Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "Jenny" offers a provocative meditation on a sleeping prostitute. Jerome McGann notes in his introduction to Rossetti's Collected Poetry and Prose that "a poem like "Jenny" is a dangerous critical mirror that turns the readers' eyes back on themselves" (xxviii). I would like to examine the poem's motif of reading as the operation that taints reflection.
In the poem's second stanza, the speaker reveals that what brought him to Jenny was his turn away from the reading:
This room of yours, my Jenny, looks
A change from mine so full of books,
Whose serried ranks hold fast, forsooth,
So many captive hours of youth, —
The hours they thieve from day and night
To make one's cherished work come right,
And leave it wrong for all their theft,
Even as to-night my work was left:
Until I vowed that since my brain
And eyes of dancing seemed so fain,
My feet should have some dancing too: —
And thus it was I met with you.
Well, I suppose 'twas hard to part,
For here I am. And now, sweetheart,
You seem too tired to get to bed. [lines 22-35]
Books assume a military presence, which hold the speaker as an intimidated captive. The metaphor evolves as the speaker finds himself captivated by the activity of reading and writing. The work steals away the speaker's life and in doing so leaves him at a loss. The speaker would supplement his fruitless mental efforts with a return to the body and its motive rhythms. Indeed, Jenny stands as the person who takes the speaker away from his confinement in a world of books.
While the speaker would release himself to his body and the carnal passions afforded by a prostitute, he cannot escape from reading as a model for understanding his experience:
Let the thoughts pass, an empty cloud!
Suppose I were to think aloud, —
What if to her all this were said?
Why, as a volume seldom read
Being opened halfway shuts again,
So might the pages of her brain
Be parted at such words, and thence
Close back upon the dusty sense.
For is there hue or shape defin'd
In Jenny's desecrated mind,
Where all contagious currents meet,
A Lethe of the middle street?
Nay, it reflects not any face,
Nor sound is in its sluggish pace,
But as they coil those eddies clot,
And night and day remember not. [lines 155-70]
As the speaker's vision of carnal release fades, he figures his disillusionment as a confinement to reading. To describe Jenny's thoughts as a book that can be open and closed reveals how the speaker's would-be omniscience struggles between the poles of unmediated insight and absolute opacity. Admittedly, the speaker would arrogate a power over Jenny's thoughts; after all, he is the one opening and closing the "pages of her brain." Nonetheless, insight into another's consciousness remains "dusty" — that is, obscured by little use — and "desecrated" by the "contagion" of forgetfulness. Where speaker would read the text of Jenny's mind, he finds its face a blank. The speaker's work of reading hereby funnels into an abyss of meaninglessness. His attempt to "read" Jenny then follows the pattern by which he loses his life to his work.
Indeed, as his rumination continues, reading becomes the taint of the speaker's purported sensuality:
Like a rose shut in a book
In which pure women may not look,
For its base pages claim control
To crush the flower within the soul;
Where through each dead rose-leaf that clings,
Pale as transparent psyche-wings,
To the vile text, are traced such things
As might make lady's cheek indeed
More than a living rose to read;
So nought save foolish foulness may
Watch with hard eyes the sure decay;
And so the life-blood of this rose,
Puddled with shameful knowledge, flows
Through leaves no chaste hand may unclose. [lines 253-66]
The book is a figure for the crushed soul. As we saw in the first passage excerpted above, if the speaker has the power to open and close the book, he is also culpable for crushing Jenny's soul with his obtuse speculations. The speakers reading practice enacts this transgression. Not only is the text a quagmire of meaninglessness, but the speaker taints this now "vile text" with his will to knowledge. It is ironic, then, that the speaker imagined himself censured by the implied reader he strives to abjure. If the speaker would escape from the mental activities of reading to more tangible, bodily pleasures, he finds that reading itself returns to mark the impropriety of his association with a prostitute. On the one hand, the speaker's wonderment about Jenny's mindset ultimately falls off into thoughtlessness. On the other hand, what takes its place is the physical response of a supposedly proper lady blushing over his text. The speaker hereby witnesses his meditations on bodily experience devolve into "foolish foulness." Rather than reveling in sensuality, the speaker's recourse to reading becomes just the opposite: a cold-blooded response to the emptying "life-blood of this rose." Like Cain and Eve before him, the speaker is marked by his "shameful knowledge," and it is reading through his explores his own fallen nature. The speaker hereby realizes that reading is an exercise for the damned; he produces a text whose "leaves no chaste hand may unclose."
Returning then to McGann's assessment that "a poem like "Jenny" is a dangerous critical mirror that turns the readers' eyes back on themselves" (xxviii), I would want to ask how our own salacious interest in, or perhaps abhorrence of, Rossetti's text marks our reading with a similar taint. If the speaker strives but can never escape from his readerly captivation, how are we similarly infected with this contagion? If our "inner standing-point" of critical reflection is troubled along with that of the speaker, do we ultimately lose ourselves to the musing speaker of a poem like "Jenny?" Can we ever escape from what Rossetti prescribes as our guilt by readerly association?
1. How does Rossetti's use of the disreputable speaker follow after Browning's dramatic monologues?
2. How does "Jenny" recast the feminine as the object, rather than the subject, of artistic speculation? Compare with Tennyson's "Lady of Shallot," for instance.
3. Where do we find Rossetti in his poems?
4. In what ways does Rossetti test the sensibilities of his Victorian readership? What does he accomplish by pushing the boundaries of propriety?
Last modified 19 October 2006