American Gothic: Part II
William Rossetti noted that Boston-born Edgar Allan Poe’s work continued to provide ‘a deep well of delight’ to his brother Gabriel all his life. Throughout his career, Gabriel Rossetti was drawn to the disturbing notion in Poe’s essay ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ that ‘The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.’ During 1846-47, Gabriel decided to write a sequal to Poe’s ‘The Raven’, and ended up producing his most famous poem, ‘The Blessed Damozel’.
The poem was about a woman in heaven grieving for her lover on earth. Gabriel wrote: ‘I saw that Poe had done the utmost it was possible to do with the grief of the lover on earth, and so determined to reverse the conditions, and give utterance to the yearning of the loved one in heaven. We are fortunate that Gabriel explained this relationship, because, upon close inspection, the gulf between ‘The Raven’ and its Pre-Raphaelite companion-piece yawns wider than the Atlantic ocean which divided Rossetti and Poe. Where Poe’s grieving lover is driven mad by a demonic raven repeatedly squawking ‘Nevermore’, Rossetti’s damozel, her robe conveniently ‘ungirt from clasp to hem’, weeps prettily in heaven, while her ‘bosom’s pressure’ makes ‘the bar she leaned on warm’. As was his habit, Gabriel revised this poem many times. There are several different versions dating from its first publication in The Germ in 1850, where the poem begins:
The blessed Damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of Heaven:
Her blue grave eyes were deeper much
Than a deep water, even.
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.
Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem,
No wrought flowers did adorn,
But a white rose of Mary’s gift
On the neck meetly worn;
And her hair, lying down her back,
Was yellow like ripe corn.
(Click here to read the whole poem)
Poe’s gothic tales were also an early inspiration for Gabriel’s art. In the mid to late 1840s, he drew (unpublished) illustrations for ‘The Raven’, such as the one shown here. Notice how the angels in particular are rendered in the outlined, flattened, iconic style which would soon be associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s early work. During the same period, Gabriel also produced illustrations for Poe’s ‘Ulalume’ and ‘The Sleeper’.