Poetry Friday: In an Artist’s Studio (Christina Rossetti)

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Christina Rossetti’s poem about her brother – and more importantly, his muse Lizzie Siddal. I came across it a couple of years ago when the BBC series about the Pre-Raphaelite movement was on, and I was looking for love poetry for one of my sixth form lessons. This poem is certainly about love, but it’s a very unbalanced, dangerous love that is being reflected. Rossetti isn’t openly critical of her brother’s attitude towards his lover – more, she seems to understand it yet pity the muse who is impossibly stuck in the relationship, unable to change it with a lover who doesn’t realise what is wrong.

The impression this poem gives is one of a profoundly disturbing relationship; the girl is fresh, sainted, and angelic, the colours of the first half vivid, but not garish. It seems at first that she could be staring out from the canvas because of the painter’s love for her, but the impression changes – she is nameless, the canvasses themselves largely meaningless.
The line ‘he feeds upon her face by day and night’ also suggests an unhealthy obsession, that he’s not concerned for her or her beauty even but his own fulfilment, satisfying his own hunger – whereas she simply acquiesces. The last few lines speak to her self-sacrifice. His paintings are not her as she is, wan and dim, but as she was when she was hopeful…hopeful of what? Having her love returned? Having a fulfilling relationship of equals?

One face looks out from all his canvasses,
One self same figure sits or walks or leans;
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer greens,
A saint, an angel; — every canvass means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him
Fair as the moon and joyfull as the light;
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

Millais's Ophelia, with Lizzie Siddal sitting for him

Millais’s Ophelia, with Lizzie Siddal sitting for him

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One thought on “Poetry Friday: In an Artist’s Studio (Christina Rossetti)

  1. Susanna Kay

    Thank you- I was looking for a copy of this poem after hearing it read in another Radio 4 poem about muses -and inevitably the Pre Raphaelites- last Thursday where is was quoted.
    Actually this poem said everything the programme tried to say- and more.

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