‘In An Artist’s Studio’: Analysis Part 1 Poetry Workshop
In An Artist’s Studio
(by Christina Rossetti)
One face looks out from all his canvasses,
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 canvass means
The same one meaning, neither more nor 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.
When coming to a poem for the first time, it’s tempting just to plunge in and start reading. The trouble with this approach is that you risk overlooking a major part of the poem: its title. Consider Rossetti’s title here: ‘In An Artist’s Studio.’ Without looking at the poem, what can we immediately gather from the title? Let’s close read it word for word and find out.
1. In: This is an important word. Why? Because it tells us where the poem takes place, and alerts us that this poem’s location will be significant. Rossetti could have chosen to call her poem ‘On an Artist’s Studio’, letting us know that this would be a meditation on or about the subject of a studio. But by choosing ‘In’, she alerts us that the poem’s location is as important as its subject. This poet is inviting us to come In to the studio.
2. An: At first glance this word seems very general, but consider it closely, and you realise it is very specific. This will be a poem about a particular artist: ‘An’ artist, not just any artist.
3. Artist’s Studio: Now the title gets down to business. This poem will take place in a professional environment: the studio where artistic work is created. This would be a very different poem if Rossetti had chosen to call it ‘In An Artist’s Parlour’ or ‘In An Artist’s Boozer’. We now can surmise that the poem’s subject will be about the artist’s creative (as opposed to domestic or social) life.
FORM – Petrarchan Sonnet
It is tempting now to start charging around looking for meaning, but first, it is worthwhile to have a look at the poem as a whole, and see what we can determine about its form. It has 14 lines, so immediately we know it is a sonnet. But to determine what kind, we need to look at the rhyme scheme, which is: abba abba cdc dce. This tells us that the poem is a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. (A Shakespearean or English sonnet would have a different rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg).
Traditionally, Petrarchan sonnets can be divided into two sections: the first eight lines (the octave) and the final six (the sestet), with the ‘turn’ or (volta) occurring around line 9. The octave is different in character than the sestet. It normally sets up an problem, presents an argument or makes a generalization, which is then resolved or challenged in the sestet. The volta is the line that ‘turns’ the poem, both in terms of mood and direction.
What should catch our attention here is the sestet’s rhyme scheme; the sestet is where the Petrarchan sonneteer can really get creative, as the final six lines can employ various combinations of cde rhymes, such as: cdc cdc; cdd ece; cdd cdd. Rossetti closes her sonnet with a new rhyme that appears nowhere else: ‘dream’. But is this a true e rhyme? After all, ‘Dream’ echoes both the ‘b’ rhymes (‘leans’ / ‘screens’) and d rhymes (‘him’ / ‘dim’). This unconventional variation in the rhyme scheme alerts us that Rossetti wants us to notice this word. This word will be important to our understanding of the poem.
The volta in line 9 here is so startling that it literally gives the reader a ‘turn’: ‘He feeds upon her face by day and night’ (line 9). What?! We thought we were in the professional, creative environment of an artist’s studio and now someone’s face is being eaten? Sheesh! What next?
Even before we have properly begun, the form (Petrarchan sonnet) has given us some important clues about this poem. We know that the word ‘dream’ is important, and that at some point, someone is feeding on someone else’s face. It’s a pretty good bet here that the kind of ‘dream’ the sonnet presents is going to be a bit of a nightmare.