In contradistinction to the more common practice of illustration following text, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting Lady Lilith seems to predate his sonnet written on the same subject and eventually included in the sequence The House of Life under the title "Body's Beauty." Thus, "Body's Beauty" provides a concrete example of how Rossetti dealt with some of the problems encountered when translating image into text.

The painting itself depicts a beautiful woman, loosely clad, and combing her hair as she admires herself in a hand mirror. Other than the title itself, little indicates that this is Lilith, the legendary first wife of Adam in Jewish folklore. In fact, the canvas more probably recalls the classical subject of the toilette of Venus as reconceived by such Old Masters as Titian and Velazquez — essentially, an excuse for portraying a voluptuous nude in the privacy of the boudoir. Rossetti has situated his Lilith, however, in a space which ambiguously suggests both interior and exterior; roses and poppies, symbols of love and death, crowd the right edge of the canvas, while the mysterious object in the upper left corner functions as both mirror and window. Lilith herself strokes her hair listlessly, fully consumed, it seems, in her own dangerous beauty, and in a way that bears obvious similarities to Rossetti's portrait of Helen of Troy, also from this period.

When we turn to the sonnet, we may see how Rossetti has made use of similar elements, such as the roses and poppies, in unifying the two works, even as he chose to narrativize his subject to some extent, particularly in the last three lines:

Of Adam's first wife, Lilith, it is told
(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve,)
That, ere the snake's, her sweet tongue could deceive,
And her enchanted hair was the first gold.
And still she sits, young while the earth is old,
And, subtly of herself contemplative,
Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,
Till heart and body and life are in its hold.

The rose and poppy are her flowers; for where
Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent
And soft-shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?
Lo! as that youth's eyes burned at thine, so went
Thy spell through him, and let his straight neck bent
And round his heart one strangling golden hair.

In fact, Rossetti exploits to great effectiveness the tension between the ever-static Lilith ("young while the earth is old") as portrayed in the bulk of the poem, and implicit threat of violence realized at the poem's closed. While in the painting, Rossetti can only represent Lilith's terrible power by means of her beauty and self-absorption, in the poem, he gestures obviously towards such literary predecessors as the serpent of Eden, Keats's Lamia and Belle Dame sans Merci, or the Lorelei of Germanic tradition. (Indeed, Goethe's Faust seems to have been responsible for reviving interest in Lilith during the 19th century, and there too she is noted for her beautiful hair). Certainly, the detail of the golden, strangling hair must recall Browning's "Porphyria's Lover," which Rossetti certainly knew. (In his youth Rossetti so admired Browning that he copied out by hand from the British Museum copy the complete text of Pauline, Browning's first book. GPL) Thus, the translation from image to painting required of Rossetti not only the reinvention of his technical vocabulary, the transition from still image to flow of words, but it also inevitably evoked a different set of artistic associations, contextualizing the subject in a new way.

Questions

Do you find that it makes a difference here that Rossetti modeled his sonnet after his painting, rather than vice versa? Does one form a subject takes, either text or image, have a tendency to dominate the other, and is this tendency subjective or universal?

In his portrayals of Lilith, has Rossetti developed a new type of strong female character, or simply reused of the same old motif of the femme fatal? Does this differ at all between painting and poem?

How great a role do artistic tradition and convention play in your understanding of a given character, and how does this differ between image and text?

Rossetti returned to the subject of Lilith at much greater length in his poem "Eden Bower." There he develops the association between Lilith and the serpent to a far greater extent, and in the process retells the Biblical narration of the Fall of Man as a story of sexual jealousy. Consider "Eden Bower" in relation to the painting, and discuss how the character of Lilith may have changed and why.

Related Material

References

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Collected Poetry and Prose. Ed. Jerome McGann. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Scerba, Amy. "Lady Lilith". E-server.org. http://eserver.org/feminism/lilith/ladylil.html. 12-11-04.


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Last modified 8 November 2007