"Life touching lips with immortality": Rossetti's Temporal Structures

decorated initial 'T' hroughout his career as painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti drew upon biblical typology. In his early career this unbeliever used it chiefly to endow orthodox Christian devotional images and poems with greater powcr, while later he drew upon it for those structures of nostalgia and regret that characterize his particular form of Victorian Romanticism. Having already observed that Rossetti, Hunt, and their Pre-Raphaelite associates employed typology to create a symbohc realism, we shall now examine the way Rossetti moves beyond these orthodox applications of typological symbolism by abstracting from it two basic structures. In the first, which is most closely related to orthodox Christian usage, he employs one event to prefigure a second which completes it. Rossetti was apparently intrigued by the fact that prefigurative symbolism provides a means of redeeming human time, a means of perceiving order and causality in human events. Those familiar with his continual examination ofthe problems oftime and loss in his poetry will immediately perceive how crucial such an idea could be to him. The other structure derived from typology is constituted by an event and Its connections with eternity. In other words, typology provides repeated instances of situations in which the eternal brushes up against or reaches into human time. On each occasion that a divinely instituted type, say, Joseph, Aaron, or Samson, pre-enacts a portion of Christ's life and message, a privileged situation occurs, one which exists on a double temporal scale, that of the earthly and that of the eternal. Rossetti continually searches for analogous secular moments in life and art that could give human existence the same kind of meaning and essential coherence that types furnish for sacred history. Flnding an event or instant when time and eternity supposedly interpenetrate, Rossetti discovers a point at which "Life touches lips with immortality" and metamorphoses into something greater, something beyond human limits and limitations.

Although Rossetti did not possess the faith of Holman Hunt or his own sister Christina, typology remained important to him because it offered an example of the way the human imagination could organize written discourse to show that time had meaning. Therefore he continues to draw upon the language and habits of mind associated with typology in "The Burden of Nineveh," "Troy Town" and The House of Life, even though he ultimately has to admit that love (or the beloved) cannot, like Christ, serve as a center to human history. Although his upbringing in a High Church household did not provide him with Christian belief, it did leave him with a sincere yearning for the order and coherence that such a belief could offer Many of his poems seek a replacement for that unavailable faith something which will provide continuity for the self, but he fails to find one, and the closing portions of The House of Life show the poet accepting death.

A somewhat atypical application of typology (because it does not appear in the context of this personal quest) marks "The Burden of Nineveh" (1856), in which Rossetti takes the ancient kingdom to be a prefiguration of Victorian England. In The Stones of Venice (1851-53), which the poet read and liked, Ruskin had presented Tyre and Venice as types of England that would prefigure the nation's downfall if it did not heed the warning offered by its predecessors. Such use of typological readings of history to draw conclusions about one's own time were common among seventeenth-century Puritans and nineteenth-century Evangelicals, among those, for example, who would have written that "zealous tract,"Rome, Babylon and Nineveh,"' at which Rossetti smiles in the course of his poem.

A secularized political typology had long been associated with the idea of Rome: the Italian city-states of the Renaissance, France during the period of Revolution and First Empire, and fascist Italy and Germany during the twentieth century all turned to the shadow of ancient Rome as authority and goal for their programs. Here one is talking of a relation between two times, a prefiguring and fulfillment, which is more a permanent part of Western thought than a derivation of Christian readings of history. Such attitudes towards secular history assisted the popularity of Christian typology, one suspects, far more than Christian typology gave birth to them. Rossetti's beloved Dante, it is true, did set forth in the Purgatorio the notion that Roman history could be incorporated into the divine scheme of salvation: just as the Old Testament types and prophecies led up to Christ, preparing His way in spiritual matters, so the Roman Empire had done in terms of political, purely secular order. Such habits of mind thus would have been familiar to Rossetti.

The irony with which he hypothesizes this relation between Nineveh and England is entirely in keeping with the attitudes of the poem. The speaker encounters workmen hoisting in 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 upon time and loss. Finally, he thinks of that distant era when some future archeologists, 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 worshipped such gods. 'The smile rose first, — anon drew nigh/ The thought":

Those heavy wings spread high,
So sure of flight, which do not fly;
That set gaze never on the sky;
Those scriptured flanks it cannot see;
Its crown, a brow-contracting load;
Its planted feet which trust the sod: . . .
(So grew the image as I trod:)
O Nineveh, was this thy God,
Thine also, mighty Nineveh? [Ellipsis in original; complete text of poem]

As the meditator elaborates upon the bull-god's appearance, one gradually perceives that it effectively provides a satiric catalogue of a presumed British deity, not, as Ruskin put it in "Traffic," that which men pretend to worship on the Sabbath but that to which they offer themselves the other six days of their weekly existence. In fact Rossetti's closing description much resembles Ruskin's later creation of the English -- and one must add, European and American -- Goddess-of-Getting-On.

Another, more characteristic example of Rossetti's oblique use of ideas associated with typology appears in "Troy Town." The critical history of this poem centers upon the fact that many readers have assumed the refrain has no effect other than to stress that Rossetti has cast classical myth in ballad form. lf, however, one examines "Troy Town" from the vantage point of his many attempts to provide a connection between various times, one perceives that the prefiguratlve refrain has an important function indeed. The poem opens with a stanza describing the beauty of Helen, whom the second stanza portrays standing bcfore the altar of Venus and praying for the love of Paris:

Helen knelt at Venus' 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, then, Rossetti inserts a lament for Troy, one that is generalized and timeless, while 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 each other. The refrain is thus a poetic or verbal parallel to Rossetti's use of multipaneled pictures in Paolo and Francesca (184~62) and The Seed of David (1860-64) . Thus, Helen's beauty and desire are repeatedly set side by side until we recognize that they are all but equivalent: Helen's desire, Helen's beauty are the destruction of Troy, and they become so implicated in the fate of Paris's home that they function proleptically. As the ballad progresses, it builds a momentum of gathering doom. The first nine stanzas depict Helen's prayers for the love of Paris; and the next two Venus's approval of the desire that she herself has created; and the eleventh and twelfth, Cupid sending his burning arrow on its way. The last stanza shows that Helen's prayer has been answered, for Paris lies "Dead at heart with heart's desire," and the stage is set for the tragedy to be enacted. Within the poem, which thus juxtaposes two times, the end is implicit in the beginning, and this is precisely what Rossetti has managed to emphasize so effectively. If such a poetic strategy sounds familiar, it is because Yeats repeats it with far greater artistry in "Leda and the Swan," a poem for which "Troy Town" is almost certainly the model and source. While Yeats manages to conflate his times with more brevity and without the need for archaizing language, Rossetti's poem manages most powerfully to make its point about the tragic power of human desire.

A related, if far different effect appears in two of his best long poems, "Jenny" (1848-58) and "The Last Confession" (1849). Like Swinburne's "The Triumph of Time" (1866), both incorporate what can be termed a meditative structure; that is, they each 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" that this event was the speaker's murder of his beloved, and the entire poem moves towards 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 towards which he moved and which still obsesses him. I am not trying to argue, of course, that such a concern with time is in any sense an example of typology. Rather, I merely wish to show that the poet's interest, or perhaps obsession, with time led him continually to look for ways to organize his poems to find such temporal centers. Indeed, one could accurately define Rossetti's verse in terms of the recognition that since Christ as a center of human history is no longer available or even relevant to him, man must search for other poetic and spiritual solutions.

One recurrent solution is to capture a moment which in some way captures the eternal, the timeless. "For a Venetian Pastoral" (1849), one of his most famous sonnets, attempts to preserve one of these centers to time when the eternal brushes against the temporal, just as it does in the typological image. As in his sonnet "For An Annunciation, Early German" (1849), he makes use of his ability to create a poetry of sensation and experience, a poetry which can capture the sensory edge of things, their sound, their look. For a long time critics of Pre-Raphaelite poetry assumed that Rossetti and other writers associated with the young painters wrote a visually oriented poetry, a verse characterized by sharp visual impressions and carefully composed scenes — analogues, as it were, to Ruskin's word-painting and to hard-edge Pre-Raphaelitism. In fact, a large portion of Rossetti's poetry takes the form of meditations that are conceived non-visually or that make a major use of conceits and other nonvisual devices. None the less, he did have a fine talent for writing such visual poetry. It is just that he rarely finds the attractions of such a method compelling enough to make it the center of an entire poem as do, say, Morris and Tennyson.

"For a Venetian Pastoral" represents one of his comparatively rare attractions to this kind of verse. Reading Giorgione's painting as a moment of secular and sensual illumination, he recreates that moment by detailing the things whose touch and sound make it so perfect. His speaker, here as always an observer outside the picturespace, comments upon the figures' actions by means of imperatives that serve in the manner of stage directions . The sonnet begins with a yearning for water, which can ease the thirst of summer's longest day, and then we hear the water flow so quietly into the jar the woman holds. He directs this nude woman sitting at the fountain or well, "dip the vessel slowly, — nay, — but lean/ And hark how at its verge the wave sighs in/ Reluctant." We are then turned from the quiet sound of the water filling the vessel to greater quiet, greater absence of motion: "Hush! Beyond all depth away/ The heat lies silent at the brink of day." Now the players cease their music and "brown faces cease to sing, / sad with the whole of pleasure" . They are sad, we soon realize, because all things, all beings, all moments must pass. Rossetti underlines this inevitable loss when he returns our gaze to the woman, against whose naked side we are meant to feel "the shadowed grass." He asks us — or those in the painting — not to break the spell in which she finds herself enclosed, nor later attempt to recall or categorize it:

Say nothing now unto her lest she weep,
Nor name this ever. Be it as it was, --
Life touching lips with immortality.

According to Rossetti, then, the woman (who has, in effect, become one of his own Fair Ladies) experiences one of those perfect moments, one of those centers to time, that offer a pattern and order to our lives. Unfortunately for the poet, the only such moment of which he knows that could last is that one at which Christ was supposed to have appeared on earth, thereafter providing a center to all history for those who believed in Him. Since Rossetti, like so many Victorians, cannot accept such a divine irruption into the human, these centers to time and other aspects of typology can only appear in his most personal poetry in a truncated form. This description is not meant to criticize his poetry for a deficiency. Rather, I wish merely to show how Rossetti remains fascinated with those moments at which life touches immortality. Here it is the quality of the moment, its sensory perfection, which raises it above the flux of ordinary minutes and hours — and the fact that a great painter chose to immortalize it in color and form. None the less, however powerful the experience, however intense the illumination, it passes all too quickly, and hence the major tone of the sonnet is elegaic aswe are left with a sense of piercing loss, of pain at recognizing the transience of things, of ourselves .

The most important example of Rossetti's concern with time occurs in The House of Life (1870-81), the complex gathering of sonnets which is his poetic masterpiece. It ends with his acceptance of time and death; but before arriving at that conclusion the poet makes many attempts to conquer or evade the temporal and its painful destructions. Throughout the first portion of The House of L~fe, he tries to find or create centers to time, something that can provide a core and a meaning to his existence as man, lover, and poet. In section twenty-seven, for instance, he replaces Christ with the beloved at the center of human existence:

Sometimes thou seem'st not as thyself alone,
But as the meaning of all things that are;
A breathless wonder, shadowing forth afar
Some heavenly solstice hushed and halcyon.

The problem for Rossetti, as for all secular poets, is that the beloved is not in fact divine, she is not all that much like Christ, and it is only at odd moments that she "seem'st" to be the center of all things.

The poet's tendency to treat either love or his beloved as spiritual saviour appears most strikingly in some of the sonnets written earliest for The House of Life. For example, in its earlier version, section three, "Love's Testament," was entitled "Love's Redemption," and it employed explicit imagery of the sacrament of communion:

O thou who at Love's hour ecstatically
Unto my lips dost evermore present
The body and blood of Love in sacrament;
Whom I have neared and felt thy breath to be
The inmost incense of his sanctuary
Who without speech hast owned him, and intent
Upon his will, thy life with mine hast blent,
And murmured o'er the cup, Remember me! -

Such an obvious and almost blasphemous transference of things associated with Christ to Rossetti's own incarnation of romantic love apparently dissatisfied him, for he later removed the imagery of the Eucharist, thus making the second and third lines read: "Unto my heart dost evermore present,/ Clothed with his fire, thy heart his testament." The effect of this slight change was reinforced by his further removal of the last line of the octet, which echoed the words of Christ to His disciples at the Last Supper, and which apparently elevated the lovers to the status of Christ Himself: "And murmured o'er the cup, Remember me!--" These alterations in the first part of the sonnet change the effect of what follows, for the sestet in the later version no longer so obviously alludes to the harrowing of Hell. It is difficult to determine precisely why Rossetti made these modifications, but at least one reason would seem to be his growing realization that he could not sincerely make his earlier identifications of love and Christ.

The first part of The House of LiSe contains other attempts to make the beloved the center of his life. Sonnet thirty-four thus opens with the assertion that he himself cannot plumb the limits of his love, adding,

How should I reach so far, who cannot weigh
To-morrow's dower by gage of yesterday? . . .
And shall my sense pierce love, — the last relay
And ultimate outpost of eternity?

Such a claim, which works perfectly if this greater love equals Christ, as it does in the work of religious poets, becomes problematic and desperate in this context — as it is supposed to be. The speaker remains sure at this point, none the less, that through the beloved's eyes Love "grants me clearest call/ And veriest touch of powers primordial/ That any hour-girt life may understand." The beloved, in other words, provides a point at which the eternal enters human time, acting analogously to Christ's presence in history. Rossetti's use of terms conventionally associated with typology, such as "shadowing" and "fulfillment," demonstrates that his attempted solutions to the problem of time derive ultimately from this Christian mode of thought.

More commonly in The House of Life Rossetti makes not the loved one nor even love itself but some perfect moment serve as the yearned-for center to time. His attempts to create such momentsthe time for loving, and not that time itself will pass on to autumn and wlnter.

In this poem, as in "Last Fire" and "Silent Noon," he creates a sonnet truly "a moment's monument." But monuments both preserve a memory and mourn a passing, and, as we have observed, the speaker in The House of Lfe, whom we may take to be Rossetti himself, increasingly realizes that he cannot hold on to these moments. The confidence that he can capture the passing instant found in "The Portrait" and "Last Fire" becomes replaced by the recognition of transience, and the poet's attempts to retain his joys become increasingly desperate.

Transience provides the subject of many of Rossetti's other poems, including his translations from Villon, because it was something he found compelling throughout his poetic career. Even in a supposedly optimistic poem, such as "Possession," it is the loss, rather than the joy, that comes through, and his more usual emphasis falls upon the loss itself. Thus, "Dawn on the NightJourney" uses the language of typology and prophecy, schemata which create temporal order, only to emphasize a final lack of that order:

When the last
Of the sun's hours to-day shall be fulfilled,
There shall another breath of time be stilled
For me, which now is to my senses cast
As much beyond me as eternity, Unknown, kept secret.

Even as the day begins he is aware that the hour will be given "as sheer as chaos to the irrevocable Past." Such recognitions of man's helplessness in the waters of time serve as the burden of many sections of The House of Life. For example, section twenty-four, "Pride of Youth," quickly dramatizes the lover's consciousness of time, for even while rejoicing in new love he must admit that "there is a change in every hour's recall." He first mentions the happy side of change, perceiving that evcn as the last cowslip fades away, the first corn-poppy springs to life. Immediately afterwards, however, the implications of such succession force their way upon him.

Alas for hourly change! Alas for all
The loves that from his hand proud Youth lets fall,
Even as the beads of a told rosary!

In sonnet forty-three, "Love and Hope," such recognition of inevitable change and loss makes the speaker place a more desperate emphasis upon that kind of perfect moment he had presented hopefully in "Silent Noon" and "Youth's Spring-Tribute." Moreover, the speaker now becomes explicitly retrospective. Whereas the earlier sonnets begin in the present, portraying the perfect moments as they unfold before the poet, "Love and Hope" leads up to such a moment by recognizing that others have already eluded him and his beloved:

Full many a withered year
Whirled past us, eddying to its chill doomsday;
And clasped together where the blown leaves lay,
We long have knelt and wept full many a tear.

Suddenly, they come upon a perfect hour once again: "Yet lo! one hour at last, the Spring's compeer,/ Flutes softly to us from some green byeway." The poet consoles himself and his beloved with the thought that although those times are already dead, the lovers remain. But even as he asserts this "comfort," he asks her not to demand of "this hour" if they shall awake together after death in the "sunshine ofthe imperishable land" in essence, a denial ofthe lover's desires in "The Blessed Damozel."

"Stillborn Love," section fifty-five, makes an even more desperate claim that capturing such a perfect hour is still possible, for here the only place it can be found is after death. Describing the failure to realize their potential perfection of love in "the hour which might have been yet might not be," the poem draws the lovers themselves as parents of that "little outcast hour," which treads some unknown shore against which breaks "Time's weary sea." But by the close of the sonnet the speaker can envision the two lovers, now united once again, at last capturing that hour of joy on the "immortal strand." The context of this part of The Hotlse of Life suggests, not that the speaker has achieved new faith, but that he has become more desperate, placing his hope on those things that he has already indicated will not come to pass. The lovers thus displace God as the center and creator of their scheme of salvation, revelation, and culmination, but by now in the sonnet sequence the speaker is presenting a poetry, not of belief, but of hypothesis that serves primarily to communicate the intensity of his desire.

By sonnet eighty-three, "Barren Spring," only the awareness of transience and loss remains. At this point in The House of Life , imagery of natural fertility no longer can represent the poet's mood. Spring thus awakens no echoing, answering smile from the poet, "whose life is twin'd/ With dead boughs that winter still must bind"; and when he sees the new life springing from the earth, he no longer has his beloved with him to quicken into an echoing vitality. Instead, he perceives, like that last great Victorian poet, that April is the cruelest month for one who has no capacity for joy and new life within him. Hence the flowers he sees remind him only of what he has lost:

Behold, this crocus is a withering flame;
This snowdrop, snow; this apple-blossom's part
To breed the fruit that breeds the serpent's art.

These lines invert the earlier joyful centers of time he had portrayed, because now the juxtaposition of the two moments only underlines how much time has taken from him. The "changed year's turning wheel" becomes, then, not an image of nature's eternal cycle of growth but offortune's wheel; for without his beloved he is now but fortune's fool.

Increasingly pessimistic, the speaker devotes several sonnets to the difficulty of seizing and holding on to anything of importance to him. In particular, "Hoarded Joy," eighty-two, dramatizes the impossibility of catching the right instant, the point of fullness, so that the final result of the poet's meditation is not a memory of having captured something beautiful that can sustain him, but of being captured by the memory that he has allowed that precious moment to slip away. Whereas Rossetti had written with sharp visual detail earlier in "Silent Noon" and similar sonnets that optimistically present the possibility of preserving such moments, now he writes in his more characteristic abstract style. "A Superscription," ninety-seven, one of the closing sections of The Hotlse of Lfe, again emphasizes the impossibility of retaining anything of value. Here we have an address by "Might-have-been/ I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell"- all denied potential — who tells the lover that his longed-for center to life and time, his moment of culmination, will not come to pass. Even when one recalls moments of joy, "Might-have-been" transforms them into "a shaken shadow intolerable." Even if the poet should find "one moment" when peace enters his soul, the realization of what he has lost, of what has not been achieved, will tum his tranquillity to suffering, his dream to sleepless misery. When the speaker was sitting next to his beloved, such moments appeared sufficient to console him for any loss that might follow; but once she is lost to him such brief instants merely intensify his loss. Moments are not enough.

"He and I," ninety-eight, the next sonnet, shows that he has lost more than his beloved — he has lost his old self. Discontinuity of the self is the final result of living within this meaningless, eroding time; for just as Rossetti finds he cannot hold on to love, so, too, he finds he cannot hold on to his memories and experiences, and so at last he becomes a different person, a stranger to his earlier being. Rossetti's attempt to recapture things past ends, unlike those of Ruskin and Proust, with resignation and not the triumphant resurrection of an earlier self. The final two sonnets accept death as the inevitable creation of life, as Rossetti's version of In Memoriam becomes, in effect, an anti-In Memoriam. He enforces his acceptance of death-asthe-end-of-life with "Newborn Death," sonnet ninety-nine, in which he creates what seems to be a parody of a Nativity or Adoration scene: the "worn mother Life" places Death upon his knee "to grow my friend and play with me." None the less, Rossetti ends not with despair, for the final sonnet ends on a note of hope, though one for which Rossetti can provide no reason except desire.

In conclusion, the explicit and skillful use of typology that Rossetti displayed in his early poetry had several major effects upon his career. It provided him with a means of making poetry and painting into sister arts, while at the same time it permitted him to solve some of the problems inherent in all realistic styles of painting. Because he could not accept the validity of Christian belief necessary for a sincere use of christological typology, he could not employ it in his most personal works, as could Hunt, Browning, Tennyson, Newman, and Keble. Instead, he makes use of typology's various capacities to organize time, and they have a major effect upon his tone and manner of proceeding. In The House of Life he writes about a present, which (he hopes) has been prefigured by perfect moments of the past, and his search for these organizing prefigurations provides his poem with its introspective, elegaic tone.

Victorian Web main screen Biblical Typology Overview Contents Next Section

Print version published 1980; web version 1998