Dante Gabriel Rossetti was only 18 when he wrote "The Blessed Damozel" in 1847. The poem went through many subsequent revisions, and it was not until 1871 that Rossetti began to work on a visual rendering of the poem. As a double work of art the pictorial version acts as a visual interpretation of his words. The first four stanzas of "The Blessed Damozel" are also written on the base of the frame, which Rossetti designed."The Blessed Damozel" tells the beautiful yet tragic tale of how two lovers are separated by the death of the Damozel and how she wishes to enter paradise, but only with her beloved by her side. Rossetti takes this theme of separated lovers that are to be rejoined in heaven from Dante's Vita Nuova, a continual source of inspiration. Rossetti divides the painting into two sections with a principal canvas on top and a narrower predella canvas beneath — a style reminiscent of Italian Renaissance altarpieces. The upper part shows the Damozel in Heaven, leaning over the golden bar or "barrier," surrounded by angels and flowers. She holds three lilies in her hands and stars encircle her flowing red hair. She gazes longingly down towards her beloved, depicted on Earth with grass and trees, in the lower predella. His hands are clasped above his head, emphasizing his plea and his state as a prisoner on Earth. The painting directly corresponds to the first verse of the poem:
The blessed damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.
The painter's choices and inclusion of detail also connect with his descriptive stanzas and illustrate the overall mood of the poem. "The Blessed Damozel" contains three different vantage points: that of the the Damozel's from heaven, the lover's from his memories and fantasies, and the lover's from his current consciousness. This last voice is indicated by parentheses, which separate the lover's earthly thoughts from the Damozel's reflective musings. By painting the Damozel on the upper portion and her beloved on the lower, Rossetti clearly demonstrates this spatial separation. He also emphasizes the fact that while this separation does not allow them to be together physically, it cannot keep them apart in their thoughts. In lines 37-42, the Damozel observes,
Around her, lovers, newly met
'Mid deathless love's acclaims,
Spoke evermore among themselves
Their heart-remembered names;
And the souls mounting up to God
Went by her like thin flames.
Here the Damozel questions why she cannot be with her beloved in Heaven when all others are with their loves. "Have I not prayed in Heaven? — on earth, Lord, Lord, has he not pray'd? / Are not two prayers a perfect strength?" she asks. Rossetti paints other ethereal lovers in various forms of embrace behind her, using warm, luminous tones to create a vision of idealized love in a glorious Heaven. However, this inclusion also contrasts and highlights the Damozel's unhappy and tragic situation. He also distinguishes this depiction of Heaven by using darker muted greens and browns to paint Earth. Throughout the poem, the Damozel dreams of the day when she and her beloved will be reunited and present themselves before God. In lines 125-132, the Damozel describes how her ideal love will be approved:
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: —
Only to live as once on earth
With Love, — only to be,
As then awhile, for ever now
Together, I and he.'
Despite her hopes and prayers, the Damozel eventually realizes that she cannot be with her beloved until the right time comes and that she shall be enteringHeaven without him. The Damozel "laid her face between her hands, And wept" while her lover on Earth "hears her tears." They remain apart, yet together in their hearts, separated by the two worlds. As a member of the PRB, Rossetti did not focus on biblical or typological symbolism with the intensity of William Holman Hunt. While "The Blessed Damozel" includes obvious references to biblical imagery, such as the allusion to God and Mother Mary, Rossetti does not seem to be as interested in religious symbolism in his painting. Instead, he creates a dreamy vision of Heaven full of angels, flowers and lovers — but one that still separates the two tragic lovers. In his painting, Rossetti seems to utilize the Damozel's place in Heaven and her concerns with God's grace in order to emphasize and glorify the spiritual depths of the feminine soul.
1. Rossetti's depictions of Heaven and Earth show two very different atmospheres — does Heaven seem like a warmer, more welcoming place? If so, why does Rossetti leave the Damozel's hopes and prayers unfulfilled? What does this say about Heaven? And death? What is the poem's view of love — should it be viewed as ideal and optimistic or not?
2. In addition to her spiritual thoughts and prayers, the Damozel hold lilies, the symbol of purity, and she wears a simple white robe that "No wrought flowers did adorn." In Rossetti's descriptions of her, what sort of relationship appears between the spirit and the body? Between physical and mystical love?
3. Thirty years after its first appearance Rossetti told Hall Caine that he had written "The Blessed Damozel" as a sequel to Poe's "The Raven," published in 1845: "I saw that Poe had done the utmost it was possible to do with the grief of the lover on earth, and so determined to reverse the conditions, and give utterance to the yearning of the loved one in heaven." (RPO) In Poe's poem, the speaker is a male, longing for his love, Lenore. Does Rossetti's reversal of Poe's gender roles hold any significance? How does he describe and depict the Damozel's "yearning"? And how does this reflect her gender?
4. Rossetti makes many references to nature in the poem, including the lilies, the tide, the stars, the "living mystic tree" and the Dove. Do some of these elements hold Biblical symbolism? Are they significant? How does this effect his vision of Heaven and the overall theme of the poem?
The Rossetti Archive: http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu:8090/styler/servlet/SaxonServlet?source=http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu:2020/tamino/files/1-1847.s244.raw.xml&style=http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu:2020/tamino/rossetti.xsl&clear-stylesheet-cache=yes
Representative Poetry Online: Department of English, University of Toronto: http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/index.cfm
Last modified 15 October 2004