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.”
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.