Interpretation of the Symbolism in Dante’s Poem and its Religious Perspective
Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem “The Blessed Damozel” is full of religious symbolism. There is talk of saints, and the poem itself takes place in heaven. But underneath the religious symbolism is a deep sensuality, that makes one wonder if the “white rose of Mary’s gift” referred to in line nine is the gift of Mary the Virgin, or the somewhat less virginal Mary Magdalene.
While the Damozel is in heaven, her appearance in heaven, her behaviors in life, and what happens when she and her lover are reunited suggest some less than virginal dealings, yet the damozel is ‘blessed’ and resides in heaven. Rossetti was the child of liberals kicked out of Italy – a heavily catholic country – for their extreme political views. While Rossetti himself was not political, he may have espoused similar views regarding politics and religion as his parents.
In the poem “The Blessed Damozel”, Rossetti was given the chance to essentially create his own heaven. Most everything he wrote seems to show that Rossetti espoused a distinctly different idea of morality than the Victorian mainstream. He proves this by depicting this blessed damozel in several ‘unholy’ behaviors, such as wandering around somewhat less than clothed, having her hair down, and consorting with her lover, but still being ‘blessed’, essentially rejecting moral and religious norms of the day.
In line seven Rossetti describes the damozel as wearing “Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem” which, depending on if the damozel was wearing clothes under her robe (she probably wasn’t), certainly does not seem very, hem, virgin-like. Never, in western history, have robes been a primary form of clothing for women. Western women have worn bathrobes and dressing gowns, but robes, especially ungirt robes, are hardly appropriate.
Contrasting this with the strict Victorian gowns, which were only slightly less conservative than a burqa, it seems that this Damozel was something of a shady lady. Even dance hall girls and prostitutes wore clothing that covered them from breasts to somewhere around the knees. Victorian morality was strong, and would condemn such women to hell. So, working under the assumption that the Damozel is wandering around heaven half nude, it would seem that partial nudity just isn’t an issue in Rossetti’s holy realms. In fact if it’s happening in heaven, you might even say that God condones it, which, if you’re a Victorian, is borderline blasphemy.
One of them many quirks of the Victorian era was the societal expectation that a woman pin her hair up. Grown women of all classes wrestled their hair into elaborate coiffures to rival the hairdos of the Rococo period. The only females who didn’t pin their hair up were girls under the ages of fifteen/sixteen, and women of ill-repute, like actresses. A woman with her hair down had a very seductive, intimate quality, and such an action was usually reserved for after marriage.
In stanza four, the narrator says “(To one it is ten years of years/…Yet now, and in this place/Surely she leaned o‘er me—her hair/Fell all about my face/Nothing: the autumn-fall of leaves./ The whole year sets apace.)” Such a posture belies and intimacy not seen in Victorians except in marriage, and there is no sign that a marriage existed between the narrator and the Damozel at that point in time. Evidently, the Damozel and the Narrator were up to some unholy shenanigans while she was alive.
In stanza two, the damozel is depicted as having “Her hair that lay along her back” Now, keep in mind, this is in heaven. You would assume that decorum and propriety would be upheld at all times. The Damozel is bucking all standards of propriety of her time, and yet, the Damozel is ‘Blessed’ and in heaven. Rossetti evidently believed her worthy of that sort of exaltation, despite her impropriety. Rossetti is stating, perhaps, that the manner in which a woman dresses and grooms herself has no impact on her character, and what God thinks of her. You could say that he’s rejecting the idea that outward morality and propriety is what makes a person worthy of heaven.
Stanzas 13-16 is where things really heat up, when the damozel and her beloved “bathe there in God’s sight.”, lie together under the tree of life mentioned in Revelations, and she says “And I myself will teach to him,/I myself, lying so,/The songs I sing here; which his voice/ Shall pause in, hushed and slow,/And find some knowledge at each pause/ Or some new things to know.”, which is honestly one of the sexiest things I’ve read this week. What happens in these stanzas sounds much like a marriage, then consummation.
In stanza fourteen, she says “We two will stand beside that shrine,/Occult, withheld, untried,/ Whose lamps are stirred continually/With prayer sent up to God;/And see our old prayers, granted, melt/Each like a little cloud.” There are several elements in her that sound like a wedding, two people standing by a shrine, a prayer to God, seeing their ‘old prayers’ granted. It sounds like a wedding. But what is interesting, is that not only did this wedding start with a very, very sexy bath, but there is no officiant for this wedding. The Damozel and the Narrator are dealing with God directly, not something that you see very often in Catholicism. In Catholicism believers often petition a saint to intercede for them, and in stanza eighteen the Damozel and the Narrator stumble upon a veritable coven of saints. But there is no mention of the saints until after the Damozel and her lover have achieved the union they craved. This could be an example of Rossetti rejecting the traditional view that a religious ritual had to be performed through someone who spoke to someone, who spoke to God. This is interesting, because the rejection of Saints was one of the fundamentals of the English Reformation under Henry VIII. Rossetti’s parents rejected Italian Catholicism for Anglo-Catholicism when they came to England. This could be an example of Rossetti affirming that Anglo-Catholic belief. But there is still no mention of a priest, just the two lovers before God.
After this is when things start to get really steamy. It’s worth noting that in stanza fifteen Rossetti describes the lovers as “We two will lie i’ the shadow of/That living mystic tree”. That tree they’re lying in the shadow of is a reference to the tree of life mentioned in Revelation 22:2. And, as mentioned in Christian doctrine, the ‘Tree of Life’ was the tree whose fruit was forbidden to Adam and Eve, because it would destroy their innocence. Do you know what else destroys innocence? Sex. That’s what.
And if the previous stanza isn’t enough evidence that the Narrator and the Damozel were doing the frick-frack, we then proceed to stanza sixteen, where the Damozel teaches the Narrator the “songs I sing here” and he “shall pause in, hushed and slow,/And find some knowledge at each pause,/Or some new thing to know”. It sounds as if the Narrator and the Damozel are, as the kids say, “Doin’ the do”, as is only natural following a wedding. What makes it unusual is that this is all happening in heaven. Where God lives. Heaven, the realm of holiness and light. They’re having sex in a sacred place. You understand why this might be a little controversial. While sex was a part of life that most Victorians resigned themselves to, it wasn’t something that one talked about openly, or admitted openly to enjoying. These people are not only having sex in a sacred place, they also seem to be enjoying it.
In conclusion, Dante Rossetti very subtly rebelled against the strict views of morality of the Victorian era in his poem. By the Damozel’s appearance, and her actions with the Narrator, he demonstrates his belief that there was more to religion than was promoted by the time, and that outward morality wasn’t nearly as important as many believed it to be. He puts forth the idea that the sexual relationship between a man and a woman isn’t something to be ashamed of, but something holy that should be celebrated.
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