Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Interrogative Lyric

By Fontana, Ernest | Philological Quarterly, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Interrogative Lyric


Fontana, Ernest, Philological Quarterly


Everywhere in D. G. Rossetti's poetry there are questions. Their importance and frequency increase over Rossetti's lifetime. For example, in the 1850 Germ version of The Blessed Damozel there are two clusters of questions. In the first, the damozel expresses a wavering hope that her lover will join her after his death. The questions here are brief and rhetorical; they function as weakened declaratives: "Have I not prayed in solemn heaven? / On earth, has he not prayed? / Are not two prayers a perfect strength? / And shall I feel afraid? (63-66). (1) In the second set of quotes (in parenthesis) the surviving male lover (94-102) questions his worthiness to enter the lovers' paradise described by his damozel: "Was thy part understood / Or borne in trust?" In the 1870 version this doubt is intensified and clarified:

   (Ah sweet! Even now, in that bird's song,
   Strove not her accents there,
   Fain to be hearkened? When those bells
   Possessed the mid-day air,
   Strove not her steps to reach my side
   Down all the echoing stair?)
   (61-66)

Not only does Rossetti's speaker express doubt here as to his worthiness, but through the added questions, he doubts the reality of the damozel's voice. In these questions, he expresses the hope that in the ordinary sounds of the mid-day, he in fact is hearing the voice of his dead beloved. Nevertheless, the desperate hope that what seems to be may be something else suggests that what seems to be--birds' song and noontide angelus bells--may be what in fact is and that the damozel's voice is merely a desired illusion.

Throughout Rossetti's work questions repeatedly occur in elaborate syntactical structures, in series, sometimes answered and, more frequently, unanswered. Significantly, four days before his death in 1882, Rossetti wrote two sonnets inspired by his 1875 drawing The Question in which three male figures, representing Youth, Manhood, and Age seek to decipher the mystery of human existence from an unresponsive sphinx. (2) I quote the second sonnet.

   Lo, the three seekers! Youth has sprung the first
   To question the Unknown: but see! he sinks
   Prone to the earth--becomes himself a sphinx,--
   A riddle of early death no love may burst.
   Sorely anhungered, heavily athirst
   For knowledge, Manhood next to reach the Truth
   Peers in those eyes; till haggard and uncouth
   Weak Eld renews that question long rehearsed.

   Oh! and what answer? From the sad sea brim
   The eyes o' the Sphinx stare through the midnight spell,
   Unwavering,--Man's eternal quest to quell:
   While round the rock-steps of her throne doth swim
   Through the wind-serried wave the moon's faint rim,
   Some answer from the heaven invisible.

The only answer is the faint reflection of the waning moon in "the wind-serried wave." The answer is itself a question. What does the reflected image of the waning moon represent? Death? Is death final? If not, what lies beyond it?

In the 1881 House of Life, 30 of the 101 sonnets begin with questions, and six both begin and end with them. Although questions, short and rhetorical, are frequent in the earlier sections of Tennyson's In Memoriam, reaching their culmination in no. 55, "Are God and Nature then at strife / That Nature lends such evil dreams?" and no. 56 (6-19), with its long, agonized questions about humanity, "And he, shall, he, / Man, her last work, who seem'd so fair,/ ... Be blown about the desert dust, / Or seal'd within the iron hills?" they almost disappear from the later sections of the poem (specifically after no. 81) becoming, when they are used, conventional locutions to introduce poems in which they are fully answered (e.g., no. 114). In Browning, the most notable interrogative lyric is Prospice (1864) where the speaker's initial question "Fear Death?" is answered with an assertiveness that dramatically contrasts with Rossetti's The Question.

Hence in this essay I foreground the structural and epistemological role of interrogative sentences in Rossetti's poetry and argue that they are fundamental to his poetic practice. …

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