The Blessed Damozel by Rossetti

The Blessed Damozel
The Poem
There are four versions of “The Blessed Damozel,” which was written in 1847, when Dante Gabriel Rossetti
was eighteen years old. The first version was published in The Germ in 1850, the second in The Oxford and

Cambridge Magazine in 1856, the third in 1870 in Rossetti’s collection Poems, the fourth in Poems, 1881.
The changes appearing in the second and third versions are generally regarded as improvements.
Many years after the poem was written, Rossetti is said to have attributed it to his admiration of Edgar Allan
Poe’s “The Raven” (1845). Rossetti is reported to have said that Poe had done the most that was possible to
do with the grief of a lover on earth longing for a lover in heaven and that he (Rossetti) was determined to
reverse the conditions in “The Blessed Damozel.”
Both a poet and a painter, in 1848 Rossetti, along with Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, established the
Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The term “Pre-Raphaelite” was first used to describe a group of German artists
who early in the nineteenth century formed a brotherhood in Rome to restore Christian art to the medieval
purity of the great Italian masters preceding Raphael. The German group was short-lived, and the term was
later used to designate the English school founded by Rossetti and his followers. In general, the English
Pre-Raphaelites reacted against the neoclassic tendencies and low standards of the art of their day. Both their
painting and their literature are characterized by an interest in the medieval and the supernatural, simplicity of
style, love of sensuous beauty, exactness of detail, and much symbolism.
Not only is “The Blessed Damozel” Rossetti’s best-known work, but it also epitomizes the Pre-Raphaelite
school. He used the medieval form of damsel, “damozel”—a young, unmarried woman of noble birth—in the
title to emphasize the medieval setting and visionary aspects of the poem. He was commissioned in 1871 to do
a painting of the poem and by 1879 had given it a predella showing an earthly lover (wearing a cloak and a
sword) lying under a tree in the forest looking up at his beloved. The poem is presented as his reverie. He
dreams that she leans out from the golden bar of heaven. Although she has been in heaven ten years, to her it
scarcely seems a day. In the forest, the lover imagines that the autumn leaves are her hair falling on his face.
Around her, lovers, met again in heaven, speak among themselves, and souls ascending to God go by “like
thin flames.”
Her gaze pierces the abyss between heaven and earth, and she speaks. (Her lover imagines that he hears her
voice in the birds’ song.) She wishes that he would come to her, for when he does they will lie together in
paradise and she herself will teach him the songs of heaven. She will ask Jesus that they be allowed to live and
love as they once did on earth—but for eternity. She sees a flight of angels pass by and lays her head on the
golden barrier of heaven and weeps. The lover asserts that he has heard the tears.
Forms and Devices
Originally, the ballad was a narrative lyric poem preserved by oral tradition. The ballad meter of England
The Blessed Damozel 1
derived from the septenarius, a rhymed Latin hymn meter of seven feet or accents. These long lines,
technically known as “fourteeners,” as they often numbered fourteen syllables, were afterward broken up into
four shorter lines of iambic tetrameter alternated with iambic trimeter, which accounts for the alternating
unrhymed lines.
In the case of “The Blessed Damozel,” Rossetti has broken three long septenarian lines into six shorter lines
of alternating tetrameters and trimeters. Thus, the second, fourth, and sixth lines in each stanza rhyme, as in
stanza 2: “adorn,” “worn,” and “corn.” The ballad was predominantly a medieval poetic form, and
Rossetti’s use of it exemplifies the Pre-Raphaelite preoccupation with medievalism.
Another important aspect of Rossetti’s poetry is his “painterly” style. It is often said that reading one of his
poems is almost like looking at a painting. Rossetti himself said that the supreme perfection in art is achieved
when the picture and the poem are identical—that is, when they produce the same effect. Rossetti achieves this
effect by paying meticulous attention to detail and by using concrete images. The damozel’s eyes are as deep
as waters “stilled at even” (at twilight); she wears seven stars in her hair, which is yellow like corn; holds
three lilies in her hand (seven and three are mystical numbers); and wears a white rose on her robe. The earth
spins in the void “like a fretful midge”; the “curled moon” is a “little feather” in the gulf—all of these are
concrete images that present a portrait of the damozel, the earth, and the moon.
Finally, the poem abounds with Christian imagery and symbolism. Arising from the tradition of courtly love,
one of the great medieval themes was an idealized, platonic, spiritual love. Although this tradition had its
carnal aspects, the spiritualized love and adoration are best exemplified by Dante Alighieri’s mystical
devotion to Beatrice and his portrayal of her in paradise. True to his intention, Rossetti has reversed the roles
in this poem. By setting the poem in heaven, within a medieval Christian framework, he has tried to suggest
the spiritual nature of the damozel’s love for her earthly lover. The heavenly lover wears the white rose—a
symbol of virginity—and is therefore fitted to be in the service of Mary, who is the ultimate symbol of pure,
chaste love. It is Mary herself who will approve their love and bring the lovers before Christ (lines 115 to
Themes and Meanings
The reader can see in “The Blessed Damozel” the expression of an ancient and well-known theme: the desire
of an isolated, separated lover to achieve unity with the beloved. Rossetti has framed this vision as a reverie, a
daydream, a wish-fulfilling dream in the mind of a lover. The heart of the poem is the ironic conflict between
the earthly bodily desire and the tradition that heaven is a place of disembodied souls, comforted and joyful in
the presence of God. This irony is emphasized by the poem’s religious framework.
The earthly, fleshly dimension of the lover in heaven is unconsciously revealed in several places in the poem:
Her bosom “warms” the bar of heaven (line 46); she imagines taking her lover’s hand (line 75), lying
together in the shadow of the mystic tree (lines 85 to 86), laying her cheek against his (line 116), and, finally,
living in heaven “as once on earth” (line 129).
These are all images of touching in the earthly sense. Yet, by the standards of medieval theology—which the
whole framework of the poem implies—she ought to be contemplating the joy of God and exhorting her lover
to lay aside grief and remember that she now enjoys the real reward of life: eternal life with God.
The Christian imagery, which is largely derived from Dante and other medieval Italian poets, is used
decoratively and in this context does not support the sensuous desires of the lover. As much as Rossetti tried
to emulate the austere spiritual idealization of Dante, his own sensuousness prevented him from achieving it.
Forms and Devices 2
The heavenly lover yearns passionately, intensely, for her earthly companion. In her yearning, she moves
from a vision of their reunion, to hope of everlasting unity, and finally to doubt and despair. The void between
heaven and earth is immense. What is emphasized is the separateness of the lovers: The wish is not the thing
itself; the traditional Christian sops about being in heaven hold no comfort for the bereaved lover, for without
the beloved, the heaven becomes a hell.

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