Dante Gabriel Rossetti – a poem and a life

[first posted on MyT]

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) was a poet, painter and founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. An Englishman of Italian extraction, he was a colourful character – handsome, passionate, impulsive, eccentric, and immensely likeable. Those who knew him were devoted to him, yet he was plagued by self-doubt – his first book of his own poems wasn’t published till he was almost 42 years old, and, in contrast to his effortlessly brilliant companion John Everett Millais, he struggled to master the paintbrush to his satisfaction.

Rossetti’s love life centred on two women: Lizzie Siddal, whom he eventually married, and Jane – the wife of William Morris – whom he saw as the love of his life but could not have for himself. Lizzie died after an overdose of laudanum in 1862; Rossetti doused his disappointment with alcohol and drugs, triggering a downward spiral that led to his death at the age of 53.

I love this sonnet by Rossetti, called ‘Lost Days’. He wrote it after Siddal’s death, and 20 years later said that it ‘might be … a favourite with me if I did not remember in what but too opportune juncture it was wrung out of me’.

The lost days of my life until today
What were they, could I see them on the street
Lie as they fall? Would they be ears of wheat

Sown once for food but trodden into clay?

Or golden coins squandered and still to pay?

Or drops of blood dabbling the guilty feet?
Or such spilt water as in dreams must cheat
The throats of men in Hell, who thirst alway?

I do not see them here, but after death

God knows I know the faces I shall see,

Each one a murdered self, with low last breath.

‘I am thyself – what hast thou done to me?’

‘And I – and I – thyself’ (lo! each one saith)
‘And thou thyself to all eternity!’

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6 Comments

Filed under Poems

6 responses to “Dante Gabriel Rossetti – a poem and a life

  1. Excellent. I haven’t read any of his poetry. Love the paintings – and Millais – and William Morris’ work. All of it. 🙂

    Millais’ Ophelia is spellbinding.

  2. Hi Jan … nice to see you. Yes, I have a book of Millais’ paintings, and one of Rossetti’s. I went to the Tate once to look at the PRB stuff (the National Gallery has none, surprisingly, but there’s a bust of Millais in the National Portrait Gallery)… Ophelia is surprisingly small but yes, absolutely spellbinding.

    An agent once asked me to write a screenplay about Millais, Rossetti and friends based on books by another client of hers. I wrote it, but unfortunately it wasn’t sold. At that time I got to know a lot about them. A fascinating scene and time.

    One of the Dublin galleries has a couple of paintings by Millais … I made an appointment once and they got them out of storage for me to gawp at while the porter chatted away.

    For Ophelia, as you may know, Millais painted Lizzie Siddal fully clothed in a metal bath, keeping the water warm with oil lamps. As the lamps went out one by one he was concerned that she would catch a chill.

  3. claire2

    Hello Brendano; hi Jaime.
    Another lovely post; beautiful words.
    I wasn’t at all familiar with him, or his paintings. Can you post some pics of his paintings?
    I didn’t know he’d done an Ophelia painting.
    I once played Ophelia at uni; except it was all done Resevoir Dogs style, so nowhere near as romantic! I’m sure they only picked me because they thought I was bonkers enough to do it without having to act.
    Do you know any Christina Rossetti? I had some nutty professors at uni who had some very wild interpretations of her stuff… 😉

  4. Hi Claire … thanks for this. Some of Rossetti’s paintings appear here –

    http://www.google.ie/images?q=rossetti+paintings&oe=utf-8&rls=org.mozilla:en-GB:official&client=firefox-a&um=1&ie=UTF-8&source=univ&ei=6jnpS7SXGM-G-QaVzrS3Bw&sa=X&oi=image_result_group&ct=title&resnum=1&ved=0CDAQsAQwAA

    – as does Ophelia for some reason, even though it’s by Millais (I don’t think Rossetti did an Ophelia). Rossetti wasn’t as talented as Millais and had to work harder at his paintings; there’s a certain ‘samey’ quality to a lot of them.

    I don’t know much of Christina’s stuff … just ‘Goblin Market’ and a verse she wrote on the break-up of the PRB.

  5. jaimeatdnmyt

    And then there is the famous painting he did of his sister Christina as the virgin Mary, Ecce Ancilla Domine: http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/s44.rap.html

  6. Hi Jaime … yes, that was at the start of his career, for one of the Royal Academy shows, I think.

    I prefer the earlier, simple work to the more ornate style he adopted later.

    I once put a post on MyT about his love for wombats … must post it here too.

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