The Blessed Damozel


    THE blessed damozel leaned out
    From the gold bar of heaven;
    Her eyes were deeper than the depth
    Of waters stilled at even;
    She had three lilies in her hand,
    And the stars in her hair were seven.

    Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem,
    No wrought flowers did adorn,
    But a white rose of Mary's gift,
    For service meetly worn;
    Her hair that lay along her back
    Was yellow like ripe corn.

    It seemed she scarce had been a day
    One of God's choristers;
    The wonder was not yet quite gone
    From that still look of hers;
    Albeit, to them she left, her day
    Had counted as ten years.

    (To one it is ten years of years.
    . . . Yet now, and in this place,
    Surely she leaned o'er me -- her hair
    Fell all about my face . . .
    Nothing: the autumn-fall of leaves.
    The whole year sets apace.)

    It was the rampart of God's house
    That she was standing on;
    By God built over the sheer depth
    The which is Space begun;
    So high, that looking downward thence
    She scarce could see the sun.

    It lies in heaven, across the flood
    Of ether, as a bridge.
    Beneath the tides of day and night
    With flame and darkness ridge
    The void, as low as where this earth
    Spins like a fretful midge.

    Around her, lovers, newly met
    'Mid deathless love's acclaims,
    Spoke evermore among themselves
    Their heart-remembered names;
    And the souls mounting up to God
    Went by her like thin flames.

    And still she bowed herself and stooped
    Out of the circling charm;
    Until her bosom must have made
    The bar she leaned on warm,
    And the lilies lay as if asleep
    Along her bended arm.

    From the fixed place of heaven she saw
    Time like a pulse shake fierce
    Through all the worlds. Her gaze still strove
    Within the gulf to pierce
    Its path; and now she spoke as when
    The stars sang in their spheres.

    The sun was gone now; the curled moon
    Was like a little feather
    Fluttering far down the gulf; and now
    She spoke through the still weather.
    Her voice was like the voice the stars
    Had when they sang together.

    (Ah, sweet! Even now, in that bird's song,
    Strove not her accents there,
    Fain to be harkened? When those bells
    Possessed the midday air,
    Strove not her steps to reach my side
    Down all the echoing stair?)

    "I wish that he were come to me,
    For he will come," she said.
    "Have I not prayed in heaven? -- on earth,
    Lord, Lord, has he not prayed?
    Are not two prayers a perfect strength?
    And shall I feel afraid?

    "When round his head the aureole clings,
    And he is clothed in white,
    I'll take his hand and go with him
    To the deep wells of light;
    As unto a stream we will step down,
    And bathe there in God's sight.

    "We two will stand beside that shrine,
    Occult, withheld, untrod,
    Whose lamps are stirred continually
    With prayer sent up to God;
    And see our old prayers, granted melt
    Each like a little cloud.

    "We two will lie i' the shadow of
    That living mystic tree
    Within those secret growth the Dove
    Is sometimes felt to be,
    While every leaf that His plumes touch
    Saith His Name audibly.

    "And I myself will teach to him,
    I myself, lying so,
    The songs I sing here; which his voice
    Shall pause in, hushed and slow,
    And find some knowledge at each pause,
    Or some new thing to know."

    (Alas! We two, we two, thou say'st!
    Yea, one wast thou with me
    That once of old. But shall God lift
    To endless unity
    The soul whose likeness with thy soul
    Was but its love for thee?)

    "We two," she said, "will seek the groves
    Where the lady Mary is,
    With her five handmaidens, whose names
    Are five sweet symphonies,
    Cecily, Gertrude, Magdalen,
    Margaret, and Rosalys.

    "Circlewise sit they, with bound locks
    And foreheads garlanded;
    Into the fine cloth white like flame
    Weaving the golden thread,
    To fashion the birth-robes for them
    Who are just born, being dead.

    "He shall fear, haply, and be dumb;
    Then will I lay my cheek
    To his, and tell about our love,
    Not once abashed or weak;
    And the dear Mother will approve
    My pride, and let me speak.

    "Herself shall bring us, hand in hand,
    To Him round whom all souls
    Kneel, the clear-ranged unnumbered heads
    Bowed with their aureoles;
    And angels meeting us shall sing
    To their citherns and citoles.

    "There will I ask of Christ the Lord
    Thus much for him and me --
    Only to live as once on earth
    With Love -- only to be,
    As then awhile, forever now,
    Together, I and he."

    She gazed and listened and then said,
    Less sad of speech than mild --
    "All this is when he comes." She ceased.
    The light thrilled toward her, filled
    With angels in strong, level flight.
    Her eyes prayed, and she smiled.

    (I saw her smile.) But soon their path
    Was vague in distant spheres;
    And then she cast her arms along
    The golden barriers,
    And laid her face between her hands,
    And wept. (I heard her tears.)

    Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)


When Dante Gabriel Rossetti's young and beautiful wife died, some say at her own hand, in 1862, he remorsefully placed in her coffin the manuscripts of his poems, many of them still unpublished. For some reason he had the idea that the poems had made his wife unhappy, distracting him from caring for her. Seven years later he had them exhumed in order to have them published in his first collection in February of 1850. This little vignette is typical of the odd and eccentric character of Rossetti's life.

Rossetti was also a talented painter and the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood movement a group of young painters wishing to break from conventional style. He slurred the French Realists in 1864 saying:

    There is a man Manet ... whose pictures are the most part scrawls, and who seem to be one of the lights of the Realist school. Courbet, the head of it is not much better.
He desired to return to the natural light and accurate detail of the fourteenth and fifteenth century Italian religious painters who preceded Raphael, hence the name Pre-Raphealites. In the 1850's Rossetti' paintings of mythological and medieval subjects were criticized for being awkward, harshly lighted and cluttered with antique objects. However, by the 1860's he began to earn a moderatly comfortable living as his work gain acceptance. By the middle of 1870s Rossetti began a series of paintings and studies. One of which is a finished oil on canvas, 68.5 x37 inches placed in flat gilded oak frame created by the painter himself, with symbolic designs and four stanzas of text of this poem inscribed on the base. William Graham commissioned it Rossetti composed it as a literary work with a great variety of elements. Iconographical the painting like the poem is not only biographical, but autobiographical as well. Strong colors and a glittering surface, it insists on flesh and its theme of yearning and separation. He took his theme for both the poem and painting from Dante's Vita Nuova. Lovers are separated by the death of the Damozel. Wanting so much to enter heaven, she feels that she cannot without her lover. Grieving, she laments to him of the separation of their two worlds. In 1879 Rossetti added a predella showing the earthbound lover gazing up at the heavens.
    Emparadised Damozel gazing downward. "Behind the Damozel, beneath spreading branches, groups of lovers embrace against a pink sky; below her a pink flame outlines three angel heads. In the predella the earthly lover rests beside a river in a wooded landscape." (Surtees I.142)
Rossetti liked to call his use of unusual details "stunners". All of these features make his work more chracteristic of mainstream Victorian that he himself might have been reluctant to admit.

Rossetti was doubly talented as an artist and a poet, publishing almost a dozen poems and a few of his early stories, including an early version of The Blesses Damonzel, in The Germ, the magazine for the Pre-Raphealites. Critics attacked his poetry as immoral because of their emphasis on sensual detail. One even went so far as to call Rossetti the leader of the "Fleshly School of Poetry." It's a deliberate and semi mystical style using precise yet mysterious symbols. The quaint language is clear and strong wrapped in the romantic archaic ballad.

Several years after he wrote this poem he explained that its theme was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's poem The Raven that had been published in 1845:

    I saw at once that Poe had dome the utmost it was possible to do with the grief of the lover on earth, and I determined to reverse the conditions and give utterance to the yearnings of the loved one in heaven.
The phrases and verses in parenthesis are the earthly lover's words. Damozel is an early word from of the French demoiselle meaning maiden and "herseemed" would indicate the phrase means, 'It seemed to her." He most likely used the idea of Pythagorean concept the stars making music as they cross the sky and the reference in Job 38: 7 to the singing of the morning stars on the day of creation. For the verse:
    The stars sang in their spheres.

    The sun was gone now; the curl'd moon

    Was like a little feather
    Fluttering far down the gulf; and now
    She spoke through the still weather.
    Her voice was like the voice the stars
    Had when they sang together.
The list of saints Cecily through Rosalys were chosen for their musical sound and citherns and citoles are guitar like stringed instruments from medieval times. "That living mystic tree." refers to Revelations 22: 2:
    "... the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations."
Although the poem has a foundation in a genuine Christian faith it comes very close to heresy by hinting that the loss of earthly love may be cause for dissatisfaction in Heaven. In spite of this, Rossetti's intention is consistent with his belief that romantic love can " move heaven and earth.

The maiden of title is, prosaically speaking with mock humor, the "damsel in distress" does not find herself "fraught with peril" typical of Victorian heroines awaiting rescue by some manly hero. But she discovers her predicament to be quite the opposite. Secure in heaven she is concerned with the man who loves her and ensuring "forever now" the relationship which on earth lasted but " ahwile."

Her odd circumstance is spelled out by the man in the for of a fantasy into which at important moments, he parenthetically introduces himself and tells of his reactions of which the deceased is unawares. The idea of a sequel to Poe's Raven makes this intriguing. In the many number of times I've heard or read the latter, it never occurred to me to flesh out the dead Lenore, or to see her as anything more than the object of the poet's futile line of questioning.

Sources:

Art Through the Ages. University of Michigan: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
1991.

Blair, Bob:
http://www.geocities.com/~bblair/990512.htm

The Blessed Damozel:
http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/poem1763.html Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Rossetti, Daniel Gabriel," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.

Elements of Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
1993.

Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:
http://www.theotherpages.org/poems/roset03.html#2

CST Approved.

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