Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Dante Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was among my favorite poets when I was a teenager, and I still retain warm feelings for him. He was also a wonderful painter, founder of the pre-raphaelite school which also begat William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, and a close friend of the poet Swinburne (another of my early favorites). I've read that when he and Swinburne went out on the town, their final destinations were impossible to predict. Rossetti made it a habit to write Swinburne's name and address on a piece of paper, and affix it to his lapel, so that when they were separated during the wild night that followed—and Swinburne became incapacitated, as he invariably did—some kind passerby might see him home.

Rossetti is also known for his tragic love affair with his model, and wife, Elizabeth Siddall (pictured at right, in Rossetti's Beata Beatrix). Despondent over the stillborn birth of their daughter several years before, and hopelessly addicted to laudanum, she died by her own hand, at the age of 32. Grief-stricken, Rossetti buried his poems with her, sheathed within her flowing red hair. Seven years later, he ordered her exhumed, in the dead of night, so that he could retrieve them. It was reported that she remained beautiful in death, and that her hair had continued growing, filling the casket around her vibrantly, shrouding her in luscious red. He published the poems the following year, but was oppressed by his guilt for their retrieval for the remainder of his life. His book was savaged by critics for the rather frank eroticism of his poems—like Swinburne, he was considered a "dirty" poet. For the next dozen years, until he died at age 51, he alternated between fits of depression and mental problems even more severe, exacerbated by drug and alcohol addiction.

He published his second and final volume of poetry in 1881, the year preceding his death, and in it he finished his House of Life sonnet sequence, from which the following poem, A Superscription, originates. It is probably his most famous poem, and provides what can only be described as the ending punctuation for a life that, in spite of its achievements, would best be decribed by the man who lived it as being misspent.

Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been;
I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell;
Unto thine ear I hold the dead-sea shell
Cast up thy Life's foam-fretted feet between;
Unto thine eyes the glass where that is seen
Which had Life's form and Love's, but by my spell
Is now a shaken shadow intolerable,
Of ultimate things unuttered the frail screen.

Mark me, how still I am I But should there dart
One moment through thy soul the soft surprise
Of that winged Peace which lulls the breath of sighs,
Then shalt thou see me smile, and turn apart
Thy visage to mine ambush at thy heart
Sleepless with cold commemorative eyes.


  1. anyone interested in Rosetti should check out the film Dante's Inferno directed by Ken Russell, starring Oliver Reed...

  2. Yeah, I've heard of that film. Never seen it, though I'd love to—probably can get it at Vulcan...The idea of Oliver Reed as Rossetti is interesting...

  3. I'd be surprised if Vulcan doesn't have it--unfortunately the one place where I knew had it (because I rented it from them in the late 90s and saw it there on the shelves until I moved to California) was The Movie Store, which, alas, closed down a few years ago...thanks Netflix, you suck!