I came to know Christina Rossetti when my mother brought home to me a book of her poetry called Goblin Market and Other Poems at a time when I myself was beginning to write in this form.
Rossetti is perhaps best known for “Goblin Market,” which established her as an important Victorian female poet, even as successor to Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, who had died the year before publication of the piece. The poem is about two sisters, though it has been interpreted within a variety of viable theories, including temptation and salvation as well as social redemption.
But sweet-tooth Laura spoke in haste:
“Good folk, I have no coin;
To take were to purloin:
I have no copper in my purse,
I have no silver either,
And all my gold is on the furze
That shakes in windy weather
Above the rusty heather.”
“You have much gold upon your head,”
They answer’d all together:
“Buy from us with a golden curl.”
The youngest child of an exiled Italian revolutionary, Rossetti is the sister of William and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (Pre-Raphaelites). She dictated her first story to her mother before she could write, her first book was printed when she was twelve, and by sixteen she had a collection of over fifty poems. Writing in many styles for over half a century, her works “possess an intellectual depth which shows Rossetti to be an astute questioner and analyst of her contemporary world,” which included developing science such as Darwin’s theory of evolution. Her poetry is heavily influenced by her religious beliefs, though in her writing she often questions these ideals. With her two brothers she often played bouts rimes, which she excelled at.
Rossetti turned down two suitors while working for over ten years with an agency concerned with the rehabilitation and re-training of former prostitutes. She continued to write poetry for the rest of her life, and it was praised by such figures as Hopkins, Tennyson and Swinburne, the last of whom dedicated his own collection of poetry to her. Included in her writing was children’s poetry and some of her work was set as Christmas carols. The poet died just after Christmas 1894.
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet:
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
Image of the Week: The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones
“Then she saw me watching her. For perhaps two seconds our eyes met and held. I knew then why the ancients armed the cruellest god with arrows; I felt the shock of it right through my body.”—Merlin, The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart
O, Merlin, who moved the great Dance of the Giants
You, who brought Uther beget the son of the earth
Enchanter, who, with the stars had an alliance
To be Arthur’s counsel, to bring meaning to his birth
Image of the Week: Mariana by John Everett Millais
Perhaps it was reading Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” that drew me in, for it is so that many of the topics that interested me as a teenager were happened upon in connection to others I had read about. Rossetti’s brother Dante was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of English artists whose works are recognized by millions not only from the paintings themselves, but also facsimile in the form of greeting cards and other commercial products.
The Pre-Raphaelites, as they were later known, were not fond of the academic style of art taught at the time, which focused on strong light matched by dark shadows. Instead they favored bright color and great attention to detail. My eyes marveled at the massive amount of fine line and brilliant color; it would take days, weeks to “read” such paintings and drink it all in, for consuming it was what one did.
It is difficult to decide which painting could possibly be the best, for the group deliberately avoided any sort of dogma that would inhibit the individual artistic interpretation of its members. Later growing from the original three—Rossetti, Millais and William Holman Hunt—to seven, with the addition of Rossetti’s brother William, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner, the group inspired such artists as Edward Burne-Jones and John William Waterhouse.
Nevertheless, there were some I particularly favored, including Burne-Jones’s The Beguiling of Merlin, given my lifelong affinity for the wizard. Spotting the image on a book cover led me to being a reader of the novelist A.S. Byatt, and I made the connection after reading Possession (which itself is filled with an abundant amount of detail), that just as reading an entire book gives you a greater appreciation of its story, so too could the taking in of a painting. I recall learning in class about how an image is meant to draw your eye to one portion, a center of interest. For me, however, that point alone left the painting’s story untold; the narrative unfolded as more of the canvas was explored.
That moment came for me when I saw Millais’s Mariana. Apart from its connection to Tennyson’s poem “Mariana,” I admired the subject’s dress; it accentuates her hips, those of womanhood, today often brushed, or worse starved, out of photography and painting. The color is lovely and the soft feel of the velvet extends the sensory effect of the image.
Mariana seems tired, perhaps a bit stiff, as evidenced by her arched stance that indicates a need to stand up and stretch. She is looking outside, perhaps an implication of longing in the days of women’s confinement; ahead is the light, behind her the dark. In this manner the painting points to a distinction between indoors and outside, as well as gloomy days, hinted at by the shadowy background with its bed curtains, perhaps suggesting a life not of literal sleep, but a dull one in which a person exists rather than lives.
She waits for her love, but the passage of time does not bring his arrival and
She only said, “My life is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary;
I would that I were dead!”
Thickly-crusted flower pots, rusted nails and broken sheds denote a passage of time that Millais also demonstrates with the embroidery Mariana had been doing, though she leaves it sitting on the table in front of her. Neither Tennyson nor Millais indicate any movement in their respective narratives: Mariana is stuck in her painful position, living a life of discomfort and mental anguish.
Though not a singularly cheerful focus, the painting enables the observer to see and have what Mariana cannot: a view to lovely details and opportunity for choice. Are the leaves, for example, symbol of the outdoors that could present a piece of another world to Mariana? Or do they merely represent to her the dying season that she would become part of?
Mariana hears the passage of time in her state of non-movement, with the ticking of the clock. There is a sparrow chirping as well, though at the point she hears more, she has begun to lose her mental agility, and what she sees matches the mood of her auditory abilities: the sunlight represents not cheer, but only something to reveal how
[…] most she loathed the hour
When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
Athwart the chambers,
the dust serving as one more mocking reminder of the passage of time, and her aloneness within it.
Connected via Tennyson to Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Mariana utilizes a Victorian context to present an historical view of women. This connection furthered my own journey through art and literature and through the Rossettis (Dante illustrated Christina’s first volume) the same could be seen, as
Day after day, night after night,
Laura kept watch in vain
In sullen silence of exceeding pain.
She never caught again the goblin cry,
‘Come buy, come buy’;
She never spied the goblin men
Hawing their fruits along the glen:
But when the moon waxed bright
Her hair grew thin and grey;
She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn
To swift decay and burn
Her fire away.
Though sisters Laura and Lizzie experience a completely different circumstance in “Goblin Market” to Mariana, it too reveals historical context within its composition: of women, the author and society at large. (Brief consideration of where one could go with a fuller compare/contrast of Mariana and “Goblin Market.”) At the time, untested as I was in the world, I found it fairly astounding—and intriguing—how one could glean history from fiction of various sorts: art, music, poetry, even, as I learned later, textiles and cuisine. Moreover, one could build from an extant foundation—I mean utilizing more than inspiration. I supposed it could be flippantly stated that Mariana is a sort of Victorian fan art (though of course of a greater quality than most of what we see today), which led me to wonder how long people have been doing this sort of fan art/fan fiction thing.
Which isn’t to make little of such endeavors—people are generally aware of their abilities and shortcomings; they don’t typically engage in fan followings for fame or fortune. They simply recognize their own connections to various art forms and the many practitioners of it, and through them, with varying linkage and results, build the narratives of their own—our own—lives.