[This esay is part one of the authors's "Men and Women: "Monna Innominata" & The House of Life," which compares Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poetry to that of his sister Christina.]
Christina Rossetti's "Monna Innominata" and Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The House of Life invite interesting comparisons. However, Dante Gabriel, in The House of Life, seems to move away from the elaborate metaphors characteristic of earlier poets such as Tennyson, and instead seeks revelation through the use of a direct first-person narrator who speaks frankly of his innermost desires. Unlike Browning, who distances himself from his narrators through the use of the dramatic monologue, Dante Gabriel invites the reader to assume that the author and narrator are indeed one and the same. Dante Gabriel's invitation to merge the author and the narrator becomes more important when one considers that the narrator of The House of Life spends a great deal of time discussing his own personal sexual desires and experiences. This is not to say that The House of Life can be read simply as Dante Gabriel Rossetti's autobiography. However, Dante Gabriel's sensuous frankness seems to look away from the earlier poetry of the 1850s and 1860s, and instead seems to foreshadow the literature of the 1890s when authors placed a more direct emphasis on a catharsis which could only come through the revelation of their own desires.
In his now infamous pamphlet, (text) the Victorian critic Robert Buchanan upbraided Dante Gabriel for being too "fleshly,"or in other words, too blatantly rooted in the aesthetic and the sexual. Buchanan's labeling of works such as "Jenny"and The House of Life as fundamentally corrupt and therefore "nauseous,"has, to some degree, encouraged literary critics to view poems such as "Jenny"and The House of Life as no more than the elegantly-written life experiences of a decadent man. However, even judging by his shorter works, it is impossible to dismiss Dante Gabriel's work so lightly. In "Jenny," Dante Gabriel writes of a prostitute, and while it is true that he describes her sensuous, half-clothed body and the attractions of her beauty, the focus of the poem is a realization that the prostitute Jenny occupies a discint social position, fulfills a certain social duty, and is to some degree a prisoner of this position and duty. Since the narrator is clearly sympathetic to Jenny's plight, he rejects the notion that prostitutes must be either condemned or reformed. Instead, he expresses his sympathy by leaving her the tribute which she will most appreciate; he spreads gold coins in her hair while she sleeps. Likewise, in "The Burden of Nineveh,"the narrator describes the smug superiority with which the British expropriate for exhibition, the art of supposedly primative peoples. Through his description of the statue being hoisted into the museum, he slowly informs the reader that the English should turn their judgement of other civilizations upon themselves; his ingenious twist at the end of the poem raises the question of what statues and symbols contemporary English society actually venerates.
Therefore, it is clear that most of Dante Gabriel's poetry is concerned with questions of beauty and sexuality, but not necessarily limited to these concerns; rather, images of beauty become the means by which Dante Gabriel interests and traps his reader within his work. His enticing descriptions of female beauty draw the reader into the work and make it possible for Dante Gabriel to use the reader's desire against himself. This is perfectly illustrated in the first section of the sonnet sequence entitled "Youth and Change;"this section is a veritable labyrinth of desire. The first forty five sonnets or so are mostly the narrator's recollections of desire and pleasure with a sequence of unnamed women. Though these sonnets do retell the narrator's love affairs with two separate women, they are remarkable not for the differences among them, but rather in that they are almost all the same. Consider the the sestets of "The Kiss,"and "A Day of Love."
I was a child beneath her touch — a man
When breast to breast we clung, even I and she,--
A spirit when her spirit looked through me,--
A god when all our life-breath met to fan
Our life-blood, till love's emulous ardours ran,
Fire within fire, desire in deity.
--from "The Kiss"
Now many memories make solicitous
The delicate love lines of her mouth, till, lit
With quivering fire, the words take wind from it;
As here between our kisses we sit thus
Speaking of things remembered, and so sit
Speechless while things forgotten call to us.
— from "A Day of Love"
As is readily apparent, the sonnets differ only in the perspective which each one brings to the subject of sexual desire and satisfaction. The actual nature and rewards of this desire are, initially, left unexamined.
This is illustrated by the symbolism which Dante Gabriel uses throughout the first part of the sonnet sequence. As Jogn Granger indicates in his essay, "The Critique of the Mirror in Rossetti's The House of Life:" The poet's symbols are symbols of what in relation to any actual world is already symbolic. His symbols are unattached, free. The Christian God and all of God's attendant generation, all angels and prophets, are no longer curtailed by Christian significance; they lost themselves among a heretical company of archaic goddesses and storied mortals. Detached from an actual world, the familiar Christian symbology becomes Rossetti's own, a private reconstruction and reclamation of the source and substance of belief. Granger's critique is valuable in that it highlights the fact that Dante Gabriel has no set systems of signifiers and objects. Rather, the symbols in his sonnets seem to range over a multitude of possible meanings. Symbols appear out of thin air and disappear, perhaps to return again attached to a different concept. For instance, in the the fifth sonnet entitled "Heart's Hope,"the narrator explains how his love for his lady is so perfect as to call to mind God's love for mankind:
By what word's power, the key of paths untrod,
Shall I the difficult deeps of Love explore,
Till parted waves of Song yield up the shore,
Even as that sea which Israel crossed dryshod?
For lo! In some poor rhytmic period,
Lady, I fain would tell how evermore
Thy soul I know not from thy body, nor
Thee from myself, neither out love from God.
Yea in God's name, and Love's, and thine, would I
Draw from one loving heart such evidence
As to all hearts all things shall signify;
Tender as dawn's first hill-fire, and intense
As instantaneous penetrating sense,
In Springs's birth-hour, of ather Springs gone by.
The author's main message — that passionate, romantic, sexual love is merely a reflection of God's intense love for man — is clear. However, the symbols which he has used to convey this message suggest a certain confusion. "The sea which Israel crossed dryshod,"is clearly a reference to the Israelites crossing of the Red Sea as told in Exodus 14:15-30. Although it is clear that the author is comparing the power of his poetry to discover love's secrets with the power that the Lord used to divide the Red Sea, it is unclear exactly how this comparison comes about. Likewise, Dante Gabriel's capitalization of the word "Song"gives rise to the question of which song he speaks of. It is possible that the narrator is referring to the Song of Moses which occurs in Exodus 15, in which Moses gives thanks to the Lord for delivering the Israelites. However, it is more likely that "Song"referrs to the "Song of Songs." This interpretation meshes well with the author's main message, since the Song of Songs — a collection of erotic love poems in the Old Testament — have often been interpreted by Jews as a picture of the relationship between God and his people, and by Chiristians as a picture of the relationship between Christ and the Church. Therefore, Dante Gabriel's reference to the Song of Songs would seem to be appropriate in a poem which seeks to draw a parallel between the erotic love between men and women and the divine love of God for his people. However, the investment of the humanly erotic Song of Songs with the power to part the Red Sea is illogical and vague. This vagueness persists to the point of blasphemy in the language of the sonnet. For instance, the narrator declares, "Thy soul I know not from thy body, nor / Thee from myself, neither our love from God." The stucture of this sentence leads the reader to assume that the speaker is so overwhelmed by his love for his lady that he cannot distinguish between his own passion and God's love for mankind. However, examined more closely, the sentence reveals that the speaker cannot distinguish himself or his lover from God. The vagueness of the two quatrains persists in the sestet. From his confused relationship to both his lover and God, the speaker hopes to "draw from one loving heart such evidence / As to all hearts all things shall signify." From confusion springs confusion; the narrator is unable to express exactly what it is he hopes to discover from the "deeps of Love,"and instead claims to seek unnamed and unnamed "evidence"which will somehow express all "things"to all people.
The wild unordered symbolism throughout the "Youth and Change"section of The House of Life eventually results in a breakdown of all symbolism. This, I suspect, is what John Granger perceived when he chose to structure his essay around a "critique of the mirror." Throughout the first part of the sonnet sequence, the only theme which remains constant is the notion of desire. However, since desire is unable to find expression through any set of urdered symbols, it ultimately turns back on itself. "Youth and Change"is not about unattained desire; on the contrary the sonnets are the work of a narrator who has attained the woman he desires, and therefore, his desire is no longer focused on a woman or an ideal, but instead on mere desire itself. This is demonstrated by the narrator's innumerable supplications to "Love,"and his praise of "ladies who only love the heart of Love." Even more telling is the recurring image of the mirror; as Granger highlights, many of the sonnets retell the tale of Narcissus, who gazing into a mirror falls passionately in love with himself. Tellingly, the "ladies"of whom the narrator speaks focus mainly as mirrors of his own desire. In sonnet IV, the narrator speaks:
O love, my love! if I no more should see
Thyself, nor on the earth the shadow of thee
Nor image of thine eyes in any spring--
These lines are an unmistakable parallel to the myth of Narcissus. When the narrator stares into "a spring,"he expects to see her loving gaze reflected up at him. Of course, he will actually see his own reflection, but his willingness to confuse the two highlights the fact that his desire seeks only its own recognition. This theme becomes even more obvious as the sonnet sequence progresses. In sonnet XII, "The Lover's Walk,"the narrator describes loving gazes between himself and his lover:
Sweet twining hedge flowers wind-stirred in no wise
Still glades; and meeting faces scarcely fann'd:--
An osier-odered stream that draws the skies
Deep to its heart; and mirrored eyes in eyes:--
The narrator describes, yet fails to understand, that when he looks into his lover's eyes and believes that he sees her love, he is vieweing merely his own desire reflected back at him, and the fact that he is willing to accept this deception indicates that he is indeed trapped with his own maze of desires. As Granger writes:
Those are Love's lovers; they love an ideal love and so lose their place in the actual. They are sentences without predicates, sonnets without sestets: unlikely models of love in the world. The refuge of the mirror suffices, as long as it may be sustained.
The refuge of the mirror, however, cannot be sustained. As the "Youth and Change"section draws to a close, it becomes apparent that the sensual confusion that the narrator has initially espoused ends in death. This is reflected in the four sonnets which appear under the heading "Williowwood." These four sonnets describe the narrator's gradual and ultimately horrific realization of the failure of his own conception of love. The first sonnet begins with the narrator sitting beside Love on a well. The narrator gazes into Love's appropriately "mirrored"eyes, and, as Love begins to play his lute, the narrator believes that he hears the sound of his lost beloved's voice and begins to weep. As the narrator weeps,
And at their fell, his eyes beneath grew hears;
And with his foot, and with his wing-deathers
He swept the spring that wathered 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.
John Granger writes that Willowwood is "clandestine, private, granting unchecked fulfillment of the narcissistic desire." However, I believe that upon closer examination, the Willowwood sonnets fulfill the exact opposite fuction. In the first sonnet, the author does not revel in his past deception. Rather, he realizes that it is only his tears — his sentimentality and emotion — which allow him to see the eyes of his beloved in the vacant mirrored eyes of Love. Likewise, when Love "sweeps"the spring below him, he realizes that his lover's reflection and his own reflection are merely illusions. This is illustrated by the surreal language in which he describes the reflections in the spring. In the first sonnet, Love does not further the narrator's narcissistic illusions, but rather, in stirring up the spring in which the narrator sees his own reflection, Love forces the narrator to realize that surface is not depth, narcissism is not love.
The catharsis of Willowwood becomes even more apparent in the second sonnet, when the narrator looks around, only to realize that the wood is crowded with past images of himself and his beloved.
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. In this quatrain, the narrator is forced to confront the fact that his relationship with his beloved was mere artiface. The fact that so many past reflections of himself and his lady are visible indicates that the moments that the narrator has previously described as sacred were in fact vulgar, easily reduplicated. And, in addition, the shadows of his past are "dumb;"they cannot speak, for they have nothing to say. The last line of the quatrain demonstrates that the shadows are dumb because the days in which they lived "had no tongue." This is, of course, not literally true; the previous sonnets of "Youth and Change" are filled with examples of banter between lovers. However, the second sonnet of Willowwood reveals this expression — this banter — to be itself mute, and because it is mute, it is essentially worthless in the context of the written sonnet. Even Love itself mocks the narrator's pretensions, as Love describes the inhabitants of Willowwood as being "hollow" and "burning white." Ultimately, Love itself tells the narrator that it is better to forget his beloved — to drop the pretention that love is all-important and ever-lasting — than to spend the rest of his days among the "dumb shadows" of Willowwood.
In the second part of The House of Life, the narrator does indeed flee from the sensuous beauty of "Youth and Change,"and instead seeks a world of hard work and careful poetic craft. This is made obvious by the first two sonnets of "Change and Fate;"these two sonnets explore the craft of poetry and the role and art of the poet. Significantly, in the second of these two sonnets, sonnet LXI ("The Song-Throe"), the narrator explicitly rejects the image of the mirror.
By thine own tears thy song must tears beget,
O Singer! Magic mirror thou hast none
Except thy manifiest heart; and save thine own
Anguish or ardour, else no amulet.
The narrator realizes that poetry cannot spring from endlessly self-exploratory fantasies. Therefore, while the first half of The House of Life consists mainly of prayers and supplications to Love, the second section is marked by the narrator's appeals to other gods. In sonnet LXVI, entitled "The Heart of the Night,"the narrator appeals the gods of industry to help him in his poetic task.
O Lord of work and peace! O Lord of life!
O Lord, the awful Lord of will! though late
Even yet renew this soul with duteous breath.
In addition, the fact that the words "work, peace, life, and will"are spelled with lower case letters — as opposed to the ever capitalized "Love" — indicates that the narrator realizes that he is appealing to human, not supernatural, forces. Instead of locating his inspiration in the worship of a Love over which he ultimately has no control, the narrator insists on basing his poetic success on his own human will.
The narrator's retreat into an all-powerful humanism becomes more pronounced in the final sonnets of "Change and Fate." As the narrator draws closer to his own death, he devises a new world view in which human motivations and actions lead to salvation and the sensuously magical visions of "Youth and Change"end in corruption. This is illustrated in two consecutive sonnets entitled "Soul's Beauty"and "Body's Beauty." In "Soul's Beauty,"the narrator envision's a conception of transcendental beauty. Unlike the almost supernatural attractions which unite the lovers of "Youth and Change,"the paradigm of transcendental beauty is surrounded by human emotions such as "love, and death, terror and mystery;"once again, the fact that these words are spelled in lower-case letters indicate them to be human, not supernatural concerns. And, fittingly, the narrator declares that the reader will be able to recognize this transcendental beauty by the "beat of [his] heart and feet." The following sonnet, "Body's Beauty,"is significant in that it negates the ideals which the narrator has spent the first section of the sonnet sequence espousing. "Body's Beauty"tells the story of a mythical Lilith, who is supposedly the magical "witch Adam loved before the gift of Eve." Lilith is indeed a symbol of physical feminine beauty, as the narrator tells us of her golden hair, sweet tongue, "soft-shed kisses"and eternal youth. However this paradigm of physical beauty is inifinitely corrupting, both literally and figuratively. Literally, Lilith is the consummate temptress who interferes with the artist's mission to create. Significantly, the temptation Lilith offers is portrayed in supernatural rather than human terms. She spins webs, casts "spells,"and ultimately winds strands of her "enchanted hair"around the heart of the artist, thereby strangling him. The purpost of this somewhat counter-intuitive exchange of natural and supernatural qualities becomes clear as the author approaches his death. In the two penultimate sonnets entitled "Newborn Death,"the narrator is ultimately able to envision death as an indisputably natural and harmless "infant child"to whom the narrator assumes the role of guardian.
As Christopher Nassaar writes in his essay "D. G. Rossetti's "The Choice" Sonnets in The House of Life: A Reading," "The Choice"sonnets are a fine masterpiece of irony, and they serve at this point to underscore the main theme of this epic.
In this set of three sonnets, Dante Gabriel summarizes the main theme of The House of Life by leading the reader through three different modes of life. The first sonnet describes the life of sensual pleasure which the narrator illustrates throughout most of "Youth and Change." This sonnet — spoken to the narrator's lover — encourages the reader to "eat thou and drink, for to-morrow thou shalt die." The narrator then describes the rewards of a life of sexual pleasure:
Then loose me, love, and hold
Thy sultry hair up from my face; that I
may pour for thee this golden wine, brim-high,
Till round the glass thy fingers glow like gold.
After describing these and other pleasures, the narrator mocks those who eschew sensuality in search of a higher purpose.
Through many years they toil; then on a day
They die not — for their life was death — but cease;
And round their narrow lips the mould falls close.
The second sonnet of "The Choice"sequence examines a life of religious observance and penance. This sonnet mirrors the "Willowwood"sequence of sonnets in which the narrator finds freedom from his sensual excesses through terror which prompts reninciation and repentance. Ultimately, however, this sonnet holds no hope for the reader, since people who practise this ascetic life live in constant fear of God, and therefore accomplish nothing. The narrator mocks this world view in the last two lines of the sonnet which are themselves a paradoy of a religious benediction.
Will his strength slay thy worm in Hell? Go to:‘ Cover thy countenance, and watch, and fear.
These caustic final lines highlight the fact that represession of desire and temptation do not, in and of themselves, lend any trancendant meaning to human life.
The third sonnet of "The Choice"is Dante Gabriel's attempt to envision a mode of life with embraces the physical and the spiritual, as well as provides human life with a higher meaning. In contrast to the previous two sonnets which exhort the reader to "eat and drink,"or "watch and fear,"the third sonnet begins with the line: "Think thou and act: to-morrow thou shalt die." Whereas the first two sonnets describe the lives of those dedicated solely to pleasure or salvation respectively, the final sonnet describes the search for truth. The narrator describes truth as an endless sea, and human thought as a swimmer; though mankind can use his knowledge to explore truth as a human swimmer explores the sea, human thought will eventually drown when it reaches too far. Even though the searcher of truth necessarily dies unfulfilled, his life has purpose, since his exertions provide a new starting place for future generations of thinkers.
As Christopher Nassaar indicates in his essay, "no one who reads the three sonnets of 'The Choice' will fail to choose the sensual path." From this fact Nassaar deduces that
the "Choice" sonnets, in the final analysis, present a typical young person's way of thinking,"and that "only age can teach him what Rissetti learned and communicated to us in the Youth and Change part of The House of Life — namely, that the path of sexual love leads not to heaven but to hell.
Nassaar is undoubtably correct in highlighting that Dante Gabriel's attempts to portray three sorts of spiritual existence invariably bias the reader towards the pursuit of pleasure; likewise, Nassaar is equally justified in claiming that The House of Life demonstrates that a single-minded pursuit of sexual love results in spiritual death. However, I believe that the bias of "The Choice"sonnets is not a result of a youthful, and therefore unreliable narrator, but rather of Dante Gabriel's more fundamental inability to conceive of a spiritual poise which would allow mankind to simultaneously experience pleasure and seek truth. For the gloomy moralism which pervades the final sonnet of "The Choice"is reflected in many of the other sonnets of "Change and Fate." Dante Gabriel's retreat into an all-powerful humanism does provide him with a logical solution to the moral and symbolic confusion of the "Youth and Change"sonnets, but it does so at the cost of stripping life of much symbolic and spiritual meaning. The ideal life which Dante Gabriel reaches at the end of The House of Life achieves purpose at the expense of the passion and faith which pervade the first half of the sonnet sequence. Since "Youth and Change"describes these passions so movingly, it is impossible for the reader to accept Dante Gabriel's assertion that these emotions must be exorcised in the interest of a meaningful life.
Last modified 1998