In his poem, "Mary's Girlhood," Rossetti creates an image of the Virgin Mary during her childhood. Although the title of the poem gives no indication as to which Mary Rossetti intends to describe, within the first two lines the choice is clear, as Rossetti begins, "This is that blessed Mary, pre-elect, God's Virgin." He then goes on to enumerate her many wonderful traits. Besides her "supreme patience" and "simplicity of intellect," Rossetti paints her as "faithful and hopeful; wise in charity; strong in grave peace; in pity circumspect." All of these traits, however, have a somewhat jarring connotation. The poem supposedly describes "Mary's Girlhood," yet her description makes her seem more like a woman or, indeed, an old lady, with years of experience behind her.

Clearly, more than any childhood, this poem shows Rossetti's notion of the Virgin Mary, casting upon her his idea of "perfect purity." The mental image created in this poem matches very well with Rossetti's painting, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. In both, she appears as a somber, mature individual. Furthermore, even as in the poem she emerges as "an angel-watered lily, that near God grows and is quiet," in the painting she appears a beautiful young woman, yet dressed simply and, though attending a lesson, staring at an angel playing by some lilies. Thus, both poem and painting tell a lot more about Mary as a religious figure, a role-model for women, than about Mary as a child.

Questions

1. Why would Rossetti choose to entitle this poem "Mary's Girlhood," even though he does not seem to deal with any issues relating to her childhood?

2. How does Rossetti meld together ideals about beauty and religion?

3. How does this poem's imagery contrast against that of "The Passover in the Holy Family"? Mary figures in both poems, as does the idea of childhood ("What shadow of death the Boy's fair brow subdues"), yet they do so very differently. What does this say of Rossetti's views on religion?

4. How does the image of Mary in this poem coincide with the image of women that arose in the Victorian period? Refer to the excerpt below from The Women of England: Their Social Duties and Domestic Habits.

"What shall I do to gratify myself — to be admired — or to vary the tenor of my existence?" are not the questions which a woman of right feelings asks on first awaking to the avocations of the day. Much more congenial to the highest attributes of woman's character, are inquiries such as these: "How shall I endeavor through this day to turn the time, the health, and the means permitted me to enjoy, to the best account? - Is any one sick? I must visit their chamber without delay, and try to give their apartment an air of comfort, by arranging such things as the wearied nurse may not have thought of. Is any one about to set off on a journey? I must see that the early meal is spread, or prepare it with my own hands, in order that the servant, who was working last night, may profit by unbroken rest. Did I fail in what was kind or considerate to any of the family yesterday? I will meet her this morning with a cordial welcome, and show, in the most delicate way I can, that I am anxious to atone for the past. Was any one exhausted by the last day's exertion? I will be an hour before them this morning, and let them see that their labor is so much in advance." [Sarah Stickney Ellis, The Women of England: Their Social Duties and Domestic Habits (New York: Henry G. Langley, 1844), 8-10]

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Last modified 26 January 2009