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.
Although Christina Rossetti was actively involved with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founded by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, this is the anti-Pre-Raphaelite poem offering a severe critique of the gender dynamics underlying the ‘Brotherhood’s’ artistic values and, by implication, the wider Victorian society.
The feminine ideal that abounds in Victorian art objectifies women, idealisation reduces all women to the same ‘thing’ – male fantasy. The turn in the ninth line represents the artist as vampire, his ‘dream’ not only objectifying his model, but also contributing to her oppression by becoming a way to actively ignore her reality. During this period, most of the women who appear as queens and saints and angels in paintings were actually ‘fallen women’ and prostitutes who had been discarded by society. In a wider sense it is a comment on the way the feminine ideal is deployed as a weapon against women.
There is another layer to Rossetti’s critique in her use of form here; this sonnet is an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, the form used traditionally by poets like Petrarch and Dante to idealise women. It’s a great example of how form and meaning are inextricably bound together in poetry.