A Queen, a Nameless Girl, a Saint, an Angel

Elizabeth Siddall
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Today I share another excerpt from my work-in-progress novel portrait of the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, The Dove Upon Her Branch to mark the birthday – July 25, 1829 – of Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddall, muse and wife of Christina’s brother and Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Elizabeth Siddall
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

We found her hidden just behind those screens, that mirror gave back all her loveliness.*

     Miss Siddall was sitting slightly hunched, her arms reaching, resting between her knees, just below which her hands were clasped. Thick, mahogany hair was loosely ballooned on the nape of her neck, her chin stretched forward. Her waist, like most of the wicker chair she perched on, was lost in the bunching of her skirt, but even with her torso swallowed in billowing fabric and her shoulders slumped, there was no doubt she was tall.

         A queen in opal or in ruby dress, a nameless girl in freshest summer-greens, a saint, an angel — every canvas means the same one meaning, neither more or less.*

     Christina saw what Gabriel did. Although simply, somberly gowned in cotton and shawled in wool, this woman was fascinating, not as she was but meant to be.

     As Christina entered fully into her view, Miss Siddall stood and took a few sliding steps, her grey-blue eyes heavy-lidded, kind, and evasive. The hand she extended was warm in intention but cold in its flesh.

     Oh, she is not well. I must be kind to her. I must … not jump to conclusions about her. I must … not mind Gabe loving her.

     “Well, what do you think, Chrissy?” Gabriel blurted, immediately clarifying his question. “Of the Blackfriars crib? The way the rooms are built out over the river, windows on all sides, there’s plenty of light and from the balcony a magnificent view of the Tower, Parliament, and Westminster Abbey.”

     “If only there wasn’t such a stink from the river.”

     “I hardly notice anymore. During the day it’s busy and interesting. At night there’s the shimmering reflection of gas lamps on the bridge and wharf side.”

     “He notices. In words I won’t repeat.” William stood before an easel-supported canvas. “You’ve made good progress.”

     “Which one is it?” Christina moved to have a look. “Oh, a watercolor,” she tried not to sound disappointed.

     “Beatrice Meets Dante at a Marriage Feast.” William glanced between his brother and Miss Siddall.

     “And denies him her salutation,” Gabriel added, not brave enough to look at his “Sid” sitting and slumping again.

     William leaned into the painting to examine it more closely. “He’s captured you for eternity, Lizzie.”

     “Sitting for him certainly can seem an eternity.” Christina thought she saw Miss Siddall struggle not to smile.

     “You didn’t refuse, even though Mama said you could.” Gabriel knew he was right. “I remember you begging to pose again.”

     Christina did, too. “Well, your memory fails you. But one thing doesn’t.” She stepped back from the painting, looking around at all other evidence of her brother’s current obsession. “Having your muse constantly close.”

     “I don’t live here,” Lizzie finally spoke, softly but emphatically.

Copyright © 2021 by DM Dentom

*From the poem In the Artist’s Studio by Christina Rossetti

Elizabeth Siddall Sketching Dante Gabriel Rossetti
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In an Artist’s Studio

BY CHRISTINA ROSSETTI

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel — every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more or less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

Christina Rossetti
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

©Artwork and writing, unless otherwise indicated, are the property of Diane M Denton. Please request permission to reproduce or post elsewhere with a link back to bardessdmdenton. Thank you.

Summer Days for Her

Illustration © by DM Denton

Summer
by Christina Georgina Rossetti

Winter is cold-hearted,
  Spring is yea and nay,
Autumn is a weathercock
  Blown every way:
Summer days for me
  When every leaf is on its tree;

When Robin’s not a beggar,
  And Jenny Wren’s a bride,
And larks hang singing, singing, singing,
  Over the wheat-fields wide,
  And anchored lilies ride,
And the pendulum spider
  Swings from side to side,

And blue-black beetles transact business,
  And gnats fly in a host,
And furry caterpillars hasten
  That no time be lost,
And moths grow fat and thrive,
And ladybirds arrive.

Before green apples blush,
  Before green nuts embrown,
Why, one day in the country
  Is worth a month in town;
  Is worth a day and a year
Of the dusty, musty, lag-last fashion
  That days drone elsewhere.

The Strawberry Thief by William Morris

Excerpt from The Dove Upon Her Branch

my work-in-progress novel portrait of Christina Rossetti

“No, not yet,” nine-year-old Maria had insisted. “We must wait.”

     “Why, Moony?” At six Christina had been compelled to question everything.

     “They shouldn’t be picked until ripe.”

     “How long?”

     “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe tomorrow. Or the day after.”

     “What if I ate one now?”

     “It wouldn’t be juicy … or sweet.”

     “How do you know?”

     “Nonno says they should be fully red … and soft to—”

     Maria’s firm grip thwarted the sudden plan of her little sister’s outstretched arm.

     The following day, on the same edge of their grandfather’s garden, Christina again burst into tears, this time denied the fruity feast wildly cascading down a hedgerow bank because slugs had invaded and wounded every finally ripened strawberry. There was no doubt it was those shell-less mollusks that had done the damage, a few still clinging to their victims.

     “We weren’t meant to have any. As Mama says, it never hurts to practice patience and self-restraint.”

     “Yes, it does.” Unlike Maria, Christina didn’t always look for sensible instruction in disappointment; certainly not at the time of the snail marauding. She decided she would never forgive her sister. Until Maria reminded her of the current bushes that grew upright and, therefore, less prone to slimy invasions. They could provide an alternative snack and, also, berries for a pie Aunt Eliza might be persuaded to make.

     Later they would smile about it, and cry, reminiscing bringing them the joy but also the pain of what was associated with Holmer Green holidays. While in its midst, childhood seemed endless, even for a girl as advanced and sensible as Maria. Traveling—the anticipation, adventure, amusement, and even exhaustion—what then seemed a world away from London was always something to look forward to. Maria and, eventually, William with her help, wrote down observations and impressions along the way: first stagecoach to Uxbridge, second to High Wycombe, local transport halfway to Amersham letting them off at the crossroads to Holmer Green. There it became apparent why they packed light, a long walk for short legs down a pretty lane into the village and another to “Nonno’s Cottage”, actually, a fair-sized house of less interest to the Polidoris’ grandchildren than its gardens, orchards, and copses, a pond and pig-sty, spaniel named Delta, and promises of days for wandering and discovery.

      Eventually, Christina would accept the grounds were small and quite ordinary, but while they belonged to her beloved Nonno and her imagination’s infancy she found them vast and full of uncommon experiences. Being able to step outside to pure air, bird song, a look up to the sky, the shifting of sun and shadows, a honeysuckle-scented breeze, even a soot-less splash of rain was magical for a city child. Her hands swinging free of the fear others had for her and her legs exercising their purpose of running to watch cows going out to pasture, frisky lambs defying their mothers, a shepherd lad waving as though he was waiting to see her again, was better than Christmas or her birthday or even Papa saying she was like the moon risen at the full.

     One day in the country was worth a month in town; certainly, Christina made the most of each one …

Copyright © 2021 by DM Denton

John William Waterhouse

©Artwork and writing, unless otherwise indicated, are the property of Diane M Denton. Please request permission to reproduce or post elsewhere with a link back to bardessdmdenton. Thank you.

Maiden May by Christina Rossetti

I originally shared this post in 2018, when I had begun writing my fictional portrait of Christina Rossetti. It continues to be a work in progress, with an ever-changing finishing line – now in sight by the end of this summer. Well, Rome wasn’t built in a day and in the last few years my novel building has come up against many challenges, mostly because of the care of my elderly mother. But somehow I have kept at it, brick by brick. (At the end of this post, I offer a little – very little – excerpt from The Dove Upon Her Branch.)

First, the ever beautiful poetry of a very special woman, accompanied by the exquisite artwork of her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and others in the style and/or spirit of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Maiden May sat in her bower,
In her blush rose bower in flower,
Sweet of scent;
Sat and dreamed away an hour,
Half content, half uncontent.

‘Why should rose blossoms be born,
Tender blossoms, on a thorn
Though so sweet?
Never a thorn besets the corn
Scentless in its strength complete.
‘Why are roses all so frail,
At the mercy of a gale,
Of a breath?
Yet so sweet and perfect pale,
Still so sweet in life and death.

“Mona Rosa” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Maiden May sat in her bower,
In her blush rose bower in flower,
Where a linnet
Made one bristling branch the tower
For her nest and young ones in it.

‘Gay and clear the linnet trills;
Yet the skylark only, thrills
Heaven and earth
When he breasts the height, and fills
Height and depth with song and mirth.

‘Nightingales which yield to night
Solitary strange delight,
Reign alone:
But the lark for all his height
Fills no solitary throne;

‘While he sings, a hundred sing;
Wing their flight below his wing
Yet in flight;
Each a lovely joyful thing
To the measure of its delight.

‘Why then should a lark be reckoned
One alone, without a second
Near his throne?
He in skyward flight unslackened,
In his music, not alone.’

“Veronica Veronese” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Maiden May sat in her bower;
Her own face was like a flower
Of the prime,
Half in sunshine, half in shower,
In the year’s most tender time.

Her own thoughts in silent song
Musically flowed along,
Wise, unwise,
Wistful, wondering, weak or strong:
As brook shallows sink or rise.

“The Shepherdess” by William Holman Hunt

Other thoughts another day,
Maiden May, will surge and sway
Round your heart;
Wake, and plead, and turn at bay,
Wisdom part, and folly part.

Time not far remote will borrow
Other joys, another sorrow,
All for you;
Not to-day, and yet to-morrow
Reasoning false and reasoning true.

Wherefore greatest? Wherefore least?
Hearts that starve and hearts that feast?
You and I?
Stammering Oracles have ceased,
And the whole earth stands at ‘why?’

“Women Reading in Garden” by Marie Spartali Stillman

Underneath all things that be
Lies an unsolved mystery;
Over all
Spreads a veil impenetrably,
Spreads a dense unlifted pall.

Mystery of mysteries:
This creation hears and sees
High and low –
Vanity of vanities:
This we test and this we know.

Maiden May, the days of flowering
Nurse you now in sweet embowering,
Sunny days;
Bright with rainbows all the showering,
Bright with blossoms all the ways.

“The Blind Girl” by John Everett Mallais

Close the inlet of your bower,
Close it close with thorn and flower,
Maiden May;
Lengthen out the shortening hour, –
Morrows are not as to-day.

Stay to-day which wanes too soon,
Stay the sun and stay the moon,
Stay your youth;
Bask you in the actual noon,
Rest you in the present truth.

Let to-day suffice to-day:
For itself to-morrow may
Fetch its loss,
Aim and stumble, say its say,
Watch and pray and bear its cross.
~ Christina Georgina Rossetti

“Fair Rosamund” by Arthur Hughes

 

Excerpt from The Dove Upon Her Branch, my upcoming novel portrait of Christina Rossetti.

She sat by one of the open windows, the scents and sounds of May just beyond, no time like Spring when life’s alive in everything, a good time to be married, if ever there was for Gabriel and Lizzie. A ten-year engagement had hardly made a difference to him, while Lizzie’s heart and health had suffered for it. The twelfth of May, Gabriel’s birthday, was supposed to be the day he gave into the commitment his illusions longed for and his behavior sabotaged.

I wish we once were wedded – then I must be true; you should hold my will in yours to do or undo* … 

 

*from the poem Look on this picture and on this by Christina Rossetti

 

 

©Artwork and writing, unless otherwise indicated, are the property of Diane M Denton. Please request permission to reproduce or post elsewhere with a link back to bardessdmdenton. Thank you.

Farther On My Road Today

On this New Year’s Day 2021, I was reminder by the first two stanzas of this poem by Christina Rossetti (Old and New Year Ditties) of why I was and continue to be compelled to write my current work-in-progress novel about her, and how in sync I am with her melancholic hope and sensibilities:

New Year met me somewhat sad:
Old Year leaves me tired,
Stripped of favourite things I had
Baulked of much desired:
Yet farther on my road to-day
God willing, farther on my way.

New Year coming on apace
What have you to give me?
Bring you scathe, or bring you grace,
Face me with an honest face;
You shall not deceive me:
Be it good or ill, be it what you will,
It needs shall help me on my road,
My rugged way to heaven, please God.

Christina Rossetti and her Mother Frances Rossetti, 7th October 1863, by Charles Dodgson (AKA Lewis Carroll)

Here is the rest of the poem, no doubt more overtly religious than I am, but full of rich spiritual contemplation I cannot help but relate to:

Watch with me, men, women, and children dear,
You whom I love, for whom I hope and fear,
Watch with me this last vigil of the year.
Some hug their business, some their pleasure-scheme;
Some seize the vacant hour to sleep or dream;
Heart locked in heart some kneel and watch apart.

Watch with me blessed spirits, who delight
All through the holy night to walk in white,
Or take your ease after the long-drawn fight.
I know not if they watch with me: I know
They count this eve of resurrection slow,
And cry, ‘How long?’ with urgent utterance strong.

Watch with me Jesus, in my loneliness:
Though others say me nay, yet say Thou yes;
Though others pass me by, stop Thou to bless.
Yea, Thou dost stop with me this vigil night;
To-night of pain, to-morrow of delight:
I, Love, am Thine; Thou, Lord my God, art mine.

Passing away, saith the World, passing away:
Chances, beauty and youth sapped day by day:
Thy life never continueth in one stay.
Is the eye waxen dim, is the dark hair changing to grey
That hath won neither laurel nor bay?
I shall clothe myself in Spring and bud in May:
Thou, root-stricken, shalt not rebuild thy decay
On my bosom for aye.
Then I answered: Yea.

Passing away, saith my Soul, passing away:
With its burden of fear and hope, of labour and play;
Hearken what the past doth witness and say:
Rust in thy gold, a moth is in thine array,
A canker is in thy bud, thy leaf must decay.
At midnight, at cockcrow, at morning, one certain day
Lo, the Bridegroom shall come and shall not delay:
Watch thou and pray.
Then I answered: Yea.

Passing away, saith my God, passing away:
Winter passeth after the long delay:
New grapes on the vine, new figs on the tender spray,
Turtle calleth turtle in Heaven’s May.
Though I tarry wait for Me, trust Me, watch and pray:
Arise, come away, night is past and lo it is day,
My love, My sister, My spouse, thou shalt hear Me say.
Then I answered: Yea.

For me, this piece – Reminiscence – by Chopin fits the mood and reflection of Christina’s poem

Wishing you health, fulfillment,
love, and peace
for 2021 and beyond.

©Artwork and writing, unless otherwise indicated, are the property of Diane M Denton. Please request permission to reproduce or post elsewhere with a link back to bardessdmdenton. Thank you.

Maiden May by Christina Rossetti

Maiden May sat in her bower,
In her blush rose bower in flower,
Sweet of scent;
Sat and dreamed away an hour,
Half content, half uncontent.

‘Why should rose blossoms be born,
Tender blossoms, on a thorn
Though so sweet?
Never a thorn besets the corn
Scentless in its strength complete.
‘Why are roses all so frail,
At the mercy of a gale,
Of a breath?
Yet so sweet and perfect pale,
Still so sweet in life and death.

“Mona Rosa” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Maiden May sat in her bower,
In her blush rose bower in flower,
Where a linnet
Made one bristling branch the tower
For her nest and young ones in it.

‘Gay and clear the linnet trills;
Yet the skylark only, thrills
Heaven and earth
When he breasts the height, and fills
Height and depth with song and mirth.

‘Nightingales which yield to night
Solitary strange delight,
Reign alone:
But the lark for all his height
Fills no solitary throne;

‘While he sings, a hundred sing;
Wing their flight below his wing
Yet in flight;
Each a lovely joyful thing
To the measure of its delight.

‘Why then should a lark be reckoned
One alone, without a second
Near his throne?
He in skyward flight unslackened,
In his music, not alone.’

“Veronica Veronese” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Maiden May sat in her bower;
Her own face was like a flower
Of the prime,
Half in sunshine, half in shower,
In the year’s most tender time.

Her own thoughts in silent song
Musically flowed along,
Wise, unwise,
Wistful, wondering, weak or strong:
As brook shallows sink or rise.

“The Shepherdess” by William Holman Hunt

Other thoughts another day,
Maiden May, will surge and sway
Round your heart;
Wake, and plead, and turn at bay,
Wisdom part, and folly part.

Time not far remote will borrow
Other joys, another sorrow,
All for you;
Not to-day, and yet to-morrow
Reasoning false and reasoning true.

Wherefore greatest? Wherefore least?
Hearts that starve and hearts that feast?
You and I?
Stammering Oracles have ceased,
And the whole earth stands at ‘why?’

“Women Reading in Garden” by Marie Spartali Stillman

Underneath all things that be
Lies an unsolved mystery;
Over all
Spreads a veil impenetrably,
Spreads a dense unlifted pall.

Mystery of mysteries:
This creation hears and sees
High and low –
Vanity of vanities:
This we test and this we know.

Maiden May, the days of flowering
Nurse you now in sweet embowering,
Sunny days;
Bright with rainbows all the showering,
Bright with blossoms all the ways.

“The Blind Girl” by John Everett Mallais

Close the inlet of your bower,
Close it close with thorn and flower,
Maiden May;
Lengthen out the shortening hour, –
Morrows are not as to-day.

Stay to-day which wanes too soon,
Stay the sun and stay the moon,
Stay your youth;
Bask you in the actual noon,
Rest you in the present truth.

Let to-day suffice to-day:
For itself to-morrow may
Fetch its loss,
Aim and stumble, say its say,
Watch and pray and bear its cross.
~ Christina Georgina Rossetti

“Fair Rosamund” by Arthur Hughes

Click here to read and view a previous year’s post celebrating May Day.

 

For those of you who don’t know, Christina Rossetti is the subject of my work-in-progress novel The Dove Upon Her Branch.

 

©Artwork and writing, unless otherwise indicated, are the property of Diane M Denton. Please request permission to reproduce or post elsewhere with a link back to bardessdmdenton. Thank you.