Today, as many of you know, is World Poetry Day. I spent quite some time today wondering which poet I would choose to commemorate but I couldn’t make up my mind. Then, this evening, as I was sipping a glass of bubbly Crémant de Loire and listening to La Traviata (and actually forgetting to sip as I listened to this most beautiful, most beloved of operas), it suddenly seemed obvious I should choose a love poem. Two love poems, in fact. Both of them are by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, from his sonnet sequence The House of Life (1870).
The first one, “Silent Noon” (sonnet XIX), makes me think of the beginning of Act Two, when Alfredo sings of his happy new life with Violetta in the country, far from the cynical eyes and wagging tongues of their Parisian acquaintances. It encapsulates the drowsy contentment that overcomes lovers when the sated senses seek repose. It is easy to see why Rossetti’s verse so shocked Victorian audiences, for this is no decorous exchange of gallantries over the tea tray: the lovers are lying entwined in a “nest” in the middle of a field, and it is clear that if silence and lethargy characterize the present moment, it is only because the preceding half an hour was most erotically charged indeed. Note the mention of skirts and thread, innocently masquerading as descriptions of the landscape but slyly reminding us just how quickly the lovers divested themselves of their clothes!
The second poem, “Barren Spring” (sonnet LXXXIII), introduces the literary topos of the return of spring, only to subvert it. The well-known image of spring as a laughing, teasing, frolicsome girl breathing warmth and hope back into the winter-bound world clashes with that of the poet, mourning the death of his beloved (I hope I may be forgiven for being sentimental if at this point I draw a parallel with poor Alfredo and suggest the poem might serve as an epilogue to the opera…). It is the second stanza which is the most powerful, for the merry girl seems cursed: everything she touches turns to dust or ashes, and she leaves a desolate landscape in her wake. The grief-burdened poet has made spring turn against itself and cannot rest until even the lily – that striking symbol of purity (cf Rossetti’s Madonnas and Annunciation scenes) but also of sensuality, and thus, of life – has shrivelled and died.
It might be just a one-time thing, but I can’t help feeling that, for tonight at least, the visionary Pre-Raphaelite poet and Verdi’s consumptive courtesan go admirably well together.
Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass, –
The finger-points look through like rosy blooms:
Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and glooms
‘Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass.
All round our nest, far as the eye can pass,
Are golden kingcup-fields with silver edge
Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn-hedge.
‘Tis visible silence, still as the hour-glass.
Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragon-fly
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky: –
So this wing’d hour is dropt to us from above.
Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower,
This close-companioned inarticulate hour
When twofold silence was the song of love.
Once more the changed year’s turning wheel returns:
And as a girl sails balanced on the wind,
And now before and now again behind
Stoops as it swoops, with cheek that laughs and burns, –
So Spring comes merry towards me here, but earns
No answering smile from me, whose life is twin’d
With the dead boughs that winter still must bind,
And whom to-day the Spring no more concerns.
Behold, this crocus is a withering flame;
This snowdrop, snow; this apple-blossom’s part
To breed the fruit that breeds the serpent’s art.
Nay, for these Spring-flowers, turn thy face from them,
Nor stay till on the year’s last lily-stem
The white cup shrivels round the golden heart.
D. Gabriel Rossetti
© Florence Berlioz 2013