Poem: Christina Rossetti, ‘In an Artist’s Studio’

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.

(1896)

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.

 

Poem: Edna St Vincent Millay, ‘I, being born a Woman and Distressed’

I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn wtih pity, — let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

1923

Second of my postings for National Poetry Month.  I’ve always liked this sexy, cheeky, clever sonnet from Edna St Vincent Millay.  Millay was a North American poet, a feminist and an openly bisexual woman who had an open marriage with her husband Eugen Boissevain.

Poem: Gwendolyn Brooks, ‘Rites for Cousin Vit’

‘Rites for Cousin Vit’

Carried her unprotesting out the door
Kicked back the casket-stand. But it can’t hold her,
That stuff and satin aiming to enfold her,
The lid’s contrition nor the bolts before.
Oh oh. Too much. Too much. Even now, surmise,
She rises in sunshine. There she goes
Back to the bars she knew and the repose
In love-rooms and the things in people’s eyes.
Too vital and too squeaking. Must emerge.
Even now, she does the snake-hips with a hiss,
Slaps the bad wine across her shantung, talks
Of pregnancy, guitars and bridgework, walks
In parks or alleys, comes haply on the verge
Of happiness, haply hysterics. Is.

 

Gwendolyn Brookes (1917 – 2000) was an African American poet who published over 20 books of poetry and won the Pulitzer Prize.

This sonnet is one of my all-time favourite poems.  I think it really demonstrates poetry’s ability to express thoughts and feelings that just can’t be as well expressed through any other medium.  By this I mean, it expresses Cousin Vit’s energy and the effect she had on other people in such a way that I don’t think any other kind of writing could contain her. Well, the poem doesn’t contain her, perhaps that’s the point; it sets her loose again.