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

Dinah Roe

‘Proserpina’, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Analysis Part I) Poetry Workshop: The Poem

When I posted a close analysis of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Winter: My Secret’, I imagined that the next poem I selected would be on the happy subject of springtime. However, it is currently 3 degrees in Oxford and it is snowing. The radio keeps insisting that spring has officially sprung, yet it is so cold in my house that I have to wear fingerless gloves to type.

Twiddling my fingers and humming, ‘Reviewing the Situation’ while imitating Ron Moody as Fagin in Oliver! has provided some small measure of comfort in these dark days, but enough is enough. Who do I speak to about bringing back spring?

In keeping with this lament, let’s look at a poem which grapples with the absence of spring: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Proserpina’ (1881). Inspired by the Roman myth of springtime and by, well, himself, Rossetti wrote this poem to accompany his painting ‘Proserpine’.

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!”

As always, let’s begin by considering the title.

Proserpina

It is important to familiarise ourselves with this poem’s mythological context. The Roman goddess Proserpina (also known as ‘Proserpine’) is the daughter of Ceres, goddess of agriculture. Proserpina is abducted by Pluto, lord of the underworld. Ceres negotiates her daughter’s release by forbidding anything on the earth to grow until her daughter is returned, but hers is a partial victory. Proserpina has eaten pomegranate seeds in the underworld and so must return to Pluto’s realm for part of every year as a consequence. Winter and autumn signify that Proserpina has once again descended into the underworld while spring indicates her safe return.

(For a Picture)
This subtitle lets us know that the poem has been written to accompany one of Rossetti’s paintings. The layout should attract our notice here, as this subtitle is literally placed ‘under’ the title ( the prefix ‘sub’ means ‘under’). Its subordinate status is emphasised by the use of parentheses. The parentheses are also interesting to consider as an image of enclosure and entrapment, a theme of both poem and picture.

Rossetti first publishes this poem in Ballads and Sonnets, 1881 without an accompanying image. Yet he retains the subtitle.

He wants the reader to know that a picture inspired this poem. Following the artist’s cue, we will be doing something a little different in our analysis of this particular poem. We will take Rossetti’s painting Proserpina into account.

It is a challenge to consider both text and image. We must think visually as well as verbally, just like Rossetti. But as always, there is a method to this madness. First, we will look at the poem on its own. Then we will consider it in the context of the painting. Finally, we will consider the ways in which both poem and painting interact with one another. 

FORM AND RHYME SCHEME

The 14 lines and rhyme scheme (abba abba cdd ccd) tell us that this is a Petrarchan sonnet. So far, so Anglo-Italian, as we might expect from a Rossetti. But there is something else going on here. The speaker is Proserpine herself, and therefore this sonnet can also be considered a dramatic monologue. Pioneered by the great Victorian poet Robert Browning, the dramatic monologue is a poem whose single speaker is a fictional character or a historical figure caught at a critical moment. The impression of a monologue is also conveyed by the sonnet’s iambic pentameter (a metrical pattern said to resemble human speech).

Please visit again for further analysis, which will be posted soon. In the meantime, consider this poem’s appearance on the frame of Rossetti’s picture.

Can anyone tell me how the roundel on this frame visually draws our attention to the Petrarchan sonnet form? Answers on a postcard please. Well, ok, in the comments then.

 

Responses

  1. Hi Dinah.  I’ve been puzzling over this and simply have no clue but am eagerly awaiting the answer.  Any other clues?
    Lorraine

    Lorraine Mercer responded at 05:02pm on 06/14/2013
  2. Hi Lorraine,

    Please see part 2 of this analysis, which I’ve just posted! Would love to hear your thoughts.

    Dinah responded at 12:34pm on 06/25/2013
  3. Hi Dinah.  Still no real idea.  I’m intrigued by the frame as part of the picture though and the subtitle, “For a painting.”  The sonnet is “for a painting” but so is the frame and inside the frame is the goddess and the goddess has been framed by the artist and by the god of the underworld.  The roundel echoes the pomegranate?  ?????

    Lorraine Mercer responded at 06:48am on 07/22/2013
  4. I like your comparison of frame and sonnet on the basis that both are ‘for’ the painting. The Tate agrees with your assessment of the roundel. Nicely done! http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/rossetti-proserpine-n05064/text-summary

    Dinah responded at 12:25pm on 07/22/2013

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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.