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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Blessed Damozel

The Blessed Damozel is perhaps the best known creation of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It is a diptych, as it puts in dialog painting and poetry: a poem recited by a painting, a painting meditated in a poem.

At the beginning was the word: the poem was published in 1850, later revised and published again, in 1856, 1870, 1873. It is a replica to Poe's Raven, putting the situation in reverse: in Rossetti's verses it is the female longing in heaven for her lover.

The painting came later: Rossetti worked on it between 1871 and 1878. He would create also a replica, in 1879, for his friend Leyland, who arranged The Blessed Damozel in his drawing room, between two other of Rossetti's paintings (Mnemosyne and Proserpine): the three were making a triptych. Three other paintings of Rossetti were there, in Leyland's drawing room. Today each one stays in another collection. The replica to The Blessed Damozel is housed by Lady Lever Art Gallery. As for the original, it is part of the rich Pre-Raphaelite collection of the Fogg Museum, at Harvard.

The blessed Damozel lean'd out
         From the gold bar of Heaven:
Her blue grave eyes were deeper much
         Than a deep water, even.
She had three lilies in her hand,
         And the stars in her hair were seven.

Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem,
         No wrought flowers did adorn,
But a white rose of Mary's gift
         On the neck meetly worn;
And her hair, lying down her back,
         Was yellow like ripe corn.

Herseem'd she scarce had been a day
         One of God's choristers;
The wonder was not yet quite gone
         From that still look of hers;
Albeit, to them she left, her day
         Had counted as ten years.

(To one it is ten years of years:
         ...Yet now, here in this place,
Surely she lean'd o'er me,--her hair
         Fell all about my face....
Nothing: the Autumn-fall of leaves.
         The whole year sets apace.)

It was the terrace of God's house
         That she was standing on,--
By God built over the sheer depth
         In which Space is begun;
So high, that looking downward thence,
         She scarce could see the sun.

It lies from Heaven across the flood
         Of ether, as a bridge.
Beneath, the tides of day and night
         With flame and darkness ridge
The void, as low as where this earth
         Spins like a fretful midge.

But in those tracts, with her, it was
         The peace of utter light
And silence. For no breeze may stir
         Along the steady flight
Of seraphim; no echo there,
         Beyond all depth or height.

Heard hardly, some of her new friends,
         Playing at holy games,
Spake gentle-mouth'd, among themselves,
         Their virginal chaste names;
And the souls, mounting up to God,
         Went by her like thin flames.

And still she bow'd herself, and stoop'd
         Into the vast waste calm;
Till her bosom's pressure must have made
         The bar she lean'd on warm,
And the lilies lay as if asleep
         Along her bended arm.

From the fixt lull of Heaven, she saw
         Time, like a pulse, shake fierce
Through all the worlds. Her gaze still strove,
         In that steep gulf, to pierce
The swarm; and then she spoke, as when
         The stars sang in their spheres.

I wish that he were come to me,
         For he will come, she said.
Have I not pray'd in solemn Heaven?
         On earth, has he not pray'd?
Are not two prayers a perfect strength?
         And shall I feel afraid?

When round his head the aureole clings,
         And he is clothed in white,
I'll take his hand, and go with him
         To the deep wells of light,
And we will step down as to a stream
         And bathe there in God's sight.

We two will stand beside that shrine,
         Occult, withheld, untrod,
Whose lamps tremble continually
         With prayer sent up to God;
And where each need, reveal'd, expects
         Its patient period.

We two will lie i' the shadow of
         That living mystic tree
Within whose secret growth the Dove
         Sometimes is felt to be,
While every leaf that His plumes touch
         Saith His name audibly.

And I myself will teach to him,--
         I myself, lying so,--
The songs I sing here; which his mouth
         Shall pause in, hush'd and slow,
Finding some knowledge at each pause,
         And some new thing to know.

(Alas! to her wise simple mind
         These things were all but known
Before: they trembled on her sense,--
         Her voice had caught their tone.
Alas for lonely Heaven! Alas
         For life wrung out alone!

Alas, and though the end were reach'd?...
         Was thy part understood
Or borne in trust? And for her sake
         Shall this too be found good?--
May the close lips that knew not prayer
         Praise ever, though they would?)

We two, she said, will seek the groves
         Where the lady Mary is,
With her five handmaidens, whose names
         Are five sweet symphonies:--
Cecily, Gertrude, Magdalen,
         Margaret and Rosalys.

Circle-wise sit they, with bound locks
         And bosoms covered;
Into the fine cloth, white like flame,
         Weaving the golden thread,
To fashion the birth-robes for them
         Who are just born, being dead.

He shall fear, haply, and be dumb.
         Then I will lay my cheek
To his, and tell about our love,
         Not once abash'd or weak:
And the dear Mother will approve
         My pride, and let me speak.

Herself shall bring us, hand in hand,
         To Him round whom all souls
Kneel--the unnumber'd solemn heads
         Bow'd with their aureoles:
And Angels, meeting us, shall sing
         To their citherns and citoles.

There will I ask of Christ the Lord
         Thus much for him and me:--
To have more blessing than on earth
         In nowise; but to be
As then we were,--being as then
         At peace. Yea, verily.

Yea, verily; when he is come
         We will do thus and thus:
Till this my vigil seem quite strange
         And almost fabulous;
We two will live at once, one life;
         And peace shall be with us.

She gazed, and listen'd, and then said,
         Less sad of speech than mild,--
'All this is when he comes.' She ceased:
         The light thrill'd past her, fill'd
With Angels, in strong level lapse.
         Her eyes pray'd, and she smiled.

(I saw her smile.) But soon their flight
         Was vague 'mid the poised spheres.
And then she cast her arms along
         The golden barriers,
And laid her face between her hands,
         And wept. (I heard her tears.)

(Dante Gabriel Rossetti)

(Fogg Museum of Art)



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