Happy Birthday Christina Rossetti

 

She was the sister of that somewhat roguish and notorious Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and she often seems to be left in the shadows, both in life and death. But Christina Rossetti was an accomplished Victorian poet in her own right. Born on this day, December 5, 1830, she is best known for her collections of romantic and devotional poems.

Christina Rossetti was born in Charlotte Street in London, to Gabriele Rossetti, a poet and a political exile from Vasto, Abruzzo, and Frances Polidori, the sister of Lord Byron’s friend and physician, John William Polidori. With a pedigree like that, perhaps the Rossetti children were destined for greatness  

Christina was home schooled and by all accounts was a bright and lively child. She took  an early interest in poetry, especially that of John Keats, Sir Walter Scott and Anne Radcliffe. The family situation, however, was not always stable and they suffered extreme financial difficulties. In the 1840’s, her father had to leave his teaching position at King’s College due to health problems. Christina’s teenage years seem to have been clouded by isolation, poverty, depression and mental illness. (All of which are the fuel of great poetry!)

Christina served as an artist’s model for her brother Gabriel on several occasions. The most famous of these portraits  is Ecce Ancilla Domini (Latin: “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord”), or The Annunciation, in which she portrays the Virgin Mary.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Ecce Ancilla Domini! - Google Art Project.jpg

Christina Rossetti’s poems began to receive recognition in 1848, when she was just 18 years old. She published several sonnets and ballads, and wrote for literary magazines. In 1862 her most famous work,  Goblin Market and Other Poems, was first published.  It received widespread recognition and was praised by literary giants Alfred Tennyson and Gerard Manly Hopkins. Christina was considered one of the best female poets of her time.

The title poem, Goblin Market, has been interpreted in various ways. Upon first glance, it may appear to be a children’s poem about misadventures with goblins. Two sisters, Lizzie and Laura, hear the call of the goblin men, selling fruit in the market:

Morning and evening 
Maids heard the goblins cry: 
“Come buy our orchard fruits, 
Come buy, come buy: 
“Figs to fill your mouth, 
Citrons from the South, 
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye; 
Come buy, come buy.”

However, upon closer look we see that this is no children’s poem. It is a complicated work, full of double entendre as well as dark, erotic imagery.

“We must not look at goblin men, 
We must not buy their fruits: 
Who knows upon what soil they fed 
Their hungry thirsty roots?” 
“Come buy,” call the goblins 

Hobbling down the glen.

As the poem continues, the girls succumb to the temptation of the goblins and their fruit: We are told they’d “never tasted such before… She suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more, fruits which that unknown orchard bore, She sucked until her lips were sore.”
 

Some critics have interpreted the poem as an allegory about temptation and salvation. It has also been seen as a commentary on Victorian gender roles — the girls being forbidden from the market in much the same way Victorian women were forbidden from many aspects of life. Others say it is a work about erotic desire and social redemption. Christina was a volunteer worker from 1859 to 1870 at the St. Mary Magdalene “house of charity” in Highgate, a refuge for former prostitutes. Some historians and critics have suggested Goblin Market may have been inspired by the “fallen women” she came to know.

In the scary world of Victoriana, with dangers lurking all about, Jack the Ripper on the loose and the daily horrors of poverty and the industrial revolution, The Goblin Market can be seen in many disturbing ways.

But don’t take their word for it! Decide for yourself…  Read the entire poem here.

In her lifetime, Rossetti supported several social causes. She spoke out against slavery, advocated for animal rights, and opposed the exploitation of young girls forced into prostitution. (She had, no doubt witnessed a good deal of this exploitation during her volunteer days at Mary Magdalene.)  Rossetti was a strong voice for women of the repressive Victorian Era.

She remained single throughout her lifetime, turning down three proposals of marriage. One was from the Pre-Raphaelite painter James Collinson, a colleague of her brother Gabriel. Another was from the linguist Charles Cayley. The third offer came from another painter, John Brett, whom she also turned down. This would have been pretty outrageous, considering the fact that most Victorian women had the “life style choices”  of wife, nun or whore. Yet Christina somehow managed to establish herself as a writer and poet.

In later life, Christina suffered from Graves Disease and breast cancer. She died in Bloomsbury December 29, 1894 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery.

The poet leaves us with these words:

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.

Happy Birthday Christina.

 

 

 

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Lizzie and the Pre-Raphaelites

 

lizzie 1

Today, July 25th, marks the birthday of England’s first Victorian supermodel, Elizabeth Siddal.

Over a century before Twiggy hit swinging London, and 150 years before Tyra Banks began her search for America’s Top Model, English beauty Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal was the new face that launched a thousand ships.  She was an artist’s model for a group of cutting-edge painters known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

‘America’s Top Model’ — a reality show which takes beautiful urchins from mundane backgrounds off the streets and somehow transforms them into stunning supermodels – may actually have a lot in common with the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood ( PRB.)

In the mid 19th century a group of young painters decided to defy restrictions, throw caution to the wind and break the ceiling of what they thought had become very boring, regulated and prescription art in England.  They were led by the  rebel stud Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

lizzie dante

The PRB left behind stuffy universities to begin their own style. Their new art hearkened back to a more naturalistic pre-industrial time, and resembled Renaissance works popular before the painter Raphael became the accepted standard. (Hence the name Pre-Raphaelite.)

To our post-modern eyes, the PRB paintings might look very staid and classic, but in their own time they were quite shocking. One innovative thing the PRB did was to find their models among common people in the streets. These women were often shop girls or prostitutes. The Brotherhood would transform them into magnificent goddesses.

Elizabeth Siddal was one such model. She was born on July 25, 1829 to working class London parents. In her late teens she took a job in a hat shop in Cranbourne Alley.  In 1849 Lizzie was ‘discovered’ by PRB artist Walter Deverall, who was working on a painting to depict Shakespeare’s play ‘Twelfth Night’.

Deverall needed a model to portray the cross-dressing Viola — in her boy role as Cesario.  Elizabeth apparently had the androgynous beauty that was needed for the role.

Lizzie

Lizzie was described as: “a most beautiful creature with an air between dignity and sweetness; tall, finely-formed with a lofty neck, greenish-blue eyes, brilliant complexion and a lavish wealth of coppery golden hair.”

As luck would have it, Deverall’s model for the role of Feste the Fool was fellow painter and notorious bad boy Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Here is the entire panel, Gabriel as the court jester and Lizzie on the far left.

lizzie 12th night

When Rossetti and Elizabeth met, sparks flew. Thus began their tumultuous love affair. They became engaged and defied convention by living  together for almost ten years. They finally married in 1860.

Elizabeth became Gabriel’s chief muse. Reportedly, he painted over a thousand portraits of her.  He likened her to Beatrice Portinari, the muse of 13th century writer Dante Alighieri (author of The Divine Comedy.)  Dante was also Gabriel’s namesake and he seemed to have recreated their courtly love affair, starring himself as Dante and Lizzie as Beatrice.

lizzie beatrice

As torrid as their relationship was, Gabriel’s antics and constant affairs with other models apparently made for a not so smooth ride.  Plus, Elizabeth suffered from ill health and eventually became addicted to laudanum.

Nonetheless, they were a fascinating couple!  The PRB were the revolutionaries of Victorian London and their beautiful models were the ‘it girls’ of the day.  Elizabeth was a poet in her own right, and although her poems were never published in her lifetime, I think they are pretty good.

Here is an excerpt, called Dead Love:

Oh never weep for love that’s dead
Since love is seldom true
But changes his fashion from blue to red,
From brightest red to blue,
And love was born to an early death
And is so seldom true.

Perhaps it is a rather revealing version of her relationship with rogue Gabriel…

Elizabeth posed for numerous paintings and eventually began studying art herself, under Gabriel’s tutelage. She produced many sketches and watercolors. Art critic John Ruskin became her patron, and paid her the modest sum of £150 per year for her work. (That is about £12,000 in today’s money. Still, it was a big deal for a woman to have her own income!)

Elizabeth posed for many character portraits, but perhaps her most famous one was Ophelia by John Everett Millais.  Here she stars as Shakespeare’s tragic character from Hamlet who committed suicide by throwing herself in a river.

The image is so lifelike, you almost expect to touch her hands or smell the fragrance of her flowers.

lizzie ophelia

In real life, Elizabeth also committed suicide.

She became pregnant in 1861, but the baby, a girl, was stillborn.  Elizabeth, who also had a long history of depression, then suffered from post-partum and entered a dangerous darkness.  She died of a laudanum overdose on February 11, 1862.

Although coroners deemed her death an accident, reportedly, Lizzie left a suicide note. Gabriel later destroyed it, as he knew killing oneself in Victorian England was both illegal and immoral, and would have brought scandal upon her family.

Here is an excerpt of one of Lizzie’s eerily prophetic poems, called Early Death:

Oh grieve not with thy bitter tears
The life that passes fast;
The gates of heaven will open wide
And take me in at last.

Then sit down meekly at my side
And watch my young life flee;
Then solemn peace of holy death
Come quickly unto thee.

Now here’s where the story takes a really weird twist!

Gabriel, overcome with grief at his wife’s death, buried in her coffin a book of poems he had written to her.

Seven years later, in 1869, Gabriel became obsessed with the idea of publishing those poems.  He, along with his agent Charles Howell, applied for an order to have Elizabeth’s coffin exhumed.

Gabriel, a heavy drinker, may have really gone off the rails at this point.  Supposedly he was going blind and was no longer able to paint, and therefore looking to write and publish more poetry.

The exhuming of Lizzie’s grave was done (creepily!)  in the dead of night, so as not to draw attention.  Gabriel was not present, but Charles Howell claimed that Elizabeth, lying in the opened coffin, was still well preserved with her beauty in tact!

Also her long red hair had continued to grow, and therefore, Elizabeth’s corpse retained much of her stunning charm!

lizzie grave

(This is how vampire legends got started.  Remember, it was Victorian Times, ripe with Gothic ghost stories of the dormant  undead, and other wild imaginings.)

To be fair, laudanum is known to be a great preservative, and Lizzie had plenty of it in her body.  Also, she was no stranger to alcohol and other formaldehyde-type drugs.  She was a “devoted swallower” of Fowler’s Solution, a so-called complexion improver made from diluted arsenic.

Could all these drugs have made for a well preserved Lizzie?  There is a folkloric belief that hair and nails can continue to grow after death.

I cannot help but notice another similarity to Shakespeare’s Ophelia.  Hamlet — who was Ophelia’s lover — jumped into her grave at her burial, unable to let her go.

lizzie ophelia grave

Is truth stranger than fiction?

Whatever one makes of their personal lives, the PRB no doubt left their mark in the art world.  They produced some of the most stunning, radiant and thought-provoking works ever created.

Happy Birthday Lizzie!

The TV series Desperate Romantics was a fictional account of the PRB.  If you want to know more about them (or just be fabulously entertained by Aidan Turner as Gabriel and Amy Manson as Lizzie!)  tune into this episode. Running time is about one hour. Hope you like it! 🙂

 

 

 

 

Jingle Jangle Morning

 

Francis_Alfred_Delobbe_The_Little_Tambourine_girl_1884

“Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship
My senses have been stripped… my hands can’t feel to grip
My toes too numb to step, wait only for my boot heels
To be wandering.
I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way
I promise to go under it.

Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you.”

First of all, jangle really is a word!  I had my doubts, but Merriam-Webster defines it as such:

(verb)

  1. 1:  to make a harsh or discordant often ringing sound keys jangling in my pocket

  2. 2:  to quarrel verbally

  3. 3:  to talk idly

(noun)

  1. 1:  a discordant often ringing sound the jangle of spurs

  2. 2:  noisy quarreling

  3. 3:  idle talk

Origin: Middle English, from Anglo-French jangler, of Germanic origin; akin to Middle Dutch jangelen to grumble. First Known Use: 14th century

Second of all, Mister Tambourine Man! 🙂   Dylan is technically using ‘jangle’ as an adjective here, but no matter. You do not have to understand all of Dylan’s poetry to appreciate him. (Rumor has it he planned it that way.)

But ah, the jingle-jangle morning!  “I’ll come following you.”  Doesn’t it sound terribly romantic?

Tambourine

Here is Bob Dylan performing Mister Tambourine Man at the Newport Festival, 1964. Hope you like it!