The Blessed Damozel is one of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s earliest poems, as well as one of his greatest and best known. A quarter of a century after writing it at 18, Rossetti depicted its subject in one of his most famous Pre-Raphaelite paintings. The bottom of the painting (now at the Fogg Museum at Harvard University) has the relevant part of the poem captioned underneath it.
Rossetti was not thinking of any particular person when he wrote the poem. He wanted to rewrite Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” or “Annabel Lee” from the point of view of the dead woman, not the surviving man. But that is not quite what he did. Instead he has imagined the woman in heaven and what she would say, and he laments, as mourner, both what has happened and the sad truth that what his imagination hopes is not real.
The imagery is from Rossetti’s namesake, the Italian poet Dante. In The Divine Comedy, the blessed damozel would be Beatrice, who supervises Dante’s journey from hell through purgatory to paradise and then guides him through the fantastic and overwhelming visual phantasmogoria of heaven to where God sits enthroned. No rival to Dante’s constantly self-exceeding vision of heaven is imaginable, but it is at least within that tradition that Rossetti writes. He gives us the perspective of the woman, who sees earth from an unimaginable distance. The largeness of space is made palpable by the smallness of Earth, engulfed in a vastness at her Dantesque command, but overwhelming for human contemplation. It is this contrast between her dizzyingly heavenly perspective and the speaker’s earth-bound one that makes the poem so powerful. But it is not powerful so much for the grandeur that it imagines but for the way that grandeur is persistently brought back to a terrestrial perspective.
Throughout the poem, the speaker contrasts his experience with the woman’s. She has been dead for 10 years, as we know from the perspective of her survivors; but to her, from the perspective of eternity, the 10 years seem scarcely a single day. On the other hand, to the speaker, they seem “ten years of years,” so that the converse of the way 10 years reduces to a single day for her is the way a single day seems on the scale of a year to him, and the 10 years more like millennia.
We learn this, crucially, in a parenthetical stanza, and it is within the parentheses where we get the speaker’s perspective in full and come to realize that the rest of the poem represents the speaker’s wish, not the thing that the poem itself is claiming. It is crucial to see that the poem is claiming to represent what the speaker wants, not (as in Dante) what is true in the world of heaven.
That first parenthesis shows us the truth of things:
(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.)
The one to whom it is 10 years of years is, of course, the speaker himself. After that reticent, self-effacing entrance, though, he speaks in his own voice, using the first-person singular. And we see the situation in which he is uttering these words: It is autumn, and the autumn leaves have brushed his face and made him want to think that he felt her hair. Notice the skill with which Rossetti contrasts the complaint about the neareternity of the speaker’s experience of loss with his recognition that time is passing as swiftly as ever: The whole year sets the fall of leaves apace.
The next parenthetical stanza similarly contrasts wishful fantasy from a heavenly perspective with the truth from the earthly perspective of her adoring survivor:
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
Possess’d the mid-day air,
Strove not her steps to reach my side
Down all the echoing stair?)
As the fall of leaves had reminded him of time, which in the poet’s wishful imagination he transmuted into eternity, so too does the sound of birdsong make him think that she is speaking and that her voice is like the music of the spheres. But the parenthesis tells us the reality from which the fantasy derives. The speaker hears the song of a bird and the chiming of bells and imagines that they are the distant echoes or representatives of her heavenly presence.
The third parenthetical stanza marks an advance in the speaker’s self-understanding, as he realizes that even his most ecstatic, wishful, hopeful fantasies of where she is just then and what she is doing are not enough. He has imagined her praying to God for the time to come when “‘We two will stand’” beside the shrine of God, the time to come when
“We two will lie i’ the shadow of
That living mystic tree
Within whose secret growth the Dove
Is sometimes felt to be,
While every leaf that His plumes touch
Saith His Name audibly.”
But this hope already has too much of despair and impossibility in it, as the parenthetical response shows:
(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. . . .
The speaker feels that his distance from her is unbridgeable. She is Beatrice-like and divine: The only thing he shares with her is the love she embodies and inspires. But when she was alive, he did feel at one with her; now he thinks this can never happen again. He laments the words he has imagined for her, the first-person plural that looks like community and union but is not. And she does not hear his parenthesis, since her next line insists on the phrase he has wished to repudiate: “We two, thou say’st!” he has lamented, but “‘We two,’ she said” is how the poem insists she continues her speech.
She continues her hopeful account of what their love will be like together in the afterlife, but by now we know that this account is also impossible. It is impossible because the speaker knows that she belongs to the realm of an extravagant imagination appropriate for her but beyond the wildest hopes of the human who is imagining the impossible. The last two parentheses, punctuating the last stanza, make this vivid. In the speaker’s imagination, his beloved becomes aware that her ecstatic prophecy is as much about someone lost in the gulfs of space and time as his imagination of her is. If, like Poe, he is describing the absolute gap between life and death, only from her point of view, that gap is no less absolute for that. This is what the last two stanzas realize, as he imagines her finally becoming aware of that gap:
“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, for ever now,
Together, I and he.”
She gazed and listen’d 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.)
She listens and apparently hears nothing, which is why she responds with a mildness verging on sadness. But what is she listening for? Christ to answer her prayer? Or the voice of the speaker? Whatever it is, her prayer is not answered, and she must now exhibit the impossible patience that is his lament throughout the poem. The angels approach her but then disappear, and presumably she must go with them, sooner or later. For this reason she smiles with hope but weeps with knowledge, and the speaker recognizes in those parentheses in the last stanza his imagination of her recognition of the sad truth—that they will never live as once in earth, with love.
It is fascinating to see not only how Rossetti’s punctuation, especially the parentheses, but also his versification contribute to the meaning of the poem. Take, for example, the stanza quoted above, beginning “We two will lie. . . .” Like all the six-line stanzas in the poem, its rhyme scheme is xaxaxa (where only the even-numbered lines rhyme). This is a strong rhyme scheme, focusing attention on the rhyme, and most people will have the sense of the poem as rhyming ababab, although it does not. (For another example, see also Lewis Carroll’s “The Mad Gardeners’s Song.”) In that stanza, though, it comes close to doing so, since of rhymes with Dove. This sets up the obvious concluding rhyme love for line 5, but instead we get the assonant half-rhyme touch (see also echo of these rhymes in lines 115–120, where the assonant dumb half-rhymes with love and approve). The word brings us up short, makes us realize that what will have happened between them is the heartbreaking ephemerality of human contact, of touch, and not the permanence of the Dantesque love (“which moves the sun and other stars,” as the last line of the Divine Comedy puts it), which the speaker desires and imagines his love desiring.
Ash, Russell. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995.
McGann, Jerome J. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Game That Must Be Lost. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Edited by William E. Fredeman. Rochester, N.Y.: D. S. Brewer, 2002.