Pre-Raphaelites in The City: ‘Proserpina’, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti: (Analysis Part 2)

Dinah Roe

‘Proserpina’, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti: (Analysis Part 2) Poetry Workshop

Biographical Context
Critics have made much of this sonnet’s biographical context, and indeed, it is worth noting that Rossetti was in love with the picture’s model, Jane, wife of William Morris. It is not a stretch to imagine that Rossetti’s interest in a goddess who is sometimes permitted to escape the clutches of her underworld husband had its roots in the painter’s personal feelings. Rossetti was not the subtlest of artists, or of men, and it is right in character for him to mythologize his affair in this way. However, this picture continues to fascinate because it engages with themes of desire and distance suggestive of something more profound and less particular than a Kelmscott Manor ménage à trois. This analysis will therefore concentrate on the literary and pictorial aspects of this artwork. For more on this picture’s biographical background and production history, see the Rossetti Archive.

The Poem

PROSERPINA.

(FOR A PICTURE)

  Afar away the light that brings cold cheer
  Unto this wall,—one instant and no more
  Admitted at my distant palace-door.
  Afar the flowers of Enna from this drear
  Dire fruit, which, tasted once, must thrall me here.
  Afar those skies from this Tartarean grey
  That chills me: and afar, how far away,
  The nights that shall be from the days that were.

  Afar from mine own self I seem, and wing
  Strange ways in thought, and listen for a sign:
  And still some heart unto some soul doth pine,
  (Whose sounds mine inner sense is fain to bring,
  Continually together murmuring,)—
  “Woe’s me for thee, unhappy Proserpine!”

What is special about the placement of this poem on the picture frame is that it allows the picture’s subject to ‘speak’ to us, an opportunity that Proserpine is not afforded by Ovid. If we don’t understand Proserpine’s situation through the visual mythology (the pomegranate, the chink of light from the upper world), Rossetti is so eager to explain it that he gives us not one but two poems: an Italian sonnet in the picture and its English translation on the frame.

The poem alludes to ‘the flowers of Enna’; ‘the fruit’ which ‘must thrall’ Proserpine; and her ‘Tartarean’ [Hades] location. But this poem isn’t merely for the purposes of orientating us in Ovid’s myth. In fact, it demonstrates that in Proserpine’s underworld, orientation is a tricky thing indeed. It’s worth remembering that this sonnet is also a dramatic monologue in which Proserpine tells us how she feels, as well as where she is. She is isolated not just from the world, but alienated from herself: ‘Afar from mine own self I seem, and wing / Strange ways in thought’ (9-10). Her past and future (‘days that were’, ‘nights that shall be’) are as irreconcilable as her split identity (queen of the underworld & goddess of spring).

The word ‘Afar’ begins both the octave and the sestet, and appears 5 times in the English poem. Rossetti further emphasizes this sense of distance by highlighting Lungi (meaning ‘far, far from’) in black in the Italian version of the sonnet, which appears in the rectangle on the upper-right corner of the picture.

The English translation of the sonnet as it appears on the frame visually reflects Proserpine’s feeling of alienation, her sense that she is ‘far from’ both the upper world and from herself; its octave is kept apart from its sestet by a single roundel. The two poems also make a point about the act of translation: As an English translation of the Italian sonnet in the picture, this frame-poem itself is placed ‘far from’ the Italian version, both in its physical position and its language. Yet there are connections too. Though its masculine end-rhymes sound different from the feminine rhymes of the Italian version, the English sonnet preserves the Petrarchan form and rhyme-scheme of the Italian sonnet (abba abba cdd ccd). It echoes its content and dreamy, melancholy tone, which are also reflected in the picture.

PROSERPINA.

(PER UN QUADRO.)

  Lungi è la luce che in sù questo muro
  Rifrange appena, un breve istante scorta
  Del rio palazzo alla soprana porta.
  Lungi quei fiori d’Enna, O lido oscuro,
  Dal frutto tuo fatal che omai m’è duro.
  Lungi quel cielo dal tartareo manto
  Che quì mi cuopre: e lungi ahi lungi ahi quanto
  Le notti che saràn dai dì che furo.

  Lungi da me mi sento; e ognor sognando
  Cerco e ricerco, e resto ascoltatrice;
  E qualche cuore a qualche anima dice,
  (Di cui mi giunge il suon da quando in quando,
  Continuamente insieme sospirando,)—
  “Oimè per te, Proserpina infelice!”

Framing Frames
This is a picture and a poem about separation and confinement, themes reflected in the picture’s many frames. Aside from the actual frame, there is the square of light framing Proserpine’s head. Rossetti explained that this light was a ‘gleam … from some inlet suddenly opened, and admitting for a moment the light of the upper world.’ (Sharp, DGR, 236). This ‘upper world’ is not depicted in the picture. The first two lines of Rossetti’s sonnet aim to clear up potential confusion about the mysterious light-source: ‘Afar away the light that brings cold cheer / Upon this wall …’. The Italian sonnet in the upper-right corner is itself ‘framed’ in a rectangle.

There is also suggestion of a painted picture frame in the ambiguous surface on which Proserpine’s incense burner is resting; Rossetti’s signature and date, which appear painted on a scroll within the picture space (rather than on the painting’s actual frame) contribute to this effect. Proserpine’s robe spills over this painted border, snaking beneath the real frame as if trying to escape. The robe’s shape both indicates and is echoed in the frame’s sestet beneath it, suggesting that the border between upper world and underworld (perhaps like the borders between art and life), though clearly demarcated, are not impermeable. The various framing devices in this picture, as well as the frame itself, deliberately draw attention to the artificiality of framing space, while at the same time making viewers aware that they occupy quite a different space to the painting in reality.

The poem tests the border between the upper world and the underworld, and worlds of the artificial and the real. The quotation marks framing the last line: “Woe’s me for thee, unhappy Proserpine”, suggest an authorial intervention, as if the painter-poet is trying to give Proserpine the ‘sign’ for which she is listening. He is addressing his painted subject to let her know that he feels sympathy for her plight (‘Woe’s me for thee’).

On the other hand, these quotations marks could just as easily represent Proserpine’s words, dividing the speech of her ‘own self’ from her new underworld self. Her words, though they have escaped from the picture, have ultimately snagged on its frame. It turns out that both words and images are subject to the limits of representation. In Rossetti’s painter-poet hands, Proserpine’s entrapment becomes an allegory, not simply for a personal dilemma, but for an artistic one. 

 

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Pre-Raphaelites in the City

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This blog explores the thriving Victorian cities which inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, and were shaped by them in turn. While the Pre-Raphaelites produced poetry and art praising the natural world, most were born and raised in urban environments, and their work retained a cosmopolitan sensibility. Although this blog will sometimes take excursions into the countryside, its focus will remain on city life. If you want more information on images or sources, please get in touch.