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Dante Gabriel Rossetti is making headlines with the recent news that Pandora will be part of the Sotheby’s sale of British and Irish art on May 22. With a price tag of £7 million.
More than one version of Pandora exists. Each is a captivating representation of Jane Morris. I blogged about my favorite in the post Ah, Pandora.
Read about the mythology of Pandora at Theoi.com
La Belle Dame sans Merci translated from the French means “the beautiful lady without pity” or “the beautiful lady without mercy”. It is possible that the poem is based on the ballad of ‘True Thomas’, also known as ‘Thomas the Rhymer’, which tells how a man was enchanted by the queen of Elfland and lured to her home, where he had to serve her for seven years. If Keats did indeed base his poem on the ‘True Thomas’ ballad, he takes up that story after the seven years are over and the spell is no longer binding.
It’s a beautiful poem that is full of romantic language and embodies the folk-lore theme of the Fairy Lover. I met a lady in the meads,/Full beautiful–a faery’s child;/Her hair was long, her foot was light,/And her eyes were wild. The word ‘wild’ is repeated three times in the poem, possibly an indication that the beautiful lady in the meads cannot and will not be tamed. Beware of wild animals.
Keats uses two speakers: the first is the anonymous narrator who spies the knight ‘alone and palely loitering’ in a barren landscape where ‘no birds sing’. He sets the tone of the knight’s suffering, letting us know how haggard and woe-begone he is. The next speaker is the knight, who tells how he met the enchantress in the meads. Struck by her beauty, he sets her on his steed and she sings a faery song, thus beginning her spell. They spend the afternoon together while he adorns her with floral garlands and bracelets. She draws him in further as “She looked at me as she did love,/And made sweet moan. But she does not love. Not of the mortal world, she captivates and ensnares. When she takes the knight to her elfin grot, he sees visions in his sleep of pale kings, princes and warriors — her previous conquests who warn him that “La belle Dame sans Merci hath thee in thrall!”
The knight, who we can assume was once vibrant and strong, has been abandoned by his faery love and now wanders a desolate landscape. Is the poem a warning about hopeless love affairs? Is it a cautionary tale about the dangers of giving your heart too quickly because of physical beauty? Or perhaps we could look at La Belle Dame sans Merci as an allegory, that she stands for something that may seem inviting at first, but can consume and take over your life. Drugs, perhaps. Or an obsession.
Above left is La Belle dame sans Merci by John William Waterhouse. On the right is a stunning recreation featuring Grace Nuth. Note the heart on the sleeve and the hair with which she ensnares her knight. Photographer: Richard Wood. Knight: Patrick Neill. Grace appears in many images that embrace the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic and I encourage you to look at her work on her facebook page, Sidhe Etain. If you are interested in incorporating mythic themes into your home life, you should check out her blog Domythic Bliss. Domythic Bliss is currently celebrating the second annual Mythic March.
Written by P M Buchan, illustrated by Karen Yumi Lusted, with cover colours by Kate Brown, a back-up essay about the feminism of Keats by feminist pop-culture blogger Miranda Brennan, graphic design by Michael Stock, pin-ups by Kate Ashin and Kate Holden and a free soundtrack by Brendan Ratliff.
I’m intrigued by online speculation that the ‘beldame’ in Coraline may be loosely based on La Belle Dame sans Merci. I’ve enjoyed both the book and the movie and can see definite parallels between Gaiman’s “other mother” and the beautiful lady without mercy. Both would pull you into another world, taking over your very life and soul if you let them. And both the knight and Coraline encounter previous victims: the knight through a vision while he slumbers, Coraline meets their ghosts while trapped in a closet. The “other mother” cast them aside once bored with them, much like the beautiful lady of the meads did to the knight. Lucky for our knight that he did not end up with buttons for eyes.
Also see: Kirsty Stonell Walker’s La Belle Dame sans Merci post.
La Belle Dame sans Merci
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.
She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
I think we can all agree that Spring weather will be most welcome this year.
In 1859, Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted Bocca Baciata and it was a radical change in style. Afterwards his work gravitated towards images of a single female, quite often depicted from the bust up and surrounded by flowers, jewelry and other symbolic objects.
Why the change? In the late 1850′s Rossetti had definitely matured as an artist, compared to the young idealist he was in 1848 when he helped to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It can also be assumed that changes in his personal life had an influence on his work. Rossetti had been involved with Elizabeth Siddal for several years–she was his main model as well as his pupil. Their relationship was off and on for many reasons: her frequent illness and his brief interest in Annie Miller are just two examples. But for the most part, Lizzie remained the primary face seen in his work. However, in 1858 he met Fanny Cornforth. Fanny was unlike any model he had ever used. Almost always described as a prostitute, she was carefree and I think Rossetti was attracted to her charming combination of beauty and humor. He first engaged Fanny to pose for his unfinished ‘fallen woman’ painting, Found. A year after meeting her, he created Bocca Baciata. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that after meeting Fanny, who in all likelihood was his first sexual partner, his work develops a new and startling style.
Why am I talking so much about Bocca Baciata when this post is about Regina Cordium? I don’t think I can talk about one without the other, because as Kirsty Stonell Walker puts it in this post about Fanny,”she provides a bridge between the water-coloured maidens of Lizzie Siddal’s time and the dark brooding damsels of the reign of Jane [Morris].” His work on Bocca Baciata has a definite influence on Regina Cordium.
In 1860, Rossetti rushed to Hastings to visit a gravely ill Elizabeth Siddal. He was shocked at her condition, which must have been quite serious since he had seen her through various degrees of ill health for almost a decade. Whether out of guilt or because he was afraid of losing her, Rossetti suddenly proposed marriage. After postponing the wedding several times due to the severity of her illness, they were wed on the 23rd of May. When she was well, the couple honeymooned in Paris where Rossetti began his design for How They Met Themselves.
After their marriage, Rossetti began Regina Cordium. How much can we read into the title? Is it an attempt to reassure his new bride of the place she holds in his heart? Or to affirm his new commitment to her? Whatever the meaning, Regina Cordium marks the first work featuring Lizzie that emulates the new style he discovered with Bocca Baciata.
Following the ‘hearts’ theme, Regina Cordium mimics the design of a playing card.
Rossetti was not done with the Queen of Hearts theme, however. He was commissioned by Textile manufacturer J. Aldam Heaton to paint his wife as Regina Cordium.
In 1866, Rossetti reworked Regina Cordium with model Alexa Wilding. The hearts in the playing card background has been replaced with a botanical motif.
It would have been a perfect plot for a 1960′s Hammer Horror film: on the death of his wife, a poet places his manuscript of poems in her casket. Years later he has a new muse and love, a woman who had been a friend to them both. So he has his late wife exhumed to reclaim his final gift to her. Upon opening the casket, his wife is found to be in perfect condition, miraculously resisting decay for seven and a half years. By some supernatural intervention, the hair that inspired him in life had continued to grow after death and has now become a huge, golden mass. The poems are restored and published, yet the ghost of the wronged wife will now haunt him for the rest of his life. I can just see Lizzie’s hair spilling out of the coffin in brilliant technicolor. It is the perfect ghost story.
Except it’s not a ghost story. It’s a (mostly) true tale that has been repeatedly told, each time adding more elements of the macabre until Lizzie has achieved all the makings of a Pre-Raphaelite phantom.
The morbid associations began early. There were whispered rumors that Rossetti had started Beata Beatrix by sketching his dead wife as she lay in state. Surgeon John Marshall, a friend of Rossetti’s, claimed that “for two years he saw her ghost every night!” It was the age of Spiritualism and surely Lizzie had something to say from beyond the grave. Seances were held that included both Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his brother William Michael. An unlikely medium, Rossetti’s model/mistress/housekeeper Fanny Cornforth served as a conduit for Lizzie’s messages.
After the exhumation, Rossetti wrote to Swinburne saying “Had it been possible to her, I should have found the book upon my pillow the night she was buried; and could she have opened the grave no other hand would have been needed.” As if the exhumation had merely been the righting of a wrong and they had appeased Lizzie’s spirit by doing what she was physically unable to do from the spiritual plane.
Everything about Lizzie is subject to exaggeration. Most people learn about her death and exhumation first and then have to work their way backwards. They come to know her through her overdose, the speculations of a disappearing suicide note and her wraith-like appearance as she stared absentmindedly into a fire, rocking the ghost of her dead child. The exaggerations go back even further –her marriage is described as unhappy. Gabriel is constantly adulterous, despite the fact that there is no evidence that he was unfaithful during marriage. Posing as Ophelia seems to foreshadow her death, when seen in hindsight. Even her discovery has a fairy tale quality, thanks to Holman Hunt’s account where she is described breathlessly by Deverell as a queen. Lizzie has become a character, a trope.
Elizabeth Siddal wasn’t famous in her own lifetime. Although she did sell a few pieces of art and secured Ruskin’s patronage, she was unable to meet her full potential. Her poems were never published while she was alive. As a result, she is overshadowed both by the ghostly legend that surrounds her and by her husband. What we know about her is only in relation to him. The picture is not a full one and the gaps only add to her mystery.
Certainly, these gaps could have been filled had William Michael Rossetti bothered to talk to Lizzie’s mother and surviving siblings when he began to publish accounts of his brother’s life. In fact, none of the authors who wrote about Rossetti soon after his death made an effort to talk to Lizzie’s family. It seems that as the subject was mainly DGR, there was no reason to — Lizzie exists in these accounts as a prop. Her untimely death adds a certain romance, her exhumation shows the lengths he was prepared to travel for the sake of Poetry. I am reminded of the first line of Lizzie’s poem “The Lust of the Eyes”, ‘I care not for my Lady’s soul’. We care not for Lizzie’s true self, she is seen as a Pre-Raphaelite figure of pathos. When Joseph Knight wrote of Lizzie’s death in his 1887 biography Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he stated that “Regina Cordium had passed forever from his life.” Again, more prop than person.
How do we lay the ghost to rest? How do we focus on Lizzie herself and set aside the macabre trappings? Focusing on her work is a good start. Her art, although unpolished, can be viewed as ahead of its time. Instead of viewing her as merely Rossetti’s pupil in a one-sided exchange of teacher to student, we can view their dedication to art as flowing freely between them, that they both influenced and inspired each other’s work. Indeed, her contribution to the Red House murals show that she as accepted as an artist on equal footing.
Her letters, too, offer small glimpses into the woman she was. Funny, friendly–far from a hovering wraith of a woman. When she writes of “Mutton-chops” in her letter from Nice, we can see past Ophelia and Beatrice and see a normal woman with an entertaining sense of humor.
To pursue knowledge of her, that is the key to seeing past the myth. The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood by Jan Marsh is the first book I recommend to those interested in the women of the Pre-Raphaelite circle. Marsh explores Lizzie’s life and the lives of her contemporaries while highlighting issues of gender, work and love. Lizzie Siddal: Face of the Pre-Raphaelites by Lucinda Hawksley is a captivating account of Lizzie’s life. In The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal, Jan Marsh expands her work in Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, focusing on the evolution of how we view Lizzie and how scholarship of her life has been approached in different eras.
As I write this post, I realize that we have made progress. Lizzie has received renewed attention in the play Lizzie Siddal by Jeremy Green. And even though I was not completely impressed with the BBC series Desperate Romantics, I have to admit that Amy Manson portrayed Lizzie admirably. Lizzie Siddal emerges from the spectral fog and begins to shed her ghostly stigma.
We have image after image of Lizzie appearing languid and reclining. but we also have images of her hard at work, sitting at easels and determined to hone her craft. For the anniversary of her death tomorrow, I prefer to focus on these.