Tag Archives: Poetry

Lizzie Siddal – A Mysterious Muse

25 Jul

“All changes pass me like a dream,
I neither sing nor pray;
And thou art like the poisonous tree
That stole my life away.

(Elizabeth Siddal, “Love and Hate”)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A Portrait Sketch of Elizabeth Siddal, c. 1850s

Elizabeth Siddal, a famous and doomed Pre-Raphaelite muse and a lover of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was born on 25th July 1829 in London. She died in February 1862 at the age of 32, but had she been a vampire, which I suspect she might as well be, she would have been 190 years old today, a fairly young age for a vampire. I am thinking about her these days; about her beauty, her poems and paintings, and also about the exhumation of her body led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti who wanted to get back the poems he had buried with her. An image of her coffin being opened, and her long red hair revealed by the moonlight, silence of the graveyard, the eeriness…. It is easy to imagine why this event inspired young Bram Stoker for his character Lucy in “Dracula”.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Elizabeth Siddal, study for ‘Delia’ in the ‘Return of Tibullus’, 1853

Nonetheless, the main thing on my mind these days is how mysterious the person of Elizabeth Siddal actually is. Who was she really? How little we know of her and how the rest is painted in our imaginations. When I first read about her years ago, I was met with a very idealised image of a beautiful, quiet and melancholy young woman who modeled for the Pre-Raphaelites, used laudanum and was plagued with sadness and Rossetti’s infidelities; she seemed almost like a martyr, the one who suffered, the one who was tormented. I think part of it was true, she was a struggling working class girl who wanted more from life, materially and spiritually; she wanted to rise above the circumstance that she was born into, she wanted to learn and grow intellectually, but also she wanted a finer, more comfortable life; “a servant to lay the fire in the morning, theater tickets, a paisley shawl.” (Gay Daly, Pre-Raphaelites in Love)

The promises that Rossetti gave, he did not fulfill; he was impulsive, careless with money, had a wandering eye and was strangely very hesitant to marry her, and it is easy to understand why it brought her so much anguish, especially in the Victorian era when her status of artist’s model and a lover closed many doors for her and gave her an unenviable place in society. Artistically, she was always in Rossetti’s shadow and she could never have dreamed that her paintings of her poems would be as appreciated as his were. All these things indeed make her a sufferer, but I feel like there is another side of her that no one tends to talk about, for it would ruin her untainted image of a martyr and an angel. She may be a mysterious muse, but she is not a perfect one for sure.

Regina Cordium – Rossetti’s Marriage portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, 1860

Blinded by her beauty; her long coppery red hair, pale complexion, fragile frame, and eyes that changed colour from green to grey, Rossetti was bewitched at first sight by this strange girl who worked in a hat shop. She was equally charmed, but as ideal the start of their relationship was, its course was a turbulent one with lots of drama, anger, tears and manipulation. Lizzie was known for her frail health, but it is very interesting how her health changed according to the occasion. She could feel perfectly well in the morning, but as soon as Rossetti was getting ready to head into town, hang out with other people, she would suddenly feel unwell and if she would get him to stay at home that day, her health was fine.

She was emotionally manipulative without a doubt and, to me, she seems like a very moody and miserable woman and I am not surprised that Rossetti would want to go out and spend time with merrier, more carefree women. In her book “Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel” Lucinda Hawksley writes that “both shared a destructively jealous need to be the most important figure in their – or, indeed, any relationship.” And also: “When one – or both – of them was unhappy, ill, depressed or jealous, they made one another’s lives hellish. (…) Self-destructive and self-loathing at times, as well as being arrogant about their abilities, both must have been extremely difficult to live with.” She was happy at the beginning of their relationship, in times when Ophelia was painted but as their life went on, she started using her frail health as a way of getting things she wanted, mostly from Rossetti but also from other people. Again, here is an interesting passage from Lucinda Hawksley’s book: “It is interesting to see how often Lizzie’s health coincided with Rossetti’s affections being taken up by other woman. By his refusal to marry her, Rossetti had forced her to blackmail him emotionally and she used every opportunity to do so. At the start of their relationship it seems the balance of power was very much in his favour as she struggled to prevent him from tiring of her, but by the end of her life she had become overtly manipulative and controlling, to the point that his friends claimed he shrank when she spoke to him, always expecting a rebuke or for her to sink dangerously into illness, blaming him wordlessly for its onslaught.

As if her “illnesses” weren’t enough, Lizzie would stop eating to get her point across, or sink into periods of depression and self-loathing. Mrs Siddal was also known for being aloof and quiet when in company with other people, and I can well understand that because I am somewhat similar, but I think it was just a means for her to show her disdain and disinterest, and to emphasise the mysteriousness about her that she loved nurturing. She was known for petty jealousies and acted as if she were better than other working class models who might have been prostitutes also, for example Hunt’s model Annie Miller.

John Everett Millias, Ophelia, 1852

With all that said, I will also add that I love Lizzie and I am not being hateful here, I am in fact endlessly captivated by her short tragical life, her mysteriousness, and her connection to the Pre-Raphaelites. I love her poetry and empathise with her verses. But I have to say that she is no angel and I hate people idealising her while at the same time bashing on Rossetti for being this or that. She was manipulative, jealous, strategically ill when necessary, miserable, depressed, perhaps impossible to satisfy at times, and I don’t see why that is not mentioned so often. She was an artist’s muse and a model, that position alone ought to have made her feel like she were the luckiest girl in the world. Just think of Poe’s submissive little wife Virginia and her perfect adoration for the doomed poet. I think Lizzie didn’t need an ancient curse like the Lady of Shalott to bring her death because Lizzie seems capable enough of bringing her own doom.

Now, I don’t want to judge her harshly because I have not met her, but no matter how much I read about her, I am still left with a feeling of mysteriousness. All the words said are not her own, comments from observers are still not her own. We can never know what was truly in her heart, though maybe her poems are a good clue, being so direct and so melancholy. I wonder, were her manipulative ways a character trait or just a way of getting even with Rossetti. Why was she so miserable and what could have stopped that? I honestly can’t imagine her ever being perfectly happy. I think of her often, and yet she is still mysterious to me. Maybe one night, in a dream, I will meet her and find out all that I was curious about.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, c. 1860

And for the end, here is one of her poems which I love:

Worn Out

Thy strong arms are around me, love

My head is on thy breast;

Low words of comfort come from thee

Yet my soul has no rest.

 

For I am but a startled thing

Nor can I ever be

Aught save a bird whose broken wing

Must fly away from thee.

 

I cannot give to thee the love

I gave so long ago,

The love that turned and struck me down

Amid the blinding snow.

 

I can but give a failing heart

And weary eyes of pain,

A faded mouth that cannot smile

And may not laugh again.

 

Yet keep thine arms around me, love,

Until I fall to sleep;

Then leave me, saying no goodbye

Lest I might wake, and weep.

Bat and Moon in Japanese Ukiyo-e Prints

22 Jun

Yamada Hōgyoku, Bat and Moon, 1830

I recently discovered this simple yet charming woodblock print of a bat and the moon by a Japanese artist Yamada Hogyoku. As you may already know, I am quite a fan of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, they are so interesting and exotic to my western eyes, but also I love bats (and vampires too) so seeing this handsome bat on a Japanese print made my heart flutter. I am in a phase of melancholy reminiscing these days and seeing this bat made me think of the bats I saw two summers ago in my small home town. July was nearing its end, dusk was setting, bright pink and purple, as I was descending down from the old graveyard in the hills, and there, by a beautiful and large weeping willow tree, I saw them in all their splendour; bats dancing in the air, chasing one another, fluttering their delicate wings, dark as the night, delicate and fragile, and so beautiful. I stood there amazed at the sight and nearly had tears in my eyes from seeing that beauty. I had seen bats before that day and after too, but that moment stayed etched in my mind because it was just perfect, just like a scene out of a novel; the pink dusk sky, the weeping willow, the warm and long July night that was upon me. I remember it as if it happened yesterday; the bouquet of wild flowers I carried in my hand, the dress I wore, the hat with long dusty pink ribbons. And indeed, I felt as if I were a heroine of a novel!

Seeing this woodblock print made me daydream of those wonderful summer nights which I know were beautiful, but I also know I have idealised them in my imagination, just as I do with each moment of my life that passes. I wish to see a bat again soon and feel that ecstasy filling my body and soul, and I wish to fly away with them, to some more joyous place, I wish to be as free as them! I’ve also included two more Japanese woodblock prints with the same motif. What I admire the most about these artworks is the simplicity; on the first one by Hogyoku the moon is barely visible, so light and ethereal it is, and the bat is captured in a seemingly swift determined way, edgy and sharp, with a gradient colour scheme, from greys to a deep black. I think it would be much fun to recreate these prints in watercolours. And now, to end, here is a poem called “Bat” by D.H.Lawrence who seems less enthusiastic about the beauty of bats:

At evening, sitting on this terrace,

When the sun from the west, beyond Pisa, beyond the mountains of Carrara

Departs, and the world is taken by surprise …

 

When the tired flower of Florence is in gloom beneath the glowing

Brown hills surrounding …

 

When under the arches of the Ponte Vecchio

A green light enters against stream, flush from the west,

Against the current of obscure Arno …

 

Look up, and you see things flying

Between the day and the night;

Swallows with spools of dark thread sewing the shadows together.

 

A circle swoop, and a quick parabola under the bridge arches

Where light pushes through;

A sudden turning upon itself of a thing in the air.

A dip to the water.

 

And you think:

“The swallows are flying so late!”

 

Swallows?

 

Dark air-life looping

Yet missing the pure loop …

A twitch, a twitter, an elastic shudder in flight

And serrated wings against the sky,

Like a glove, a black glove thrown up at the light,

And falling back.

 

Never swallows!

Bats!

The swallows are gone.

 

At a wavering instant the swallows gave way to bats

By the Ponte Vecchio …

Changing guard.

 

Bats, and an uneasy creeping in one’s scalp

As the bats swoop overhead!

Flying madly.

 

Pipistrello!

Black piper on an infinitesimal pipe.

Little lumps that fly in air and have voices indefinite, wildly vindictive;

 

Wings like bits of umbrella.

 

Bats!

 

Creatures that hang themselves up like an old rag, to sleep;

And disgustingly upside down.

 

Hanging upside down like rows of disgusting old rags

And grinning in their sleep.

Bats!

 

In China the bat is symbol for happiness.

Not for me!

Katsushika Hokusai, Two bats flying, c. 1830-50

Biho Takashi, Bat Before the Moon, c. 1910

Théophile Gautier – The Ghost of the Rose

4 Jun

A very dreamy, romantic and eerie poem by a French Romantic poet Théophile Gautier.

Stanislaw Wyspianki, Double portrait d’Eliza Pareńska, 1905

The Ghost of the Rose

Open your eyelids now closed

That brush on a maidens dream;

I am the ghost of the rose

That you wore at the ball last night.

You plucked me still silvered with pearls

Sprinkled like tears from the hose,

And throughout the glittering scene

Paraded all night was I seen.

 

O you who have caused my death

Unable to chase it away

Throughout the night, my ghost of a rose

Will come to dance by your bed.

But have no fear, I shall claim

No mass nor De Profundis;

This faint perfume is my soul

And from paradise do I come.

 

My destiny may serve for envy;

For no better death could one have

Than thus to have given ones life.

For, I have your breast as my tomb

And there on the headstone where I repose

A poet has left me a kiss

And written: “Here lies a rose

Of which, kings are inclined to be jealous”.

(translated by David Paley)

Lord Tennyson: February fair-maid – The Snowdrop

27 Feb

A little poem by the Victorian poet Lord Tennyson about a snowdrop, one of the first spring flowers. He called this delicate white flower “a February fair-maid” and I thought it was unbelievably romantic and sweet to think of her in that way. A silent and fair maid dressed in white whose arrival in the gardens, woods and meadows signifies the end of winter and the warmer, brighter days, as Tennyson put it “May time and time of roses”. Truly, when I see snowdrops, and I saw some last week for the first time this season, it fills my heart with mad blind hope. I know that spring will come and that soon I will see the cherry blossoms in bloom and thread my way through the meadows while the sweet gentle sun of March kisses my face. Let us not forget the Snowdrop’s dear friends, shout out to yellow primroses and crocuses whose silken gowns come in all three colours; purple, yellow and white.

Photo by Michelle De Rose, Waiting.

The Snowdrop

Many, many welcomes,
February fair-maid!
Ever as of old time,
Solitary firstling,
Coming in the cold time,
Prophet of the gay time,
Prophet of the May time,
Prophet of the roses,
Many, many welcomes,
February fair-maid!

If I might see another spring… by Christina Rossetti

19 Feb

A poem by Christina Rossetti called “Another Spring”.

John Everett Millais, Spring (Apple Blossoms), 1859

Another Spring

If I might see another Spring

I’d not plant summer flowers and wait:

I’d have my crocuses at once,

My leafless pink mezereons,

My chill-veined snowdrops, choicer yet

My white or azure violet,

Leaf-nested primrose; anything

To blow at once, not late.

William Henry Hunt, Primroses and Bird’s Nest

If I might see another Spring

I’d listen to the daylight birds

That build their nests and pair and sing,

Nor wait for mateless nightingale;

I’d listen to the lusty herds,

The ewes with lambs as white as snow,

I’d find out music in the hail

And all the winds that blow.

Shadow from tree on grass with crocus in spring by Radius Images

If I might see another Spring —

Oh stinging comment on my past

That all my past results in ‘if’ —

If I might see another Spring

I’d laugh today, today is brief;

I would not wait for anything:

I’d use today that cannot last,

Be glad today and sing.

Nature in Syd Barrett’s Songs

6 Jan

In lyrics Syd Barrett wrote for Pink Floyd and his two solo albums, he crated a tapestry of images, moods, fragrances and colours that change from vibrancy and childlike whimsicality of early psychedelia to more sombre, tinged with melancholy tunes that smell of withered flowers, last summer sunsets and have that after party mood when the guests are gone, the music stops and solitude remains. In many of his songs, images from nature serve to mirror the state of his soul, his emotions and his loneliness.

“Jiving on down to the beach to see the blue and the gray
Seems to be all and it’s rosy-it’s a beautiful day!”

(Gigolo Aunt)

John William Waterhouse, Ophelia, 1894, detail

Syd Barrett was the imaginative and stylish individual behind the early Pink Floyd. He also went on to have a brief solo career and released two albums in 1970; “The Madcap Laughs” and “Barrett” which mostly feature his melancholy voice and guitar, mirroring the dark and sad waters of his soul. Although the mood of Syd’s lyrics changes from the early ones which are fun and quirky, and later ones which tend to be more mystical and introspective, there is a theme which lingers throughout Syd’s poetry – nature.

The reason behind the frequency of nature as a topic of Syd’s lyrics is tied to his childhood; where he grew up and how he grew up. Syd was part of the baby boom generation and grew up in a safe and clean middle-class neighbourhood in Cambridge where his father worked as a pathologist. Unlike Morrissey, for example, whose early memories are tied to the dark and grim streets of Manchester and a red brick house which he can never go back to, the stage of Syd’s early memories is a lovely Victorian house where mum read fairy-tales and the arts were appreciated. Despite being only an hour away from London, Cambridge was, at the time, still a quaint town where myths and reality lived in harmony.

Constant Puyo, 1903.

In the book “Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe”, the author Julian Palacious describes the area as a”bleak land rife with myth; a land where one can see the ruins of monasteries and abbeys looming through the heavy autumn fog, the spring of the Nine Wells associated with druids and witchcraft, a place where cold winters bloom into chill and damp springs and violet flowers fill the meadow all the way to the Beechwoods, a place of fairy ring mushrooms and willow trees gently touching the surface of the river Cam with their long yellow branches; all in all a setting ideal for a psychedelic schoolgirl to explore the secrets that nature beholds and float down the river forever and ever like a modern Ophelia: Syd conjured the very thing in his song “See Emily Play”. Palacios further says that “The Fens were rumoured to be the haunt of lost souls, witches, and web-footed peasants”, thus mingling the vivid Celtic past and mystic of nature with everyday suburban reality.

Arthur Rackham illustration for The Old Woman in the Wood from The Grimm’s Fairy Tales

In his book “Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head”, Rob Chapman also comments on nature being a common theme in Syd’s lyrics “Like Lear, Syd would populate his lyrics with imagery drawn from botany , zoology and nature. Lear and Caroll influenced the clarity of his lyrics too…”, adding that Syd “grew up surrounded by Fen countryside, absorbed in pastoral pursuits and Arcadian literature, and frequently drew upon nature for the subject matter of his artwork. His father was a keen amateur botanist and the entire family were be taken for Sunday morning jaunts to the Cambridge Botanical Gardens. The experience would be ingrained and absorbed from an early age.” We might say that nature was Syd’s first love, one which came before painting and music, and one which stayed much longer, even in his old age when he tended to the roses in his garden.

Photo found here.

In his early writings for Pink Floyd, nature is the setting of Syd’s psychedelic imaginings. In one song from their first album, “Flaming”, a very cheerful tune, nature comes alive and the meadow is one big playground. The lyrics bring to mind whimsicality of Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland: “Alone in the clouds all blue/ Lying on an eiderdown/ (…) Lazing in the foggy dew/ Sitting on a unicorn./ No fair, you can’t hear me/ But I can you./ Watching buttercups cup the light/ Sleeping on a dandelion.” Through his perceptions of nature, Syd paints us the landscapes of his soul, through the sounds we see its changing colours from yellow, gentle green and pink, to greys, dusty pinks and faded blues.

The first hint of the darkness to come can be traced in the lyrics of “The Scarecrow” where a solitary scarecrow standing in the middle of a golden barley fields brings to mind the sad landscapes that Vincent van Gogh had painted near the end of his life. Another song, “Octopus” from his first solo album, mingles the cheerfulness of his early days with a premonition of the madness that was to come: “Isn’t it good to be lost in the wood/ Isn’t it bad so quiet there, in the wood/ Meant even less to me than I thought… the seas will reach and always seep/ So high you go, so low you creep/ the wind it blows in tropical heat”. One time Syd was on holiday with his family in Wales, he was but a little boy, and he wandered off into the forest and was lost for hours.

“The land in silence stands” (Swan Lee)

And the landscape turns melancholy; the gates of childhood are closed, dandelions have withered and unicorns are nowhere to be found… the dark sea of adulthood is sad and mute as the grave, and its shore desolate and unpromising. Lost hopes and lamentation at the sudden awakening. There isn’t a song which better paints a picture of Syd’s mind at the time than “Wined and Dined” whose lyrics and melody both recall happier times and lament at the sadness that just doesn’t go away:

“Only last summer, it’s not so long ago
Just last summer, now musk winds blow…”

Melodies and lyrics of Syd’s solo albums bring to mind not the pictures of meadows and flowers, but scenes of isolation; murky waters, birds flying away, broken pier, trees are silent and lonely… Syd shows an acute awareness of what is going on around him. As a lyricist, and a poet too, Syd used images of nature as symbols for his states of mind and ways of expressing feelings imaginatively and indirectly; he is painting landscapes with his words which mirror the states of his soul.

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise Over the Sea, 1822

Here are some interesting lines from his song “She took a long cold look” from “The Madcap Laughs”, the image of the broker pier, wavy sea and water streaming over him are striking:

“a broken pier on the wavy sea
she wonders why for all she wants to see…
But I got up and I stomped around
and hid the piece where the trees touch the ground…

And looking high up into the sky
I breathe as the water streams over me…”

Picture found here.

A beautiful song “Opel” has long sad solos and a sense of isolation lingers throughout it, especially haunting are the last lines “I’m trying to find you” sang in his distant voice and accompanied by his guitar:

“On a distant shore, miles from land
Stands the ebony totem in ebony sand
A dream in a mist of grey…
On a far distant shore…

The pebble that stood alone
And driftwood lies half buried
Warm shallow waters sweep shells
So the cockles shine…

I’m trying
I’m trying to find you!
To find you
I’m living, I’m giving,
To find you, To find you…”

Anna Akhmatova – And I’m drunk on the sound of your voice, echoing here

16 Dec

A beautiful poem called “White Night” by Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) that I recently discovered.

Photo by Natalia Drepina

White night

Oh, I’ve not locked the door,

I’ve not lit the candles,

You know I’m too tired

To think of sleep.

 

See, how the fields die down,

In the sunset gloom of firs,

And I’m drunk on the sound

Of your voice, echoing here.

 

It’s fine, that all’s black,

That life’s – a cursed hell.

O, that you’d come back –

I was so certain, as well.