not a drop of piteousness in Mr. Rossetti. He is just to the outcast, even generous; severe to the seducer; sad even at the spectacle of lust in dimity and fine ribbons. Notwithstanding all this, and a certain delicacy and refinement of treatment unusual with this poet, the poem repels and revolts us, and we like Mr. Rossetti least after its perusal. We are angry with the fleshly person at last. The “Blessed Damozel” puzzled us, the “Song of the Bower” amused us, the love-sonnet depressed and sickened us, but “Jenny,” though distinguished by less special viciousness of thought and style than any of these, fairly makes us lose patience. We detect its fleshliness at a glance; we perceive that the scene was fascinating less through its human tenderness than because it, like all the others, possessed an inherent quality of animalism.

D. G. Rossetti (essay date 16 December 1871)

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SOURCE: Rossetti, D. G. “The Stealthy School of Criticism.” Athenaeum 2303 (16 December 1871): 792-94.

[In the following excerpt, Rossetti rebukes the criticism aimed at him by Thomas Maitland (Robert Buchanan) in “The Fleshly School of Poetry.”]

Your paragraph, a fortnight ago, relating to the pseudonymous authorship of an article, violently assailing myself and other writers of poetry, in the Contemporary Review for October last, reveals a species of critical masquerade which I have expressed in the heading given to this letter. …

The primary accusation, on which this writer grounds all the rest, seems to be that others and myself “extol fleshliness as the distinct and supreme end of poetic and pictorial art; 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.” … It is true, some fragmentary pretence at proof is put in here and there throughout the attack, and thus far an opportunity is given of contesting the assertion.

A Sonnet, entitled ‘Nuptial Sleep’ is quoted and abused at page 338 of the Review, and is there dwelt upon as a “whole poem,” describing “merely animal sensations.” It is no more a whole poem in reality, than is any single stanza of any poem throughout the book. The poem, written chiefly in sonnets, and of which this is one sonnet-stanza, is entitled ‘The House of Life’; and even in my first published instalment of the whole work [titled ‘Love-Sweetness’] ample evidence is included that no such passing phase of description as the one headed ‘Nuptial Sleep’ could possibly be put forward by the author of ‘The House of Life’ as his own representative view of the subject of love. In proof of this, I will direct attention (among the love-sonnets of this poem) to Nos. 2, 8, 11, 17, 28, and more especially 13, which, indeed, I had better print here.


Sweet dimness of her loosened hair's downfull
          About thy face; her sweet hands round thy head
          In gracious fostering union garlanded;
Her tremulous smiles; her glances' sweet recall
Of love; her murmuring sighs memorial;
          Her mouth's culled sweetness by thy kisses shed
          On cheeks and neck and eyelids, and so led
Back to her mouth which answers there for all:—
What sweeter than these things, except the thing
          In lacking which all these would lose their sweet:—
          The confident hearts still fervour; the swift beat
And soft subsidence of the spirit's wing,
Then when it feels, in cloud-girt wayfaring,
          The breath of kindred plumes against its feet?

Any reader may bring any artistic charge he pleases against [this] sonnet; but one charge it would be impossible to maintain against the writer of the series in which it occurs, and that is, the wish on his part to assert that the body is greater than the soul. For here all the passionate and just delights of the body are declared—somewhat figuratively, it is true, but unmistakably—to be as naught if not ennobled by the concurrence of the soul at all times. Moreover, nearly one half of this series of sonnets has nothing to do with love, but treats of quite other life-influences. I would defy any one to couple with fair quotation of Sonnets 29, 30, 31, 39, 40, 41, 43, or others, the slander that their author was not impressed, like all other thinking men, with the responsibilities and higher mysteries of life. …

At page 342, an attempt is made to stigmatize four short quotations as being specially “my own property,” that is, (for the context shows the meaning,) as being grossly sensual; though all guiding reference to any precise page or poem in my book is avoided here. The first of these unspecified quotations is from the ‘Last Confession,’ and is the description referring to the harlot's laugh, the hideous character of which, together with its real or imagined resemblance to the laugh heard soon afterwards from the lips of one long cherished as an ideal, is the immediate cause which makes the maddened hero of the poem a murderer. Assailants may say what they please; but no poet or poetic reader will blame me for making the incident recorded in these seven lines as repulsive to the reader as it was to the hearer and beholder. Without this, the chain of motive and result would remain obviously incomplete. …

A second quotation gives the last two lines only of the … sonnet which is the first of four sonnets in ‘The House of Life’ jointly entitled ‘Willowwood.’ …

And as I stooped, her own lips rising there
          Bubbled with brimming kisses at my mouth.

The critic has quoted (as I said) only the last two lines, and he has italicized the second as something unbearable and ridiculous. Of course the inference would be that this was really my own absurd bubble-and-squeak notion of an actual kiss. The reader will perceive at once, from the whole sonnet …, how untrue such an inference would be. The sonnet describes a dream or trance of divided love momentarily re-united by the longing fancy; and in the imagery of the dream, the face of the beloved rises through deep dark waters to kiss the lover. Thus the phrase, “Bubbled with brimming kisses,” & c., bears purely on the special symbolism employed, and from that point of view will be found, I believe, perfectly simple and just.

A third quotation is from ‘Eden Bower,’ and says

What more prize than love to impel thee?
Grip and lip my limbs as I tell thee!

Here again no reference is given, and naturally the reader would suppose that a human embrace is described. The embrace, on the contrary, is that of a fabled snake-woman and a snake. It would be possible still, no doubt, to object on other grounds to this conception; but the ground inferred and relied on for full effect by the critic is none the less an absolute misrepresentation. These three extracts, it will be admitted, are virtually, though not verbally, garbled with malicious intention; and the same is the case, as I have shown, with the sonnet called ‘Nuptial Sleep’ when purposely treated as a “whole poem.” …

It would be humiliating, need one come to serious detail, to have to refute such an accusation as that of “binding oneself by solemn league and convenant to extol fleshliness as the distinct and supreme end of poetic and pictorial art”; and one cannot but feel that here every one will think it allowable merely to pass by with a smile the foolish fellow who has brought a charge thus framed against any reasonable man. … 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, impossible to be put forward except in the indulgence of prejudice or rancour.

I have selected, amid much railing or my critic's part, what seemed the most representative indictment against me, and have, so far, answered it. Its remaining clauses set forth how others and myself “aver that poetic expression is greater than poetic thought … and sound superior to sense”—an accusation elsewhere, I observe, expressed by saying that we “wish to create form for its own sake.” … [The accusation] is not against the poetic value of certain work, but against its primary and (by assumption) its admitted aim. And to this I must reply that so far, assuredly, not even Shakespeare himself could desire more arduous human tragedy for development in Art than belongs to the themes I venture to embody, however incalculably higher might be his power of dealing with them. What more inspiring for poetic effort than the terrible Love turned to Hate,—perhaps the deadliest of all passion-woven complexities,—which is the theme of ‘Sister Helen,’ and, in a more fantastic form, of ‘Eden Bower,’—the surroundings of both poems being the mere machinery of a central universal meaning? What, again, more so than the savage penalty exacted for a lost ideal, as expressed in the ‘Last Confession’;—than the outraged love for man and burning compensations in art and memory of ‘Dante at Verona’;—than the baffling problems which the face of ‘Jenny’ conjures up;—or than the analysis of passion and feeling attempted in ‘The House of Life,’ and others among the more purely lyrical poems? I speak here, as does my critic in the clause adduced, of aim not of achievement; and so far, the mere summary is instantly subversive of the preposterous imputation.

As for any literary justice to be done on this particular Mr. Robert-Thomas, I will merely ask the reader whether, once identified, he does not become manifestly his own best “sworn tormentor”? For who will then fail to discern all the palpitations which preceded his final resolve in the great question whether to be or not to be his acknowledged self when he became an assailant? And yet this is he who, from behind his mask, ventures to charge another with “bad blood,” with “insincerity,” and the rest of it (and that where poetic fancies are alone in question); while every word on his own tongue is covert rancour, and every stroke from his pen perversion of truth.

Principal Works

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Poems 1870

Ballads and Sonnets 1881

Ballads and Narrative Poems 1893

Sonnets and Lyrical Poems 1894

The Complete Poetical Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1903

“Hand and Soul” (short story) 1850

Florence Saunders Boos (essay date 1976)

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SOURCE: Boos, Florence Saunders. “Style In ‘The House of Life’.” In The Poetry of Dante G. Rossetti: A Critical Reading and Source Study, pp. 88-91. Hague: Mouton & Co. B. V., Publishers, 1976.

[In the following excerpt, Boos discusses love and sexuality in Rossetti's The House of Life.]

“Love” in Rosetti, as in almost all nineteenth-century poets, is a metaphor for all that is best and most concentrated in life—memory, sensuousness, idealism, the aesthetic and the intense. Whereas in Keats' poetry the knowledge of warm human love seemed of greater significance even than death, and to Peter and certain Decadents aesthetic experience or love was the self-expression of a private identity perpetually verging on extinction, Rossetti offered a middle view; private experience must involve some other human being or be a response, even if purely subjective and internal, to a minimally social relation. Yet he considered the possibility that even this experience might be nullified by death or error, or might only be able to exist in painfully uncertain and attenuated forms.

An ambiguity pervades the sequence, however, as the result of Rossetti's unclarified and perhaps inconsistent attitude toward sexual love. In his narratives and ballads sexuality is more frequently and overtly associated with moral guilt, although considered inevitable. “The House of Life”, by contrast, has virtually no moral context; whether the love it celebrates is socially appropriate or “caused” is not explained. The relative absence of value judgments in this sequence and in some of the exotic ballads may explain their greater popularity with the Decadents and later Victorian readers. However one of the sequence's principal obsessions is guilt. The cause of this guilt is never stated, but I feel it is some combination of regret for lost time or opportunity and diffused suggestions of an inevitable taint imposed upon all sexual emotion.

This diffused guilt evokes accusing voices or presences imaging one or several “other” selves. At first Rossetti's “other” self had been associated with images of the beloved and the (indirectly, limitedly) attainable; at the end the non-selves have become a hovering dissolution and guilt, and the tiny self in a house of mirrors quivers beneath the toweringly magnified spectres. In my opinion death is covertly associated with guilt throughout the entire sequence. The many shadowed veils, dim reflections, and frail screens could well be coverings for an irrational, nebulous, contextless guilt. Love and the beloved seem always to suggest time passing, death, separation, the highest intensities of a doomed life. Even though only a few sonnets directly interweave the sense of guilt for lost time, death, and romantic love, to Rossetti erotic love is consistently, among other things, the concentrated symbol of the obscenely hastening hour.

In “The House of Life” Rossetti has associated, in the shifting way in which possibly they were experienced, several of the most recurrent Victorian preoccupations and perceptions—the fragmentation of the self through temporality, guilt-in-isolation, and the strangulation of all sex, art, love, and pleasant nature, not only by bourgeois convention, but by the great gray blankness of the cold and faceless world:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams. …
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain. …

(Arnold, “Dover Beach”)

He is not here; but far away
          The noise of life begins again,
          And ghastly thro' the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

(Tennyson, “In Memoriam”, st. 7)

The preoccupation with marriage, evident in the Victorian novel and to a lesser extent also throughout Victorian poetry, seems clearly the attempt to erect a symbolic working agreement between the private self and convention, and between sexuality and the existence of another ego. It was assumed that the feminine ego was to be subsumed into the masculine; at best the married partners provided each other defense against transience, guilt, and confusion of identity, forming together a larger subdivided ego with which to oppose a frigid, hostile world.

Victorian society has been attacked for its doctrinaire exaltation of individualism; it must be remembered that the few educated Victorians who were impelled to record their emotions also found this atomization deeply painful; much of the intensity of Victorian literature comes from this constant sensation of pain. To shore himself against ruin each must emphasize the quality and value of his own “soul”, his discrete self—therefore the Rossettian magnifying, cavernous, and inexhaustible horror when the self begins to divide or dissipate or blur.

It has been many times noticed that Victorians struggled to interfuse past and present, and there is no need to belabor Rossetti's concern with memory and “eternal moments”. No one can explain why suddenly in the nineteenth century individuals became more aware of history, progression in time, and therefore of their own constant progression, moment by moment, towards death and away from memory.1 But all poetic evidence testifies to the intense preoccupation with youth and the dawn of consciousness, the intense fear of time; and perhaps Victorian science, historicism, and religious doubt were results as well as causes of this anxiety. History no longer seemed a simple Augustinian progression, but a resurgence before decay; no wonder it was hard to believe that a non-historical heaven would suddenly climax and transform this slow unwinding into a completely different state of existence. Intensity gave man a sense of his own significance, his own ability to unite several levels of time (or cyclic recurrences) at once, or even be “above” time, more complex (and therefore more enduring?) than simple history. Also intensity was “instantaneous”—thus, as nearly as possible, not in time at all.

The connection of the self and sexuality is a more elusive psychological problem, needing more than a knowledge of Victorian literature to explain. It seems to me, though, that parts of the Freudian model serve accurately for at least three poets of the period—Tennyson, Arnold, and Rossetti. All three considered the early poetic or sensitive self to be largely directed towards a sensual or sexual vision (Arnold, “The Strayed Reveller”, “A Summer Night”; Tennyson, “A Vison of Sin”) and in varying degrees all felt both pride and guilt in these sensations. Several early Tennyson poems present not art (as often claimed) but sloth as the enemy to be overcome—and sloth is allied with sexuality, as it is later in the Idylls. Yet (shallow) visions of women had formed much of Tennyson's early poetic exercises (“Claribel”, “Adeline”, “Margaret”, “The Ballad of Oriana”, “Rosalind”, “Eleanore”, “Lilian”, “Kate”). To him duty demanded both that he write and that he exorcise his “libidinous” visions; he did both, but since the visions and his art were the same impulse, much of his later work seems as though something has been drained from it. Arnold also successfully learns to espouse seeing life steadily in a world exorcised of the intense visions of Marguerite and an alter ego of free beauty. (Empedocles, Sohrab, and Rustum seem personae who suffer from emotional atrophy as a result of similar successes).

Rossetti is the only mid-Victorian poet who expresses throughout all his poetry the intuition that love, art, and guilt must be allied. He must be given a certain intellectual credit for not sorting out these inherent confusions in the stringently damaging ways necessary to most other Victorians; he did not immediately set a guard of order and calm on his own psyche's unpleasant multitudinousness; he sensed that art must reflect inner truth whatever the limitations or incompatibilities it recorded. Rossetti's association of love-sex-guilt-art may explain why he was so violently praised by his immediate successors, but also why in this century he has seemed remote to critics until recently. Miyoshi's irritated eruption at Rossetti's confusion of body and spirit2 is possibly because to him no metaphysical problem surrounds their relation, and he cannot understand Rossett's vague distress. But granted Victorian terminology their relations were inexplicable, and it was necessary to postulate both a merging of spirit and matter and the ability of each to carry what had formerly been the separate values of the other.

Other critics, too, have spoken of Rossettian inconsistency and the insignificance of his themes—for example, Weatherby and Baum. While mid-twentieth-century discussions of Rossetti either tend to repeat and expound his themes directly within their own context (passion and death ad nauseam) or dismiss them as inconsistent, Victorians such as Swinburne recognized what to them was the accuracy of linking conscious life to the guilty unconscious. Human beings may still flee a guilty unconscious, but it is not necessarily assumed to be embodied in an idealized / sexual woman image. Portnoy or Herzog seem more concerned about whether they have failed a tradition or denied a series of values; not the love vision but their own sagacity or potency or social awareness has failed. And then there is what I predict will be an ever lengthening line of middle-aged heroes suffering from Liberal Guilt—having denied a fragmentarily glimpsed vision, they meditate on present entropy.

Rossetti's emphasis on the abstraction Love or the Lady can seem too easy a projection of the ideal for the self onto the object desired, an oversimplified dualism. However, it can be placed in an extensive tradition of Victorian preoccupations with the split, twin, and guilty double attempting reunion with the conscious self. Rossetti deserves to be taken seriously on his own terms, though they are difficult to define. One senses that Rossetti is using a psychological language rendered suddenly dated by changes in taste, but not sufficiently dated to grant him the distancing analysis accorded other presumedly more typical Victorians.


  1. Both Jerome Buckley's The Triumph of Time (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard, 1966) and Barbara Charlesworth's Dark Passages: The Decadent Consciousness in Victorian Literature (Madison and Milwaukee: University of Wisconsin, 1965) treat these shifts in time-sense during the Victorian period.

  2. Maseo Miyoshi The Divided Self, 252, 253-257.

Miriam Fuchs (essay date spring 1983)

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SOURCE: Fuchs, Miriam. “Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Caught Between Two Centuries.” Victorian Newsletter no. 63 (spring 1983): 3-7.

[In the following essay, Fuchs considers Rossetti's place in literature, contending that “his attempt to push against the limitations of his art reveal that he was caught between the nineteenth century and the stirrings of modernism.”]

An awareness of a particularly striking correspondence in Rossetti's work can increase our appreciation of the man responsible for creating the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood. The sonnets of “The House of Life” tend to be densely packed with figurative language, and the paintings of the late 1850s tend to be crowded with objects, details, and patterns. Critics may view these qualities as flaws, but, if so, they are important flaws that suggest Rossetti's instincts were beyond his ability to give them specific form. He was not just a late Romantic or even a later medievalist, preoccupied with various blessed damozels. The “women and flowers” side of Rossetti, as William Bell Scott called it, reflects the past and is obvious. The side that looks to the future is more subtle. Rossetti was no Picasso, and comparing his achievements to Pound's or Eliot's would be inappropriate, but knowingly or unknowingly Rossetti's sensibility was moving toward modernism. Twentieth-century authors and artists consciously burst through their traditions to use myth, psychology, non-literal and non-linear modes to vitalize their works. Rossetti never went this far, but his attempts to push against the limitations of his art reveal that he was caught between the nineteenth century and the stirrings of modernism.

The highly charged, compact sonnets of “The House of Life” have always presented problems for readers who attempt a full explication. “Stillborn Love” and “Transfigured Life,” for example, are heavy with figurative language that bridges the earthly to the heavenly and the abstract to the concrete.1 Critics have noted that sonnets such as “Supreme Surrender,” “Cloud and Wind,” “From Dawn to Noon,” “Bridal Birth,” and “The Vase of Life” contain so many dichotomies that careful readers are compelled to search behind the elliptical surface for an internal logic.2 Sometimes they find it, yet other times Rossetti's progression of thought is unclear.

The dense language of some of the sonnets can be compared to the crowded surfaces of Rossetti's watercolors of the late 1850s. Even a cursory study of The Tune of the Seven Towers, Sir Galahad at the Ruined Chapel, Before the Battle, and The Wedding of St. George and the Princess Sabra reveals flat planes and sharply juxtaposed forms.3 Patterns are enclosed by firm lines in disregard of traditional perspective. Like readers of the poetry, viewers of the watercolors search for the logic behind the elaborate surface, often concluding that conventions of space have been ignored.

In both mediums, then, Rossetti pushes his material to the surface. The figurative level in the sonnets can be disturbingly immediate, making it difficult for one particular thought to dominate. Bringing the figurative forward in a poem is analogous to moving the background forward in a painting. Distant objects appear enlarged or distorted. Without clear recession, there is no spatial hierarchy. Elements converge on a single plane, causing equalization. Walter Pater, who admired Rossetti's verse, pointed out how easily this equalization could become a problem. In writing about “The House of Life,” Pater cited Rossetti's reliance on figurative devices, primarily personification. This technique allows a poet to expand allusively on his main idea, but it must be used skillfully. Pater felt that Rossetti's personifications were overpowering because of “a forced and almost grotesque materialising of abstractions.”4 He summed up the effect of Rossetti's indulgence by declaring personifications to be creatures apt to destroy their creator: “[They took] hold upon [Rossetti] with the force of a Frankenstein, when once they have taken life from him.”5

“Stillborn Love” illustrates how bringing the figurative to the surface creates a crowded poetic line. The lovers' union is characterized as a single “hour” that has not yet occurred and may never come to pass—in other words, might be stillborn:

The hour which might have been yet might not be,
          Which man's and woman's heart conceived and
          Yet whereof life was barren,—on what shore
Bides it the breaking of Time's weary sea?

Since these lines suggest both physical and spiritual conception, it is not surprising that the unborn “hour” acquires human traits:

Bondchild of all consummate joys set free,
          It somewhere sighs and serves, and mute before
          The house of Love, hears through the echoing door
His hours elect in choral consonancy.

Although the “bondchild” (the “hour,” the lovers' union) has not been born, it sighs and serves. This is the degree of poetic anthropomorphism that Pater compared to a Frankenstein. The personification seems too concrete, especially for the delicate, tentative opening line. In the sestet, the “hour” is no longer stillborn; the lovers' spirits and bodies are “wedded souls now hand in hand / Together tread at last the immortal strand / With eyes where burning memory lights love home?” Rossetti often wrote of transcendent union, but in this instance the spiritual and physical are only juxtaposed, not united. The final line of the sestet makes the two levels even more disjunct. The personification, the “child,” leaps into a material existence by jumping out at the lovers to declare: “‘I am your child: O parents, ye have come!’” This speech, uttered from what began thirteen lines earlier as an unborn hour, creates a startling immediacy. Since most of the sonnet subtly explores the uncertainty between potential and fulfillment, this leap into actuality is unsettling.

Bringing the figurative forward in “Transfigured Life” creates a similar effect, though not so stark. The sonnet describes the relationship between a work of art and its creator's emotions. Specifically, a “song” derives from “the singer's Joy and Pain,” but the emotions are absorbed into the art. The octet concentrates on the figurative level as Rossetti uses a child as a means of comparison. The mother's and father's features are visible in their child, but in time those features will blend and change into “a separate man's or woman's countenance.” Just as the child in the octet transfigures qualities of its parents,

So in the Song, the singer's Joy and Pain,
          Its very parents, evermore expand
To bid the passion's fullgrown birth remain,
          By art's transfiguring essence subtly spanned;
          And from that song-cloud shaped as a man's hand
There comes the sound as of abundant rain.

Why does Rossetti introduce an additional figurative level in the above sestet? Why does he start with the parent/child relation, move to the emotion/song relation, and finally end with the cloud/rain relation? Because the “song-cloud” is compared to a hand, Rossetti may have wanted the art of writing to be even more explicit, but including so much in a single sonnet, especially in the last two lines, is not without its price. Instead of being suggestive, the closing sound of rain is literal and immediate, overpowering all that precedes it. The rain is not absorbed into the overall structure.

The effect on the reader of a sonnet such as this is likely to be uncertainty or disorientation. Additional readings are necessary in a search for clues to the weather metaphor, for transitions, for formal logic. For comprehensive treatments of Rossetti's sonnet sequence readers should consult full length studies of his poetry.6 Juxtaposed images and tight, elliptical poetic lines are difficult and complex to analyze; my purpose here is to indicate a tendency towards compactness in the sonnets, because it appears in corresponding form in the paintings.

The watercolors of the late 1850s exhibit a similar equalization of elements. They lack what Ortega y Gasset calls a “luminous hero,” a central figure created by a vanishing point that establishes an optical hierarchy.7 The most obvious aspect of a luminous hero is centrality, which causes it to remain apart from (though in formal relation to) other objects. In watercolors such as The Tune of the Seven Towers, Before the Battle, and Sir Galahad at the Ruined Chapel, foregrounds blend with backgrounds. An optical hierarchy depends on recession, and in these works recession is superseded by overlapping or juxtaposed areas. Although there are central figures, they do not illuminate a spatial sequence. Painted according to formula, the figures lack individuality; sculptured faces, long noses, and angular chins are everywhere. In The Tune of the Seven Towers, for example, the faces are interchangeable.

Equalization caused by spatial ambiguity and standardized human figures helps make color the outstanding quality of these works. Details of what would ordinarily be blurred are clear and brilliant. Instead of having just one “luminous” section, each painting is like a jewel with an omnipresent glow. The heightened details even lend a tactile quality to the objects, yet the final effect is a lack of clarity. In Sir Galahad at the Ruined Chapel an interior is hard to distinguish from an exterior. In The Tune of the Seven Towers a human figure momentarily looks like a portrait. In Before the Battle the outdoor landscape is, in fact, a hanging tapestry. This evidence of Rossetti's preoccupation with visual and tactile surfaces is analogous to his concern with tight poetic lines. In both cases, inner structure is subordinate to outer complexity.

Similar characteristics are found in The Tune of the Seven Towers. No clear vanishing point establishes a visual sequence, and very little is blurred to indicate distance. If the male and female are “luminous heroes,” then they are confusing ones. Without foreshortening, the expanse of his legs is too broad and his shoulder too large. Physical space seems more adequately organized by the staff that rests diagonally across the picture than by the figures. All objects appear behind the staff—until the viewer's eye follows the staff to the banner hanging from the top. First the banner seems in the immediate foreground; then its fringes falling between the man's legs push the banner back. A third glance displaces the banner to the distant background; a fourth glance blends the banner into the wooden framework of the bed. Thus, spatial relations do not stay put. The window behind the standing woman gives a faint suggestion of depth but it dissolves into the pattern of the wall. The coiled design of the floor mitigates against any recession. The back portion of the room, consisting of horizontal and vertical panels, converges to the same plane as the wall with the small opening. Sections in every part of this painting seem to blend, depending on which area the viewer examines.

These same qualities occur in The Wedding of St. George and the Princess Sabra, where there are even fewer vestiges of recession. The composition consists of what look like superimposed rectangles. One rectangle is bordered on top by St. George's knees; a second bordered by his shoulder; a third by the saints' heads; a fourth by the back wall. Thus, objects appear above and below but not in front of or behind one another. Which figures are inside and which are outside? If the two attending angels are indoors, where is the edifice between them? If they are outdoors, then St. George and the princess must be indoors, but how can the horizontal hedge of foliage be inside? How can two figures sit in a chair that lacks dimensions? Since its decorative pattern obliterates the boundary between front and side, the chair is drained of volume. An early sketch of this watercolor shows a man and woman resting on a chair that does indeed have three dimensions. Rossetti purposely flattened the depth by lavishing detail on the surface.

Despite the overpowering horizontal lines, St. George and his princess could have acquired a coherent centrality by their actions. The narrative aspects could have subordinated the symbolic and decorative. However, the action of the princess—cutting a lock of hair—hardly seems the point. Her frozen movement is one of the very last details a viewer notices, and the princess herself appears to slip behind the massive frame of St. George. Like the other watercolors of this period, St. George and the Princess Sabra is remarkable for its fine detail and color, but not for visual coherence.

The puzzling qualities of these works should make us wonder how the PreRaphaelite insistence on “truth to nature” led to such stylized, decorative art. Rossetti felt that the formula used since the Renaissance for creating depth and distance was restricting. Thus, he tried to avoid the fixed horizontal and the vanishing point because they schematized pictorial elements until there was, as Marshall McLuhan described it: “A piazza for everything and everything in its piazza.”8 Rossetti looked instead to fourteenth-century Italian painters such as Duccio and Cimabue and fifteenth-century Flemish painters such as Van Eyck, and Rogier Van Der Weyden. (Rossetti and Hunt admired these works when they visited Paris, Brussels, Bruges, and Ghent in 1849.)9 The Flemish artists in particular painted faithfully even the smallest objects just as they existed, but not as those objects could be seen from a fixed position on space. The view from one pair of mortal eyes is limited, but the Flemish Masters rendered what they knew existed as opposed to what they could actually see. Thus, visual/tactile exaggeration, disjunctive planes, meticulous details, and lack of recession were not just decorative. They were a means of presenting visually a belief shared by the community. Each separate object was a divine miracle, and each symbol had spiritual significance. Visual discrepancy was a way for the painter to suggest God's omnipresence. The purpose of “pure” visual accuracy was to communicate a profound religious message.

In contrast, Rossetti's works seem private and sometimes obscure. His art was not a direct tribute to God; Rossetti's life was far too secular for that, and religious symbols, especially in his paintings, were difficult to decipher. Disjunctive elements and exaggerated details did not reflect an overwhelming sense of the divine but were instead built on Rossetti's original purpose of visual accuracy and truthfulness to nature. As long as vision remained his goal, Rossetti would always distort it by trying to capture all of it. He needed new principles of organization, but his talent led to quick, startling images and insights, not to methodically presented concepts. Rossetti was caught within traditional patterns of perception and form, yet there is another way to look at his work, and this way reveals a subtle link to the future.

In “The Dehumanization of Art,” Ortega y Gasset explains metaphor, the traditional device of poets, as a bridge to the modern sensibility:

All our other faculties keep us within the realm of the real, of what is already there. The most we can do is to combine things or to break them up. The metaphor alone furnishes an escape; between real things, it lets emerge imaginary reefs, a crop of floating islands.10

Metaphor provides a high degree of “escape” since its link to the real is always implicit, and all figurative language helps dissolve literal and visual solidity. Viewed this way, Rossetti's habit to use various figurative or imaginary elements—without necessarily returning to his literal starting point—acquires an interesting logic. He was pushing his work out of “the [traditional] realm of the real” and setting it afloat among those “imaginary reefs.” Thus, Rossetti was approaching more fluid modes of organization without realizing it. Continuing to depart from visual and literal reality could have been a crucial step in reaching other non-literal schemes—myth, memory, dream, fantasy, alternation of past and present, simultaneity of times. Any of these would have afforded greater freedom, but Rossetti never consciously left behind his allegiance to the visual, and in this respect he was strictly a nineteenth-century artist. His methods may suggest a struggle toward innovation, but it would require Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Cezanne, Gris, and Picasso to build on the discoveries of science and physics; it would take a few more decades for visual reality to look trivial, even archaic, regardless of how it was organized.

Rossetti pushed against traditional forms almost as often as he used them. His sonnets are ready to burst from complicated imagery and syntax. His watercolors are surprisingly small considering how much Rossetti managed to fit in them. The Tune of the Seven Towers is approximately 12 by 14 inches; The Wedding of St. George is 13[frac12] by 13[frac12]; Sir Galahad at the Ruined Chapel is 11[frac12] by 13[frac12]. Rossetti often used small and restricting forms, but they did not help him to make a final break the way Japanese drama and literature helped Pound and African art helped Picasso. Like theirs, his aesthetic sensibility inclined toward new ways of perceiving and organizing, but Rossetti could not refine his instincts to develop new forms. He did not consistently fuse the literal and the figurative in his sonnets, nor did he leave behind the literal. And he did not dissolve his solid planes and patterns into the conceptual realm the way the Cubists did. The Four Quartets, the Cantos, and Picasso's cubist canvases and collages are controlled by larger and more profound methods than Rossetti ever imagined. Rossetti may not have recognized that time, history, a single event, or a single object could be rendered according to how the mind perceives, collects, and recollects, but his moving in this direction, however fitfully, reveals him as a poet and painter in transition, caught between two centuries.


  1. Quotations from Rossetti's sonnets are taken from Rossetti's Poems, Oswald Doughty, ed. (New York: Dutton, 1968).

  2. Robert M. Cooper, Lost On Both Sides (Athens, Ohio: Ohio Univ. Press, 1970); Robert D. Johnston, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (New York: Twayne, 1969); Richard L. Stein, The Ritual of Interpretation: The Fine Arts As Literature In Ruskin, Rossetti, and Pater (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1975). Stein's excellent discussion of Rossetti's work points out how figurative language and compactness create difficulties for the reader. He also explores ways in which Rossetti's verse exhibits modern and Impressionist tendencies, using Turner as an example.

  3. Virginia Surtees, Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882): A Catalogue Raisonee (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971). These watercolors are only one stage of Rossetti's visual art, yet they are also the most interesting. His oil paintings that follow, often of Jane Morris or Fanny Cornforth, are lavish, calculated to appeal to purchasers. They do not show Rossetti striving toward formal innovation as do the watercolors.

  4. Walter Pater, Appreciations: With An Essay on Style (New York: Macmillan, 1900), p. 217.

  5. Pater, p. 217.

  6. See, for example M. L. Megroz, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Painter Poet of Heaven and Earth (London: Faber, 1928) and Oswald Doughty, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1949) as well as the books listed above.

  7. Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art and Other Essays on Art, Culture, and Literature (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968), p. 110.

  8. Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage (New York: Bantam, 1967), p. 53.

  9. John Nicoll, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (New York: Macmillan, 1975), p. 51.

  10. Ortega y Gasset, p. 33.

Further Reading

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Coldiron, A. E. B. “Rossetti's Sonnet X: The Unexpected Powers of Art.” Victorian Poetry 30, no. 1 (spring 1992): 83-85.

Examines stylistic and thematic aspects of “The Portrait.”

Faulkner, William. “Pound and the Pre-Raphaelites.” Paideuma 13, no. 2 (fall 1984): 229-44.

Investigates the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites, especially Rossetti, on Ezra Pound.

Goldberg, Gail Lynn. “Rossetti's Sonnet on ‘A Virgin and Child by Hans Memmeling’: Considering a Counterpart.” Victorian Poetry 24, no. 3 (autumn 1986): 229-43.

Debates the problem of identifying the visual counterpart to Rossetti's “A Virgin and Child by Hans Memmeling.”

Golden, Catherine. “Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Two-Sided Art.” Victorian Poetry 26, no. 4 (winter 1988): 395-402.

Discusses Rossetti's synthesis of painting and text.

Howard, Ronnalie Roper. “Minor Poems 1850-1854.” In The Dark Glass: Vision and Technique in the Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, pp. 51-59. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1972.

Considers four obscure poems by Rossetti: “The Honeysuckle,” “The Sea-Limitis,” “The Card-Dealer,” and “The Mirror.”

Leng, Andrew. “‘Three Cups in One’: A Reading of ‘The Woodspurge’.” Victorian Newsletter, no. 78 (fall 1990): 19-22.

Asserts that “The Woodspurge” reveals Rossetti's attitude toward his Art-Catholicism as well as the influence of William Wordsworth and John Ruskin.

Lewis, Roger C. “A Misattribution: Oscar Wilde's Unpublished Sonnet on Chatterton.” Victorian Poetry 28, no. 2 (summer 1990): 164-69.

Identifies a poem included in Oscar Wilde's last reported lecture in 1888 as a Rossetti piece.

Smulders, Sharon. “A Breach of Faith: D. G. Rossetti's ‘Ave,’ Art-Catholicism, and Poems, 1870.” Victorian Poetry 30, no. 1 (spring 1992): 63-74.

Discusses “Ave” in light of Rossetti's changing attitude toward Christianity and his redefinition of the concept of Art-Catholicism.

Starzyk, Lawrence J. “Victorian Artistic Recursions.” Mosaic 20, no. 2 (spring 1987): 57-70.

Compares Rossetti's poetry to his paintings.

Additional coverage of Rossetti's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers, Vol. 5; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1832-1890; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 35; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Poets; Exploring Poetry; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 4, 77; Reference Guide to English Literature; and World Literature Criticism.

Kelsey Thornton (essay date spring 1983)

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SOURCE: Thornton, Kelsey. “Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Moment of the Picture.” Victorian Newsletter no. 63 (spring 1983): 1-3.

[In the following essay, Thornton investigates the relationship between Rossetti's art and poetry.]

To talk about the relationship of Rossetti's poetry to painting is not to relate particular poems to particular paintings. This of course can be done. In William Michael's edition of his brother's work, there is a section of poems on pictures, and a section of sonnets and verses for Rossetti's own paintings. The first group—of sonnets for pictures—includes poems on works by Leonardo, Giorgione, Mantegna, Ingres, Memmlinck, Burne-Jones, Michelangelo and Botticelli (a characteristically 1870s list). The type can be illustrated with the sonnet on Leonardo's “Our Lady of the Rocks.” Although it describes a picture, Rossetti is interested in the emotion aroused by the picture rather than its pictorial detail, and his twin themes of Life and Death (as usual with capital letters) are mixed with his religious sense.

One can find the same thing in sonnets and verses for his own works, with his concentration on the moment, on the climactic point in some event or, more typically, on some particular relationship. Both “Found” and “The Day-Dream” show this well. But one does not need the pictures to relate these poems readily to works of art, either real or imaginary (since Rossetti did not always make pictures to fit with pictorial poems nor poems to fit with poetic pictures).

I said, however, that the relationship is not primarily of particular poems to particular paintings; rather it is Rossetti's pictorial method, the quality of his vision: on the one hand the materializing genius, the ability to focus thought by giving it a tangible form, and on the other hand the spiritualizing of the solid moment, the ability to reveal behind and in the tangible a spiritual and eternal truth. Pater, in a splendid essay of 1883, clearly places this undissociated sensibility:

… the church of the Middle Age by its aesthetic worship, its sacramentalism, its real faith in the resurrection of the flesh, had set itself against that Manichaean opposition of spirit and matter, and its results in men's way of taking life; and in this Dante is the central representative of its spirit. To him, in the vehement and impassioned heat of his conceptions, the material and the spiritual are fused and blent: if the spiritual attains the definite visibility of a crystal, what is material loses its earthiness and impurity. And here again, by force of instinct, Rossetti is one with him. His chosen type of beauty is one,

Whose speech Truth knows not from her thought,
          Nor Love her body from her soul.

Like Dante, he knows no region of spirit which shall not be sensuous also, or material.1

Pater is right to see Rossetti in this tradition, and we can see an intermediate stage in the Metaphysical poets, epitomized in John Donne, whose “The Second Anniversarie” describes how Elizabeth Drury's

                              pure and eloquent blood
Spoke in her cheekes, and so distinctly wrought,
That one might almost say, her body thought.(2)

There is no better place to begin looking at Rossetti's place in this tradition than his assertion that “A Sonnet is a moment's monument.” He obviously draws on the traditional strength of the sonnet in finding tokens for states of mind; but two central points need to be made about Rossetti's sonnet: first that abstracts are immediately made into concrete things (a sonnet is a monument, is a coin); second, that time becomes a timeless moment:

A Sonnet is a moment's monument,—
          Memorial from the Soul's eternity
          To one dead deathless hour.

This sense of the timeless moment is central to nineteenth-century poetry, particularly (as is well-known) in Browning, but equally so in Rossetti, who is willing to make permanent “Writing on the Sand.” The timeless moment is central too in nineteenth-century religion, where incarnation of the eternal within time is a fundamental issue (particularly one might note the importance for Hopkins); and it is central to Victorian painting, where all content is focussed on one time, one place, one moment from which other meanings are taken by elaborate parallelisms. It is this search for the timeless moment which lies behind Victorian painting's love of the theatrical moment, the arranged concentration on the tangible pose in a noiseless, windless, almost airless stillness.

Rossetti, who united nineteenth-century poetry and painting, together with a deep religious sense, represents the climax of this highly pictorial theory of poetry; and three elements of Rossetti's work illustrate perfectly how the theory affects his poetry: first the moment, second its tangibility, and third the silence (the pictorial silence one might say) in which the moment becomes tangible.


“The Woodspurge,” probably Rossetti's most widely popular poem after “The Blessed Damozel,” obviously contains the other elements (the silence, and the concentration on detail—the specific “ten weeds”), but most important is its creation of a moment out of all others on which to concentrate, a moment which becomes important for memory not because of its greatness, but because of its clarity. Like Pater, Rossetti values the moment for its own sake, “for that moment only,” making no explicit point about its value. The forces that shape life (“the wind's will” directs him in “The Woodspurge”) are inexplicable, but the clear vision of the viewer invests them with significance. In “Barren Spring” Spring is like a girl “balanced in the wind” but the moment of the poet's view blights each flower with his winter vision:

Behold, this crocus is a withering flame;
          This snowdrop, snow; this apple-blossom's part
          To breed the fruit that breeds the serpent's art.
Nay, for these Spring-flowers, turn thy face from them,
Nor stay till on the year's last lily-stem
          The white cup shrivels round the golden heart.(3)

One could, of course, select almost any of the “House of Life” sonnets to illustrate the selection of a moment, but perhaps most fascinating is “The Landmark,” where, to use T. S. Eliot's words, the poet “redeems the unread vision in the higher dream,” locating the point of significance in his journey by learning to read the landscape:

Was that the landmark? What,—the foolish well
          Whose wave, low down, I did not stoop to drink,
          But sat and flung the pebbles from its brink
In sport to send its imaged skies pell-mell,
(And mine own image, had I noted well!)—
          Was that my point of turning?—I had thought
          The stations of my course should rise unsought,
As altar-stone or ensigned citadel.
But lo! the path is missed, I must go back,
          And thirst to drink when next I reach the spring
Which once I stained, which since may have grown
          Yet though no light be left nor bird now sing
          As here I turn, I'll thank God, hastening,
That the same goal is still on the same track.(4)

The moment is not simply a turning point on a journey towards a goal, but may also be, like Eliot's, a “point of intersection of the timeless with time,” the way from this world to the next, to conquer death and time, those two enemies who haunted Rossetti. This feeling of the timeless moment reaches its climax in “Sudden Light,” which hints at the possibility of an infinite moment:

I have been here before,
          But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
          The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.(5)


The examples quoted so far help to indicate the direction of Rossetti's poems towards the tangible. Thomas Maitland's (Robert Buchanan's) attack on “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” with its accusation that Rossetti was binding himself “to extol fleshliness as the distinct and supreme end of poetic and pictorial art,”6 stung Rossetti because it was so nearly right, only the moral slur being misplaced. Pater knew that, “For Rossetti, as for Dante, without question on his part, the first condition of the poetic way of seeing and presenting things is particularisation.”7 Rossetti's tangibility is a method of realizing to the mind, not a denial of spirituality.

In “The Portrait,” Rossetti's arrogant possession at the end of the sonnet is based on the tangible creation of a picture of his beloved, so that (like a Galatea in reverse) she is gathered “into the artifice of eternity:”

O Lord of all compassionate control,
          O Love! let this my lady's picture glow
          Under my hand to praise her name, and show
Even of her inner self the perfect whole:
Lo! it is done. Above the enthroning throat
          The mouth's mould testifies of voice and kiss,
          The shadowed eyes remember and foresee.
Her face is made her shrine. Let all men note
          That in all years (O Love, thy gift is this!)
          They that would look on her must come to me.(8)

And there she is, the Rossetti woman, the enthroning throat, the shadowed eyes, fleshly, but the flesh not distinct from her soul.

He uses tokens, tangible things, in his exploration of his own guilt and sense of unfulfilment. “Lost Days” for example animates abstractions in a highly realized way, not so much thinking about them as making something out of them and then looking at it:

The lost days of my life until to-day,
          What were they, could I see them on the street
          Lie as they fell? Would they be ears of wheat
Sown once for food but trodden into clay?
Or golden coins squandered and still to pay?
          Or drops of blood dabbling the guilty feet?(9)

and so on, making observation into thought, making sight into vision, through tangibility.


The condition which is necessary for the tangible moment to reach into its eternal dimension is not the Browningesque event leading towards an infinite moment, but a condition of stillness and “visible silence,” the moment of pictorial vision, the voluble silence of pictorial space. The silence is that of the stillness of a picture where people stop: the wind drops, the leaves are still, and if there is any suggestion of movement, it is to intensify the sense of stillness. So in “Silent Noon” the silence is visible, the picture full of color rather than action; the dragonfly does not fly but hangs, and the paradoxes can be reconciled, the hour which shall pass shall be deathless, the hourglass measure time in stillness, the inarticulate silence shall sing:

Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass,—
          The finger-points look through like rosy blooms:
          Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and
'Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass.
All round our nest, far as the eye can pass,
          Are golden kingcup-fields with silver edge
          Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn-hedge.
'Tis visible silence, still as the hour-glass.
Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragon-fly
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky:—
          So this wing'd hour is dropt to us from above.
Oh! clasp we to our hearts for deathless dower,
This close-companioned inarticulate hour
          When twofold silence was the song of love.(10)

This same ability to create silence when something shall pass from time to the timeless is also at the root of “My Sister's Sleep,” where the family wait below as the sister dies in the room above. The realization of the moment of death is not in strong action or extravagant emotion, but in restraint, understatement, in silence. As with Donne, whose “A Valediction: forbidding Mourning” begins with the simile “As virtuous men pass mildly away,” so Rossetti moves between the physical world and the metaphysical meaning as if there were not “A breach, but an expansion.” The picture and the poem are for Rossetti parts of the same continuum.

His vision depends, then, on the intersection of time (the moment) and place (tangibility) rendered through the “visible silence” of art, a formula which is a basis for both poetry and painting. This common root explains his easy movement between the two arts and perhaps suggests something of the difference between Rossetti and many other Victorian artists who like Millais were perhaps finer draughtsmen, but remained in the mundane sphere. The moment of the picture is in the end not a restricting but a releasing one.


  1. Walter Pater, Appreciations (London: MacMillan, 1901), pp. 212-3.

  2. Lines 244-6. See John Donne, The Epithalamions Anniversaries and Epicedes, ed. W. Milgate, (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978), p. 48 and pp. 164-5; see also Frank Kermode, Romantic Image (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957), p. 131.

  3. The House of Life, sonnet 83.

  4. Ibid, sonnet 67.

  5. Collected Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (London: Ellis, 1888), vol. 1, p. 295.

  6. “The Fleshly School of Poetry: Mr. D. G. Rossetti,” Contemporary Review, October 1871, p. 335.

  7. Appreciations, p. 208.

  8. The House of Life, sonnet 10.

  9. Ibid, sonnet 86.

  10. Ibid, sonnet 19.

Thomas L. Cooksey (essay date fall 1984)

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SOURCE: Cooksey, Thomas L. “Rossetti's Intellegenza Nova: Perception, Poetry and Vision in Dante at Verona.Victorian Newsletter no. 66 (fall 1984): 10-13.

[In the following essay, Cooksey determines the influence of Dante Alighieri on Rossetti's Dante at Verona.]

According to his brother William Michael, Dante Gabriel Rossetti began work on Dante at Verona soon after finishing the initial version of “The Blessed Damozel.”1 Although it went through substantial expansion and revision before it was finally published, it shares a number of similarities with “The Blessed Damozel” and might be seen as a companion piece, treating the living lover's side of the separation. However, as the title piece of his first book of poetry (1870), Dante at Verona carries a heavier responsibility to Rossetti's “poetic vision.” It also represents Rossetti's most explicit use of Dante aside from his translations of the Vita Nuova. In places it seems little more than a pastiche of episodes and anecdotes culled from Boccaccio's Vita di Dante and other historical sources, a practice that has led one critic to compare it in obscurity with Browning's Sordello.2 In fact, Rossetti takes liberties with sources in order to enlist Dante in his own poetic project. As the “The Blessed Damozel,” he is concerned with the theme of exile, focusing on the separation of Dante and his beloved. But in Dante at Verona he expands the theme to include political exile as well—Dante's separation from his city. This, however, transforms the subject to the alienation of the poet in his world, a defiant rejection of a world that is not capable of appreciating the artist.3

Yet if his Lady's home above
          Was Heaven, on earth she filled his soul;
          And if his City held control
To cast the body forth to rove,
          The soul could sour from earth's vain throng,
          And Heaven and Hell fulfill the song.

The nature of the poet's alienation is positive for it is what marks him as a poet. The very endeavor to transcend the bounds of separation leads to the creative perception of the poet.

The form of the poem underlines a fundamental conflict between the aspiration of the poet and the pull of the world, a tension between the epic and the dramatic. The first stanza echoes the traditional apparatus of the classical epic:

Of Florence and of Beatrice
          Servant and singer from of old,
          O'ver Dante's heart in youth had toll'd
The knell that gave his Lady peace;
          And now in manhood flew the dart
          Wherewith his city pierced his heart.

Allusions to Virgil and Homer resonate throughout. Yet closer examinations reveal that these do not quite harmonize with the epic originals. If one untangles Rossetti's syntax, it is the knell that is the subject of the verb “had toll'd.” A Vergilian narrator, singing of “arms and a man” fades into the background. The sentence indicates that the events of the poem take place long after Beatrice has died and Dante has left his city. It also departs from the epic convention that it suggests: Rossetti contrives to take Homer or Virgil one step further by removing the subjective “I” of the narrator. The center of the poem shifts from the narrator to the action; rather than singing of Dante's woes, he dramatizes them. Yet, at the same time, Rossetti's presence is felt throughout the work like a prompter underlining the points of high emotion and channeling the reader's response by his ironic commentary on the action.

Eat and wash hand, Can Grande;—scarce
          We know their deeds now; hands which fed
          Our Dante with that bitter bread; …

The tension that Rossetti creates between subject and object, between the epic and the dramatic, may be explained in part as an echo of the formal tension that underlines the Divine Comedy itself. Dante is both the subject of his story and its recorder; he is dramatizing his own subjective development. Similarly, Dante at Verona revolves around a tension between an epic subjectivity centering on the voice of the narrator and a dramatic objectivity surrounding the perception of the action. The narrator stands over the events of the narrative like fate, directing them to their inevitable conclusions, and like fate, underlining their irony. In being true to the purity of his vision, Rossetti's Dante is fated to be scorned and misunderstood; yet in being true, in not compromising his labor, he is destined to triumph over his opponents, even within the disappointments of his own life. Readers, from their privileged perspective, know that the historical Dante managed to transcend his time, and that those who had scorned him are now either long forgotten or themselves the object of scorn. In Dante's steadfastness, in his triumph of vision over action, Rossetti makes the poet the hero of his “epic”: the creative act of Homer is greater than the deeds of Achilles; those of Dante are greater than those of Can Grande.

But despite the aspirations, the epicality is held in tension by an encompassing form that moves in the opposite direction. The language of the poem is balladic: while the six line stanzas do not fall into a traditional ballad stanza, the rhyming of the second with the third lines and fifth with the sixth in tetrameter couplets suggests the jauntiness and lightness of the ballad. This contrasts sharply with the elevation of the subject. Indeed, the formal tension between the epic quality of the narrative and the balladic style underlines the fundamental tension of Dante's torment. He is suspended between earth and heaven, between the mundane demands of everyday life and his spiritual aspirations as a poet. The world becomes his purgatory, testing his character and purifying his vision; like that of the blessed damozel, it is marked by an absolute sense of physical separation from the beloved. In Dante's case this is twofold, involving both Beatrice and Florence.

The most telling imagery of Dante's separation is found toward the middle of the poem. In a scene that parallels the damozel's weeping at the barrier of heaven, Dante sequesters himself in his room at Can Grande's palace. Pressing his forehead against the window pane, he weeps:

Then, weeping, I think certainly
          Thou hast beheld, past sight of eye,—
          Within another room of thine
Where now thy body may not be
          But where in thought thou still remain'st—
          A window often wept against. …

The glass of the window: first it suggests the orientation of the poet; he has turned his back on the world, preferring to look outward. The drops of rain against the pane or the rays of light suggest the inspiration of Beatrice. Yet even though penetrated by light (“Her breath was on thy face and hair”), the glass still marks a tangible separation, an impassible barrier whose partial penetration makes its ultimate impenetrability all the more agonizing. Dante may sense the spiritual presence of Beatrice, but finally there is an unbridgeable gulf, the “dark glass” (viz. “The House of Life”) that prevents a final apprehension.4 But the image is more complex: not only is Dante separated from Beatrice by the glass of the window, but he is separated from the world in the enclosure of his room. Rossetti is careful to emphasize the isolation of this room from the rest of the palace household:

… having reached his room apart
Beyond vast lengths of palace-floor
He drew the arras round his door.

Like the window the room takes on a double meaning. It signifies both the oppressive world and the inwardness that becomes Dante's refuge. In turning toward Beatrice, both in his palace chamber and “within another room,” Dante consciously turns his back on the business and comforts of the world; in effect, he can have neither one nor the other.

The iconography of this scene is consistent with that found in Rossetti's drawings of Dante on the anniversary of Beatrice's death.5 These show Dante in front of a window in a closed room, unwilling to be comforted by his friends and family. The image of the beloved absorbs, but also isolates him. His nature as a poet automatically alienates him from others. Thus, in a larger sense, the enclosure within the room represents a self enclosure, a turn inward. Unlike the damozel whose separation is underlined by a fundamental sense of uncertainty, Dante's represents a conscious defense against an empty world. Finding its rewards problematic, whether they be the glories of war, the banalities of court or the machinations of politics, Dante takes refuge within his vision of Beatrice and his duty to it. His final triumph in the poem is to abandon the court of Can Grande and the city of Verona, a movement from an alienating interior to a free exterior.

The real journey of the poet, however, is not physical. Rather, it is a mental journey, the result of the poet's own creative activity. Those around him, lacking his perception, are oblivious to Dante's experience:

All this, being there, we had not seen.
          Seen only was the shadow wrought
          On the strong features bound in
          thought. …

Rossetti plays down the overtly mystical in favor of a more natural supernaturalism. Dante's vision is less the action of divine intervention, a bridging of the realms by Beatrice, than the result of his own creative projection. Poetry here is an active process involving a transformative perception rather than the passive reception of transcendent knowledge. In a section borrowed from the Vita Nuova (XLIII in Rossetti's translation), Rossetti has Dante describe the nature of his enterprise:

“It is my trust, as the years fall,
          To write more worthily of her
          Who now, being made God's minister,
Looks on His visage and knows all.”

To this he adds in the next stanza,

                     … “In such trust
          To labour, and believe I must
Accomplish this which my soul took
          I charge, if God, my Lord and hers,
Leave my life with me a few years.”

It is clear that Dante's prayer is not that of a lover seeking a physical or spiritual reunion, but that of a poet obsessed with the creation of a “moment's monument,” to capture the experience of his love in a poetic form. This enterprise is a trust, a test of his own abilities, a “labour” to make himself more worthy of the task at hand. The reconciliation he seeks is between the vision and the work, and it is this that he achieves with the creation itself:

The trust which he had born in youth
          Was all at length accomplished. He
          At length has written worthily—

The paraphrased passage that Rossetti interpolates in Dante at Verona comments on the concluding sonnet of the Vita Nuova (“Oltre la spera …”) in which Dante tells of having a final vision which convinces him to stop writing until he is more worthy. The sonnet moves from a state of interiority outward, from the inner realm to “Beyond the sphere which spreads to widest space. …” The spiritual movement parallels Dante's physical movement out of Verona in Rossetti's poem. But more significantly, the nature of this movement involves for Rossetti a transformation of perception. He translates Dante's “intellegenza nova” as “new perception”:

Beyond the sphere which spreads to widest space
          Now soars the sigh that my heart sends above:
          A new perception born of grieving Love
          Guideth it upward the untrodden ways.

The choice of “perception” focuses attention on the how of the poetic vision rather than the what. Rossetti's equation of perception with mystical intelligence suggests a strong Blakean influence; the seat of vision resides in the creative imagination of the poet, and the development of the poetic faculty entails a purification of the imagination. That Rossetti should have Blake in mind is not surprising. He was among the circle of early Blake enthusiasts, even buying one of Blake's notebooks and helping in the completion of Alexander Gilchrist's Life of Blake. As another poet-artist, Blake contributed to the personal character of Rossetti's vision of the poet. Rossetti seems also to have known Blake's Dante illustrations, though by that time they had little influence on his conception of Dante.6

Rossetti takes up perception and vision again in his translation of the sonnet's closing sestet. Referring to the “intellegenza nova,” Dante's Italian reads,

Vedela tal, che quando 'l mi ridice.
          Io no lo intendo, si parla sottile
          Al cor dolente che lo far parlare.
          So io che parla di quella gentile,
          Peró che spesso ricorda Beatrice,
          Si ch'io lo'ntendo ben, donne mi care.

In contrast, Rossetti's version reads,

It sees her such, that it tells me this
          Which it hath seen, I understand it not,
          It hath a speech so subtle and so fine.
And yet I know its voice within my thought
          Often remembereth me of Beatrice:
          So that I understand it, ladies mine.

The voice speaking within Dante's thought was Rossetti's invention. Dante's line more accurately runs, “I know that it [intellegenza nova] speaks of that courteous [lady].”7 In translating the line in this way, Rossetti enlists Dante into his own ranks, interpreting him as a Blakean visionary. He focuses attention on the thought of the poet rather than on a voice emanating from outside the poet. In this manner the voice takes on a plausible, naturalistic aspect, grounding vision within the power and imagination of the poet. It is, as we have already seen, a movement from the interior to the exterior through the mediation of a “new perception.”

In both his translation of the Vita Nuova and his recreation of the Florentine in Dante at Verona, Rossetti enlists Dante as a spokesman for the nineteenth-century consciousness. Instead of existing as an integral part of a divine hierarchy, the poet lives in an uncertain and problematic world. The discrepancy between interior and exterior life shatters the epic sense of wholeness. Faced with this dismal prospect, the consciousness retreats inward upon itself for refuge and sustenance, certain only of its own integrity. In this state of being epic wholeness becomes a process of moving outward, of reintegrating the world through its own perception and imagination. Rossetti's Dante follows this pattern: Dante at Verona is a problematic epic, torn between the demands of a world and the aspirations of the spirit. In it, Rossetti slowly reveals Dante's reintegration through the purification of his perception. Drawn by the memory of Beatrice, his imagination reaches outward, embracing not the physical world, but a world of his own poetic creation:

                    … From his shoes
          It may be that he shook the dust,
          As every righteous dealer must
Once and again ere life can close:
          And unaccomplished destiny
Struck cold his forehead, it may be.

All of this represents an existence foreign to the historical Dante Alighieri. While his own world offered little more than the bitterness of exile, he was confident of a meaning beyond his own cognition, and of his place in a transcendent cosmos. Rossetti's re-interpretation is akin to what Baudelaire had in mind when he called for a criticism that is partial, passionate, and political. The political dimension of Rossetti's Dante is readily apparent. Rather than produce the historical figure, Rossetti uses Dante as the archetype of the poet, but here the archetypal figure is that of the Romantic poet whose vision stands in opposition to the world that alienates him. Like the Victorian myths of the maligned Keats or the incendiary Blake, Rossetti's Dante stands as a monument to the emptiness of society that is incapable of understanding him. Similarly the Baudelairean passion is found in the nature of the poet. The poet who emanates from Rossetti's portrait is sustained by his own vision. He is little concerned with the values imposed from the outside. Rossetti's Dante is not a coldly rational scholastic philosopher, but an artist capturing the “Soul's eternity” in a “moment's monument.” Most important of all, however, Rossetti's Dante is partial. He reinterprets Dante in terms of his own “autopsychology”—not in a narrowly biographical sense, but in the sense of an idealization of his own self. Dante becomes the spokesman for Rossetti's own poetic vision, for his alienation and aspiration in a problematic world. He becomes the symbol of Rossetti struggling to reconcile his vision with his imaginative capability, his own labor to be “worthy.” Rossetti's interest in his namesake is not casual; it represents his entire poetic commitment. The heavens that Leigh Hunt took to be Dantesque are Rossettian after all.


  1. William Michael Rossetti, ed. Family-Letters, I (London: Ellis and Elvey, 1885), 107. See also Oswald Doughty, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Victorian Romantic (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1949), pp. 54-55 and 576n. All references to Rossetti's poems and translations are from The Collected Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. William M. Rossetti, (London: Ellis and Elvey, 1901).

  2. Lionel Stevenson, The Pre-Raphaelite Poets (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1972), p. 58. See also B. J. Morse, “Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Dante Alighieri,” Englische Studien, 68 (1933), 244; Florence Saunders Boos, The Poetry of Dante G. Rossetti: A Critical Reading and Source Study (The Hague: Mouton, 1976), p. 138.

  3. Ronnalie Howard argues that the poet accepts estrangement as the necessary cost of spiritual purity: “Thus the poem is the record of a soul and a celebration of not selling out, in spite of the cost of integrity.” The Dark Glass (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1972), p. 27. c.f. the Victorian myth of Keats, George H. Ford, Keats and the Victorians (1944; rpt. London: Archer Books, 1962), pp. 269-70; Boos, p. 122.

  4. Howard takes Beatrice as a symbol of Dante's “most intense yearnings.” (p. 26)

  5. Virginia Surtees, The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882): A Catalogue Raissonné, II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), plates 27, 28 and 51.

  6. Florence Sanders Boos sees more of Blake in Rossetti's Dante (Boos, pp. 266-69). For a general discussion of Blake's Dante see in particular Albert Roe, Blake's Illustrations to the Divine Comedy (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957) and Milton Klonsky, Blake's Dante: The Complete Illustrations to the Divine Comedy (New York: Harmony Books, 1980). Although Blake's Dante illustrations were known to a select circle of enthusiasts, including Rossetti, who helped Gilchrist's widow complete the Life, they had little clear influence on the Victorians until they were “rediscovered” by William Butler Yeats in his 1897 essay, “William Blake and his Illustrations of the Divine Comedy,” rpt. in Essays and Introductions (New York: Collier Books, 1961), pp. 116-145. For a general discussion see Deborah Dorfman, Blake in the Nineteenth Century (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 54, 63 and 199n.

  7. c.f. Mark Musa's translation of the passage:

    I cannot understand its subtle tale
    Spoken to the sad heart that makes it speak
    I know it talks of that most gracious one,

    Vita Nuova

    (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1962), p. 85.

Michael Cohen (essay date fall 1986)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2547

SOURCE: Cohen, Michael. “The Reader as Whoremonger: A Phenomenological Approach to Rossetti's ‘Jenny’.” Victorian Newsletter no. 70 (fall 1986): 5-7.

[In the following essay, Cohen explores Rossetti's poetic strategies in “Jenny,” focusing on the poet's combination of religious and art imagery.]

The rhetorical strategy in Rossetti's “Jenny” forces the reader past sympathy with the poem's narrator to identification with him. This is an uneasy and unstable identification which alternates with a distancing of reader from speaker and with the reader's criticism and unfavorable judgment of the speaker. Nevertheless the poem's readers—including female readers—are made to share the guilt of Jenny's sexual exploitation. The reader is engaged and brought into the poem through a number of strategies of which the surface train of thought of the narrator is only the most obvious. The prudent and prudish omission of the overtly salacious and of anything which actually names Jenny's occupation—“what thing she is”—constitutes another strategy. But the most powerful strategy works through a combination of religious and art imagery in the tranformation of Jenny from Magdalene to Virgin.

Our initial impression of the narrator, who has forsaken his books for the company of a prostitute, marks him as not much of a scholar and still less a gentleman. But he perceives that something is to be learned from Jenny and comments to the sleeping girl:

You know not what a book you seem
Half-read by lightning in a dream!


The narrator wonders what Jenny is thinking as she sleeps. He imagines that she is thankful for a rest from “envy's voice at virtue's pitch,” “the pale girl's dumb rebuke,” and the “wise unchildish elf” who points her out, “what thing she is,” to his schoolmate. But what she most needs rest from, he thinks, is “the hatefulness of man, Who spares not to end what he began.” This is the first point at which the narrator's moral musings are directed inward toward himself as guilty and responsible for Jenny's fate.

The narrator imagines an idyllic rural past for Jenny, when she would dream about the city she knows so well now. He imagines her future too:

When, wealth and health slipped past, you stare
Along the streets alone, and there,
Round the long park, across the bridge,
The cold lamps at the pavement's edge
Wind on together and apart,
A fiery serpent for your heart.


The speaker's condescending recognition that Jenny sleeps just as any other woman sleeps (177) leads him to think of his cousin Nell (185-202) and to imagine a future in which Nell's children might be in Jenny's situation and need her children's charity (210-214). In the next hundred lines, in the middle of the poem, Rossetti, having brought narrator and reader to a wider social and historical view of Jenny's “case,” now effects a moral reversal, shifting the burden of shame from Jenny to the speaker and the implied observer. But he effects this change not merely through the speaker's surface thoughts: from the beginning of the poem a series of images has worked to rehabilitate Jenny in the mind's eye, purifying and even sanctifying the picture which the reader creates of her.1

When Rossetti rhymes the girl's name with guinea in the first couplet of the poem, he suggests that it is the pet form for Virginia rather than for Jennifer or Jane or Genevieve.2 But his purpose is not irony; the name connects with other images which suggest the virgin in Jenny. Jenny is Magdalene not only by profession but iconographically by the emphasis on her long hair (10-11, 47, 174, 340), a traditional sign for this New Testament figure.3 But she is transformed from Mary Magdalene to Mary Virgin by an early line in the poem which echoes the annunciation:

Poor shameful Jenny, full of grace


It is a reversal of the annunciation in some ways, spoken by a definitely unangelic speaker (though a Gabriel speaks through him) to an unaware, sleeping Jenny rather than a waking, watchful Mary, recording an all-too human rather than divine past and future and a soul state wrought by male sin rather than female purity.4 The biblical echoes that concern virgins do not end until the end of the poem, when the dawn finds Jenny's lamp still alight, “Like a wise virgin's” (316), and the narrator and reader decamp, leaving Jenny indeed virginal for this encounter at least.

Between these references to virgins, other biblical echoes are scattered through the poem. Jenny's “lazy lily hand” (97) leads to the lilies of the field (100-110) and fled roses to “the naked stem of thorns” (120) which links passion and suffering, loosely connecting Jenny's case with Christ's, sinful with expiatory passion.

The religious references join in the poem's center with art imagery showing Jenny as art object or model and emphasizing the role of the maker. The speaker first seems to suggest that blame is assignable to God for Jenny's case:

                                        —what to say
Or think,—this awful secret sway,
The potter's power over the clay!
Of the same lump (it has been said)
For honour and dishonour made,
Two sister vessels. Here is one.


The thought shakes him; he says it “makes a goblin of the sun” (206). But when he speaks of the painter placing “Some living woman's simple face”—perhaps Jenny's—in a “gilded aureole,” he says that such pictures have the power to show men what God can do in forming nature, but that Jenny's fate has been wrought by man:

What has man done here? How atone,
Great God, for this which man has done?


Jenny's face comes to be seen, as it might be by Raphael or Leonardo, as fit for a picture “For preachings of what God can do” (240). God has modeled the “real” Jenny; man has made her “case”—is the artist of her sin and prostitution. Lust is man's creation, and the narrator sees it when he looks at Jenny with his mind's eye:

          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. A riddle that one shrinks
To challenge from the scornful sphinx.


It is an inward look that gives him that view; Jenny's “stilled features” are the same long throat and “pure wide curve from ear to chin” that might inspire Raphael. Jenny's face is a work of divine art, but her “case” is a human creation which narrator and reader find first a book, then a picture, and finally a mirror.

So much for the poem's male readers. A serious argument could be made, however, that “Jenny” isn't a poem aimed at male readers at all. For one thing, in this poem with its salacious subject there is a complete absence of salacious detail from the beginning—even from the epigraph. The Merry Wives of Windsor scene to which Rossetti alludes in the epigraph contains some fairly explicit bawdry: double entendres and sexual metaphors abound as the Welsh schoolmaster asks his pupil for the “focative” case, and then for the genitive case of hic, which is horum. Mistress Quickly interrupts: “Vengeance of Jenny's case! Fie on her! Never name her, child, if she be a whore” (IV, i, 53-54). Rossetti quotes only “Vengeance of Jenny's case! Fie on her! Never name her, child.” In fact Jenny's case is never explicitly named—“what thing she is.” Nor is the milder word prostitute used. Aside from a line early in the poem mentioning “Love's exuberant hotbed” (13) there is no language in the poem that overtly images passion. The subject may be racy; the language is not.

Partly what identifies Jenny as whore are the references to money throughout the poem, and these tell us more about the speaker than about Jenny:

Lazy laughing languid Jenny,
Fond of a kiss and fond of a guinea


Whose person or whose purse may be
The lodestar of your reverie?


The speaker pretends to know Jenny's dreams (364), but these are his own imaginings. In fact, money in the poem is connected to a cluster of images of gold coins (2, 226), golden hair (10-11), golden skin (50), golden sun (224), the “gilded aureole” of a saint (230), and gold coins again, this time a shower of them in Jenny's hair in a self-flattering allusion identifying the speaker with Zeus and Jenny with Danae (374-77). At several points in the poem this golden image cluster becomes a vehicle for the transference of “guilt”—there is the possibility of a pun but the speaker talks more about shame than guilt, though much about gilt. One point, already mentioned, is that at which Jenny's face is seen as suitable model for a saintly image, with a gilded aureole. At another point just before, gold turns into the more precious commodity of time:

          How Jenny's clock ticks on the shelf!
Might not the dial scorn itself
That has such hours to register?
Yet as to me, even so to her
Are golden sun and silver moon,
In daily largesse of earth's boon,
Counted for life-coins to one tune.
And if, as blindfold fates are toss'd,
Through some one man this life be lost,
Shall soul not somehow pay for soul?


In the passages from line 207 to line 249 the speaker asks several important questions which indicate a transference of guilt from the poem's subject to its narrator and readers. The first question asks whether in the future Jenny's and Nell's cases might not be reversed in their offspring (211-213). The second asks whether soul shall “not somehow pay for soul” (229), and the third asks:

                              How atone,
Great God, for this which man has done?


Immediately after these questions the narrator exclaims:

          If but a woman's heart might see
Such erring heart unerringly
For once!


The narrator concludes that this can never be and that no chaste woman can view Jenny's case with propriety. He says this in a passage which unites the flower images which have characterized Jenny (a fresh flower, lillies, roses) with the book image of learning and recognition, used since the poem's beginning, and with the book as an image of enclosure. The enclosure images of the poem such as the narrator's “captive hours of youth” (25) when he was captive in a different sort of book, the rose shut in a book, and the toad within the stone (282ff.), all point to the fact that the poem's subject is actually an enclosed drama—a psychomachia which begins as the narrator's but ends as the reader's also:

          Like 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;
Where through each dead rose-leaf that clings,
Pale as transparent psyche-wings,
To the vile text, are traced such things
As might make lady's cheek indeed
More than a living rose to read;
So nought save foolish foulness may
Watch with hard eyes the sure decay;
And so the life-blood of this rose,
Puddled with shameful knowledge, flows
Through leaves no chaste hand may unclose:
Yet still it keeps such faded show
Of when 'twas gathered long ago,
That the crushed petals' lovely grain,
The sweetness of the sanguine stain,
Seen of a woman's eyes, must make
Her pitiful heart, so prone to ache,
Love roses better for its sake:—
Only that this can never be:—
Even so unto her sex is she.


The gentleman, protesting too much, says “this can never be” so often we are likely to forget what can never be: a chaste woman's confrontation with Jenny herself, rather than with this chastened image of her in the poem. For in this guise pure women may indeed read the text of Jenny's case, see that she is as other women, see her erring heart unerringly, and more. I am suggesting that the reader's reaction is more than sympathy, pity, compassion, fellow-feeling; it is assumption of guilt for Jenny's case. For the female reader this can only come, not in the recognition that she could easily have been in Jenny's place, but in the recognition of who benefits from the exchanges of prostitution, in gold coins or whatever other “offerings nicely plac'd” which “But hide Priapus to the waist” (368-69). Cousin Nell, reading the poem with an open mind and that “pitiful heart, so prone to ache,” will not escape the realization that prostitution is the necessary underground basis for the exaltation of such “pure women” and the reverence in which she is held. The male reader, the female reader, and the narrator—we have all enjoyed Jenny's favors and share the guilt of her sexual exploitation. That Rossetti manages this identification with the narrator even though we begin and end our visit with him thinking he is pompous, priggish, and self-absorbed, is a measure of the poem's complexity. That complexity may be what led Graham Hough to declare Rossetti's dramatic monologues “as good as anything of Browning's of the same kind, with perhaps the evidence of a less commonplace mind behind them” (69).


  1. G. I. Hersey recognizes that Rossetti is in fact painting a picture of Jenny as the narrator's thoughts proceed: “‘Jenny’ employs a form of ecphrasis … the poetic or rhetorical description of real or imagined works of visual art, usually paintings or sculptures” (17).

  2. The word guinea (in addition to its use as a derogatory term for an Italian—which the lines can accommodate) now refers merely to the amount of twenty-one shillings, but until the last coinage of 1813 went out of circulation it was the name of the gold coin (supposedly minted from gold from the Guinea Coast of Africa) of that amount. Gold coins and other golden or gilt objects figure importantly in the poem's imagery. Jenny cannot be considered as any generic (puns seem unavoidable) name for a prostitute, although there is one precedent in Pope's “Sober Advice from Horace,” mostly dealing with whores and whoremongers, which has two lines describing a Jenny who, like Rossetti's, has her bodice open to the waist:

              … bashful Jenny, even at Morning-Prayer,
    Spreads her Fore-Buttocks to the Navel bare.


    Pope's source is the Horatian satire, I, ii, concerning adultery.

  3. Anne Hollander points out that “Thick and abundant female hair safely conveyed a vivid sexual message in an atmosphere of extreme prudery” and that the long hair of the Magdalene “constituted a scriptural reference and was thus an identifying attribute” (73). Tradition confuses the Mary Magdalene mentioned in all four evangelists with the woman who washes Christ's feet with tears and dries them with her hair (Luke 7:36-38); hence the significance of her hair.

  4. The reverse themes of fallen woman/annunciation in Rossetti are commented on by Linda Nochlin (152), Martin Meisel (331-32), David Sonstroem (3-4).

Works Cited

Hersey, G. I. “Rossetti's ‘Jenny’: A Realist Altarpiece.” Yale Review 69 (1979): 17-32.

Hollander, Anne. Seeing Through Clothes. New York: Viking, 1978.

Hough, Graham. The Last Romantics. London: Methuen, 1947.

Meisel, Martin. “‘Half Sick of Shadows’: The Aesthetic Dialogue in Pre-Raphaelite Painting.” Nature and the Victorian Imagination. Ed. U. C. Knoepflmacher and G. B. Tennyson. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: U of California P, 1977.

Nochlin, Linda. “Lost and Found: Once More the Fallen Woman.” The Art Bulletin. 58 (1978): 139-53.

Sonstroem, David. Rossetti and the Fair Lady. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1970.

Brennan O'Donnell (essay date summer 1987)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2419

SOURCE: O'Donnell, Brennan. “D. G. Rossetti's ‘The Stream's Secret’ and the Epithalamion.” Victorian Poetry 25, no. 2 (summer 1987): 187-92.

[In the following essay, O'Donnell compares and contrasts Rossetti's “The Stream's Secret” and the conventions of the epithalamion poetic form.]

In lines 211-216 of D. G. Rossetti's “The Stream's Secret,” the speaker turns his thoughts away from the stream he has been addressing throughout the poem and speaks of another, imaginary location where he hopes he will finally receive word that he is to be united with his lover. It is a difficult stanza, and untangling its complexities and especially its allusions is crucial to an understanding of the poem:

                              Ah! by a colder wave
          On deathlier airs the hour must come
Which to thy heart, my love, shall call me home.
          Between the lips of the low cave
Against that night the lapping waters lave,
                              And the dark lips are dumb.(1)

Rossetti helped to clarify one difficulty in the stanza when he explained “deathlier airs” in a letter to Thomas Gordon Hake:

‘Deathlier’ I beat about before I settled on, but could find nothing so clearly introducing the idea of a spiritual locality differing from the actual stream-side.2

But other difficulties remain, especially with the phrase “Against that night” and its allusive function. In what sense is the stream spoken of as flowing “against” the night?

Rossetti's use of “against” here bears a striking resemblance to the phrasing and function of the refrain in Spenser's “Prothalamion,” a public wedding poem written to celebrate the double marriage of the Earl of Worcester's daughters: “Against the Brydale day, which is not long: / Sweete Themmes runne softly, till I end my Song.”3 Spenser's refrain and Rossetti's echo of it use “against” to mean “in anticipation of, in preparation for” (OED, s.v. 18), a sense relatively uncommon in Rossetti's time, at least outside of consciously literary usage. In the “Prothalamion” the river functions as an image of natural mutability arrested by art on the day of the wedding ceremony and made to participate in an event symbolic of man's best stay against mutability. As the poet describes the progress of two swans (representative of the brides-to-be) down the river, he acts as a poetic master of ceremonies whose words create out of the temporal event a symbol of the eternal participation of all nature in the wedded love of men and women. This stance is typical in epithalamia and is even more clearly evident in Spenser's “Epithalamion” in which the poet calls successively on muses, water nymphs, birds, the hours, and seemingly all of vegetable and animal nature (even down to the lowly frogs) to contribute to a harmonious memorial of his own wedding. The “Epithalamion” employs a refrain which similarly asserts the poet's power to fashion out of symbols of the mutable natural world a celebration of a kind of love which allows man to defy mutability: “The woods shall to me answer and my Eccho ring.” God, nature, and the society all approve these vows. And the poet functions as a public speaker whose monumental poem proclaims the wedded couple's victory over “short time” and death.

The contrast between this type of poem and the lyric “The Stream's Secret” is obvious. The epithalamion is a public celebration of a socially-sanctioned marriage in which a public poetic voice orchestrates a ceremony symbolizing nature's participation in the human event. In “The Stream's Secret,” a private, lyric voice speaks in solitude about a secret and forbidden love. The speaker expresses wide swings of hope and despair as it becomes increasingly evident through the course of the poem that the union he awaits is not imminent and that he cannot re-create out of the stream's babbling an articulation of hope for the future. What has not, as yet, been obvious to critics is that Rossetti's poem depends for its full effect upon a reading in light of the conventions of epithalamia. The stream resists the speaker's consciously artificial attempt to incorporate it as a poetic element echoing his hopes, and the poem becomes more interesting and more deeply ironic in proportion to how clearly the reader is able to read it against the background of poems in which streams and rivers do help the poet to celebrate publicly a type of love which is sanctioned by society.

Rossetti's poem invites many contrasts between itself and epithalamia, and many aspects of “The Stream's Secret”—especially aspects of tone and the details employed in the personification of Love and Love's Hour—make ironic reference to the genre. For example, the excitedly expectant tone of the opening, which suggests that a long-deferred moment has come at last (stanzas one through four), is precisely in the vein of the traditional epithalamic opening. Even the sound of Rossetti's stanza, with its heavy use of alliteration and its complex structure of shifting trimeter, tetrameter, and pentameter lines, suggests in its artificiality the opening of a ceremonial poem (see especially ll. 1-6).4 In stanza one, the speaker asks not whether the stream has a message for him, but only what that message is. In stanza two, he creates a full-blown image of the personified Love—a figure usually represented in epithalamia by Hymen, the god of marriage—whispering the secret to the stream. The image of Love is couched in a question, but the concreteness of details such as the “hollowed fingers,” the “curls all dabbled,” and the “washed lips rosy red” gives a sense of the physical presence of the god as the tutelary spirit of the poem. In stanza three, the speaker asserts directly his knowledge that the secret of when he and his love will be united has been told as he charges the stream with sluggishness for its delay in delivering the message. He even threatens the stream with the possibility that it will lose Love's favor if the swifter bird reveals the secret first.

The opening tone is thus dominated by the speaker's sense that nature is animated in correspondence with his hope. This sense of expectation and of thrilled impatience is precisely the tone of the opening of most epithalamia, as, for example, in the first eight lines of Herrick's “Epithalamie to Sir Thomas Southwell”:

Now, now's the time; so oft by truth
Promis'd sho'd come to crown your youth.
          Then Faire ones, doe not wrong
          Your joyes, by staying long:
Or let Love's fire goe out,
By lingering thus in doubt:
But learn, that Time once lost,
Is ne'r redeem'd by cost.(5)

The same attitude is expressed in Spenser's “Epithalamion” with the added sense, also present in Rossetti's poem, that the moment that is coming will repay the lover for “paynes and sorrowes past” (l. 32). In these, as in most epithalamia, a main theme is the flourishing at last of long-held hopes.

But in Rossetti's poem, this tone of joyful expectation soon gives way under the pressure of “paynes and sorrowes part” as the stream resists the speaker's attempts to make it part of a harmonious, artificial structure. The stream does not chime in with Rossetti's speaker as Spenser's woods do for his, nor does it act as the medium through which lovers are united, as the Thames does in the “Prothalamion”; rather, this stream persists in drawing from the speaker painful memories of “dead hours” which are to him “ghosts in many darkened doorways” (ll. 26-27). With line 31, the speaker begins to reveal his consciousness that whatever the stream in fact will be able to communicate to him will oppose his hopes:

          Withhold, I pray, the vain behest
That while the maze hath still its bower for quest
          My burning heart should cease to seek.

(ll. 32-34)

In line 43 with the mention of a possible “rebuke,” presumably for the “wrongs” mentioned in line 50, the poem introduces directly what is hinted in its title—that this love is secret because it is unsanctioned by society. In fact, as Oswald Doughty points out in his biography of Rossetti, the poem was written at a time when Rossetti was in love with and separated from the married Jane Morris, and when he was extremely agitated about the separation.6 Not to impose a biographical reading on the poem, the “The Stream's Secret” does deal with passion that is frustrated by the entanglements of one or the other of the parties. This is not, as is “The Blessed Damozel,” or “The Portrait,” a poem about separation caused by death; it is about separation caused by marriage, and the reference to the epithalamic tradition helps to reinforce the irony of that fact.

The presence of the epithalamic tradition is also clearly evident in the speaker's visions of Love's Hour—that future time when he expects union with his lover. The first mention of a personified hour comes in line 64 in a Shelleyan negative clause which nevertheless gives an interesting image of the hour. The speaker says that he does not yet see:

          The wind-stirred robe of roseate grey
And rose-crown of the hour that leads the day
          When we shall meet once more.

(ll. 64-66)

Again, the personification of a procession of hours is a pervasive technique in epithalamia, as in Spenser's “But first come ye fayre houres which were begot / In loues sweet Paradice, of Day and Night” (“Epithalamion,” ll. 98-99). But even more clearly associated with the tradition—especially with the classical tradition out of which the English epithalamion grew—are such ceremonial details as the “lustral fires” at the imagined espousal of the lovers' souls (ll. 127-132),7 and the two curious mentions of a “door” at lines 163 and 185.

These “door” references have never been adequately explained, as is evidenced by the confusion registered in one commentator's attempt to describe the physical setting of the poem: “the speaker is near enough to the stream to hear, perhaps standing in a door, … perhaps later by a stone” (Howard, p. 127). There is no need to posit an actual doorway on the banks of the Penwapple in order to account for the doorways in the poem since the pervasive influence of the epithalamion in the lyric can easily account for them. The term “epithalamion” translates literally “at the threshold of the bridal chamber” and takes its name from the ancient practice of singing such poems to lyric accompaniment outside the door of the newly-married couple. Thus, in line 163, and especially in lines 181-186, the door is a literary threshold, and the song that Love sings is the speaker's imagining of the epithalamion he expects to hear when he and his love finally do meet:

          The Hour of Love, 'mid airs grown mute,
Shall sing beside the door, and Love's own lute
                    Thrill to the passionate lay.

(ll. 184-186)

Thus, it is evident that Rossetti intends the reader to see his poem in ironic opposition to a genre very different from the one in which he is writing. But the question remains concerning how lines 211-216 ought to be read. As Rossetti's letter to Hake confirms, “that night” is set in opposition to the day-long wait of the preceding stanzas. The speaker had expected the stream to bring word this day about a definite time at which the lovers would meet. He has been forced by the reticence of the stream (which reflects his own inability to create the kind of harmony out of disharmony that Spenser, Herrick, Donne, et al. were able to create in their wedding poems) and by the inner doubts that such reticence provokes to defer the place of the meeting to a “spiritual locality” at a time presumably after death. Similarly, the stream, which he has attempted to make function as a participant “against” the day when Love would at last sing his epithalamion, now flows silently by. Instead of carrying Love's message from the “washed lips rosy red” (l. 12) of Love, it flows between the dark, dumb lips of an ominous cave. Yet the stream, even in its inarticulate flowing, does participate finally in a complex, ironic way in the speaker's hopes when, after more than two hundred lines of fighting against the stream, the speaker at last says what the speaker of the “Prothalamion” says—that his stream flows in preparation for the time of the lover's union (“Against that night”). The irony lies in the fact that the union will not be in this world.8 The stream cannot be arrested in its function as a symbol of passing time, and the speaker at last resigns himself to a vision of the stream flowing toward death. However, by referring here to Spenser's celebratory use of the flow of the Thames in “Prothalamion” and thus to the generic expectations of the epithalamion, Rossetti is able to make his stream function concurrently as a symbol both of unrestrainable mutability and of the poetic desire to create images which arrest that mutability. His silent stream is curiously eloquent in its movement against an otherworldly night on which a union will occur that cannot be celebrated openly or in conventional terms.


  1. All quotations from “The Stream's Secret” are from Volume I of The Collected Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. William M. Rossetti (London, 1901); hereafter cited within the text.

  2. The Collected Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, eds. Oswald Doughty and John Robert Wahl (Oxford, 1965-1967), p. 871.

  3. All quotations from Spenser's poems are from Spenser's Minor Poems, ed. Ernest de Sélincourt (Oxford, 1910); hereafter cited in the text.

  4. The rhyme scheme of the stanza used in “The Stream's Secret,” abbaab, is, in fact, identical to the opening six lines of “Prothalamion.” Several commentators have noted the complex and highly artificial nature of the stanza. See Joseph F. Vogel, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Versecraft (Gainesville, Florida, 1971), p. 51; Ronnalie Roper Howard, The Dark Glass: Vision and Technique in the Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Athens, Ohio, 1972), pp. 126-127; and, most notably, John Masefield, Thanks Before Going (London, 1946), pp. 15-16.

  5. The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick, ed. L. C. Martin (Oxford, 1956).

  6. Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Victorian Romantic, 2nd ed. (New Haven, 1949), p. 403.

  7. For a good example of the use of such ceremonial and religious detail, see Catullus' “Carmen 61,” the classical epithalamion most influential in English poetry.

  8. My point here in part reinforces and gives a literary-historical underpinning to David G. Riede's apt comment that the tone of Rossetti's ending reflects a paradoxical triumph of “the pain of skepticism” over such falsely-artificial images of permanence and stasis as the “heaven” of “The Blessed Damozel.” See “Shelleyan Reflections in the Imagery of D. G. Rossetti,” VP, 19 (1981), 167-184.

Jerome McGann (essay date winter 1988)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10722

SOURCE: McGann, Jerome. “Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Betrayal of the Truth.” Victorian Poetry 26, no. 4 (winter 1988): 339-61.

[In the following essay, McGann traces the thematic development of Rossetti's poetry, asserting that his work repeats “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’.”]

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.


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.


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 1:377)

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
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
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, ll. 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).19 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 “Life-in-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 “Death-in-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 overpainting, 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).

Nathan Cervo (essay date summer 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1522

SOURCE: Cervo, Nathan. “Rossetti's ‘Ave’.” Explicator 47, no. 4 (summer 1989): 37-40.

[In the following essay, Cervo reads “Ave” in light of Il mister dell' amor platonico del medio evo, by Gabriele Rossetti (D. G. Rossetti's father.)]

Despite appearances, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's “Ave” is a complicated poem and remains opaque for critics. Thus Herbert L. Sussman, in Fact into Figure: Typology in Carlyle, Ruskin, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (Columbus: Ohio State U P, 1979), speaks of the poem in terms of “iconic presentation” (65), “a medievalized picture” (66), “essentially pictorial form,” and “historical incidents' (67). In Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Limits of Victorian Vision (Ithaca, New York: Cornell U P, 1983), David G. Riede calls “Ave” “a dramatic monologue without drama,” “an anachronism,” and “quaint” (21).

We can shed a good deal of light on “Ave” by reading it within the framework provided by the poet's father, Gabriele Rossetti, particularly against the backdrop of Il mistero dell' amor platonico del medio evo, originally published by Richard and John E. Taylor (London, 1840) but reprinted by Arché (Milano, 1982). What concerns me in this explication is the word “June” as it appears in the following lines:

          Mind'st thou not (when June's heavy breath
Warmed the long days in Nazareth,)
That eve thou didst go forth to give
Thy flowers some drink that they might live
One faint night more amid the sands?


The poet is addressing Mary and recalling the time when the Angel Gabriel

Spake to thee without any noise,
Being of the silence: …


The reader is left wondering why the month should be June and not some other.

The answer, as I have already indicated, is to be found in the elder Rossetti's Il mistero. According to Gabriele, all literary art of value consists of an inner truth and a lying exterior, in keeping with a “gergo” (jargon) developed by Manichees located in Northern Italy and the South of France during the days of the Inquisition.1 He traced the roots of this gergo back to the priests of Ptah (Memphis, Egypt), the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Kabbala, and esoteric alchemy. Gabriele claimed further that the Italian Ghibellines were obliged to adopt this split manner of speaking in order to communicate with each other while keeping the Guelfs and the Papal Court at bay. An important element of their patois was numerology, derived from both the Kabbalists and Pythagoreans. Thus by using numbers adroitly they were able to codify them and exchange messages, which consisted of “il midollo e la coreteccia della doctrina” (the marrow and sheath of their doctrine, 5.1712). They also used “screen ladies”2 to signal each other and keep their political ideals fresh before their eyes.

According to Gabriele, the number nine was their “perfect number.” Further, Dante's Beatrice never existed historically but was created by Dante to serve as a “screen lady.” For Gabriele, Beatrice was to be understood to mean “Sapienza” (Wisdom; 1712). By this he meant the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) of the Gnostics, who featured Wisdom as the fourth person of their Quaternity. In this light, one must look twice at the opening lines of his son's “Ave”:

Mother of the Fair Delight,
Thou handmaid perfect in God's sight,
Now sitting fourth beside the Three,
Thyself a woman-Trinity,—


Additionally, when one considers Gabriele's (not his own necessarily, but the “Manichaean”)3 meaning, the Shekina of the Old Testament comes to mind.4

Gabriele's work was rather widely read and critiqued. The Edinburgh Review (July 1832), commenting on predecessors to Il mistero, found him somewhat inconsistent but deemed his “theory” formidable. In The Anthenaeum, Arthur Hallam proved severe but respectful. Schlegel5 and P. J. Fraticelli6 attempted to pulverize him. Johannes Mendelssohn (Bericht über Rossetti; Ideen neuern Erlaüterung des Dante und der Dichter seiner Zeit, Berlin, 1840) responded enthusiastically. Ozanam appropriated much of the material that Gabriele had given him to hold in trust and adapted it to his own orthodox purposes (Dante et la philosophie catholique au 14.e siècle, Paris 1839). Gabriele showed himself most forbearing, although Ozanam sharply insulted him now and then, and even quoted Ozanam in Il Mistero. After elaborating on the crucial significance of the number nine to Dante, both within and outside a Masonic context (Dante 183), Ozanam, having established to his own satisfaction that Beatrice really lived and that she died on June 9, writes:

The month of June, which was the month of her death, was the ninth of the Jewish year. But nine is the square of three; three is the number of the divine persons. The destiny over which this number presides seems therefore to be that of a singular manifestation of the Trinity

(My translation. Cited by Rossetti, 1715).

Gabriele footnotes this by making a distinction between the “fisica” (physical) and “metafisica” (metaphysical), between “la vita attiva e la contemplativa” (the active life and the contemplative). He argues that the physical death of purely fictive Beatrice coincides with the spiritual birth of Dante, at a time when the sun, “simbolo della ragione” (symbol of reason) is at its highest elevation.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti thought that Beatrice really existed, although she might have been used by Dante to symbolize Sapienza or, as Ozanam proposed, Theology. Yet in “Ave” he appears to have followed Ozanam's lead as to numerological signification in Canto 2 of the Inferno: “Marie en trois pages revient neuf fois, toujours le nombre mystérieux, et six fois Lucie” (Dante 316). “Mary occurs nine times in three pages, always the mysterious number, and Lucia six times.” In the Canto alluded to, Beatrice tells Virgil that Mary had taken compassion on Dante and asked Lucia to go to Beatrice to entreat her to visit Virgil in Limbo in order that he might bestir himself and come to Dante's aid. Dante, at that time, is lost and terrorized by three beasts in the Dark Wood (“selva oscura”).

In “Ave,” which critics keep on identifying as the younger Rossetti's most Catholic poem, elements creep in which seem to support a nonecclesiastical, Gnostic, and even Manichaean interpretation.7 Mary is introduced as a “fourth” (3) person in what really amounts to a Quaternity. Also, “June” (14) as the month of the Annunciation, when the Word was made flesh, keys to the Plotinian idea of Logos, or the divine structuring “Reason” (Logos), “Which is, as God is, everywhere” (27). The angel's voice, transcending pulpits, is “silence” (30). And it is “something” “like the birth of light” that “still'd” Mary's “senses” (53-4). Here we are pitched toward the Manichaean idea of the Mother of Light whose offspring is the aeon, or archetype, Anthropos (Man). This occurs in June, the sixth month, which is simultaneously the ninth month of the Jewish year. “June's heavy breath” (14) is redolent of fleshliness; it thus may be taken as “la corteccia” (Gabriele) for “il midollo” (Gabriele) of a profoundly anti-Catholic radical spirituality. The surface is Catholic seeming, but the inner truth is a hybrid of Kabbala, gnosis, the emanational neoplatonism of Philo Judaeus, and even Manichaeanism.

To be sure, the poem may be read dialectically, with “That holier sacrament” (41) and “O Mary Virgin, full of grace!” (112) finally winning out: the Eucharist and the Catholic, human reality of actual grace as opposed to the “assumption that grace is a mere external approbation or acceptance, answering to the word ‘favor’.”8 (The phrase “highly favouréd” appears in line 31 of the poem; “full of grace!” ends the poem, being, so to speak, the poet's last word on the subject.) But a dialectical reading of “Ave” is rendered all but impossible or trivial unless we have some idea of precisely what it is that Rossetti means to signify by “June's heavy breath.”


  1. An excellent book on the subject is William Thomas Walsh, Characters of the Inquisition (New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 1940). “Toward the end of the twelfth century, many thousands of Manichees had settled in the cities of Lombardy and Languedoc” (26).

  2. See Robert Briffault, The Troubadours (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana U P, 1965) 92, 122, 185-86.

  3. Although a Freemason, Gabriele persistently affirmed that he was “un buon cattolico” (a good Catholic). He died after receiving the last rites. See Nathan Cervo, “Gabriele Rossetti: ‘On thy Bowed Head, My Father, Fell the Night,’” The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 5.2 (1984): 81-99.

  4. For the meaning of Shekina, see James L. Meagher, How Christ Said the First Mass (1906; Rockford, Illinois: Tan, 1984) 19, 22, 42.

  5. Revue des deux mondes (1826). “Nous n'avons à faire qu' à l'historien sans discernement et au littérateur dépourvu du sentiment de la poésie.” “We are dealing only with an undiscerning historian and a man of letters lacking in a sense of poetry” (my translation).

  6. For Gabriele's rebuttal of Fraticelli, see Ill mistero, 1618 et seqq.

  7. Of the Manichees: “Besides their two gods they had two meanings for all their theological terms: one for themselves, the other for outsiders. … With singular astuteness, they said that their own sect was the true Virgin Mary, begetting spiritual sons and daughters for God. … Asked whether he believed in Christ and the Blessed Virgin, a Manichee would answer, ‘Oh, yes, of course,’ attaching his own private and particular meanings to the terms” (Walsh 58, note 1 above).

  8. John Henry Newman, A Letter to the Rev. E. B. Pusey, D. D. (London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1866) 48.

Nathan A. Cervo (essay date summer 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2779

SOURCE: Cervo, Nathan A. “Petrarch's Cervo and Cerva: The Secret of D. G. Rossetti's ‘The Stream's Secret’.” Victorian Poetry 28, no. 2 (summer 1990): 158-63.

[In the following essay, Cervo maintains that “The Stream's Secret” is concerned with the reconciliation of animus and anima.]

In the third volume of his Il mistero dell'amor platonico del medio evo (The mystery of platonic love in the middle ages),1 Gabriele Rossetti discusses the alchemic role of il Cervo (the Stag) and la Cerva (the Hind) in Petrarch's poetry. The former he identifies with Lauro (Laurel), the latter, with Laura (a pun on l'aura, “the aura,” signifying the divine emanation of sapienza, wisdom, “the science of sciences,” or gnosis). The “Laura” to whom Petrarch wrote his love poetry is thus revealed to be no more than a “screen” (schermo)2 for “truth.” Taken in conjunction with Lauro, Laura is to be read as signifying the olive branch: “Che il Lauro, simbolo della guerra, figuri la vita attiva, e l'Ulivo, simbolo della pace, figuri la contemplativa, tutti lo sanno” (Everybody knows that the Laurel, the symbol of war, figures the active life, and the Olive, the symbol of peace, figures the contemplative; pp. 833-834 [my translation]).

It is not my purpose to exhaust “le sette trasformazioni alle quali fu da Amore assoggettato” (the seven transformations to which [Petrarch] was subjected by Love; pp. 841-842), which accord with the seven stars in the Blessed Damozel's hair in D. G. Rossetti's early poem. I merely wish to indicate how D. G. Rossetti should be read—namely with knowledge of the pagan mysteries (particularly the Eleusinian, which feature Persephone), esoteric alchemy (what Gabriele Rossetti calls il pensier di Menfi, [the thought of Memphis] in his poem Veggente in solitudine [Seer in Solitude]), the neoplatonism of Ficino and della Mirandola, Alexandrian theosophy, Gnosticism, and the Kabbala. Most of these channels of occult lore feed into the gestalt psychology of Carl Jung; and, in common with Jung's depth psychology and postulate of the collective unconscious, propose an individuation process the happy outcome of which is the birth of the genuine self, a self that, having purged itself of ego and shadow, is archetypally at one with the “power that is.” Jung's language involving anima and animus, and the divine hermaphrodite (psychic androgyny), was no stranger to Gabriele Rossetti; nor, it would appear, to his son Dante Gabriel Rossetti, for the younger Rossetti gives every indication, in “The Stream's Secret,” of having read the following passage from his father's Il mistero:

Ci è detto da Plutarco e da Plinio, che Aristeo facea di sè stesso uscire e in sè rientrare l'Anima sua, tutte le volte che ciò gli fosse a grado; e che quand' ella era fuori di lui appariva sotto la forma d'un Cervo. Che questa sia un'immagine mitologica lo porta scritto in fronte; e vuol dire che colui figuravasi come Cervo nelle finzioni in cui dipingeva l'Anima sua come forma esterna, e poi, lasciando quel simbolo, tornava a dirsi Aristeo; appunto come fece il Petrarca nella citata canzone, il quale dopo essersi trasfigurato in Lauro, Cigno, Pietra, Fonte, Cervo, Fuoco ed Aquila, torna ad essere Petrae-arca, la quale è la terza trasfigurazione, perchè nel terzo grado simbolico il neofito è adombrato in un morto che vien chiuso in un'arca di pietra, cioè in una tomba.

(p. 845)

Plutarch and Pliny tell us that Aristeus made his “Anima” leave his body and come back whenever he wished; and that when she was outside of him she appeared under the form of a Stag. That this is a mythic image is obvious; and it means that he could figure himself as a Stag in fictions in which he depicted his “Anima” as an external form, and then, leaving that symbol, returning to call himself Aristeus; precisely as Petrarch did in the cited sonnet, in which, after transforming himself into Laurel, Swan, Stone, Fountain, Stag, Fire, and Eagle, he returns to the Ark of Stone, which is the third transformation, because in the third symbolic stage the neophyte is adumbrated as a corpse that has just been closed in an ark of stone, that is in a tomb.

(My translation)

In the above light, the reader of “The Stream's Secret” can readily see that D. G. Rossetti is giving us a hint to a Petrarchan key in “shall we beside this stone / Yield thanks for grace” (ll. 194-195), the otherwise gratuitous “stone” being the pietra of Petrarch's name (Petrae-arca). The driving death wish of the poem is also seen to be in keeping with “the third transformation,” that of an entombed corpse.3 All this, however, must be taken in a mythic, not autobiographical sense, for Rossetti's subject is the individuation process that results in a perfectly integrated self, a self that has died to ego and shadow.4

Essentially, “The Stream's Secret” has to do with the reconciliation of the Cervo of external forms or reality (as in the case of Aristeus) and the Cerva of internal reality or the projective power of the soul, that is, with the reconciliation of animus and anima. The result will be the hieros gamos (about which Jung so frequently speaks),5 that is, the Divine Hermaphrodite of occult lore. Once one has arrived at this stage of illumination, one is chaste. Apollo (sun) and Diana (moon), brother and sister, become one: “One love in unity” (“The Stream's Secret,” l. 138). Cervo must become Cerva, and vice versa. They merge; they do not remain distinct, though united, as in Jung's notion of the hieros gamos (the Sacred Marriage). Gabriele Rossetti writes that “ne' misteri il neofito, o nuova pianta, è considerato come una donna” (in the Mysteries the neophyte, or new plant, is considered to be a woman; p. 842). In D. G. Rossetti's poem, the persona obviously regards himself as one of the external forms or “simulacra” (Gabriele Rossetti's word), that is, as il Cervo. The mysterious “her” of line four refers to the anima or la Cerva. The best that this anima seems capable of is no more than the reinforcement of “memory's circling strain” (l. 94). As we have already seen, Cervo and Fonte are interchangeable ideas in Petrarch, and both refer to the myth concerning Diana and Actaeon. When Petrarch, in one of his poems, figures himself as Actaeon, he describes how he happened upon Diana:

                                        quella fera bella e cruda
In una fonte, ignuda,
Si stava.

(cited by Gabriele Rossetti; p. 843)

                                                  that haughty and coarse beauty
In a fountain spring, nude,
Was standing.

The proud bather dashes water in the watcher's face:

L'acqua nel viso con le man mi sparse.
With her hands she splashed water into my face.

The result is Actaeon's transformation into a stag:

Ed in un Cervo solitario e vago
Di selva in selva ratto mi trasformo.
And into a Stag solitary and wandering
From wood to wood I change, rapt.

The transformation occurred at noon, “quando il sol più forte ardea” (when the sun shone most strongly), when the shadow may be thought to be nonexistent. However, ego is still in force. Desires are at cross-purposes. What the Actaeon-persona calls “mio Desire” is not the bathing Diana's.

In “The Stream's Secret,” D. G. Rossetti never quite manages to effect the alchemic coniunctio oppositorum.6 The persona rather mawkishly assumes that it is “Love” (l. 7) that has “leaned low / This hour beside thy far well-head, / And there through jealous hollowed fingers said / The thing that most I long to know” (ll. 7-10). The persona exposes his Achilles' heel in the phrase “The thing,” since his velleity is directed toward the mental habit of extreme reification, at the expense of the health-giving alchemic complexio oppositorum,7 which insists on the pervasive spiritual aspect of reality. For him, external form is severed from gnosis and diminished to being the occasion only for Sehnsucht, providing little more than opportunities for amorous posturing and clamoring. The fountain spring remains time in its most opaque condition, and, motivated by pique, the maudlin persona abjures the stream:

          Let happy lovers have no part
With thee; nor even so sad and poor a heart
                    As thou hast spurned to-day.

(ll. 202-204)

The noon, when Actaeon espies Diana and when desires may mesh, is past: “Lo! night is here” (l. 205). The abject persona then thinks of “Love's self” (l. 217) “with Death's eyes” (l. 219). Death “Gathers the water in his hand” (l. 220), as had the shamed Diana when improperly and abruptly accosted by the uncouth Actaeon. Having been unable to effectuate a genuinely spiritual liaison with the world of external forms, which includes himself, the persona resorts to distilling the morbid psychic sublimate of a Petrarchan Cerva: “O soul-sequestered face / Far off,—O were that night but now!” (ll. 223-224). For the psychologically effete persona, immediate reality remains exanimate: ironically, the Fonte, from which a receptive Diana is absent, becomes the tarnished mirror image of the Cervo-persona's psyche; that is, the pitiable reflection of “un Cervo solitario e vago”:

                    O water whispering
          Still through the dark into mine ears,—
As with mine eyes, is it not now with hers?—
          Mine eyes that add to thy cold spring,
Warm water, wandering water weltering,
                    This hidden tide of tears.

(ll. 229-234)

Schwärmerei, the anima (desire or eros) in a tizzy without the reciprocal support of the animus (reason or logos), remains puerile or, as in the case of the neophyte in the Mysteries, a caricature of feminity. The Petrarchan Laurel and Olive do not unite in one being. Of “Lauro” and “Laura” Gabriele Rossetti writes: “Il poeta si presenta in seguito trasfigurato in Cervo; e il lettore era con ciò avvertito che la Cerva, la quale ei poscia incontrerebbe, era pure il poeta stesso” (The poet presents himself subsequently transfigured into a Stag; and the reader was thereby alerted that the Hind, which he would meet afterwards, was also the selfsame poet; p. 842). The poet, it would appear, is most a poet when writing not as a “man” or a “woman” but as a human being; and here, I think, is where the key alchemic idea of chastity enters in. Commenting on Petrarch's “Trionfo della Castità” (Triumph of Chastity), Rossetti writes: “Il poeta dipinge Laura, la quale con una catena di diamanti e topazi, infusa in Lete, lega Amore” (The poet depicts Laura, who with a chain of diamonds and topazes, dipped in Lethe, binds Love; p. 848). Rossetti says that diamonds symbolize the sun (animus, logos) and topazes symbolize the moon (anima, eros).8 Sun and moon must become one before Love can be bound. Their union is thus perceived to result not in the hegemony of “Love” but of Eunoë (Right-mindedness, Good Will). In Sonnet CLVI, cited by Rossetti (pp. 847-848), Petrarch writes:

Una candida Cerva sopra l'erba
          Verde m'apparve con due corna d'oro,
          Fra due riviere

(ll. 1-3)

A milk-white Hind on the green grass
          Appeared to me with two horns of gold,
Between two large and deep rivers.

Rossetti identifies the “two horns of gold” as anima and animus, and the “two large and deep rivers” as Lethe and Eunoë. Since only stags, and not hinds, have horns, and keeping in mind that all analogies limp, Petrarch has blended Cerva and Cervo, a more merciful Diana with a more sagacious or alert Actaeon.

As we have seen, the chain of diamonds and topazes with which Laura binds Love has been dipped in Lethe, the river of forgetfulness in the Underworld. In “The Stream's Secret,” the persona is never able to forget. The chief encumbrance that he cannot forget is himself, his ego. He does not succeed in binding Love; quite the contrary. Love binds him and casts him out in the darkness. The persona abides amid external forms, within the phantasmagoric realm of an animus whose corresponding anima is mortally ill; and all the more so since, for him, the anima consists wholly of remnant memories, redolent of self-pitying emotions, and their kaleidoscopic interplay. An outraged Diana has thrown time in his face, and he ends the poem pretty much as he had begun it, the hapless victim of his own intrusive ignorance, “un Cervo solitario e vago.”


  1. Gabriele Rossetti, Il mistero dell'amor platonico del medio evo, 5 vols. (1840; Milan, 1982), 3:841-854.

  2. The idea of the “screen” (schermo) is joined to that of mio segreto (my secret) in a passage from La Vita Nuova cited by Gabriele Rossetti (Il mistero, 5:1510). The D. G. Rossetti translation follows:

    Now it fell on a day, that this most gracious creature was sitting where words were to be heard of the Queen of Glory; and I was in a place whence mine eyes could behold their beatitude: and betwixt her and me, in a direct line, there sat another lady of a pleasant favour; who looked round at me many times, marvelling at my continued gaze which seemed to have her for its object. And many perceived that she thus looked; so that departing thence, I heard it whispered after me, “Look you to what a pass such a lady hath brought him;” and in saying this they named her who had been midway between the most gentle Beatrice and mine eyes. Therefore I was reassured, and knew that for that day my secret had not become manifest. Then immediately it came into my mind that I might make use of this lady as a screen to the truth: and so well did I play my part that the most of those who had hitherto watched and wondered at me, now imagined they had found me out.

    (1846; New York, 1911, p. 37)

    Among Victorian literary critics who thought they had found Rossetti out was Robert Buchanan, whom the terrible chastity of Rossetti's poetry transformed into “un Cervo.

  3. Like Jesus' before the Resurrection. As Gabriele Rossetti pointed out, “Il Cervo è sacro a Diana” (The Stag is sacred to Diana). Hecate, the Triple Goddess, reflects the “tria virginis ora Dianae” (Virgil; the three faces of the virgin Diana). Hecate-Persephone awaits the soul (anima) in the Underworld. The somatic “seed” needs to die before the Gnostic ascension of the illuminated man can occur. See Edward F. Edinger, The Christian Archetype: A Jungian Commentary on the Life of Christ (Toronto, 1987), “Lamentation and Entombment,” pp. 107-112 and “Resurrection and Ascension,” pp. 113-122.

  4. The shadow is the ersatz self. See Edinger, pp. 58, 72-73, 91, 99; and John P. Dourley, Love, Celibacy and the Inner Marriage (Toronto, 1987), pp. 10-11, 28, 42. The shadow is the subject of D. G. Rossetti's “Lost Days” (The House of Life, Sonnet LXXXVI):

    I do not see them here; but after death
              God knows I know the faces I shall see,
    Each one a murdered self, with low last breath,
              “I am thyself,—what hast thou done to me?”
    “And I—and I—thyself,” (lo! each one saith,)
              “And thou thyself to all eternity!”

    (ll. 9-14)

  5. For hieros gamos, see Edinger, pp. 131, 133; Dourley, p. 39.

  6. For the coniunctio, see Edinger, pp. 99, 102, 133. The coniunctio theorists are opposed to dualism of any kind. On p. 99, Edinger writes of “the image of the Saviour crucified between two thieves”:

    This great symbol tells us that the progressive development and differentiation of consciousness leads to an ever more menacing awareness of the conflict and involves nothing less than a crucifixion of the ego, its agonizing suspension between irreconcilable opposites.

    For Jung, the crucifixion is an archetypal paradigm: Jesus is simultaneously the Redeemer and the Devil whom He redeems. He thus reconciles the “opposites” in His person.

  7. For the complexio, see Dourley, pp. 116 n. 37. On p. 84, Dourley rightly observes that “for Jung efforts to ‘get God out of the psyche,’ in the interests of preserving some kind of divine transcendence in principle unrelated to the human, are doomed to failure.” We should note that Gabriele Rossetti himself approached the subject by lumping Gnosticism, esoteric alchemy, neoplatonism, et al. under the rubric of “Manicheism.” He viewed Dante and Petrarch as true Christian believers who were obliged to adopt Manichean code strategies in order to baffle an oppressive “official” Church: “Hence they availed themselves of a figurative system derived from Egypt and from Persia, a system transmitted by Mani and diffused by his followers, not because they were true Manichees, but because they recognized there a profitable means of communicating among themselves” (Il mistero, 4:1046). According to him, such true believers were animated by “una sola legge nel Santo Spirito di carità” (a single law in the Holy Spirit of charity; my translations).

  8. The six extant versions of D. G. Rossetti's Dantis Amor are to the point here. The sun in the upper left-hand corner is frankly identified as Christ the King, and the crescent moon in the lower right-hand corner, at which the “sun” gazes in reciprocated affection, is identified as Beatrice.

Marcus Bullock (essay date June 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10306

SOURCE: Bullock, Marcus. “Benjamin, Baudelaire, Rossetti and the Discovery of Error.” Modern Language Quarterly 53, no. 2 (June 1992): 201-25.

[In the following essay, Bullock applies Walter Benjamin's reading of Charles Baudelaire to Rossetti, and delineates the “differences of style and stature” between the two poets.]

Walter Benjamin wrote much that examined the situation of nineteenth-century culture under conditions of industrial capitalism and mercantile imperialism. In principle one should be able to carry his insights over to objects of study with which he does not deal individually. Yet generalizations risk overlooking the specificity of his analyses. Tempting as it is to broaden his reading of Baudelaire to other writers of the period, we can easily mistake the nature of his project if we assume too ready a transference. A clear, cool, precise inquiry does better justice to his messianic spirit of truth.

My discussion focuses on a revealing case. In an important recent essay Jerome McGann has assimilated the Victorian sensibility of Dante Gabriel Rossetti to the Baudelaire of the Second Empire. He affirms that the wealth of material by Benjamin on Baudelaire applies equally to Rossetti because they face a common set of difficulties afflicting the artist under conditions compelling works of art to compete in the marketplace with mass-produced commodities. McGann writes:

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 had been forced by circumstance to be carried out within a marketing and commercial frame of reference.1

We may begin to establish a renewed significance in Rossetti's work for our understanding of cultural history by giving that similarity its due, but we cannot realize its full value until the differences have received their due also. While this initial similarity of circumstances in nineteenth-century London and Paris may have defined the broad framework of problems confronted in common, one naturally resists the idea that what one poet “accomplished” would automatically fall in line with the achievement of his counterpart, since no historical situation ever completely matches any other. The relationship to what McGann calls “artistic and poetic transcendence,” or the construction of aesthetic distance between concrete experience and represented experience, must also reflect more specific aspects in the situation of these two bodies of work. Their separate standing in two national traditions will reveal influences that extend beyond the single dimension of a response to a general historical frame of reference. It would not be a reversal of McGann's argument to pursue the differences of style and stature between Rossetti and Baudelaire, but rather would go some way to complete what he has initiated.

Moreover, to do so by direct reference to the source of his comparison, Walter Benjamin, enables us to pursue a clearer understanding of a critical method whose subtleties are most appropriate to drawing out the further ramifications of literary criticism for the issues of cultural, social, and political history that McGann has taken up. He rightly recognizes that Benjamin's method explores literary texts not for their revelations of the real but for the accuracy of their insights into error. Benjamin does insist that all authority in literary texts is limited by the falsity of worldly exchange in its social conditions, but differences in literary achievement arise according to the degree of critical consciousness by which a body of work actively separates its standpoint from mere passive participation in the continuities and conformities of its circumstances.

McGann is able to present the claim to accuracy in error for Rossetti by identifying his position precisely with the conditions of worldly exchange that characterized his time:

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.” In Rossetti's case as well, therefore, “the point of departure is the object riddled with error.” 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.

(p. 348)

Yet Benjamin's notion of error does not necessarily support this equation. He is neither agnostic about the truth, letting it remain as undecidable so that error itself is indifferent; nor atheistic, abandoning the concept completely so that error is inevitable; nor ideological, claiming to have a direct formulation of truth in his hands by which he can judge error and correct it. Benjamin always insists with the same persistent vehemence that there is reality, there is truth, and by his own definition, in every context of his work without exception, that truth is messianic. That is, even though it is absent from the world in the condition of our knowledge, the value of all things is determined by their relation to it. The relationship to a messianic truth is not made equal by a common condition in the fallenness of the world in untruth. The same point of departure does not determine the same vector value. That is to say, the value of a work that turns away from error is not just a matter of secret discontent. What Benjamin looks for in historical culture is a critical consciousness of error and illusion, and what he demands of literature is an explicit resistance to myth by the discipline of thought and language.

Benjamin's messianism causes extraordinary problems for those who want to draw a direct political inference from his criticism, and that includes himself in his later work. While the early stage of his philosophical reasoning used the messianic idea as an exclusion of subjective authority from false claims to objective truth, his Marxist outlook required that he move this theological term closer to a secular function, while remaining aware that the history of all approaches between theological authority and temporal power is fraught with dangers. For the viewpoint of those who would base their own authority on the representations of an ideology derived from Marxism, the hesitation to which Benjamin always returns by repeating the messianic nature of materialist truth remains an obstacle to his reception. Terry Eagleton, for example, clearly finds it an embarrassment that has to be explained away.2 Yet in all the forms of textual analysis that Benjamin undertook, it also results in an extraordinary capacity to overcome problems that obscure the structure of interacting forces in cultural artifacts.

In particular, the unique rigor Benjamin derives from a messianic exclusion of truth from representation opens up the critical space between desire for what is absent and the discipline that preserves that desire from illusion. Because he can distinguish so radically between transcendence and truth, he is able to separate the artistic pleasure that a work can make present from the human value of the truth that it cannot provide. This applies both to aesthetic pleasure in the formal mastery by which composition has confronted the medium of expression, and to delight in representations that possess an object of longing by enframing its image in the form of a tangible artifact. This marks out a critical position that preserves a neutral point of balance between “greater” and “lesser” works and between high art and the object of mass consumption. Protected from the seductions of each, Benjamin remains free to explore all as attractive powers without having to assert the rights of one over the other. He can describe these powers in the way they distinguish individual works, a particular oeuvre, or a period and argue the case of a classical masterpiece or an object of mass consumption, not in order to privilege either, but in order to play off one pleasure against another to demonstrate the distance from truth in both.

There can be little doubt that the discipline of separating aesthetic pleasure from illusion also distinguishes Baudelaire from Rossetti. This difference in artistic consciousness can be deduced from their formulations when they reflect on their poetic work in their poetry. The complex self-consciousness that thematizes the work of composition itself within the writing is much rarer in Rossetti than in Baudelaire. Rossetti's verse does not often refer directly to the art of poetry, but late in life he did write a sonnet reflecting on the sonnet as a form. It was included as an introductory statement for the 101 sonnets that make up the sequence “The House of Life” in the new edition of his work in 1881. Though it might be tempting to take this statement as a theoretical position as we now understand the force of theory, to do so would clearly misuse the text. The first line, “A sonnet is a moment's monument,”3 should apply to this sonnet, too. It is the reflection of a moment looking back on a lifetime's writing, a view on a practice, not a critical penetration of that practice. Nevertheless, its primary images are useful as figures that not only convey something about Rossetti's weaknesses but also identify what afflicts him in the situation he shares with other poets of his time. By identifying his place in the developing history of lyric verse, this sonnet brings achievements like his and those of other contemporaries into a context by which one can better measure them against Baudelaire's achievement. And it enables us to state more clearly what gave Benjamin the material for a political critique found nowhere in Baudelaire's own attitudes or statements.

The key motif is given in the completion of the opening thought, which reads, “A sonnet is a moment's monument, / Memorial from the Soul's eternity / To the one dead deathless hour.” At first, it might sound like the same appreciation of the lyrical moment that one may find as the most typical temporal structure in Romanticism. But in fact that structure is collapsing here. If one compares it with the opening of Blake's “Auguries of Innocence”—“To see a World in a grain of sand, / And a Heaven in a wild flower, / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, / And eternity in an hour”—the change is clear. For Rossetti, the moment no longer survives in the form of such living intimations. That hour is now dead and lost to him. In its place the poem appears. To fulfill the role of substitute, the text has to be given a monumental destiny, and in its heavily ornamented diction it is constructed to house a new “deathless” life of mannered exaggeration.

The infinite no longer enters the poem as a revelation in an illuminated moment but leaves its mark in the form of a recollection that something has passed away and cannot be named or touched in the text memorializing it. In Romanticism the dimension of an infinitude or transcendence entering and informing the lyric moment effects that “unique experience of a distance no matter how near it may be,” in Benjamin's famous definition of aura.4 The poem now finds no natural opening toward that infinite internal space, even though the unresolved longing prompts every piling on of artifice in the desperate hope that doing so may spark an alternative into being. His language comes upon itself in a condition of displacement and struggles to supply a replacement for the zero at its bone. This is the general condition of Rossetti's poetry, and he stands very equivocally before the contradiction.

At times Rossetti draws on a heavily loaded language of glittering objects and rich materials to rebuild an atmosphere of illumination, as indeed where the introductory sonnet invokes its own “flowering crest impearled and orient.” At times he employs a recherché archaism of vocabulary, or else he appeals to a profane sensuality whose intensity may be taken as either a substitute for or a reminder of the intensity of that missing dimension lost somewhere in the house of life. Yet without any illuminating savor of that “secret life of things” still living for the Romantics, there is only the “bitterness of things occult” with which Rossetti concludes his bleak sonnet dedicated to Leonardo's painting, “Our Lady of the Rocks” (CWR, p. 344). And in the bitterness left behind when the eternal dimension refuses itself, illumination returns in reverse, as a dark and demonic threat. Because it is framed by a longing whose object has gone from the nerve of experience, it persists as a terror that has no corresponding link to any promise of happiness. It is an intimation of emptiness or chaos, casting an implacable and melancholy shadow over all his monuments. The introductory sonnet mentions this as the two sides of a coin whose face reveals the soul, but whose converse side may show contrary possibilities in “to what Power 'tis due,” whether its worth is for a purchase on life and love or a debt paid out to death.

The division reflects the unrestrained force of desire or will within this poetry as well as the weight of sorrow before which it is equally defenseless due to that lack of restraint. This helplessness before recurrent melancholy is, of course, equally characteristic of other poetry in this halfway stage between Romanticism and a more austere, chastened style of modernity that places its reflections on eternity within much tighter bounds. The “secret agent” that Benjamin saw in Baudelaire is remarkably unsure of his agency in Rossetti's case. The pursuit of cultural goods from tradition to hold and fill up the vessel of the moment is driven by a desire for which there is no real help. When the illusion that the moment has gained possession of transcendent time collapses, the emptiness of failed illusion itself becomes a demonic trap whereby the moment encloses the imagination in timelessness without egress. This contrasts with the glassy clarity by which Baudelaire challenges spleen and holds it in the open space of his own poetic perspective.

Baudelaire's poem “Allégorie” gives the most explicit picture of what powers of composition he draws on to combat the threatening horror of a world bereft of transcendent meaning. The allegorical figure of allegory, emblem of the position he takes in the act of writing, confers her invulnerable separation from things onto him. The “granit de sa peau” (granite of her skin) lets all the corrosive attacks of death and debauchery slip harmlessly from her.5 Being thus untouched by the world in which she stands, this “vierge inféconde” (barren virgin) is equally indifferent to hell and purgatory. Her beauty is a pure surface promising nothing, less even than skin-deep because she is no more than the presentation of an aesthetic artifice. She is “sans haine et sans remords” (without hatred and without remorse), and she knows her sterile beauty can “de toute infamie arrache le pardon” (compel forgiveness of every infamy) because there is nothing in her abstract relations that guilt or punishment could find. Guilt in Benjamin's view always hovers about symbolic meaning because it is a deceit, an imposition of longing on an object whose inherent significance it represses by that false naming. Allegory makes no such close approach and risks no such shock of rebuff.

His having accepted the role of allegorist was for Benjamin the key to what sets Baudelaire against the ruling forces of nineteenth-century culture. Armed against the fetishistic power of objects that bewitch others who cannot contemplate the barrenness of the world, he does indeed move without impediment like a secret agent among the dense crowds of those enthralled by illusion. There are not only sharp differences of standing between these two poets within the canon of lyric poetry; Baudelaire's achievement also reveals a much more precise consciousness of the significance of a mass culture under modern conditions than Rossetti's. The unrestrained effect of Rossetti's desire causes his form of competition to participate in temptations similar to those of mass culture and therefore to leave him within reach of its purgatory and hell. Benjamin finds something new and very important for the development of modernist aesthetics in Baudelaire's critical refusal of an illusory distraction by mythic elements in traditional literature, which appear only as the masks of a theater over which time has left its dust as an antidote to any lingering spell.

Rossetti uses the subjective affect gathered up from the conventional storehouse of tradition to graft a decorative layer of mythic content onto the representation in both his paintings and his verse. Baudelaire's canonical stature comes from the acknowledgment by all subsequent practitioners of aesthetic modernity that the only place left for art lies beyond the reach of that pleasurable beguilement for which the traditional audiences of both high and low art continue to long. The doubts one feels about Rossetti are a response to his embrace of the affect into which he wishes to escape and into whose illusion he invites his readers to lose themselves. Our century's equivocal judgment on Rossetti's value cannot be separated from a broader equivocation in our relationship to all Victorian writers, which in turn springs from the complexities of their relationship to modernity.

We should be reminded in general that the task of applying Benjamin's ideas on nineteenth-century literary history and aesthetic theory to English literature is no simple one. Little in his writings indicates either familiarity with or interest in the English-speaking tradition. Certainly he never produced any study of an English writer that could be compared to his work on German, French, or even Russian examples. This has not kept scholars of British and American literature from making frequent reference to his ideas, but in many cases quotations of his words establish only a tenuous link to the insights in other fields on which his reputation has been built. Even where those words seem to correspond to the terms of debate in English scholarship, closer examination of the texts from which they are drawn, and of the full body of Benjamin's work in which they are developed, reveals profound reasons to doubt that their direct transfer to the context of Anglo-Saxon styles of reasoning preserves what is most essential in their origin.

Benjamin does not construct an armory of concepts that each identify and guard the way to a specific positive phenomenon. Furthermore, the positions he argues do not stay consistently within the limits of a fixed standard by which one could predict how he would approach different texts. Terms such as aura, on which one must depend in Benjamin's statements concerning the effect of commodification, do not define a single point of judgment for him but rather mark out a trail of critical development as they undergo shifts of meaning from essay to essay. Nonetheless, the notion of development implies another level of consistency as he pursues the complex potential of an idea through successive aspects and applications. The problem that keeps one from fixing on a definition for that idea is described by calling the process dialectical. It is a mistake, however, to sound too knowing when invoking dialectics as though it in any way solved the problem.

The reception of Benjamin's work remains radically divided as various camps try to anchor him to a specific set of explicit values that they consider fundamental. The difficulty with each set is that Benjamin will accept no such explicit formulation as fundamental. This has prompted Michael Jennings to argue at length that Benjamin is fundamentally a nihilist.6 Yet while Jennings makes the very important point that Benjamin's thinking corresponds to that of none of the ideologues who try to claim him as their own, it also does not resemble that of any other nihilist. His apparently nihilistic side is derived from the element of destructiveness that all messianism directs against the totality of the world it opposes. Benjamin's insistence on negation remains an obstacle for any particular ideology because of his reticence in giving the messianic truth over to ideological claims.

Benjamin does not espouse any image that vulgar authority declares to be the truth. He refuses, in other words, to allow the force vested in a theological position to pass into a theocratic camp. Those who feel he ought to have been more forthright in eliminating theological elements that cloud the political stand they see him approach with such strong philosophical and ethical support are quite wrong to take his reticence for a confused ambivalence. He is simply consistent in maintaining the distinction between messianic truth and his own, or any other, temporal knowledge. For this reason, nevertheless, the accuracy of Jennings's estimation of how isolated Benjamin stands among different ideologies makes his account of Benjamin's literary theory the most precise and intellectually honest available to us.

It is also true that Benjamin's distinctive stand does not present difficulties to assimilation by the English-speaking tradition only. Bernd Witte, a leading German commentator on his work, argues that the brilliance and originality of Benjamin's formulations depends on an “extreme individualism” rooted in such a private order of experience that it remains irredeemably locked up in a “hermetic esotericism.”7 Rodolphe Gasché takes up Witte's objections again to show that, despite its “idiosyncrasy,” Benjamin's position continues to share in the philosophical tradition enough to implicate it in a metaphysics of presence.8 While Gasché's argument does emphasize the central and fundamental place of truth in all of Benjamin's work, and thus distinguishes his outlook from what we normally think of as nihilism, he certainly does not do justice to the concept of truth in that work.

Philosophical debate in recent years has unfortunately been inclined to inflate the metaphysics of presence into a blunt instrument of polemic designed to bulldoze any text in which there is a claim to truth. The opportunity to elucidate the conception of truth as the most varied and complex feature of any text is thus wasted. Though such an elucidation does not address the purely metaphysical problem that remains for philosophy, it is the most proper concern and care of literary criticism. What moves Benjamin in his varied and unpredictable approaches to a text is his sense that its primary content emerges not in what it names but in the intricate labor of mediation and approximation in the process of naming and, perhaps even more, in the veils and stratagems of resignation involved in the failure to complete that approximation. In short, Benjamin looks in the interplay of nearness and distance for the reality of language, including, of course, his own. Aura for him is not a fixed quantity but a term relating to the more fundamental questions of nearness and distance.

Differences of accomplishment for Benjamin concern the achievement of forms of artistic or poetic transcendence that do not vitiate the concrete sphere of human life by recourse to veils of illusion. In simple terms, he is looking for forms of distance in the media of expression and representation that do not cancel nearness beyond recovery. To consider how Benjamin's theory would result in a “judgment” of Rossetti's artistic stature misses the point. It is quite misleading to guess which side Benjamin would have taken in the debate over Rossetti's literary value if making the guess means trying to estimate how Benjamin would have ranked him in the hierarchy of aesthetic standards.

In the Passagenwerk, the extensive but unfinished study of cultural history in nineteenth-century Paris, Benjamin notes: “The pathos of this work: there are no periods of decline. I take pains to be as thoroughly positive in my view of the nineteenth century as I was with the seventeenth century in my work on the play of mourning. No belief in periods of decline.”9 It is rather difficult to say precisely what Benjamin means by “pathos,” but it may be presumed to indicate the rhetorical maneuver of appealing to readers to align themselves with the perspective he describes. But if this perspective suspends the distinction between the grandeur of classical beauty and those lesser accomplishments brought forth by other periods, he does not argue that no such distinctions exist. Similarly, he does not argue in this great study that there is no essential distinction between high art and the object of mass consumption, even though he pays a degree of attention to lowly articles usually reserved for the classical masterpiece. Those differences are a matter of the kind and degree of artistic pleasure offered. By setting aside and suspending concern with such pleasures, which are the pleasures of distance, Benjamin gains access to the meaning of other differences.

These differences are more worldly than artistic transcendence and more intimately connected to the concrete realities of life, which Benjamin addresses in the concern with “nearness.” In the same section of the Passagenwerk he extends his thought:

What I observed above, put another way: the indestructible highest element of life present in all things. Against the prognosticators of decline. To be sure: is it not a desecration of Goethe to make a film of Faust, and is there not a world of difference between the book and the film? Indeed. But is there not another world of difference between a bad and a good filming of Faust? It is never a matter of the “great” contrasts, but the dialectical ones, which often can be mistaken for mere nuances. Yet from these, new life is constantly reborn.

(GS, 1:573; my translation)

But before one can pursue this new life in the differences between Baudelaire and Rossetti, one has to confront the complexity of a contrast between the two poets that does not simply retreat to a restatement of their established canonical merit determined by the measure of classical aesthetics. One has first to arrive at a degree of clarity about what gateway that retreat looks for, since as a matter of practical literary criticism the maneuver is by no means as simple as it sounds.

The centenary issue of Victorian Poetry dedicated to Dante Gabriel Rossetti (vol. 20, nos. 3-4 [Autumn-Winter 1982]) departed a little from the usual celebratory tone when it led off with an essay by William E. Fredeman titled “What Is Wrong with Rossetti?” The question itself is an old one, referring specifically to Evelyn Waugh's biography, Rossetti: His Life and Works, written in 1928. Fredeman follows Waugh's example by turning to the issue of Rossetti's personal flaws rather than considering how the matter extends into questions of literary institutions in the Western tradition. Waugh's own comments, such as that Rossetti “lacked the moral stability of a great artist,”10 are not, as Fredeman suggests, brilliant, but rather trite. The causes of any behavior that subsequently invited Waugh's moral censure might have hindered Rossetti but should surely not be called on to explain corruptions of artistic accomplishment.

It might be thought that a shared relation to “the object riddled with error” could dispose of Fredeman's question with the answer “What is wrong with Baudelaire?” Although Fredeman states quite rightly that the problem with Rossetti's verse is more subtle than with his paintings, whose weaknesses “are obvious to even the untrained eye” (p. xxi), he sees the issue in both cases as one of “technique” or the consistency of style. But if that accomplishment marks a world of difference between Rossetti and Baudelaire, it is equivalent to the world of difference between Faust and a film and therefore is not the world to which Benjamin's pathos directs our concern. Nonetheless, the world of difference between a good film and a bad film, as determined by Benjamin's particular view, also lies between these two poets. One should remember that Benjamin states clearly throughout “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that what makes a good film is not to be confused with the currently established criteria for a great work of art.

The effect of a “culture industry,” whose products are delivered to the market at an unprecedented tempo and are consumed in unprecedented quantities, opens up an overwhelming public forum for something that previously may have been ubiquitous but would have been controlled by the authority of social norms and the institutions of social education: bad taste. What sets value in the mass market is the effectiveness of a product as fulfillment in effigy of fantasy desires determined by the framework of a conventional set of images. It is no doubt nostalgic illusion to think that before the system of commodity exchange extended its reach into the sphere of art, the tendency to receive representations in that form had not yet come into being. The difference mechanical reproduction makes is that it confers on bad taste an expanded power to corrupt an old form of art as well as to bring a new kind of art into being.

The producer of literature has to contend with a split now. The discipline of composition, of technical accomplishment in the unique identity of the work, retains its historical position. That is why no sudden oblivion in our times has swallowed up the great works of the preindustrial tradition. At the same time, the writer participates in a society whose most widespread form of consciousness is that of the consumer. Where once the discipline of a restricted public sphere for artistic reception supposed a singular notion of canonical pleasure in the thoroughly composed masterpiece, with its rigorous demands on the imagination, the position of work that must compete in the market has to acknowledge the power of a second order of pleasure, the consumption of fantasies. What distinguishes Rossetti from Baudelaire is the way he has negotiated this split. Less innocent than Blake, perhaps, but less a “hypocrite” than Baudelaire, he has permitted the fantasy of pleasures in effigy to afflict the work of imagining thoroughly composed forms.

The writing therefore participates in a subaltern appreciation that “aestheticizes” experience in a fundamentally different direction from the stricter modernist aestheticism of Baudelaire. Such appreciation belongs to the reader who enjoys the mere evocation of affective values as a supplementary fulfillment of the desires that multiply in all levels of urbanized and industrialized culture. This reading gives up the aspiration of formal integrity to emancipate itself from the fascination its motifs exercise on a more banal consciousness of them. Rossetti's nostalgic evocation of lost beauties, his rebellious sensuality, the melancholy retreat from everyday reality, and the posturing that asserts the privilege of a cultivated interior all have their equivalents in Baudelaire's sensibility. But Rossetti's self-seduction by these affects has brought his imagination to a halt on the winding road that Baudelaire followed to its destination. Baudelaire's fraternal address to his “hypocrite lecteur” is a cryptic message to the few who, like himself, understand the difference between enthralled rapture before the dark indulgences at which his progress through Paris clearly hints and a more ascetic pleasure of insight into the irony and autonomy won by purely literary efforts of language and composition.

This split corresponds to a division that is central to the work of the Frankfurt school, whose members distinguished between “culture” and “mere culture.” The importance they attached to culture, demonstrating the rigorous technical mastery of the classical tradition, lay in its being directly antagonistic to the latter, representing the totality of conventional images, desires, and myth. That is, they separated the tradition of an active, rational analysis of works of art for their critical meaning as structures composed by an autonomous command of technique, from the inheritance of works and passive reception that sustain an established system of values and social order. They used this criterion both to separate authentic works from objects of consumption and to separate critical modes of apprehending the work from passive fantasy pleasures derived from the same object. Theodor Adorno, for example, makes the former application in his essay on jazz and the latter in his essay on art museums.11

When Benjamin takes the position in his Passagenwerk that he will dispense with the usual distinction between periods of classical vigor and those of decline, he is certainly not retreating from the distinction between authentic and inauthentic culture but radicalizing its possibilities. His project differs from Adorno's work not in its focus on the primacy of historical understanding over pleasurable consumption but in its view of the aesthetic pleasure taken in the classical work. The Frankfurt school takes the mastery of a medium in the solution of technical problems to reflect the relative autonomy of the classical work from myth or ideology as these predominate in the ordinary social world, and thereby to sustain a utopian ideal of autonomous rationality within that aspect of culture for the subject. In that view, the subject of mere culture is the product of institutional power that predominates throughout the given social system, and the irrational logic of those abstract systems asserts itself throughout the existence of such subjects. Nonetheless, the potential for rational subjectivity persists, no matter how isolated and deeply sequestered, in the domain of classical form.

Benjamin cannot find this secure capability in subjectivity of any kind. In his essay “A Portrait of Walter Benjamin” Adorno himself observes, “In all his phases, Benjamin conceived the downfall of the subject and the salvation of man as inseparable” (Prisms, p. 231). Benjamin's understanding of objectivity necessitates an idea of truth that is not a product of any subjectivity but its counterpart:

His target is not an allegedly over-inflated subjectivism but rather the notion of a subjective dimension itself. Between myth and reconciliation, the poles of his philosophy, the subject evaporates. Before his Medusan glance, man turns into the stage on which an objective process unfolds. For this reason Benjamin's philosophy is no less a source of terror than a promise of happiness.

(Prisms, p. 235)

It is a source of terror because the special dignity of the great work, the distinction and pleasure of whose aesthetic achievement Benjamin registers as fully as any reader in history, is irrelevant before his further acknowledgment that this greatness is still only the finest expression of a domain that will be swept away in its entirety at the advent of truth, or the redemption of man.

Benjamin examines all human productions for a negative determination of the truth, or traces of the objectivity that now survives at the darkest limit of that stage. Those traces are approached by the subtlest consideration of each manifest object for the “indestructible highest element of life present in all things.” This consideration produces dialectical contrasts, or differences that break through the illusions of subjectivity. Such illusions for Benjamin are pleasures that the subject may take either in the fully composed harmonies of classical form or in the consumption of displaced affect in the artifacts of mass culture. It is necessary to reiterate this double displacement of pleasure by Benjamin because the debates into which his ideas are imported so commonly use him to sustain one side against the other. Where he writes that he will not observe the difference between periods of great works and of decadent ones he announces his intention to turn a more devastating eye on the participation of all these works, whether high art or low, classical masterpieces or works of decline, in a culture of subjectivity that he regards as entirely false.

Where Baudelaire and Rossetti differ is precisely where McGann says they meet: at the center of a “culture.” The spatial metaphor may well be applicable to both, but one has to consider what Benjamin means by the relation to “error” and to the secret agency of each practice. Baudelaire does not engage the formal control of his verse as an aesthetic end in itself to reproduce the artistic transcendence of classical work. He employs it, in Benjamin's reading, to generate a dialectical opposition to “the object riddled with error” without accepting the allure of that formal beauty as a resolution to the contradictions between world and desire. It is not that Baudelaire's technical mastery is the result of going back to the position of classical art still “innocent” of any banal relationship of desire to the banalities it portrays, which is what Rossetti appears to attempt and fails to do. As Benjamin reads him, he achieves autonomy from the illusions to which such desire falls prey as a result of a new, characteristically modernist perspective. He moves vertically in that central situation and separates himself from the general sensibility of the mass audience by the rigor of an unrelenting discipline in his writerly form.

One can best understand the value Benjamin asserts here by recalling the other phenomena of cultural history to which he ascribes a similar worth. Baudelaire achieves his modernity by a mastery that puts him on an equal footing with the tradition in which, pace Benjamin, beauty itself afflicted the deluded subject as myth. The same immunity to the allure of tradition appears in quite different phenomena of art as aesthetic modernity grows more radical in its challenge to art as an established institution. Surrealism and Dada, for example, require no such technical underpinnings to launch their provocations. On that basis, too, Benjamin himself is able to argue the rights of the fragment, the ruin, the displaced industrial commodity, the object of fashion that has outlived its time. His expert critical examination of high art corresponds to the alienating effect of exhibiting a collage of found objects or a “ready-made” in a gallery.12 It displaces beauty from its accustomed place in the procedure. By separating the work as an object of beauty from its function as a cult value, Benjamin lets that value wither away when life brings it to light for a second glance.

What is wrong with Rossetti is exactly what McGann says, a “complete immersion within the contradictions, indeed, … an enslavement to them” (p. 348). What Benjamin admires in Baudelaire is the same Medusa gaze Adorno describes in Benjamin himself. Rossetti's attempt to hold things fast as a “moment's monument” is the aestheticization of life that seeks refuge in an alternative world of masquerade constituted through pleasure in the possession of graven images. It is the same pleasure that attracted wealthy patrons to purchase Rossetti's own poor copies of his painted women with flowers, cult objects of erotic transference for naïve adorers innocent of artistic discrimination.13 Baudelaire's poetry seeks, and permits his hypocritical reader, the moment that unlatches the door leading from the worldly house of life and allows a glimpse of freedom from that which his worldly being cannot help desiring. His vision resembles what Adorno says of Benjamin's philosophy: it is a source of terror as well as a promise of happiness, for this freedom emerges in an instant that negates the world entirely.

John P. McGowan offers a clear statement of what is most certainly the position in literary history with which Rossetti has to contend and whose contradictory tensions he fails to resolve:

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. 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.14

The uncompromising modernist aestheticism with which Baudelaire brought French verse to the leading position in Europe still lies out of Rossetti's reach. He occupies an interim, and there he has probably more in common with the French poets who preceded Baudelaire in the nineteenth century, such as Nerval.

Because Rossetti fails to achieve the Medusa-like aesthetics of Baudelaire's modernity, the feebler enframing effect of arrest for the sake of possession in effigy that characterizes his moment's monument is prone to the instability that Fredeman and Waugh blame on his “character.” Like Nerval, he is bound to oscillate between demonic anxieties to which he offers no reply, and attempts to retreat into fantasies of artistic privilege. The first sonnet of the cycle of three titled “The Choice” contrasts the poet's way with the error of those who do not share his knowledge. But the insight makes no effort to establish a stable position vis-à-vis the world's mysteries. It explicitly abandons the world to its own devices: “Surely the earth, that's wise being very old, / Needs not our help” (CWR, p. 212). The poem calls on the pleasures of the senses and the power of their celebration to master time: “We'll drown all hours: thy song, while hours are toll'd, / Shall leap, as fountains veil the changing sky.” Wine and love light up the moment so the beloved's flesh will “glow like gold,” to outweigh if not defeat the certainty of death.

In this monument to oblivion, cocooned in a moment illuminated by this gold, the poet invites his “high bosomed beauty” to exalt the certainty of this choice by recalling that death has already conquered those who chose not to enfold themselves in the moment of arrested time but tried to sustain themselves by worldly labors instead: “Now kiss, and think that there are really those, / My own high bosomed beauty, who increase / Vain gold, vain lore and yet might choose our way!” For them death does not wait at the threshold of the morrow, held back by the drowning of hours, still excluded from the monumental moment: “Through many years they toil; then on a day / They die not,—for their life was death,—but cease; / And round their narrow lips the mould falls close.” Baudelaire's “Une Charogne” makes a far swifter and more decisive feint to outwit the shadow of death that falls on his beloved's flesh. He disdains the helpless attempt to drown it out in a passing glow and sustains an undimmed consciousness in the face of death and corruption where Rossetti chooses obliviousness.

In the second and third sonnets of “The Choice,” the vanity of that thought and the hopelessness of human fate before time return with all the greater force. In the closing four lines, the thought that had dreamed of drowning the hours with a golden companion is made to contemplate its brief spirit engulfed by loneliness. Where once it had been harbored by those bright illusions, it is now made to see that it is encircled by an endlessly overpowering and abysmal immensity.

Then reach on with thy thought till it be drown'd.
Miles and miles distant though the last line be,
And though thy soul sail leagues and leagues beyond,—
Still, leagues beyond those leagues, there is more sea.

(CWR, p. 213)

The shock of disillusionment occurs at the moment of transition between a desiring fantasy of companionship and harmony in the order of being, and the failure of imagination to find them in a representable form that resists the impact of experience and knowledge. Benjamin declares the forestalling and neutralizing of shocks by a state of heightened alertness to be the constitutive tactic of Baudelaire's aesthetics,15 but related ideas have a long history in his work on the modern philosophy of art. There can be no doubt that at all stages of his thinking he saw a defining principle for modern art in the deliberate suspension of illusion because of its susceptibility to sudden dispersal.

As far back as his doctoral dissertation, published in 1920 as Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik (The concept of art criticism in German Romanticism), Benjamin established the idea of soberness (“Nüchternheit”) as the foundation of modernity in the idea of art. He connected it directly to an element of indestructible content as the genuine substance of art, as opposed to illusion, which, being dependent on “ecstasy,” fell before the effect of irony. Ecstatic consciousness depended on the protected enclosure of a privileged myth and could be “zersetzt,” or frayed and deflated, by contact with anything that did not conform to it. It was out of place in a world now filled with diversity, confusion, and contradiction. Therefore beauty itself lost its claim to a place in art, “because beauty, as an object of ‘enjoyment,’ of pleasure, of taste, did not seem compatible with soberness, which defined the essence of art according to this new understanding” (GS, 1:106; my translation). The same idea of critical soberness is developed through the “dialectics of intoxication,” which he discusses in the essay “Surrealism,” written in 1929.16

Without wishing to add to one hundred years of critical reception, one can cite the way Baudelaire achieves a stable position before the same motifs that whirl Rossetti and Nerval between desire and desolation, and will and guilt. The sea, which had appeared as the indomitable negation of human meaning in Rossetti's “The Choice,” remains an opponent to the human will in Baudelaire's “L'Homme et la mer,” but in its role as the allegorical mirror of man's powers, it can be accorded a balanced place as an equal, even fraternal, counterpart in their struggle. In “Le Gouffre” he feigns desire for the banal security of “des Nombres et des Etres” (numbers and beings [FDM, p. 306]) to put a mocking distance into the fear of the “abîme” (abyss) that brought down Nerval in “Le Christ aux oliviers.”17 In “Le Goût du néant” the idea of drowning in endless time, “Et le Temps m'engloutit minute par minute” (And time swallows me minute by minute [FDM, p. 140]), recollects the same theme in “The Choice,” but Baudelaire portrays it from a viewpoint of elevation far above the globe. He now disdains “l'abri d'une cahute” (the shelter of a hut) in order to convey the new equanimity that permits his intrigued contemplation of destruction itself in the avalanche, or the overwhelming rush and shock of disordered moments.

Most important for Walter Benjamin are the site of the street and the experience of the flâneur as the exponent of a new kind of presence in the chaos of the city. Where Rossetti's collection “The House of Life” serves the idea of art as a refuge, it longs for the ineradicable distance of aura that distinguished an older tradition of art, that “unique experience of a distance no matter how near it may be.” Rossetti knows the nearness of human life in the concrete world only as that which besieges the house of aesthetic life and threatens it with death and disruption. The aesthetic distance cultivated by the flâneur, or the modernist dandy, permits Baudelaire to penetrate the most desolate wastes of urban barbarism ruled by the fetish of commodity, to sail, like Odysseus braving the Sirens, through the emptiest oceans of the crowd. The claims Benjamin makes for the camera in the achievement of nearness by the exercise of a discreetly managed complementary distance in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” apply also to this aspect of Baudelaire's passages through each city scene.

Benjamin illustrates the position that distinguishes the cameraman's act of representation from that of the portrait painter by comparing it with a distinction he constructs between the figures of a surgeon and a faith healer:

The magician maintains the natural distance between the patient and himself; though he reduces it very slightly by the laying on of hands, he greatly increases it by virtue of his authority. The surgeon does exactly the reverse; he greatly diminishes the distance between the patient and himself by penetrating into the patient's body, and increases it but little by the caution with which his hand moves among the organs.

(Illuminations, p. 233)

Benjamin's polemical interest in asserting a value for truth in the techniques employed by the culture industry should not distract us from the essential duplicity of that value as he presents it. The commodity of mass culture shares in the abstraction inherent in all commodities as described by Marx in the fetishism of exchange value, which is the starting point for Benjamin's essay. The idea Benjamin develops as his own contribution to the theory of mass culture derives from the nature of meaning and reference in all historical manifestations. They can achieve nearness only by approaching from the position of a concomitant distance.

Any language, grammar, or medium to which we have any recourse whatsoever achieves its coherence only by a distance from the disordered world to which it refers. This rule applies even to the simplified spatial metaphor that Benjamin uses to describe this relationship, for the quantitative opposition of nearness and distance in the figure really names much more complex qualitative shifts in historical consciousness. The effectiveness of Benjamin's own description is sustained by the accessible figure but limited by it, too. He continues the comparison of painter and cameraman by emphasizing a particular potential for truth: “The painter maintains … a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web.” Yet he also exposes the other side of that apparent nearness by conceding that the commodity of film as actually produced by the market is steeped in distance and magic. Despite the political effect Benjamin affirms for that nearness, he also concedes in the epilogue to his essay that in its actual effect the camera has contributed to an aestheticization of politics in the fascist sense: “Mankind, which in Homer's time was an object of contemplation for the Olympic gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own self-destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order” (Illuminations, p. 242).

For this reason, there is nothing contradictory in Benjamin's having written “The Storyteller” at the same time as his essay on mechanical reproduction. Though Benjamin “scandalously” sets out to defend an old genre rich in aura with the figure of the storyteller (Eagleton, p. 60),18 he is clearly consistent in attaching a value to the special mode of nearness that this genre once achieved but that we are now in the process of losing. This does not commit him to the error with which the oral tale is also riddled, nor does it mean that he clings nostalgically to that form of distance in its aura that conditions of modern military and economic violence have rendered moribund. He takes that falsity into account just as clearly as he must concede the exorbitant price of distance concomitant with whatever value remains potential or actual in the photographic image. The relentless intellectual labor to retrieve usable forms of nearness and to overcome the mythic distraction and delusion of distance runs uninterruptedly through all of Benjamin's efforts and through work on the most disparate material from various historical periods. Therefore he defends the manifestations of aesthetic modernity for their having achieved a stable position of consciousness adequate to those discordant phenomena of urban and industrial experience that disrupt the previous forms of distance, but he must also distinguish that consciousness from new forms of distance poor in or destitute of any vital nearness and thus useless for producing a critically powerful perspective capable of resisting fascist politics.

Adequacy of vision begins with a refusal to buckle and quail before the spectacles of commerce, the crowded streets, the harsh sounds, the paltry glitter, the depths of ugliness, and the stream of shocks in encounters that cannot be rendered in the stable harmonies of a classically ordered image of the world. And here one can say conclusively that the ironic play of desire denied, by which Baudelaire copes with the thoroughfares of Paris in a poem like “A une passante,” contrasts with Rossetti's sonnet “Memorial Thresholds” in “The House of Life,” where the poet is thrown into panic by the astounding isolation of a city street.

Baudelaire's poem does not require any perturbation in the rhythm dictated by the traffic in the moment that permits two people only a single glance as they pass one another. Rossetti seems brought up short in desperation for a door of escape. Baudelaire records an exchange of glances so brief and so disconnected from the slightest possibility of true human association that there is nothing in the event from which knowledge of the other could be grasped. The blank in that instant recreates it as a space for the writing and the opportunity to inscribe a fiction across it. It is a moment of not knowing: “Car j'ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais” (Because I don't know where you're running off to you don't know where I'm going [FDM, p. 174]), but the alluring surface itself, the object of a gaze that cannot overcome the state of error amid universal anonymity in this city, is instated as the allegory of knowledge. And knowledge is surrendered beyond mourning by the acknowledgment of its absolute absence in the dubious allegorical act and token of the woman's passing beauty. He concludes, “O toi que j'eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais!” (O you whom I could have loved, o you who knew it!).

In “Memorial Thresholds” Rossetti first feels his isolation as a shock of arrest to be compared with the contradictory touch of fire and snow or time and timelessness at the end or beginning of the world.

What place so strange,—though unrevealèd snow
With unimaginable fires arise
At the earth's end,—what passion of surprise
Like frost-bound fire-girt scenes of long ago?

(CWR, p. 217)

Because the answer to this dramatic question has nothing to offer but the spectacle of the questioner limited to the tiniest enclosure of hour and place, its unimaginable and unrevealed cosmic terms highlight mere isolation. He can in no way sustain any ecstatic perspective of sublime forces in struggle that might have lifted up a different kind of solitude, perhaps like that of Shelley contemplating Mont Blanc, and unfolded more richly in a more expansive time.

Lo! this is none but I this hour; and lo!
This is the very place which to mine eyes
Those mortal hours in vain immortalize,
'Mid hurrying crowds, with what alone I know.

The scale of the question and the magnitude of possible knowledge in its images is quenched at once. The questioner's dissociation amid the hurrying mass crowds him in and reduces him to a state from which he cannot regain the spacious distance of language that might reinstitute a nearness to any human locus. The potential to transform the poet by the extension of his poetry lives in vain in that fragmented moment. By sundering him from a security of traditional speech, the particularity of his knowledge now grips him in its irredeemable mortality, for if he cannot set it up in the form of manifest display (“a moment's monument”), it will only perish within him. To rescue a permanence of meaning from the shattering force of these aimless tides in the immensity of urban circulation requires precisely what has gone out of this experience for Rossetti, an object charged with the presence of eternity, a vital symbolic form. He calls on the city itself to return to a longed-for condition of the past and open for him some door of perception like that which had been accessible to Blake in a previous generation.

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:
Or mocking winds whirl round a chaff-strown floor
Thee and thy years and these my words and me.

Only by that path can he hope for the chance of a future continued in the vein he hopelessly recalls from the poetry of the past. Without this nostalgic redemption, he and his language become nothing but “chaff,” helplessly pulverized by time in a city without the continuity of memory in history, or the preservation of an identity in myth.

This nostalgia for a reinstated power not only is aroused by the failings of the world ruled by the commodity, alienation amid objects riddled with error, but also remains within the fascinated orbit circling its own objects of desire, and it yields to the same fetishistic forces that maintain their rule. The attraction of tawdry glitter offered by the culture industry draws heavily on archaic dreams from an imaginary past. The more privileged sensibility of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is not less in thrall to the empty promise of recovered and imitated beauty. Its longing goes in search of the consumable art object in a cult of beauty pursued by the mourning connoisseur. The “one presence” that would unite the poet's being, “what alone I know,” with his meaning in the words he speaks and writes sends him to the fantasy of a door behind which that “once of yore” beguiles him with the same hopeless faith that drives the crowds of Baudelaire's Paris to the arcades and into the rows of shops past which the flâneur steers his cold glance.

A will lingering fascinated by a door that never opens to fulfillment twists about itself in “mocking winds” before which consciousness endures this doubling and scattering like chaff. That is the disordered striving and melancholic disappointment of Rossetti's “flawed character.” The sober acknowledgment of the limits on secure knowledge appears in the “allegorical” aspect of Baudelaire's solution to the labile sensibility of post-Romantic poetry. He moves dialectically beyond that split to what Julia Kristeva calls the position of a single “heterogeneous subjectivity.”19 Freed from the mythic delusion of a unity in “one presence,” the artifice of an allegorical standpoint gives his Medusa gaze an aestheticizing power equal to the task of sustaining this point of balance.

This is the sober relationship to truth that Benjamin finds in a modernist aesthetics that does not attempt to capture the essence of the world and put it on show woven in the net of beauty. Rossetti moves in a cycle between the high-swelling fervor of a fetishized beauty and bleak exposure when it ebbs from him, for which the only relief is a renewed intoxication. But what permits Benjamin to see a “secret agent” in Baudelaire is the cold suspension of that longing and his conspiratorial acknowledgment of solitude itself. Baudelaire does not expect the simple promise of happiness unalloyed with terror, but he accepts the aesthetic power given by his icy position in “un corps pris de roideur” (a stiffened body [“Le Goût du néant”]) as recompense. In rejecting the simulacra of happiness, he achieves the aesthetic equivalent of the philosophical and political critique that Benjamin regards as the beginning of a process whereby the truth vested in material things may come into its own.


  1. “Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Betrayal of Truth,” Victorian Poetry, 26 (1988): 341-42.

  2. Walter Benjamin; or, Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (London: Verso, 1981), p. 114.

  3. The Collected Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. William M. Rossetti, 2 vols. (London: Ellis and Elvey, 1890), 1:176 (all references to this work—henceforth cited as CWR—refer to volume 1 of this edition).

  4. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969), p. 222.

  5. Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal, ed. Paul Valéry (Lausanne: Payot, 1946), p. 231 (henceforth cited as FDM).

  6. In his Dialectical Images: Walter Benjamin's Theory of Literary Criticism (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987).

  7. Walter Benjamin: Der Intellektuelle als Kritiker (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1976), pp. 34, 61.

  8. “Saturnine Vision and the Question of Difference: Reflections on Walter Benjamin's Theory of Language,” in Benjamin's Ground: New Readings of Walter Benjamin, ed. Rainer Nägele (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988), p. 83.

  9. Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser, 7 vols. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1982), 1:571 (hereafter cited as GS). My translation.

  10. Quoted in “What Is Wrong with Rossetti? A Centenary Reassessment,” Victorian Poetry, 20 (1982): xv. Fredeman also notes that Waugh was “heartily ashamed” of his book.

  11. “Perennial Fashion—Jazz” and “Valéry Proust Museum,” in Prisms, trans. Shierry and Samuel Weber (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981), pp. 119-32, 173-86.

  12. See, for example, his comments on Dadaist collages in “The Author as Producer,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken, 1986), p. 229.

  13. See John Nicholls, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (London: Studio Vista, 1975), p. 143.

  14. “The Bitterness of Things Occult: D. G. Rossetti's Search for the Real,” Victorian Poetry, 20 (1982): 50.

  15. “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” in Illuminations, p. 162.

  16. “Surrealism,” in Reflections, pp. 181, 189-90.

  17. Œuvres, ed. Albert Béguin and Jean Richer (Paris: Gallimard, 1961), 1:6.

  18. Eagleton also offers a justification of Benjamin's “celebration” of the oral tale by arguing that the tale is actually much like the photograph in that anyone can produce either. Benjamin, of course, says the opposite. The premise of his essay is that the communication of experience in that form was a special capacity of wisdom that has become impossible in our times.

  19. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), p. 100: “The experience of nameable melancholia opens up the space of a necessarily heterogeneous subjectivity, torn between the two co-necessary and co-present centers of opacity and ideal.”

Nathan A. Cervo (essay date March 1993)

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SOURCE: Cervo, Nathan A. “‘Dower in Love's High Retinue’: The Transforming Power of Anima in D. G. Rossetti's ‘A Sonnet is a Moment's Monument’.” English Language Notes 30, no. 3 (March 1993): 59-62.

[In the following essay, Cervo considers the function of “The House of Life”'s introductory sonnet.]

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.

One way of looking at the sestet of the Introductory Sonnet to “The House of Life” is to view the three options proffered the reader as being ineluctably disjunctive: 1) a sort of Existential nobility of character avant la lettre; 2) a Neoplatonic conatus toward the ideal of Christian charity, as already set forth by the stilnovisti; and 3) nihilism: death dissolves all the structures of rationalization pitted against it. In this reading, Life, Love, and Death remain disparate, along with their respective adjectives “august,” “high,” and “cavernous.” However, it would appear from external evidence that the poet intended to reconcile the opposites Life and Death in a Gnostic appreciation and valorization of Christian charity, or Love. In order to achieve his goal, he made use of the Apocalypse, where we read that Jesus Christ, “who has loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,” will declare at the Second Coming, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”1

The love of “the Alpha and the Omega” for us is revealed in the reality of the Crucified Christ. Therefore, for reasons that will become apparent as we go on, it is crucial to a correct reading of the Introductory Sonnet to know that the poet had incorporated the sonnet as part of a larger design which served as frontispiece to a book which he gave his mother as a birthday present:

The Sonnet on the Sonnet, as it is given in this design, differs only from the printed copy in the use of the word “intricate” in place of “arduous” in the fifth line [“Of its own arduous fulness reverent”]; and only a portion of the sonnet is illustrated. The figure is that of the animating spirit or soul, as signified by the word “anima” [“ANIMA”] written in the upper corner; the harp is the sonnet, with fourteen strings for the fourteen lines that form the composition; and the spreading branches of the tree represent the all-embracing aspects of life which the sonnet can apprehend and embody. The farther end of the branches terminate in a split coin, on one side of which is revealed the soul in its emblem of butterfly, and on the other the intertwined letters Alpha and Omega. The design is highly interesting, not only because of its correct drawing and novel style, but also from the fact that it is a pictorial tribute towards what Rossetti always considered his special vehicle in verse.2

What the author of the above description fails to note is that the boundary-destroyer, the self-consuming eternal serpent, the uroboros of gnosticism, is depicted on the coin's “converse” as encircling “the intertwined letters Alpha and Omega.” Commenting on the illustrated “portion of the sonnet,” the poet himself states:

In it, the soul is instituting the “memorial to one dead deathless hour,” a ceremony easily effected by placing a winged hour-glass in a rose-bush, at the same time that she touches the fourteen-stringed harp of the Sonnet, hanging around her neck. On the rose-branches trailing over in the opposite corner is seen hanging the Coin, which is the second symbol used for the Sonnet. Its “face” bears the Soul, expressed in the butterfly; its “converse,” the Serpent of Eternity enclosing the Alpha and Omega.3

The “Serpent of Eternity enclosing the Alpha and Omega” signifies the Old Wisdom, or vecchia sapienza, the Gnostic hermeneutic with which the poet's father, Gabriele Rossetti, had attempted to reconcile the esoteric lore of Scottish-rite Freemasonry and Roman Catholic dogmatism, “the two great antagonist mysteries.”4

Standing as a sort of prologue to “The House of Life,” the Introductory Sonnet, when illuminated by the external evidence given above, points to gnosticism as providing the key to understanding the sonnet sequence in its totality: the Lady (“ANIMA”) of the stilnovisti is treated in a strongly Incarnational way. Manifesting the hypostatic presences of the Triune God of traditional Christianity, she is flesh but also a paraclete; in short, a temple of the Holy Spirit. Modeled on the Incarnate God, the Lady is a proactive embodiment of that “Power” which unites Life, Love, and Death within itself, not merely transforming and assimilating mundane notions as to what constitutes these realities but transubstantiating them into the existential splendor of the Divine Mystery whose sole epiphany, real enough in himself, is Jesus Christ.

When we die, through the ascetic ideal of necrosis,5 to the secular travesties of Life, Love, and Death, we participate in the Gnostic identification of Christ as the universal solvent of our perturbations, as our “water.” In this light, the Stygian water over which Charon propels his boat, evoked in the last two lines of the Introductory Sonnet, strikes us as paltry and frivolous. When Life and Death are reconciled in Love, Death amounts only to spiritual nourishment for the uroboric Christian soul: by training ourselves to die to the vanities of this world, we prepare for that Death which is the birthday of the individuated self, in which Desire (“ANIMA,” eros) is married to Reason (ANIMUS, logos).

Like his model, Jesus Christ, the poet of “The House of Life” must drink the redemptive cup of humiliation and crucifixion; he must accept vilification at the hands of uncomprehending critics. Thus, in the truest, most anguished sense, the poet of “The House of Life” is the poet of his own Gethsemane: he eats and drinks his own flesh and blood. This is a “medieval” side to Pre-Raphaelitism that is largely ignored:

In medieval pictures Christ is often represented as accepting a communion cup and wafer from the hand of God, that is, he is eating and drinking his own flesh and blood. Gethsemane thus completes the symbolism of the Last Supper. This process corresponds to the ancient image of the uroboros, the snake that devours its own tail.6

The poet dies in advance to the mundane opprobrium that his work, completely misunderstood, will inevitably elicit, and from this “Death” springs a divine interplay analogous to the total involvement of the Triune God in human affairs which took place at the Incarnation: Life (the Holy Spirit), invited to enter the tabernacle of her soul by the Blessed Virgin Mary, immediately inundated not only her soul but also her body with Love (Jesus Christ). The Power, which up to that time amounted to no more than Death in its various guises of vindictive curse, terrified obedience, and obdurate xenophobia, suddenly found itself cast in the role of the Shadow to the new coalition of Christ (lux mundi: Light of the World) and Holy Spirit (the Comforter, Creator Blest). The Holy Spirit desired both Mary's purity and the Christ Child, the hypostatic union of true man and true God in the single personhood of Jesus Christ. It is the existential Christ who assimilates and redeems the Shadow of a Power that is pure emanational being. In the sestet, this Power (Yahweh) is figured as Charon, Death's ferryman. Chiming Genesis, the poet accordingly speaks of “the dark wharf's cavernous breath.” In effect, the Dies Irae, the Day of Wrath, is the day when God as pure Power created not Himself but Itself. The authentic existence of Christ opposes Yahweh's habitual, deconstructive anger. In Gethsemane Christ accepted the full brunt of Yahweh's wrath, drinking the bitter cup of Yahweh's gratuitously blustering being out of his infinite love for the existent. Christ is Yahweh's repentance and salvation: “Christ's willingness to drink the cup of Yahweh's wrath has the effect of ‘digesting’ Yahweh's evil, thereby transforming him into a loving God. Anyone who assimilates a bit of the collective or archetypal shadow is contributing to the transformation of God.”7

In the sonnet-design frontispiece spoken of above, the Holy Spirit is the anima desiring the perfect rationality, or animus, signified by the Greek word logos. Eros and logos find their human fruition in Mary's pure soul and chaste body.

In the sestet, a new dispensation, a new Power-conversion, is announced in which the Marian “soul” (l. 10) stands apart from “the Soul's eternity” (l. 2), the autoreflexive necessity of “one dead deathless hour” (l. 3). Also, the Manichaeism frequently identified with gnosticism, “Day or Night” (l. 7), spirit or flesh, gives way to “tribute” freely paid to “Life” (ll. 11, 12), to the marriage “dower” acceptable “in Love's high retinue” (l. 12). Here the poet's themes are synergistic grace and corporeal goodness: the Holy Spirit influences but does not compel; similarly, Christ qua Love redeems the Power of Yahweh: he does not, as Cronus (“Time,” l. 7) had Uranus, castrate his father. Like the tail of the uroboros, Yahweh the Shadow is consumed only that Life and Love may transubstantiate existence analogously on the model of the Eucharist.


  1. Apocalypse 1:5, 1:8, The Holy Bible, Challoner-Douay text (New York, 1953) New Testament 338.

  2. William Sharp, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Record and a Study (London, 1882) 259-260.

  3. Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. Oswald Doughty and John Robert Wahl. 4 vols. (London, 1965-67) 4:1760.

  4. John Hookham Frere, in a 31 July 1833 letter to Gabriele Rossetti; cited by Gabrielle Festing, John Hookham Frere and His Friends (London, 1899) 321.

  5. For a definition of necrosis, see Matthew Arnold, St. Paul and Protestantism, in Dissent and Dogma, ed. R. H. Super (Ann Arbor, 1968) 47-50.

  6. Edward F. Edinger, The Christian Archetype (Toronto, 1987) 72.

  7. Edinger 73.

Catherine Maxwell (essay date spring 1993)

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SOURCE: Maxwell, Catherine. “‘Devious Symbols’: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Purgatorio.” Victorian Poetry 31, no. 1 (spring 1993): 19-40.

[In the following essay, Maxwell elucidates the religious elements of “The Woodspurge.”]

Rossetti's short lyric “The Woodspurge,” a favorite of the anthologists and a perennial choice for inclusion in practical criticism papers, is one of the pieces by which the work of this still underread poet is best known. The reasons for this are perhaps not hard to fathom. What Pater in 1883 called “a vocabulary, an accent, unmistakably novel,”1 and the uncanny blend of spirituality and sensuality, the peculiarly heightened language and sustained symbolism that characterize a major piece like “The House of Life,” still arouse curiously ambivalent responses in many critics and readers, for whom there lingers an unsettling foreign or hybrid quality to this verse, not quite congruent with good taste. To such readers, “The Woodspurge” seems like a welcome release. Celebrated for a refreshing Pre-Raphaelite naturalism, it is read, as Hardy's poems frequently are, as a lyric of the English empirical tradition.

In my opinion, such a reading grossly simplifies the poem, which may be located in another tradition entirely, one that establishes significant connections between this piece and other important and misunderstood elements in Rossetti's work. Once “The Woodspurge” is realigned with this tradition, it becomes apparent that its pared-down language is extraordinarily condensed and overdetermined to a degree that shatters any illusion of artless immediacy. Alternative patterns of reading emerge, and in tracing these it becomes possible to reconstruct the complex creative network of interactions which underlies Rossetti's poetics, and which makes “The Woodspurge” a cryptic key to his oeuvre.

While modern critics see themselves as correcting previous overly biographical interpretations of Rossetti's poetry, it is still possible to detect in readings of the poetry the unquestioning or unexplained identification of the poet's self with a first-person poetic voice. “The Woodspurge” is a good example of this, and one suspects that many readers are subliminally affected by William Michael Rossetti's assertion that “this ‘occasional poem’ expresses, I have no doubt, some actual moment, in my brother's life, of distressful experience and harrowing thought. I do not know what it may have been—perhaps some crisis of Miss Siddal's ill-health.”2 Hence such paraphrases as the following: “In this lyric, the poet, distressed by some unnamed grief, walks out at random, following the wind”; “The poet remains totally isolated in his grief.”3 This identification is not accidental, for the implication of an authentic actuality is highly relevant for interpretations which see the poem as rejecting a symbolic mode for experiential data.

It is an irony, then, that this important sense of immediacy and felt experience should, in fact, be qualified by a different kind of empirical detail, which suggests the fictive nature of the events of the poem. In his survey of nineteenth-century religious poetry, Hoxie Neale Fairchild, discussing Rossetti's application of “technical skill to the production of various effects,” claims: “The Woodspurge, that remarkable rendering of the blankness of exhausted sorrow, was suggested by a picture in a botany textbook.”4 Fairchild gives no source for this discovery, but, in the light of Rossetti's lack of interest in the natural world, it sounds credible.5 I would suggest that the botany textbook referred to is Gerard's Herball (1597). This work, much admired by William Morris, and instrumental in the development of his designs and dyeing techniques, was among the books Hall Caine noted in Rossetti's library.6

The Herball, which is the most important work of its kind in English, containing fine woodcuts of the many varieties of plants discussed, devotes a complete chapter to illustration and description of the group named the spurges. The ninth type of spurge listed is the woodspurge—“Tithymalus characias amygdaloides”—“the seed contained in three cornered seed-vessels.”7

Strangely, in a poem commonly viewed as refuting allegorical or symbolic meaning in favor of the particulars of experience, the particularity of a name—“woodspurge” (also the title of the poem)—often passes without comment. In their belief in the essentially random nature or arbitrariness of experience, Rossetti's interpreters have failed to ask why he singled out this plant among all others. The Herball provides an answer, for it contains a comprehensive account of the spurge and its “vertues,” which I believe Rossetti remembered and whose significance I shall explain. Perhaps the critics' oversight is not so surprising when we realize that attention to this name and its implications immediately restores a level of symbolic meaning which threatens the evaluation of the poem as a record of “[the poet's] actions and sensations in the simplest possible terms” (Christ, p. 46).

The spurges derive their name from their medicinal property of purgation and purification. The juice of the spurge is notoriously bitter to the taste, “a sharp and biting qualitie” says Gerard. This acrid juice can be employed as a purgative, and though this use was well established by physicians from early times, it can be a drastic, dangerous remedy, with a possible risk of fatality, so that Gerard advises his readers to substitute other herbs “that may bee taken without perill” (pp. 505, 506). Given these associations, the plant, whose detailed image the speaker offers us in the final line of the poem, functions as a rebus for the word “catharsis,” whose literal meaning is “purgation,” and which has a literary as well as a modern psychological provenance.

The notion of a drastic purgation works in the poem in a number of ways, most obviously in the purged vision of the grief-stricken narrator. The stark and simple monosyllabic diction seems initially devoid of metaphor, as the speaker, in numbed and flattened tones, gives the reader precise coordinates for his discovery of the plant. The poem diminishes its visual field from the wind-becalmed landscape to the small patch of ground encompassed by the speaker's withdrawn and hunched posture, and then to the one weed out of the ten he finds he has arbitrarily enclosed. The speaker's crouched body seems at first almost embryonic, perhaps because he is about to experience a rite of passage, or perhaps because a singular deprivation has reduced him to a state of utter vulnerability.8 Furthermore, behind the imagery of the first two lines of the poem—“The wind flapped loose, the wind was still, / Shaken out dead from tree and hill”—there may flutter the partly repressed phrase “stillborn”; the wind drops like a stillborn child, and the speaker's posture could mime a failed fruition or symbolic stillbirth experience.9 Nonetheless, at the same time, the picture of the speaker's abandoned, bowed attitude could also suggest a violent retching, a bitter bringing-up, expellation or purgation of some inner burden or pressure.

This emetic purgation is implied in an obsolete version of the verb “to spurge,” meaning “to spout or gush out in a stream, to cast forth copiously” (OED). Gerard informs us that: “The iuice of Tithymale … is a strong medicine to open the bellie, and causing vomite, bringeth vp toughe flegme and cholericke humours” (p. 506). What, we may wonder, is it that Rossetti's speaker spews out? What is it that he cannot swallow? Gerard's language of “flegme” and “cholericke humours” is not restricted to physical evacuation alone, but represents a typical sixteenth-century blend of physical and somatic factors. Rossetti's poem enacts a drama of emotional purgation, but another purgation comes about in terms of language and content. By this, I refer not merely to the bleached laconic tones of the speaker and the emptying of pastoral lyricism, but to a more integral catharsis. Critics have sometimes plausibly read “The Woodspurge” as a reaction to Romanticism. But they have not developed this insight according to the logic of the poem. For what does it mean to spurge or purge a wood in literary terms? I would suggest that in his casting out of “Wisdom” and “memory” in his last stanza, Rossetti attempts to rid himself of a particular precursor. The numbed spare tones of “simplicity” of “The Woodspurge” parody the simplicity of early Wordsworth, and the final lines, in their refusal of nature's moral didacticism, mockingly echo the language and sentiment of verse such as this:

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.(10)

“The Woodspurge” is thus a concerted purging of these Wordsworthian vernal woods. Such a view is compatible with Rossetti's own stated unease with Wordsworth: “He's good, you know, but unbearable.”11 Wordsworth's perceived treatment of nature constitutes a burden from which Rossetti is impelled to free himself. If the symbolic language of purgation makes it more problematic to speak of “The Woodspurge” as a poem that shuns symbolic meaning, the complication of a poetic revision—the acrimonious emptying-out or freeing of self from a literary forebear—only adds to this, besides restoring the “sophistication” that Richard Cronin has denied.12

The specifically literary engagement that figures in Rossetti's poem makes the reader consider the scene of writing as integral to the piece, as something that creates and structures perception in a symbolic form, rather than the supposedly self-evaporating act of transcription which faithfully documents and preserves experiential data, an act whose humble traces completely disappear when a reading is but a mode of realization. This desire for pure realization is found in Jerome McGann's perception that “at that time and in that place this poet gained a measure of relief from a simple act of observation. No conceptualized knowledge or wisdom was involved, either before or after.”13 The identification of poet with narrator and the phrase “before or after” betray the critic's desire to preserve the events narrated in the poem as unmediated, carrying the same authority as they did at the moment of their supposed occurrence. An innocence of vision is claimed for the poet; the business of poetry-making has to be minimized in order for the reader to heed the moral import offered: “[The woodspurge] is a modest yet graphic reminder that unless you approach the external world in as complete an innocence as possible life will shrink up and die … For us as readers, the poet's woodspurge is … the sign of his innocent powers” (pp. 234-235).

It is hard to see the creative canniness that shapes Rossetti's expulsion of Wordsworth, an act which according to McGann's chronology would be “after” the narrated events, either as evidence of his innocent powers, or as other than wisdom, if wisdom of a singularly unWordsworthian kind. For a great difference exists between innocence and acting innocent; the second, antithetical to the first, reminds us of the paradox of naturalism, an artifice whose devices are every bit as contrived as those literary modes which self-consciously announce themselves as style. Rossetti may well mime innocence without being innocent. It is an irony that purges, and acts of purgation or purification, whether actual or symbolic, are themselves external to the state of innocence or complete purity they intend to impose or restore: they are dependent on a systematized knowledge or wisdom of what it is that prevents purity, and engage in the often squalid process of its elimination, using drastic, perhaps fatal, but certainly unbenign measures. Purgation is an (impure) act which may itself be contaminated or compromised by the object it hopes to expel. To use a familiar postlapsarian paradigm, one cannot recover full Edenic purity once one has sampled the Tree of Knowledge.

McGann prefaces his treatment of “The Woodspurge” with a discussion of the early poem “My Sister's Sleep” to show how the same ideas are present; how Rossetti demonstrates that “significance is in the sensation”:

[Rossetti] wants us to seek and fail to find the religious “meaning” in his stanza, and failing to find it, to recognize the purely sensational value of the lines. By this we are brought to an unexpected experience. Phenomena—things, people, places, images—are restored to a kind of innocence. Saved from their overlay of traditional symbolism, the items of experience can again be, as it were, simply themselves.

(p. 233)

But, representation, literature as symbolic form, surely means that once represented, items of experience cannot be “simply themselves”—as in Stevens' poem: “The man replied, ‘Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar.’”14 And yet, oddly enough, the passage just quoted from McGann opens with the words “Rossetti's art here is highly self-conscious,” which seems in tension with the passage that follows. If the purgation McGann describes (although it is not a word he ever uses) is practiced self-consciously to a deliberate aesthetic end, the “saving,” the “restoration to innocence” (and one might note the religious tones of this language of redemption) must then mean that “the items of experience” cannot be themselves, and if they do not constitute traditional symbolism, then they create another symbolism in which they become the figures of innocence. McGann ousts one version of religious symbolism, but his critical language tacitly reinstates a “religious” dimension in its insistence on a state of purity: “Rossetti keeps the scene uncontaminated by intellectual significances” (p. 233).

However, I should like to examine more closely McGann's claim that Rossetti cleanses his poetic language of religious associations, with reference to “The Woodspurge,” to see if that poem could be what McGann's hints might imply—a purging of religious symbolism. The unacknowledged language of purgation is strikingly present in his comments on “My Sister's Sleep.” Discussing some of the images in the poem, he says they “are purified of any possible religious content which they vaguely suggest,” and elsewhere he writes that “the stanza is an artistic triumph because it succeeds in sterilizing completely the religious potency of the images” (p. 233).

The religious suggestions in “My Sister's Sleep” are not neutralized in this way. McGann's interpretation of the poem, as various commentators have pointed out, did not take into account Rossetti's extensive revision of the poem from its first appearance in the periodical, The New Monthly Belle Assemblée, in September 1848.15 The rationale for revision seems to be Rossetti's desire to modify the more orthodox Christian pietism of the earliest version. In their revised form, the figures of the poem may have lost a pronounced Catholic character and become less explicit, but this particular symbolic dimension cannot be so easily dismissed, and the images retain an integral spiritual suggestiveness. The point is important, I think, because although Rossetti may have rebelled against established forms of religious expression, the spiritual element in his work, however unconventional, is very significant.

While Rossetti's belief in formal religion may have declined, the legacy of the Anglo-Catholicism he practiced from his mid-teens to early twenties was considerable and still needs more assessment.16 D. M. R. Bentley's valuable work on this topic does not seem to me to be disturbed by David Riede's championing of the claims of William Michael Rossetti as to his brother's lack of faith.17 William Michael, a firm agnostic, found it difficult to entertain the idea of Dante Gabriel's residual interest in spiritual affairs, and became visibly uneasy at the latent manifestations of his brother's spiritual inclinations.18 Residual interest in religious matters among lapsed believers is hardly uncommon, and embarrassed bluff disclaimers made to friends and relatives unlikely to be sympathetic need not necessarily be taken at face value. Other acquaintances received a different impression. Canon Richard Watson Dixon recalled Rossetti's indignation at charges of irreligion: “He asked with great earnestness, ‘Do not my works testify to my Christianity?’” William Michael remarks that Rossetti was “very much pleased” by the text of a lecture on his poetry that Hall Caine gave in Liverpool, “more especially on the grounds of the lecturer's recognition of the moral or spiritual tone marking the poems.”19 Moreover, William Michael acknowledges that the second published version of “My Sister's Sleep” “shows in an eminent degree one of the influences which guided [the Pre-Raphaelite] movement: the intimate intertexture of a spiritual sense with a material form; small actualities made vocal of lofty meanings.”20

Before I return to “The Woodspurge,” I want to make an extended necessary detour to explain the basis for Rossetti's own thinking on an immanent spiritual symbolism, and to differentiate it from that of Ruskin, whose name inevitably occurs in discussion of the fidelity of the poem to nature. To begin with, I quote, from the group of three sonnets called Old and New Art in “The House of Life,” the first sonnet—“St. Luke the Painter”:

Give honour unto Luke Evangelist;
For he it was (the aged legends say)
Who first taught Art to fold her hands and pray.
Scarcely at once she dared to rend the mist
Of devious symbols: but soon having wist
How sky-breadth and field-silence and this day
Are symbols also in some deeper way,
She looked through these to God and was God's priest.
And if, past noon, her toil began to irk,
And she sought talismans, and turned in vain
To soulless self-reflections of man's skill,—
Yet now, in this the twilight, she might still
Kneel in the latter grass to pray again,
Ere the night cometh and she may not work.(21)

William Michael Rossetti declared the group of three sonnets as “perhaps the best manifesto that [the Pre-Raphaelite movement] ever received in writing” (Works, p. 656). The argument of the octet is that painting in its historical evolution from a formal iconography to other forms of representation shows us not a refutation of symbolism, but rather a widening of the symbolic field: the picturing of natural objects becomes not an emptying-out but an alternative mode of communicating spiritual truth. The sestet discusses subsequent developments in Art which refine into introverted and sterile virtuosity. If St. Luke, traditionally the first religious painter, is seen as the initiator of an interpretive symbolic mode, then this evangelical sonnet advocates a renovating return to origins which includes natural symbolism: Art “might still / Kneel in the latter grass to pray again.” Modern Art, the work of Pre-Raphaelites, is a revision which hearkens back to the primitive spiritual intensity of meaning apparent in the work of the early Italian painters, but communicates it through the symbolic mode of the Book of Nature and the Gospel of Ruskin. Rossetti's use of the term “Evangelist” could be construed as wittily predicating a continuum between St. Luke, the founder of Catholic art, and Ruskin's Protestant Evangelicalism, which fires his preaching of the good news of Art's return to Nature's immanent theology.22 Such a link, of course, is not unproblematic, particularly as Protestant and Catholic thought tend to different conceptions of materiality and the relation of the physical world to the spiritual. Protestant Evangelicalism does not sit very happily beside the Catholic language of “priesthood” (l. 8), which can involve a symbolic and emblematic notion of the priest's representing God and Christ to his congregation, an idea repugnant to the demos of radical Protestantism. However, by the time Rossetti comes to write “The Woodspurge,” he has begun to work out the crucial differences between his own thought and that of Ruskin, and the issue of symbolism becomes a key area of division.

Rossetti's mergence of spiritual and sensual is not, as is sometimes hinted, a disingenuous means for elevating physicality. Reconstructing the ideological background to Rossetti's work helps make this clear and goes some way to explaining how an apparent coincidence with Ruskin's thought in “St. Luke the Painter” is achieved through the crossing of two lines of belief, which are quite distinct in origin. Pater's 1883 essay on Rossetti, still one of the acutest readings of him as a poet, offers a subtle exploration of the context of Rossetti's writing:

Spirit and matter, indeed, have been for the most part opposed, with a false contrast or antagonism by schoolmen, whose artificial creation those abstractions really are. … Practically, the church of the Middle Age by its aesthetic worship, its sacramentalism, its real faith in the resurrection of the flesh, had set itself against that Manichean opposition of spirit and matter, and its results in men's way of taking life; and in this, Dante is the central representative of its spirit. To him, … the material and the spiritual are fused and blent. … Rossetti is one with him. … Like Dante, he knows no region of spirit which shall not be sensuous also, or material.

(Appreciations, pp. 212-213)

Rossetti's aesthetic has firm roots in Catholic incarnational doctrine, in which Christ's bodily and physical life is seen as inseparable from his divine or spiritual nature. Catholic sacramental theology insists that physical acts and concrete objects are both wholly corporeal and spiritual at the same time. A sacrament is “the outward sign of an inward grace,” and the celebration of the sacrament of the Eucharist in a Catholic mass very evidently involves all five senses. In general, Catholic worship of the kind Rossetti experienced at the High Anglican Christ Church, Albany Street, which he attended with his family from 1843, places great emphasis on the participation of the senses, especially vision, in its use of ritual; a ritual practiced in an environment designed to stimulate the believer into meditation through visual display. The Jesuit master Ignatius Loyola prescribed the use of the senses in his famous Spiritual Exercises as an aid to the imagination in evoking religious scenes and subjects for contemplation, and the Ignatian principle of “finding God in all things” is a sentiment curiously echoed in the octet of “St. Luke the Painter.” Such thinking informs Catholic iconology in both its poetic and painterly forms; early manifestations include a substantial body of work by Jesuit writers who eagerly adopt the practice of the emblem book for their own theological purposes.23

Protestantism typically elevates the spiritual over the material, whereas the central tenet of Catholic sacramentalism is that the two natures are indivisible. Ruskin's passion for Nature looks at odds with his religious affiliation, but is made legitimate by his adaptation of another strand of Protestant thought. The literalism which governs English Protestant reading of Scripture is applied by Ruskin to Nature, and thus produces his insistence on a literalism of perception. Literalism becomes a figure in which natural objects substitute for Holy Writ; Nature, like the Bible, is a God-inspired text, and reading Nature-Scripture aright demands a fidelity to the observed object so that it might yield its truth about the goodness of the creator. The physical world thus assumes an importance for Ruskin which it lacks for other Protestant thinkers, and yet, because, for him, spiritual truth resides foremost in an accurate apprehension of design, the spiritually symbolic meaning in physical objects tends to become obscured and erased.

A good example of this distinction between the literal and symbolic truth of material objects is examined by D. M. R. Bentley. Ruskin very much admired the picture he commissioned from Rossetti, entitled “The Passover,” a picture in which, Rossetti explained to Patmore, the representation of the Passover was intended to convey “its actuality as an incident no less than as a scriptural type.” The painting is strongly typological, but Ruskin declared to Rossetti: “I call that Passover plain prosy Fact. No symbolism at all.” Bentley concludes that “Rossetti's essentially Catholic conception of ‘scriptural types’ or figurae—learned, very likely from Dante—is in direct opposition to the spirit of Protestant literalism.”24 Much later on, in his lecture on “The Art of England: E. Burne-Jones and G. F. Watts,” given on May 16, 1883, Ruskin, speaking of Rossetti's painting, acknowledges its symbolical meaning, but nonetheless declares, “The peculiar value and character of the treatment is in what I have called its material veracity, compelling the spectator's belief, if he have the instinct of belief in him at all, in the thing's having verily happened; and not being a mere poetical fancy.”25

Perhaps this distinction in the two writers' appreciation of materiality is highlighted by the very different responses they have to the body—a key area, as, in human experience, our own bodies and those of our parents are the first material forms we encounter. Our perception of materiality is epitomized by our primary experience of the organizing machine that makes perception possible and the perceiving senses present to themselves.

Ruskin's aversion to corporeality, and, in particular, sexual expression, as shown in his antipathy to the painted nude, comes uncomplicatedly straight from ascetic Protestantism. Throughout the second volume of Modern Painters, “one encounters his intense dislike of things physical and physically pleasurable. … He finds the body as body distasteful, discomforting, and even disgusting.”26 Innate repulsion means the body forgoes the intense reading Ruskin bestows on other natural forms, and seemingly lacks a self-evident spiritual sense.27 For Rossetti, the body and sexuality obviously partake of spiritually symbolic truths;28 the logical reverse of this being that abstractions—such as Truth and Hope—inevitably assume bodily form and character in his verse. If Ruskin's gaze characteristically falls on landscape and away from the human body, Rossetti's gaze falls on the face and form of the beloved and away from natural objects considered in their own right. William Michael's discussion of his brother's lack of interest in Nature makes abundantly clear the distance between Ruskin and Rossetti:

To the beauties of Nature he was not insensitive, but he was incurious, and he valued them more as being so much fuel to the fire of the soul than as being objects of separate regard and analysis. For him the Human Being was always the Lord of Creation—the recipient and transformer and transmitter of the natural influences. That he cared very little for descriptive poetry is perfectly true—and just on that account; that it exhibits and extols objects instead of turning them into the “medium of exchange” between the material world and the soul.

(Family-Letters, 1:410-411)

Needless to say, while Ruskin shuns any conspicuous dealings with corporeality, the repressed returns in the anthropomorphism of his landscapes. The language of the Psalms (“Let the floods clap their hands, let the hills be joyful together,” Psalm 98.8) makes legitimate an attribution of bodily identity to nature. George Hersey comments: “To Ruskin the living body of Nature at her most sublime was a physique. … Earth's mountains are breasts and arms.”29 And yet, as will become apparent, this very transference of identity is something Ruskin censures elsewhere.

On January 15, 1856, Ruskin published the long-awaited third volume of Modern Painters. A letter from Rossetti to Browning of February 6 reports that he is over halfway through Ruskin's latest publication, and makes special mention of Chapter 4 on “Of the False Ideal: First, Religious.”30 Ruskin's discussion “Of the Pathetic Fallacy,” which forms the twelfth chapter of Modern Painters III, is one of his most celebrated treatments of the importance of a faithful depiction of nature. The pathetic fallacy, as it is commonly used as a literary critical term, is often simply understood as the imputation of human thought or feeling to natural objects; but in Ruskin's original sense, it refers to a disordered state of perception insofar as the strong or violent feelings of the viewer or narrator cause a false appearance in the object.31 This false appearance most often involves animation of the object or the transference of the viewer's emotion to what is inanimate. Ruskin draws up a hierarchy of poets in the belief that “the greatest poets do not often admit this kind of falseness.” The discussion has the closest connection with Rossetti's poem at the point where Ruskin sets out “three ranks”: these consisting in the first instance of:

the man who perceives rightly, because he does not feel, and to whom the primrose is very accurately the primrose, because he does not love it. Then, secondly, the man who perceives wrongly, because he feels, and to whom the primrose is anything else than a primrose: a star, or a sun, or a fairy's shield, or a forsaken maiden. And then, lastly, there is the man who perceives rightly in spite of his feelings, and to whom the primrose is for ever nothing else than itself—a little flower apprehended in the very plain and leafy fact of it, whatever and how many soever the associations and passions may be that crowd around it.32

The year to which William Michael tentatively assigns the composition of “The Woodspurge” is 1856, and the poem may well be either an immediate or somewhat later response to this passage.33 At first sight, Ruskin's third rank appears to fit Rossetti's poem beautifully.34 But there is a problem in that the simple words which communicate “the very plain and leafy fact of it”—“The woodspurge flowered, three cups in one”—borrow directly from the symbolic language of Trinitarian doctrine, a doctrine which St. Patrick, and innumerable parish priests after him, have chosen to illustrate with natural emblems such as three-leafed clovers. Rossetti may introduce this resonance to modify or question it, choosing to admit the religious element in order to expunge it. Certainly, the last stanza adds an important qualification. If the poem consisted of three stanzas alone, lacking the fourth stanza, it might be legitimately thought a poem of religious consolation.

I do not contend that “The Woodspurge” is a religious poem, that it is a covert Trinitarian tract, but it does seem to me that the “religious element” adds a level of complexity to the poem that has not been thought through before with sufficient rigor. Rather than neutralizing the significance of religious symbolism, the poem draws upon the power of a religious idea, transferring that power to another object, to make it iconic. The “very plain and leafy fact” of the plant, even as it is related in the simplest diction, becomes implicated in the symbolic and the iconographic. This is not a throwing off of symbolism, or if it is, it is in vain, because the symbolism returns to haunt “plain speech,” transplants itself, even as speech claims itself pure of figure, transparent and immediate. Language, especially poetic language, is shown as necessarily impure, stained through and through with the traces of earlier writings and images which can suddenly permeate the apparent tabula rasa of a particular scene of writing. The piece functions rather in the manner of those words of subtraction with the suffix “-less” where, for example, to say something is “stainless” is not the same as to call it “pure.” For “stainlessness” suggests the mental image of what it would erase, and the effect is that of a comparison between a marked presence and its withdrawal, with the latter state only having meaning by its reference to the former. The stain always leaves a trace, even when it is invisible, just as a purged body can only be understood as such with reference to what has been expelled.

The poem's trace may well be Catholic symbolism, and most definitely contains Ruskin and Wordsworth. These writers cannot be expunged completely, for purgation is meaningless without reference to what it would purge, so the poem mischievously mingles these Protestant writers with an alien Catholic aesthetic. Furthermore, at the intertextual level, we can see that the apparent crystal clarity of this plain-spoken lyric is won through its lessening and diminishment of writers such as Wordsworth and Ruskin. Plain speech, the prerogative of Protestant preachers, is turned against its practitioners, is doubled and duplicitous with a hidden figured eloquence. In the surface drama of Rossetti's poem, the phenomenon of visible erasure is intelligible to the reader in the muted simplicity of the speaker's language, from which the passion of agony has been voided (l. 6). The sensed subtraction of the vivid accents of passion or lament indicates their former or suppressed presence.

This reference to the emotional complexion of the poem leads into Rossetti's second subtle qualification of the pathetic fallacy. In Ruskin's view, the true appearances of things are jeopardized by the presence of strong emotion which clouds perception. As Patricia Ball has commented, Ruskin has a campaign to “cleanse the eye, to increase its receptivity, and so to help it discover that the rewards of the exercise are not less but greater than those of self-consciousness.”35 But Rossetti implies that in this case it is strong emotion—“perfect grief”—which acts as a purifier of vision and brings about clearsightedness.

Strangely enough, Ruskin himself had admitted something very similar to this two years previously in a letter to the Times in defense of Holman Hunt's “The Awakening Conscience”: “Nothing is more notable than the way in which the most trivial objects force themselves upon the attention of a mind which has been fevered by violent or distressful excitement. They thrust themselves forward with a ghastly and unendurable distinctness, as if they would compel the sufferer to count, or measure, or learn them by heart.”36 This contradiction, not uncommon in Ruskin, is akin to those other fertile moments in his writing where desire or imagination clash with will or stated rationale, as in “Of the Pathetic Fallacy,” where the strength of his protest partly derives from his resistance to a strongly felt personal inclination.37 Passion and strong emotions connect very clearly to the self and the body. At times, Ruskin seems determined to remove from all observation of landscape every trace of what Thomas Hardy, an unrepentant practitioner of the pathetic fallacy, calls the “mark … made by man.”38 The persona and the observing body of the onlooker are ideally required to remain outside and not intrude on the scene under scrutiny.39 Of course, Ruskin, whose own persona is so strongly marked, violates this principle continually, just as when he argues against the sway of strong emotion in “Of the Pathetic Fallacy” in highly emotive and emotional language.

At first glance, the narrator in Rossetti's poem seems unmarked: his abstention from the emphatic colors of grief makes him seem empty, until we realize what his emptiness begs us supply. He submits himself passively to the movement of the wind; yet, as I have shown, this description hides an image of failed fruition which is a transference of the speaker's emotion onto nature. The poem moves from the landscape to the position of the speaker's body, which is described in careful detail, and then to a miniature landscape, only visible and intelligible through its relation to the body which encloses it. The plant that the speaker selects, apparently so arbitrarily, begins to yield up a set of organized symbolic values that only function with reference to his grieving bodily self. This recalls William Michael's evaluation of his brother's belief: “For him the Human Being was always the Lord of Creation—the recipient and transformer and transmitter of the natural influences” (Family-Letters, 1:411).

Rossetti's complication of the apparently simple account of the woodspurge results in a remarkable set of interactions between different levels and aspects of the poem. This complexity of symbolic purpose is analogous to the kind we find posited of a Catholic sacrament, often defined as “that which brings about the thing of which it is the sign.” The sacraments are physical acts of symbolic import, which are efficacious, possessing a determined performative spiritual function, and are understood to impress “an indelible mark of grace upon the soul.” In Rossetti's poem, the woodspurge possesses something akin to this: to begin with, in the basic narrative of the lyric, the apparently simple material fact of the plant is the end product of the speaker's grief and is a sign of purged vision. However, at another level, in which the name and symbolic attributes of the plant are operative, the woodspurge brings about the intertextual purgation of poetic vision of which it is the sign. In doing this, we should note that it provides its own mark—a mark which indelibly prints the mind and consciousness of the narrator. But this mark contains within it the trace of that which cannot be purged or cast out—the previous imprints and impressions of other texts.

I located Rossetti's woodspurge, not in a biographical rural scene, but in Gerard's Herball. Several other sources, well known to Rossetti, bear upon this poem. Although the speaker does not declare the reason for his abandoned attitude until the last stanza, the effective description of that posture suggests itself as a symbolic representation of grief. Such a representation Rossetti could have recalled from one of the favorite books of his boyhood, the Iconologia (1819-21) of his father's friend Filippo Pistrucci, a book referred to by William Michael as a “series [of] coloured allegorical designs.”40 Pistrucci's two-volume catalog of figured abstractions, including personifications of the major vices, virtues, emotions, is accompanied by an Italian text (and subsequent French translation) detailing the significance of each design with regard to its appearance and posture. This concerted fleshing-out of abstraction must have made a considerable impact on Rossetti, and most likely contributed to the allegorical mode of his later work. The larger part of Pistrucci's figures, owing to the gender of Italian abstract nouns, are feminine, a fact not without interest when we consider the allegorical importance of the many female figures in “The House of Life” and other of Rossetti's works. However, the figure of lamentation—Pianto—is that of a young man, dressed in black, kneeling with his head bowed and his hair falling forward. The text tells us that the youth's dress signifies heavy bereavement such as we experience in the death of our parents or those dearest to us.41 What is perhaps rather more significant is that the youth is shown kneeling among scattered thorns which represent the pain of his affliction. The word for “thorn” given in the text—spina—is, compared to its English counterpart, employed more directly in Italian as a synonym for torment, aching pain, sorrow, grief, or difficulty. Pistrucci's emblem of the thorns functions in much the same way, though to different purpose, as Rossetti's emblem of the woodspurge. Moreover, considering the symbolic and rebus-like status of the woodspurge plant, one can not help wondering if the near homophonic pun of Pianto/Pianta underlies both this picture and Rossetti's remembrance of it.42

This association of plants and grief underlies another poem by one of Rossetti's major poetic precursors. Browning's short poem “May and Death,” first published in The Keepsake for 1857, and later in Dramatis Personae (1864), bears a strong resemblance to Rossetti's “The Woodspurge.”43 While the poem does not involve the same kind of symbolic play on a given name, it does use the image of a specific plant to express the speaker's grief for the death of a close friend the previous May, a death often identified with that of Browning's much-loved cousin John Silverthorne in 1852. Like Rossetti's lyric, the poem is, superficially, simple, its language direct and straightforward, and the speaker's laconicism, expressed in his final eloquent “that's all,” rhetorically effective in expressing the sorrow he is unable to articulate. The poem also shares with Rossetti's the phenomenon of a sharpening focus, as the speaker, dismissing more extravagant gestures of grief, comes to concentrate on the plant, familiar to him from happier springs gone by, but whose blood-like markings are now the emblem of a heart-wounding loss. Browning's plant is said to be the spotted persicaria, a plant which, in legend, derives its markings from Christ's blood as it dripped from the cross, but the poem does not call on this specifically Christian association. Rather, the reference to the marks as “spring's blood” makes the association seem pagan, suggesting vegetation myth, or the mythological story of Hyacinthus, killed in a discus game and mourned by his friend Apollo. In Ovid's account, the boy's blood stains the flower afterwards known as the hyacinth, its petals henceforth marked with the letters “AI AI” signifying Apollo's cries of grief.44

Whether Browning showed Rossetti his poem prior to the composition of “The Woodspurge” is not known. William Michael Rossetti was unsure about the ascription of the year 1856 to his brother's poem, which could have been written later (though not earlier if the connection with Modern Painters III is to hold). Certainly the poets were on good terms with each other at this time and in regular correspondence. It does not seem very likely that Rossetti, reserved about his poetry in the 1850s, would have showed Browning his poem first. We do, however, know what he thought of Browning's poem, which was included in his friend William Allingham's verse anthology Nightingale Valley (1859). A letter to Allingham, thanking him for a copy of the volume, takes him to task for certain selections. Of “May and Death,” Rossetti comments drily, “not B.'s best.”45 Whichever piece is prior, Rossetti may have found Browning's poem somewhat too close for comfort.

While “May and Death” could be a fortuitous parallel, Browning's habit of associating flowers, names, and emotions, a tendency well illustrated in the early “Garden Fancy: The Flower's Name” (1844), probably was influential, and it is hard not to be struck by the moment in Sordello (1840) where Eglamor is supplanted by his poetic rival. In his grief, he dies, and Sordello prays over the grave that the dead man's fame continue:

                                                            Nor the prayer quite fruitless fell.
A plant they have, yielding a three-leaved bell
Which whitens at the heart ere noon, and ails
Till evening; evening gives it to her gales
To clear away with such forgotten things
As are an eyesore to the morn: this brings
Him to their mind, and bears his very name.


The “three-leaved bell” again reminds us of the woodspurge, but lacks the Trinitarian resonance of “three cups in one” or “cup of three,” which is Rossetti's own addition. Interestingly, the “three-leaved bell” is an emblem that names a dead and conquered poetic rival, just as, in one of its guises, the woodspurge refers to Wordsworth. But if this reminiscence of Sordello recalls its author, then it may also signify the audacious burial of Browning, Rossetti's closest and most threatening poetic rival.

The third text, also mentioned by William Michael as a childhood favorite of Rossetti's, is Francesco Colonna's dream fable, the Poliphili Hypnerotomachia, printed by Aldus in 1499, one of the most prized of Renaissance incunabulae, and famous for its beautiful woodcuts.46 Colonna's extraordinary macaronic Italian text tells the story of Poliphilus, who afflicted by the pangs of love, falls into a dream-vision, in which he catalogs many strange sights—famous antiquities and buildings, fabulous interiors, gardens, and pastoral scenes. He meets a succession of female figures including the five Senses, and eventually, Polia, whom he recognizes as the lady of his affections. The couple watch a series of triumphal processions, are united in a ceremony in the Temple of Venus, and are taken by Cupid to the isle of Cytherea, where Polia relates the story of their thwarted love. But the theme of thwarted love continues, for when the lovers are finally alone, Polia vanishes even as they embrace, and so Poliphilus wakes from his dream. Colonna's book is renowned for its pictured hieroglyphics and for certain of its illustrations, both of which prefigure the later development of the emblem. An early moment in this tale has a bearing on Rossetti's poem; the hero, Poliphilus, grief-stricken and weary, seeks repose under an oak tree standing in the middle of a spacious grassy plain:

Finalmente per tanta lassitudine correpto, … exposimi accumbere sopra le rorate herbe. Sopra el sinistro lato cessabondo, iacente, atreheua cum attenuati spiriti le fresche aure, piu assiduamente cum le crespe labra.

He wonders in despair,

Vmedun che, oue potrei io quiui trasi diuerse herba ritrouare la Mercuriale Moly, cum la nigra radice per aiuto, & mio medicamento? … per ultimo refrigerio prehendaua le humide foglie rorulente, sotto la frondosa quercia riseruate, & quelle porgere alli pallidi & aspri labri, cum ingurgitissima auiditate, dingluuie lambendole assucare, & la siticulosa uuea refrigerare alquanto.47

Several details—the hero's prostrated grief, his weary lips, his naming of a symbolic plant and his looking to the herbs for last-resort refreshment or succor, details told in an extravagant gestural way in Colonna's text—are purged into a simpler form in Rossetti's poem.

Colonna's dream-narrative with its Beatrice figure has an obvious precursor in Dante's Commedia, the third and final Italian text for this poem, whose presence is hinted at in the title of this essay. Dante Gabriel's own name, his signature, which would be the poem's subscription, is, of course, in part that of the poet he was named for by his father.48 If Rossetti is, as I believe, saturated in a markedly Catholic, Italian-influenced, emblematic and allegorical tradition, it does not seem surprising that Dante should also figure in the text in the overdetermined symbol of the spurge, which recalls the title of the second book of the Commedia—Purgatorio. Dante's Purgatory is quel secondo regno / dove l'umano spirito si purga, / e di salire al ciel diventa degno and, consequently, a place of cleansing, regeneration, and conversion.49 Dante's protagonist, rescued from the dark wood of sin and error, embarks on a moral journey, through Hell, then Purgatory, where the sins of those not damned must necessarily be cleansed, before the final ascent to the Beatific Vision of Paradise. In this Dantean sense, “woodspurge” can function as another name for Purgatory.50 Rossetti's poem, central to his oeuvre, is also a place of purging, a place where he attempts to wipe out the sins of his poetic fathers or to convert them into something else. “The Woodspurge” is a conversion poem, marking a move from one phase of Rossetti's writing into another, and rather than demonstrating a submission to Ruskin's Evangelical aesthetics, it subtly converts Ruskin's argument into a Catholic register.

The sonnet “St. Luke the Painter” tells how the “devious symbols” of early Christian art gave way to a natural symbolism, but “The Woodspurge” shows how, once we talk of symbols, the natural is permeated by the iconographic and cannot be anything other than devious. Consequently, this innocent-seeming poem is the most devious of Rossetti's works. “Devious” also connotes a circuitous route, not unlike the one I have been forced to take, but true to the questing pattern of symbolic narrative. Thus the poem's unromantic wisdom is that Rossetti's readers will not “see … Heaven in a wild flower” without experiencing his Purgatory first, just as they will not make it out of the woods if they cling to notions of innocence.


  1. Walter Pater, “Dante Gabriel Rossetti,” Appreciations (London, 1910), p. 206.

  2. See his note to the poem in The Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. William M. Rossetti (London, 1911), p. 667. Hereafter cited as Works. All references to the poem are to p. 205 of this edition.

  3. Carol T. Christ, The Finer Optic: The Aesthetic of Particularity in Victorian Poetry (New Haven, 1975), p. 45; John P. McGowan, “‘The Bitterness of Things Occult’: D. G. Rossetti's Search for the Real,” VP 20 (1982): 47.

  4. Hoxie Neale Fairchild, Religious Trends in English Poetry, vol. 4: 1830-1880: Christianity and Romanticism in the Victorian Era (New York, 1957), p. 390.

  5. For Rossetti's attitude towards nature, see Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family-Letters with a Memoir by William Michael Rossetti, ed. William Michael Rossetti (London, 1895), 1:410-411, and for Canon Watson Dixon's views, 1:406-407. Referred to throughout as Family-Letters.

  6. T. Hall Caine, Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (London, 1882), p. 231. Referred to throughout as Recollections. Caine is not very accurate as to the dates of the editions of books in Rossetti's library, and gives 1626 as the date of Rossetti's copy of Gerard. As there is no edition of this date, it is likely he meant 1636, this being a reprint of Thomas Johnson's 1630 enlarged version of the Herball, an edition which includes more specific coverage of the woodspurge. All references are to chap. 139: “Of Spurges,” in John Gerard, The Herball or General Historie of Plantes, ed. Thomas Johnson (London, 1633), pp. 497-506. For Morris' interest in Gerard, see J. W. Mackail, The Life of William Morris (London, 1901), 1:314.

  7. Gerard's Herball, p. 501. The modern standard botanical name for the spurges is Euphorbiaceae—the woodspurge being Euphorbia amygdaloides.

  8. Ronnalie Roper Howard refers to “the grief and defeat of [the speaker's] fetal position” in The Dark Glass: Vision and Technique in the Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Athens, Ohio, 1972), p. 114.

  9. The image of stillbirth is used elsewhere by Rossetti, notably in “Stillborn Love,” sonnet 55, in “The House of Life,” Works, p. 93.

  10. “The Tables Turned,” ll. 21-25, in Wordsworth: Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchinson, rev. Ernest de Selincourt (London, 1973), p. 377.

  11. Rossetti to W. Allingham (Christmas 1859), in Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. Oswald Doughty and John Robert Wahl (Oxford, 1965-67), 1:361. Referred to throughout as Letters.

  12. “The poem is emotionally opaque, a quality that—one suspects Rossetti knew rather too well—is easy to mistake for sophistication” (Richard Cronin, Colour and Experience in Nineteenth Century Poetry [London, 1988], p. 5).

  13. Jerome J. McGann, “Rossetti's Significant Details” (1969), in Pre-Raphaelitism: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. James Sambrook (Chicago, 1974), p. 234.

  14. “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (London, 1984), p. 165.

  15. See the article by D. M. R. Bentley, “The Belle Assemblée Version of ‘My Sister's Sleep,’” VP 12 (1974): 321-334.

  16. Hall Caine's remarks on Rossetti's religious sympathies (Recollections, p. 139) are worth consideration and are prompted by remembrance of a scholarly review of his Poems in the New York Catholic World 29 (May 1874), which Rossetti found “among the best things written on the subject.” “Years later, when I came to know Rossetti personally, I perceived that the writer of the article had not made a bad shot for the truth. True it was that he had inherited a strong religious spirit—such as could only be called Catholic. … Rossetti's attitude towards spiritual things was exactly the reverse of what we call Protestant” (p. 140). The Catholic World article was later identified to be the work of J. C. Earle. For Rossetti's own comments and those of his brother, see Family-Letters, 2:311-312 and 1:290.

  17. D. M. R. Bentley, “Rossetti's ‘Ave’ and Related Pictures,” VP 15 (1977): 21-35; David G. Riede, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Limits of Victorian Vision (Ithaca, 1983), p. 20.

  18. William Michael's ambivalent but conscientious treatment of his brother's religious views is in Family-Letters, 1:378-381.

  19. Dixon, cited in Family-Letters, 1:407; Hall Caine mentioned, 1:355. For Caine's own pertinent remarks on this lecture, see Recollections, p. 104.

  20. Introduction to The Germ: The Literary Magazine of the Pre-Raphaelites, Preface by Andrea Rose (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford and Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, 1979), p. 18. Cited in Bentley, “The Belle Assemblée Version,” p. 326.

  21. Works, p. 99. W. M. Rossetti (p. 656) gives the date for the composition of this group as 1848-49, with “St. Luke the Painter” originally intended to accompany a picture (never painted), written in 1849. For the earliest known manuscript version, see Riede, p. 40.

  22. That Ruskin sees the interventions of the Pre-Raphaelites as a purifying of the corruptions of modern secularized art is evident: “Whether or not Christianity be the purer for lacking the service of art, is disputable—and I do not mean now to begin the dispute; but that art is the impurer for not being in the service of Christianity, is indisputable, and that is the main point I have now to do with.” “Pre-Raphaelitism,” (1853) in the Library edition of Ruskin's Works, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London, 1903-12), 12:143. The sonnet also evokes Ruskin through the controversial figure of Wordsworth. Each volume of Ruskin's Modern Painters is prefaced by the same long epigraph from Wordsworth's Excursion. It is the latter part of this epigraph that Rossetti's sestet recollects in its mention of Art turning in vain to “soulless self-reflections of man's skill” (cf. The Excursion 4.987-992: “Philosophers, who … prize / This soul, and the transcendent universe, / No more than as a mirror that reflects / To proud Self-love her own intelligence,” Poetical Works, p. 637). The allusion thus serves as a subtitle for Modern Painters rather than a reference to Wordsworth in his own right. The Ruskin-Wordsworth relation is complex in its evolution and is comprehensively discussed by Elizabeth Helsinger in Ruskin and the Art of the Beholder (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982), pp. 44-60.

  23. English emblem books are almost solely derived or adapted from Catholic continental sources. We might reflect on what has been called “the failure of the emblem in England,” a failure due to the fact that “the spiritual and the invisible are almost synonymous in the dualist vocabulary of the English Protestant imagination,” and thus “the iconoclastic distaste of the English imagination for images of the invisible.” Ernest B. Gilman, The Curious Perspective: Literary and Pictorial Wit in the Seventeenth Century (New Haven, 1978), pp. 51-52; R. J. C. Major, “Reforming the Imagination: Protestant Dogma in English Literary Thought and Practice from the Elizabethan Settlement to the Civil Wars,” D. Phil. thesis, Oxford, 1990, p. 221.

  24. Bentley, “Rossetti's ‘Ave’ and Related Pictures,” p. 28. For Rossetti's remark to Patmore (1855), see Letters, 1:276; for Ruskin's letter (?1856), Ruskin: Rossetti: Pre-Raphaelitism: Papers 1854 to 1862, ed. William Michael Rossetti (London, 1899), p. 140. The relationship between Ruskin and Rossetti starts in earnest in April 1854, sustained by a constant stream of letters and meetings. Ruskin acts as patron and counselor to the younger man, offering advice and suggestions about painting, commissioning drawings and offering financial assistance to both Rossetti and his fiancée, Elizabeth Siddal. The introduction to Ruskin's Works, 36. xliii-li, gives a full and lively description of the relationship.

  25. Works, 33:288. It can be surmised that as Ruskin's faith in God diminished, the stress on materiality became more important.

  26. George P. Landow, The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin (Princeton, 1971), p. 254.

  27. Landow, pp. 255-256: “The artist who had to portray the naked body must emphasize color, the element of emotion and spirituality, at the expense of qualities which might suggest flesh. … Flesh must be purified … or as Ruskin says ‘redeemed’—‘by severity of form and hardness of line’ (4.196).”

  28. Rossetti's “sacramental” view of the body and sexuality may also be supplemented by the thought of Blake, whom he admired. In spite of his radical Protestantism, Blake validates the senses, body, and sexuality, but only by deciding that they are a kind of subset of the soul, as in “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call'd Body is a portion of Soul” (“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” The Complete Writings of William Blake, ed. Geoffrey Keynes [London, 1966], p. 149). This is not so much a combination of spiritual and sensual as the absorption and redemption of the physical by the transcendent imagination. For “Mortal & Perishing Nature,” Blake had the profoundest contempt. Notably, when Rossetti uses Blake's statement on body and soul in the fifth sonnet of “The House of Life,” he returns it to a sacramental meaning: “Lady, I fain would tell how evermore / Thy soul I know not from thy body, nor / Thee from myself, neither our love from God” (The Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, p. 76).

  29. George L. Hersey, “Ruskin as Optical Thinker,” in The Ruskin Polygon: Essays on the Imagination of John Ruskin, ed. John Dixon Hunt and Faith M. Holland (Manchester, 1982), p. 56. Hersey cites Works, 3:427 as evidence.

  30. Letters, 1:286. That he finished it fairly swiftly is obvious by the fact that Modern Painters IV was published on April 14, and on a Friday in the latter half of April we find Rossetti reporting to Allingham on Ruskin's treatment of Longfellow and Browning (Letters, pp. 299-300).

  31. “All violent feelings have the same effect. They produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things, which I would generally characterize as the ‘pathetic fallacy’” (Works, 5:205).

  32. Works, 5:209. Wordsworth's “first power” in the Preface to his 1815 Poems is the accurate description and observation of “things as they are … unmodified by any passion or feeling existing in the mind of the describer” (Poetical Works, p. 752). However, Helsinger notes (p. 52), that Wordsworth goes on to say: “This power, though indispensable to a Poet, is one which he employs in submission to necessity, and never for a continuance of time: as its exercise supposes all the higher qualities of the mind to be passive, and in a state of subjection to external objects, much in the same way as a translator or engraver ought to be to his original.” The passage on the pathetic fallacy represents Ruskin correcting Wordsworth through a restressing of Wordsworth's own thought and words. Carol Christ (p. 46) quotes lines from Wordsworth's Peter Bell to reveal the original of Ruskin's primrose—“A primrose by a river's brim / A yellow primrose was to him / And it was nothing more”—and this, too, is also a correction, as Wordsworth originally intended these lines to denote his protagonist's “moral insensitivity.”

  33. Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Classified Lists of His Writings with the Dates, ed. W. M. Rossetti (n. p., 1906), pp. 10, 33, 41.

  34. This is the conclusion of Carol Christ, pp. 46-47: “Rossetti … insists on the fact that a woodspurge is a three-cupped woodspurge, and it is nothing more. Rossetti again recalls Ruskin's poetic ideal.”

  35. Patricia Ball, The Science of Aspects: The Changing Role of Fact in the Work of Coleridge, Ruskin and Hopkins (London, 1971), p. 78.

  36. Letter to the Times, May 25, 1854, in Works, 12:334, quoted by Christ, p. 62. Joan Rees, The Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Modes of Self-Expression (Cambridge, 1981), p. 67, cites this passage in her brief discussion of “The Woodspurge.”

  37. “Ruskin knew that … his debts and affinities were to what he called the second order of poets … and not to the first order.” Harold Bloom, The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition (Chicago, 1971), p. 182.

  38. “An object or mark raised or made by man on a scene is worth ten times any such formed by unconscious Nature,” in Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy, ed. Michael Millgate (Athens, Georgia), p. 120.

  39. In Praeterita, he declares of his young observing self: “My entire delight was in observing without being myself noticed,—if I could have been invisible all the better” (Works, 35:166).

  40. Family-Letters, 1:62. Filippo Pistrucci, Iconologia, ovvero immagini di tutte le cose prinicipali a cui l'umano talento ha finto un corpo, trans. Francese di Sergant Marçeau, 2 vols. (Milan, 1819-21). Pistrucci is mentioned as a family friend and a very early influence on Rossetti's drawing in Family-Letters, 1:48, 50, 85; 2:16. The Iconologia is mentioned by Bentley as an influence on Rossetti in “The Belle Assemblée Version,” pp. 326, 333. One may assume that Rossetti's father owned the Italian edition of the Iconologia rather than the English translation of 1824. The Italian text would have been no barrier to his son, bilingual from childhood, and a prodigious translator.

  41. Iconologia, 2:163 (Plate 202).

  42. The pun is inadequately rendered by its closest English equivalent “plaint”/“plant,” as plaint does not accurately describe the sense of bereaved despair. In some ways, a better analogy is afforded by the full pun on the word “pine,” used effectively by Wordsworth in the “pining umbrage” (l. 22) of “Yew Trees” (Poetical Works, p. 146).

  43. Robert Browning: The Poems, ed. John Pettigrew and Thomas J. Collins (Harmondsworth, 1981), 1:814.

  44. Ovid, Metamorphoses, 10.162-219.

  45. Christmas, 1859 (Letters, 1:361).

  46. Family-Letters, 1:62. Francesco Colonna, Poliphili Hypnerotomachia (Venice, 1499), in facsimile, with an introduction by George D. Painter (London 1963). Poliphilus means “the lover of Polia.” Caine (Recollections, p. 231) gives the date for the edition in Rossetti's library as 1467, which is impossible. He also mentions that Rossetti possessed a French translation of the Hypnerotomachia—the Songe de Poliphile (1561), and a Parisian edition of this date does exist.

  47. Poliphili Hypnerotomachia, sig. a5v—6r. I use Sir Robert Dallington's Elizabethan translation, Hypnerotomachia: The Strife of Loue in a Dreame (London, 1592), fol. 4v—5r: “at length ouercome with all kinde of greefes, … I rested my selfe vppon the deawye hearbes, and lying vppon my left syde I drewe my breath in the freshe ayre more shortly betwixt my drye and wrinckled lips. … O Hieme where might I there among so many dyuerse and sundry sorts of hearbes, find the Mercurial Moli with his blacke roote, for my helpe and remedie … taking into my hands halfe aliue, as my last refuge, the moyst and bedewed leaues, preserued in the coole shadow of the greene Oke: putting the same to my pale and drye lippes, with a greedye desire in licking of them to satissfie my distempred mouth with theyr moisture.”

  48. For Rossetti's consciousness of the pattern of Dante, see his moving sonnet “Dantis Tenebrae” in memory of his father, an established Dante scholar, in The Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, p. 208.

  49. Canto 1, ll. 4-7 (“that second kingdom where the human spirit is purged and becomes fit to ascend to heaven”), in The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Italian text with translation and comment by John D. Sinclair, 3 vols. (New York, 1981), 2: 18, 19.

  50. William Michael, having referred to Rossetti's unfulfilled wish just before he died to have “absolution for his sins” (Family-Letters, 1:378), comments later on his brother's beliefs (p. 381): “I have little doubt however that, in the case of persons so faulty as he knew and acknowledged himself to be, yet not ignoble in faculty or aim, he credited neither immediate bliss after death nor irrevocable ‘damnation,’ but rather a period of purgation and atonement, with gradual ascent, comparable more or less to the purgatory of Roman Catholics.” Rossetti includes “The Woodspurge”’ with the other songs that accompany the sonnets of “The House of Life,” his own heavily symbolic Dantean pilgrimage, which, as the context assigned to this lyric, should also color its reading.

Martin A. Danahay (essay date winter 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9031

SOURCE: Danahay, Martin A. “Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Virtual Bodies.” Victorian Poetry 36, no. 4 (winter 1998): 379-97.

[In the following essay, Danahay explores the commodification of women's bodies in Rossetti's paintings and poetry.]

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's paintings and poems were made available on the World Wide Web in 1993 thanks to Jerome McGann's creation of “The Rossetti Archive” at the University of Virginia (http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/rossetti/rossetti.html).1 “The Rossetti Archive” appeared alongside a profusion of sites purveying pornographic images, in what proved an ironic juxtaposition. When Rossetti initially created his texts and paintings he did so at the same time that photography promoted the diffusion of cheaply reproduced pornographic images.2 Rossetti's paintings are “high” art images executed in oils, but as Robert Buchanan noted in his infamous attack in The Fleshly School of Poetry, of which he considered Rossetti the prime example, these images bore a direct relation to the wholesale use of eroticized images of women's bodies in pornography, and more broadly to the selling of goods in the emerging Victorian consumer society. While it is common to quote Buchanan at the beginning of an article on Rossetti and then dismiss him, I will take Buchanan's charges against Rossetti seriously, and suggest that in his own clumsy way he was making astute comments about the intersection of the commodification of women's bodies and Rossetti's sexual desires in his attack on Rossetti as a member of the “fleshly” school of poetry.

The commodification of the female body is the common denominator between Buchanan's critique of Rossetti's poetry and the Rossetti Archive's presence on the World Wide Web. Rossetti's art and advertising use the representation of a woman's body to attach sexual desire to the consumption of commodities. They make a fetish of female sexuality to incite desire in the consumer. Frederic W. H. Myers in an early appreciation of Rossetti turned fetishism into a universal principle, and argued that in advanced industrial societies, especially America and England, “even the sexual instinct … merges in larger and larger measure into the mere aesthetic enjoyment of beauty,” and credited Rossetti with being the most advanced proponent of the fusing of the “aesthetic” and “sexual.”3 Myers sees the saturation of the “aesthetic” by the sexual as a sign of progress. Buchanan would agree with Myers on the fusion of the aesthetic and sexual in Rossetti's poetry, but sees this in pejorative terms. Buchanan refers in his title and in his essay to Rossetti's poetry as “fleshly,” which is a resonant term both for its older and more modern connotations. Overtly Buchanan has in mind the conventional distinction between the “flesh” and the “spirit” in Christian theology. He is also referring, however, to the preoccupation with women's bodies in Rossetti's poetry, a preoccupation that can also be found in the paintings.

Buchanan, however, confuses the representation and its referent; we are dealing in Rossetti's poetry and painting not with actual “flesh,” but representations of bodies in words and pigment.4 Rossetti's bodies are, in other words, “virtual” not real. Buchanan treats both types of “virtual” body, the one represented in language and the one represented by an arrangement of oil paints on a canvas, as if they were actual flesh. In this he joins both the consumers and critics of the presence of pornographic images in photography and on the Web. Consumers of these images treat the photos as signs of real women representing actual sexual desire, while in fact they are removed from the real, being staged enactments of stylized sexualized gestures turned into digital images. On the Web these images are doubly mediated because they are digitized copies of photographs, so that they are products not only of the technology of photography but also of that of computers. It is possible to see the source code for such digitized images that reduce them to a series of numbers that instruct the computer how to arrange pixels of color. Similarly a representation of a Rossetti painting in “The Rossetti Archive” is the result of a series of numbers that instruct the computer how to display the painting; the technology here reduces all representation to a common denominator. Both kinds of representation depend upon the suspension of the knowledge of their status as a simulacrum by the viewer. Apparently large numbers of men are willing today, as they were in the Victorian era, to suspend this knowledge and consume these virtual images as if they were real. As we will see, Rossetti himself never forgot the virtual status of representations in this way.

In a similar argument concerning the status of erotic and pornographic photography, Solomon-Godeau argues that there is nothing inherent in the representation of women's bodies that marks them either as “aesthetic,” and thus the province of “high” art, or “salacious” and the province of pornography (p. 221). The crucial factor is not the presence of the naked female body, but the discursive frame within which the image is viewed. The discursive frame for both Rossetti's images and the “adult sites” on the World Wide Web is the male gaze. The difference between the “aesthetic” and the “salacious” disappears in this theoretical approach to the representation of women's bodies because the crucial factor is not the image itself but the cultural context within which it is viewed and the discursive frame that makes it intelligible. Until recently the Web was a predominantly male preserve;5 Solomon-Godeau argues that a series of assumptions and metaphors surrounded the “penetrating” technology of the camera that made it a similarly male preserve in the Victorian period (p. 229). Rossetti's representations of women in poetry and painting also presuppose the male gaze, and the male as a desiring subject who will consume the image. The discursive frame for pornography, whether in Victorian photography or on the Web, is the same as for Rossetti's representations of women.

My aim here, however, is not to deny the power that such “virtual” images have to create harm or good, and to motivate people to act on their desires, but to reinforce that Rossetti himself already knew the difference between the real and the virtual, and made it part of his meditation on the status of representation. For instance, in “The Blessed Damozel” Rossetti in both his painting and poem separates the lovers from their objects of desire, and then tries to overcome that distance, but is ultimately unsuccessful. In the poem the parentheses around the utterances of the earthly male lover and in the painting the wooden divider across the canvas both symbolize the separation of flesh and spirit. While both lovers may want to overcome the separation of flesh and spirit, desire is not strong enough to bridge the gap between them. The poem and the painting both come to pin their faith on a zone of liminal contact between the fleshly and the spiritual; while the lovers do not communicate directly, they have some awareness of a presence that can be intuited, but that is not directly accessible to the senses.

Rossetti, of course, was criticized for making his “blessed” damozel too earthly for Victorian tastes. Later paintings became more and more frankly representative of both male and female fleshly desire. It was this preoccupation that so upset Buchanan, but it is also this preoccupation that makes Rossetti such an interesting representative of the status of art in a consumer culture in which pornographic images, both “legitimate” images in advertising and “illegitimate” images in pornographic magazines and Web sites, are in constant circulation. Buchanan's worst fears about the influence of the “fleshly” school of poetry have in many ways been realized; advertising imagery eroticizes all commodities, from coffee to cars, and incites desire in ways that are analogous to Rossetti's imagery.

John Barclay has argued that “the greatest threat Rossetti perceived from the world outside his art came from the burgeoning Victorian marketplace,” and draws upon the work of Jonathan Freedman's Professions of Taste to place Rossetti's poetry within the context of the consumption of art in museums.6 Barclay goes on to argue that Rossetti's poetry comments upon and complicates the relation between art and commercial culture in the Victorian period. Barclay is correct in his analysis, but too quick to reject a complicity between Rossetti and what Barclay terms “commercial culture.” Barclay quotes Rossetti protesting that his verse has remained “unprostituted” (p. 1). The invocation of prostitution in the context of the poetry and art which I analyze in the following pages resonates powerfully with unacknowledged parallels between Rossetti's art and the uses of female sexuality in “commercial culture.” Prostitution itself becomes in Rossetti's imagery a figure for the presence of a commodified sexuality that is part of his art, not a threat from “outside” his art.

Buchanan in the expanded and republished version of the essay that originally appeared in the Contemporary Review shows his own erotic fascination with the display of women's bodies and sees the female body pervading British culture thanks to the commercialization of sexuality:

Look which way I will, the horrid thing threatens and paralyzes me. It lies on the drawing-room table, shamelessly naked and dangerously fair. It is part of the pretty poem which the belle of the season reads, and it breathes away the pureness of her soul. … The streets are full of it. Photographs of nude, indecent, and hideous harlots, in every possible attitude that vice can devise, flaunt from the shop-windows, gloated over by the fatuous glint of the libertine and the greedy open-mouthed stare of the day-labourer. … It has penetrated to the very sweetshops; and there, among the commoner sorts of confectionery, may be seen this year models of the female Leg, the whole definite and elegant article as far as the thigh, with a fringe of paper cut in imitation of the female drawers and embroidered in the female fashion!7

The bodies he sees are both attractively “fair” and “dangerous” because they incite Buchanan's desire and paralyze his will, in much the same way as the speaker in a poem like Rossetti's “The Orchard Pit” is attracted to a dangerously seductive woman who he knows will prove fatal but cannot resist. The “it” in this description hovers ambiguously between women's bodies and sexuality, both nouns being possible substitutions for “it” throughout Buchanan's prose. Buchanan is the desiring subject in his prose, reacting with horror as much at his own fascination with pornographic imagery as objecting to the display of bodies. For Buchanan, Rossetti's poetry and pornography share the same vocabulary. Buchanan was not the only one to link Rossetti and pornography in this way. In 1860, in reaction to Rossetti's Bocca Baciata (1859), Holman Hunt compared the painting to imported pornographic photographs and complained that it bespoke “gross sensuality of a revolting kind.”8

Robin Sheets in “Pornography and Art: The Case of ‘Jenny’” uses Rossetti as a test case to ask “how were the conventions of pornography … related to the production and interpretation of art?” in the Victorian period.9 In examining Rossetti's “Jenny” Sheets concludes that “Jenny” has many points of similarity to Victorian pornography and that Rossetti himself “needed beautiful women as subjects for aesthetic contemplation,” had affairs with many of his models, and initiated relationships with women who were prostitutes when he met them (p. 332). Sheets ends the analysis with some provocative comments on the parallel patron/prostitute and artist/model relationship, but does not examine the implications of this parallel for Rossetti's poetry and art.10

While I am not arguing that Rossetti was deliberately producing pornography, I would argue that his artistic practices were not as far removed from the pornographic as either he or contemporary critics would like to maintain. It is this parallel that makes the simultaneous appearance of “The Rossetti Archive” on the World Wide Web alongside a plethora of “adult sites” so striking in its coincidence. For all his faults, Buchanan recognized this parallel between Rossetti's art and pornography. In recognizing this coincidence, Buchanan was naming the increasing use of the commodification of women's bodies in both “high” art and popular culture in the Victorian period.

Buchanan in the passage above conflates a woman's body and a volume of poetry (presumably Pre-Raphaelite) in describing the “it” that lies on a drawing-room table, both being seductive and threatening in their violation of social taboos. Buchanan also links “it” to the Snake and Sodom and Gomorrah, invoking a traditional Christian interpretation of the flesh as “fallen.” However, Buchanan's comments are not focussed on human sexuality generally, but rather on the female body, and especially on the wholesale reproduction of images of a woman's leg, which he terms the “Leg-disease” permeating British society:

But the Leg, an excellent thing in itself, becomes insufferable if obtruded into every concern of life, so that instead of humanity we see a demon resembling the Manx coat-of-arms, cutting capers without a body or head. The Leg, as a disease, is subtle, secret, diabolical. It relies not merely on its own intrinsic attractions, but on its atrocious suggestions. It becomes a spectre, a portent, a mania. … The shop-windows teem with Leg. Enter a music-hall—Leg again, and (O tempora! O mores!) the Can-Can.

(p. 4)

Buchanan actually follows a procedure very similar to Rossetti's in that he makes a fetish of one part of a woman's body, and constructs the fantasy of a woman who has no body but only legs. Buchanan is a leg man, whereas Rossetti tended to focus on hair, lips, and neck. Where Rossetti made this approach to women's bodies his modus operandi, Buchanan reacts with unexamined horror at the turn his own fantasies have taken. Buchanan's object of analysis here might be termed “commodity fetishism,” to adopt the vocabulary of Karl Marx. Buchanan obviously has nothing in common with Karl Marx's approach in that he is not interested in issues of class and labor, but is focussed instead entirely on the fetishistic aspects of the commodification of the female body. In his own hysterical way, however, Buchanan is capturing the first signs of the commodification of women's bodies in the burgeoning consumer society of Victorian England. His fascination with the “Leg” as “a spectre, a portent, a mania” underscores the composite nature of the repetitive representation of the female body he sees on display in shop windows and its illusory nature.11 He uses a series of metaphors of a ghostly or virtual presence, a sign of things to come, and a form of delirium to try to define the commodification he notices. Buchanan is naming the contours of the coming commodity fetishism in advertising and pornography as it was presaged in Rossetti's art and poetry. In both Buchanan's prose and Rossetti's poetry the female body becomes a “spectre” that incites desire but can never fulfill its promise because it is a virtual image. The representation of women in Rossetti's art and poetry functions as an analogue to both pornographic photography and commodity fetishism in that the image represents a desire that is continually incited but can never be fulfilled. In Rossetti's art and poetry as in advertising “the desire produced by the commodity fetish … will ceaselessly provoke desire in the consumer but will perpetually defer closure, resolution, satiety” (Solomon-Godeau, p. 231).

While Buchanan would undoubtedly join many contemporary conservative commentators in their outrage at the abundance of pornographic images on the World Wide Web, Rossetti's own artistic project has points both of similarity and difference with these sites. Rossetti himself is acutely aware that artistic and poetic representations of flesh only produce “virtual” bodies that are in an ambiguous relationship with actual bodies. For instance, in his meditations on the process of creating a painting—“The Portrait” in “The House of Life”—Rossetti emphasizes the virtual status of the painting, which inhabits a zone poised ambiguously between subject and object, and imitation and reality:

          O Love! Let this my lady's picture glow
          Under my hand to praise her name, and show
Even of her inner self the perfect whole:
That he who seeks her beauty's furthest goal,
          Beyond the light that the sweet glances throw
          And refluent wave of the sweet smile, may know
The very sky and sea-line of her soul.

(Sonnet X, ll. 2-8)12

Rossetti emphasizes that he wants to represent the “inner self,” as opposed to what an external look would reveal. His desire to see the imaginary horizon of a woman's “sky and sea-line of her soul” means he wants to decompose the woman's physical body into the virtual body that appears “under his hand” as he processes “light” into the pigments on the canvas. The reality to which his paintings refer is not located in the physical world but in an imaginary world where bodies, as mere external signs, dissolve and reassemble into the imaginary landscapes of visual representation. In an apt and early invocation of multimedia, Antony H. Harrison refers to Rossetti's images in poems such as “The Portrait” as “a constellation of interactive images” indicating their status as virtual objects.13 For Rossetti, the illusion of a three-dimensional body on the flat plane of the canvas is more powerful, and contains more truth, than the physical body of which it is a simulacrum, and is therefore more true than physical appearance.14 However, Rossetti foregrounds the liminal status of representation by emphasizing that this process occurs through his own artistic representations. John P. McGowan has paraphrased Rossetti's ideas here in terms that emphasize Rossetti's awareness of mediation in artistic representation when he says that Rossetti believed that “the limitation of Art is that while it may faithfully represent the real, it always remains only a representation of the object represented.”15 In other words, Rossetti is aware that artistic images are virtual, not real; they are material but not alive.

Women's bodies in Rossetti's painting and poems become “virtual bodies,” having an existence that transcends merely the physical, but which makes them lack substance. Rossetti describes the image of a woman on a canvas in the following terms:

          'Tis she: Though of herself, alas!
          Less than her shadow on the grass
Or than her image in the stream.

(“The Portrait,” ll. 34-36)

While the painting is the woman in that it captures “the still movement of her hands” and “the pure line's gracious flow” (ll. 30, 31), it is also a “shadow” or image reflected in a stream, metaphors that suggest how immaterial and impermanent are these images. Nonetheless, as in “The Blessed Damozel” some form of communication is possible across death, and the ultimate hope of being reunited in heaven rescues “The Portrait” from despair. The images of the woman in Rossetti's poems and paintings function in a way analogous to the commodity fetishism that Buchanan described in The Fleshly School of Poetry. Rossetti pursues “spectres” and “portents” in women's bodies in a single-minded fashion that to some of his Victorian commentators verged on monomania. Rossetti encodes in his images of virtual women's bodies a desire that can never be fulfilled on this earth, only in an afterlife that transcends the physical. This is similar to the “commodity fetishism” Buchanan described above in that closure is postponed to a realm beyond the present and the physical.

Rossetti creates images of women that are a simulacrum of his own desire. Buchanan in another astute observation asserts that Rossetti “is never dramatic, never impersonal” but rather he “is the Blessed Damozel … he is ‘heaven-born Helen, Sparta's queen’ … ; he is Lilith, the first wife of Adam … ; he is all these, just as surely as he is Mr Rossetti soliloquising over Jenny in her London lodging, or the very nuptial person writing erotic sonnets to his wife” (pp. 38-39). While this may seem absurd on the face of it, Rossetti himself believed that Love, the power he invoked in “The Portrait,” fused subject and object, lover and loved one.16 He represents this in such poems as “Willowwood” and “The Mirror” and graphically in the early drawing A Parable of Love (Love's Mirror) in which a young male painter is holding a brush and either painting a portrait of his love, or helping her to complete her self-portrait. The man is looking not at the painting but at a mirror in which both their heads can be seen. While Stephen Wildman interprets this as meaning that the mirror “improves on art by reflecting an image of the two lovers together,”17 it seems in the context of Rossetti's beliefs about art and love that the young man is seeing himself in the mirror of the woman's face.18 Buchanan is thus correct to say that Rossetti “is” the Blessed Damozel, or Helen of Troy, because Rossetti sees them as fusions of his desires and their object in the representation of the woman's body.

Rossetti has two poems with the title “The Portrait,” one from “Willowwood” quoted above, and another longer separate poem on painting a portrait. This other “Portrait” ends with the lines:

          It seems a thing to wonder on,
As though mine image in the glass
          Should tarry when myself am gone.

(ll. 2-4)

The portrait is of a woman, but in these concluding lines the image metamorphoses into Rossetti himself. The surface of the painting becomes like the flat, reflective surface of the mirror and gives back a combined image in which the viewer morphs into a composite being with the object of representation. The man's physical body and his image are separated in that the mirror image takes on a life of its own and “tarries” when the physical body to which it refers has gone. The virtual man outlasts the presence of the physical body. Furthermore, when discussing the portrait the narrator does not say that it is as if the woman's image had tarried in the mirror, but as if “mine image” was reflected on the surface of the painting. The representation of the woman's face in the painting becomes confused with Rossetti's own as the desiring male who finds his self-image confirmed by his love “object” (a term Rossetti uses frequently to designate the woman in the poem). It is this essentially narcissistic definition of love to which Buchanan was objecting.

The discursive context for Rossetti's poetry and art then is himself as the desiring male subject. His images are sexual and “fleshly” in Buchanan's terms because they draw upon the structures of male desire and use codes of sexuality that were shared by Rossetti, Buchanan, and other Victorian men. His virtual bodies are “fleshly” not because they represent real women but because they actually represent male sexual desire. For this reason Holman Hunt in the quotation above objected to the “gross sexuality” in Rossetti's painting and Buchanan to the eroticized language of Rossetti's poems. They recognized the codes of male sexuality upon which Rossetti was so explicitly drawing.

As Buchanan notes, Rossetti returns obsessively to sexual desire, kisses, and embraces between men and women in his poetry; Buchanan complains that in doing so Rossetti is displaying the “secret” world of male desire for all to see:

Here is a full-grown man, presumably intelligent and cultivated, putting on record, for other full-grown men to read, the most secret mysteries of sexual connection, and that with so sickening a desire to reproduce the sensual mood, so careful a choice of epithet to convey mere animal sensations, that we merely shudder at the shameless nakedness. … It is neither poetic, nor manly, nor even human, to obtrude such things as the themes of whole poems. It is simply nasty.

(p. 37)

Attraction and repulsion compete in Buchanan's prose, as at one level he seems to register the attraction of Rossetti's representation of desire, while on another he is driven to repudiate it as “sickening,” “shameless,” and “nasty.” Most striking here, though, is the emphasis on manliness and the assumption that “full-grown men” are all members of the same club. Men for Buchanan are members of some secret society who know about sex but never discuss it in public. Buchanan refers to Rossetti as a “full-grown man,” then retracts this description when he accuses Rossetti of being “unmanly.” He assumes (accurately I believe) that Rossetti's poem, like his paintings, is designed to appeal to other men through a shared erotic fascination with the female body; it is this display of eroticized female bodies, and the male desire focussed on them, to which Buchanan objects. While Buchanan concedes that as a “full-grown man” Rossetti knows what he and other men find attractive, Buchanan feels that male desire should be kept “secret,” like sexuality generally, and that there is something shameful and nasty in such a direct display of eroticism. Buchanan also equates the sexual and the animal here, and goes so far as to suggest that Rossetti is no longer “human,” implying that in this poem Rossetti has crossed the boundary from civilized behavior into a sensualism of beasts.

Buchanan asserts that, despite his discomfort with Rossetti's poetry, he is no prude, claiming that “I hold the sensual part of our nature to be as holy as the spiritual.” Here he and Rossetti are in complete agreement, but Buchanan deliberately refuses to acknowledge the common ground between them. As Ernest Fontana has convincingly argued, “in Rossetti's poetry and art the kiss assumes a sacramental significance” and symbolizes for Rossetti the conjunction of flesh and spirit.19 Both Buchanan and Rossetti would claim to view the “sensual” as also “spiritual,” although both also betray a deep ambivalence about male sexuality as well. The correspondence between the two Victorian males extends to their attitudes as men toward women and sexuality; for these Victorian men the commodification of sexuality through the repetitive representation of women's bodies had begun to shape their attitudes toward art, sexuality, and money.

Buchanan singles out one poem for praise from among Rossetti's works that at first glance might seem to deserve as much rebuke as the others to which he so vehemently objected. Buchanan praises “Jenny” as “in some respects the cleverest poem in the volume” (p. 45). The surprised reader is enlightened a few lines later by Buchanan's typically modest explanation for this poem's excellence: “It is a production which bears signs of having been suggested by my own quasi-lyrical poems, which it copies in the style of title, and particularly by ‘Artist and Model’” (pp. 45-46). Despite Rossetti's protest that he had never read any of Buchanan's poems, Buchanan is serene in his conviction that the best parts of Rossetti are his. Buchanan then returns to the attack on the next page, criticizing the poem not for its choice of subject matter, but its “tone.” Buchanan claims that “its fleshliness is apparent at a glance; one perceives that the scene was fascinating less through its human tenderness than because it, like all the others, possessed an inherent quality of animalism” (p. 47). As he does above in his references to “merely animal sensations,” Buchanan again draws upon the animal as metaphor. Once again, the spectre of a bestial male sexuality haunts Buchanan's reactions to Rossetti's representations of women's bodies. There is an obvious discomfort here with the “bestiality” of male sexual desire.

“Jenny,” the poem that Buchanan so uncharacteristically singles out for praise, is the poem that names most precisely the status of “virtual bodies,” sexual desire, and commodification in Rossetti's art and poetry. This process has been most successfully described in an article by Daniel A. Harris.20 While Harris is primarily interested in contributing to the debate over the generic boundaries of the “interior monologue,” he has insightful comments on the functions of sex and money in the poem. The key moment in the poem both for my interpretation and Harris' analysis of its dynamics is the moment when the protagonist places golden coins in the sleeping woman's hair:

                                                                                And there
I lay among your golden hair,
Perhaps the subject of your dreams,
These golden coins.

(ll. 339-342)

While the protagonist has spent the evening in the company of a prostitute and has now spent the night in her room, no actual sex takes place; instead, in an overdetermined gesture, the protagonist places money in the woman's hair. As Harris notes, this gesture “occurs instead of sexual intercourse” (p. 204) and “his golden coins substitute for the ejaculation he does not have” (p. 205). I call this moment “overdetermined” because, although Harris is right when he asserts that sublimation and substitution are occurring here, he does not fully explicate the place of this gesture within Rossetti's conflicted attitudes toward money and sex. The poem “Jenny” records some of Rossetti's deepest anxieties about the status of his art in an economy increasingly dominated by the conjunction of sex and money, and saturated by the fetishistic representation of women's bodies. In particular, his use of the prostitute signals his anxieties about the conjunction of female sexuality, commodification, and artistic representation. In paying the woman by placing coins in her hair, Rossetti implicates the narrator in the commodification of female sexuality and enacts his own ambivalence about representing male sexuality through images of the female body.

The dominant metaphor for Victorian cultural commodification in “Jenny” is the image of a market, especially the Haymarket. The Haymarket, a market for the buying and selling of agricultural goods by day, was a notorious venue for solicitation by prostitutes at night. The Haymarket appears in one of the protagonist's reveries in “Jenny”:

          Jenny, you know the city now.
A child can tell the tale there, how
Some things which are not yet enroll'd
In market-lists are bought and sold
Even till the early Sunday light,
When Saturday night is market-night
Everywhere, be it dry or wet
And market-night in the Haymarket.

(ll. 135-142)

The image of a woman selling her body in the market-place, as if she were a commodity like any other, resonates powerfully for Rossetti. Prostitution for Rossetti, as for other male Victorians, represented the most extreme form of the commodification of the female body. Rossetti in the passage above has children as an audience for Jenny's plight to invoke the conventional Victorian narrative of the “fall” of a young country girl who has come to the city and now “knows” it all too well because she has been forced to sell her body on the streets. This is the same narrative that informs Rossetti's watercolor The Gate of Memory and his unfinished oil painting Found. Both “Jenny” and Found comment on the relationship of men and women in terms of the market-place, prostitution, and the commodification of women's bodies.

On the surface both Found and “Jenny” represent masculinity in a very positive light. The protagonist in “Jenny” spends a great deal of time wondering how Jenny came to be a prostitute, and leaves without paying her directly for sex. He evinces sympathy and concern for the woman. The male figure in Found is visually identified with the country, and is represented as the woman's rescuer who evinces concern for the woman he has found. He is wearing a rustic smock and boots that indicate he is an agricultural worker. In the poem that accompanies the painting he is also seen as a representative of an innocent and idyllic past before sexuality reared its ugly head and corrupted the woman he loved. The similarity between this painting and Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience (1853) in its use of the countryside as the locus of pre-sexual innocence and romance is striking, but the male in the latter painting is identified as a predator, not a rescuer. Singing a song about an idyllic country past awakens the conscience in the female figure in The Awakening Conscience; in Found this agency is ascribed to the male who is a visual reminder of her innocent, country past and memories of that past which will presumably lead to her redemption, just as they will in The Awakening Conscience.

The calf in the cart in the background complicates the scenario that Rossetti would like to suggest, namely that the man is “rescuing” the woman from her “fallen” life. The woman has quite literally “fallen” to the ground out of grief and shame, and the man is in the process of raising her to her feet.21 Overtly this is supposed to suggest that the man is taking the woman into a sort of protective custody, and that he will guide her just as he does the calf for whom he cares. The calf is tethered to the cart by what looks like a net, and this image of captivity subverts the rescue narrative that Rossetti evokes in the human drama.

The calf is not being rescued; it is presumably being taken to the market for slaughter in the city that lies beyond the bridge. In “Jenny” the protagonist hears the familiar morning noise of “an early waggon drawn / To market” and sheep being driven by a dog (ll. 304-306). While these sights and sounds were more familiar to Victorians than modern viewers, who are used to the connection between live animals and the meat in the supermarket being occluded, both “Jenny” and Found nonetheless raise the idea of the market and exchange through such imagery. The calf is being led into the looming city in the background to be exchanged for money, and this raises surreptitiously the issue of what Carlyle termed “the cash nexus,” and its implication in sexuality and prostitution. It raises the idea of the Haymarket as the site of exchange for money of agricultural goods by day, and women's bodies by night.22

Like most Victorian males, Rossetti himself had a vexed relationship with prostitution. Numerous studies have underscored the centrality of the figure of the prostitute for Victorian representation.23 Lynda Nead has argued that the prostitute was a particularly disturbing figure in that “she is able to represent all the terms within capitalist production; she is the human labour, the object of exchange, and the seller at once. She stands as worker, commodity and capitalist and blurs the categories of bourgeois economics in the same way that she tests the boundaries of bourgeois morality” (p. 99). These contradictions in the figure of the prostitute are nowhere more apparent than in “Jenny.” The appearance of the prostitute in both “Jenny” and Found signals Rossetti's own ambivalence to the blurring of boundaries between sexuality and commodification in Victorian culture and his own art.

While Rossetti would like to identify with the rustic in the smock as a symbol of innocent sexuality, the calf introduces troubling issues of economic exchange, the market for the “flesh” of animals and women in the Haymarket, and masculine dominance. Helene Roberts has briefly suggested that the calf in the picture represents prostitution, which I believe is a good starting point for analysis of the painting.24 The calf's significance goes beyond this, however. Just as the goblin market in Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market raised images of the town, sexual exchange, and prostitution, so the calf is a reminder of the economics of the ownership of animals and by extension the economics of gender relations in the Victorian period. Rossetti refers consistently to the sins of a generic “man” in “Jenny” in hiring the woman as a prostitute, calling her a “cipher of man's changeless sum / Of lust” (l. 278) and distancing the narrator from the “flagrant man-swine” who “whets his tusk” (l. 350) by cruising London's streets for prostitutes. Referring to male sexuality as “man's changeless sum of lust” makes men complicit in an endlessly repeated cycle of exploitation of women through economic domination. The connection of men's “lust” and a “sum” brings together the sexual and monetary in a way that parallels Rossetti's placing of the gold in the woman's hair.

The gesture of placing money in Jenny's hair also subverts the distance Rossetti would like to maintain between the narrator and other men, especially those who procure prostitutes. As has been noted, hair is an important symbol for female sexuality in Victorian culture, and is crucial in Rossetti's paintings.25 Rossetti was described by contemporary commentators as having a fetishistic interest in the hair of the various “stunners” he would see around London. When Rossetti illustrated the first edition of his sister's narrative poem Goblin Market, he chose two moments from the poem, one of the sisters sleeping “golden head by golden head”26 and the other of Laura cutting off a lock of her hair to buy the goblin men's fruit. The symbolic act of cutting hair is especially resonant for Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In the poem it represents indirectly the sexual exchange that takes place between the goblin men and Laura in which part of the woman's body is given up for fruit. Given Dante Gabriel Rossetti's intense erotic fascination with hair, the moment is particularly powerful. It represents the exchange of the woman's body in the “market” of the goblin men, who are the representatives of male desire in the poem.

Rossetti depicted the goblin men as cute, furry animals. In the text of the poem, however, the men, who look like cats, rats, snails, and badgers when we first encounter them, reveal their underlying violence when their hugs and caresses turn into scratching, mauling, and stamping. They reveal themselves, therefore, to be not cute, cuddly pets but violent and dangerous sexual predators. The goblin men, who are “Cat-like and rat-like” (l. 340) are hybrids of men and animals. Christina Rossetti suggested that all men are beasts. When Lizzie refuses to enter into a sexual exchange with them, the goblin men “Scratched her, pinched her black as ink / Kicked and knocked her / Mauled and mocked her” (ll. 427-429) and try to squeeze their juices through her lips, revealing the barely repressed violence that characterizes their true relationship to human women. Both Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti seemed to have trouble coming to terms with what they saw as the “beastliness” of male sexual desire.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's fawning animals while disturbing are not overtly violent. It is hardly surprising that he would have difficulty in representing the sexual threat of the Goblin Men and their violence in his illustrations. Rossetti is far more likely to identify with a knight in armor and ideals of male chivalry and honor than with nasty, violent animals when representing men. Thus, in The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabrina Rossetti gives us a very different gloss on one of the central images in Christina Rossetti's poem, a woman cutting off a lock of her hair and giving it to a male figure. Rossetti has Sabrina intertwining her hair with St. George's armor, in the act of cutting off a lock of her hair to give to him. While doing this she is enclosed in a touching embrace. The cutting of the lock of hair, which in Christina Rossetti's poem is an act of submission to the deadly power of the goblin men, in Rossetti's painting is seen as an appropriate part of the sexual exchange of marriage. Rossetti deploys the conventional image of Victorian domestic social relations in that St. George is the “oak,” Princess Sabrina the “ivy.” He is her protector, and in the cutting of her hair she is symbolizing her sexual submissiveness to him, and the ratification of this sexual exchange within the institution of marriage.

It has become a commonplace since Engels' analysis of women's position in nineteenth-century European society that marriage is an economic ratification of gender power relations. Rossetti in his representation of St. George gives an idealized image of marriage in a woman cutting a lock of her hair and giving it to a man as a sign of sexual fidelity and ownership of her body. The image in “Goblin Market” of a woman cutting her hair is sexual exchange outside of marriage, and actually an indirect image of prostitution. Christina Rossetti takes this image and gives her female protagonist economic agency when she offers to buy the Goblin men's fruit with money rather than part of her body. Rossetti's action of placing the golden coins in the woman's hair in “Jenny” reinforces the connection between sexuality and money, and ratifies existing power and sexual relations between men and women, especially upper-class men and lower-class women.

The male gaze is the key to the economic system that Rossetti reinscribes in “Jenny.” Like the exchange of hair for fruit in Goblin Market, the placing of money in the hair in “Jenny” is a metaphor for prostitution. The narrator spends most of his night with Jenny looking at her and admiring her. He pays her at the end of their encounter not for actual sex, but rather for displaced sexual gratification obtained through the opportunity to gaze on her face while she is sleeping. Since she is asleep, she cannot gaze back at him, and so the narrator enters into a sexual exchange in which the woman is constructed as an object of beauty to be gazed upon, but not as an actual sexual agent herself. The act of looking at a beautiful woman is eroticized for Rossetti, so much so that the gaze itself can take the place of an actual sexual act. Placing the money in Jenny's hair underlines the congruence of the “gold” of her hair with the “gold” of the currency with which Rossetti pays her. Jenny's hair is already involved in monetary exchange because like the coins with which she is paid, it is gold. The act of prostitution is thus prefigured in Jenny's hair, and placing the coins in her hair just fulfills the promised sexual exchange, although in this case the exchange involves looking. All sexual exchanges for Rossetti are bound up with looking and the “cash nexus,” so that the visit to the prostitute becomes for him a powerful metaphor for his own activity as an artist looking at women and representing them as eroticized images.

“Jenny” represents symbolically, then, both the relation between an artist and a model, in which he pays her to pose for him, and between a male viewer and a painting in which the male viewer is free to appropriate the object of his gaze sexually without any reciprocal sexual agency from the woman at whom he is looking. I am not suggesting that the narrator is Rossetti, but rather that the narrator enacts a symbolic exchange that represents the vicarious satisfaction of sexual desire, and that this enactment stands for the structure of Rossetti's male sexual desires. McGowan has suggested this connection in his analysis of “Jenny” in pointing out the function of the “rose” metaphor. The narrator describes Jenny as “like a rose shut in a book / In which pure women may not look” (ll. 253-254). McGowan argues that the metaphor “suggests that the artist kills reality when he transforms it into art” (p. 52). McGowan is astute in his analysis of the metaphor here, but does not comment on the way in which the rose functions as a displaced image of the woman's sexuality and of the guilt that Rossetti seems to feel in transforming this sexuality into an art object. Although it would be an oversimplification to label this process “pornography,” this exchange does have many similarities with what we now term pornography. Rossetti pays the woman in exchange for a vicarious sexual satisfaction, just as for him gazing at his models and turning them into paintings provided him and other Victorian males with vicarious sexual pleasure. The erotic economy of prostitution functions as a powerful metaphor for the economics of “high” art in the Victorian period, both forms of exchange being arranged for the gratification of male sexual desire.

It is at this point that “Jenny” and Found intersect most powerfully. The economic exchange, based on the primacy of the male gaze, that takes place in both representations ultimately implicates Rossetti himself in the commodification of women's bodies.27 In other words, Buchanan was right; Rossetti is in the flesh trade in both his poetry and art. Buchanan's hysterical prudery is unattractive, but his analysis is fundamentally correct. Rossetti himself is profoundly uneasy about his relationship to the commodification of women's bodies, both as a man and an artist, as the conclusion to the poem demonstrates.

“Jenny” ends on an ambivalent note, as Rossetti's narrator faces his own complicity in the exchange of money and bodies in the Haymarket:

          And must I mock you to the last,
Ashamed of my own shame,—aghast
Because some thoughts not born amiss
Rose at a poor 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.

(ll. 384-390)

The poem ends on a note of shame and a conventional moral stiffening of the spine by the narrator. This does not erase, however, the narrator's complicity in the buying and selling of bodies. It is this form of exchange that the calf in Found also suggests and that finds its parallel in Rossetti's placing money in the woman's hair in “Jenny.” In both “Jenny” and Found Rossetti is struggling through his construction of the narrative with his own complicity in the commodification of women's bodies and suggesting how for him art and prostitution are closely linked endeavors. Rossetti in painting Found or writing “Jenny” is engaging in a process that is for him perilously close to paying a visit to a prostitute. While he cannot directly face the contradictions in his attitudes to prostitution, he can embody his ambivalence indirectly in an image of a calf that is being lead off to be slaughtered in the market. Far from being the noble rescuer, Rossetti is implying, he too is about to engage in the buying and selling of flesh.

It is for this reason that I began by saying that it was a historical irony that Rossetti appeared on the World Wide Web at the same time as the explosion of “adult” sites tailored to the male gaze. Rossetti created his images at the time of one development of a new technological medium that profoundly influenced representation, that of photography; his art and poetry became available under a similar set of circumstances in a new technological medium, the World Wide Web. History is repeating itself in the conjunction of Rossetti's “high” art, the commodification of women's bodies, and the market for mass-produced images of the female nude purveyed at these sites.28 In both cases, the pornographic images are an extension of the commodification of every aspect of life and the wholesale use of women's bodies to attach sexual desire to the purchase of consumer goods. The conjunction of pornography and representation is especially important in the context of commodity fetishism. Pornography is the logical outcome of a system of advertising and production in which every commodity is linked to sexuality, and the only imperative is to consume more and more and more material goods. Sexuality becomes the metaphor for continually unsatisfied consumer desire. Women's bodies become the sign of sexual desire and are linked to products ranging from coffee to cars to incite the desire to consume. Commodity fetishism, like pornography, depends upon inciting desires that cannot be satisfied and the apparently infinite repetition of a highly codified series of images. As Christina Rossetti noted in “In An Artist's Studio,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti repeated the same image of an idealized woman in an apparently unending series. Rossetti encodes an insatiable pursuit of sexuality and of the unattainable ideal of an eroticized woman's body in his painting and poetry that has many similarities with both pornography and commodity fetishism.


  1. The “Rossetti Archive” is now a demonstration site for a CD-ROM but was announced at its inception as an attempt to create a fully interactive online database of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's works. It is no accident that Dante Gabriel Rossetti became one of the first Victorian poets to have an entire Web site devoted to him. Rossetti worked in both textual and visual media, and therefore was a good choice for a multimedia site. In the first, word-based, wave of hypertext programs, poems such as Tennyson's In Memoriam were turned into complex webs of interconnected links, as in George Landow's The In Memoriam Web. In Memoriam, with its dense intertextuality, was ideally suited to hypertext. Hypermedia, with its ability to link visual and written texts, made Rossetti a natural choice for a World Wide Web site. For an account of the Rossetti Archive, see Steven Johnson, “Repossession: An Electronic Romance,” in Lingua Franca 5, no. 4 (May/June 1995): 24-33.

  2. Abigail Solomon-Godeau in her essay “Reconsidering Erotic Photography” in Photography at the Dock (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1991) asserts that conventional histories of photography avoid the issue of the early use of photography to produce erotic and pornographic images, but that there is reason to think that the production of pornographic images was substantial (p. 222). My thanks to Timothy Dow Adams for bringing this study to my attention and also to Jennifer Bauer, John Culme, Meg Wise-Lawrence, Paul Lewis, and Michael Wolff, subscribers to the VICTORIA online discussion group who so helpfully responded to my query on this matter.

  3. Frederic W. H. Myers, “Rossetti and the Religion of Beauty,” repr. in Critical Essays on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. David G. Riede (New York: G. K. Hall, 1992), p. 48.

  4. This is an area discussed in Helena Michie, The Flesh Made Word: Female Figures and Women's Bodies (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987).

  5. Cheryl Currid in an article in the Houston Chronicle reported that until recently only 5٪ of respondents to online surveys were women, but that in 1997 the technology “gender gap” seemed to be closing (Houston Chronicle, June 8, 1997, p. 7). Previously Don Oldenburg complained about “The Electronic Gender Gap” in an article in The Washington Post, November 29, 1994, p. d05. For a more nuanced discussion of gender and technology and the implicit sexism of much of the World Wide Web, see Processed Lives: Gender and Technology in Everyday Life, ed. Jennifer Terry and Melodie Calvert (New York: Routledge, 1997) and Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace, ed. Lynn Cherney and Elizabeth Reba (Washington: Seal Press, 1997).

  6. John Barclay, “Consuming Artifacts: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Aesthetic Economy,” VP 35 (1997): 1. Jonathan Freedman, Professions of Taste: Henry James, British Aestheticism, and Commodity Culture (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1990).

  7. Robert Buchanan, The Fleshly School of Poetry and Other Phenomena of the Day (London, 1872), pp. 2-3.

  8. W. Holman Hunt to Thomas Combe, February 12, 1860, Bodleian Library MSS. Eng. Lett.c.296, quoted in Jan Marsh, Pre-Raphaelite Women: Images of Femininity (New York: Harmony Books, 1987), p. 86.

  9. Robin Sheets, “Pornography and Art: The Case of ‘Jenny,’” CritI 14 (1988): 315.

  10. David G. Riede, on the other hand, argues that Rossetti “feared moral censure of the poem, and wanted to make sure that the compromised speaker was not understood to be himself,” in Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Limits of Victorian Vision (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1983), p. 94. Along with Sheets I read the poem as representative of the structure of Rossetti's desires even if he is not synonymous with the narrator.

  11. For a discussion of “window shopping,” the novel and commodification in Victorian culture, see Andrew Miller, Novels Behind Glass: Commodity, Culture and Victorian Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995). See also Jenni Calder, “Cash and the Sex Nexus,” TSL 27 (1984): 40 -53.

  12. This and subsequent quotations from Rossetti's poems are taken from the Collected Works, ed. William Michael Rossetti (London: Ellis, 1911).

  13. Antony H. Harrison, Victorian Poets and Romantic Poems: Intertextuality and Ideology (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1990), p. 92.

  14. While I use the term “virtual” in this article, Jerome McGann has made a similar argument about Rossetti's blending of the material and the spiritual in his article “Rossetti's Significant Details,” VP 7 (1969): 41-54.

  15. John P. McGowan, “‘The Bitterness of Things Occult’: D. G. Rossetti's Search for the Real,” VP 20 (1982): 52.

  16. Stephen J. Spector has analyzed this impulse in Rossetti in terms of his desire for a “transcendental unity” in “Love, Unity and Desire in the Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti,” ELH 38 (1971): 432-458.

  17. Stephen Wildman, ed., Visions of Love and Life: Pre-Raphaelite Art from the Birmingham Collection, England (Alexandria, Virginia: Art Service International, 1995), p. 102.

  18. David G. Riede has argued in the context of Beata Beatrix that “the picture … captures both the living image of the beloved, and its self-conscious artifice, the mirrored soul of the artist” (p. 248). This is a perceptive analysis of Beata Beatrix that also holds true for this drawing of an artist and his beloved in the mirror. For a discussion of the role of the mirror in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's art and poetry, see Martin A. Danahay, “Mirrors of Masculine Desire: Narcissus and Pygmalion in Victorian Representation,” VP 32 (1994): 35-54, and John Granger, “The Critique of the Mirror in Rossetti's ‘The House of Life,’” in JPRS 4, no. 2 (May 1984): 1-16.

  19. Ernest Fontana, “Rossetti's Representation of the Kiss,” JPRS 1, no. 1 (Spring, 1988): 81-88.

  20. Daniel A. Harris, “D. G. Rossetti's ‘Jenny’: Sex, Money, and the Interior Monologue,” VP 22 (1984): 197-216.

  21. The bridge in the background suggests the conventional narrative of the “fallen” woman, namely that she becomes a prostitute and eventually throws herself off a bridge into the Thames in despair—as exemplified for instance in Augustus Egg's Past and Present.

  22. On the connection between the Haymarket and prostitution in “Jenny” see Alan P. Barr, “From Eden to the Haymarket: The Spoiled Garden in Rossetti's ‘Jenny,’” in CLA Journal 36, no. 3 (March 1993): 327-339.

  23. Lynda Nead, Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain (New York: Blackwell, 1988); Amanda Anderson, Tainted Souls and Painted Faces: The Rhetoric of Fallenness in Victorian Culture (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1993); Judith R. Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1992).

  24. Helene E. Roberts, “Marriage, Redundancy or Sin: The Painters' View of Women in the First Twenty-five Years of Victoria's Reign,” in Suffer and be Still: Women in the Victorian Age, ed. Martha Vicinus (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1972).

  25. See Elisabeth G. Gitter, “The Power of Women's Hair in the Victorian Imagination,” PMLA 95, no. 5 (October 1984): 936-954.

  26. The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti, ed. R. W. Crump (Baton Rouge: Louisiana Univ. Press, 1979-90).

  27. For an analysis of the ways in which other Victorian males, especially prominent “street walkers” like Charles Booth and Henry Mayhew, were also implicated in class and gender issues associated with prostitution see Walkowitz.

  28. See Lynda Nead, The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality (New York: Routledge, 1992).

A. A. Markley (essay date winter 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1242

SOURCE: Markley, A. A. “Rossetti's ‘The Portrait’.” Explicator 57, no. 2 (winter 1999): 83-85.

[In the following essay, Markley investigates the function of the monologue in “The Portrait.”]

In his poem “The Portrait” (1870), Dante Gabriel Rossetti focuses on the attachment of a grieving artist to a portrait of his dead lover and provides a complex exploration of the idea of artistic expression as an act of self-reflection. Rossetti's exploration of this relationship is strengthened by his subtle references throughout the poem to the Greek myth of Narcissus and Echo, an ancient story that fully explores the implications of self-love in its themes of the reflection of image and the echoing of sound. In addition, the poet alludes to contemporary dramatic monologues that also explore the relationship between a viewer and an object of art. Once he presents his readers with a familiar situation in which a speaker gazes at a portrait of woman while describing that woman to an auditor, he varies that situation dramatically.

In the first line of “The Portrait” the artist/speaker remarks, “This is her picture as she was,” alluding to Robert Browning's “My Last Duchess” (1842), in which Browning's Duke of Ferrara opens with, “That's my last duchess painted on the wall, / Looking as if she were alive.” This relationship between viewer, auditor, and art object also immediately brings to mind Tennyson's “The Gardener's Daughter,” which Tennyson also published in 1842. In Tennyson's poem the speaker describes his first meeting with the woman who was to become his wife while unveiling a portrait of her: “Behold her there, / As I beheld her ere she knew my heart” (lines 269-70). Rather than directly addressing an auditor as Browning's and Tennyson's speakers do, Rossetti's speaker speaks to himself. By conflating the typically distinct roles of auditor and speaker in the Victorian dramatic monologue, Rossetti succeeds in accentuating the poem's exploration of self.

The egocentric nature of the speaker's monologue is greatly strengthened by his comparison of this painting of his lover to his own image reflected in a mirror, or perhaps in the glass over the portrait: “It seems a thing to wonder on / As though mine image in the glass / Should tarry when myself am gone” (2-4). Here Rossetti makes a visual allusion to the story of Narcissus, the youth who falls in love with his own image which he sees reflected in a clear, still pool. Ovid narrates this tale in his Metamorphoses, and his speaker mocks poor Narcissus, pointing out that when he turns away from his reflection, the object of his love is lost. Narcissus continually stares at his image, frustrated by the fact that although it mimics his own movements, it consistently eludes his grasp. Rossetti's speaker, on the other hand, stares beyond his own reflection at the image in the painting until the image of his beloved itself seems to stir, and until its lips seem to whisper sweet words to him. Admiring the life-like image, he marvels that its subject lies buried beneath the earth. Clearly he has transferred his attachment and devotion to his dead lover to the only surviving vestige of her—her portrait, and his own artwork.

Rossetti's speaker moves on to describe the background of his painting, the image of the woman depicted “'Mid mystic trees, where light falls in / Hardly at all; a covert place” (20-21). The description of this “deep dim wood” (28) again recalls Ovid's story, in which Narcissus's grass-encircled pool is located in a dense wood which allows in none of the sun's warm rays. Furthermore, Rossetti's details of “a live flame / Wandering” and of “many a shape whose name / Not itself knoweth” (23-25) contribute to the poem's mythological overtones by evoking the forgetful wandering shades of the Underworld and even Narcissus himself, who cannot identify his own image. The final lines in stanza 3 extend this idea of identity confusion to the artist's own situation as the speaker describes “your own footsteps meeting you, / And all things going as they came” (26-27), suggesting his meeting of a twin self in the woods. This interesting image of the doppelgänger also extends the poem's running imagery of mirrored reflection. Like meeting a twin self, or finding his own reflection in the glass over his painting, the artist's act of gazing on his own work clearly is not separable from the act of gazing at himself.

Rossetti's artist laments that his lover is now “Less than her shadow on the grass / Or than her image in the stream” (35-36), an image that extends the poem's allusion to the myth of Narcissus. The speaker describes stooping with her to drink from a stream, and says that “where the echo is, she sang,— / My soul another echo there” (44-45). In the Greek story, Echo had wasted away for love of Narcissus and was only able to repeat the words that Narcissus spoke aloud. By calling his own soul an echo of his beloved, the speaker thus makes full symbolic use of the Narcissus story's theme of aural as well as visual reflection. Rossetti continues to develop the subtle aural references to echo in describing the whispers that come back to him at night in lines 75-76.

In the conclusion to “The Portrait,” Rossetti's speaker describes a mournful occasion on which he inadvertently stumbled on the glades where he depicted his lover's image. From this return to the place where he experienced his artistic inspiration, he then looks forward to a future union with his love, when he will enter “in her soul at once” (98). Until then, “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” (100-103). The speaker envisions a time when his lover's face will look on him with different, immortal eyes—when he is able to join her and to become “two in one” with his beloved.

In “The Portrait,” Rossetti's allusions to contemporary Victorian monologues that dramatize the relationship between viewer and objet d'art add a profound resonance to this poem in which the poet explores the relationship between love, identity, and the act of creation in the figure of the artist. Moreover, Rossetti's subtle and extended use of the myth of Narcissus and Echo provides a brilliant allusive pattern that allows him to explore the idea that the speaker's attachment to his painting represents far more than merely his attachment to his former lover. The artist's attachment to his painting, and his idealization of the moment it captures, is a self-reflexive attachment. Moreover, his attachment to the image mirrors his expectations for the afterlife. As he gazes on the portrait and observes his own reflection blended with the image of his lover, he imagines a future union with his beloved when his soul will “enter in her soul at once.” The artist's conflation of his lover, his art, and his own identity is merely a way to imitate that kind of ultimate union of souls here on earth. For Rossetti, the power of art lies in its ability to simulate the eternal.

Works Cited

Browning, Robert. “My Last Duchess.” The Oxford Authors: Robert Browning. Ed. Adam Roberts. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. 101-102.

Lang, Cecil Y. ed. The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Circle. 2nd ed. Chicago: U Of Chicago P, 1975. 20-23. All quotations from the poem are from this edition.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “The Gardener's Daughter.” The Poems of Tennyson. Vol 1. Ed. Christopher Ricks. Essex: Longman, 1987. 552-69.

Nathan Cervo (essay date summer 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1034

SOURCE: Cervo, Nathan. “Rossetti's ‘A Last Confession’.” Explicator 58, no. 4 (summer 2000): 193-95.

[In the following essay, Cervo contends that Rossetti works within two conflicting contexts in his poem “A Last Confession”: alchemy and Roman Catholicism.]

D. G. Rossetti's dramatic monologue [“A Last Confession”] has been called “operatic” and “Italianate,” and to some extent it is both—which in no way marks it as a major artistic accomplishment. The poem consists of all sorts of musical themes, so to speak—themes that are not stated in words alone but in words combined with a passion that strains them to the point of breaking as undefined symbols expressing both emotion and intuition.

Basically, the poem's mode of expression is a sort of double exposure, with the persona functioning as a palimpsest for the poet's own very real and ultimately decisive presence. Whereas cathexis is the persona's cognitive mode, Rossetti himself is working within two contexts in conflict with each other, doing so simultaneously, and seeming to fuse them at times only to finally distinguish the one from the other. The two contexts are those of esoteric alchemy and Roman Catholicism, the former a system of spiritual discipline developing from the metallurgical code of the ancient Egyptian priests of Ptah at the temple in Memphis, the latter claiming that it was founded by “great Jesus Christ.”1 Catholicism appropriately asserts itself in time through the “machinery” (a word I borrow from Matthew Arnold) of incarnational ritual.

Catholic “machinery” includes the formal structure of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as it is called today, formerly called Confession. It is Rossetti's ironic point that the “Catholic” persona is really in thrall to the old religion, that of the pagan Eleusinian mysteries centering on mother/daughter (Demeter/Persephone) female “empowerment.”2 To make this clearer, Rossetti altered “A little image of great Jesus Christ / Whom yet she knew but dimly” to “A little image of a flying Love / Made of our coloured glass-ware, in his hands / A dart of gilded metal and a torch” (145-47).3

Rossetti's irony is that the persona is the one who knew “great Jesus Christ” “but dimly,” losing the Incarnation and a sense of the crucial importance of matter and carnal love in a pneumaticization process that reduced the world to phantasmagoria. It is the persona who unconsciously is caught up in the metal code of the esoteric alchemists, isolating the base metal of Cupid's “dart” within the alchemic furnace of his catheticized perception: It is “A dart of gilded metal,” basically sleazy, perhaps fundamentally no more than lead or tin or a base alloy, when compared to the esoteric alchemist's “noble metals,” gold and silver. Similarly, the figure is of “glass,” an unconscious symbol of time, the grains of sand that go into the making of glass rendered hard and transparent by the heated intensity of the persona's smoldering projection of dimly perceived ideas about the nature of historical reality and carnal love.

Ironically, it is the persona's superstitious attachment to the old religion, which we may assume to be a genetic endowment for Italians in general, that gilds Cupid's “dart,” that wants to see and experience it as something exclusively greater than it is, as something greater than “great Jesus Christ.”

The esoteric alchemists gave different values to metals. For example, gold signified spiritual enlightenment, the pneumatic self, the triumphant animus (viewed as the male principle of reason, and hence in conflict with an “unredeemed” [so to speak] female principle of desire, the anima, the gist of the Demeter/Persephone myth). On the other hand, lead symbolized time, and tin signified temporal dominion.

The crux of the persona's unresolved conflict may be described as an essentially repugnant synthesis involving two animas, namely, the persona's own primitive powers of suffusive projection and the foundling/beloved's desire to assert what he perceives to be the temporal dominion of carnal love over him. The persona remains locked in the throes of a pneumatism with which he distances the true import of reality by “gild[ing]” things into chimes honoring the old religion. To speak of the foundling's beauty as being no more than the epiphanizing of the poet's genius4 is to leave out the ideational performance of the persona on his own behalf, confusing that performance with the poet's.

Rossetti heightens the implacable conflict between “The old Madonna” (390; Demeter/Persephone) and “some new Madonna gaily decked, / Tinselled and gewgawed, with a slight German toy” (384-85) when the persona observes the disaffected beloved praying in front of a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Duomo.

Deep within his unconscious, within the narcissistic pool of his “race blood,” so to speak, he rejects the Catholic Madonna as “machinery,” “a toy,” a tool of temporal dominion (the tin of “tinselled”).


  1. The phrase is from an earlier version of “A Last Confession”:

    I brought her from the city, one such day,
    The earliest gift I mind my giving her,—
    A little image of great Jesus Christ
    Whom yet she knew but dimly. I had not
    Yet told her all the wondrous things of Faith
    For in our life of deadly haste, the child
    Might ill be taught that God and Truth were one.

    David G. Riede cites this passage in Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Limits of Victorian Vision (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1983) 99.

  2. For a fine exposition of the Demeter/Persephone myth and female empowerment, see Lesley Higgins, “But Who Is ‘She’?: Forms of Subjectivity in Walter Pater's writings,” Nineteenth-Century Prose 24.2 (1997): 37-65.

  3. “A Last Confession,” The Pre-Raphaelites, ed. Jerome H. Buckley (New York: The Modern Library, 1968) 25-40.

  4. Riede, it seems to me, reduces the ideational complexity of Rossetti's art, particularly Rossetti's paintings, to the level of expressionism. See David G. Riede, “Apocalyptic Portraits,” The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies ns 4 (fall 1995): 65-76. However, it is well to keep in view Dante's identification of Beatrice with his “mind” in La Vita Nuova when reading and understanding just what Riede means when he argues that Rossetti's artistic treatment of female “beauty” reveals Rossetti's own “genius,” just as Mona Lisa reveals “Leonardo's genius” (75). As a balance to this view, Riede does mention “this composite self” (76), implying that “genius” is not exclusively archetypal in its character and operation.

Lawrence J. Starzyk (essay date summer 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5595

SOURCE: Starzyk, Lawrence J. “Rossetti's ‘Jenny’: Aestheticizing the Whore.” Papers on Language & Literature 36, no. 3 (summer 2000): 227-45.

[In the following essay, Starzyk traces the aestheticization of Rossetti's “Jenny,” and underscores “how the painterly hand of Rossetti influenced the verbal articulation of the muted image of this Victorian whore.”]


The most famous aestheticized object of Victorian culture is Robert Browning's Duchess, a woman whose utility as a wife has been elided with the result that all who come upon her transformed condition must disinterestedly regard her as an artifact.1 The iconoclastic ritual Browning's Duke engages in to break his living possession divorces the Duchess's property considerations as a husband's chattel only to reconstitute the woman as a new form of property—a painting that takes possession of its possessor. The Duke's displeasure with his Duchess and with her new role as his obsessive concern, of course, explains why this aestheticized object ordinarily hangs veiled by a curtain rarely put by.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Jenny is the Duchess's kindred. Of markedly different social and economic status than the recipient through marriage of a nine-hundred-year-old name, Jenny nevertheless undergoes the same transformative aestheticization the Duchess endures with some of the same obsessive consequences for Rossetti's speaker.

These obvious similarities nonetheless mask fundamental differences, other than the socio-economic ones, that explain Rossetti's technical development of the dramatic monologue Browning employed and the variations on ekphrastic practice with which Victorian poets were involved.2 Examining the aestheticization of Jenny will highlight the differences in Browning's and Rossetti's ekphrastic experiments in these two poems and underscore how the painterly hand of Rossetti influenced the verbal articulation of the muted image of this Victorian whore.

Rossetti's speaker, “a thoughtful man of the world,” monologizes from an “innerstanding-point” to emphasize the artistic “motive power” of his ruminations (484). To identify him as the “speaker” of the poem apparently contradicts Rossetti's insistence on the interior orientation.3 Speech has a social dimension that implies someone's attending to articulated words, a situation that Jenny's sleeping state precludes. Not until the virtual mid-point of the monologue, however, is Jenny “asleep at last” (171), the speaker prior to that moment encouraging Jenny to “sit up” (89) and “take this glass” (96) in an effort to diminish the “weariness” (95) preceding the complete inattentiveness of sleep. Whether the poem is a dramatic monologue, a narrative, an interior monologue, a soliloquy, or a dialogue of the mind with itself obscures the more significant issue of the function of the multiplicity of interpretations permitted by the text.4 This critical confusion regarding the nature of the poem's discourse, I suggest, discloses a necessary ingredient for the aestheticization the poem dramatizes, namely the protagonist's confusion.

As the speaker attempts to encourage Jenny to ward off weariness and so revive the “merry” (96) spirit she displayed during their night of dancing, he comments, “do not let me think of you, / Lest shame of yours suffice for two” (91-92). The complete silencing that is sleep endangers the protagonist by forcing him to engage in the dialogue of the self with its own mind and, in the process, to assume the shame he associates with Jenny. The power to animate and manipulate that the narrator assumes as the result of Jenny's sleeping state is, as Amanda Anderson argues, ultimately undermined by the loss of personal identity he suffers in the process.5 One of the protagonist's concluding remarks admits to his being “Ashamed of my own shame” (384). The dilemma posed by speaking to an awakened Jenny or thinking silently about the sleeping “thoughtless queen” (7) informs the opening lines of the poem in which the speaker superimposes conflicting images of the woman resting on his knee. The woman “Fond of a kiss” (2), laughing and dancing, is “languid Jenny” (1). The “Fresh flower” “scarce[ly] touched” sexually is the “Poor flower” “bare” of leaves (12, 14, 15). The madonna “full of grace” is apostrophized as a bankrupt whore, “Poor shameful Jenny” (18). The speaker's ambivalence betrays confusion not about the woman he initially speaks to—“is a whore a person?” (Harris 197)—but about the man left unattended by the sleeping Jenny and compelled to discourse with his self. The obvious depersonation consequent upon a madonna being sexually transformed into a whore, in other words, is less of a concern for the speaker than the loss of integrity threatening the protagonist as he imaginatively exploits a woman whose sleeping condition prevents him from satisfying his sexual urges.

The autobiographical notes provided by the speaker at the beginning of his monologue attest to a conversionary process. Whether because of nobler scholarly “aims” or the wisdom of “years” (40), the speaker prides himself on having given up the “careless life I led” (37). Tonight, however, he claims, “it all appears / Something I do not know again” (41-42). His commitment to the scholarly life on this particular evening confirms the impossibility of making “one's cherished work come right” (27). The “theft” from books over many hours has left his aim “wrong for all their theft” (28).

Old habits die hard, though, or not at all. A momentary return to his “careless” past should clear the “cloud” (44) interfering with the accomplishment of his work. The carrying out of his rationale, however, betrays an uncertainty plaguing him throughout the poem. The alluring presence of the languid Jenny on his knee, her wealth of hair and her unlaced garments disclosing a “poor beauty” worthy of a kiss (55), is insufficient to prevent him from reading this woman the way he does his abandoned tomes: “You know not what a book you seem” (51).

The analogy widely misses the mark, as the protagonist discovers much later in his ruminations when he likens Jenny to a “volume seldom read” (158) whose unturned pages resist opening as they turn back upon themselves.6 Such physical resistance of an unopened text to perusal, however, masks a far more disturbing implication of the analogy. The text to “Be parted” and read (161)—“Jenny's desecrated mind” (164)—is absent any “hue or shape defin'd” (163): “it reflects not any face” (177). The protagonist's mental confusion emerges again as he proceeds to define the text as the male embodiment and destructive principle of the female (rose) desecrated by long captivation in the text (253-75). The situation in which “the lifeblood of this rose” is “Puddled with shameful knowledge” (264-65), however, might possibly have been avoided had Jenny and womankind attended to what had been written in the innocence of their youth and registered there as in a book “Much older than any history” (128).

The confusion attending his use of the book analogy, however, is not so much evidence of the clouded thinking of this young scholar as it is a sign of how this thoughtful young man goes about reading the text he scrutinizes. The persistence of the book analogy and the conflicting readings disclosed thereby reveal the fundamental principle of aestheticization, that is, the breaking and remaking of idols. What is most disconcerting about the revealed images, both verbal and visual, is the essential discontinuity evidenced to someone concerned in the reading process with discovering conformity between interpretation and text, companionableness between the visual and the verbal. Instead of discerning the equivalency implicit in a palimpsest, the surface image disclosing alliance with its underlying ground, the protagonist discovers a discontinuity not only between the sleeping Jenny and womanhood, represented by his cousin Nell, “the girl I'm proudest of” (191), but between the scholar's image of Jenny and the reveler's depiction of the woman resting in his lap. The discontinuity registered by this latter set of superimposed images—madonna and whore, monetized and aestheticized Jenny, a woman, in Kathy Psomiades's words, that “can be possessed and … is unpossessable”7—functions, as the Duke's conflicting views of his Duchess do, to reveal the workings of the speaker's mind, divided as it is between possession of and by the image on the one hand and renunciation of it on the other.


Many of Browning's aestheticizers of objects—Pictor Ignotus, Childe Roland, the speaker of “Pauline”—engage in a process initially conceived as involving a “training for the sight” (“Childe Roland” 180) and concluding with the consciousness that the perceiving self has become the object of its own gaze. The process yields an ekphrastic struggle by the protagonist simultaneously to empower what is mute and to enforce that object's silence. The process results in three important consequences: (1) the protagonist's self “stands out more hideously” (“Pauline” 647); (2) the self, as a result, “furnishe[s] its first prey” (652); and (3) the self born of the process becomes the “chasm / ‘Twixt what I am and all I fain would be” (676-77). Browning's unknown painter aptly analogizes the implications of this process in his own life to witnessing “the revels through a door / Of some strange house of idols at its rites” (42-43). Excommunicated from his own sanctuary, the unknown painter self-consciously views himself as the prey of his own devisings. The distancing provided by the analogy attenuates the pain suffered by a more direct confrontation with this psychological discontinuity. Like the veiling of a dead duchess's portrait, the silence of a sleeping Jenny similarly minimizes the disconcerting messages likely to be delivered by objects suddenly given voice.

But attenuation never fully relieves pain, nor does it prevent these protagonists from taking three important steps in aestheticizing their respective idols. Silencing a potentially threatening voice is the first step. The second is a consequence of the first: the idol must be rendered inanimate and thus an object. The third step discloses the ultimate reason for silencing and thus rendering inanimate the idol: to appropriate the object to self and in the process resuscitate the object by solipsistically assuming the “idol's empery” (“Sordello” 1.515). What is broken by the self is reconstituted as objective correlative of self. The ekphrastic endeavor engaged in by protagonists compelled to render articulate such idolizations becomes less a process of giving voice to what is mute than an attempt at obstetrically delivering what is now hopelessly encapsulated in and by the object.

Rossetti's protagonist early and repeatedly aggrandizes Jenny to himself. That she is near sleep and then fully asleep only makes his taking possession of her easier. “Fair Jenny mine,” he addresses her in the opening lines that also signal his confusion about a woman regarded simultaneously as madonna and whore. The identity of Jenny as object of worship or of pleasure, though, is not the point; the aestheticization and what that process necessitates and implies is. The apostrophes of the first section of the poem (1-21) distract the reader from the central issue of the soliloquy: “Whose person or whose purse may be / The lodestar of your reverie?” (20-21).

The question certainly deserves to be considered in light of the threats Jenny poses to the speaker's purse and to his person. The coins liberally sprinkled in her hair prior to his departure lighten his purse. But it is Jenny's purse—her sexuality—that poses the threat, the “lure” (63). Is her charm, he wonders, affected to waylay the convert from his noble “aims”?

Jenny's flattering sleep confers
New magic on the magic purse,—
Grim web, how clogged with shrivelled flies!
Between the threads fine fumes arise
And shape their pictures in the brain.


Pretending near poem's end that “we know your dreams” (364)—thus rhetorically implicating the reader in an effort to minimize his relapse into carelessness—the protagonist acknowledges not only the “pictures” shaped in Jenny's sleeping head, but that these images have been projected there from his own mind. The admission is critically important as indicating the true nature of the solipsist's motives. The lodestar of Jenny's reverie is the speaker, her alter ego. Persisting in his curiosity to ask again what occupies her dreams, the protagonist speculates, and thus reveals his egocentric motives: “If of myself you think at all, / What is the thought?” (59-60). The “conjectural” (60) nature of the question comprises the self-appointed “chasm” the solipsist inevitably falls into with fatal consequences. The purse as possible lodestar of Jenny's dreams may suggest the obvious monetary and sexual connotations; it also indicates, however, the trap or “lure” in which the speaker becomes enclosed and from which whatever self emerges comes to be acknowledged as a self threatening the self engaged in soliloquy or monologue.

The purse, however, is ultimately an inconsequential lodestar. The poem is about the “person” guiding the articulated words. What follows the “conjectural” question in the next 110 lines (67-176) are self-serving protestations and moral attitudinizing from a speaker condescending to provide Jenny with physical “rest” (68) while insisting that the woman's sleep betrays the biblical or spiritual rest of the lilies of the field. For someone who “know[s] the city” (135), who has been monetized in the “market-night in the Haymarket” (142) and thus, ironically, been rendered “Poor” (144), the inevitable desecration is not surprising. Contagion has infected Jenny's mind (164), and commerce with her clientele produces in her a countenance that “reflects not any face” (167).

The self-righteous feel responsible for rectifying social evil and its consequences for the person of a whore. To aestheticize an object, to remove it from commerce by stripping it of the negotiated value upon which its identity depends, therefore appears a noble aim. The ignobility of the protagonist's actions, however, becomes manifest with the recognition that no “picture” or face appears reflected in a “desecrated mind” like Jenny's, “no sound is in its sluggish pace” (168). The visual and verbal void is suitable ground for one intent on imagining persons speaking in or through a madonna/whore's reveries.

The protagonist no sooner acknowledges this fruitful void than he likens himself to an artist—a potter—engaged in shaping material “So young and soft” (173) to his design. Like Browning's Pictor Ignotus, terrified at the prospect of sending himself forth in his creations, the protagonist is momentarily overwhelmed by “doubt and horror” (179) as he contemplates “this awful secret sway, / The potter's power over the clay!” (180-81). Rossetti's solipsist waivers momentarily, not because he fears being mocked by the hostile regard the Pictor imagines arising from those who equate artifact with artist, but because he knows that nobility and ignobility are possible consequences of his creative endeavor: “Of the same lump (it has been said) / For honour and dishonour made” (182-83). This antiphonal refrain (repeated in lines 203-204) introduces the “Two sister vessels” (184, 205) Rossetti's potter verbally shapes. The first woman, his cousin Nell, is, in her fondness for “dress, and change, and praise” (186), like Jenny, “So mere a woman in her ways” (187). The sexist remark precedes the chauvinistic explanation that Nell's alleged flightiness is redeemable. A man's “pride in her” (197), accompanying Love, “shall ripen” Nell “In a kind soil to just increase / Through years of fertilizing peace” (200-203). The solipsist, “proudest of” Nell, renders her a vessel of honor, a sexual object whose virtue depends upon her being institutionally sanctioned through marriage rather than monetized and depersonated through sexual commerce.

The protagonist's second sculpted vessel—the lump “dishonour made”—becomes an object of scorn. By association, the potter, too, is “Scorned then” (214). The protagonist's reflection on his second creation, however, identifies the threatening consequence of the solipsist's endeavor. The wrought vessel or “purse” is likened to a “fair tree” (211). The transformation of an inanimate “lump” into an organic object parallels the protagonist's understanding of the sun's transformation into a “goblin” (206) as the result of the creation of the dishonored vessel. Whether Rossetti's speaker had in mind Turner's The Angel Standing in the Sun, the quintessential nineteenth-century visual analogue of the destructiveness of solipsism,8 he certainly understands that potential vitalizations born of a “scorned” woman should suffice to “hold [a man's] pride forwarned” (215). From the encounter of solipsist and vessel someone “frail and lost as you, shall rise,— / His daughter, with his mother's eyes” (218-19). Jenny's sleep permits the protagonist to weigh the gravest of consequences of his evening encounter without actually engaging in an act of apocalyptic magnitude requiring, inevitably, that soul shall “somehow pay for soul” (229).

The prospect of the “Judgment,” the “Day of Days” (217, 216), does not deter the solipsist from forging another artistic analogy similarly designed, as the potter metaphor has been, to exploit the sleeping Jenny. If the intent of the shift in analogies is to attenuate the threatening consequences of the potter's metaphor, the protagonist comes to discover that the painterly metaphor represents more fatal consequences for the solipsist than the abandoned comparison. The protagonist likens his depiction of Jenny to the madonnas painted by Leonardo or Raphael—the portraits of “Some living woman's simple face” (232) shrined in a “gilded aureole” (230). The mechanical “placing” (231) of a human face within the frame of light transforms the painted object into a spiritual symbol of “what God can do” (240). And the message perdures “Whole ages long, the whole world through” (239), not because of the artist's talents but because of the divine's rendering the finite material on canvas into a testament of the Infinite. Art is thus the reuttering of “The Truth of Man, as by God first spoken” (“Old Pictures in Florence” 85).

But the protagonist no sooner rejoices in mimetic art that “looked through these [symbols] to God's priest” (“The House of Life,” “Old and New Art—St. Luke the Painter” 8) than he rhetorically questions “What has man done here?” (241). Artifacts in this humanistic displacement of the transcendent become the “soulless self-reflections of man's skill” (“The House of Life,” “Old and New Art—St. Luke the Painter” 11), and the artistic encounter yields “your own footsteps meeting you, / And all things coming as they came” (“The Portrait” 267). A dual realization dawns for the protagonist: (1) “They that would look on her must come to me” (“The House of Life,” “The Portrait” 14); (2) all who look on Jenny must see only the protagonist. “No sign” remains on earth of “God's rest” amid the “Many mansions of his house” (247-49). Man's “pitiless doom” (244) is irremediable.

Salvation in a world devoid of the divine must depend on the only pure thing among men—a “woman's heart” (250). “But that can never be” (252), the protagonist summarily announces. As if to minimize the pain of such a conclusion, he poetizes the inherent depravity of man's nature by likening it to a book in which is enclosed a rose “Puddled with shameful knowledge” (265). The text cannot be examined because to do so defiles the examiner.

The real reason for the hopelessness of the human condition is not the inability of the pure woman to read the text of life, but rather the innate compulsion of man to corrupt any text he attempts to read. The protagonist's painterly effort to replicate Leonardo's or Raphael's achievements fails because the aureoled countenance of the woman framed in holy light reflects not the honor or dishonor of a vessel but the emptiness of the artist projecting himself within the framing light. The solipsistic enterprise deprives of value—whether monetary or spiritual—the object of its attention; it aestheticizes a woman, for example, until that “woman almost fades from view” to disclose what is unchangeable, the “cipher of man's … lust” (277-79).

Ironically, the solipsistic endeavor also discloses the bankruptcy and valuelessness of a protagonist blatantly protesting his ownership of Jenny and liberally scattering his coin as sign of his possession. The various artistic analogies employed in his reshaping of the womanly vessel conspire, in the end, to reinforce the message of money and ownership: behind the sculpted or painted image, behind the currency he leaves, lies nothing, save concupiscence, as warranty. Nothing of absolute value, in short, saves the appearances of things from negligibility.9 Such is “the riddle that one shrinks / To challenge from the scornful sphinx” (280-81).

The insolubility of the riddle is expressed deterministically. “Like a toad within a stone” (282), lust “live[s] through all the centuries” (286) irremediably informing human behavior. Only the apocalypse can destroy this vivifying fossil and with it the “seed of Man” (296). The exploitative nature of sexual relations, the transformation of woman from independent entity to object possessed of and by man has, from the protagonist's perspective, an inevitability about it made more certain by his earlier undermining of the transcendent basis of mimetic art. In the absence of divine warranty for artifact, the “Master's” intervention (294) in absolving “Man's transgression” (286) is impossible. The fatality of this recognition informs the protagonist's calculation of man's “changeless sum” (278) as a “cipher.” The term symbolizes the nothingness, the lack of identity characterizing existence motivated only by lust, which leaves man “deaf, blind, alone” (291). And the sleeping Jenny reminds the protagonist more painfully at poem's end of the alienation which at the outset appeared an annoying lack of awareness. He is alone.

On two previous occasions when the apocalypse surfaces to highlight the threatening aspects of the protagonist's artistic analogies, he resorted to a new artistic metaphor to mitigate the painful disclosure of the potter's and the painter's enterprise. Once again, the protagonist, in the face of man's pitiless condition, shapes another picture, his last, to depict the riddled situation of the solipsist who, in taking sole possession of an object as the result of depersonating it, discovers how apart from and alone he is vis à vis the object he attempts to own. The portrait of Jenny at dawn—rendered amid her apartment with its empty bed, the pier-glass reflecting her ringed fingers, the burning lamp attesting to the wise virgin, the caged bird singing in concert with the London sparrows—is, in many respects, a verbal recapitulation of Hunt's The Awakening Conscience.10 As he prepares to depart from Jenny, he places pillows beneath her head and imagines, as answer to his earlier question concerning the lodestar of her reveries, that golden coins preoccupy the sleeping woman. Interpreted as semen (Harris 212), the coins ironically underscore the protagonist's frustration at not finding satisfaction for his sexual desires. As currency, the coins ironically measure Jenny's success in “luring” into a commercial transaction a young man whose intentions she has (un)wittingly thwarted.

But the frustrated sexual desire ultimately betrays the more painful psychological frustration the protagonist confesses to as he transforms the sleeping Jenny into a Paphian Venus. The result of the protagonist's placing gold coins in her hair is “A Danae for a moment” (379), an “eligible deity” (371) who serves, like all icons, as a mute testament of the worshipping solipsist's self-worshipping behavior. And the egocentric motive of the divinization through money of the whore is the memorialization of the protagonist. “Waking here alone / May help you to remember one,” (372-73), the protagonist soliloquizes as he prepares to leave Jenny at dawn. The goddess's “eligibility” becomes synonymous with the gold coins falling from her hair as she rises from her slumber. “That tinkling makes him [the protagonist's love] audible” (382).11 If the protagonist finds the sleeping Jenny's state conducive to the shaping of mute pictures that speak to convenient rationalizations of his own mind and behavior, the awakening of the slumbering woman will render audible sentiments the silence preserved ineffable. If the protagonist persists in “mocking[ing] you [Jenny] to the last” (383), the awakened Jenny will undoubtedly mock, rather than remember, her absent client. Instead of symbolizing his ownership of the depersonated whore, the protagonist's coins attest to his dispossession by a now ineligible divinity.

The closing sentiment of the poem—“Good-bye, my dear” (391)—ironically registers how costly the illusion is of possessing an icon whose return from sleep signals dispossession. His monetary offering not only has provided him with no sexual gratification, it has left him dispossessed of what he attempts to own verbally. The image of Jenny, like the portrait of the Duchess and Tennyson's narrator's painting of the Gardener's Daughter, ekphrastically betrays the word it ostensibly served as analogue.12 The bankruptcy attendant upon the profligate throwing away of money belies the psychological bankruptcy resulting from the speaker's recognition of how expensive or dear the dawning of emptiness is. The vessel he inhabits during the course of his soliloquy/monologue/interior discourse with self turns out to be an inhospitable receptacle for psychological, not sexual, reasons for it defines him as dispossessed not only of Jenny but of the well-intentioned self leaving its study for an evening's diversion.

The protagonist's ekphrastic attempts to have the sleeping image of Jenny obstetrically deliver someone companionable with the artistic portraits verbally rendered indicate as motive the desire for hospitable silence. The protagonist, if he must deal with a sleeping Jenny, believes that the projected image(s) with whom he converses will be of a “mating” other.13 The resultant unmatingness of image and word, however, only reinforces the sense of betrayal the solipsist inevitably experiences when he discovers not only that projected image repudiates its verbal analogue, but also that the articulate self informing mute image is alien from the self projecting its self into the silent vessel. The “eligible divinity” lures the unwitting solipsist into becoming the prey of his own exploitations.


“There are no happy marriages in art—only successful rape,” Susanne Langer observes of the relationship between the verbal and pictorial. “Compositions of different orders are not simply conjoined, but all except one will cease to appear as what they are” (86). In words reminiscent of the opening line of “My Last Duchess,” Rossetti's speaker in “The Portrait” remarks of his departed beloved's image, “This is her picture as she was” (1). The painter's hand in both poems has succeeded, at least from the respective narrators' perspectives, in preserving the loved one “as if she were alive” (“My Last Duchess” 2). Jenny's sleep allows the protagonist of Rossetti's poem to achieve the same memorialization: a perduring image whose silence allows spectator/monologist to obstetrically deliver uncontested whatever message he, not she, wishes to be born. Like Tereus's successful rape of Philomela, Rossetti's protagonist's solipsistic manipulation of Jenny ostensibly yields gratification, not because of actual or imagined sexual satisfaction, but because the victim of the violation remains mute, the same before and after the act.

Philomela weaves a pictorial web to indict her rapist. Browning's Duke and Rossetti's protagonist weave verbal webs that amount to self-accusatory indictments. Significant in these ekphrastic exploitations is not the particular indictable offense (male chauvinism, to put a charitable construction on the silencing in both poems) but the painful consciousness of contrast that occurs psychologically as the monologist in each case witnesses himself at the end of his weaving as different from the self initially engaged in rape. If the victim remains the same, because silenced through death or sleep, the victimizer is fundamentally changed.

What these aestheticizers of images ultimately seek in their respective exegeses of mute icons is a construct symbolic not of temporal change—his is the image as if she were alive or awake—but of psychological equivalency. The Duke commissions Fra Pandolf to paint his Duchess in the hope that the resultant image will represent what his nine-hundred-year-old name entitled him to and what the Duchess's smile represented as the opposite. Ironically, Pandolf's image of the Duchess immortalizes in art the very spot of joy whose commands the Duke silenced. The reason the veil covers the portrait is that the Duke cannot tolerate the lack of equivalency between what he expects from his wife and what she presented. Rossetti's protagonist similarly becomes aware of the irremediable contrast between his image of a young vibrant woman and the whore Jenny remains. As a matter of sexual politics, Jenny's image in repose triumphs over the chauvinistic ideals of womanhood the protagonist verbally parades and which this convert's lapse from noble “aims” violates. The victimizer becomes his own victim.14

His generous act of dressing out Jenny's hair in gold becomes the final self-serving reminder of the disjointedness of things. If the coins placed in her hair remind the protagonist of how Jenny remains the same despite his salvific aestheticization of her, if she still is the whore and not the madonna, that image more poignantly reminds him of the moral absurdity arising with the consciousness that the ideal and real do not square, that what is conflicts with what ought to be. The protagonist, however, is not naïve in his redemptive aspirations; lust is deterministically a part of human nature. Nor is he the dogmatist whose conversion to true belief entitles him to tyrannize over sinners and curse their foibles when they refuse redemption. Jenny reminds him of the reformed man he would like to become and of the wayward man he still remains. And it is this discontinuity that most troubles Rossetti's thoughtful young man.

Rossetti's speaker in “The Portrait” assumes that in capturing his beloved on canvas amid the mystic woods in which both fell in love he would insure that “mine image in the glass / Should tarry when myself am gone” (3-4). The “wonder” (2) of the situation derives from his awareness that the painted image may perdure—as Jenny may perdure in the written / spoken testimony—but that the image of self reflected in the glass-covered canvas and in the reposing Jenny will not. The superimposition of images of self upon the self's beloved visually reinforces the discontinuity both speakers hope to avoid. In the end, both—in fact all ekphrastic experimenters—discover that the self ostensibly tarrying in the mute image is no sooner recognized as self than it is witnessed as other or gone. Like so many narrators in Browning's ekphrastic poems, the protagonist of “Jenny” learns that “Plus ne suis ce que j'ai été / Et ne sçaurois jamais être.”15


  1. Paulson contends that the property aspects of a thing—its utility—must “be elided before the spectator can become disinterested, before the object or phenomenon can be aesthetic; and so dispossession becomes a procedure for aestheticizing any object, including the work of art itself” (5).

  2. For a discussion of Rossetti's indebtedness to Browning for what his brother William Michael Rossetti called the “semi-dramatic monologue,” see Howarth 21, and Stevenson 32. For a discussion of the theory and practice of ekphrasis in nineteenth-century English poetry, see Heffernan 91-143.

  3. Harris argues that the narrator's “exterior speech, subverts the interior form Rossetti ultimately achieves” in the final version of the poetic text (197-98).

  4. Gordon (90) contends that the poem is an interior monologue; Buchanan (344) and Howarth (20) regard “Jenny” as a soliloquy; Siegel (685) considers the poem a “dialogue of the mind with itself”; Rodgers (159), Hersey (17), and Howard (100) consider the work a dramatic monologue.

  5. Anderson argues that the protagonist's “self-objectification into a medium of exchange renders identity indistinct” (118).

  6. Gordon argues that the problems arising from the use of the book analogy stem from the protagonist's confusion of intellectual and carnal knowledge (92). Keane argues that the protagonist's preoccupation with books “allows him to feel superior to Jenny” (276).

  7. Psomiades emphasizes the duality of Jenny's nature: she is woman and prostitute, book and commodity, madonna and whore, a person with a physical and a value form (40-41).

  8. For a discussion of the significance in nineteenth-century thought of Turner's The Angel Standing in the Sun, see Helsinger 247-48.

  9. Harris argues that “the major ideological pattern of the poem,” the “triangulation of language with sex and money” (198), results in Jenny's depersonation. My own view is that the pattern leading to depersonation is driven by the iconoclastic motives of the protagonist.

  10. For a more detailed examination of the connection between “Jenny” and Hunt's painting, see Gordon 91-92, and Shrimpton 325.

  11. The sound of the falling coins, Harris observes, “substitutes for sounded speech” (215).

  12. For a discussion of Tennyson's poem as an ekphrastic endeavor, see Tucker 278-302.

  13. Arnold, in “Isolation, to Marguerite,” comments on the alienation of man in the modern world when he writes, “they / Which touch thee are unmating things” (31-32).

  14. For a discussion of the sexual politics implicit in ekphrasis, see Heffernan 5-8. Gordon aptly remarks that the sexual politics involved in the poem result in “self-begotten images that forever betray the self” (103).

  15. The epigraph from Marot that Browning appends to “Pauline” translates, “I am no longer that which I was nor will I ever know how to be again.”

Works Cited

Anderson, Amanda S. “D. G. Rossetti's ‘Jenny’: Agency, Intersubjectivity, and the Prostitute.” Gender 4 (1989): 103-121.

Arnold, Matthew. The Poems, ed. Kenneth Allott. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1965.

Browning, Robert. The Poetical Works. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Buchanan, Robert. “The Fleshly School of Poetry: Mr. D. G. Rossetti.” Contemporary Review 18 (1871) 334-50.

Gordon, Jan B. “A Portrait of ‘Jenny’: Rossetti's Aesthetics of Communion.” Hartford Studies in Literature 1 (1969): 89-106.

Harris, Daniel A. “D. G. Rossetti's ‘Jenny’: Sex, Money, and the Interior Monologue.” Victorian Poetry 22 (1984): 197-215.

Heffernan, James A. W. Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Helsinger, Elizabeth K. Ruskin and the Art of the Beholder. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982.

Hersey, G. L. “Rossetti's ‘Jenny’: A Realist Altarpiece.” The Yale Review 69 (1979):17-32.

Howard, Ronnalie Roper. The Dark Glass: Vision and Technique in the Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Athens, Ohio: Ohio UP, 1972.

Howarth, R. G. “On Rossetti's ‘Jenny’.” Notes & Queries 173 (1937): 20-21.

Keane, Robert N. “Rossetti's ‘Jenny’: Moral Ambiguity and the Inner Standing Point.” Papers on Language & Literature 9 (1973): 271-80.

Langer, Susanne. Problems of Art: Ten Philosophical Lectures. New York: Scribner's, 1957.

Paulson, Ronald. Breaking and Remaking: Esthetic Practice in England, 1700-1820. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989.

Psomiades, Kathy Alexis. Beauty's Body: Femininity and Representation in British Aestheticism. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997.

Rodgers, Lise. “The Book and the Flower: Rationality and Sensuality in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's ‘Jenny’.” JNT 10 (1980): 156-69.

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. The Collected Works. Ed. William Michael Rossetti. London: Ellis and Elvey, 1897.

Siegel, Jules Paul. “‘Jenny’: The Divided Sensibility of a Young and Thoughtful Man of the World.” SEL 9 (1969): 677-93.

Shrimpton, Nicholas. “Rossetti's Pornography.” Essays in Criticism 29 (1979): 323-40.

Stevenson, Lionel. The Pre-Raphaelite Poets. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1972.

Tucker, Herbert F. Tennyson and the Doom of Romanticism. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.

Joseph Bristow (essay date fall 2001)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10920

SOURCE: Bristow, Joseph. “He and I’: Dante Rossetti's Other Man.” Victorian Poetry 39, no. 2 (fall 2001): 365-88.

[In the following essay, Bristow examines the sonnet “He and I” within the context of the sonnet sequence “The House of Life,” focusing on Rossetti's portrayal of sexuality in the poem.]

Toward the largely despondent close of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's “The House of Life” stands “He and I”: a “representation,” as David G. Riede observes, “of some sort of self-division and self-alienation” that appears rather “enigmatic.”1 Composed in 1870, this intriguing sonnet—which results in a distressing physical encounter between the male poetic voice and his masculine other—may well look puzzling in a long two-part series whose reflections on heterosexual manhood have in any case seemed obscure to many scholars. “Biographers and critics alike,” writes William E. Fredeman, “have been tantalized by Rossetti's poem; it challenges their imaginations and taxes their ingenuities.”2 Try as they might, most readers cannot make these one hundred and one sonnets—several of which express feverish eroticism—fit neatly within a framework that either allegorizes Rossetti's turbulent love affairs with Jane Morris and Elizabeth Siddal or expounds a systematic philosophy of love.3 Even the subtitle, “A Sonnet-Sequence,” sits oddly in a work that offers comparatively little narrative cohesion. Instead, Algernon Charles Swinburne's comment that “The House of Life” aims to “embrace and express all sorrow and all joy of passion in union, of outer love and inner, triumphant or dejected or piteous or at peace”4 remains one of the most accurate—because open-ended—descriptions of the work. The only (seemingly obvious) qualification to be made to Swinburne's statement is that the expression of such joy and sorrow belongs to a man who remains, according to C. M. Bowra, “a ready victim to the beauty of women.”5 Here femininity allures the frequently tormented poetic voice in a variety of ethereal and fiendish guises. On the one hand, the poet-speaker remains in awe of female “Beauty enthroned.”6 On the other hand, he bears terrified witness to how a figure such as Lilith (with her “enchanted hair”) “left … / One strangling golden hair” around the “heart” of a young man exhausted with passion (“Body's Beauty,” p. 314). What, then, might “He and I”—where “some sort of self-division” involves one man's body momentarily touching that of another male figure—disclose about the enduring struggle of this sequence, in its desperate closing moments, to celebrate how “Life” is truly “the lady of all bliss” (“Newborn Death,” p. 325)? Might this haunting sonnet elucidate why the insistent heteroeroticism of “The House of Life” grows more and more bleak in “Change and Fate”: the apt subtitle for the sequence's disconsolate second part?

These inquiries arise because Rossetti's writings, whose adoration of femininity makes passion burn almost to the point of fatigue, often concentrate on masculine apparitions—an assemblage of elusive phantasms, together with figures that adopt more palpable human forms—whose disturbing immediacy besieges the poetic voice. Despite the fact that these manly types recur with striking regularity in Rossetti's oeuvre, they have remained largely ignored whenever critics have sought to understand his ardent—though frequently impeded—other-sex desires. The present discussion attempts to adjust current critical perspectives on Rossetti's avowedly heteroerotic wish-fulfillments by examining first how his poet-speaker scrutinizes both himself and other male figures—rather than female objects—in selected sonnets from “The House of Life.” Thereafter, I show how Rossetti's scrupulous use of the sonnet form throws into sharp relief a structure of thwarted yearning that becomes even more agonized in longer poems that follow an explicit narrative pattern. In these longer writings, Rossetti's passionate “I”—notorious for fetishizing femininity7—finds itself among initially seductive kinds of masculinity that tend to solicit, only to betray, the poet-speaker's trust. The poetic “I”'s discovery of eerie icons of maleness in dreams, mirrors, myths, and even mid-Victorian London indicates not only patterns of profound self-alienation but also confusions about the reasons why his beleaguered longings often depend on intimate encounters with the same sex.

This pattern of male-male desire—a pattern that resonates with incredible emotional depth throughout Rossetti's canon—questions the adequacy of the much-used term homosocial to characterize one man's intense involvement with another man in scenarios where other-sex intimacy remains paramount. The powerful concept of male homosocial desire originates in the influential work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who ingeniously rethinks René Girard's account of the intricate ways in which western narratives often feature modes of bonding that consolidate patriarchal authority when males engage in sexual rivalry over a female object. Sedgwick maintains that the “male homosocial continuum” that sustains a man's heterosexual privilege nonetheless has the capacity to generate closeness between men that may become eroticized in a manner that threatens the seeming primacy of other-sex desire within a male-dominated cultural system. In other words, male homosociality is always already in danger of becoming the very form of homoeroticism that must be banished in the name of the subordination of women. She pays particular attention to the cultural processes through which homophobia regulates the disruptive nature of homoeroticism within male homosocial ties. (Sedgwick carefully observes that “genital male homosexual desire” does not stand “‘at the root of’ other forms of male homosociality.” The homosocial instead articulates “a strategy for making generalizations about, and marking historical differences in, the structure of men's relations with other men.”8)

There is no doubt that Rossetti's poetry seeks to position his speakers' heterosexual masculinity within a framework where the poetic “I” must engage with the considerable force of another male presence. His poetry, however, seldom suggests that the two male figures assume the equality—or at least the common ground—upon which homosocial competition implicitly relies. Nor do his writings manifest the homophobic anxiety that one man might come within familiar reach of another male body. By contrast, Rossetti's “I” explores situations in which its voice can express a frequently elegiac dependency upon other male figures. “He,” as far as the “I” can tell, often has the disturbing prerogative to make or break the “I”'s urgent wish for sexual intercourse with “she.” In fact, many of Rossetti's poems suggest that the close involvement of “he” and “I” maintains a constitutive—but none the less thwarting—role in the yearned-for union with “she.” By focusing on the fraught but never tabooed intimacy between Rossetti's male speaker and his masculine other, “He and I” provides an appropriate starting-point for exploring why his poetry keeps turning to shadowy male emanations whose familiarities continue to distract—even to the extent of maddening—his poetic “I.”


“Whence came his feet into my field, and why?” says “I.” “How is it that he sees it all so drear?” he asks (p. 324). Contemplating this male intruder, the poet-speaker declares that he wants to know “How” he “see[s]” the other man's “seeing” (p. 324). Throughout the octave, his persistent questions speculate on what exactly informs his deep absorption in the bodily movements and contemplative gaze of someone named as “he.” How or why should “I,” at this noticeably late stage in a sequence that longs for heterosexual “bliss,” be left interrogating another man's vision that proves unalterably “drear”?

My questioning of the poetic voice's insistent inquiries may at first seem unnecessary because the sestet supplies at least one lucid answer. “He,” the “I” reveals, embodies a “new Self” who becomes the “sighing wind's auxiliary” as he makes his dispiriting way through the speaker's “field,” moaning dirge-like “plaints for every flower” (p. 324). Yet it is not the case that “he” destroys the poetic “I”'s pastoral. The poet-speaker, after all, reveals that in his domain there was only “a little fold of sky” amid the “pasturing clouds” that admitted “living light” into the “soul's atmosphere” (p. 324). Instead, “he”—“this new Self” that renders this once barely “living” world “lifeless”—exerts a negative force that drains what little energy already existed in these pastures. “He” gradually exhausts the speaking “I” by occupying the poet-speaker's place in this already dimly lighted “field.” Where the octave closes with the “I” wondering if both “he” and his own self might be doubles of each other, the sestet ends on a more decisive, if startled, note: “Even in my place he weeps. Even I, not he” (p. 324). “He” has become suggestively “even” with “I,” at once leveling, superseding, and yet joining with a poetic voice abandoned in a bewildered state.

This final line shows how the “new Self” inhabits—to the point of usurping—the implicitly old one that articulates what amounts to an invasion of identity. Jerome J. McGann remarks that “He and I” serves as “the definitive representation of identity-loss in the sequence”; the poem, he contends, results in a “schizoid form of a disintegrated identity which has lost itself in a house of mirrors.”9 But the disintegration of each pronominal position into its other is not only the structural “obverse and reverse of a single self-conflicted figure,” as McGann suggests (Towards a Literature of Knowledge, p. 88). The decomposition of the “I” also involves, perhaps surprisingly, a less readily explainable—because physical—contact. For the “I” discloses that in the here and now—a time when both selves continue to “weep”—“the sweet waters” of his “life … yield / Unto his [i.e. the new Self's] lips no draught but tears unseal'd” (p. 324). “He,” therefore, draws intimately on the weeping “I,” an act that enables them to exchange “place[s],” as one man's lips touch another man's teardrops. To be sure, this intimate moment marks the terrible undoing of the poet-speaker's fragile ego. Yet the undermining of the “I” nonetheless rests on an intimate conjunction with another male entity. “He and I” may record the painful splitting of the self but the sonnet does so by accomplishing—both in its title and its conclusion—what the poem implies is an inevitable connection through a “draught” of “tears” between the “old” and “new” male subjectivities.

“He and I” deepens the troubling internal rift that has already confounded the poet-speaker's sense of self in “A Superscription,” the disturbing sonnet composed in 1868 that Rossetti—in a telltale moment of self-appreciation—called “a favourite of my own.”10 “A Superscription” discloses that a certain pleasure exists in the “I”'s inconsolable reflection. Here the poetic “I” takes special pains to dissect his image in a “glass”—an arduous process that results in despair. As he ponders his features any hope that he may have of projecting an ideal individuality undergoes immediate dissolution. “Look in my face,” he says, “my name is Might-have-been; / I am also called No-more, Too-Late, Farewell” (p. 323). Belated, untimely, and ready to depart to another world, this “shaken shadow” soon proves “intolerable” (p. 323). By the end of the rueful octave, he asserts that the “frail screen” that captures his withering reflection remains insufferable because it represents “ultimate things unuttered” (p. 323). While gloomily inspecting his likeness, however, the poetic voice admits that the reflected “Might-have-been” is in fact of his own making. Under his “spell,” he proclaims, he has become the dismal specter confronted in the mirror: a face that once “had Life's form and Love's” (p. 323).

The poet-speaker's sorrow for the loss of both Life and Love remains significant because it evokes two of the three personifications that preoccupy many of the preceding sonnets belonging to an evolving sequence that in 1869 first appeared under the heading “Life, Love, and Death.” Life, “the lady of all bliss,” seems on occasion to “house” the poet's passions; in “Soul's Beauty,” for example, he stands beneath “the arch of Life” where “love and death, / Terror and mystery, guard her shrine” (p. 314). (Critics have traditionally used different frameworks to interpret the domestic metaphor that came to title the sequence from 1870 onward. The “House of Life” has often been interpreted in architectural terms that relate to Rossetti's engrossment with the sonnet as a “moment's monument,11 the memorable phrase that appears in the poem that introduces the 1881 published version of the sequence [p. 275]. As Jan Marsh observes, this poetic house comprises stanzas: the Italian word for rooms.12) Life's house—if one accepts that this is a female domain—remains haunted by Love, always presented as male. These personifications derive in part from the tradition of early Italian poets such as Dante, who comments on why he “speak[s] of Love as of a man” (Rossetti, Collected Writings, p. 109). In Rossetti's fine English translation of The New Life, Dante remarks that throughout Ovid's Remedies for Love “Love speaketh as a human creature” (p. 111). Here Dante reminds those among his skeptical contemporaries who might “be moved to jeering” at his vernacular poetry that this personification remains perfectly legitimate because it possesses noble classical origins (p. 111). In one sense at least, when the “I” of “A Superscription” stares at his likeness he imagines the loss of both female Life and male Love, which he believes were at one time united by his gaze. How, then, might we understand the “spell” that has destroyed the unity of these two figures? Does this “unuttered” thought perhaps disclose that his “spell” was a deluded form of narcissism?

On the basis of insights gathered from influential criticism of Rossetti's poetry, readers may be inclined to suggest that the “spell” displays a morbid type of self-absorption. Since it concentrates on the “I”'s reflection, “A Superscription” certainly solicits interpretations that correspond with the well-known view that Rossetti's poems and paintings depicting feminine forms remain the product of his enduring but far from consoling self-love. Martin A. Danahay, for example, sees “The Mirror” (a short poem dating from 1850) as the epitome of Rossetti's “narcissistic enterprise.”13 In this intriguing work, the poet-speaker declares that his female beloved could not comprehend the depths that he plumbed while witnessing “forms that crowd unknown / Within a distant mirror's shade” (p. 462). As he peers into the otherworldly glass, the poet-speaker “Deems” one of these forms to be “himself” (p. 462). Danahay, however, claims that “The Mirror”—if self-loving—fails to extend the myth of Echo and Narcissus. He contends that “The Mirror” participates instead in a century-long revision of the story of Pygmalion and Galatea, a rewriting evident in William Hazlitt's Liber Amoris: or, the New Pygmalion (1823) and George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (1913). From this viewpoint, Rossetti's works reveal a man who creates the lavish female object of his desire only to learn that she fails to return his love. “The Mirror” opens by stating that “She knew it not:—Most perfect pain / To learn” (p. 462). The “it” is ultimately the lesson that the poet-speaker “must seek elsewhere for his own” (where the unqualified pronoun “own” suggests both self-image and self-possession). Such perspectives on “The Mirror” could well imply that in “A Superscription” the poet-speaker expresses an overdue recognition that his earlier desire to unite Life (her beauty) and Love (his desire) was in truth the “spell” of egotism.

Yet the problem with developing a reading of the apparent “narcissistic enterprise” in “A Superscription” lies in how the “I”'s moment of reflection involves a destructive element that emerges from a rather different kind of “spell.” Throughout the sestet the poetic voice certainly yearns for physical closeness between self and image in this mirror of masculine desire. But such proximity can only come about through a surprise attack. “Mark me, how still I am,” the poet-speaker initially demands of his reflection (p. 323). The sentence that follows ruffles his composure when he reproaches the face in the mirror, however. “[S]hould there dart,” he quickly adds, “One moment through thy soul the soft surprise / Of that winged Peace which lulls the breath of sighs,— / Then shalt thou see me smile” (pp. 323-324). The very idea that his reflection might maintain a calm and restful demeanor, one that stands truly “still,” humors him. Should the reflection, he says, ever feel the penetrating “dart” of “winged Peace,” then the mirror-image will “turn apart” its “visage” (p. 324). The unusual verb form “turn apart” suggests that either the poetic voice will not allow the “visage” to slumber or that the “visage” will disfigure itself. Either way such discomfiture will follow his “ambush” of the “shaken shadow”'s “heart.” He asserts, in the final line, that the disturbed “visage” will remain “Sleepless with cold commemorative eyes” (p. 324), ones that must stay forever open because they will memorialize his abiding disillusionment. Then again, the poet-speaker's hypothetical “ambush” of his “visage” implies more than his willingness to castigate himself eternally. This calculated assault expresses another aim: to preserve the reflection of a “cold” gaze that, even though it may lack erotic passion, sustains at least the permanence of an ineffaceable superscription. He should never, on this account, feel possessed by his “visage” because he can cast a “spell”—by way of an “ambush”—that guarantees, no matter how painfully, that those eyes will stare back at him.

The troubled intimacy that occurs between men in both “He and I” and “A Superscription” may at first appear understandable in “The House of Life,” given that its trajectory of desire would seem to gravitate toward the other sex. Yet it is worth remembering that these doubled male selves and returned male gazes accomplish physical closeness that sometimes proves impossible when the poet-speaker seeks his reflection in the feminine forms that arouse his passion. Rossetti's poetic voice often discovers that his hankering for the reciprocity of intimate looks, gestures, and caresses with his lady results in failure, even when the songs of male Love inspire him to kiss her passionate image. Somehow, Love tends to obstruct the desire that the poetic “I” believes must lie within Love's unassailable power. Sometimes Love's intermediary role between the “I” and “she” absorbs so much the poet-speaker's attention that we may well wonder whether the desire that supposedly stands at the heart of “The House of Life” remains exclusively heterosexual.

This quandary becomes perhaps most acute in the four sonnets comprising “Willowwood,” the mini-sequence that—as Douglas J. Robillard observes14—encapsulates the erotic pains and pleasures of “The House of Life” as a whole. First published in 1869, the opening sonnet locates the poet-speaker recalling how he once sat next to “Love upon a woodside well” (p. 300). But where in both “He and I” and “A Superscription” the two male figures “see” each other's “seeing,” here we discover that “I and he” (p. 300)—if seated side by side—cannot so easily stare into each other's eyes. The personified Love that inhabits these four sonnets appears far less benign than the male figure whose “overpowering sweetness” affirms Dante's passion for Beatrice throughout The New Life (Rossetti, Collected Writings, p. 87).15 “Nor ever did he speak nor looked at me” (p. 300), Rossetti's poetic voice declares, as if bemoaning Love's indifference. He recounts how the two male companions peered down instead upon a “low wave”: a shimmering surface where their “eyes met silently” (p. 300). As they stared below into the waters, Love touched the strings of his lute to play a song that revealed “a secret thing” (p. 300). The “secret,” however, is soon disclosed at the end of the octave where the “I” remembers that he recognized a “passionate voice” in the song (p. 300). He says that the voice—which of course belongs to the female beloved—moved him to tears. The sestet, we might imagine, will once and for all relieve his suffering by bringing him within reach of her body.

But the intricate ideation of Rossetti's sonnets refuses to supply such neat resolution. Here he exploits the suddenness of the volta in order to produce an unanticipated scene that confounds the speaker's wish to unite with his lady. Strikingly, the final six lines shift to a vision that appears even more mysterious in its sexual intimacy than the emotive male-male union depicted in “He and I.” At the moment when the poet-speaker's tears fell upon the reflecting waters both his and Love's “mirrored eyes” underwent an astonishing transformation: Love's “eyes beneath,” in an unexpected turn of phrase, “grew hers” (p. 300). In other words, the female object of the male lover's adoration emerged out of Love's watchful look. Soon “the dark ripples spread to waving hair” (p. 300). And then, as the poet-speaker stooped down toward this female emanation, “her own lips rising there / Bubbled with brimming kisses” on his “mouth” (p. 300). Why should such a powerful heteroerotic vision, enriched by its allusion to Keats's luxuriant “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819), emanate where one man looks indirectly into another man's eyes? Is this transformation yet another aspect of Rossetti's much-criticized self-love in which the fetishized eyes, hair, and lips of his adored femininity reflect his own male-centered projections? Once again, the charge of self-absorption—whether viewed in terms of either the Narcissus or Pygmalion myths—fails to account for the intricate manner in which “Willowwood” represents Love as a figure who transforms into the object of the poet-speaker's desires. Love, it might be said, is Rossetti's other man, one whose body—as the mini-sequence develops—feels ultimately more substantial than the feminine form that glimmers briefly in the well.

The three subsequent sonnets of the “Willowwood” sequence record how the permutation of male Love into female eyes, hair, and lips gradually falls “back drowned” (p. 301) into the “low wave”—a heartrending action that remains definitely in Love's power. In “Willowwood (II)” Love's “passionate voice” continues but in ways that convert the poet-speaker's joy into sorrow. Since it “was such a song / So meshed with half-remembrance hard to free,” the music orchestrates a vision of initially silent “mournful forms”: “each,” he tells us, “was I or she” (pp. 300-301). These “shades,” which represent the “days” that the poet once spent with his female beloved, “looked on” the pair like witnesses recording their intimate relationship. The sestet depicts how these “shades” pored over “the soul-wrung implacable close kiss” held “fast together” between the poet and his beloved upon the waters (p. 301). Each “mournful form” finally broke its silence in an obsessive lamentation: “For once, for once, for once alone!” (p. 301). In this “moan”—as the poet-speaker calls it—the saddened “forms” recognized that the “close kiss” once shared by “I and she” was a perfect unity: they were “alone” (p. 301). To be “alone”—that is, as one being—evokes the shades' “pity,” since the unity of “he” and “she” exists no longer.

The prospect of remaining “alone” strikes an extraordinary note in a poem where it is already clear that the lovers remain surrounded by phantasms of themselves, all of which have been conjured by the male figure of Love. Even though Love has supposedly provided the “eyes” that have enabled the poet-speaker to recapture his beloved's image, in the third sonnet Love reasserts his autonomy by elaborating a heavyhearted moral upon the lovers' agonized predicament. Commenting on how the lovers' shades “walk with hollow faces burning white” through this quasi-purgatorial domain of weeping “Willowwood,” Love assures them that even though they may feel that they “have wooed” their “last hope lost,” there will be a future time when they “again shall see the light” (p. 301). But where the octave of “Willowwood (III)” ends by offering such solace, the sestet characteristically modifies the mood, on this occasion changing to a lament: “Better all life forget her,” cries Love, “than this thing”—the dehumanized state in which her spirit is kept “wandering” through Willowwood (p. 301).

Love's command to “forget her” is partly fulfilled in the fourth sonnet. The poet-speaker recalls that after Love's song came to an end “her face fell back drowned.” He asserts that he still does not understand “if it”—her faded image—“ever may / Meet” his eyes again (p. 301). Further, he fails to comprehend “if Love knows” whether he and his beloved will ever reunite. Stephen J. Spector assumes that here the “lover experiences a momentary triumph because the haunting image is finally exorcized.”16 Yet surely the sestet offers some consolation after her “grey eyes” fade beneath the water (p. 301). The poetic voice declares that when he “leaned low and drank / A long draught from the water where she sank,” he touched her “breath,” “tears,” and “soul” (p. 301). Even more physical and satisfying, however, is the reentry of Love into this intimate moment: “as I leaned, I know I felt Love's face / Pressed on my neck with moan of pity and grace” (pp. 301-302). Although we must assume that “Love's face”—in a sense—is also hers (not visualized but sensuously touched), it remains the case that the pressure exerted on the poet-speaker's neck is to some degree masculine. “Willowwood (IV)” ends with the lovers' “heads” encompassed by Love's “aureole” (p. 302). Such imagery obviously makes their union a highly spiritual one. But the presence of Love—the third party on whom this moment depends—wields such power that it is possible to glimpse the poet-speaker feeling both a man's and a woman's touch upon his neck when their heads combine intimately within the halo. Such instances may encourage readers to speculate if Rossetti's male speaker is making love either to a man or a woman—or both. One point, however, is undeniable: Heteroeroticism is enabled by the poet-speaker's other man, a “he” whose intrusive but necessary presence remains at once distant and proximate to the “I.”

Since “The House of Life” contains many sonnets that return to mirrors which permit the kind of erotic redoubling that we find in “Willowwood,” it is important to ask why the sequence is sometimes troubled by Love's almost fickle ascendancy over the poetic “I.” Part of the reason for this obsession resides in the contradictory condition of the poet-speaker's type of desire. Such sonnets show that the presiding power of Love both implements and confounds the poet-speaker's longings. And it appears that Rossetti's man cannot help but return to this vexatious problem in the hope that there might be some means—through, appropriately enough, the dialectical structure of the sonnet—of finding permanent congruity between “he,” “she,” and “I.” But “The House of Life,” which fixates upon these disparate positions, remains unable to reconcile them. The problem becomes even more acute in several narrative poems where Rossetti's “I” grows ever more demanding toward the Love that promises to mediate the otherwise unreachable passions of the perfect lady.


At this juncture it is apposite to turn to “Love's Nocturn,” a poem dating from 1854 that—like so many of Rossetti's inclusions in Poems (1870)—underwent substantial revisions with the aim of making its narrative design more coherent than before. This important work reveals that the young Rossetti had already determined that the contours of a man's desire for a woman at times remain problematically in the hands of another male figure. The unusual prosody accentuates the awkwardness of the erotic coordinates that Rossetti maps in this mysterious dream-vision. In her helpful source study of Rossetti's writings, Florence S. Boos sees the poem as “atypical” in Rossetti's canon. Characterizing “Love's Nocturn” as “something of an artificial set piece,” she observes that its twenty-two stanzas (rhymed ababbab) seem reminiscent of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and even Edgar Allan Poe, though not attributable to any of them.17 The stanzas, it is true, have no direct source in English poetic tradition. But the meter—trochaic tetrameter catalectic in all but the penultimate dimetric line—bears remote echoes of Caesar's marching songs.18 Perhaps we are to presuppose that in this seemingly “atypical” poem the meter assumes a certain masculine posture, as it implicitly does for Alfred Tennyson later in the century.19 Any pretence to male power, however, dwindles when the poet-speaker realizes that he remains at the mercy of his master to evoke a scene in which “I” through “he” may connect with “she.” Moreover, the jolting trochaic rhythm—with its partly military origins—clashes with the term “nocturn”: a word that relates both to nighttime prayers, on the one hand, and dreamy music, on the other. This oddly structured poem, therefore, creates memorable antagonisms not only within its sexual triangle but also between its meter, theme, and title.

“Master of the murmuring courts,” the poet-speaker declares to the figure that he eventually identifies as “Love.” “[M]y spirit here exhorts,” he continues, “All the powers of thy demesne / For their aid to woo my queen” (p. 227). After this summons it becomes immediately apparent that the poetic voice inhabits a “Dreamland”—a word that eventually replaced “Dreamworld” while Rossetti was struggling to render intelligible the setting of the poem in 1869. (“Dreamland,” he told his brother, remained “rather hackneyed” but nonetheless “valuable for clearing up” the scene where indefinite “shapes of sleep convene” [Letters, 2:739].) From these vague “shapes,” the poet-speaker wishes to choose “one dream,” urging his “master” to “guide its flight” (p. 227). His preferred dreamvision “lies / In one gracious form's control” (p. 228). This “gracious form,” he says, is “Fair with honourable eyes,” eyes in which Love—the “Master”—“descries his goal.” But in order to realize this visionary dream the poet-speaker longs to see the “face” of his own “body's phantom” make “its presence” known to “her brow” (p. 228). Urgently demanding that this “phantom” possess even greater presence in this scene, he bids the “Master of the murmuring courts” to make his spirit “sing and moan” (p. 229). He promptly specifies the song that the phantom should sing, insisting that it should articulate neither the “prayers” that “the world's fluent woes prefer” nor “the praise the world doth give” (p. 229). It must “yield” instead his “love to her,” in the hope of “achiev[ing] / Strength that shall not grieve or err” (p. 229).

But while summoning Love to lead his phantom toward the sleeping lady, the poet-speaker imagines his spirit reaching “her face” only to be beset by fears that “another phantom” might “lean / Murmuring o'er the fragrant bed” (p. 230). Since the word “murmuring” repeats at this point, one is left speculating on the identity of this other ghost—perhaps Love, the Lord of the “murmuring courts,” or some unnamed rival. More pressing, however, is the poet-speaker's persistent imperative to control the power that Love already exerts over this situation. If his beloved “a wedded heart should show,” then the time will come for him to return—as J. Hillis Miller puts it—“to the dream-fosse, having enjoyed one kiss not of the lady's lips but of their reflection in her mirror” (Miller, p. 340): the “One dull breath against her glass” (p. 230). Miller contends that the repeated elusiveness of the lady's body—the very fact that she remains untouchable—ensures that Rossetti's structure of desire may “never be fixed in a definitive version” (Miller, p. 340). Perpetually unable to embrace his lady, the poetic “I” urges Love to “let all” of his “vain hopes” “Rise up” at Love's “summoning sign,” for they are indeed—as he remarks once more—part of Love's “dreamland” (p. 230). The poet-speaker finally concedes that the sole figure to retain agency in this erotically anguished scene is Love himself: “through thee,” he tells his Master, “Adam woke beside his wife” (p. 230). Without Love, Rossetti's “I” contends, the union of man and woman remains impossible. Little wonder, then, that the poet-speaker should conclude by pouring his “frail song of hope and fear” to “Love himself” (p. 231). This “frail song” remains his petition to “bring her near” (like Adam waking from his dream) but his song addresses not the sleeping beloved but another male figure.

Clearly “Love's Nocturn” expresses the poet-speaker's turmoil in remaining dependent on another male authority. Striving to manipulate Love's omnipotence over him, the poetic “I” enters into a situation where he glimpses an imaginary rival lover winning his lady. Even if the poetic voice can send forth his phantom toward her, it may be the case that an unspecified competitor has already “married” her heart. Needing another man (the powerful “Master”) but also fearing another man's presence (a spectral rival), the poetic voice therefore moves in two opposing directions—whereby the “I” calls on male power only to dread that some other “he” might have won her favor.

This ambivalence toward other men forms part of Rossetti's admitted indecisiveness about the relations that he wished to chart between “I,” “he,” and “she.” In 1869 when he was circulating the “Trial Books” of his planned edition of Poems (1870), Rossetti told his brother about his resolve to revise certain stanzas. “The first conception of this poem,” he writes, “was of a man not yet in love who dreams vaguely of a woman who he thinks must exist for him. This is not very plainly expressed and not very valuable, and it might be better to refer the love to a known woman whom he wishes to approach” (Letters, 2:239). The motivation for such changes—made in the 1870 text—may well stem from Rossetti's wish to maintain a certain level of sexual propriety at a time when he sought to forestall hostile criticism in the press. (Although Rossetti ensured that his associates like Swinburne provided very favorable notices, it was left to the unscrupulous Robert Buchanan to denounce how the “Mutual Admiration School” of Rossetti's circle rhapsodized about despicably “fleshly” pieces of work.20) Still, the fact that Rossetti considered the status of the female beloved “vaguely” from the start underscores the idea that she occupies a secondary position within a poem that was already disturbed by a much more urgent struggle between “he” and “I.”

The secondariness of femininity in Rossetti's ostensibly heteroerotic “Dreamland” becomes even more apparent in “The Stream's Secret”—a longer poem, dating from 1859, that Riede understandably finds “somewhat obscure and tortuous” (Rossetti Revisited, p. 112). Written in sextains (rhyming abbaab), the poem inserts into its iambic lines a number of trochaic inversions that unsettle the poetic voice. The alternating line lengths of three, four, and five feet likewise emphasize the uneasy energies of a male “I” that remains radically displaced from the female beloved. The “I” yearns to know if Love—once again in a state of “Murmuring”—has confided to the reflective waters a “secret thing”: the hope that “Time” might “endow / One hour with life, and I and she / Slake in one kiss the thirst of memory” (p. 265). As these lines show, the anguished “I” contemplates not only the “Master of the murmuring courts” but also another presence: the flowing stream to which sensuous Love (this time like Cupid, all “curls” and “lips” [p. 265]) has communicated a clandestine message. The poet-speaker urges the “wandering water” to whisper the elusive “secret” in his ear. What he craves, therefore, is doubly mediated, first by Love, then by the stream. And the fact that the “I” remains dependent on a “wandering” medium that feels uncontrollable—at one moment a “silver thread,” the next “a torrent brown” (p. 266)—thereby makes Love inaccessible in much the same manner as the lady appears in “Love's Nocturn.” Even though the poet-speaker's attentions stay focused on quenching his heterosexual “thirst,” in “The Stream's Secret” he can only accomplish this end by imploring the mutable stream to disclose the conversation that occurred with another male figure: the “he” that holds the “secret” of the “I.” In this poem, therefore, the erotic triangle of “The House of Life” and “Love's Nocturn” expands into a four-sided affair whose intricacy makes the currents of male heterosexual desire decidedly obscure and tortuous.

The stream, noticeably, has no sex. Ungendered, its fluid movement produces unpredictable reflections and revelations. While presuming that the stream can indeed divulge the “secret thing,” the poet-speaker also realizes that its “eddy's rippling race / Would blur the perfect image” of Love's “face” (p. 266). Not surprisingly, then, his petition is shot through with fears and threats: “I will have none thereof,” he says, frightened that the eddy will ruin Love's countenance. Reliant on these capricious waters, the “I” urges the stream to “learn and understand” that Love—recognizing the “wrongs that himself did wreak” against the speaker—went to the aid of the lady whose “eyes beseeching gave command” that she was true in her passion (p. 266). That is to say, if the stream will articulate Love's voice, then the lover will receive confirmation that his beloved exercised some power over Love, in a complex relay of conversations. But since the stream continues to withhold the secret, the speaker proceeds to refine his thoughts on the longed-for “Hour of Love” that transcends time. “[S]he and I shall meet,” he enthuses, “With bodiless form and unapparent feet” (p. 269), as if they will be spirited away from the earth. The central stanzas of the poem dwell exhaustively on the poetic voice's delight in imagining the “proud growth” that shall effloresce when “that hour's thirsting race be run” (p. 269). The resulting “passion of peace”—in which he bathes in the fetishistic glow of her “Sweet hands, sweet hair, sweet cheeks, sweet eyes, sweet mouth”—shall culminate in “One love in unity” (p. 269). In this idealized state, he will abide both selflessly and silently.

This indulgent vision, however, emerges as a vain supplication. Unable to move the stream to “pity,” the poet-speaker is promptly plunged into darkness where “the night-wind shake[s] the shade like fear,” making “every covert quail” (p. 270). Her “soul-sequestered face” remains consequently “Far off.” Baffled by her inaccessibility, he contemplates the “deathlier airs” in which—at the one moment when he addresses his “love” directly—her “heart” will “call” him “home,” a “home” which he styles a “low cave” (p. 270). “Love's self,” the male lover declares, “doth stand” in this erotic crypt “Gather[ing] the water in his hand” (p. 270). At this point, he reaches a conclusion that sounds uncannily like the ending of “He and I”:

                                        O water whispering
                              Still through the dark into mine ears,—
As with mine eyes, is it not now with hers?—
                              Mine eyes that add to thy cold spring,
Wan water, wandering water weltering,
                              This hidden tide of tears.

(pp. 270-271)

This final stanza struggles to synthesize the lover's, the beloved's, and Love's desires within the “cold spring,” as the “I” imagines both himself and herself adding their tears to the pale water, which both echoes and reflects their weeping. But the poem ends noticeably with the poetic voice waxing lachrymose in a “weltering” current from which he has imagined Love taking refreshment. One man drinks, therefore, as the other man cries. In this scene, “he” and “I” touch—if only indirectly—through this source whose “wandering” movement now appears not so much enigmatic in Rossetti's canon as almost standard in its deviations.

What, then, should we make of this recurrent pattern where men commune in overwhelming sadness with each other? It suggests that physical closeness between men, where eyes and lips may indeed touch, remains distressing because it comprises a non-erotic familiarity that refuses to substitute for heterosexual union. In “Willowwood,” “Love's Nocturn,” and “The Stream's Secret,” male Love always demands attention first and foremost—prior to any desire for the female beloved. And Love offers physical contact that remains far more tangible than the highly spiritualized heteroerotic vision that fills out the central stanzas of “The Stream's Secret.” Rossetti's other men drink “tears unseal'd” and stare back “with cold commemorative eyes” because they remind his male poetic voices that they cannot—no matter how close they get—ever love each other. All of these poems show that this same-sex intimacy must disappoint the “I” erotically, over and over again. This, I think, is one of the main sites of loss—one might call it a type of melancholia—which enfeebles the sexual energy of much of Rossetti's poetry. In melancholia, as Sigmund Freud elaborated, the “patient represents his ego to us as worthless, incapable of any achievement and morally despicable.”21 Moreover, this impoverished psychic state supports forms of suffering to which the subject (for inscrutable reasons) remains espoused. Melancholia, Freud remarks, comprises an “unknown loss” (p. 254) that leads to the subject's delusional belief in his inferiority. In this regard, Rossetti's poetic “I” love willingly endures the grief of its own disempowerment, continually demanding but forever denied the amatory authority that is supposed to lie in the hands of the other man.


It is not only in the tormented world of dreams, mirrors, and shadows that we find Rossetti's plaintive poet-speaker confronting this troubling male other. The poetic “I” also discovers “he,” with even greater discomfort, in the heart of mid-nineteenth-century Europe. Located in the turbulent late 1840s, the “I” fixes its gaze upon the imposing—palpably material—masculinities whose historical weight will ultimately crush the poetic voice to death. The burden of history emerges most visibly in “The Burden of Nineveh,” a suggestively titled poem begun in 1850 and revised over the course of twenty years. Unlike the other poems I have discussed, here “he” and “I” do not commune intimately. Nor does this particular work engage directly with a female object of desire. But this structurally repetitious poem remains fixated on the intrusive power of another male-identified figure, in ways that complicate Rossetti's tenacious attraction to masculine authority—especially when it manifests godlike fascination of a highly sensual kind. Written in vigorous iambic tetrameter, this interior monologue of twenty ten-line stanzas (each of which concludes with the burden “Nineveh”) scrutinizes an antique icon. This ancient revenant is an Assyrian “Bull-god” that endured the long reign of what the speaker quips is a “Delicate harlot” (p. 36): the proverbial whore of Babylon. Austen Henry Layard excavated the ruins of Nineveh along the banks of the Tigris from 1845 onward. (By mid century Layard transported his loot to the British Museum, where they rivaled the Elgin Marbles in prestige. His Nineveh and Its Remains [1849] passed into many widely reviewed editions.) The large number of monuments and statues put on display—if not wholly interpretable to the nineteenth-century historians' eye—represented what was at the time believed to be the most ancient civilization on earth.

Rossetti's speaker, like the hundreds of visitors who eagerly sought out the prize exhibits, fixes his gaze upon this “mitred Minotaur” (p. 33) at the moment when the museum porters trundle it into a hallway. This ancient figure adorned the grand entrance of Sennacherib's palace at Nineveh. No sooner has this “dead disbowelled mystery” (p. 33) comes before him than he quickly responds to its historical and sexual allure. Stopped in his tracks, the poet-speaker muses on the darkness thrown by the disinterred “beast's recovered shadow” (p. 34). He observes how the sunlight that “Sheltered” the Lord's “Jonah” in the Bible “has been shed the same” for thousands of years. “Within thy shadow,” he remarks, addressing the bull-god directly, “Sennacherib has knelt,” as well as “pale Semiramis,” who brought “incense” to the altar (p. 34). Such thoughts, however, strike him as risible when he compares the “three files compact” of schoolchildren who “learn to view” the bull-god as pure “fact” (pp. 34-35). The very idea that such a sacred image should be the object of ignominious rote-learning in 1850s London makes the narrator ask rhetorically whether the bull-god's original “worshippers” anticipated that this “mummy” would cohabit space with Greek, Egyptian, and Roman gods, in the name of modern education. Yet as the poem progresses, the Assyrian bull—for all its debasement amid the Museum's educational mission—becomes (as Boos points out) “a powerfully negative object, not an appealing or sensuous one, despite its sensual accompaniment in past times” (Boos, pp. 214-215). In “The Burden of Nineveh,” not even the recollection of Semiramis—the voluptuous founder of Babylon—can make this godhead an eternal source of inspiration. No matter how much the bull-god's presence connects the Victorian present with ancient history, the “I” grows suspicious of its “pomp” (p. 36). This bestial “creature”—with its initially captivating “hoofs behind and hoofs before” (p. 33)—becomes the focus of disillusionment.

The narrator's frustration with the bull-god lies in the contingency of a world where religious faiths transmogrify out of all recognition over time. He acknowledges how historical memory may undergo such radical change in years to come that the Assyrian bull will no longer be understood for the religious authority that it once commanded. In the future, he suggests, “Some tribe of the Australian plough” may “Bear him afar,” assuming—in their implicitly primitive antipodean home—that this “relic” is “Of London, not of Nineveh” (p. 37). Further, after some seventy centuries, the Victorians' distant descendants may mistake them “for some race / That walked not in Christ's lowly ways, / But bowed its pride and vowed its praise / Unto the God of Nineveh” (p. 37). Such reflections on the vicissitudes of history ensure that a wry “smile” breaks over the narrator's lips, as he looks up at the bull-god's “heavy wings spread high, / So sure of flight, which do not fly” (p. 37). Disaffected, he robs the Assyrian bull of its timeless glory, not by treating it as empty fact but by declaring that each and every god has its own transitory day.

Moreover, in making this point the poet-speaker, as Rossetti's critics have observed, implicitly alludes to famous poems by two influential Romantics. Rossetti's indirect references to both the “colossal Wreck” in Percy Bysshe Shelley's “Ozymandias” (1819) and the “Cold Pastoral” of Keats's “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819) serve, in Antony H. Harrison's view, to communicate—even in such a metrically jaunty poem—a sense of artistic debilitation. Harrison sees Rossetti's monologue repeating in a somewhat self-defeating mode Keats's and Shelley's Romantic preoccupation with “the transcontextualization of an artifact from an ancient civilization and the hermeneutical problems that result.”22 Since Rossetti's monologue mines these well-known sources to embellish rather commonplace thoughts about the displacement of an artifact from its historical locale, Harrison characterizes “The Burden of Nineveh” as “parodic.” He maintains that “The Burden of Nineveh” is “parodic”—more specifically, a fatigued parody—because it “not only [tells us] 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” (Harrison, p. 104). The poem's burden (both its insistent refrain and its cumbersome reenactments) ensures that its wearied conclusion is just as incapable of ascending to higher realms as the flightless Assyrian bull. Regardless of how much energy it seeks to impress upon its tetrameters, the monologue remains weighed down by the knowledge that not even inspirational precursors like Shelley and Keats can raise the art of poetry to transcendent spheres. Ultimately, the speaker's mockery of the bull-god bears an intimate relation to the emasculation of the poetic means that deride all pretensions to spiritual authority.

This agnostic insight—the knowledge that the male speaker cannot claim the power of any poetic or religious gods whatsoever—assuredly encourages a reconsideration of the faith that Rossetti pledges to his alternative deity, Love, throughout “The House of Life” and elsewhere. It is perhaps no coincidence that when Rossetti situates Love in an immediate historical context—the Risorgimento—the idol's fluttering wings crash to the earth with devastating consequences. Set in a time of revolution whose violence destroyed traditional social and sexual relations, “A Last Confession” was first drafted in 1847, even though the later subtitle (“Regno Lombardo-Veneto, 1848”) pinpoints the action in what would become the tumultuous year of the pan-European struggles for liberty. Like “The Burden of Nineveh,” this monologue does not involve any physical familiarity between “I” and “he.” But in this poetic confession—in which a murderer bears his anguished soul to a priest—the speaker puts his trust in a male authority after his female beloved has engaged in a painful act of emotional and political betrayal.

“A Last Confession” recounts the story of an Italian nationalist of unknown origin who, some eleven years before, found an orphaned girl “Alone upon the hill-side” (p. 192). “She might,” he says, “have served a painter to pourtray / That heavenly child which in the latter days / Shall walk between the lion and the lamb” (p. 192). Treating this picture of innocence as if she were a religious icon, the speaker—himself barely an adult with no parents of whom to speak—raised this “merry loving child” (p. 194), at first bestowing affections upon her. Such affections, he says, were “the father's, brother's love” (p. 195), not the love of a youthful paramour. But as the monologue unravels, these sentiments—in the very process of claiming their innocence—appear charged with paternal, fraternal, and adolescent eroticism, all of which suggest his incestuous desire for the young girl. Noting that “both protagonists lack a family,” J. B. Bullen contends that the poem keeps evoking family relations as its “site of desire”—a desire that, in the context of 1848, is acutely politicized and extremely perilous.23 In other words, the revolutionary setting of “A Last Confession”—in which various masculine desires have to be reinvented—creates the volatile conditions in which the speaker confuses his violent activist mission with his conflicted desires for the child he has raised to womanhood. Shaped by political insurgency, the speaker's longings become increasingly disturbed, injurious, and deathly, not least because he assumes the unbounded agency of Love: the treacherous figure on which he models his every erotic action.

Rossetti, however, remained at first unclear about the perfidious condition of Love. In the earliest draft of the poem, the speaker recounts how he “brought her from the city, one such day, / The earliest gift I mind my giving her.” The gift, in this text, was not Love but “A little image of Jesus Christ, / Whom yet she knew but dimly.”24 By 1870, when the monologue was first published, this “little image” transmuted into a glorious picture of “flying Love / Made of our coloured glass-ware”; “in his hands,” the speaker adds, there were “A dart of gilded metal and a torch” (p. 194). In this later version, the adored girl asked the speaker to explain why Love's “poor eyes” were “blindfold,” and “why” Love had “wings” and an “arrow” (p. 194). Riede, contemplating this revision, remarks: “Sexual love replaces religious faith, the somewhat empty rhetoric about ‘God and truth’ is eliminated, and a previously absent level of psychological penetration is added to the poem” (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, p. 99). By removing all traces of Christianity from this “little image,” Rossetti's textual changes disclose that the speaker has converted his seemingly innocent affection for the young woman into profound erotic attraction.

There is, however, a further aspect of Rossetti's decision to shift the focus from Christ to Love. By relocating his poetic interests in this amatory deity at quite an early phase in his career, Rossetti affiliated himself with an idol whose presence would constantly betray him, whether in distorted reflections, rushing waters, or subterranean depths. In “A Last Confession,” Love literally shatters into pieces. As the girl strove eagerly to nail the “image of a flying Love” on a wall, the speaker “held” her in his “arms”; “still she laughed and laughed,” he says, “And kissed and kissed me” (p. 194). “But amid her mirth,” we learn, “It slipped and all its fragments strewed the ground: / And as it fell she screamed, for in her hand / The dart had entered deeply and drawn blood” (p. 194). Instead of bringing pleasure, this fallen idol's arrow could only inflict pain. After the speaker “bandaged her small hand” (p. 194), he recognized that his fatherly and brotherly affection for her “changed … / … somewise” (p. 195). He now understood that the “orphan-girl” had grown into a woman—no longer a “heavenly child” but a figure whose “breasts half globed” were “Like folded lilies deepset in the stream” (p. 196). As she became more sexual in the speaker's eyes, the young woman appeared at times untouchable, since her “rounded finger-tips” that “clung a little where they touched” were “gone o' the instant” (p. 196). The increasing remoteness of her femininity emerges in imagery that embellishes her at once as fatal (“a mouth / Made to bring death to life”), ghostly (“Her face was pearly pale”), and narcissistic (“the underlip / Sucked in, as it strove to kiss itself” [p. 196]). Anatomized in this manner, her image breaks up—much like the icon of Love—into fragments, suggesting that male heteroeroticism can only undo what it desires.

Yet, as it unfolds, the monologue shows that the process of disassembling a highly eroticized femininity grew so frenzied that the speaker finally wounded her far more deeply than Love's dart. He eventually took her life with another of his ill-fated gifts: “a knife / … with a hilt of horn and pearl” (p. 204) that “Lombard country-girls” (p. 190) wore in their garters to threaten their female rivals in love or German-speaking men who tried to seduce them. In a sense, then, the monologue records a tale in which the speaker degenerates into a parodic distortion of his already traitorous idol, Love.

After the image of Love broke into pieces, the lover adopted by turns various chastening and humiliating personae. Erotically excited by her, he quickly mutated into her “moody comrade” (p. 196). He recalls how at one time she sang a song to pacify him after he “Did almost chide her” (p. 197). Confiding in the priest, he sings this mournful song—“a rude thing, ill rhymed, / Such as a blind man chaunts” (p. 197)—in entirety. Rather like the manner in which the beloved's eyes “grew beneath” Love's gaze in “Willowwood,” here the male speaker enables her voice to sound through his own. The young woman's song features a “sweet lady” who weeps because her love is unrequited: “Oh! What one favour,” the lovelorn lady cries, “Remains to woo him?” (p. 199). Having uttered this “rude” lyric, he declares: “That I should sing upon this bed!—with you / To listen” (p. 199). His expostulation points to his astonishment at the remarkable displacements that have occurred in this scene. In a moment of delirium, he claims to be unsure whether it was he or she who sang the song in the priest's company (“The voice seemed hers,” he declares [p. 199]). At this moment, therefore, the lover adopts simultaneously at least three different positions: he reenacts her song to himself; he sings as a woman to a man (the priest); and he sings as a man to another man. His ability to move between male and female, lover and beloved—itself a skill that Rossetti frequently attributes to Love—splinters the self, whose conflicting impulses soon lead to homicide.

Several further episodes contribute to the speaker's exposure as an absurd parody of Love. To begin with, he discovered that the young woman, who once “told her heart” to “image of Our Lady” at Monza, deserted her long-loved shrine in favor of a “new Madonna gaily decked, / Tinselled and gewgawed” (p. 200). “The old Madonna?” she quipped, “She had my old thoughts,—this one has my new” (p. 201). Not comprehending her change of affections (since she presumably took a German-speaking lover), he finally watched “her empty heart” leaving “her place empty” in their home (p. 203). Later, he sought to meet her for a nighttime tryst upon the dramatic “black and red sand” of the beach near Iglio (p. 202). His journey, however, involved another change that unsettled his identity. Stopping at a “village fair” (p. 203) to buy her the dagger—the “parting gift” that she soon “scorned” (p. 193)—he caught sight of “cursed rats” belonging to the political enemy. To save his life from these “spies,” he petitioned a “painted mountebank” for refuge, and once “hustled … / Into” the entertainer's “booth” the speaker daubed clown's make-up and donned a “zany's gown” (p. 203). This ludicrous disguise, in all its ingenuity, could not preserve him entirely from danger. As he fooled around, he noticed a “brown-shouldered harlot lean[ing] / Half through a tavern window thick with vine” (p. 204). The courtesan let out a “coarse empty laugh” (p. 204) whose scornful mockery echoed the already reverberating laughter of his beloved's “empty heart.” Although safe from the spies, he none the less played the most abject kind of fool. This embarrassing performance clearly implies that his heteroeroticism remains an object of derision. Ridiculed to the last, he pushed this debasing charade to its logical extreme by transforming Cupid's arrow into a lethal weapon. In the closing lines, he states that when he offered his “parting gift,” “she took the knife / Deep in her heart” (p. 204). As he speaks, she still bleeds to death. He, too, is dying from wounds inflicted by an Austrian soldier who may be his sexual rival (the precise circumstances of the speaker's injury prove cryptic to the end). Why, then, should Love have been parodied horrifically as a murderer?

The gory ending of “A Last Confession” takes the dangers inherent in one man's misguided wish to occupy the role of another—more powerful—male figure to the most derisory, brutal conclusion. Here, after all, the confessional “I” recalls a senseless crime in which he made a woefully inadequate imitation of Love. Instead of petitioning Love to win the lady, the speaker—his sharp-edged gift in hand—mistakenly assumed Love's supremacy. The result of this massive overidentification, of course, was fatal. At the same time, however, what survives from this disclosure is a speech addressed to a male authority: the priest who audits every secret word, including the heartfelt song of forlorn love once uttered by the young woman. Forever betrayed yet constantly heard by other men, Rossetti's “I” remains both their deficient impersonator and their subservient intimate. Torn between these various competitors and confessors, the poetic voice repeatedly suffers two related forms of loss. On the one hand, the “I” learns that his trust lies in men whose might remains greater than his own. On the other hand, Rossetti's poet-speaker discovers that other men supplant him where he has failed erotically. Although the speaker's homicidal passion in “A Last Confession” may appear idiosyncratic, it accentuates a recurrent idea in many of the poems that I have analyzed here: namely, that male heterosexuality depends upon a “he” whose power to save or destroy demands a familiar connection with an almost annihilated “I.”

“Whence came his feet into my field, and why?” At the close of this discussion, the “I”'s fraught inquiry now looks not so much enigmatic as a recurring enigma whose bewildering strength caught the poet-speaker unawares—in dreams, mirrors, streams, and even the British Museum. By the time Rossetti was working on “The House of Life,” this puzzle burdened his poetic vision as never before. In many respects, this unanswerable question marks the culmination of pervasive forms of melancholia that intensify the idea that Rossetti's poetry—fashioned after such luminaries as Dante, Keats, and Shelley—suffers an emasculated belatedness: the belief that his art, like love, is the work of an inferior “Might-have-been.” The desolate manhood that occupies these saddening writings is left asking why its yearning “I” must forever remain in the thrall of a “he” who may embody love but perpetually withdraws it from him. Any account of masculine desire in Rossetti's writing, therefore, remains just as inadequate as are his loveless speakers unless it looks—as they do closely—at the haunting visage of the other man.


  1. David G. Riede, Dante Gabriel Rossetti Revisited (New York: Twayne, 1992), p. 136.

  2. William E. Fredeman, “Rossetti's ‘In Memoriam’: An Elegiac Reading of ‘The House of Life’,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 47 (1965): 299.

  3. Jerome McGann maintains that “the sequence is structured in terms of an implicit narrative.” “The story,” he explains, “involves a young man, an artist, and two (at least two) idealized women. The young man's love for one of the women succeeds to his love of the second. The first woman dies—it is not entirely clear whether her death occurs before or after his second love—and the events radically intensify the man's erotic yearnings for perfect love. This new desire is haunted by feelings of guilt and remorse, and dominated by ambiguous images of death and otherworlds” (Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Game that Must Be Lost [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2000], p. 39). McGann's explanation points to the rather indefinite direction of the “implicit narrative” that Rossetti, after several reorderings of the sonnets, put in place.

  4. Algernon Charles Swinburne, “The Poems of Dante Gabriel Rossetti,” Fortnightly Review, NS 7 (1870): 554-555.

  5. C. M. Bowra, The Romantic Imagination (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1961), p. 210. Bowra's study first appeared in 1949.

  6. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Soul's Beauty,” in Rossetti, Collected Writings, ed. Jan Marsh (London: Dent, 1999), p. 314; further page references to this edition appear in parentheses.

  7. The persistent structures of fetishism that recur in Rossetti's poetry and painting are explored in a groundbreaking feminist analysis by Griselda Pollock, Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism, and the Histories of Art (London: Routledge, 1988), pp. 120-154. Pollock observes that one of his late paintings, Astarte Syriaca (1877), “raises to a visible level the pressures that motivated and shaped the project of ‘Rossetti’—the negotiation of masculine sexuality in an order in which woman is the sign, not of woman, but of that Other in whose mirror masculinity must define itself” (p. 153). By comparison, my analysis explores a parallel struggle with male heteroeroticism in a number of poems where the reflection—or projection—in Rossetti's universe of mirrors is a person of his own sex.

  8. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985), p. 2. Part of Sedgwick's argument about the male homosocial continuum involves a careful rethinking of René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1965). Girard's study first appeared as Mensonge romantique et verité romanesque (Paris: Grasset, 1961).

  9. Jerome J. McGann, Towards a Literature of Knowledge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), p. 88.

  10. Rossetti, “To Miss Losh,” October 19, 1869, in Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. Oswald Doughty and John Robert Wahl, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965-67), 2:760.

  11. “The architectural interpretation of ‘house’ in the title,” according to William E. Fredeman, “suggests an external structure of ‘frame’ for the sonnet-sequence. It should be noted that the image, unlike tree or plant or leaf (as Whitman uses it) is non-organic, in both the physical and critical sense, and that it comprehends a unity appropriate to a long poem comprising more than one hundred smaller units” (p. 320). Fredeman's contention differs from Paull Franklin Baum's claim that “Rossetti apparently used the term ‘House’ vaguely in its astrological sense,” in which the heavens are divided into twelve parts, the first of which is “the house of life”: Rossetti, The House of Life: A Sonnet-Sequence, ed Paull Franklin Baum (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1928), p. 34. Such comments obviously reveal that the meaning of Rossetti's chosen title remains as obscure as the “enigmatic” qualities of some of the sonnets included in the sequence.

  12. Jan Marsh, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Painter and Poet (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999), p. 401.

  13. Martin A. Danahay, “Mirrors of Masculine Desire: Narcissus and Pygmalion in Victorian Representation,” VP 32 (1994): 37. Danahay defines his interpretation of “The Mirror” against J. Hillis Miller's powerful reading of the poem in “The Mirror's Secret: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Double Work of Art,” VP 29 (1991): 338.

  14. Douglas J. Robillard puts forward this view in “Rossetti's ‘Willowwood’ Sonnets and the Structure of ‘The House of Life’,” VN 22 (1962): 5-9.

  15. Further examples would include the moment when Dante declares: “Love … gathers to such power in me / That my sighs speak, each one a grievous thing, / Always soliciting / My lady's salutation piteously” (Rossetti, Collected Writings, p. 113). Likewise, the confiding and inspiring power of Love—which can both elevate Dante's spirits and share his sorrows—comes to Dante “fair and fain” in a state of “joyful cheer,” speaking to (as well as on behalf of) the poet (Rossetti, Collected Writings, p. 108). Rossetti's Love is not, by any account, such a supportive and trustworthy companion.

  16. Stephen J. Spector, “Love, Unity, and Desire in the Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti,” ELH 38 (1971): 457.

  17. Florence Saunders Boos, The Poetry of Dante G. Rossetti: A Critical Reading and a Source Study (The Hague: Mouton, 1976), p. 96. Timothy Steele, in his exploration of catalexis, discusses the tetrameters of Barrett Browning's “The Best Thing in the World” (1862) in All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing: An Explanation of Meter and Versification (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1999), pp. 224-225.

  18. William Beare says that this is “one of the oldest of all metres—the fifteen-syllabled trochaic line, with a break after the eighth syllable. The falling trochaic rhythm has always been a favourite for marching songs” (Latin Verse and European Song [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957], p. 15). I am grateful to Yopie Prins for advice on this metrical matter.

  19. See the rousing, patriotic poem that Tennyson produced for the “Opening of the Indian and Colonial Exhibition by the Queen” (1886), which begins by stressing the male imperial prowess of empire: “Welcome, welcome with one voice! / In your welfare we rejoice, / Sons and brothers that have sent, / From isle and cape and continent, / Produce of your field and flood” (The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks, 3 vols. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987), 3:147.

  20. [Robert Buchanan,] “The Fleshly School of Poetry: Mr D. G. Rossetti,” Contemporary Review 18 (1871): 335; this essay was first published under the pseudonym “Thomas Maitland,” sparking a notorious literary controversy that rumbled on until the mid 1870s.

  21. Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia” (1915; 1917), in Freud, On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey, Penguin Freud Library, 15 vols. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), 11:254.

  22. Antony H. Harrison, Victorian Poets and Romantic Poems: Intertextuality and Ideology (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1990), p. 103. Boos remarks that “Rossetti's bull seems a form of compromise between Shelley's ‘Ozymandias’ image and Keats's urn, simultaneously a sign of the transience of corrupt glory and an artifact inspiring meditation on past life” (p. 213).

  23. J. B. Bullen, The Pre-Raphaelite Body: Fear and Desire in Painting, Poetry, and Criticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), pp. 112-113.

  24. The quotation from the early draft of “A Last Confession” appears in David G. Riede, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Limits of Victorian Vision (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1983), p. 99.

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Rossetti, Dante Gabriel (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)