Rossetti's "Jenny": Aestheticizing the Whore

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The most famous aestheticized object of Victorian culture is Robert Browning's Duchess, a woman whose utility as a wife has been elided with the result that all who come upon her transformed condition must disinterestedly regard her as an artifact.[1] The iconoclastic ritual Browning's Duke engages in to break his living possession divorces the Duchess's property considerations as a husband's chattel only to reconstitute the woman as a new form of property--a painting that takes possession of its possessor. The Duke's displeasure with his Duchess and with her new role as his obsessive concern, of course, explains why this aestheticized object ordinarily hangs veiled by a curtain rarely put by.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Jenny is the Duchess's kindred. Of markedly different social and economic status than the recipient through marriage of a nine-hundred-year-old name, Jenny nevertheless undergoes the same transformative aestheticization the Duchess endures with some of the same obsessive consequences for Rossetti's speaker.

These obvious similarities nonetheless mask fundamental differences, other than the socio-economic ones, that explain Rossetti's technical development of the dramatic monologue Browning employed and the variations on ekphrastic practice with which Victorian poets were involved.[2] Examining the aestheticization of Jenny will highlight the differences in Browning's and Rossetti's ekphrastic experiments in these two poems and underscore how the painterly hand of Rossetti influenced the verbal articulation of the muted image of this Victorian whore.

Rossetti's speaker, "a thoughtful man of the world," monologizes from an "inner standing-point" to emphasize the artistic "motive power" of his ruminations (484). To identify him as the "speaker" of the poem apparently contradicts Rossetti's insistence on the interior orientation.[3] Speech has a social dimension that implies someone's attending to articulated words, a situation that Jenny's sleeping state precludes. Not until the virtual mid-point of the monologue, however, is Jenny "asleep at last"(171), the speaker prior to that moment encouraging Jenny to "sit up"(89) and "take this glass"(96) in an effort to diminish the "weariness"(95) preceding the complete inattentiveness of sleep. Whether the poem is a dramatic monologue, a narrative, an interior monologue, a soliloquy, or a dialogue of the mind with itself obscures the more significant issue of the function of the multiplicity of interpretations permitted by the text.[4] This critical confusion regarding the nature of the poem's discourse, I suggest, discloses a necessary ingredient for the aestheticization the poem dramatizes, namely the protagonist's confusion.

As the speaker attempts to encourage Jenny to ward off weariness and so revive the "merry"(96) spirit she displayed during their night of dancing, he comments, "do not let me think of you, / Lest shame of yours suffice for two"(91-92). The complete silencing that is sleep endangers the protagonist by forcing him to engage in the dialogue of the self with its own mind and, in the process, to assume the shame he associates with Jenny. The power to animate and manipulate that the narrator assumes as the result of Jenny's sleeping state is, as Amanda Anderson argues, ultimately undermined by the loss of personal identity he suffers in the process.[5] One of the protagonist's concluding remarks admits to his being "Ashamed of my own shame"(384). The dilemma posed by speaking to an awakened Jenny or thinking silently about the sleeping "thoughtless queen"(7) informs the opening lines of the poem in which the speaker superimposes conflicting images of the woman resting on his knee. The woman "Fond of a kiss"(2), laughing and dancing, is "languid Jenny"(1). The "Fresh flower" "scarce[ly] touched" sexually is the "Poor flower" "bare" of leaves (12, 14, 15). The madonna "full of grace" is apostrophized as a bankrupt whore, "Poor shameful Jenny"(18). …