Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) was a poet and painter, and a leading spirit in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which was an attempt to bring the Romantic spirit into a realm of art still dominated by a decadent classicism. This second Romanticism he applied to poetry, highlighting the sensuous touches which had been the hallmark of Keats. Rossetti, combined spiritual vision with sensuality very deftly.
The peculiarity of this “Fleshly School of Poetry” is the effect gained by close attention to detail. In spite of his being too much of a Victorian with preoccupations with intellectual and moral considerations, the result of Pre-Raphaelitism was the down pedaling of the moral element. Aestheticism of Oscar Wilde was the child of Pre-Raphaelitism.
The atmosphere of the poem featured here is one of the ‘religiosity’ than that of religion. The influence of Keats is apparent everywhere. The poem can be compared with some Pre-Raphaelite paintings to a good advantage of the reader.
Let me present to you the text of the poem before I say a few words about the pictorial quality of the same.
The Blessed Damozel
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The blessed damozel leaned out (Ah sweet! Even now, in that bird’s song,
From the gold bar of Heaven; Strove not her accents there,
Her eyes were deeper than the depth Fain to be hearkened? When those bells
Of waters stilled at even; Possessed the mid-day air,
She had three lilies in her hand, Strove not her steps to reach my side
And the stars in her hair were seven. Down all the echoing stair?)
Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem, “I wish that he were come to me,
No wrought flowers did adorn, For he will come,” she said,
But a white rose of Mary’s gift, “Have I not prayed in Heaven?–on earth,
For service meetly worn; Lord, Lord, has he not prayed?
Her hair lay along her back Are not two prayers a perfect strength?
Was yellow like ripe corn And shall I feel afraid?
Herseemed she scarce had been a day “When round his head the aureole clings,
One of God’s choristers; And he is clothed in white,
The wonder was not yet quite gone I’ll take is hand and go with him,
From that still look of hers; To the deep wells of light;
Albeit, to them she left, her day As unto a steam we will step down,
Had counted as ten years. And bathe there in God’s sight.
(To one, it was ten years of years, “We two will stand beside that shrine,
…Yet now, in this place, Occult withheld, untrod
Surely she leaned o’er me — her hair Whose lamps are stirred continually
Fell all about my face ….. With prayers sent up to God;
Nothing: the autumn-fall of leaves, And see our old prayers, granted, melt
The whole year sets apace.) Each like a little cloud.
It was rampart of God’s house “We two will lie in the shadow of
That she was standing on; That living mystic tree
By God built over the sheer depth Within whose secret growth the Dove
The which is Space begun; Is sometimes felt to be,
So high, that looking downward thence While every leaf that his plumes touch
She scarce could see the sun. Saith His Name audibly.
It lies in Heaven, across the flood “And I myself will teach to him,
Of ether, as a bridge. I myself, lying so,
Beneath, the tides of day and night The songs I sing here; which his voice
With flame and blackness ridge Shall pause in, hushed and slow,
The void, as low as where this earth And find some knowledge at each pause,
Spins like a fretful midge. Or some new thing to know.”
Around her, lovers, newly met (Alas! We two, we two, thou say’ st!
‘Mid deathless love’s acclaims, Yea, one wast thou with me
Spoke evermore among themselves That once of old. But shall God lift
Their heart-remembered names; To endless unity
And the souls, mounting up to God, The soul whose likeness with thy soul
Went by her like thin flames. Was but its love for thee?)
And still she bowed herself and stooped “We two,” she said, “will seek the groves
Out of the circling charm; Where the lady Mary is,
Until her bosom must have made And her five handmaidens, whose names
The bar she leaned on warm, Are five sweet symphonies,
And the lilies lay as if asleep Cecily, Gertrude, Magdalen,
Along her bended arm. Margaret and Rosalys.
From the fixed place of Heaven she saw “Circlewise sit they, with bound locks
Time like a pulse shake fierce And foreheads garlanded;
Through all the worlds. Her gaze still strove Into the fine cloth like flame
Within the gulf to pierce Weaving the golden thread,
Its path; and now she spoke as when To fashion the birth-robes for them
The stars sang in their spheres. Who are just born, being dead.
The sun was gone now; the curled moon
Was like a little feather
Fluttering far down the gulf; and now
She spoke through the still weather,
Her voice was like the voice of stars
Had when they sang together.
Continued to the right……
The power of picture painting came to Dante Gabriel Rossetti naturally as he was not only a poet but also a painter. His poem has rightly been compared with Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Throughout, Rossetti has painted pictures after pictures with words instead of a brush and has lent to his art vivid colors balanced in an impeccable manner
He was the leading poet who brought the romantic spirits into a realm of art giving adept, sensuous touches to the same. He combined spirituality with sensuality and his poetic imagery has the same definiteness of color and form as his paintings. The master artist as he was, he eminently succeeded in conveying an intense mystical and spiritual impression through the very precision of his images.
This is one of the finest and best known of Rossetti’s poems in which pictorial imagination, rich language, a wealth of concrete detail, mystic medieval atmosphere and tender passions have all been created and painted not with the master strokes of a painter’s brush but with precise and magical words.
An estranged lover (The Blessed Damozel) in Heaven longs to be united with her lover who is not yet dead. She fervently hopes that God shall grant her wish that her lover’s soul should join her in heaven after he dies. Hence, she stands at the ramparts of heaven looking towards the earth below and longing for her lover’s soul to float up to join to her.
Let us now consider Rossetti’s power of rendering myriad images in his poem. For example, in stanza one, Heaven is pictured as a castle high above and beyond the system of the world. The way Rossetti has described the periphery of Heaven is also quiet picturesque. The phrase ‘Goldbar’ is such an imagery very effectively describing the golden barrier which surrounds Heaven. In stanza two, the poet has described Virgin Mary’s hair, saying that it is yellow like the color of ripe corn and the comparison stimulates our senses like a beautiful painting. In stanza four, when Rossetti describes to us the mental state of the estranged lover on the earth, he does so very strikingly. His choice of words makes us see the whole romantic scene happening, as it were, in front of our eyes.
“Surely she leaned o’er me – her hair
Fell all about my face . … … … …
Nothing: the autumn-fall of leaves.”
In stanza nine, the poet’s words captivate us by its power of creating mysterious images in our mind.
“From the fixed place of Heaven she saw
Time like a pulse shake fierce
Through all the worlds. ..”
As we read the above lines, time appears to be throbbing like a feverish pulse in the body of the universe.
The rich and graphic description of the Virgin Mary and her five attendants in the groves is striking; they are weaving the golden threads into a flame like white cloth to make the birth-robes for those who are just born into a new life in Heaven. The painter-poet has used the word ‘White’ with great significance in the sense that this color has lent an eternal milieu to the entire poem.