The Blessed Damozel

The Blessed Damozel by John Liston Byam Shaw, RI AWRS 1872-1919. 1895. Oil on canvas, 94 x 180 cm. Collection: Guildhall Art Gallery (no. 1055). Purchased from N. Mitchell, 1927. Reproduced courtesy of the City of London Corporation. Click on image to enlarge it.

Byam Shaw shows great daring,  and possibly a fine understanding of the Rosettian poem, by creating a picture based upon a work that the poet himself illustrated with his own painting. Byam Shaw’s version, which has far more in common pictorially with works of Burne-Jones, such as Laus Veneris, than those of Rossetti, concentrates on the crowd of young women. This is in sharp contrast to Rossetti’s painting, which concentrates upon the blessed damozel supposedly yearning for her lover above a predella that depicts the mourning lover whose words — not the Beloved’s — form the poem. Did Byam Shaw, unlike many others, realize that Rossetti’s poem is a dramatic monologue? In other words, did he realize that the description of the Beloved in heaven, like the description of heaven itself, is hardly something the poet and poem present as true? Rather it is a dramatization of the bereft lover’s desperation. He is the one who imagines that the dead young woman misses him as much as he misses her. Such ironic distance is difficult to convey in a painting, but Rossetti does his best by including the lover in the predella. What we see in The Blessed Damozel is the bereft man’s vision of heaven, not Rossetti’s.

This sharp contrast between what the bereft male lover believes and what the beloved might actually feel at their separation has major similarities with his sister's “Song,” whose first stanza ends with the dead woman telling “my dearest”: “if thou wilt, remember, / And if thou wilt, forget.” In what seems a brutal riposte to (the speaker of) her brother’s poem, Christina Rossetti’s female speaker-from-beyond-the-grave closes with words and tone that implicitly criticize what is now revealed to be the eroticized egotism of the male mourner “The Blessed Damozel”:

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.

The wordplay with “haply,” which might meaning either “possibly” or “happily,” further undercuts the bereaved male, who turns out to have far less continuing importance to the beloved than he assumes.

The two poems by the Rossettis greatly complicate how we interpret Byam Shaw’s The Blessed Damozel and its relation to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem and painting. On the one hand, we can take it to be a complete misunderstanding of Rossetti’s picture, a representation of the combined erotic yearnings and bereavement of the man. Whereas the amatory version of heaven that informs both Rossetti's poem and painting includes romantic couples — young men and women in one another’s arms — Byam Shaw’s rather prim interpretation of Rossetti’s poem has no place for men. No sexuality here other than that implied by a male gaze. Byam Shaw's painting presents heaven as a place of musical young women, some of whom play instruments while others sing, some wearing quasi-medieval garments, others quasi-Grecian ones. On the other hand, the very absence of the Rossetti’s loving couples and the fact that here the Blessed Damozel is not straining over “the gold bar of Heaven” to see her beloved can be taken to mean that Byam Shaw in fact completely understands his predecesor’s dual work of art: Heaven for the Blessed Damozel doesn't require men. Byam Shaw knows Christina Rossetti’s poetry, and at least one of his paintings — But never see my heart is breaking for a little love — refers to her poetry. So whether or not the artist understood Rossetti’s painting as a visual version of his poem or simply created his work to criticize the speaker’s idea that, even after her death, he remains the center of his beloved's existence, Byam Shaw’s heaven without men comes to the same thing.

A final question: Who is the woman at the center of Byam Shaw’s painting? Could it be the Blessed Damozel herself, or is it the Virgin Mary? Since she seems too regal and too old to be the deceased woman, which figure then is the Blessed Damozel? — George P. Landow

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Created 7 February 2015