‘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’.
(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.
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.