REVISING: ROSSETTI

revising the poem: rossettiPoints Illustrated

Revision of The Blessed Damozel, towards sincerity and social propriety.

The Blessed Damozel: 1870 Version

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The Blessed Damozel went through three drafts, ending as:

1. The blessed damozel lean'd out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters still'd at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.

2. Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem,
No wrought flowers did adorn,
But a white rose of Mary's gift,
For service meetly worn;
Her hair that lay along her back
Was yellow like ripe corn.

3. Her seem'd she scarce had been a day
One of God's choristers;
The wonder was not yet quite gone
From that still look of hers;
Albeit, to them she left, her day
Had counted as ten years.

4. (To one, it is ten years of years.
. . . Yet now, and in this place,
Surely she lean'd o'er me — her hair
Fell all about my face ....
Nothing: the autumn-fall of leaves.
The whole year sets apace.)

5. It was the rampart of God's house
That she was standing on;
By God built over the sheer depth
The which is Space begun;
So high, that looking downward thence
She scarce could see the sun.

6. It lies in Heaven, across the flood
Of ether, as a bridge.
Beneath, the tides of day and night
With flame and darkness ridge
The void, as low as where this earth
Spins like a fretful midge.

7. Around her, lovers, newly met
'Mid deathless love's acclaims,
Spoke evermore among themselves
Their heart-remember'd names;
And the souls mounting up to God
Went by her like thin flames.

8. And still she bow'd herself and stoop'd
Out of the circling charm;
Until her bosom must have made
The bar she lean'd on warm,
And the lilies lay as if asleep
Along her bended arm.

9. From the fix'd place of Heaven she saw
Time like a pulse shake fierce
Through all the worlds. Her gaze still strove
Within the gulf to pierce
Its path; and now she spoke as when
The stars sang in their spheres.

10. The sun was gone now; the curl'd moon
Was like a little feather
Fluttering far down the gulf; and now
She spoke through the still weather.
Her voice was like the voice the stars
Had when they sang together.

11. (Ah sweet! Even now, in that bird's song,
Strove not her accents there,
Fain to be hearken'd? When those bells
Possess'd the mid-day air,
Strove not her steps to reach my side
Down all the echoing stair?)

12. "I wish that he were come to me,
For he will come," she said.
"Have I not pray'd in Heaven?— on earth,
Lord, Lord, has he not pray'd?
Are not two prayers a perfect strength?
And shall I feel afraid?

13. "When round his head the aureole clings,
And he is cloth'd in white,
I'll take his hand and go with him
To the deep wells of light;
As unto a stream we will step down,
And bathe there in God's sight.

14. "We two will stand beside that shrine,
Occult, withheld, untrod,
Whose lamps are stirr'd continually
With prayer sent up to God;
And see our old prayers, granted, melt
Each like a little cloud.

15. "We two will lie i' the shadow of
That living mystic tree
Within whose secret growth the Dove
Is sometimes felt to be,
While every leaf that His plumes touch
Saith His Name audibly.

16. "And I myself will teach to him,
I myself, lying so,
The songs I sing here; which his voice
Shall pause in, hush'd and slow,
And find some knowledge at each pause,
Or some new thing to know."

17. (Alas! We two, we two, thou say'st!
Yea, one wast thou with me
That once of old. But shall God lift
To endless unity
The soul whose likeness with thy soul
Was but its love for thee?)

18. "We two," she said, "will seek the groves
Where the lady Mary is,
With her five handmaidens, whose names
Are five sweet symphonies,
Cecily, Gertrude, Magdalen,
Margaret and Rosalys.

19. "Circlewise sit they, with bound locks
And foreheads garlanded;
Into the fine cloth white like flame
Weaving the golden thread,
To fashion the birth-robes for them
Who are just born, being dead.

20. "He shall fear, haply, and be dumb:
Then will I lay my cheek
To his, and tell about our love,
Not once abash'd or weak:
And the dear Mother will approve
My pride, and let me speak.

21. "Herself shall bring us, hand in hand,
To Him round whom all souls
Kneel, the clear-rang'd unnumber'd heads
Bow'd with their aureoles:
And angels meeting us shall sing
To their citherns and citoles.

22. "There will I ask of Christ the Lord
Thus much for him and me:—
Only to live as once on earth
With Love, — only to be,
As then awhile, for ever now
Together, I and he."

23. She gaz'd and listen'd and then said,
Less sad of speech than mild, —
"All this is when he comes." She ceas'd.
The light thrill'd towards her, fill'd
With angels in strong level flight.
Her eyes pray'd, and she smil'd.

24. (I saw her smile.) But soon their path
Was vague in distant spheres:
And then she cast her arms along
The golden barriers,
And laid her face between her hands,
And wept. (I heard her tears.)

The beauty of this piece lies in its phrasing, the forward-urging lines that are continually being muted and reigned back. The first two stanzas end as And the stars in her hair were seven and Was yellow like ripe corn but that rhythm is checked in Had counted as ten years so as to introduce the poet's reflections. Often the metre is spread into secondary stresses (The sun was gone now; the curl'd moon) or fall ambiguously through the line being clogged with syllables: Margaret and Rosalys.

Specific Changes

The poem was first published in The Germ of 1850, and subsequently in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, both with changes towards an inward-directed intensity and social propriety.

Those well-known lines in the first stanza started as

Her blue grave eyes were deeper much
Than a deep water even

Changed to

Her eyes knew more of rest and shade
Than waters stilled at even

Before becoming

Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters still'd at even;

Necessarily. Her blue grave eyes were deeper much was clumsy, and is even to be taken as a noun or adverb? The subsequent replacement was adequate but the rest and shade leaves us somewhat at sea in the line that follows. The third version is almost a pleonasm — Her eyes were deeper than the depth — but underlines depth (almost immerses us in the thought) and allows the circuitous And the stars in her hair were seven to settle into place, the seeming carelessness of the visual rhyme appearing as simplicity.

Stanza 7 saw most changes. Simply as verse there was little wrong with the first version:

Heard hardly, some of her new friends
Playing at holy games,
Spake, gentle-mouth among themselves
Their virginal new names;
And the souls mounting up to God
Went by her like thin flames.

Except that gentle-mouth among themselves was over-sensuous. Rossetti changed it in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine version:

She scarcely heard her sweet new friends
Amid their loving games,
Softly they spake among themselves
Their virginal chaste names
And the souls mounting up to God
Went by her like thin flames.

But found he had only drawn attention to the matter by emphasizing sweet, virginal and chaste. The final correction wasn't better verse:

Around her, lovers, newly met
'Mid deathless love's acclaims,
Spoke evermore among themselves
Their heart-remember'd names;
And the souls mounting up to God
Went by her like thin flames.

And may now seem to us unconvincing, given the child prostitution of Victorian England, the absence of female suffrage, and Rossetti's own problematic relationship with women.

But if Rossetti's women are composite creatures, they do have physical presence, sometimes obsessively so: And then she cast her arms along / The golden barriers. Some of Rossetti's best poetry indeed appears when he surrenders to that feeling, giving it shape with exactly crafted lines. Stanza 8 started as:

And still she bow'd herself and stoop'd
Out of the vast waste calm;
Until her bosom must have made
The bar she lean'd on warm,

Was altered to:

And still she bow'd herself and stoop'd
Waste sea of worlds that swam,
Until her bosom must have made
The bar she lean'd on warm,

And ended as:

And still she bow'd herself and stoop'd
Out of the circling charm;
Until her bosom must have made
The bar she lean'd on warm,

Rossetti was never thinking of sea or flowers or heaven, and from that conflict between how he pictured women and how they really were sprang both the extravagant suffering and the poetry.

Notes and References

1. A. F. Scott, The Poet's Craft: A Course in the Critical Appreciation of Poetry (CUP, 1957), 55-58.
2. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) The Blessed Damozel. Poem Hunter. http://www.poemhunter.com.

 

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