Friday, November 23, 2007

All in the Family — a Poetry Friday post

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays during which most people try to see or at least speak to family members. Which got me thinking that I'd share a family story for today, the day after Thanksgiving.

Once upon a time, an Italian poet named Gabriele Pasquale Giuseppe Rossetti emigrated to England after he was forced to leave Italy for supporting a nationalist movement. There, he met amd married the daughter of another Italian emigré, and had four children.

Maria Francesca Rossetti, author of The Shadow of Dante: Being an essay towards studying himself, his world, and his pilgrimage, which was published in 1871. I'm currently unclear whether she was referring to Dante Alighieri, of whom I wrote briefly in a past post, or to her brother Gabriel, who used his second middle name, Dante, as part of his nom de plume. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Maria became an Anglican nun in later years.

Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, poet, painter, illustrator and translator. While those who knew him called him by his first name, he chose to call himself Dante Gabriel Rossetti when writing because he liked the association with Dante Alighieri. In art and literature, Gabriel tended to prefer mythology and symbolism to real-life depictions. His early art was part of the pre-Raphaelite movement, but he later became quite stylised and was part of the early European Symbolist movement.

He became quite peculiar after his wife's death in childbirth (in part attributable to her laudanum addiction), and became exceedingly fond of wombats. He wrote quite a lot of poetry, some of it marvelous, before succumbing to depression and an addiction to chloral hydrate (which is what happened to the heroine of Edith Wharton's Bleak House. Did anyone else catch this article about evidence that it was suicide, not an accident? But I digress.)

Here's a sonnet by the older Rossetti boy:

Heart's Compass
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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;
Whose unstirred lips are music’s visible tone;
Whose eyes the sun-gate of the soul unbar,
Being of its furthest fires oracular—
The evident heart of all life sown and mown.
Even such love is; and is not thy name Love?
Yea, by thy hand the Love-god rends apart
All gathering clouds of Night’s ambiguous art;
Flings them far down, and sets thine eyes above;
And simply, as some gage of flower or glove,
Stakes with a smile the world against thy heart.


Well-done if you spotted that as an Italianate sonnet (ABBAABBACDDCCD). The various types of sonnets are explained in a much earlier post, and subsequent posts explained some variations, including the Eugene Onegin stanza. But again, I digress.

William Michael Rossetti was a co-founder of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, where he edited their literary magazine and wrote poetry reviews. He also wrote biographies and essays and edited the works of both his poet siblings, as well as contributing to the Encyclopedia Britannica. He married the daughter of painter Ford Madox Brown.

Christina Georgina Rossetti was a poet from the age of 7. She suffered a nervous breakdown when she was 14, and was later swept into a religious fervor within the Church of England, along with her mother and older sister. Because of her religious beliefs, she declined at least two proposals of marriage. At age 31, she published her first collection of poetry, Goblin Market and Other Poems. Coming (as it did) only a few months before the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and being well-received, Rossetti was soon hailed as the new English female laureate. "Goblin Market" is one of her best-known poems. Dedicated to her sister, it tells of the temptations of the fruits of the goblin men, and the ruin that follows when one sister tastes their fruit. The other remains faithful to her way of life and manages to sort things out for them. It's a disturbing and riveting poem, and undoubtedly some sort of commentary on the need for strong religious principles. But again, I digress. (Must be the pumpkin pie hangover.)

One of Christina Rossetti's best-known poems is "In the Bleak Midwinter", which was set to music and popularized as a carol after her death. (You can see/hear a version of the carol sung by Allison Crowe here.) Rossetti also wrote quite a number of sonnets. Below is one of them.

Sonnet
from Monna Innominata
by Christina Rossetti

I wish I could remember that first day,
First hour, first moment of your meeting me,
If bright or dim the season, it might be
Summer or Winter for aught I can say;
So unrecorded did it slip away,
So blind was I to see and to foresee,
So dull to mark the budding of my tree
That would not blossom for many a May.
If only I could recollect it, such
A day of days! I let it come and go
As traceless as a thaw of bygone snow;
It seemed to mean so little, meant so much;
If only now I could recall that touch,
First touch of hand in hand—Did one but know!


I expect ALL of you spotted this one as an Italianate sonnet, since it uses precisely the same rhyme scheme as that used by her brother which you just read.

I have no idea whether Papa Rossetti had a favorite child (or, for that matter, whether he was called Papa), but I submit that while Dante had some chops, Christina was the finer poet. If you go back and look at Gabe's sonnet (I'm sure he won't mind if I call him Gabe, right?), you'll see that he only let two lines go without punctuation at the end, and that he usually used line-ending punctuation indicating a pretty significant pause (periods, semicolons and em-dashes). Christina, by contrast, is more subtle. She doubles the number of unpunctuated lines (4), which makes the poem move a bit more swiftly, and her use of commas instead of longer-pausing marks means that you need not hesitate quite so much (particularly as at least two of the line-ending commas are there as part of a list).

Dante also uses formal phrasing (what with the thees and thous and the "est" endings), whereas Christina uses "you." Dante talks of mythological gods where Christina talks of nature; Dante uses Big Important Words, while Christina uses accessible ones.

Take another look at the poems (assuming you've got a moment), and you'll see that they are both writing about love, and that they both reference nature in so doing. The references to nature are probably part of brother Bill's pre-Raphaelite leanings. William Rossetti wrote the guiding principles of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and I think they are reflected in the poetry of his siblings, and more so in Christina's writings than in Dante's (particularly since, between you and me, I think Dante's poem reads as an imitation of those of earlier poets, whereas even now, there's something "fresh" about Christina's):

1. To have genuine ideas to express;
2. To study nature attentively, so as to know how to express them;
3. To sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote;
4. And most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues (or poems, as the case may be).

5 comments:

Cloudscome said...

Marvelous post! I am eager to learn more about sonnets since I have forgotten almost all of what I used to know of them. I have always like Christina Rossetti and now you have reminded me why. I enjoyed both of the ones you've included here but Christina's is, as you say, fresh and genuine. In the Bleak Mid-Winter is one of the carols our students sang last holiday season and it is so beautiful sung by children.

Camille said...

What an interesting story. How interesting to know "the rest of the story" so to speak. Thanks Kelly!

Kelly Fineman said...

Thanks for the comment. And with the Crown Sonnet afoot, we all need to brush up, no? If you check out my tags, you can find all the posts about sonnets, which offer both examples and, in some cases, writing tips.

Kelly Fineman said...

Camille: somehow we crossed on the interweb. They were decidedly an interesting family (and a talented, if troubled, one). I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

:: Suzanne :: said...

What a lovely post. I so appreciate the time and care you put into your posts. I want to be you when my kids grow up. :)