'The Blessed Damozel'": A young man's Fantasy

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Editor: Suzanne Dewsbury
Date: 1999
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,183 words

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[(essay date 1982) In the following essay, Bentley interprets "The Blessed Damozel" as a poem celebratory of "medieval-Catholic awareness."]

Early in 1848, Dante Gabriel Rossetti submitted several poems to Leigh Hunt for approval. Evidently the young poet did not find the older man's comments, though obviously "flattering,"1 particularly perspicacious. In a letter to his aunt Charlotte Polidori written a short time later he says, "Where Hunt, in his kind letter, speaks of my 'Dantesque heavens,' he refers to one or two of the poems the scenes of which are laid in the celestial regions, and which are written in a kind of Gothic manner which I suppose he is pleased to think belongs to the school of Dante" (Letters, 34). There can be little doubt that one of the poems to which Hunt was referring is "The Blessed Damozel" (the other is probably "Mater Pulchrae Delectionis," an early version of "Ave"). In a sense, Hunt's informal comments on "The Blessed Damozel" establish the precedent for most of the criticism on the poem published in the first half of this century. Critics have been "pleased to think" that "The Blessed Damozel" is indebted, not just to Dante and the other poets of his circle, but to a small galaxy of Romantic and Victorian writers, including Coleridge, Keats, Goethe, Musset, Blake, Shelley, Tennyson, and the Bailey of Festus. More frequently mentioned than applied is T. Hall Caine's dubious reminiscence that Rossetti himself gave Poe's "The Raven" as the direct inspiration and point of departure for his poem (p. 284).2 There is no need to rehearse here the various literary echoes that have been found singing together in "The Blessed Damozel" since Paull Franklin Baum has already done this in his lengthy introduction to The Blessed Damozel. The Unpublished Manuscript, Text and Collation which, though published over forty years ago, remains the "standard and only really useful edition of the poem" (WEF, 23.32). The point may be made, however, that the inspiration for "The Blessed Damozel" was pictorial as well as literary, and almost certainly includes such favorites of the young Rossetti as Filippo Pistrucci's Iconologia (with its "coloured allegorical designs" [Memoir, p. 85]3 of female figures with emblematic adjuncts), Richard Hurst's translation of Gombauld's Endimion, and the Aldine edition of Colonna's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (both of which contain striking illustrations of scenes where a female lover is depicted in "the celestial regions").4 Unquestionably there also lie in the background of the poem the medieval paintings "with two levels, a heavenly and an earthly one"5 to which Rossetti's later painting of The Blessed Damozel in the form of a diptych makes formal "reference."6 But a Lowesian journey along the road and across the bridge to "The Blessed Damozel" is not the aim of the present discussion; rather, the aim is to explore the dynamics and meanings of the poem with a view to elucidating the significance of the damozel herself for the male speaker and of the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420027456