Compared to his more prolific contemporaries, like Browning, Tennyson, and Morris, Rossetti wrote little poetry. His comparative paucity of output is due in large part both to his turning away from poetry for long periods while he worked on his painting and to his habit of reworking the same poems. Even so, one finds difficult summarizing Rossetti's career without distorting it, for although after his first years as a poet he in fact devoted much of his poetic energies to lyrics and the sonnets in The House of Life, he did produce several fine dramatic monologues, satirical poems, and exercises in Neomedievalism.

The experimentation with conventional meaning and symbol that distinguishes Tennyson's "The Kraken" and Browning's "Prophyria's Lover" appears in a different form in Rossetti's "The Woodspurge" (1870) which, like "The Blessed Damozel" (1850), presents commonplace symbols and associations only to show that they have no meaning and that no longer do we live in the world of the Divina Commedia — a world of divinely ordained analogies and hierarchies. The tension between a daring poetry suited for a bleak, opaque world and one employing traditional forms of symbolism, including typology, dominates Rossetti's poetry far more than personal authenticity and public relevance, and this tension is often played out in the midst of meditations on time and human identity.

After "Jenny" (1848) and "The Last Confession (Regno Lombardo-Veneto, 1848)" (1849), Rossetti turned away from contemporary subjects, and his career reveals a progressive narrowing of theme and technique as he concentrated upon sonnets about love and time. The range of his earlier work is indicated by "The Burden of Nineveh" (1856), where Rossetti takes the ancient Mesopotamian kingdom to prefigure Victorian England, much in the manner of Ruskin whose Stones of Venice (1851-1853) had presented Tyre and Venice as types of England that prefigured the nation's downfall if it did not heed the warning offered by its predecessors.

As the poem begins, the speaker has encountered statues of the Assyrian bull-gods just as he is leaving the sanctity of the British Museum, where he has retreated to admire the beauties of Greek art. Now, finding himself once more in the noise and bustle of modern London, he comes upon the ancient statues and quickly moves into a meditation on time and loss. Finally, he thinks of that distant era when future archaeologists, perhaps the descendants of some now still-primitive tribe, will excavate London as Layard had Nineveh. Encountering the massive idols in the ruins of a once proud city, these latter-day explorers will assume that the English had worshiped such gods. As the meditator elaborates upon the bull-god's appearance, one gradually perceives that he provides a satiric catalogue of a presumed British deity, not that which men pretend to worship on the Sabbath but that to which they offer themselves the other six days of their weekly existence — Mammon, or what Ruskin termed the Victorian Goddess-of-Getting-On.

Another more characteristic example of Rossetti's concern with time and fate appears in "Troy Town." The poem opens with a stanza portraying the beauty of Helen, whom the next stanza presents praying for the love of Paris:

Helen knelt at Venus's shrine,
(O Troy Town!)
Saying, "A little gift is mine,
A little gift for a heart's desire.
Hear me speak and make me a sign!"
(O Troy's down,
Tall Troy's on fire!)

After the first line of each stanza Rossetti inserts a lament for Troy, one that is generalized and timeless, and each stanza ends with the more specific statement that Troy is burning now while the speaker is telling the tale, while the prayers are being directed at Venus. The poem, in other words, proceeds by juxtaposing two facts and two times stanza after stanza until they are understood to merge into one another. The refrain is thus a poetic or verbal parallel to Rossetti's use of multipaneled pictures in Paolo and Francesca (1849-1862) and The Seed of David (1860-1864). Thus, Helen's beauty and desire are repeatedly set side by side until we recognize that they are the destruction of Troy, and they become so implicated in the fate of Paris's home that they function proleptically. Within the poem, which thus juxtaposes two times, the end of tragic desire is implicit in the beginning.

A related, if rather different effect appears in two of his best long poems, "Jenny" (1848-1858) and "The Last Confession" (1849), both of which begin with a single point, a single event, and continually find themselves led back to it. We do not find out until the closing lines of "The Last Confession," which is set in Italy of the Risorgimento, that this event was the Italian speaker's murder of his beloved. This entire poem, which bears the impress of Browning's "My Last Duchess" (1842), moves toward the point at which we learn this fact and then perceive that for the dying man this murder has become the center of his life, the significant moment toward which he moved and which still obsesses him.


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