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The Poets

May 17, 2009

In an Artist's Studio: Rossetti Poem


One face looks out from all his canvasses,
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 canvass means
The same one meaning, neither more nor 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 joyfull 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.


Of the Poem:

This happens to be the very first one of Christina Rossetti’s poems that I came to read. While reading it, what first came to mind was the kind of insatiable passion that consumes a person so much so that the object of their desire is reflected in everything they see, hear, or do.

Next was my thought of Plato, who believed that the beautiful objects we behold in our existence are no more than mere reflections or copies of a higher Beauty- a Beauty whose eternal idea and form transcend the temporal and spacial beauties we see in this all too human realm.

Although Christina's poetic use of an artist's studio is quite natural (considering her background with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), that very first impression mentioned above was not that it represented a particular artist, or a woman, or even art itself ... rather, it seemed to represent an obsession of passion, and not necessarily in the negative sense of obsession. Turns out that initial thought might not have been far off from the poet's intention.

Her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was one of the leading artists of the Brotherhood and had a many young ladies to model for his works. One in particular was Elizabeth Siddal- a somewhat tall, slender, beautiful girl with 'copper' color hair. He was immediately taken by her. And after a short period of modeling for him, he dropped almost all of his other models, and stopped her from modeling for fellow artists. She became very quickly his sole consuming subject- not only in his drawings and paintings, but his poems too.

Unfortunately, Siddal's story is a sad one. Already prone to melancholy and illness, the still birth of her daughter only served to exasperate her problems. After becoming pregnant again, Siddal overdoses on laudanum. It's unclear whether or not this was an accident.

In 1863, a year after her death, Dante produced Beata-Beatrix (the painting above), where his beloved 'Lizzy' bore representation of a praying Beatrice. There's no question that the bulk of Dante's works of art centered on Elizabeth Siddal, that there was within him an insatiable desire to know her beauty and represent it in those works. Obviously I don't know the finer details of their relationship, but I'd like to imagine a time that they were immutably in love, so that even when apart they were together. Edith Piaf's song, Tu Es Partout, contains lyrics to the like:

Tu es partout car tu es dans mon coeur
Tu es partout car tu es mon bonheur
Toutes les choses qui sont autour de moi
Meme la vie ne represente que toi
Des fois je reve que je suis dans tes bras
Et qu'a l'oreille tu me parles tout bas
Tu dis des choses qui font fermer les yeux
Et moi je trouve ca merveilleux

English Translation:

You are everywhere because you are in my heart
You are everywhere because you are my happiness
Everything that is around me
Even life does not represent you
Sometimes I dream that I am in your arms
And you speak softly in my ear
You tell me things that make me close my eyes
And I find that marvelous


I imagine that this is the point of Rossetti's poem (that is, provided it's devoid of sarcasm) ...

1 comment:

Doug P. Baker said...

What an enchanting poem! And the history you provide of DGR and Elizabeth Siddal makes it even more intriguing!

It makes me wonder, was Elizabeth Siddal also the 'model' for Lizzie in CGR's Goblin Market?

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