Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was an Englishman and a Victorian, but, as you may have cleverly surmised from his name, was of Italian origin, his father and maternal grandfather being Italians who had left the country for political reasons. He was a vastly talented painter, poet and teacher. His life and work are permeated by his dual English and Italian nature.

Just in case you're feeling an unwarranted optimism at the start of this new year, let me reproduce one of his better poems, called "A Superscription":

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.
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.

To gain an understanding of the events behind this, one needs to go into the restless life of the artist. The love of his life was the young copper-haired beauty Elizabeth Siddal (above, in a strikingly modern portrait by Rossetti), his model for many Pre-Raphaelite works, but a poet and artist in her own right. After a tormented relationship of many years, they married. Lizzie gave birth to a stillborn child and later succumbed to her laudanum addiction and a probable suicide.