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Mastering the ineffable: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "The Vase of Life" and the Kantian sublime.

Any reader of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's ekphrastic poems (that is, poems at take a work of art as their object) must be struck by the ineffability he attributes to paintings or the subjects they represent. Leonardo da Vinci's Our Lady of the Rocks deals with "things occult"; Andrea Mantenga's Allegorical Dance of Women is full of the "secret of the wells of Life," which the heart knows but the mind can know nothing of. These visual scenes are "mysteries," a word Rossetti uses to open three of his ekphrastic poems. (1) They cannot be known intellectually, cannot be solved. Their meaning can only be vaguely intuited but cannot be expressed. Rossetti seems to be positing himself as a votive at Art's altar, a humble supplicant whose understanding cannot comprehend the goddess he serves, but whose heart holds some intuition of her meaning.

But is such humbleness genuine, or is this insistence on the radical distance between art and the observer actually a way of asserting a more subtle mastery on the part of the observer, the poet, over the visual arts? I will argue that Rossetti's insistence on the mystery of the visual arts fits into a long transcendental and Romantic tendency to see in the ineffable not so much a failure of mastery as an eventual triumph of the observer who can conceptualize the ineffable, even as he (a pronoun I use intentionally here) cannot fully comprehend or sense it. The mystery which Rossetti attributes to the visual arts has its roots in concepts like Kant's mathematical sublime, in which the viewer of the infinite is sensorially overwhelmed by the expanse but triumphs in his very ability to conceptualize infinity.

To claim that Rossetti continues to work within a tradition of radical difference between verbal and visual media is to run counter to many of Rossetti critics who see him-chiefly because of his use of both poetry and painting in composite works-as part of the ut pictura poesis tradition. (2) Walter Pater's essay on Rossetti in Appreciations-a starting place for much further criticism-begins by asserting both the importance of Rossetti's simultaneous careers as a painter and poet and the equal illumination that one aspect of Rossetti's work could throw on the other. In fact, Pater couches his praise for Rossetti's poetry within a painterly simile: Rossetti's "gift of transparency in language-the control of a style which did but obediently shift and shape itself to the mental motion" is like "a well-trained hand" which "follow[s] on the tracing-paper the outline of an original drawing below it." (3) Pater himself indulges in a simile that at its foundation celebrates the similarities of the arts. Later critics will be more explicit in their assertion that Rossetti peacefully unites the arts. Maryan Ainsworth, for example, refers to Rossetti's composite works first as "a marriage, or liaison, between poem and picture" and then as a "symbiosis," moving from a meeting of equals to a complete intertwining of the arts. (4) Other critics use the rhetoric of "the sister arts," making poetry and painting into siblings that are drawn even closer together by their shared gender. Susan Beegel claims that Rossetti makes "the sister arts of poetry and painting equal partners in the business of illustration," (5) and Eben Bass asserts that Rossetti's works and that of all the Pre-Raphaelites "ignore the classical barrier erected by Lessing between the sister arts." (6)

These critics are not without the justification of Rossetti's own assertion about the near-identity of painting and poetry. In a series of aphorisms that William Rossetti collected under "Sentences and Notes" in the 1911 Works, Rossetti writes that "picture and poem bear the same relation to each other as beauty does in man and woman: the point of meeting where the two are most identical is the supreme perfection" (p. 606). The arts should, according to this formulation, be more similar than different. Andrew Leng reads this passage as indicating that Rossetti's composite works ideally move from a position of "reciprocal, identical beauty" to "a moment of higher, aesthetic synthesis" (7)--perhaps echoing Ainsworth's move from marriage to symbiosis. But one suspects that this synthesis-even the presumed initial reciprocity of the arts--is more wished for on the part of these critics than actualized in Rossetti's work. There is certainly very little evidence of such identity in Rossetti's composite works. Despite the fact that these verbal and visual compositions share the same title, they rarely share the same space: Rossetti in almost every case sets his poem outside the painting or drawing, usually as an inscription (a word that reminds us of their status as written, not painted objects) on the frame or a plaque to be mounted outside the painting. The sole exception--Proserpine (1877)--sets the sonnet off in the upper right hand comer of the painting, inscribed on a painted scroll that cannot be understood as part of the world of the painting itself. In later replicas of the painting (particularly the 1882 version), Rossetti changed the Italian sonnet of the original to its English translation, apparently without thinking the painting significantly changed-indicating the sonnet and the painting's severance, as far as Rossetti was concerned. Throughout his career, Rossetti's works display a fundamental division between painting and poetry. His only work to depict both painters and poets at work--the sketch for a now lost painting called "Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante" (1852)--would, one would think, depict a kind of convergence of the arts. But as David Reide points out, poet and painter are strictly divided from each other: painters occupy the right side of the canvas while poets occupy the left. (8) Both Giotto and Dante are flanked by disciples: Cimabue stands behind Giotto to the right, admiring Giotto's work, and Cavalcanti stands behind Dante to the left, apparently pausing in his reading to see what has distracted Dante. But no poet evinces any interest in painting, and no painter shows any attention to poetry. Cavalcanti's reading is clearly for Dante's ears only, and could never reach Cimabue; likewise only Cimabue can see Giotto's sketch, as Cavalcanti stands with his back to the canvas. Rossetti's sketch becomes a study in separate traditions, in future generations of poets and painters who can take no inspiration from each others' work.

Perhaps this failure of synthesis is inherent, however, in the very terms Rossetti uses to describe the arts in relation to each other. Unlike criticism that wishes to celebrate his (presumed) fusion of the arts, Rossetti's aphorism rather pointedly does not use the rhetoric of sisterhood to describe the relations between the arts; rather his arts are a heterosexual pair, male and female lovers. This gendering of painting and poetry is no mere passing fancy, a metaphor used to describe the two art forms and then discarded, although it seems fairly obvious that the syllogism that the parallelism of the assertion suggests (picture:poem::man:woman) should be read as a chiasmus in relation to Rossetti's corpus: his paintings are so often of women and his poetry so often posits an implicitly masculine voice that one almost must associate poetry with masculinity and painting with femininity. The very notion that poetry has a voice and painting depicts an object perhaps reinforces traditional notions of the sexes, where men speak and women are spoken of, depicted, even admired, but do not themselves speak. Independent of the subject or the voice of painting and poetry, however, the art forms themselves are gendered for Rossetti, and that gendering binds Rossetti to a tradition of interacts criticism that structures the relation between poetry and painting in ways that rearticulate the traditional Western relation between masculinity and femininity. Rossetti's use of masculinity and femininity to describe the arts restricts the relation between them to an exclusionary binary, a relation of opposition, at the very moment when he seems to assert the convergence of the arts. The language of convergence, one might claim, masks Rossetti's efforts to ensure the enduring opposition between the arts. These terms, in fact, will never allow for a true convergence: masculinity and femininity cannot meet within the Western tradition; masculinity can only stare in awe at its forever alien counterpart, or swallow femininity up in a false androgyny, since masculinity has always been the privileged pole in this opposition and has always provided the terms in which femininity is defined. (9)

Rossetti's de facto separation of the verbal and the visual, his treatment of them as binary even as he holds up their convergence as an ideal, his parallelism between the verbal and visual and masculinity and femininity shows his participation within a tradition he inherits from the British Romantics and that can be traced from Enlightenment thinkers like Lessing and through idealists like Kant. An examination of this tradition, thus, is in order before returning to Rossetti's poetry. Lessing claims in Laocoon that the verbal arts are properly arts of time, and thus should depict actions and not bodies, and that the visual arts are properly arts of space, and thus should depict bodies and not actions. (10) This assertion may grant painting a kind of special access to the material--something that other theorists have valued much more highly--but Lessing is quick to denigrate the material and the art that best represents it. He not only insists on the fundamental binary division between the two arts, but all too readily reinforces age-old binary divisions between masculinity and femininity and their supposedly natural attributes: activity and passivity, intellect and embodiment, culture and nature, freedom and restraint, spirit and matter, etc. These binaries are extended into the semiotic status of the arts as well: the visual arts are treated as mimetic natural signs, where an object and its representation are related by a fundamental similarity that can be read across cultures. Thus, a picture of grapes looks like grapes to anyone, even, according to the Greek legend about painting, to the crows who peck at a mural. Visual images are fundamentally linked to the things they represent, according to this logic. Linguistic signs, on the other hand, are arbitrary signs, where no natural, necessary relation exists between "grapes" and the oval purple fruits I ate for breakfast. Linguistic signs are cut off from the real, while visual signs are still woven into the fabric of things. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that visual signs are still treated as things in and of themselves-material objects, whose colors, lines, weights, physical composition are of fundamental importance to our understanding of them-whereas verbal signification is figured as independent of these material aspects, and thus no longer really material at all. The meaning of a phrase is presumed to be independent of the font it is printed in, the paper it is printed on, the CD it is recorded on. But this severance from things, rather than making linguistic signification suspect, actually works for it in Lessing's logic. Precisely because of their separation from things, linguistic signs are all the more capable of representing the abstract concepts so valued by philosophy, things with no existence outside of men's thoughts, actions, and words. Language becomes a realm of freedom from things, while the visual arts are still impregnated with the real, the material, the transitory evanescence of flesh.

Lessing also asserts the superiority of the verbal arts because of their temporal progression: unlike painting or sculpture, poetry and prose can show more than one moment, and thus can do justice not only to a progression of events but to progress in thought. The verbal becomes the best medium to represent what is best in man: his thoughts, his interior emotions, all that makes him most human and most near-divine are uniquely suited, in Lessing's schema, to poetic representation. Lessing's efforts to police the boundaries between the verbal and the visual--to condemn narrative painting and, to a lesser extent, descriptive poetry and prose--of course only serve to point to the unnaturalness of the distinctions he attempts to draw between the arts, and by implication between the sexes. Nonetheless, his distinguish has had far reaching influence, and has even come to be perceived as natural, much as the constructed differences between the sexes--even the binary assignment of two and only two sexes--have come to be. Policing the arts also polices the sexes; as W.J.T. Mitchell has suggested, "The decorum of the arts at bottom has to do with proper sex roles." (11)

Lessing's aesthetic theories were extremely powerful in their own right; one might easily claim that they continue to dominate popular notions of the arts to this day. But perhaps more influentially, Lessing's work made its way into British Romantic aesthetic theory and practice through Kant's transcendental aesthetic. This may at first seem counterintuitive, given Kant's explicit disavowal of preceding German thinkers, Lessing included, who had undertaken a taxonomy of the arts, an effort to determine what precisely is beautiful about beautiful objects, and how that notion of beauty might change with differing media. Fifteen years after the publication of the Laocoon, Kant objected to the way in which the term "aesthetic" had been hijacked by Lessing and others to designate "the critique of taste"--that is, an empirical effort to determine what about a beautiful object makes it beautiful. Kant takes issue with efforts to locate beauty in objects themselves rather than in human judgment of those objects, and in fact asserts that objects themselves are unknowable, and that we can have knowledge of only our intuition of objects, our mental notions of objects. "On this account," Kant writes in a footnote to his "Transcendental Aesthetic," "it is advisable to give up the use of the term as designating the critique of taste, and to apply it solely to that doctrine, which is true science-the science of laws of sensibility," where "sensibility" indicates our means of sensing--or perhaps more properly, intuiting-things. (12) These intuitions, Kant maintains, are possible only through the pre-existing concepts of time and space. Both space and time are functions of subjectivity in Kant's view: they are not real existences, properties we deduce from observation, but representations that precede all other representations and that "serv[e] for the foundation of all ... intuitions" (p. 43).

In treating aesthetics as a subjective and transcendental subject--one whose domain is human intuition--rather than as an empirical subject--one whose domain is objets d'art--Kant breaks radically with aestheticists like Lessing, who do not question the knowability of objects. But Kant does retain Lessing's binary understanding of spatiality and temporality. Space, Kant maintains, is the means by which we intuit objects outside our selves, while time is the only means by which we can have any intuition of ourselves: space "gives, indeed, no intuition of the soul as an object," Kant claims; "all which relates to the inward determinations of the mind is represented in relations of time. Of time we cannot have any external intuition, any more than we can have an internal intuition of space" (p. 43). This exclusionary distinction sets up a temporal self and spatial other: by definition what we perceive spatially cannot be ourselves--once again reinforcing the split of self from other, soul from body, binaries that frequently parallel the split between femininity and masculinity in Western thought.

Moreover, Kant maintains the superiority and the greater necessity of the temporal over the spatial. This is perhaps implicit in his assertion that only through time can we have any intuition of ourselves: reflectiveness, self examination, and human consciousness have always been treasured subjects in philosophy and epistemology, and space can make no contribution to this study if it is only the means by which we perceive things other than ourselves. Eventually, as one sees so commonly in arguments based on exclusionary binaries, Kant comes very close to arguing not just for the greater necessity of temporality over spatiality, but for the complete assumption of spatiality within temporality. Kant claims that
 all representations, whether they have or have not external things
 for their objects, still in themselves, as determinations of the
 mind, belong to our internal state; and because this internal state
 is subject to the formal condition of the internal intuition, that
 is, to time--time is a condition a priori of all phenomena
 whatsoever. (p. 50)

If we accept the idealist notion that our internal intuitions are all that we can know, and that our internal intuitions can only be perceived through time and have no spatial dimension, then the perception of space perversely becomes possible only through time: we can only perceive space through time, since the perception of space is itself an internal intuition. Not surprisingly, given this logic, Kant argues that motion, even if understood "as change of place, is possible only through and in the representation of time" (p. 48). Kant offers a fairly standard logical argument for this, based on the notion that conflicting predicates cannot both be true simultaneously. Thus, the two statements "The robin is here" and "The robin is there" can only both be true in a temporal sequence: "First the robin is here; then the robin is there." But lurking behind this is a more radical argument: our intuition of the robin's location has no guaranteed relationship to any actual robin and any actual location; as an intuition, a part of our own internal consciousness, it is a function only of time. Space, too, is an internal intuition and as such is a temporal event. One might argue that for Kant, space and time are a priori forms of intuition, but time is necessary to any internal intuition of space. Thus, time is somehow necessarily prior to space.

One might want to challenge Kant on several fronts. One might point to other thinkers who depict human consciousness in spatial terms--for example Augustine's notion that memory is "like a great field or a spacious palace" or current efforts to map the brain. (13) What seems more useful, however, is to note the extent to which Kant, though he represents himself as challenging earlier aestheticists, does little to challenge the binary terms Lessing brings to bear on his study of the arts, nor does he escape the ideology of gender that haunts this binary. Luce Irigaray points out in her reading, in Speculum of the Other Woman, of Freud's essay "On Femininity," that in the long run for Freud, masculinity always precedes and subsumes femininity, much as I argue that in Kant's thinking time encompasses space. In "The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine," an interview in which Irigaray reflects upon Speculum, she claims that she began her book with a critique of Freud "because in the process of elaborating a theory of sexuality, Freud brought to light something that had been operative all along though it remained implicit, hidden, unknown: the sexual indifference that underlies the truth of any science, the logic of every discourse." (14) Irigaray argues that Western philosophical discourse has been tacitly intent upon reducing sexual difference, turning femininity into something that can be defined purely in terms of masculinity-as masculinity's counterpart, not an other but its opposite, finally, a function of itself. Kant's efforts to define time and space as binary opposites, and then to subsume space under the aegis of time, employ the same logic that Freud does when he claims that psychically if not physically, prior to the realization of her (presumed) castration, "the little girl is a little man"--that feminine sexuality is a substratum of masculine sexuality, that masculinity necessarily precedes femininity. Kant's declaration that time and space are a priori forms of intuition-but that time is more a priori than space (if such an expression can be excused)--can then be read as an effort to declare the (false) opposition between space and time, like the (false) opposition between the sexes, fundamental to human consciousness, unchanging in the face of any objects that consciousness might perceive. In short, he works to convince us that the spatial (or the feminine) can never have existed for consciousness outside of the temporal (or the masculine).

At the same time, however, Kant's work seems to be haunted by a sense of the otherness of space, an inkling that, despite assertions that the spatial can be neatly subsumed within the temporal, it continues to have an independence that troubles the hegemony of the temporal. This fear perhaps lurks beneath Kant's description of space as "one all-embracing space" (p. 44)--undifferentiated, equal in all its parts, something only to be seen as whole. That wholeness, of course, is the very thing that sets the spatial in opposition to the Symbolic: the spatial cannot lack. Kant again borrows from his predecessors' assertion of the visual object's ties to the world of things when he claims that change, difference, lack are only possible in time. The spatial, the visual cannot enter into the Symbolic play of signification that is fundamentally predicated on an absence, an evacuation of the Thing, so that signification can take place. The Symbolic-and the subject established by entry into the Symbolic--must be a purely temporal phenomenon, as only time allows for lack. But that wholeness also becomes a source of threat to the temporal self: its completeness threatens to reveal the fragmentation of the temporal self, the lack that sits at its center. Kant's notion of the mathematical sublime can be read as a moment of such threat, (15) in which a sensation of space in all its totality borders on revealing the limits of the self, its finiteness, and its fissures. But it also must be read as an immediate recovery from that challenge, one that ends in a reassertion of the sovereignty of the self over the spatial infinite. In the Critique of Judgment, Kant maintains that a sense of the sublime results from a sense of our own impotence at the failure of our sensibility, an encounter with an object that exceeds our ability to represent it to ourselves. Interestingly, his primary example is a spatial one: the vastness of the ocean exceeds our abilities of intuition; we cannot see the whole ocean, cannot perceive its wholeness. We can, however, conceptualize this vastness, even if we cannot truly comprehend it; though we cannot sense something so much beyond us, we can have a logical idea of it. As Kant writes:
 To be able even to think the infinite as a whole indicates a mental
 power that surpasses any standard of sense.... If the human mind
 is nonetheless to be able even to think the ... infinite ... it
 must have within itself a power that is super sensible, whose idea
 of a noumenon cannot be intuited but can yet be regarded as the
 substrate underlying what is mere appearance, namely our intuition
 of the world. (p. 111)

The sublime, then, is a sense of initial displeasure at the failure of sensibility which leads to the much greater pleasure of discovery of something beyond intuition in the mind itself, its own ability to escape the world of mere appearance--the visuality of which phrase is not to be taken lightly--to "abandon sensibility and occupy itself with ideas" (Kant, p. 99). A sense of the sublime, in short, becomes a moment of challenge to and re-establishment of the sovereignty of the temporal self and the temporals privilege over the spatial. When the spatial forces itself upon us through its sheer magnitude, demanding that we recognize its otherness and our own limitations, we can beat it back with our idea of it: that idea--necessarily temporal since it is a function of the self and is ungrounded in the sensible--banishes that spatial other and replaces it with a concept, not a sensation, that owes no debt to any other. The sublime, in short, provides the temporal self with an even greater sense of its self-sufficiency and unassailability, a kind of mania that allows the temporal subject to claim the spatial infinite that threatened it as its own idea. The temporal self, not the spatial, is infinite and unbounded.

British Romantic poets took these divisions between the spatial and the temporal, visual arts and poetry, very much to heart, and recognized what is implicit in Kant's divisions: that any spatiality-not merely those of incredible magnitude--can be the source of a feeling of sublimity. So long as the spatial and the temporal are defined as antithetical to each other, so long as the spatial and spatial arts are associated with otherness, and the temporal and temporal arts are associated with the self, every perception of spatiality can result in a sublime failure and subsequent reaffirmation of the realm of ideas: the spatial must be alien to the temporal process of intuition, but that we can conceive of it nonetheless reaffirms a mastery of thought over sensation. Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" can be read as an exploration of precisely such a failure of representation in the face of an objet d'art's alienness to either discourse or to the self, the later linked by their (presumed) necessary and exclusionary temporality. The poet's tribute to the urn serves fundamentally to mark the difference between vase and viewer, between the vase's timeless realm of "More happy love! more happy, happy love!" where love never consummated never fades, and the poet's fallen world, which marches on to the rhythm of "breathing human passion ... /That leaves a heart high--sorrowful and cloy'd, / A burning forehead, and a parching tongue." (16) The repetition here of "happy" is a standard poetical means of dealing with timelessness which escapes signification: where eternity cannot be encompassed within language, repetition serves as both an attempt to imitate the eternal in what is merely a prolongment--a finite string of "happys" attempting to convey infinite happiness--and an admission of failure, a stuttering over a moment that cannot actually make its way into language. (17) The voice the poem finally grants the urn merely articulates its utter foreignness to language: "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know'" (ll. 49-50) not only rearticulate the poet's sublunary limitations in the face of the urn's otherworldly knowledge, but finally delivers a mere tautology, something that in its circularity delivers no real knowledge, and points once again to the urn's insularity, its resistance to the poem's and the poet's temporality.

At the same time that the "Ode" seems to grant the urn a kind of transcendence and admit its own failure in the face of the urn's timelessness, however, it also brings about the poem's and the poet's ultimate triumph over the urn's challenge to the poem's completeness--because this urn exists nowhere outside the poem. As Murray Krieger has pointed out, it is inaccurate to refer to the "Ode" as an ekphrastic poem, as in fact the poem has no real objet d'art as its subject. (18) Rather, it addresses an urn that is completely of the poem's making, and that exists nowhere else. As such, then, the urn's transcendence is in fact also a creation of the poem, an idea--to use Kantian terms--and not a sensation. The "Ode," then, is not so much an exploration of poetry's failure in the face of a work of art, as an assertion that the work of art is in fact poetry's creation, and its timelessness has secretly always been part of poetry's true domain.

This, then, is the tradition within which Rossetti writes. His tribute to Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn"--his "The Vase of Life" (19)--takes the conceit of mystification before an object that is, in fact, the poem's own creation even further than Keats's poem does, in that it posits not just an opposition between a work of art and its awed viewer, but between the maker of the vase who has mastered its mysteries and the viewer who remains baffled. This poem's secret mastery of the visual object is hidden beneath and accomplished through two layers of lament, both for the distance between the viewer and object and for the chasm between the sublime triumph over the object reserved for the maker and the failure of perception experienced by the fallen generation of viewers. Rossetti's poetry returns again and again to the inadequacy of current-day artists when judged by their predecessors: his three-sonnet sequence in The House of Life subtitled "Old and New Art," for example, contains a curious admonition to Rossetti and his contemporaries to continue to work even "Though God has since found none such as these were"--that is, the first laborers in the arts--"To do their work like them" ("The Husbandman," ll. 8, 9). Current-day artists can only hope to be recognized for their labor in the face of despair, and not for the free-flow of genius that earlier artists could claim. "The Vase of Life" presents itself as another sonnet in The House of Life that mourns the author's limitations in comparison to his predecessors; in its obvious debt to "Ode on a Grecian Urn," it constructs the ode's poet as a predecessor who has succeeded where the poet of "The Vase of Life" fails. But, I will argue, that lament is perhaps an even more effective way for Rossetti's poet to claim mastery of the visual object.

The sonnet's octet dwells on the difficulty the vase presents to both perception and poetry:
 Around the vase of Life at your slow pace
 He has not crept, but turned it with his hands,
 And all its sides already understands.
 There, girt, one breathes alert for some great race;
 Whose road runs far by sands and fruitful space;
 Who laughs, yet through the jolly throng has passed;
 Who weeps, nor stays for weeping; who at last,
 A youth, stands somewhere crowned, with silent face.

The "you" the poem addresses--a viewer, perhaps, certainly a late-comer in relation to the vase's creator, referred to here only as "he" (20)--must creep around the vase to see its scenes, and is forced to perceive in temporal sequence what in fact exists simultaneously. The poem, too, must make these scenes sequential: though it begins its description of the scenes with the geometric language of "There" and "fruitful space," it ends with "at last," an admission that it has been forced to narrativize these scenes. Poetry, it seems, can do nothing else: the progression from line to line--even phoneme to phoneme--demands sequentiality; the poem by its temporal nature must fail to represent the vase's a temporality.

Implicitly, however, the octet also reaffirms poetry's power. Most notably, it intimately links poetry and human perception, united in their temporality, even in their mutual failure in the face of the vase's spatial resistance to time. Whatever its failures, then, poetry is more human than the visual arts can hope to be-or perhaps more narrowly, more masculine than the visual arts can hope to be. The sestet's preoccupation with fluids that fill an empty receptacle is hard to ignore:
 And he has filled this vase with wine for blood,
 With blood for tears, with spice for burning vow,
 With watered flowers for buried love most fit;
 And would have cast it shattered to the flood,
 Yet in Fate's name has kept it whole; which now
 Stands empty till his ashes fall in it.

That stream of substitutions--wine for blood, blood for tears, spice for vows, watered flowers for buried love--with which the maker fills the vase is inseminating, impregnating the vase with his meanings until finally, it "Stands empty," waiting, like the last of Portia's caskets, for the ashes of the master. This series of actions recalls Lessing's assertion that agency is both a masculine and poetic prerogative: these acts of substitution performed within the passive body of the vase reinforce Lessing's association of poetry with agency and masculinity, the visual arts with passive embodiment and femininity. This is specifically a linguistic mastery: those substitutory fluids, that chain of metaphors and metonymies, is precisely the structure of language that Saussure and later linguists will identify, where words no longer relate to things but to other words. Working within this understanding of language, Paul de Man has argued that "this relationship between signs necessarily contains a constitutive temporal element," since each signifier garners its meaning from its difference from the signifier that precedes it. (21) Language, like human life, the sestet implies, means because it changes, and the passage of time is essential to that change-and something that the vase, in its pure spatiality, can neither experience nor give. This poem, in fact, makes explicit what is only implicit in Keats's "Ode": Keats's poem depends upon knowledge outside the poem-namely that the urn has no independent existence--in order to bring about the sublime triumph of the idea over sensation. But Rossetti's poem begins with that move: the vase's maker is not restricted to sensation here, but in fact "already understands" the vase's simultaneous scenes. He supersedes perception and leaps directly to understanding--that is, to the realm of the idea. The maker can conceive simultaneity, and thus reaffirms his dominance over an object that reveals the limits of human perception.

However, "The Vase of Life" attempts to distance itself from this sublime recovery by making it a privilege reserved for the vase's maker alone. Unlike the "Ode on a Grecian Urn," which assumes a unity of audience and poet when it claims that the urn "dost tease us out of thought" (l. 30), Rossetti's sonnet explicitly contrasts the "he" and "you"--the maker and the viewer--of the first two lines, reserving the sublime triumph of understanding for him and him alone, and leaving the viewer stuck in that moment of representational crisis, unable to truly apprehend the simultaneity of the vase's scenes, but equally unable to make the ideational leap to a comprehension of that simultaneity. Implicitly, however, this poem also contrasts that "he" with the lyric "I" that inhabits so many of the other sonnets in The House of Life but is notably absent from this. J. Hillis Miller, building on Pater's assertion that for Rossetti, "life is a crisis at every moment" (Pater, p. 203) has argued that Rossetti's poet is always caught in a moment of loss that cannot be recovered. (22) Such a poet would clearly have more affinity with the "you" of this poem--caught in a crisis of a failure of representation--than with the "he." Like the current-day artists in "The Husbandman," the poet in "The Vase of Life" can apparently only look on in admiration, envy, and grief as the maker leaps beyond crisis into incorporating the vase into himself, making the vase's frightening atemporality into a child of his own thought.

It might be tempting, in light of this claim for the poet's affiliation with the viewer and not the maker of the vase, to read "The Vase of Life" as a step away from the sublime mastery of the spatials resistance to the temporal. But this poem's nostalgia--its longing and admiration--for the maker's ability to conceive of the vase rather than merely perceive it hardly challenges the ethics of the sublime incorporation of the object. One would do well to examine this apparent humility on the part of the poet and ask whether in fact the poet and the maker are so separate. Other critics have accepted this poem's modesty at face value: Richard L. Stein, for example, in comparing Keats's ode and Rossetti's sonnet, has claimed that "rather than an ode to an artifact, Rossetti has composed a parable of its interpretation," (23) clearly accepting the poem's claim to further alienation from the work of art than previous generations enjoyed. But this reading does not take into account that neither urn nor vase exist outside of their respective poems. If the vase exists nowhere outside the poem, then the poet is, in fact, the vase's creator and shares all the privileges the poem attributes to the potter.

One might also assert that this poem can be read autobiographically: Rossetti had, in fact, just prior to the composition of this poem, exhumed his poetry from the grave of his wife Elizabeth Siddall, (24) where he himself had placed it at Siddall's burial after her suicide; the sonnet's reference to "buried love" and its assertion that the maker "would have cast [the vase] shattered to the flood, / Yet in Fate's name has kept it whole" can easily be read as Rossetti's first casting away his poetry and then retrieving it for publication--a reading that would certainly ally Rossetti more with the vase's maker than with the puzzled viewer. Biography aside, "The Vase of Life" is perhaps better read not as an expression of hopeless longing for the vase or the master's sublime understanding of the vase, but as a means of turning that alienation into mastery. If Miller is right to claim that Rossetti is a poet caught in crisis, we must also remember that this crisis is of the poet's making: the vase's atemporality, its mystery, its alienness to poetry are in fact created by that poem, coming from within poetic language rather than from some visual without. This is not a process of discovering the alien at the heart of the self; rather it is a process of manufacturing the alien, of misrecognizing this creation of the self as an other--an other that can be mastered, since it is a product of the self. The awe that surrounds the vase of life--the lament for its (false) absolute distinction from the temporal, the poetic, the human--may at first glance attest to the limits of the verbal, but it also allows the poetic self to define its boundaries, to gain a wholeness that belies its claims of impotence and limitations, through the exclusion of the visual and the spatial, and paradoxically at the same time to cover an appropriative gesture, one that allows for the discovery that the other has really always been the self, that the other's mystery and transcendental power is in fact one's own.


(1) The Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. William M. Rossetti (New York: Adler's Foreign Books, 1911). All citations from Rossetti's prose and poetry are from this edition. The three ekphrastic poems are "For A Virgin and Child by Hans Memmelinck," "For A Marriage of St. Catherine by the Same," and "Astarte Syriaca" which both begins and ends with "mystery."

(2) "As with painting, so with poetry"--Horace's famous dictum that has become a rallying cry for aesthetic critics who would like to assert either the identity of or continuity between painting and poetry.

(3) Walter Pater, "Dante Gabriel Rossetti," Appreciations, in Selected Writings of Walter Pater, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1974), p. 200.

(4) Maryan Ainsworth, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Double Work of Art (New Haven: Yale Univ. Art Gallery, 1976), pp. 1, 7.

(5) Susan Beegel, "Rossetti's Sonnets and Paintings on Mary's Girlhood: A Case Study in Reciprocal Illustration," The Pre-Raphaelite Review 2, no. 2 (May 1982): 1.

(6) Eben Bass, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Poet and Painter (New York: Peter Lang, 1990), p. 2.

(7) Andrew Leng, "Behind 'Golden Barriers': Framing and Taming the Blessed Damozel," VN 77 (Spring 1990): 13.

(8) David G. Reide, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Limits of Victorian Vision (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1983), pp. 60-64.

(9) See Kari Weil, Androgyny and the Denial of Difference (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1992) for an exploration of this pattern in canonical Western philosophy and literature.

(10) Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, trans. Edward Allen McCormick (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1984).

(11) W.J.T. Mitchell, "Space and Time: Lessing's Laocoon and the Politics of Genre," Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 109.

(12) Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. J.M.D. Meiklejohn (New York: Dutton/Everyman's Library, 1979), p. 42.

(13) Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), p. 214.

(14) Luce Irigaray, "The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine," This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), p. 69. Irigaray reflects in this interview on Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985).

(15) Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987). Kant also discusses the dynamic sublime, a feeling brought on by an experience of disinterested fear. One might experience this observing a stormy ocean from the safety of shore. Were we on a foundering ship in those waves, we would experience only fear at our fragility in the face of nature. Safe on shore, however, we can "recognize our physical impotence" but also "judge ourselves independent of nature" and recognize our "superiority over nature," our ability, as in the case of the mathematical sublime, to overcome mere sensibility (pp. 120- 121).

(16) John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Poems, ed. Gerald Bullett (London: J. M. Dent, 1974), ll. 25, 28-30.

(17) One might be reminded of King Lear's "Never, never, never, never, never" (V.iii.309) or the chorus of Talking Heads' "Heaven": "Heaven--heaven is a place--a place where nothing--nothing ever happens." See William Shakespeare, King Lear, The Riverside Shakespeare (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1974) and Talking Heads, "Heaven," Fear of Music (New York: Sire Records, 1979).

(18) Murray Krieger, Ekphrasis: The Illusion of the Natural Sign (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1992).

(19) Sonnet XCV in The House of Life (1881). Published earlier (March 1869) in The Fortnightly Review (Vol. XI n.s.V) as part of sixteen sonnets headed "Of Life, Love, and Death" and titled "Run and Won," and again (1870) as part of "50 Sonnets" in Poems (1870), by this point bearing the current title.

(20) One could, perhaps, argue that the poem's "he" could as easily be the vase's owner as creator: if the creator can turn the vase on his potter's wheel, the owner (who is perhaps also the creator) can turn the finished object in his hands. Rossetti's poem becomes an interesting comment, in this reading, on the difference between owning and observing a work of art--a difference that is perhaps only exaggerated in current-day museum culture's insistence that art is not to be touched. For the "He" of this poem, this vase has use-value: it can be touched, turned, filled with whatever substance that "he" wishes. The viewer or viewers--the poem's "you"--on the other hand, have no such privilege, further emphasizing their/our alienation from the object.

(21) Paul de Man, "The Rhetoric of Temporality," Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota, 1983), p. 207.

(22) J. Hillis Miller, "The Mirror's Secret: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Double Work of Art," VP 29 (Winter 1991): 333-349.

(23) Richard L. Stein, The Ritual of Interpretation: The Fine Arts as Literature in Ruskin, Rossetti, and Pater (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1975), p. 188.

(24) Griselda Pollock and Deborah Cherry point out in their essay "Woman as Sign in Pre-Raphaelite Literature: The Representation of Elizabeth Siddall" that the common practice of spelling Siddall's last name with only one I continues D. G. Rossetti's misappelation of his wife. The Siddall family spelled the name with two l's, and Rossetti changed the spelling. Pollock and Cherry argue that this change in spelling allows Rossetti to possess Siddall more thoroughly, to claim her as his muse and his discovery, and to elide her previous history and her own considerable talent. See Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art (London: Routledge, 1988), pp. 91-114.
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Title Annotation:Immanuel Kant
Author:Austin, Carolyn F.
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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