The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

V. The Rossettis, William Morris, Swinburne, and Others

§ 2. The Blessed Damozel

The influences which formed Rossetti’s style were complex. The elements of romance and mysticism in his nature were too strong to be curbed by the preciseness of delineation which his pre-Raphaelite creed required. Reference has already been made to the conflict between natural inclination and artistic principle in My Sister’s Sleep and The Blessed Damozel. The setting of The Blessed Damozel, “the rampart of God’s house,” over which the immortal maiden, in her longing for the lover whom she has left on earth, leans down towards “the tides of day and night,” transcends the power of realistic narrative. For the contrast between “the fixed place of Heaven” and the planets in time and space, for the procession of souls “mounting up to God,” for the fluttering of the moon in the gulf below the golden rampart, simile has to be invoked. The boldness ofimagintion which likens the moon in space to “a curled feather” comes dangerously near grotesqueness, so material is the image employed to define an object of transcendental vision. On the other hand, the comparison of the revolving earth to a “fretful midge” is a master-stroke of daring; that of the mounting souls to “thin flames” is absolutely unforced; and the phrase in which the Blessed Damozel sees

  • Time like a pulse shake fierce
  • Through all the worlds
  • is a triumphant attempt to figure forth the indescribable, which was kept without alteration through all the versions of the poem. In the later stanzas, which celebrate the joys of paradise, details are particularised with a clearness of sense and fulness of melody which give to every word a visible and audible value; but the power and beauty of the poet’s work are at their height, not in the even flow of the rapture in which he translates heavenly pleasures into earthly terms, but in the occasional sublimity of the opening visions which defy direct description.

    The Blessed Damozel is without a counterpart in English poetry; for the ecstasy of such poems as Crashaw’s Hymn to the Name and Honor of … Sainte Teresa and The Flaming Heart, in which sensuous imagery is used to express celestial delight, is founded upon a definitely religious enthusiasm. Rossetti, on the other hand, although brought up in a religious atmosphere, and retaining a deep reverence for Christian tradition, regarded religion primarily from an aesthetic point of view. He was a mystic; but his mysticism did not take the form of a spiritual exaltation to which the beauty of earth is subordinate: it was a perception of the undefinable unearthly quality which adds an attraction to earthly beauty, supplying, as it does, a glimpse of things distant and unattainable. In this respect, the poet to whom he was most nearly akin was Keats, whose sense of beauty of form and colour he shared to the full. The influence of Keats is felt in many ways in the poetry of the nineteenth century; but his profuseness of detail appealed to no poets so thoroughly as to those whose sympathies had been attracted by pre-Raphaelite doctrine. Such poems as The Eve of St. Agnes were the immediate ancestors of the poetry of The Germ. The wild night through which Porphyro came across the moors, the throbbing music, the carven angels on the cornice, the moonbeams shining through the stained windows, the wind-shaken arreas in the hall, are described by Keats with an accuracy and a sensuous appreciation of every detail which makes the whole scene present to the reader, but, also, with an added mystery which stimulates his sense of the romantic and unfamiliar. Rossetti, however, was not successful in combining the magic element with the purely descriptive side of his art in this way. Powerfully affected as he was by Keats’s methods of description, his strength as it developed did not lie in informing old-world stories of love and passion with a heightened charm of romance. In The Bride’s Prelude, an unfinished poem upon a singularly painful theme, realistic description is used with a completeness which excludes all mystery. The contrast between the glare of the hot summer day without, and the half-darkness of the room in which the bride and her sister await the wedding, the fitful sounds breaking the silence amid which Aloyse falters out her secret to the horror-stricken Amelotte, are incidents which, felt and pictured with a vivid intensity, stand out in relief from the surface of a somewhat prolix story, of whose weaknesses Rossetti himself became conscious as he proceeded. His imagination needed a stimulus from the supernatural for complete sucess in narrative. It was quickened by ballad-poetry and its tales of witchcraft, love-philtres and such accessories of tragedy. The directness and simplicity of the ballad were not within the range of his genius, of which the love of ornament was an essential quality; but he achieved something of its swiftness and vigour in The White Ship and The King’s Tragedy. Although the supernatural plays no direct part in the story of The White Ship, the fate which presides over the action is clearly expressed by the thrice repeated stanza at the beginning, middle and end of the poem, with its double refrain, a comment upon the insecurity of earthly power. The King’s Tragedy, on the other hand, is full of sinister and foreboding incident to herald the fatal climax. Twice, by “the Scotish Sea” and in the Charterhouse at Perth, the spae-wife warns the king of her recurring vision of the shroud that gradually envelops his phantom form, and, as the tragedy nears its consummation, the moonlit shield of Scotland in the window-pane is blackened by an obscuring cloud.

    Rossetti’s highest achievements in giving dramatic effect to the blending of romantic narrative with supernatural atmosphere are Sister Helen, one of his earlier poems, and Rose Mary, which belongs to his later work. The subjects are, to some extent, complementary. In Sister Helen, the woman who works out her revenge by destroying the waxen image of her lover dooms her revenge by destroying the waxen image of her lover dooms her soul by her own act. In Rose Mary, the centre of the poem is the magic beryl into which the heroine’s sin admits a band of evil spirits. Her resolute breaking of the beryl and the death of her body free her soul from destruction. The tale of Sister Helen is suggested rather than told. Each of the forty-two stanzas adheres to a rigid plan. The innocent questions of the little brother who looks out into the frosty night, gathering fear as each suppliant for the life of Keith of Ewern proffers his vain request beneath the windows of the gallery, are answered by the inexorable words of the sister, intent upon her false lover’s doom; while the wailing refrain, “O Mother, Mary Mother,” echoing her words and thoughts with variations of hopeless pity, is the lament of an unearthly chorus awake to the catastrophe and powerless to avert it. Rossetti’s use of the refrain is not here, as it is in Troy Town and Eden Bower, a mere metrical artifice: it is the crowning feature of the piece, and the highly artificial structure of the stanza is bent with entire success to the representation of tragic passion. In Rose Mary, the marvellous element becomes the subject of direct narrative. The outlines of the picture are less distinct: the imagination is left to fill in much that defies the power of words, and the story proceeds with a shadowy movement like that of the fire-spirits who, gyrating within the berylstone, end the first and second parts of the poem with songs of melancholy triumph, circling in a mazy rhythm linked by echoing rimes, and, cast out of their stronghold, close the third part with a hymn of anguish. As in Rossetti’s later master-pieces of painting and in his short poem The Card-Dealer, so in Rose Mary, his interest in the mystical side of his composition leads to some obscurity of detail and meaning and is the very antithesis of his early pre-Raphaelite manner.

    The chief qualities of Rossetti’s narrative verse are pictorial and dramatic. The impressions which it conveys are most powerful when they act immediately upon the senses. While his language is often simple and vigorous, as in The White Ship, its vigour and simplicity are carefully meditated. His fertility in melodious phrase, as in The Blessed Damozel and The Staff and Scrip, lulls the reader in the enchantment of music and colour, and his strains frequently have a “dying fall” which invests some of his lyrics, such as The Stream’s Secret and Love’s Nocturn, with a positive languor of sound. While, however, sensuous and decorative instincts play a large part in his poetry, and its dramatic effects depend largely upon circumstances remote from ordinary life, it cannot be judged on these counts alone. His life was passed in a world of imagination: its material limits were narrow and the circle of his friends was restricted. In spite of his up-bringing as the son of an Italian patriot, he had none of that political enthusiasm which often kindles the highest poetry. Of contemporary poets, Browning had the strongest influence upon him, exercised chiefly on the side of that spontaneous lyric beauty which led the young Rossetti to make a manuscript copy of Pauline for his own use. The monologues, A Last Confession and Jenny, in which he chose subjects from the life of his own day, exhibit something of Browning’s influence. A Last Confession, which embodies a sombre tragedy, was written in blank verse full of vivid and beautiful description; but its great merit is the inset lyric, which, written in Italian and translated into English by Rossetti himself with a skill recalling his earlier translations from Italian poets, gained enthusiastic praise from so good a judge of poetry as Swinburne. Jenny, conceived in a reflective mood and worked out with pre-Raphaelite attention to detail, is the one poem in which he showed himself alive to the pity and pathos of everyday life. Its subject gave rise to some unjust criticism on the part of those who regarded Rossetti as the master of the “fleshly” school of poetry. No fair-minded critic, however fastidious, could take exception to the poet’s moral attitude and his appreciation of the pathetic aspect of his theme; but the situation of the speaker of the monologue is one with which moral reflection is seldom associated.