2.2.2 Inner life

Pre-Raphaelites were famous for their interest in realism, symbolism, and revival of medieval and literary subjects. However, another shared interest is implicit in many Pre-Raphaelite works: a preoccupation with interiority and the depiction of the inner life of the mind. This preoccupation is present in both visual and written work.

As moral and religious subjects became less central to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, art produced in a more aesthetic vein became the norm. Pictures no longer had to be inspiring, as long as they were beautiful. Later Pre-Raphaelites declared that personal concerns and studies of mood were valid artistic subjects. These new themes redefined, in some ways, the artist’s relationship with the world at large, resulting in lingering anxieties. Artists had to define their new role in society. They had to experiment with appropriate subjects for expressing new personal and subjective themes. Pre-Raphaelites produced many studies of the tension between interiority and exteriority to work through their questions and concerns. The results display a wide variety of solutions to the problem of how to appropriately depict the subjective reality of the soul.

In poetry, a greater attention was given to extremely personal subjects. Emotions, experiences like love and sex, and internal turmoil are recurring themes at this time. A.C. Swinburne‘s extremely sensual poems are an example of this type. Christina Rossetti‘s religious poems also present very personal subjects, including a character’s renunciation of physical love (“The Convent Threshold” (1862)) or a ghost’s remembrances of her living friends (“At Home” (1862)). In all of these works, a fascination with a subject’s soul and mind is the main concern. Dramatic actions and narratives are absent of secondary importance.

THE CONVENT THRESHOLD

There’s blood between us, love, my love,

There’s father’s blood, there’s brother’s blood;

And blood’s a bar I cannot pass:

I choose the stairs that mount above,

Stair after golden skyward stair,

To city and to sea of glass.

My lily feet are soiled with mud,

With scarlet mud which tells a tale

Of hope that was, of guilt that was,

Of love that shall not yet avail;

Alas, my heart, if I could bare

My heart, this selfsame stain is there:

I seek the sea of glass and fire

To wash the spot, to burn the snare;

Lo, stairs are meant to lift us higher:

Mount with me, mount the kindled stair.

Your eyes look earthward, mine look up.

I see the far-off city grand,

Beyond the hills a watered land,

Beyond the gulf a gleaming strand

Of mansions where the righteous sup;

Who sleep at ease among their trees,

Or wake to sing a cadenced hymn

With Cherubim and Seraphim;

They bore the Cross, they drained the cup,

Racked, roasted, crushed, wrenched limb from limb,

They the offscouring of the world:

The heaven of starry heavens unfurled,

The sun before their face is dim.

You looking earthward what see you?

Milk-white wine-flushed among the vines,

Up and down leaping, to and fro,

Most glad, most full, made strong with wines,

Blooming as peaches pearled with dew,

Their golden windy hair afloat,

Love-music warbling in their throat,

Young men and women come and go.

You linger, yet the time is short:

Flee for your life, gird up your strength

To flee; the shadows stretched at length

Show that day wanes, that night draws nigh;

Flee to the mountain, tarry not.

Is this a time for smile and sigh,

For songs among the secret trees

Where sudden blue birds nest and sport?

The time is short and yet you stay:

To-day while it is called to-day

Kneel, wrestle, knock, do violence, pray;

To-day is short, to-morrow nigh:

Why will you die? why will you die?

You sinned with me a pleasant sin:

Repent with me, for I repent.

Woe’s me the lore I must unlearn!

Woe’s me that easy way we went,

So rugged when I would return!

How long until my sleep begin,

How long shall stretch these nights and days?

Surely, clean Angels cry, she prays;

She laves her soul with tedious tears:

How long must stretch these years and years?

I turn from you my cheeks and eyes,

My hair which you shall see no more–

Alas for joy that went before,

For joy that dies, for love that dies.

Only my lips still turn to you,

My livid lips that cry, Repent.

Oh weary life, oh weary Lent,

Oh weary time whose stars are few.

How should I rest in Paradise,

Or sit on steps of heaven alone?

If Saints and Angels spoke of love

Should I not answer from my throne:

Have pity upon me, ye my friends,

For I have heard the sound thereof:

Should I not turn with yearning eyes,

Turn earthwards with a pitiful pang?

Oh save me from a pang in heaven.

By all the gifts we took and gave,

Repent, repent, and be forgiven:

This life is long, but yet it ends;

Repent and purge your soul and save:

No gladder song the morning stars

Upon their birthday morning sang

Than Angels sing when one repents.

I tell you what I dreamed last night:

A spirit with transfigured face

Fire-footed clomb an infinite space.

I heard his hundred pinions clang,

Heaven-bells rejoicing rang and rang,

Heaven-air was thrilled with subtle scents,

Worlds spun upon their rushing ears:

He mounted shrieking: ‘Give me light.’

Still light was poured on him, more light;

Angels, Archangels he outstripped

Exultant in exceeding might,

And trod the skirts of Cherubim.

Still ‘Give me light,’ he shrieked; and dipped

His thirsty face, and drank a sea,

Athirst with thirst it could not slake.

I saw him, drunk with knowledge, take

From aching brows the aureole crown–

His locks writhed like a cloven snake–

He left his throne to grovel down

And lick the dust of Seraph’s feet:

For what is knowledge duly weighed?

Knowledge is strong, but love is sweet;

Yea all the progress he had made

Was but to learn that all is small

Save love, for love is all in all.

I tell you what I dreamed last night:

It was not dark, it was not light,

Cold dews had drenched my plenteous hair

Through clay; you came to seek me there.

And ‘Do you dream of me?’ you said.

My heart was dust that used to leap

To you; I answered half asleep:

‘My pillow is damp, my sheets are red,

There’s a leaden tester to my bed:

Find you a warmer playfellow,

A warmer pillow for your head,

A kinder love to love than mine.’

You wrung your hands; while I like lead

Crushed downwards through the sodden earth:

You smote your hands but not in mirth,

And reeled but were not drunk with wine.

For all night long I dreamed of you:

I woke and prayed against my will,

Then slept to dream of you again.

At length I rose and knelt and prayed:

I cannot write the words I said,

My words were slow, my tears were few;

But through the dark my silence spoke

Like thunder. When this morning broke,

My face was pinched, my hair was grey,

And frozen blood was on the sill

Where stifling in my struggle I lay.

If now you saw me you would say:

Where is the face I used to love?

And I would answer: Gone before;

It tarries veiled in paradise.

When once the morning star shall rise,

When earth with shadow flees away

And we stand safe within the door,

Then you shall lift the veil thereof.

Look up, rise up: for far above

Our palms are grown, our place is set;

There we shall meet as once we met

And love with old familiar love.

In Christina Rossetti’s “Convent Threshold,” a young woman tormented by guilt breaks with her lover and urges him to repent, as she has, in order to ensure a place in heaven. Rossetti’s narrator seems torn between her earthly love and spiritual fervor. The poem, though it presents a moment of spiritual revelation, is filled with images of regret. For example, the speaker refers to her “pleasant sin” (51) and cries “alas for the joy that went before, for the joy that dies, for the love that dies” (63). This allusion to the past time could be related with the two love engagements which took place in Christina Rossetti’s life: James Collinson and Charles Cayley. So, this refers to Christina’s repressed sexuality, too.

Rossetti’s narrator directs her gaze to a chaste heaven, while her still-unrepentant lover is preoccupied with a lusty earth.

I see the far-off city grand,
Beyond the hills a watered land,
Beyond the gulf a gleaming strand
Of mansions where the righteous sup;
Who sleep at ease among their trees,
Or wake to sing a cadenced hymn
With Cherubim and Seraphim;
They bore the Cross, they drained the cup,
Racked, roasted, crushed, wrenched limb from limb,
They the offscouring of the world.
The heaven of starry heavens unfurled,
The sun before their face is dim.
You looking earthward, what see you?
Milk-white, wine-flushed among the vines,
Up and down leaping, to and fro,
Most glad, most full, made strong with wines,
Blooming as peaches pearled with dew,
Their golden windy hair afloat,
Love-music warbling in their throat,
Young men and women come and go.

At first it seems the couple must separate in order to enter heaven. The “far-off city grand” does not contain any lovers, only “the righteous” who sing hymns. Couples singing “love-music” are strongly allied with the earthly realm. The narrator begs her companion to “repent with me, for I repent,” (52) and proclaims that she will “turn from you my cheeks and eyes, my hair which you shall see no more . . . only my lips still turn to you, my livid lips that cry, Repent” (61-66).

Interestingly, rather than claiming a need for an end to the lovers’ relationship, the narrator asks for a conversion of it — from physical to spiritual love. At the end of the poem, she offers the possibility, previously unmentioned, of a union in heaven.

Look up, rise up: for far above
Our palms are grown, our place is set;
There we shall meet as once we met,
And love with old familiar love.

Here the narrator implies that if both she and her companion renounce their physical, earthly love, a happy spiritual union will be possible. This final vision unites the earlier vision of heaven with the vision of earthly men and women in love.

On the other hand, I have chosen an other poem which reflects a preocupation with interiority and the depiction of the inner life of the mind and which has a very significant title: ‘At Home’. This makes an allusion to the place where she grew up, lived and experienced the most part of her life. Basically, it was at home with her mother. She has allusion to ‘my friends’ and it is because of Rossetti’s family was quite important, their house used to be full of visits. I like this poem because she sees ‘the friends’ happy but she knows she will never be happy in a future, she is conscious about it. She feels part of the past ‘yesterday’ , not ‘today’ or ‘tomorrow’.

AT HOME

When I was dead, my spirit turned
To seek the much-frequented house:
I passed the door, and saw my friends
Feasting beneath green orange boughs;
From hand to hand they pushed the wine,
They sucked the pulp of plum and peach;
They sang, they jested, and they laughed,
For each was loved of each.

I listened to thier honest chat:
Said one: “To-morrow we shall be
Plod plod along the featureless sands,
And coasting miles and miles of sea.”
Said one: “Before the turn of tide
We will achieve the eyrie-seat.”
Said one: “To-morrow shall be like
To-day, but much more sweet.”

“To-morrow,” said they, strong with hope,
And dwelt upon the pleasant way:
“To-morrow,” cried they, one and all,
While no one spoke of yesterday.
Their life stood full at blessed noon;
I, only I, had passed away:
“To-morrow and to-day,” they cried;
I was of yesterday.

I shivered comfortless, but cast
No chill across the table-cloth;
I, all-forgotten, shivered, sad
To stay, and yet to part how loth:
I passed from the familiar room,
I who from love had passed away,
Like the remembrance of a guest
That tarrieth but a day.

UPHILL


Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labor you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.

I have included this poem called ‘Uphill’ in this section because it is a type of monologue, so it could be related with an inner life. This poem is concerned with the nearness of death and the renunciation of earthly love.



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