Eli Siegel then read and magnificently explained four of the rich, complex sonnets from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s collection The House of Life, saying: “As I have gone pretty carefully and sometimes unrelentingly at the meaning of these sonnets, chopped away with perception, they hold up.” And he continued, “A sonnet, like daffodils and other living beings, has an existence of its own. [We should ask:] What does that existence say?” Rossetti’s seeing that the universe he wanted to honor was in a woman, with all her bodily immediacy, permeates his sonnets about love—including “Heart’s Compass,” which Mr. Siegel said has “the desire to worship somebody in the full sense of the word.” It begins:
Sometimes thou seem’st not as thyself alone,
But as the meaning of all things that are;
A breathless wonder, shadowing forth afar,
Some heavenly solstice hushed and halcyon.
Whose unstirred lips are music’s visible tone;
Whose eyes the sun-gate of the soul unbar,
Being of its furthest fires oracular;—
The evident heart of all life sown and mown.
This, said Mr. Siegel, “goes along with the Aesthetic Realism idea that it is the relation of every person to all things that gives him reality that is the same as meaning or dignity. A person thought of without relation loses meaning.” In the lines “Yea, by thy hand the Love-god rends apart / All gathering clouds of Night’s ambiguous art,” Mr. Siegel explained, Rossetti is saying to a woman, “Clearness can be seen through you; you further clearness.”
Studying this sonnet and what Eli Siegel showed it is about has me see more about a big mistake many people, including myself, have made. In going after what I thought was the pleasure of love, I didn’t see a man as standing for what Rossetti calls “the meaning of all things that are.” And I am so grateful that in a recent class, speaking about the difference between the customary notion of love, and the idea of love Rossetti represents, Ellen Reiss said to me: “Either we’re going to feel that what is before us is something we love because we can own and manage it, or because it’s not in our control and that’s why we love it.” I am proud and grateful to be learning from Aesthetic Realism and from Ellen Reiss what love is, and feel, as I think about my husband, Alan Shapiro, that who he is is his relation to the whole world, in its variety and its mystery—which I want to know and be fair to.
Continuing to look at Rossetti, Mr. Siegel stated: “All poetry [says]: ‘I am distinct, and therefore, I am universal.’” And with beautiful passion, he said:
Every poem that was ever written, everything written by a person with a poetic purpose says, This thing is true, and it matters. Rossetti is saying: the world can be seen in this way, and it matters.
Crucial in what makes the poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti distinguished, Mr. Siegel explained, is that “he upheav[es] the structure of the world,…fights the customary impression of it.” He had, Mr. Siegel said, “an effect somewhat like that of the [later] Symbolists and Surrealists, where opposites clash”—as in the title of a poem by André Breton, “The White-Haired Revolver.” In these lines from “The Stream’s Secret”: “the sere / Autumnal springs, from many a dying year / Born dead”—opposites clash overtly as Rossetti describes “autumnal springs” as “sere”—dry. This, he said, is like saying,
‘crackling water’—that’s surrealist; or ‘stiff humidity.’ That’s the important thing: how something can be what it contradicts.…This is more evidence that there was a certain daring that Rossetti had…and it wasn’t had by the others.
That daring is in Rossetti’s sonnet “Love’s Redemption,” which Mr. Siegel said is the best of those he had read, and which stirred me tremendously. Rossetti’s feeling that something like religion was present as he was close to a woman—that her heart is like the testament of Christ—is, Mr. Siegel said, “permanently audacious, [and] does upset customary concepts. The boldness is in taking a woman, making her the same as Love [with a capital L], and making Love the same as Christ.” The sonnet begins:
O thou who at Love’s hour ecstatically,
Upon my heart dost ever more present,
Clothed with this fire, thy heart his testament;
Whom I have neared and felt thy breath to be
The inmost incense of his sanctuary…,
Mr. Siegel explained:
Rossetti is saying, What other people get from attending church, I should get from this person. It can be seen as figurative language, but in Rossetti’s instance, I don’t think it is—that’s what is important. He saw it as actually so.
In saying to a woman, thou “dost work deliverance, as thine eyes / Draw up my prisoned spirit to thy soul!”—Mr. Siegel said, Rossetti is like the great Italian poet for whom he was named, and whose work he translated—Dante Alighieri, who wrote the Divine Comedy—and what he felt about Beatrice, whom he loved: “that she had touched the meaninglessness of the world, and it was part of her grace.”
Eli Siegel’s magnificent showing of the value of Dante Gabriel Rossetti—his grandly musical poetry—is a high point in cultural history, and it is a high point in my life to have heard it. The fact that Aesthetic Realism shows we can learn from poetry how to see the whole world and every specific thing and person is the greatest news I know.