The Blessed Damozel: a Study Guide
A Poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
A Study Guide
Compiled by Michael J. Cummings..© 2009
.......The key term in the title, damozel, is an archaic word for damsel (maiden, unmarried young woman). Other archaic words with the same meaning are damosel, damoiselle, and demoiselle. All of these words descend from the Old French word dameisele. Rossetti's use of damozel perfumes the poem with an air of medieval romance. The adjective blessed suggests that the damozel deserves recognition as a saint. In Roman Catholic theology, a deceased candidate for sainthood receives the title Blessed before his or her name. Of course, the word may also simply signify her goodness and holiness.
.......“The Blessed Damozel” is a dramatic lyric poem of 144 lines in 24 six-line stanzas.
.......Dante Gabriel Rossetti completed the first version of “The Blessed Damozel” in 1847 and published it in the February 1850 issue of The Germ, a journal of the pre-Raphaelite movement in painting and literature. He conceived the idea for the poem (and later a painting with the same title and subject) after reading Edgar Allan Poe's “The Raven,” about a man who mourns the death of his beloved Lenore, and after reviewing Dante Allighieri's Divine Comedy, in which the author's first love, Beatrice, escorts him from Purgatory to Heaven during his imaginary journey through the realms of the afterlife. The damozel of Rossetti's poem is thus a kind of composite of Lenore and Beatrice who pines for her earthbound lover. Rossetti revised and republished the poem in 1856 in The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine and in 1870 in Poems by D.G. Rossetti. As to the influence of Poe, Rossetti told his biographer, T. Hall Caine, that he wrote "The Blessed Damozel" as a sequel to "The Raven," saying, "I saw that Poe had done the utmost that it was possible to do with the grief of a lover on earth, and so [I] determined to reverse the conditions, and give utterance to the yearning of the loved one in heaven."
.......Dante Gabriel Rossetti was an accomplished painter as well as a poet. In 1848, he and two other painters—John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt—founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in rebellion against painting techniques that they regarded as rule-bound and highly academic—or, in other words, artificial rather than natural. Other disenchanted artists joined them, and in January 1850 they began publishing a short-lived journal devoted to their central tenet: to depict their subjects with the sincerity and moral earnestness of artists practicing before the rise of the painter Raffaelo Sanzio (1483-1520), popularly known as Raphael, during the flowering of the Renaissance. They gained public acceptance after the prominent art critic John Ruskin expressed admiration for their work. Rossetti applied pre-Raphaelite principles to his poems, including "The Blessed Damozel," embracing romantic, highly emotional language often centering on medieval and religious themes. Critics of the pre-Raphaelites argued that their work was unduly sentimental.
Although the death of the damozel has separated her from the man she loves, the love between them lives on. So does the hope that one day they will reunite in heaven.
.......The second, fourth, and sixth lines of each stanza rhyme according to vowel sound (as in place, face, and apace in the fourth stanza), spelling similarity, or "eye rhyme" (as in even and seven in the first stanza), and consonant sound (as in hers and years in the third stanza). The meter varies, but most lines contain seven to nine syllables. The dominant lines are in iambic tetrameter. In this format, a line has four pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables, for a total of eight syllables. The term tetrameter (from the Greek tetra, meaning four, and metron, meaning measure) indicates that a line has four syllabic units. The first line of each of the first five stanzas is in iambic tetrameter, as illustrated below by the opening line of the poem.
The BLESS..|..ed DAM..|..o ZEL..|..lean'd OUT
.......Applying pre-Raphaelite principles, Rossetti wrote “The Blessed Damozel” as a poignant, uncomplicated depiction of the kind of innocent young love that flourished in the days
of the chivalric code. The poem presents a romantic, dreamlike atmosphere as a virginal young woman—claimed recently by death—stands at the threshold of heaven pining for the young man she left behind while he likewise pines for her on earth. Rossetti links the heavenly damozel with her earthbound lover by mixing the spiritual imagery of heaven with the physical imagery of earth. Thus, while the
seven stars of the heavenly constellations adorn her hair, it flows down her back with the color of “ripe corn.” And while the young man thinks he feels her hair fall over him, he discovers only the fall of autumn leaves.
That she was standing on;
By God built over the sheer depth
The which is Space begun;
So high, that looking downward thence
She scarce could see the sun.
To emphasize the loneliness of the lovers, he presents an image of lovers united in Heaven:Around her, lovers, newly met
'Mid deathless love's acclaims,
Spoke evermore among themselves
Their heart-remember'd namesSummary of the Poem
.......The Blessed Damozel leans out from a golden banister on the outermost boundary separating heaven from space. Her eyes are deeper than the bottom of still waters. In one hand she holds three lilies attesting to her
purity and the nearness of the triune God. In her hair are seven stars symbolizing the Pleiades, the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione in Greek mythology. These young women included Alcyone, Celaeno, Electra, Maia, Merope, Sterope, and Taygete, who attended the goddess of virginity, Artemis. After they died, they became stars in the heavens.
By Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The blessed damozel lean'd out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters still'd at even;
She had three lilies1in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.2
Her robe, ungirt3from clasp to hem,
Herseem'd5she scarce had been a day
(To one, it is ten years of years.
It was the rampart of God's house
It lies in Heaven, across the flood
Around her, lovers, newly met
And still she bow'd herself and stoop'd
From the fix'd place of Heaven she saw
The sun was gone now; the curl'd moon
(Ah sweet! Even now, in that bird's song,
"I wish that he were come to me,
"When round his head the aureole11clings,
"We two will stand beside that shrine,
"We two will lie i' the shadow of
"And I myself will teach to him,
(Alas! We two, we two, thou say'st!
"We two," she said, "will seek the groves
"Circlewise sit they, with bound locks
"He shall fear, haply, and be dumb:
"Herself shall bring us, hand in hand,
"There will I ask of Christ the Lord
She gaz'd and listen'd and then said,
(I saw her smile.) But soon their path
1...Three lilies: See the first paragraph of the summary (above).
7 He, that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches: To him, that overcometh, I will give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of my God.
22:14 (Focusing on the New Jerusalem)
Blessed are they that wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb: that they may have a right to the tree of life, and may enter in by the gates into the city.
22:1-2 (Focusing on the New Jerusalem)
1 And he showed me a river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. 2 In the midst of the street thereof, and on both sides of the river, was the tree of life, bearing twelve fruits, yielding its fruits every month, and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
Source: DRBO.org (Douay-Rheims Bible)14...Dove: The Holy Spirit.
15...Stanza in Parentheses: The young man speaks, wondering whether God will admit him to heaven.
16...Just born, being dead: Paradox. Those who die are born to eternal life.
17...Mother: Blessed Virgin Mary
19...Citherns and citoles: Stringed instruments.
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Study Questions and Essay Topics
1. Write an essay that compares and contrasts "The Blessed Damozel" with Poe's poem "The Raven." Both poems focus on lovers separated by death. Among the questions you should discuss are these: Which poem is more rhythmic and musical--that is, which appeals more to the sense of sound? Which relies more heavily on language that appeals to the sense of
To Him round whom all souls
Kneel, the clear-rang'd unnumber'd headsFind other examples of alliteration in the poem.
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