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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 House of Mirth. 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.

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).

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( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 23rd, 2007 02:26 pm (UTC)
Well, who knew? I stumble upon Christine's poetry all the time, and now I know all about her family.

And I'm sure Gabriel won't mind if you call him "Gabe." Or there's always "Gabe-dog."

I did not know about C's nervous breakdown. Wild. Did she remain all fervently religious ALL her life?

Jules, 7-Imp (oh, and thanks for the permission to link to your great Teasdale poem. I almost did it, but I ended up taking a different direction with Poetry Friday today)
Nov. 23rd, 2007 02:43 pm (UTC)
If I'm adding "dog," I believe he'd be G-dog. But I'm pretty sure that Gabriel wouldn't go for that. Too unstable and mopey, to say nothing of high-falutin'.

I saw your direction, and was thrilled for the introduction to a poet whom I don't yet know (although I can almost swear to having seen that particular poem earlier this year, maybe from the Writer's Almanack or something). What beautiful use of language!
Nov. 23rd, 2007 02:53 pm (UTC)
About the breakdown and her religion
Popular theories are that it was the result of a different sort of "all in the family" experience, and that Christina was sexually abused, most likely by her father. Her official diagnosis was "religious mania", but it was undoubtedly precipitated by something. And thereafter, Christina wanted nothing to do with aggressive or even particularly manly men. And yes, she remained devoutly pious throughout her life. She even gloried in giving up things which gave her pleasure, as a way of ensuring she'd be blessed in heaven. (She like chess, for instance, but stopped playing it because she was too fond of winning.)
Nov. 23rd, 2007 02:27 pm (UTC)
Oops. I think I typed "Christine." I meant Christina.

Nov. 23rd, 2007 03:05 pm (UTC)
I love the Pre-Raphaelites.
Nov. 23rd, 2007 03:29 pm (UTC)
That's a DG Rossetti in your icon, no?
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 23rd, 2007 05:01 pm (UTC)
Um, yes. I meant The House of Mirth. I'll go fix it ASAP. Both have houses and descriptive acronyms, and both are bleak, so I wasn't too far off (while being lightyears incorrect, all at the same time).

Thank heavens my tea ran out a minute ago, or I'd have spewed over your "appropriately fond of wombats" line. Dante got so fond, in fact, that he owned one or two as pets. Where the hell does one get a pet wombat? (It was Victorian England, so the mind boggles at what sort of black market was involved then, as now.)

Her words are beautiful, I agree, and that's the phrase I also love best, followed by "Did one but know!" Off to read your musings now.
Nov. 23rd, 2007 05:54 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
Nov. 23rd, 2007 06:01 pm (UTC)
You are most welcome!
Nov. 23rd, 2007 06:45 pm (UTC)
This is great, Kelly. I knew nothing about the Rossettis, though I've always loved "In the Bleak Midwinter".
Must google Goblin Market(though in truth, when you gave the title I was hoping for something a bit more folklore-ish...)
Nov. 23rd, 2007 09:40 pm (UTC)
It's decidedly folklore-like when you read it. Here's an online version with some of the artwork from the 1893 edition. It's long, but decidedly worth the read.
Nov. 24th, 2007 05:05 pm (UTC)
Wow! That's really much more interesting than I might have thought from the context of her life-- thanks for the link!
Nov. 23rd, 2007 07:25 pm (UTC)
I agree that Chrisina's is much the more appealing!

Thanks for your help over at my place, Kelly--I've decided to give up, though--life is too short...

Nov. 23rd, 2007 09:41 pm (UTC)
It is indeed.
Nov. 24th, 2007 12:58 am (UTC)
For what it's worth, I enjoyed Christina's more, too.

-John Mutford
Nov. 24th, 2007 02:35 am (UTC)
Re: Christina's
I'm not at all surprised, based on your posts.
Nov. 24th, 2007 08:09 pm (UTC)
"Exceedingly fond of wombats," eh? Gab sounds like a peculiar fella. Interesting post.

And I like your pretty new LJ layout.
Nov. 24th, 2007 09:25 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you enjoyed the post, and my phrasing on the wombats. Thanks also for commenting on the new layout. So far it's a winner, only the tag links are too light to be useful.
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )

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