Rossetti's "The Passover in the Holy Family" typifies the characteristically Pre-Raphaelite search for spiritual truth in both poetry and visual arts by means of an abrasive treatment of its subject matter, a well-known Old Testament story. In emulating a biblical narrative voice, Rossetti achieves an ominous presence and mood that converges Christian exploration with the dilemmas of modern times. Such convergences parallel Holman Hunt's Shadow of Death which depicts Christ's halo as coming from the placement and shape of the window, rather than being an unrealistic, artifical representation.
"Here meet together the prefiguring day
And day prefigured. 'Eating, thou shalt stand,
Feet shod, loins girt, thy road-staff in thine hand,
With blood-stained door and lintel," — did God say
By Moses' mouth in ages passed away.
And now, where this poor household doth comprise
At Paschal-Feast two kindred families, —
Lo! the slain lamb confronts the Lamb to slay."
Even within the relatively constricting parameters of the sonnet form, this poem captures an eternal moment and transforms it into a visceral experience for the reader. But perhaps it is exactly the specific parameters, demanding certain enjambments, that push forth a near violent force; and, instead of using a personal tone or an eye-to-eye communication, Rossetti runs in the opposite direction and is thus able to turn a cold, scientific observation into a sacred recording.
Already in the first stanza we sense a resistance of time: The first and last sentences are not only doubtless statements exclaimed by an omniscient, Godlike voice, but they are collisions between the "now", the "here", the present, and the gone, the old, "ages passed away". Still, Rossetti stays grounded to a realistic situation by starting the second stanza with description of the ritual, and then weaving in long, winding questions without apparent answers.
The pyre is piled. What agony's crown attained,
What shadow of Death the Boy's fair brow subdues
Who holds that blood wherewith the porch is stained
By Zachary the priest? John binds the shoes
He deemed himself not worthy to unloose;
And Mary culls the bitter herbs ordained."
Here we see the irony that a stanza filled with such metaphysical and epistemological questions should begin and end with the simplicity of an ancient, biblical voice giving bare ritualistic description. Although John's and Mary's performances are described simply and realistically, they might also be answers to eternal questions. After moving back and forth and back and forth between history and present in the first stanza, here Rossetti stops the event — the present moment — in its own religious and violent transience. As such, the symbolism now arises when we constellate the flames of the pyre with the blood of the lamb with Mary's calloused, worker's hands.
How, in terms of stylistic elements, does Rossetti pay attention, stretch out, different planes and perspectives of the concept and motif of time and transience?
1. What is the significance that Rossetti wrote this poem after a drawing he saw? How much did the Pre-Raphaelite visual art movement influence the literary movement? Did both movements seek the same ideological changes?
2. To what great effect does Rossetti use the sonnet form to tell this story of Passover?
3. This poem is much "drier" and static on the surface (stylistically, not thematically) than many of Rossetti's other poems ("The Burden of Nineveh" or "My Sister's Sleep"). In other words, it is much more detached and much less personal. As mentioned above, I think this may have to do with the biblical mood sought after. But what other reasons could there be?
4. How might thinking of the last line of the first stanza ("Lo! the slain lamb confronts the Lamb to slay") illuminate the importance of William Holman Hunt's painting The Scapegoat? Compare both subject matters (a lamb and a goat) in terms of the usage of symbolism as part of a larger landscape.
5. Must the last three lines in the second stanza necessarily be interpreted as anticlimactical?
- Textualization and Typology in The Passover in the Holy Family
- Biblical Typology in D. G. Rossetti's "The Passover in the Holy Family"
Last modified 13 February 2008