Wednesday, April 2, 2003

Week 10, D. G. & Christina Rossetti

Notes on Christina Rossetti

“Song—She sat and sang alway”

A lot of poetry places a great deal of stock in memory and hope, but in this poem, it’s suggested that they shouldn’t be given too much importance, or thought to contain or promise more than they do.

“Song—When I am dead, my dearest”

This is a wistful poem coming from a devout Anglican, but it’s appropriate in theological terms, I think. The speaker is perhaps just saying that there’s no point in becoming obsessive about states after death, especially is that obsession attaches to the departed person’s “final resting place.” The speaker will be elsewhere anyhow. Doctrinally, the point is that to mourn excessively is to show that one was attached to the most perishable component of a person (whether we mean the body or the personality), not the one that a Christian considers immortal.
“After Death”

Death lends perspective on relationships. Does the speaker gain release from what constrained her in life? She seems concerned still with the lover or husband’s thoughts about her. That isn’t always the case in Rossetti’s poems—see, for example, “Sleeping at Last.”

“In an Artist’s Studio”

The speaker finds Elizabeth Siddal and meditate on the difference between her and the one ideal (in many guises) of an aesthetic, sensuous medieval lady. Christina distances herself from the Brotherhood. She refers to the relationship between Siddal and Dante Gabriel. It may be that all erotic relations involve a degree of objectification of the other, but the Brotherhood carries this tendency much farther than necessary.

“Winter: My Secret”

As Isobel Armstrong writes in her book Victorian Poetry, the poem “turns on the refusal of expression. It is about and is itself a barrier” (357). The speaker refers to wraps and masks, coverings that are also representational. Rossetti plays with the image of a spinster with a secret of some sort, possibly one about love. Armstrong says that the poem is concerned with the way “the sexuality of the speaking subject is created and bound” (359), but I don’t think that need be the case—it seems more carefree than that kind of heavy framework suggests. It’s been said that a person with no secrets has no self, that a secret is the core around which personality is built.

“No, Thank You, John”

This witty poem makes fun of the stereotypical male “puppy dog” sensibility about relationships: obsessive, jealous, possession-oriented. I don’t suppose Christina Rossetti would have agreed with Stendhal’s dictum that “In love, possession is nothing; it’s enjoyment that makes all the difference” (En amour, posséder n’est rien; c’est jouir qui fait tout). Here, the offer is friendship of a rather businesslike sort—which of course the immature male addressee seems unlikely to consider worthwhile. Friendship requires reciprocity, whereas the kind of “love” this particular male wants is reductive, based on simple object relations.

“Sleeping at Last”

Compare this poem to earlier ones about death.


This poem is a mini-allegory of the sort we might find in John Bunyan or George Herbert. It stems from the traditional Christian theme of life as an arduous journey on the way to death. Is the path’s end death, or the life to come in heaven? The latter, ultimately; the voice promises hope and it answers all questions, but not in a facilely comforting way. The “beds” promised are graves—cold comfort, at least in the short run.

“Goblin Market”

This long poem has the ambience of a Grimm’s fairy tale—they often have to do with sex, violence, and death, as did a fair number of children’s tales in the nineteenth century. (See George McDonald’s novel At the Back of the North Wind.) Where are the parents here? How old are Lizzie and Laura? What is the season and the place? The poem’s context seems ambivalent—it’s a jumble of references that bewilder rather than clarify. The poem sounds like a “heard” tale, not a written one.

Laura buys fruit not with money but with a piece of herself—a lock of hair. She pines because her desires can find no object to satiate them. The fruit has been removed completely, and she can’t even express what the fruit looks like or tastes like.

What are the barriers to expression in this poem? It seems to be a feminine discourse of sacrifice, repressions, and denial. Laura and Lizzie are doubles. Expression seems to require barriers. Conventional ethics would require that Laura accept the constraints others place on her. She will grow up to be a proper Victorian matron. But notice how the cure takes place—she assents to the overwhelming power of the fruit. She enters a second innocence by accepting sexuality. But all it does is allow her to survive. From an adult perspective, what is celebrated here is also to be feared: temptation, and overflowing of sexual and expressive power.

“A Triad”

Love is cast as central to life, yet frustrating. Even married love falls short, but the other two alternatives—renunciation and shame—fall short as well.


Compare this poem to Ovid’s “Echo and Narcissus”; he scorned her and others, and then fell in love with his own image in a pool. He pined away and was transformed into a flower. Echo had already pined away into a voice. But this Echo can speak independently, even if she needs the lover to visit her in dreams, her “pool.” The question is whether even the physical contact the poem may suggest was a full meeting of spirits. The Echo and Narcissus story is about barriers keeping one human being from another—it’s about isolation and solipsism.

Below are some introductory remarks on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. There are a few references to material we haven’t studied because this was originally written for a Victorianist seminar at Chapman.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: Introduction and Cultural Context.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which formally lasted only a few years around the beginning of the mid-Victorian Period and included painters such as D.G. Rossetti, Holman Hunt, Edward Burne-Jones and John Everett Millais, is an early form of aestheticism or “art for art’s sake,” so it makes sense to connect the PRB to the 1880’s-90’s movement including Pater, Wilde, Beardsley, and others.

Both the precursor movement and the later flowering of aestheticism amount to a rejection of bourgeois sensibilities in art—a rejection of the facile demand that everything should “make sense” and be “realistic” in the contemporizing and vulgar sense of that term. The aesthete’s disgust at artists who copy mid-to-late Victorian “reality” and reflect back to the middle class what is already familiar to it may be seen in Wilde’s delightfully elitist comment that “in art we do not wish to be concerned with the doings of the lower orders” or his infamous quip about the public’s anger at certain caustically realistic works of art being no more than “the rage of Caliban seeing his face in a glass.”

This context should remind us that like its offshoot or revival later on, the PRB movement may be placed in the tradition of semi-romantic or “conservative” reactions against modernity. Consider the writings we have studied so far: Newman, Carlyle, Ruskin. Despite their differences, all are lovers of mystery and the realm of spirit, and all strongly oppose what they see as misguided modern demands for facile clarity and pointless precision, for vulgar materialism and soulless instrumentalism, for a world increasingly designed to fit a radical and artificial conception of human nature and not an organic one. They see all this as the breakdown of any true principle of authority by which ordinary people and their governors may be guided, and in reaction these “conservatives” attempt to reconstruct what they believe are more workable and truer principles by which to live. While the PRB does not voice such grand claims as the mid-Victorian sages, certainly their rejection of modernity stems from the same kind of discontent with the status quo.

The PRB rejected the Royal Academy’s conventionalism, which was allied with the rules (privileging “rationality, selective verisimilitude, simplicity, and balance”) proffered by High Renaissance painter Raphael (1483-1520). Ruskin-like, they see Raphael’s theory of painting as an indicator of spiritual and cultural decline, and want to turn back the literary and artistic clock. They adopt as their models the medieval painters who lived around the time of Dante Alighieri, and also draw sustenance from religion and literature—Dante, Shakespeare, Keats, Tennyson, and Arthurian romance. DGR in particular liked the richness of color, the vividness of imagination, and the intensely spiritual rendering of the human body one can find in these painters. It is as if Giotto and others of that time would agree with Wilde: “those who find any difference between spirit and body have neither.” (You can see some fine examples at the Getty Museum and online at Olga’s Gallery.) Here’s a good online definition of Pre-Raphaelite painting:

The Pre-Raphaelite painters insisted that a painter should paint whatever he sees, regardless of the formal or academic rules of painting. The effort at fidelity to nature and experience was manifested in clarity, brightness, and sharply realized details in their paintings. However, despite its use of naturalistic detail, Pre-Raphaelitism in both painting and poetry turned away from realism, the ugliness of modern life in the 19th-century industrial society in England . The Pre-Raphaelites took no account of the life of contemporary England ; instead, they turned to a heroic and decorative world of the Middle Ages, the art of which was destroyed by Raphael and the Renaissance. (

I think that Herbert Tucker and Dorothy Mermin are right in pointing out the tenuousness of the “transcendence” and mystery they want to see in nature, but let’s supplement this with something that shows the PRB exhibiting a bit more of the “courage of other people’s convictions.” I’ll refer to the aesthetic critic Walter Pater’s analysis of the poetry of DGR:
Walter Pater characterizes “The Blessed Damozel” as follows:
[I]n The Blessed Damozel, written at the age of eighteen, a prefigurement of the chief characteristics of that school, as he will recognise in it also, in proportion as he really knows Rossetti, many of the characteristics which are most markedly personal and his own. Common 205 APPRECIATIONS to that school and to him, and in both alike of primary significance, was the quality of sincerity, already felt as one of the charms of that earliest poem—a perfect sincerity, taking effect in the deliberate use of the most direct and unconventional expression, for the conveyance of a poetic sense which recognised no conventional standard of what poetry was called upon to be.[…]—an accent which might rather count as the very seal of reality on one man’s own proper speech; as that speech itself was the wholly natural expression of certain wonderful things he really felt and saw. Here was one, who had a matter to present to his readers, to himself at least, in the first instance, so valuable, so real and definite, that his primary aim, as regards form or expression in his verse, would be but its exact equivalence to those data within. That he had this gift of transparency in language—the control of a style which did but obediently shift and shape itself to the mental motion, as a well-trained hand can follow on the tracing-paper the outline of an original drawing below it, was proved afterwards by a volume of typically perfect translations from the delightful but difficult 206 DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI “early Italian poets”: such transparency being indeed the secret of all genuine style, of all such style as can truly belong to one man and not to another. His own meaning was always personal and even recondite, in a certain sense learned and casuistical, sometimes complex or obscure; but the term was always, one could see, deliberately chosen from many competitors, as the just transcript of that peculiar phase of soul which he alone knew, precisely as he knew it.

One of the peculiarities of The Blessed Damozel was a definiteness of sensible imagery, which seemed almost grotesque to some, and was strange, above all, in a theme so profoundly visionary. The gold bar of heaven from which she leaned, her hair yellow like ripe corn, are but examples of a general treatment, as naively detailed as the pictures of those early painters contemporary with Dante, who has shown a similar care for minute and definite imagery in his verse; there, too, in the very midst of profoundly mystic vision. Such definition of outline is indeed one among many points in which Rossetti resembles the great Italian poet, of whom, led to him at first by family circumstances, he was ever a lover—a “servant and singer,” faithful as Dante, “of Florence and of Beatrice”—with some close inward conformities of genius also, independent of any mere circumstances of education. It was said by a critic of the last century, not wisely though agreeably to the practice of his time, 207 APPRECIATIONS that poetry rejoices in abstractions. For Rossetti, as for Dante, without question on his part, the first condition of the poetic way of seeing and presenting things is particularisation.

As you can see from what I’ve quoted, Pater casts Rossetti as an impressionist, a painter and poet true to his own internal impressions.