Report of a lecture by Eli Siegel on the English Pre-Raphaelite poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti
I love Eli Siegel for showing that the study of poetry is a beautiful and urgent necessity for our lives. He showed how, from the poetry of ancient China to that of 20th century America, from the Old Testament and the sonnets of Shakespeare, to the work of Robert Burns and Walt Whitman—every true poem is fair to the world, honest about it, in a way we want and need to be.
I cherish the education I am receiving about poetry and life—a magnificent instance of which was in Mr. Siegel’s lecture of June 14, 1972, Some Poetry Is Distinguished. In it, he spoke about a person whose work he showed is new and important in the history of poetry: the 19th century English poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. “Rossetti stands out,” stated Mr. Siegel—“he has style; he has distinction.” And he continued, “The way to care for Rossetti is to care for other poetry, and use it to see that [he] says something else. There is something about the way he saw that just cannot be missed.” That way of seeing, he showed, is in a new relation of two tremendously important opposites. “In order to be happy,” Mr. Siegel explained,
we have to have the universal or general—that which is as common as air or even more common—and then there needs to be a point. Poetry gives evidence that goodness is the oneness of distinction and universality. It must have sauce and divinity, point and generality.
These are opposites Mr. Siegel showed Rossetti’s poetry has in a distinctive way—he saw large, universal meaning in what was pulsatingly close to him, from ordinary objects to the body of a woman he loved. For example, he says in the sonnet “Heart’s Compass,” which we heard later: “Sometimes thou seem’st not as thyself alone, / But as the meaning of all things that are.” This feeling, which is throughout Rossetti’s work, made, Mr. Siegel explained, for a new daring in English poetry.
Rossetti was a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of painters and poets—including Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Morris, and Christina Rossetti—whose aim, writes W.W. Robson in the Pelican Guide to English Literature, was to achieve a “naturalistic accuracy of detail”—like that of Italian artists before the 16th century painter Raphael. Mr. Siegel read from Robson’s description of Pre-Raphaelite poetry, in which he says one of its characteristics is “particularity of sensory detail [such as] visual…or auditory detail.” “As Robson uses these words,” said Mr. Siegel,
we meet the distinguished and the universal. Rossetti has given a new possibility to sense; sense is very much present—but it keeps company with meaning. He saw the senses in relation to meaning in a different way than they had been seen before. They sure have a time of it in Rossetti’s poetry.
He continued, “In all poetry, something of sense is related to something else in such a way that meaning or value takes place. This can be done through music.” Eli Siegel has explained that poetic music, which is the sign of a poem’s sincerity, comes from a person’s showing, in the way he uses words, how a specific thing embodies the world’s structure: the oneness of opposites.
We heard Rossetti’s 1847 poem, “My Sister’s Sleep.” On Christmas Eve, a mother and brother are at the bedside of a sister, Margaret, who is near death. As midnight strikes, and the birth of Christ is honored, she dies. Rossetti writes:
Twelve struck. That sound, by dwindling years
Heard in each hour, crept off, and then
The ruffled silence spread again,
Like water that a pebble stirs.
The first lines are immediate—church bells strike midnight, and then stop. Yet, the poet shows there is wide meaning in this one sound. Said Mr. Siegel:
When one hears church bells and the sound stops, what is the verb for that? left off? ceased? sank? But if there is evil going on, you can say [as Rossetti does] ‘crept off,’ because you could have the sounds themselves ashamed. Rossetti is doing that. He wanted to personify everything, including time.
Mr. Siegel said, “There is a great drive [in him] to make every occurrence of sense an intellectual event[,] to show that the ordinary things of the world and what happened to them has meaning.” Rossetti also does something here that Mr. Siegel showed is often in his poetry: he uses one sense to describe another. This is in the lines, “The ruffled silence spread again, / Like water that a pebble stirs,” as the visual word ‘ruffled,’ which has a sound of delicate manyness, describes the slowly spreading silence. Stated Mr. Siegel, “Meaning arrives always—there’s no exception to it—from relation.”
As he explained the meaning of “My Sister’s Sleep,” which he said “is in the field of greatness,” Eli Siegel described the beautiful purpose that impelled Dante Gabriel Rossetti—a purpose he hoped all his life would be understood. “There was a desire in Rossetti,” he said, “to feel that life was an absence of self and also an assertion of self.” I learned from Aesthetic Realism that this is what occurs in art: a person puts aside his narrow self in order to be fair to something; as he tries honestly to see value, he becomes larger. Rossetti shows this in the poem through the dying of someone who could seem only personal—Margaret—simultaneously with the coming of something so large and impersonal: the birth of Christ. This meaning, Mr. Siegel said, is sustained by the music of the poem, which makes it “more powerful, also more credible.”
In this lecture, Mr. Siegel showed too that the Pre-Raphaelite writers don’t just share what Robson calls “certain habits of feeling” and “a characteristic Pre-Raphaelite taste in decoration,” but that they also differ from one another. For example, he read these lines from Rossetti’s sister Christina Rossetti’s poem, “A Birthday”:
Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it with doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes.
Said Mr. Siegel, “The melody [here] is accompanied by a gorgeous tactual awareness Miss Rossetti’s brother didn’t go for. It’s kind of reckless, torrential, wild, but she maintains decorum.…This, in its happy boldness, is Christina Rossetti.”