Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the interrogative lyric.
(Ah sweet! Even now, in that bird's song, Strove not her accents there, Fain to be hearkened? When those bells Possessed the mid-day air, Strove not her steps to reach my side Down all the echoing stair?) (61-66)
Not only does Rossetti's speaker express doubt here as to his worthiness, but through the added questions, he doubts the reality of the damozel's voice. In these questions, he expresses the hope that in the ordinary sounds of the mid-day, he in fact is hearing the voice of his dead beloved. Nevertheless, the desperate hope that what seems to be may be something else suggests that what seems to be--birds' song and noontide angelus bells--may be what in fact is and that the damozel's voice is merely a desired illusion.
Throughout Rossetti's work questions repeatedly occur in elaborate syntactical structures, in series, sometimes answered and, more frequently, unanswered. Significantly, four days before his death in 1882, Rossetti wrote two sonnets inspired by his 1875 drawing The Question in which three male figures, representing Youth, Manhood, and Age seek to decipher the mystery of human existence from an unresponsive sphinx. (2) I quote the second sonnet.
Lo, the three seekers! Youth has sprung the first To question the Unknown: but see! he sinks Prone to the earth--becomes himself a sphinx,-- A riddle of early death no love may burst. Sorely anhungered, heavily athirst For knowledge, Manhood next to reach the Truth Peers in those eyes; till haggard and uncouth Weak Eld renews that question long rehearsed. Oh! and what answer? From the sad sea brim The eyes o' the Sphinx stare through the midnight spell, Unwavering,--Man's eternal quest to quell: While round the rock-steps of her throne doth swim Through the wind-serried wave the moon's faint rim, Some answer from the heaven invisible.
The only answer is the faint reflection of the waning moon in "the wind-serried wave." The answer is itself a question. What does the reflected image of the waning moon represent? Death? Is death final? If not, what lies beyond it?
In the 1881 House of Life, 30 of the 101 sonnets begin with questions, and six both begin and end with them. Although questions, short and rhetorical, are frequent in the earlier sections of Tennyson's In Memoriam, reaching their culmination in no. 55, "Are God and Nature then at strife / That Nature lends such evil dreams?" and no. 56 (6-19), with its long, agonized questions about humanity, "And he, shall, he, / Man, her last work, who seem'd so fair,/ ... Be blown about the desert dust, / Or seal'd within the iron hills?" they almost disappear from the later sections of the poem (specifically after no. 81) becoming, when they are used, conventional locutions to introduce poems in which they are fully answered (e.g., no. 114). In Browning, the most notable interrogative lyric is Prospice (1864) where the speaker's initial question "Fear Death?" is answered with an assertiveness that dramatically contrasts with Rossetti's The Question.
Hence in this essay I foreground the structural and epistemological role of interrogative sentences in Rossetti's poetry and argue that they are fundamental to his poetic practice. (3) Since Pater's reference to the "direct and unconventional expression" of Rossetti's poetry, (4) its style and language have attracted critical attention. Besides the careful annotations of Baum's edition of The House of Life, (5) the most extended treatments of his language have been by Vogel and Boos. (6) Both ignore, however, the frequency and importance of Rossetti's use of the syntax and voice of interrogation. Vogel focuses on meter, stanzaic form, and rhyme, Boos on diction, meter, and imagery. My emphasis on the syntax of answer and response (or evaded response) enables us, I believe, to see many of Rossetti's most engaging poems as textual schemata for dramatic vocalization. Vogel correctly emphasizes Rossetti's use of "stress heights," the clustering of stressed syllables, to create "more emphasis and feeling than utterance oscillating in an even five beats per line" (p. 27). One of his key examples of "stress heights" is, tellingly, also an example of the voice and syntax of interrogation about which he is silent. The text he quotes is the first quatrain of no. 81, "Memorial Thresholds," from The House of Life (1881).
What place so strange,--though unrevealed snow With unimaginable fires arise At the earth's end,--what passion of surprise Like frost-bound fire-girt scenes of long ago?
McGann recently characterized Rossetti's work as "religious in tone but skeptical in its understanding." In it Rossetti demonstrates that "one cannot establish a fixed perspective on one's condition, whether from below or above. Every vantage is provisional, relativity is the permanent rule of order." (7) This textual self-interrogation, I argue, manifests itself not only in Rossetti's "obsessional tinkering" and "endless alteration of his poems," (8) but also in his recurrent use of the interrogative lyric.
In my discussion of Rossetti's interrogative lyrics, I shall treat in sequence those poems that begin with questions, those poems where the question is answered, those where the question is unanswered, and those poems where the initial question is unanswered and a new question is posed at the close. I shall exclude from my consideration dramatic poems like Jenny and The Last Confession and narrative poems such as The King's Tragedy and The Bride's Prelude, though the ballad antiphonal form of question and answer, used in Sister Helen, appears to have influenced certain interrogative lyrics such as Even So.
The question or interrogative is a conventional mode of introducing a sonnet (note, for example, Shakespeare's no. 16, no. 17, no. 57, no. 61, no. 108, no. 150). In almost all cases, the initial question, or series of questions, in Shakespeare's sonnets are answered, even if the answer is deferred to the concluding couplet. Although a series of questions is not uncommon, as in Shakespeare's no. 150, each question occupies no more than two lines. How different from Rossetti's practice. For example, in his Dantis Tenebrae (1870), the initial question occupies a sentence of 8-2/5 lines. (9)
And didst thou know indeed, when at the font Together with thy name thou gav'st me his, That also on thy son must Beatrice Decline her eyes according to her wont, Accepting me to be of those that haunt The vale of magical dark mysteries Where to the hills her poet's foot-track lies And wisdom's living fountain to his chaunt Trembles in music? ...
Although this question is answered in the affirmative (the speaker has wandered into "the vale of dark mysteries" as his father), the conclusion lacks the solemnity and syntactical vibrato of the opening extended interrogative.
More frequently than the syntactically suspended extended question, as in Dantis Tenebrae, is the pairing, in The House of Life sonnets, of two four-line questions. We see this in no. 15, "Birth Bond" (1870, 1881), where the two parallel rhetorical questions of the octet are clearly developed in the sestet through an analogy with the lovers. The two questions here function as assertions since they merely ask the female addressee to confirm the existence of the birth-bond observed by the speaker.
Have you not noted, in some family Where two were born of a first marriage-bed, How still they own their gracious bond, though fed And nursed on the forgotten breast and knee?-- How to their father's children they shall be In act and thought of one goodwill; but each Shall for the other have, in silence speech, And in a word complete community? Even so, when first I saw you, seemed it, love, That among souls allied to mine was yet One nearer kindred than life hinted of. O born with me somewhere that men forget, And though in years of sight and sound unmet, Known for my soul's birth-partner well enough!
In no. 53, "Without Her" (1881), Rossetti poses four short questions in the octet, each of which is immediately and succinctly answered. In the sestet, two questions, variations of the octet's four questions are proferred in 9-10, followed by an extended and dramatic four-line response in which Rossetti evokes the language of Dante's selva oscura. (10) To be absent from the beloved is likened to being separated from God.
What of her glass without her? The blank grey There where the pool is blind of the moon's face. Her dress without her? The tossed empty space Of cloud-rack whence the moon has passed away. Her paths without her? Day's appointed sway Usurped by desolate night. Her pillowed place Without her? Tears, ah me! for love's good grace, And cold forgetfulness of night or day. What of the heart without her? Nay, poor heart, Of thee what word remains ere speech be still? A wayfarer by barren ways and chill, Steep ways and weary, without her thou art, Where the long cloud, the long wood's counterpart, Sheds doubled darkness up the labouring hill.
A remarkably original sonnet in its treatment of the vagaries of perception, no. 63, "Inclusiveness," from The House of Life (1870, 1881), begins with an unexceptional statement of quotidian fact that becomes in lines 3-4 an analogy for the changing, various states of mind and emotion experienced within a soul's lifetime.
The changing guests, each in different mood, Sit at the roadside table and arise: And every life among them in likewise Is a soul's board set daily with new food.
Extrapolating from this observation and analogy, the second quatrain poses two parallel questions:
What man has bent o'er his son's sleep, to brood How the face shall watch his when cold it lies?-- Or thought, as his mother kissed his eyes, Of what her kiss was when his father wooed?
These questions move from the mutability of the inner life to the mutability of outward life, represented by a son's face and a mother's kisses. The sestet then raises a third question by bringing the theme of the mysterious, strange mutability of the familiar to the immediate physical space of the speaker. Like the son's face and the mother's kiss, may not the ancient room in which the speaker writes (or reader reads) be perceived differently by perceivers in different emotional states? "May not this ancient room thou sitt'st in dwell / In separate living souls for joy or pain?" The question, with its reversal of a dwelling place into a dweller, is answered by an emphatic nay construction that suggests the truth is even more startling than that implied by the question.
Nay, all its corners may be painted plain Where Heaven shows pictures of some life spent well, And may be stamped, a memory all in vain, Upon the sight of lidless eyes in Hell.
The sonnet, through a careful sequential arrangement of observation, analogy, and interrogation moves from a tonally flat statement of quotidian fact to an intensely felt oracular statement of a psycho-spiritual mystery.
A similar movement from questioning--here a series--to a statement of oracular truth is seen in no. 86, "Lost Days" (1870, 1881). The speaker first asks what form "the lost days of my life until today" will assume in the future. Four serial questions follow. Will the lost days appear as trodden ears of wheat, squandered gold coins, drops of blood or spilt water? This leads to the sestet's dramatic, vatic response in which the dead, alienated fragments of the speaker's past menacingly predict an infernal life of total and infallible recollection.
The lost days of my life until to-day, What were they, could I see them on the street Lie as they fell? 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 undying throats of Hell, athirst 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!'
The question/answer format of "Lost Days," as that of "Inclusiveness," builds to a vatic revelation that takes the speaker beyond the interrogative perplexities of the octet.
The first three stanzas of Even So (1870), a non-sonnet example of the interrogative lyric, are built around a colloquy between the male speaker and his beloved. The first quatrain asserts the melancholy affect of unspecified "all such things" upon the heart. The second quatrain replies by asserting the similarity to an earlier time of the specific constituents of a particular shorescape: "Sea and sky, afar, on high, / Sand and strewn seaweed, -- / Very like indeed." In the third stanza, the only five-line stanza in the poem, the male, first speaker interprets this seascape as melancholy and foreboding, employing in its simile of immobile boats as dying flies on a wall, a notable instance of what Ruskin, in Modern Painters 3, identified as the Pathetic Fallacy.
But the sea stands spread As one wall with the flat skies, Where the lean black craft like flies Seem well-nigh stagnated, Soon to drop off dead.
The female second voice then replies to the male voice with a question that suggests that the contrasting moods of the lovers at different points in their shared history have caused them to perceive and interpret the same seascape data differently. Here Rossetti anticipates the theme of temporal perceptual variance he later developed in the sonnet "Inclusiveness" discussed above.
Seemed it so to us When I was thine and thou wast mine, And all these things were thus, But all our world in us?
In the fifth and final stanza the male speaker replies to the interrogative of the female voice with another question that more explicitly identifies the emotional alienation between the lovers that has developed since their first shared perception of this seascape. This last question is in fact an expression of desire for that which has been lost--"Could we be so now?" The male speaker's answer to his own question, which terminates the poem as well as the estranged lovers' hopes, is an exclamatory and tauntingly assertive use of the Pathetic Fallacy: "Not if all beneath heaven's pall / Lay dead but I and thou, / Could we be so now!"
In An Old Song Ended (1870), Rossetti employs the incremental question-answer exchange of traditional balladry and of his own art ballad Sister Helen without the traditional ballad's plot detail. (11) He distills the narrativity of the traditional ballad to five stanzas, creating thereby a terse but intense interrogative lyric. The poem begins by quoting the first stanza of the song sung by Ophelia prior to her death from Hamlet act 4, scene 5.
`How should I your true love know From another one?' `By his cockle-hat and staff And his sandal shoon.'
What follows is a modern revision of Ophelia's old song, stripped of the details of period and setting. The first two lines of each stanza constitute a question answered by the second two lines that gradually reveal that the answering second voice is spoken by an archetypical woman who is dying because of the neglect (particulars unspecified) of her betrothed. The terse reply of the last stanza is particularly effective in suggesting both textual and human finality.
`And what signs have told you now That he hastens home?' `Lo! the spring is nearly gone, He is nearly come.' `For a token is there nought, Say, that he should bring?' `He will bear a ring I gave And another ring.' `How may I, when he shall ask, Tell him who lies there?' `Nay, but leave my face unveiled And unbound my hair.' `Can you say to me some word I shall say to him?' `Say I'm looking in his eyes Though my eyes are dim.'
Here Rossetti transforms the ballad's serial interrogative-reply format into a compressed interrogative lyric that questions the fixity of male desire, a fixity that so often is painfully asserted in The House of Life.
So far we have examined interrogative lyrics in which the formal questions proposed in the poem are answered with vatic or dramatic finality. But there is a second group of Rossetti's interrogative lyrics in which the formal questions proposed in the poem are evaded and/or unanswered. The most obvious formal example (though the reply is of course implied) is Rossetti's translation/imitation of Villon's "The Ballad of Dead Ladies" (1870).
This pattern of interrogative evasion is more subtly seen in Rossetti's sonnet A Venetian Pastoral, by Giorgione in the Louvre. The original version, published in the Germ in 1850, is without interrogatives, whereas the 1870 version transforms the original three assertions that the female figure's eyes "stray / In distance; through her lips the pipe doth creep / And leaves them pouting; the green shadowed grass / Is cool against her naked flesh" to an extended interrogative that emphasizes, as the questions in Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn, (12) the alterity of Giorgione's painting.
Whither stray Her eyes now, from whose mouth the slim pipes creep And leave it pouting, while the shadowed grass Is cool against her naked side?
But just as Keats's questions about the lovers on the urn would take us beyond the eternalized moment depicted on the urn, the Rossettian speaker's question is not only unanswerable but its reply would be potentially disruptive (not an issue in Keats) of the moment of supraverbal spiritual transcendence through inaudible song and verdant scene suggested by the images in Giorgione's painting. It is not the question that is intrusive and disruptive, but the reply that would reductively narratize the atemporal iconic power of Giorgione's suggestively inscrutable images. (13)
Let be:-- Say nothing now unto her lest she weep, Nor name this ever. Be it as it was,-- Life touching lips with Immortality.
The unanswered interrogation of a work of art from the distant past, evocative of Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn, (14) figures prominently in The Burden of Nineveh (1856, 1870); see especially 23-30, 81-110, 199-200. More interesting than this somewhat conventional ekphrastic mannerism, are the evaded and/or unanswered questions found in The House of Life. For example, no. 4, "Lovesight" (1870, 1881) avoids answering the three questions of the octet by posing a fourth answered question. The octet is built around three questions that increase in line length (1, 3, 4), the last two constituting alternate possibilities of perception--one physical, the other spiritual.
When do I see thee most, beloved one? When in the light the spirits of mine eyes Before thy face, their altar, solemnize The worship of that Love through thee made known? Or when in the dusk hours, (we two alone), Close-kissed and eloquent of still replies Thy twilight-hidden glimmering visage lies, And my soul only sees thy soul its own?
The sestet does not tell us when the speaker sees the beloved most clearly, as bodies or as souls. Instead it swerves to an exclamatory if/how vatic hyperbolism that Rossetti punctuates as a question.
O love, my love! if I no more should see Thyself, nor on the earth the shadow of thee, Nor image of thine eyes in any spring,-- How then should sound upon Life's darkening slope The ground-whirl of the perished leaves of Hope, The wind of Death's imperishable wing?
If the beloved dies--"nor on the earth the shadow of thee"--all hope would perish/vanish from the speaker's life journey and his path would become insupportably dark. The questions of the octet are forgotten as they lead the speaker to imagine a situation in which the beloved is unavailable to him either as body or as soul. This possibility and the emotional desolation it conjures distract the speaker from his initial binary interrogation. The poem imitates a spontaneous lived speech act, expressive of sudden, unanticipated emotion that ruptures a more formal and deliberated question-answer format.
In no. 89, "The Trees of the Garden" (1881), (15) Rossetti again swerves from answering the questions posed in the octet. The speaker, interrogating both the dead and the living, asks if they have been able to resolve the problem Rossetti will pose in his last two sonnets, The Question, cited above, and in his 1875 drawing of the same title: what is the meaning of human life?
Ye who have passed Death's haggard hills; and ye Whom trees that knew your sires shall cease to know And still stand silent:--is it all a show,-- A wisp that laughs upon the wall?--decree Of some inexorable supremacy Which ever, as man strains his blind surmise From depth to ominous depth, looks past his eyes, Sphinx-faced with unabashed augury?
Is this meaning merely "a show," a shadowy reflection on a wall of branches or wisps of vegetation? Is it a decree of an inscrutable "Sphinx-faced" God (observe the 1875 design for The Question with its sphinx figure, drawn in the same year this sonnet was written), whose revelations, "unabashed" auguries, are beyond the comprehension of human "blind surmise."
In the sestet, rather than futilely continuing to question the living and dead who cannot read the sphinx's inscrutable auguries, the speaker directs the dead and living to question the Earth itself and its ancient "storm-felled forest-trees," covered with moss, that are in the process of decay, as well as the young sapling of birch, in the process of growth, as to the meaning of time and change.
Nay, rather question the Earth's self. Invoke The storm-felled forest-trees moss-grown to-day Whose roots are hillocks where the children play; Or ask the silver sapling `neath what yoke Those stars, his spray-crown's clustering gems, shall wage Their journey still when his boughs shrink with age.
This injunction to the first interrogees to interrogate a new set of interrogees demonstrates the absurdity of the human quest for the meaning of time and change, indeed the circularity and futility of this very power of metaphysical interrogation, since the hypothetical, unspoken reply of the ancient tree and young birch would be the physical processes of decay, death, germination, and growth, the starting points of the sonnet's initial interrogatives.
The increasing awareness of death's unanswerability, so glibly evaded in the last quarter of In Memoriam and in Browning's Prospice, shadows the later sonnets of The House of Life. In the two "New-Born Death" Sonnets, no. 99 and no. 100 (1870, 1881), the unanswerability of the interrogation of death is powerfully adumbrated. In no. 99, the speaker personifies death as an unmenacing infant child as he had personified Love in no. 29, "New Love." In the sestet the speaker, turning to the "newborn" child, asks him when he shall lead the speaker to the River Lethe to drink of its waters of forgetfulness.
How long, O Death? And shall thy feet depart Still a young child's with mine, or wilt thou stand Fullgrown the helpful daughter of my heart, What time with thee indeed I reach the strand Of the pale wave which knows thee what thou art And drink it in the hollow of thy hand?
The terminal question is of course unanswered.
In the second sonnet of "New Born Death," the speaker turns away from the child Death to "Life, the lady of all bliss" and asks her whether the only result of his long courtship and devotion to her is the smile of the infant Death. The sestet restates the question by enumerating the previous offspring he has begotten upon Life. He asks Life whether these previous children have themselves died so that their only surviving child is Death.
Lo! Love, the child once ours; and Song, whose hair Blew like a flame and blossomed like a wreath; And Art, whose eyes were worlds by God found fair: These o'er the book of Nature mixed their breath With neck-twined arms, as oft we watched them there; and did these die that thou mightst bear me Death?
Here the force of the question, which is deferred until the final line of the poem, after the identification of Love, Song, and Art, has the powerful effect of an assertion that the speaker discovers in the moment of its utterance.
Although it does not formally end in a question, I shall consider no. 101 "The One Hope" (1870, 1881) here, because of its close thematic relation to sonnets no. 99 and no. 100 from The House of Life. Its octet raises the question of whether at the moment of death the soul will discover peace, either as a "sunk stream long unmet" or as a "dew-drenched flowering amulet." The sestet, instead of answering what is indeed an unanswerable question, presents, in the vaguest of language, a desire or hope that the amulet or flower, if it indeed will/does exist, be inscribed with "the one Hope's one name," which Baum rightly, I think, interprets as the name of the beloved. (16) Rossetti again swerves from answering the question posed in the sonnet's octet and concludes not only the sonnet but The House of Life with the articulation of a hope that is presented as having no assured reality beyond the imagination of the speaker-poet. Together sonnets no. 99, no. 100, and no. 101 foreground the urgency and intensity of the interrogative mood that concludes Rossetti's sonnet sequence.
In The Three Shadows (1881), the ballad question-answer format, employed in An Old Song Ended, is distilled into a deliberately enigmatical lyric form in which the male speaker remembers, as he speaks to his lady in the present, a past self-interrogation, in which the question of the shadowy, indecipherable lady's amorous feelings were the issue. I quote the second and third stanzas of this three-stanza poem.
I looked and saw your heart In the shadow of your eyes, As a seeker sees the gold In the shadow of the stream; And I said, "Ah me! what art Should win the immortal prize, Whose want must make life cold And Heaven a hollow dream?" I looked and saw your love In the shadow of your heart, As a diver sees the pearl In the shadow of the sea; And I murmured, not above My breath, but all apart,-- "Ah! you can love, true girl, And is your love for me?" (9-24)
This lyric ends in a present moment in which the speaker restates the unanswered question of the past. In the elapsed time since its first formulation, he has yet to determine an answer and the silent, enigmatic lady to proffer a reply.
The unanswered question characterizes other poems of Rossetti, including, for example, The Song of the Bower (1870), which is built around a series of impassioned and urgent questions, and which ends with an unanswered question posed to the absent beloved: "Out of sight, beyond light, at what goal may we meet?" I shall, however, conclude my analysis of Rossetti's unanswered interrogative lyrics with a discussion of Sudden Light, first published in 1862 in Isa Craig Knox's fund-raising volume to relieve unemployed workers in Lancashire (17) and Cloud Confines, first published in 1871 in The Fortnightly Review. (18)
Sudden Light, Rossetti's most frequently anthologized lyric, deals with the experience of deja vu. The poem is addressed to a young woman, the turning of whose head elicits the speaker's memory of the same event lived in some pre-existent life.
I have been here before, But when or how I cannot tell: I know the grass beyond the door, The sweet keen smell, The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.
The last stanza raises the question of the possibility of metempsychosis, a topic that fascinated Rossetti and that informs his incomplete tale, St. Agnes of the Intercession. (19) In the lyric closure of Sudden Light Rossetti, paradoxically, raises the possibility of repeated amorous encounters between the speaker and his lady that might occur in an endless chain of future reembodiments.
Then, now, perchance again! ... O round mine eyes your tresses shake! Shall we not lie as we have lain Thus for love's sake And sleep, and wake, yet never break the chain?
Since the auxiliary shall, denotative in the first person of simple futurity, is used in the interrogative rather than the stronger, predictive will, this brief poem constitutes an almost perfect model of an interrogative lyric, moving from ordinary empirical observation to the unanswered and, ultimately, unanswerable. This poem demonstrates what David Riede has written of Rossetti's skepticism which "prevented him from a full commitment to the unseen ... despite his occasional large mystical gestures." (20) Although Rossetti here and elsewhere "depends heavily, almost exclusively, on images that can be sensually apprehended" (Riede, p. 141), his use of the interrogative mode gives to the empirically observed and ordinary a never fully asserted dimension of strangeness, mystery, and alterity.
Cloud Confines poses the same mode of questioning as the sonnet "Trees of the Garden" (H.L. no. 89) and Rossetti's 1875 design and 1882 accompanying sonnets The Question, which I have discussed above. Here the solitary speaker confronts a darkness that yields to his gaze only "wild shadows," "Deep under deep unknown" (5-7). The refrain of each of the five stanzas underscores the irony of our interrogations of the darknesses of time and nature. Despite our repeated frustration to find an answer, we persist in our interrogations, naively confident in a future response that will explain the mysteries both of human history, its strife and bloodshed (stanza 3) and of love, its anguish and heartbreak (stanza 4). Both the third and fourth stanzas begin with questions, but the fourth, with the exception of its ironic refrain, is built completely upon an interrogative construction as it confronts the most perplexing of life's mysteries, the contradiction between the facts of human love and human death.
What of the heart of love That bleeds in thy breast, O Man?- Thy kisses snatched `neath the ban Of fangs that mock them above; Thy bells prolonged unto knells, Thy hope that a breath dispels, Thy bitter forlorn farewells And the empty echoes thereof?. Still we say as we go,-- `Strange to think by the way, Whatever there is to know, That shall we know one day.' (37-48)
For these questions, the external world of nature offers no answer, and the human past, present, and future remain an inscrutable mystery we futilely continue to interrogate. Our questioning voice finds itself alone in a universe that responds with either silence, is "dumb," or with unintelligibility, "the song the sea sings / is dark everlastingly" (49-51).
More important, therefore, than the overt subject matter of Rossetti's lyric poetry is its recurrent use of interrogative constructions. It is the grammar of his lyrics, even more than their contents and significations, that gives to them their peculiar quality of uncertainty, mystery, and strangeness. Whereas questions, even answered questions, are overwhelmed by the insistent assertiveness of the last quarter of Tennyson's In Memoriam, Rossetti's House of Life increases in interrogative intensity until its last three sonnets are built around evaded and/or unanswerable interrogatives.
Moreover, the direct questioning of the mystery of human existence--the interrogatives of general metaphysical import--are most frequent in the poems written in the last painful decade of Rossetti's life: the 1882 sonnets inspired by his drawing, The Question, sonnet no. 89, "The Tree of the Garden," from The House of Life, and Cloud Confines. Age has not brought Rossetti a voice of settled, reassuring wisdom, but a stance of continued unsettling questioning. In these poems, the questioning is not presented as emerging from the private personal experience of the poet-speaker, as in many of the characteristic sonnets from the first section of The House of Life, "Youth and Change," but as general philosophical queries in which the poet speaks not only for himself but for the species.
These interrogative lyrics partially demonstrate the truth of Stanley Cavell's observation that "the more one learns, so to speak, the hang of oneself, and mounts one's problems, the less one is able to say what one has learned; not because you have forgotten what it was, but because nothing you said would seem like an answer or a solution." (21) Rossetti's lyric procedure is to mount repeatedly his problems or questions, but even his most vatic responses, as in the sonnet "Lost Days," are in fact tentative and, as McGann observes, provisional. (22) Because for Rossetti the soul's journey in time touches points of varying emotional and cognitive perspective, no single interrogative formulation, nor single answer, can be definitive and, therefore, terminate the procedure of mounting questions and thereby disassembling apparent fixities and certainties. Rossetti's interrogative lyrics do not merely assert this understanding, but, through the very music of their underlying sentence syntax, invite their readers to enact it.
(1) Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Collected Writings, ed. Jan Marsh (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000). All quotations are from this edition.
(2) Virginia Surtees, The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 2 vols. (Oxford U. Press, 1971), no. 241.
(3) My approach bears some resemblance to the emphasis the contemporary school of Language Poetry and Poetics places on "the look and texture--the opacity of the text" (p. 27), and its focus on writing's "wordiness, its physicality," the aspects of poetry that are "rule governed ... circumscribed by grammar and syntax" (Charles Bernstein, Contents' Dream, Essays 1975-1984 [Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1986], pp. 40-41). Marjorie Perloff discusses the emphasis in Language Poetics on "writing considered as itself' and its reaction against mainstream poetry's focus on "ego organization" and the poet as "the individual speaking subject" (The Dance of the Intellect [Cambridge U. Press, 1985], p. 219). An important language poet, Ron Silliman, points to the need for a theory of sentences: "such a theory would lead us toward a new mode of analysis of literary products" (The New Sentence [New York: Roof Books, 1989], p. 75). My approach focuses on Rossetti's use of interrogative "sentences" and the role of dramatized interrogative voice in his poetry. It attempts to displace some of his most characteristic poetry from, in his case, a somewhat overdetermined biographical reading.
(4) Walter Pater, Appreciations (London: Macmillan, 1910), p. 206.
(5) Paul Baum, Rossetti's House of Life: A Sonnet Sequence (Harvard U. Press, 1928).
(6) Joseph Vogel, Dante Rossetti's Versecraft (U. of Florida Press, 1971); Florence Saunders Boos, The Poetry of Dante G. Rossetti (The Hague: Mouton, 1976).
(7) Jerome McGann, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Game That Must Be Lost (Yale U. Press, 2000), p. 45.
(8) Jan Marsh, Dante Gabriel Rossetti Painter and Poet (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1999), pp. 361 and 385. Two important studies of Rossetti's revisions are Joseph Gardner's "Rossetti as Wordsmith: `The Newborn Death Sonnets' of The House of Life," Victorian Poetry 20 (1982): pp. 15-30 and Roger C. Lewis's "The Making of Rossetti's Ballads and Sonnets and Poems 1881," Victorian Poetry 20 (1982): pp.199-212.
(9) James Richardson observes that "a good deal of the sense of prolongation is a consequence of his long sentences, but their actual length is less important than the effort and expectation of their prolongation" (Vanishing Lives, Style and Self in Tennyson, Rossetti, Swinburne, and Yeats [U. of Virginia Press, 1988], p. 108).
(10) McGann demonstrates the persistent submerged presence of Dante in Rossetti's work. See especially pp. 46-65.
(11) Albert Friedman, The Ballad Revival (U. of Chicago Press, 1961), pp. 322-23.
(12) See Grant F. Scott's discussion of Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn in The Sculpted Word: Keats, Ekphrasis, and the Visual Arts (U. Press of New England, 1994), pp. 16-17.
(13) Richard L. Stein notes that "in the later, enigmatic version of the sonnet's concluding lines, and through the general obscurity of its language, Rossetti implies that all the details of the painting add up to an ultimate mystery" (The Ritual of Interpretation [Harvard U. Press, 1975], p. 22).
(14) Antony H. Harrison discusses the intertextual relation of Keats's Ode and Rossetti's Burden of Nineveh in Victorian Poets and Romantic Poems (U. of Virginia Press, 1990), pp. 99-104.
(15) I am indebted to Paul Baum's explication of this difficult sonnet, pp. 202-3.
(16) Baum, p. 225.
(17) Marsh, p. 482.
(18) Marsh, p. 502.
(19) See Ernest Fontana, "Rossetti's `St. Agnes of Intercession' as Metempsychic Narrative Fragment," Journal of Narrative Technique 26 (1996): 75-84.
(20) David Riede, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Limits of Victorian Vision (Cornell U. Press, 1983), p. 141.
(21) Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? (Harvard U. Press, 1969), pp. 85-6.
(22) McGann, p. 45.
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|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2001|
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