August 25, 2009

The Muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti

On August 19th, I posted an entry about Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) and included her beautiful poem, An Echo From Willowwood. Today, I want to expand upon this earlier post, and provide some additional background information and some more poetry.

As I mentioned in the earlier post, Christina Rossetti, and her older brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), were inspired to write poetry based upon some sketches drawn by Dante's wife, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Siddal (1829-1862). Lizzie had sketched pictures of a man and woman (Dante and herself) leaning over a pool of water looking at their reflections; and the images then becoming blurred and merging together with a puff of wind across the water's surface. It was this vivid imagery that served to inspire the poetry of both Rossetti siblings.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti probably met Lizzie Siddal in 1852 or 1853, and began to use her as a model to the exclusion of all others. With her classical beauty and copper-red hair she was one of the early Pre-Raphaelite period's stunningly beautiful models, or "stunners" as they were called. After seven or eight years together, Dante and Lizzie were married on May 23, 1860 in Hastings, England. Several months after giving birth to a still-born daughter in 1861, Lizzie Siddal died of an overdose of laudanum on February 11, 1862. While the coroner ruled that the death was accidental, there was speculation that it was a suicide. So great was Dante's grief over the death of his wife, that he placed his hand-written journal, containing the only versions of much of his poetry, in his wife's coffin, nestled in the tresses of her red hair.

With even a casual read of Dante's poetry, and review of his paintings, it is abundantly clear that Lizzie Siddal served as the artistic muse to Dante Gabriel, influencing his painting and his poetry. For example, in 1855, he painted Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah; but one of his most famous works, Beata Beatrix was painted over a period of time following Lizzie's death in 1862 . I have attached an image of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting of Lizzie Siddal the beautiful Beata Beatrix to this post.

Much of the poetry included in Dante's book of poetry, The House of Life (1869) was also influenced by his intimate relationship with Lizzie Siddal. While macabre, in order to prepare the poetry manuscript, Dante had to have his wife's body exhumed in order to retrieve the journal of poems from her casket.

I want to highlight two poems today. The first, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is from his 1869 book of poems, The House of Life, and is entitled Willowwood. This collection of four sonnets is the companion poem to Christina Rossetti's An Echo From Willowwood that I posted on August 19th.




I sat with Love upon a woodside well,

Leaning across the water, I and he;

Nor ever did he speak nor looked at me,

But touched his lute wherein was audible
The certain secret thing he had to tell:
Only our mirrored eyes met silently
In the low wave; and that sound came to be
The passionate voice I knew; and my tears fell.

And at their fall, his eyes beneath grew hers;
And with his foot and with his wing-feathers

He swept the spring that watered my heart’s drouth.

Then the dark ripples spread to waving hair,
And as I stooped, her own lips rising there
Bubbled with brimming kisses at my mouth.


And now Love sang: but his was such a song,
So meshed with half-remembrance hard to free,

As souls disused in death’s sterility

May sing when the new birthday tarries long.

And I was made aware of a dumb throng

That stood aloof, one form by every tree,

All mournful forms, for each was I or she,

The shades of those our days that had no tongue.

They looked on us, and knew us and were known;
While fast together, alive from the abyss,

Clung the soul-wrung implacable close kiss;

And pity of self through all made broken moan

Which said, ‘For once, for once, for once alone!’

And still Love sang, and what he sang was this:—


‘O ye, all ye that walk in Willow-wood,
That walk with hollow faces burning white;

What fathom-depth of soul-struck widowhood,

What long, what longer hours, one lifelong night,
Ere ye again, who so in vain have wooed

Your last hope lost, who so in vain invite

Your lips to that their unforgotten food,

Ere ye, ere ye again shall see the light!

Alas! the bitter banks in Willowwood,

With tear-spurge wan, with blood-wort burning red:

Alas! if ever such a pillow could

Steep deep the soul in sleep till she were dead,—

Better all life forget her than this thing,

That Willowwood should hold her wandering!’


So sang he: and as meeting rose and rose
Together cling through the wind’s wellaway

Nor change at once, yet near the end of day

The leaves drop loosened where the heart-stain glows,—

So when the song died did the kiss unclose;

And her face fell back drowned, and was as grey

As its grey eyes; and if it ever may
Meet mine again I know not if Love knows.

Only I know that I leaned low and drank

A long draught from the water where she sank,

Her breath and all her tears and all her soul:

And as I leaned, I know I felt Love’s face

Pressed on my neck with moan of pity and grace,

Till both our heads were in his aureole.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1869


The second poem is by Christina Rossetti and is entitled In An Artist's Studio, and was posthumously published in 1896, following her death in 1894. It is clear to me that Christina's simple, but powerful, poem is about her brother and his wife (Lizzie Siddal). I think that on one level Christina's poem has touched upon his almost-obssessive love for Lizzie; and on another level, maybe the poem addresses how men tend to view women, i.e., fantasy versus reality; especially given the lines, "A queen in opal or in ruby dress," and "A saint, an angel — every canvas means." Finally, the poignancy of the poem's last two lines perfectly illustrates, to me, the tortured lives and relationship shared by Lizzie Siddal and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.


In An Artist's Studio

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel — every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more or less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

Christina Rossetti