Pre-Raphaelite Women: Poetry in Response to Art

La Ghirlandata by Rossetti

La Ghirlandata by Rossetti

I have always been attracted to the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, and intrigued by the lives of the women who modelled for their paintings. Muse by Dawn Marie Kresan is a collection which focuses on these women, particularly on Elizabeth Siddall, who was actually a poet and artist in her own right. Bethany Rivers’ pamphlet Off the wall also takes much of its inspiration from artwork, and contains some poems on similar themes to those explored in Kresan’s book.  

siddal-self-portrait

Lizzie Siddall’s self-portrait

Elizabeth Siddall (Lizzie) modelled for several of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, but ended up in a relationship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whom she later married. After giving birth to a stillborn child, she suffered from depression and eventually died from an overdose of laudanum. Both Kresan and Rivers have written poems which respond to this enigmatic character. Rivers’ poem ‘Lizzie Siddal’s Unpainted Portrait’ seems to present us with a doll-like, helpless figure, “bone upright” and completely overshadowed by her relationship with Rossetti: “Lizzie hears her voice / only through the filter / of her lover’s ears”.

I like the way in which Rivers spreads her words across the page, so that Lizzie’s very essence seems to be “entwined” with that of Rossetti, and she is unable to escape the fetters of a relationship in which she is entirely dependent:

poem textKresan’s poem, ‘Viridescant’ similarly portrays Lizzie in reference to Rossetti, but it also gives us a hint of something more defiant beneath the beautiful exterior:

you stare back – those

large, sad eyes, confronting.

Despite stiff collar and hair neatly

pinned back, there is defiance

But Kresan’s poem ends with the finality of depression and death as she is “choked with decay”, implying, to a certain extent, that it was their relationship which killed her. Rivers ends her poem, too, with an image of death and sexuality, evoking the trauma of stillbirth: “the kite bleeds / across   the desert / of her bed”.

Ophelia, painted by John Everett Millais

Ophelia, painted by John Everett Millais

Both poets also include work inspired by the tragic story of Shakespeare’s Ophelia. Kresan’s poem, ‘Ophelia in Love’, is a fairly straightforward response to Millais’ painting. It is soft and calm, yet clear in its denouncement of the male artist’s incompetence and lack of care. As Lizzie lies, “hushed”, in the cold bath, the water “nestles” in her lungs, making her sick, but she is obedient, full of “devotion” for the sake of his art.

Rivers has done something different. ‘A Modern Ophelia’ is inspired by a modern piece (‘One Summer in London’ by Pheobe Theodora) but it explores the same theme of a woman driven mad through the treatment she receives at the hands of men. This is an exceptional poem, which really gets to grips with the idea of a woman unhinged by life, alone, yet still existing in the world:

she's falling between the gaps of words words wordsI particularly like the visceral imagery of “she’s a feral cat / boxed” at the end. It encapsulates the whole notion of the female as muse, something to look at and love, yet unable to be herself.

I also really enjoyed reading Rivers’ poem, ‘When the robin stopped singing’ which begins with the lines, “I perfected Ophelia’s scream / and framed it.” The poem is an intriguing metaphor which illustrates how something so intangible can become solid, and yet the plight of a suffering woman is often ignored, invisible: “Visitors don’t notice”.

Rivers’ poetry is quite surreal and metaphorical, and also very personal. Her poem entitled ‘The Mask’ gives us a heart-wrenching picture of what it’s like, as a child, to be in a situation where you have to pretend everything is fine, whilst:

Nobody knew my world had lost one

of its two pillars; firmly held up

for twelve solid years.

Much of Rivers’ imagery is vibrant and emotive, such as in ‘The Only Child’, in which the child sits for the painter, whilst “her parent’s love decays / like picked flowers” and she becomes “the vase / holding them / together”.

muse-and-off-the-wallKresan’s collection contains a lot more work and explores a variety of themes around the concept of being female. ‘The Mirror Dance’ shows us the servitude of women forced to simply pose and pretend whilst, elsewhere, “the distant doves take flight / a woman runs through uncut grass”. Other poems, such as ‘Stillbirth’, are powerful in their simplicity.

Both poets have written with great skill and sensitivity, exposing the plight of the female in a world run by men. Kresan’s book provides contextual information as well, including the story of Lizzie Siddall’s life, and some of the stories behind the paintings. As with all ekphrastic poetry, I would have liked to see at least some of the original artwork printed alongside the poems, but I do understand that copyright and printing costs probably prevent this. Most of the poems are able to stand alone anyway, and curious readers can always look online.

Muse by Dawn Marie Kresan is published by Tightrope Books.

Off the wall by Bethany Rivers is published by Indigo Dreams.

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