"He and I": Dante Gabriel. Rossetti's Other Man

By Bristow, Joseph | Victorian Poetry, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview
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"He and I": Dante Gabriel. Rossetti's Other Man


Bristow, Joseph, Victorian Poetry


TOWARD THE LARGELY DESPONDENT CLOSE OF DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI'S The House of Life stands "He and I": a "representation," as David G. Riede observes, "of some sort of self-division and self-alienation" that appears rather "enigmatic." (1) Composed in 1870, this intriguing sonnet--which results in a distressing physical encounter between the male poetic voice and his masculine other--may well look puzzling in a long two-part series whose reflections on heterosexual manhood have in any case seemed obscure to many scholars. "Biographers and critics alike," writes William E. Fredeman, "have been tantalized by Rossetti's poem; it challenges their imaginations and taxes their ingenuities." (2) Try as they might, most readers cannot make these one hundred and one sonnets--several of which express feverish eroticism--fit neatly within a framework that either allegorizes Rossetti's turbulent love affairs with Jane Morris and Elizabeth Siddal or expounds a systematic philosophy of love. (3) Even the subtitle, "A Sonnet- Sequence," sits oddly in a work that offers comparatively little narrative cohesion. Instead, Algemon Charles Swinburne's comment that The House of Life aims to "embrace and express all sorrow and all joy of passion in union, of outer love and inner, triumphant or dejected or piteous or at peace" (4) remains one of the most accurate--because openended--descriptions of the work. The only (seemingly obvious) qualification to be made to Swinburne's statement is that the expression of such joy and sorrow belongs to a man who remains, according to C. M. Bowra, "a ready victim to the beauty of women." (5) Here femininity allures the frequently tormented poetic voice in a variety of ethereal and fiendish guises. On the one hand, the poet-speaker remains in awe of female "Beauty enthroned." (6) On the other hand, he bears terrified witness to how a figure such as Lilith (with her "enchanted hair") "left... / One strangling golden hair" around the "heart" of a young man exhausted with passion ("Body's Beauty," p. 314) . What, then, might "He and I"--where "some sort of self-division" involves one man's body momentarily touching that of another male figure--disclose about the enduring struggle of this sequence, in its desperate closing moments, to celebrate how "Life" is truly "the lady of all bliss" ("Newborn Death," p. 325)? Might this haunting sonnet elucidate why the insistent heteroeroticism of The House of Life grows mote and more bleak in "Change and Fate": the apt subtitle for the sequence's disconsolate second part?

These inquiries arise because Rossetti's writings, whose adoration of femininity makes passion burn almost to the point of fatigue, often concentrate on masculine apparitions--an assemblage of elusive phantasms, together with figures that adopt more palpable human forms--whose disturbing immediacy besieges the poetic voice. Despite the fact that these manly types recur with striking regularity in Rossetti's oeuvre, they have remained largely ignored whenever critics have sought to understand his ardent--though frequently impeded--other-sex desires. The present discussion attempts to adjust current critical perspectives on Rossetti's avowedly heteroerotic wish-fulfillments by examining first how his poet-speaker scrutinizes both himself and other male figures--rather than female objects--in selected sonnets from The House of Life. Thereafter, I show how Rossetti's scrupulous use of the sonnet form throws into sharp relief a structure of thwarted yearning that becomes even more agonized in longer poems that fol low an explicit narrative pattern. In these longer writings, Rossetti's passionate "I"--notorious for fetishizing femininity (7) --finds itself among initially seductive kinds of masculinity that tend to solicit, only to betray, the poet-speaker's trust. The poetic "I"'s discovery of eerie icons of maleness in dreams, mirrors, myths, and even mid-Victorian London indicates not only patterns of profound self-alienation but also confusions about the reasons why his beleaguered longings often depend on intimate encounters with the same sex.

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