Although much of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poem, "Mary's Girlhood" (1848) provides a clear and fitting literary accompaniment to his paintings The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849) and Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850), the words of the poem and the sentiments expressed in the paintings do not correlate throughout. Divided into two parts, each composed of two stanzas, the poem explores Mary's childhood as well as the traditional symbols associated with the life of the Virgin. The first stanza of part one places Mary in geographical and temporal context and discusses her character. This portion of the poem finds convincing expression in The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. Mary's "supreme patience"(line 6) appears in the way she continues her embroidery, despite the fact that her facial expression and her gaze — directed straight ahead, rather than down at her needlework — indicate that her mind may be elsewhere, perhaps contemplating more spiritual matters. Furthermore, the description of Mary as "Strong in grave peace" seems apt, as indeed she appears placid, serious and steadfast.
The second stanza of part one describes the Annunciation in the barest, least symbolic terms, relying instead on the change this event produces in Mary's emotions.
So held she through her girlhood; as it were
An angel-watered lily, that near God
Grows and is quiet. Till, one dawn at home,
She woke in her white bed, and had no fear
At all, — yet wept till sunshine, and felt awed;
Because the fulness of the time was come. [ll. 9-14]
Rossetti depicts most of this stanza in Ecce Ancilla Domini. Analogous to the poem, in which Mary is described as a growing lily (line 10), Mary's completed embroidery of a lily hangs near the end of her bed in the painting. Her bed is white, as in the poem, and the light in the room suggests early morning. However, it is in the pairing of the words and image depicting Mary that one can see a particular discrepancy between Rossetti's visual and literary interpretations. The figure of Mary and the emotions she exudes appear quite different in the painting than in the poem: no tears appear on her face, as in the poem, but rather her expression and her hunched posture convey an intense hesitation and fear in direct contrast with the words of the poem (line 12). Indeed, although awe may be a more fitting description of Rossetti's painted Mary than fear, her appearance does not suggest awe so much as reticence and anxiety.
The second part of the poem contains an explication of the symbolism in The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, begun quite bluntly with the pronouncement "These are the symbols"(line 15). The symbolic explanations connect quite literally to the painting, and provide a kind of key to the painting's meaning. For example, Rossetti explains that the cloth on which Mary embroiders a lily is unfinished, suggesting "That Christ is not yet born"(line 18). The poem concludes with the metaphorical transfer of responsibility of caring for Jesus, from God to Mary.
1. Why might Rossetti have strayed from his description of Mary's emotions in the poem and chosen to convey them so differently in Ecce Ancilla Domini?
2.There is a marked contrast between the bare, though nonetheless quite present, religious symbolism in Ecce Ancilla Domini and the almost complete lack of symbolism in the stanza of the poem describing this event. What is the effect, on the poem and on its relation to the paintings, of Rossetti's decision to divide the poem into an emotional section and a symbolic section?
3. Does this division brightly highlight the emotional and religious significance of the Annunciation in Mary's life, or does it separate them in way that makes each less powerful? Do you think the integration of emotion and religious symbolism in the painting has a more compelling effect on its audience than the separation of these in the poem?
4. Does it seem plausible to view Mary as analogous to the "angel-watered lily" literally depicted in The Girlhood of Mary Virgin?
- Drastic Innovations on a Traditional Theme: Rossetti's Ecce Ancilla Domini
- "Mary's Girlhood" (text)
Last modified 11 October 2004