August 26, 2009
"There's Blood Between Us" - Christina & Dante Rossetti
I want to wind up my recent focus on the poetry of both, Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894), and her older brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), with an interesting side-by-side comparison and analysis of her poem, The Convent Threshold; and his poem, The Blessed Damozel. Both of these poems are relatively lengthy, and I'll not reproduce them here. I have included a link to each poem that you can open and print, if you like, to help in following the discussion below.
Christina Rossetti's The Convent Threshold; and
Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The Blessed Damozel.
I am going to start with Dante Rossetti's The Blessed Damozel that was largely written in 1847, when he was just 18 years old. Apparently, he worked on the poem, off and on, until he was satisfied and finally completed it in 1871. The completion of the poem, in my opinion, was ultimately affected by his relationship with, and marriage to, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Siddal (See my August 25th posting: The Muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti). Additionally, this poem became one part of a "doubled-work" by Rossetti combined with his eponymous Pre-Raphaelite painting (painted between 1875-1878). In fact, the first four stanzas of the poem are inscribed on the bottom portion of the frame surrounding the finished painting which is exhibited in the Fogg Museum of Art on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
This diptych, or two-piece, painting is vintage Pre-Raphaelite in style; it is opulent, and loaded with details. The larger top portion of the painting is of the 'Damozel' looking down from Heaven with three cherubs, or angels. She holds the three lilies in her hand, and has stars in her hair; both of these elements are referenced in lines 5-6 of the poem's first stanza, and again in the fifth line of the eighth stanza. Additionally, there are a myriad of small vignettes of other couples embracing and kissing that wreathe her head in the background (referred to in the seventh stanza). The predella, or the small panel below the larger main painting, is separated by the "gold bar" referenced in the second line of the first stanza in the poem; and shows the poem's male subject reclined on the grass under an oak tree looking up, skyward, toward Heaven and his Lover. Also, the model used for the Damozel was Alexa Wilding who bears an uncanny resemblance to Dante Rossetti's late-wife, Lizzie Siddal, who died in 1862.
Dante Rossetti's poem, The Blessed Damozel, contains three voices. The first voice is that of the Damozel in Heaven. The second voice is that of her Lover, from whom she is separated as he is still Earth-bound, and generally represents his memories or the fantasies of their Love. The third voice is also that of the Earth-bound Lover, and represents his current state of consciousness, and is indicated in the poem in the parenthetical sections.
The poem's plot revolves around the separation of the lovers; she in Heaven, he on Earth. She yearns to be rejoined with him, and she sees other couples joined together in their love around her. She prays that he be allowed to join her, and hopes that he too is praying for their reunion; and that they now be allowed to live in Heaven as they lived together on Earth before she 'left' [died]. Eventually though, she comes to realize that she must move on with her journey 'through' Heaven; and that they will only be rejoined when the time is right, i.e., when Death finally comes for him. From his perspective, on Earth, looking up to Heaven, the vision of his beloved and her angels begin to dim and recede, and he is left alone. Ultimately, it seems that Rossetti's poem is a kind of Gothic imagining of passage through Heaven's various levels. As you will see, it is my contention that Dante's vision of this journey is a 'softer,' more gentle vision than the one put forward by his sister in her poem.
Some thirty years after Dante Rossetti began working on the poem, he stated that it was his sequel to Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven (1845). While Poe's poem deals with the grief of the Earth-bound lover at his loss, Rossetti's poem deals more with the desires of the loved one in Heaven. Also, it is thought that Dante Rossetti borrowed the stanzaic form of his poem from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's long poem, The Poet's Vow.
Now, lets turn our attention to the beautiful lyrical poem by Dante's younger sister, Christina Rossetti. Her poem, The Convent Threshold was first published in 1862 in her book of poetry entitled, Goblin Market and Other Poems. Most scholars believe, and I agree, that this poem was Christina's response to Dante's theme presented in The Blessed Damozel, i.e., the concept of separation and reunion; but she took it a step farther. Christina's poem delves into the Christian concept of redemption and some measure of suffering and sacrifice associated with the atonement before salvation can be finally achieved.
Christina's poem, The Convent Threshold takes a distinctly different approach than Dante's. Her poem has a much more overt theological basis; and revolves around the expiation of guilt. Christina's poem's voice, like Dante's, is female and is in a 'higher' plane [the Convent] and looks upward toward Heaven. The Speaker's Lover, like Dante's, is Earth-bound and still largely focused on the pleasures of life.
Interestingly, the poem starts off with a reference to the "blood between" the two lovers. The first three lines of the poem are:
"There's blood between us, love, my love,
There's father's blood, there's brother's blood,
And blood's a bar I cannot pass."
This is some incredible imagery, and can likely be interpreted several ways. Is it the allusion to the illicit sexual union of the two lovers? Or, is it a reference to the relationship between Dante Rossetti and his wife, Lizzie (who died the same year this poem was published), and bad feelings between the families? Or, is it a reference to the obsession that Dante had with his namesake, Dante Alighieri, and his guide in the Divine Comedy, Beatrice Portinari. There may be other interpretations as well; but the upshot is that the poem's Speaker renounces the "pleasant sin" that they shared. She acknowledges that her "lily feet are soiled with mud, with scarlet mud which tells a tale," and she is determined to seek absolution through rejecting the earthly pleasures and embracing the path of righteousness to Heaven.
Christina's speaker has moments of regret it seems (Sixth stanza, Lines 2-8), but she resolutely turns back to her path toward salvation. She continues to beg her earth-bound Lover to join her in repentance and seek redemption as well. In Dante's poem, the Damozel takes the matter into her own hands and prays for her Lover's redemption, and hopes that he is praying too. Christina makes it clear that seeking and achieving redemption is solely an individual act. In other words, in Christina's poem, the earth-bound Lover is completely in control of his own destiny; the final outcome (their reunion) is up to him.
The next part of Christina's poem describes her Speaker's journey through sin, hope, sacrifice, and redemption. Unlike Milton in Paradise Lost, Christina Rossetti fully embraces the idea of sacrificial atonement. The Speaker has to truly suffer before she can achieve Paradise (Stanzas 7-9), i.e., like a trip through Purgatory. These three stanzas are the darkest of the poem, and reminds me of the Apocalyptic visions of John while on the island of Patmos.
In the end though, Christina Rossetti brings her Speaker successfully to the end of her journey; she has atoned for her sins, has paid with her sacrifices:
"But through the dark my silence spoke
Like thunder. When this morning broke,
My face was pinched, my hair was grey,
And frozen blood was on the sill
Where stifling in my struggle I lay.
If now you saw me you would say:
Where is the face I used to love?
And I would answer: Gone before;
It tarries veiled in paradise.
When once the morning star shall rise,
When earth with shadow flees away
And we stand safe within the door,
Then you shall lift the veil thereof.
Look up, rise up: for far above
Our palms are grown, our place is set;
There we shall meet as once we met,
And love with old familiar love."
"We stand safe within the door." They have crossed the 'threshold,' and are together again with their Love.
This has been a most fascinating little research project for me; and one that I have truly enjoyed. I would love to hear from any of you who have read this regarding your assessments of my analysis. I do know that I have gained a tremendous appreciation for the poetry of this incredibly gifted brother and sister (and in Dante's case, as a painter too). In conclusion, I am of the opinion that, of the two, Christina Rossetti is the more mature, talented, and meaningful poet. It has been said that Christina Rossetti, with Alfred, Lord Tennyson, were the two greatest poets of the Victorian Era. I quite agree.