Unconventional Victorian Poets: Robert Browning, Dante Gabriel Rossetti & Christina Rossetti

Robert Browning, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his sister Christina Rossetti embraced the transitional nature of Victorian poetry and explored traditional values in unconventional ways.  The poems I will examine closely are: Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Blessed Damozel,” and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.” I will provide specific examples from the selected poems that go against Victorian attitudes about sexuality, gender and religion. Victorian England was a society controlled by strict codes of conduct, but even within these confines writers and artists of the age found original ways to talk about divisive subjects. My analysis will include alternative interpretations of the selected poems to further illustrate the complexity of layering and duality in the Victorian era.

Interpreting poetry on multiple levels is difficult for modern readers because singularity and stability are important attributes to modernity. The Victorian era was a time of transition and uncertainty. I have selected poems that exemplify the changing attitudes and expectations of a newly literate public. I will connect these sources in  terms of their poetic form as well as the controversial content of each. It is my hope that readers of poetry attempt to gain a sense of each poet’s unique biography through close examination of their work combined with a  fundamental knowledge of the society at that time. I will use direct quotes from the work as a base and explore possibilities for interpretation by thinking imaginatively about the structure of Victorian society.

Writers were more able to talk about taboo subjects with an ever-growing economy of words and the innovations in print technology created the possibility for a large, diverse reading market. Writers were able to publish wildly imaginative and disturbing pieces that contained multiple and conflicting meanings. I will explore each poet’s identity as an “other” within the poetic community and consider imaginative contemporary and modern interpretations. Each of these poets wrote during a time of rapid social and artistic transformation in an era where the means of producing literature were more readily available than they had ever been before.

A popular image during the Victorian period was that of young girls with golden locks. These girls were corrupted by murderous lovers, tempted by forbidden goblin fruits and looked down on lost lovers from heaven in poems of the time. The color and quality of a woman’s hair was an indicator of her social station. Fair hair was also a marker for morality because as with all things Victorian, the exterior reflected the interior and appearance said more about you than anything else. The poetry and artwork of the period suggest a preoccupation with women’s beauty. Victorian imaginations believed that physical beauty had the power to ensnare a lover; that is evident in the theme of strangulation found in several poems. The fact that the image of golden hair comes up again and again is not a coincidence; everything about the Victorians relied on image and the image of the curious blonde represented Victorian fears of corruption and the loss of innocence.

Browning is often credited with the mastery of the dramatic monologue, a form that allowed him to explore the unique psychologies of his numerous narrators. Browning’s exploitation of sexuality through manic narrators directly influenced Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s representation of the Damozel in his unconventional vision of heaven. Rossetti presents controversial views regarding the duality of the body and soul in his poem, “The Blessed Damozel” and its complementary painting.

The vision of the departed lover seems more substantial than her spirit alone, her body’s presence is felt in the weight of her warm bosom and in the splashing of salty tears which are disheartening to a Christian audience who would view existence in heaven far better than life on earth. Both Browning and Rossetti created dramatic monologues with a dead woman at their center. The similarities in imagery further stress the objectification of women. By focusing on dead (or dying) women narrators are able to use them “as objects of desire without fear that their paradoxical dead/alive sexuality could be made operative” (Maynard 552). The male poets I have selected would have been seen as more progressive in their time because the main issue was the treatment of Christianity in their work.

In “Body’s Beauty” Rossetti inverts Browning’s violent image of Porphyria’s strangulation by wrapping the hair around the heart of Lilith’s love interest: “Lo! as that youth’s eyes burned at thine, so went / Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent / And round his heart one strangling golden hair” (Rossetti 12-14). Lilith herself is portrayed as a blonde predator, a femme-fatale whose beauty and vanity shrivels men in her ensnaring web:

That, ere the snake’s, her sweet tongue could deceive,
And her enchanted hair was the first gold.
And still she sits, young while the earth is old,
And, subtly of herself contemplative,
Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,
Till heart and beauty and life are in its hold. (Rossetti 3-8)

The disturbing quality in this poem is that Lilith is animated from the outside in and her outer beauty does not correspond to what lurks underneath. This poem presents yet another less than positive representation of Victorian women.

Christina Rossetti provides a female voice on the subject of religion and offers commentary on the position of women in a male-driven economy in “Goblin Market.” The poem is a response to the needs of the “fallen women” of Victorian society and a cautionary tale for daughters of the dangerous Victorian age. Laura, the curious sister, is tempted to “clip a precious golden lock” (Rossetti 126) in order to taste the fruit she desires. Rossetti makes it clear to her audience that even someone who has made a mistake can be redeemed by a righteous person. It is perhaps because Rossetti remains steadfast in her own Christian convictions that readers were able to look past the violence and sexuality brimming from the poem.

Robert Browning, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Christina Rossetti twisted traditional values such as love and religion slightly to fit into their own poetic world. Browning is the poet whose work was perhaps the least known of the three poets; in his time Browning may have been better known for being the significant other of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  Browning’s narrators often transform women into “alluring objects of desire” which renders them “speechless, unable to speak their culturally confused desire” (Maynard 552). Interpretations of the violent actions of the narrator in “Porphyria’s Lover” range from murder to masturbation. The narrator claims that Porphyria worships him. This gives him the proof he needs to enact her will to “belong” to him forever.

Browning does more than simply evoke the traditional image of a pure young woman; he murders her: “I found / A think to do, and all her hair / In one long yellow string I wound / Three times her little throat around, / And strangled her” (Browning 37-41). The narrator then proceeds to mention the absence of God and the fact that his deed has gone unpunished: “And thus we sit together now, / And all night long we have not stirred, / And yet God has not said a word” (Browning 58-60). This ending offers commentary on the growing skepticism of religion due to advancements in science and technology in the nineteenth century.

Other possible interpretations of “Porphyria’s Lover” exist in the context of Browning’s contemporaries and our own time. Modern interpretations become apparent when considering the origin of Porphyria’s name, the narcissistic personality of the narrator as well as the nature of a man’s anatomy. The narrator cares only about pleasing himself; a quality that suggests the young and beautiful Porphyria may actually be his own appendage and not a woman. He is able to derive pleasure only on his own terms after the strangling is complete. He must fantasize about a woman (which could  be a female projection of himself considering his daunting vanity) in order to achieve orgasm. Given the conservative views of sexuality during the period this poem remains vague enough to offer several distinct possibilities for interpretation.

E. D. H. Johnson teaches a course in Victorian literature at Princeton and discusses the marketability of Victorian poets and explores that ways they were able to push certain boundaries and innovate the forms and content of poetry. Most people consider Victorians obsessed with social conformity but the age was also a time of growth in alternative literature. Johnson disputes overly simplistic views of Victorian readership by stating that writers like Browning had to appeal to a large and diverse reading public:

Browning’s conviction that the passionate intensity of romantic love is incompatible with conventional social morality leads him to glorify one at the expense of the other. That perennial theme, the world well lost for love, is so appealing that Victorian readers in their sentimentality were apparently willing to overlook its frequent anti-social corollary in Browning’s poetry, where the decision to give all for love more often than not involves some course of action at variance with established codes of conduct. (Johnson 103).

It is possible to read Browning into some of his narrators while others appear completely insane. This makes Browning innovative in another way, “By motivating the actors in his dramas with his own ideas and impulses, Browning could speak out with greater originality and boldness than would ever have been possible in his own person” (Johnson 92). While some of these readers may have considered Browning’s deviant themes proof of his own mental instability and “otherness” many recognized a split between Browning’s own beliefs and those of his demented narrators.

Most of Browning’s dramatic monologues deal with the conflict between the individual and their environment which is made evident in “Porphyria’s Lover” when the narrator casts his own emotions on his surroundings: “The sullen wind was soon awake, / It tore the elm-tops down for spite, / And did its worst to vex the lake” (Browning 2-4). This mirrors the way the narrator projects his own desires onto the young woman he objectifies. Browning explores the location of power in society and says things through his disturbed characters that he could never say if he wrote exclusively from his own persona. Browning’s poetry was accepted by mainstream Victorian society in a similar way that “sensational” novels were devoured by housewives. Johnson commends Browning for exploring the dark side of love, “a subject which he handles with greater candor and penetration than any other poet of the early and mid-Victorian periods” (Johnson 100). Critics of Browning’s abnormal themes and imagery accused him of “contaminating” the poetic world; similarly, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was chastised for blending conventional Christian philosophy with earthly imagery.

The main focus of “The Blessed Damozel” is the duality of the body and soul. His description of the Damozel and his framing of heaven are at odds with traditional Christian views. Rossetti places emphasis on the eyes of his characters which were considered windows to the soul, “The blessed damozel leaned out / From the gold bar of Heaven; / Her eyes were deeper than the depth / Of waters stilled at even” (Rossetti 1-4). This structure (in the poem as well as in the accompanying painting) suggests that Rossetti’s intention was for the reader and viewer to consider these scenes occurring simultaneously as well. Victorians were outraged by the union of the body and soul because they considered them to be separate concerns with more importance resting on the soul.

John Maynard discusses all three poets and their position on sexuality and states that Rossetti’s poems “confuse himself as well as his readers with their mixture of religious and sexual language, uncomfortable moving between sensuality and religious epiphany in two directions at once, as if to sacralize sexuality while also sexualizing religion” (Maynard 562). Rossetti’s poem exposes a Victorian preoccupation with love and sex in heaven. This fascination proves that while Victorian’s didn’t always view sexuality in the same way as modern society does it nonetheless was thinking about sex; even if it was whether or not it was appropriate when and for whom.

Rossetti’s favored the temporal over the everlasting and corrupts traditional Christian views. Rossetti contemplated human existence and found that although it was often disappointing it was possible to “transcend these limitations of the human condition, expressed sometimes as a…longing for the union of lovers” (Howard 196). Death was highly romanticized in the era proceeding the Victorians and so it retained much power in the minds of readers who could identify with the unbearable gap between heaven and earth:

The poem’s real success lies in the intersecting dramatic monologues of the speaker and his envisioned damozel, and its real concern is not with a depiction of the Christian heaven, but with the apparently unbridgeable gulf that separated the heavenly maiden and the earthly lover. (Riede 23)

Readers were able to easily identify with “The Blessed Damozel” due to the narrative quality of the poem. David G. Riede suggests that the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning strongly influenced Rossetti’s poem. He points out that even in the earliest versions the poem emphasized human love in opposition to spiritual love and represented a merging of the two worlds momentarily. “The Blessed Damozel” does not try to exploit the Christian view of heaven but attempts to make the Christian imagery more secular so that readers are presented with “a kind of medieval painting with two levels, a heavenly one and an earthly one… Thus the narrator can report two vastly separated but simultaneous scenes” (Howard 44). The revisions of Rossetti’s poems show a shift in his personal beliefs as well as an editorial attitude towards his collection of work.

Robert Buchanan was an opponent of Rossetti’s work and the “fleshly school of poetry,” a term he coined for the Pre-Raphaelites. Riede calls Buchanan’s attack “silly in its priggishness” but admits “that Rossetti’s overt eroticism claimed for art the right to speak of matters generally under taboo in Victorian society” (Riede 319). Buchanan politicized Rossetti’s work and opened it up for discourse among members of the poetic community. He feared that Rossetti’s work would become the “norm” and that all poetry would become infected with “otherness.” Rossetti was simply portraying the way he viewed the world, a vision that conflicted with traditional critics like Buchanan who had strict limitations of what they would consider art.

“The Blessed Damozel” may be considered the first Pre-Raphaelite poem and is also one of Rossetti’s most known works. Unfortunately Buchanan’s criticisms had a lasting effect on Rossetti’s mental stability and caused a “general decline in the 1870’s, but it also clearly established the terms by which Pre-Rapaelite aestheticism challenged Victorian beliefs” (Riede 319). Buchanan’s attacks were a failure in because instead of stifling Rossetti and his “fleshly” peers it legitimized their poetry in the realm of art, whether Victorians found it to be distasteful or not.

Christina Rossetti was viewed as much more conventional as a result of her “piety” which “fitted the prevailing belief of the age and made her rather less ‘counter-cultural’ or avant-garde than her brother and other Pre-Raphaelite poets” (Riede 312). Her fairy tale, “Goblin Market,” is contains sexually charged imagery and a blending of religious and economic themes. This “erotic” quality despite clearly religious references in her poems caused her to be “perceived by contemporaries as sharing the Pre-Raphaelite tone and aesthetic values” (Riede 312). Rossetti challenged the status of women in her society and commented on the shifting position of women within the writing world. She frames her poem in a much different way than her brother by transforming a dark morality tale into a children’s story.

As a female poet, Christina Rossetti spoke about issues that had rarely been addressed in poetry, the “highest” form of writing of which men were mostly in control. Society decided what type of writers could contribute and what topics were appropriate in each literary form. When a Victorian woman “leaves her domestic sphere and strives to be a consumer in an area where she lacks bargaining power, [she] always risks being consumed” (Maxwell 88). Laura consumes the fruit given to her in exchange for her “golden curl” and is nearly consumed by her desire to taste the goblin fruits a second time. Laura’s sister Lizzie confronts the goblins and attempts to purchase the fruits with a penny, not for herself but in order to save Laura.

John Maynard has published essays and articles on Christina Rossetti, D. G. Rossetti and Robert Browning, in a section of A Companion to Victorian Poetry. He discusses Christina Rossetti’s poem in the context of Victorian’s changing attitudes about sexuality and love. Modern readers of “Goblin Market” might be able to substantiate an incestuous or lesbian relationship between the two sisters if they are not careful to analyze the poem in the context of the repressed sexuality of the period which didn’t have such terms readily available. Same-sex relationships discussed in Victorian literature were much more open to interpretation due to the lack of labels for such relationships.

Likewise Rossetti herself is often classified as a lesbian by modern readers due to her lack of success in love with the opposite sex. Maynard argues that the violent sexual encounter Lizzie has with the goblin men is the “sexual center of a poem that discards the ordinary sensuous attractions of men and only lightly praises themes of domesticity and procreation at the end” (Maynard 556). As we discussed in class the goblins were considered “others”; creatures outside of respectable Victorian society. In addition to the general fear of the corruption by the “other” came a division between secular and religious interpretations of sexuality.

Religion is emphasized in “Goblin Market” when Laura, a “fallen woman,” is “redeemed” by her sister Lizzie, a Christ-like figure. This is illustrated by Christina Rossetti’s use of traditional religious imagery in the poem; Lizzie stands “White and golden…Like a lily in a flood” (Rossetti 108-09). She allows herself to be “consumed” by the “others” in order to attain the juices of the fruit to revive her sister. Rossetti ends the tale on a strange note using the distancing device of time to lessen the horror of the goblin attack and to reconcile the sisters in their domestic home life to please Christian readers who are deeply concerned with Laura’s redemption.

It is this Christian overtone that excuses the violent rape of Lizzie by the goblin men. Rossetti frames this social commentary on sexuality within the context of a children’s story; a practice that was used frequently in the Victorian era. I was curious as to why Rossetti’s violent “rape” scene wasn’t censored; especially considering it was a work intended for children. Wealthy Victorian children were able to spend much of their leisure time reading. Reading was often considered a dangerous threat to the status quo and a gateway for children to step out of the reality of society and into the realm of their imaginations.

Catherine Maxwell has published several articles on Robert Browning and Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti and offers a feminist perspective on Christina Rossetti’s place in the writing world. Her analysis considers the economic and literary marketplace as well as the disadvantages women writers had especially in the area of poetry. Maxwell examines the disadvantages of women in Victorian society through analysis of multiple meanings of “consumption” in “Goblin Market”.

In the Victorian age poetry was still considered “an art for the few, not for the many” (Maynard 558). The few generally still meant wealthy white men but more and more women were daring to cross over into more “serious” literature. This explains why male poets Robert Browning and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were allowed to explore more controversial imagery and themes in their poetry than Christina Rossetti.
Other readers interpret the fruit as not just tempting food but literally “literary produce”. The sisters in the poem as well as the poet must partake of the (male) goblin’s offerings, “male-owned or male-identified texts” (Maxwell 81). Rossetti was one of the earliest successful female poets and so in order to assume her position in the writing world she had to draw upon the works that had come before her in order to tap into the Victorian consciousness. She uses images from works that influenced her and most of those works were written by her male predecessors:

Rossetti’s poem reveals that women cannot enter this tradition on the same footing as men, any more than they can compete with men on equal terms in the mid-Victorian marketplace. Yet is also suggests that female interaction with the male tradition, however complicated and risky, is inevitable. Although the goblins are presented as dangerous creatures to be outwitted and escaped, they also give this poem its motivating energy. (Maxwell 84)

Victorian women are at a disadvantage because they “appear to lack the credentials, the means and authority” for an easy transition into the “literary marketplace” (Maxwell 88). The idea that female poets must “consume” the fruits laid down before them by their male predecessors is only one way in which critics use the term “consumption” to describe Rossetti’s commentary on society.

Maxwell discusses “fallen women” in Victorian society in relation to the examples Rossetti constructs in “Goblin Market.” Views of the poem often center around “historical assumptions about the poet’s religious beliefs and gender ideology” (Maxwell 77) as well as our own modern persuasions concerning gender and sexuality. “Goblin Market” is an important text due to its role in establishing a “female tradition” but since that tradition relies upon the already established “male tradition” Rossetti’s “treatment of the problems of equal exchange between men and women in the mid-Victorian period recognizes the need to explore and transform their relationships with men” (Maxwell 79). The goblin men may be viewed as simply men or as “others” depending upon the issue being considered. In a way Lizzie and Laura are pioneers that venture to the “marketplace” which is dominated by male influence and can only rely upon each other.

The female body is offered up by the “fallen woman” as an object to be consumed. There is further symbolism when considering the place of fruit in the Christian creation myth and the role of women in the loss of paradise. When Eve is tempted into eating the “forbidden” fruit she is cast out of Eden, cast out of the economy and like the “fallen woman” is devalued. It is an image that has colored societies perception of females and perhaps the origin of inequality in gender politics. Rossetti gives us a cautionary tale with a twist at the end; two types of women can survive in the marketplace if they work together.

Male poets of the time were becoming mindful of the change in representations of gender and sexuality and used controversial images to shock religious audiences. When viewing “Porphyria’s Lover” in a modern context it is easy to produce “sexist” interpretations as a result of the “objectification” of women. It is essential that readers limit their inherently modern perspectives of gender roles and remain open to multiple layers of meaning. Ethnocentric readings of works are not helpful for gaining an understanding of that work’s relevance during the time it was written. All of the poets I discussed used themes and imagery that were at odds with strong artistic guidelines that existed during the Victorian era.

Readers of poetry must keep the time in which the work was written ever-present in their minds because the meanings of words, images and themes can drastically change over time. Victorians were preoccupied with time: leisure time, time travel, daily routines that operated within strict social structures. Browning’s narrator wanted to possess Porphyria’s undying love forever so he kills her in a moment of perfection. Dante Gabriel Rossetti examines the gap between the spiritual and physical realm and the bridge that separates time on earth from eternity in heaven. He also hints at established social customs surrounding death and exposes Victorian’s wishes to travel to a better place, be it heaven or a faraway fantasy world. Christina Rossetti shows how unhealthy obsessions can destroy a life in a short amount of time and how distance can make even a horrible reality a good opportunity for a didactic lesson. It is this preoccupation with time that gives a new profound meaning to youth and an obsessive fear of death which began in the Victorian era and has developed further in our own age.

Victorians were well on their way to modern ways with innovations in technology and ever-increasing disparities between social classes. Several distinctions are clear immediately: their dress, their working conditions and requirements, their speech, their looks and their reading material. Women and children were most targeted as readers of “lower quality” material while “high arts” were male oriented. Women assumed new roles in society as both the “objects” of male desires and the writers of their own fantasies. Modern perspectives of sexuality allow us to project terms like masturbation and lesbianism onto the text even before the terms for those behaviors were coined.

Culture was changing in the Victorian era and its technologies were solidifying and standardizing its language and customs at an alarming rate. We are provided with images from the period, some of which reinforce the stereotypes we have long since associated with Victorians and those that paint a different picture. The women in the poems and paintings may seem one-dimensional but women themselves began to formulate their own opinions, assert their own beliefs and write their own fairytales where they can redeem themselves instead of waiting for a “prince” to do it for them. Women’s view of themselves was not perfect and society still presented unrealistic and distorted images of what girls and women could be, but so does every age, including our own.

Our interpretations of Victorian work is just that, our own thoughts projected on the textual evidence. While I have presented numerous approaches to each poem “None can assure us that we are really getting beyond our own discourses and obsessions and finding Victorian life or poetry as it truly was” (Maynard 543-66). History is one groups interpretation of textual evidence transmitted over a certain period of time and history has the ability to change depending on who is telling it. I have thought imaginatively about the physical poems, the actual evidence and interpreted their meaning by comparing my personal understanding with that of knowledgeable and not so knowledgeable critics who reflect their own times in their positions.

Works Cited

  1. Browning, Robert. “Porphyria’s Lover.” 1836. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian Era. Vol. 5. Ed. Joseph Black. Broadview Press, 2006. 278-79. Print.
  2. Howard, Ronnalie Roper. The Dark Glass: Vision and technique in the Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Ohio University Press, 1972. Print.
  3. Johnson, E. D. H. The Alien Vision of Victorian Poetry: Sources of the Poetic Imagination in Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold. Princeton University Press, 1952. Print.
  4. Maynard, John. “Sexuality and Love.” A Companion to Victorian Poetry. Ed. Richard Cronin, Alison Champan and Antony H. Harrison. Malden: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2002. 543-66. Print.
  5. Maxwell, Catherine. “Tasting the ‘Fruit Forbidden’: Gender, Intertextuality, and Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market.” The Culture of Christina Rossetti: Female Poetics and Victorian Contexts. Ed. Mary Arseneau, Anthony H. Harrison, and Lorraine Jarizen Kooistra. Ohio University Press, 1999. 75-102. Print.
  6. Riede, David G. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Limits of Victorian Vision. London: Cornell University Press, 1983. Print.
  7. —. “The Pre-Raphaelite School.” A Companion to Victorian Poetry. Ed. Richard Cronin, Alison Champan and Antony H. Harrison. Malden: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2002. 305-20. Print.
  8. Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market.” 1862. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian Era. Vol. 5. Ed. Joseph Black. Broadview Press, 2006. 518-25. Print.
  9. Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. “The Blessed Damozel” 1870. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian Era. Vol. 5. Ed. Joseph Black. Broadview Press, 2006. 505-07. Print.
  10. Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. “Body’s Beauty.” 1870. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian Era. Vol. 5. Ed. Joseph Black. Broadview Press, 2006. 516. Print.

Written by blastedgoat for Dr. Gladden Victorians and their Others 09 May 2009.

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2 thoughts on “Unconventional Victorian Poets: Robert Browning, Dante Gabriel Rossetti & Christina Rossetti

  1. I am just curious as to who wrote this piece and what these two names mean at the end?

    Mandy Fauser. Dr. Gladden. Victorians and their Others. 09 May 2009.

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