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‘Without Her’ – Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Formed in 1848, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood consisted of a group of young artists who wished to throw off the conventions of the art establishment and found a new movement that took its inspiration from the more ‘primitive‘ art of the medieval and early Renaissance period. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of the founding members of the group and acted as an energising force to the other artists. Rossetti himself, though, was never exclusively devoted to painting. Dividing his time between painting and poetry, he was in part responsible for the group’s use of literary subjects and symbols in their work as well as for the printing of the group‘s short-lived literary journal, The Germ. A significant number of his poems were written to supplement painted subjects and his philosophical ideas about painting were also argued in his poems. Following the death of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, many of his poems were preoccupied with love and death. It is believed that his marital infidelities, together with his experience of falling in love with the wife of his friend, William Morris, led to feelings of guilt and remorse and influenced the pessimistic tone of his later poems (Wilmer, 1991, 7-21).
Walter Pater (1889, 230) comments upon the ‘definiteness of sensible imagery’ and the ‘minute and definite’ attention to visual detail in Rossetti’s work and it is certainly the case that the symbolism of ‘Without Her’ is grounded in particular physical objects which are described with a painterly eye and with the typical Pre-Raphaelite attention to the detail of nature. Yet Rossetti is also concerned with the sound and rhythms of poetry. He translated Italian verse into English and his sonnet sequence, The House of Life, shows that influence, particularly in his use of Petrarch‘s model of the sonnet cycle. The sonnet ‘Without Her’ is written in the Petrarchan form, its fourteen lines of iambic pentameter arranged as an octet followed by a sestet. The rhyme scheme, abbaabba cddccd also follows this convention. However, within this framework, Rossetti frequently subverts the form, especially in irregular patterns of rhythm and stress, in order to convey the pressure of emotion.
This irregularity of rhythm is present in the opening line, which breaks in the middle and then runs on to the second line. Rossetti rejects the normal iambic rhythm, beginning the line with the stressed word ‘What’ and ending with two stressed words ‘blank grey’. The second line has a similar pattern, varied in the middle, but again beginning with a stressed word, ‘There’ and ending with the double stress of ‘moon’s face’. To add greater emphasis, he makes use of alliteration in the hard g of ‘glass’ and ‘grey’ in the fist line and the assonance of ‘pool’ and ‘moon’, ‘there’ and ‘where‘ in the second. Straddling these two lines, the alliteration of ‘blank‘ and ‘blind‘ also echoes the consonant ‘l’ from ‘glass’ and ‘pool‘. The diction of these lines is deceptively simple, made up as it is of single-syllable words. However, these images work in a symbolic way, repeating images such as the mirror, the pool and the moon that have occurred elsewhere in The House of Life (for example, in XLI, ’Through Death to Love’ and in the ’Willowwood’ sequence, XLIX-LII). His lost lover is linked with the moon – a conventional symbol of femininity – and the mirror that had previously reflected her presence is now empty. In the second pair of lines, Rossetti continues this pattern of irregular stresses. Just as the despair of the first lines is emphasised by the double stress of ‘blank grey’, so the third line contains the phrase ‘tossed empty space’. The ‘s’ sound in ‘dress’ in taken up by ‘tossed’, ‘space’, ‘whence’ and ‘passed’ and the absence of the moon is reiterated.
In the second quatrain, Rossetti subverts the expectation that he will create pairs of lines that break in the middle of the first and run on to the end of the second; instead, three consecutive lines are broken in the middle and run on to the next. Only the final line of this quatrain is a completed. In this greater metric irregularity, Rossetti shows a greater emotional agitation, especially in the exclamation ’Tears, ah me!’, followed by the triple stress of ’love’s good grace’, with its alliterative ‘g’ sounds adding weight to the feeling. Again, he uses alliteration for emphasis, especially when referring to the bed from which she is absent as ‘her pillowed place’, which picks up the ‘p’ sound from ‘paths’ and ‘appointed’ in the previous line.
Whilst the octet uses four concrete instances from the outward physical world to represent the absence of the beloved, the sestet turns inward to the heart of the poet. With the question ’What of the heart without her?’, the poem becomes self-reflexive in its tone and these six lines also begin to have a more regular metrical rhythm. The overriding image is of the ’wayfarer’ who is ’weary’ and ’labouring’. The emptiness of his existence is thus emphasised by a more settled rhythm, which represents the dull despair of a lonely journey through life. Particularly effective are the final four lines, in which the diction is dominated by words such as ’barren’, ’chill’, ’steep’, ’weary’, ’darkness’ and ’labouring’. The repetition of the pair of words ’the long’ in the penultimate line shows that the poet regards his life as a series of tedious repetitions without his love. Furthermore, this repetition is taken up in the final line with the alliterative phrase ’doubled darkness’, where the cloud and the wood become oppressive to the poet, feeling as he does that his life consists of ’labouring’ up a steep hill. Throughout the sonnet, the phrase ’without her’ has recurred six times and so the final images of ’doubled darkness’ takes up this sense that the poet feels grief as a kind of constant repetition of emptiness and darkness which is reflected in the repetitions that he sees in the natural world around him. In the use of such visual imagery, Rossetti has thus written a sonnet where his painterly eye complements his poet’s ear to create a fusion of the two art forms to which he devoted his life.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 1928. The House of Life: A Sonnet-Sequence, Paul Franklin Baum, ed., Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, ‘Without Her’ (with textual notes) accessed at http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/26-1871.raw.html
Pater, Walter, 1889. ‘Dante Gabriel Rossetti’, in Appreciations, with an Essay on Style, accessed at http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/pr99.p32.rad.html
Wilmer, Clive, 1991 ‘Introduction’, in Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, Selected Poems and Translations, Manchester: Carcanet.
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