Painter, designer, editor, poet—Dante Gabriel Rossetti was basically the MVP of the English Victorian art scene.
He was certainly primed from birth to accept that title. His family moved to England from Italy, after his father (a Dante scholar) was exiled for political reasons. Once they settled in London, his parents raised four super-accomplished children—including Dante's sister, the poet Christina Rossetti.
For his own part, Dante started off painting and writing poetry—and had success in both fields. In 1848, at the young age of twenty, he helped to co-found an artistic movement known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, or the Pre-Raphaelites for short. Their movement, in a nutshell, revolved around the idea that art was way better before that dude Raphael showed up and ruined everything.
More specifically, they were in favor of lots of vivid detail and complexity in their artwork, and this approach soon carried over into their approach to literature as well. In 1850, the Pre-Raphaelites founded a literary magazine called The Germ, and it was in this publication that Rossetti's "The Blessed Damozel" first appeared.
The poem explores the themes of love, death, and the afterlife through a host of perspectives. We hear from the dead damozel (a.k.a. damsel) looking down on her beloved from the balcony of heaven. We also hear from the poor guy who is stuck back on Earth (you know, still living). Finally, we get commentary from a third speaker who is observing these two as they fantasize about some day being together up in heaven.
Rossetti would go on to revise and republish this poem a few more times after its initial publication, which earned him critical praise and attention at the ripe old age of 22. Still not satisfied to leave it there, he also painted this poem and added that to his growing list of artistic accomplishments.
This guy was a serious overachiever.
Ultimately, the poem is concerned with the ways in which a little obstacle like death might affect the permanence of true love. It's a fascinating look—from all sides—at things like separation, commitment, and the power of imagination. Speaking of that, we imagine you're going to love it, so jump right in.
As a general rule, we don't like to think about death that much. Can you blame us, though? It's kind of a downer.
Luckily, we have artists and poets to do that kind of grim exploration for us—even if what they find may not be that consoling. That's exactly what Dante Gabriel Rossetti is doing in "The Blessed Damozel." Here's a poem that adds a new layer of depth to a typically two-dimensional literary situation: lovers love; one lover dies; lover who lives is totally bummed out.
What's cool about Rossetti's take, though, is that he also looks at this situation through the eyes of the dead lover as well. It tackles the question: what would it be like to be stuck up in heaven with your still-loving partner stuck back down on Earth?
The answer to that question—probably unsurprisingly—is not a very happy one. At the same time, it's inspiring to think that a force as strong as love can overcome even the obstacle of death. Sure, there are a few logistical kinks to be worked out, but love—between Earth and heaven, across life and death—is the true star of this poem. It's a great testament to the power of love (no, not that one)—and one you're sure to love yourself.
The reader can see in “The Blessed Damozel” the expression of an ancient and well-known theme: the desire of an isolated, separated lover to achieve unity with the beloved. Rossetti has framed this vision as a reverie, a daydream, a wish-fulfilling dream in the mind of a lover. The heart of the poem is the ironic conflict between the earthly bodily desire and the tradition that heaven is a place of disembodied souls, comforted and joyful in the presence of God. This irony is emphasized by the poem’s religious framework.
The earthly, fleshly dimension of the lover in heaven is unconsciously revealed in several places in the poem: Her bosom “warms” the bar of heaven (line 46); she imagines taking her lover’s hand (line 75), lying together in the shadow of the mystic tree (lines 85 to 86), laying her cheek against his (line 116), and, finally, living in heaven “as once on earth” (line 129).
These are all images of touching in the earthly sense. Yet, by the standards of medieval theology—which the whole framework of the poem implies—she ought to be contemplating the joy of God and exhorting her lover to lay aside grief and remember that she now enjoys the real reward of life: eternal life with God.
The Christian imagery, which is largely derived from Dante and other medieval Italian poets, is used decoratively and in this context does not support the sensuous desires of the lover. As much as Rossetti tried to emulate the austere spiritual idealization of Dante, his own sensuousness prevented him from achieving it.
The heavenly lover yearns passionately, intensely, for her earthly companion. In her yearning, she moves from a vision of their reunion, to hope of everlasting unity, and finally to doubt and despair. The void between heaven and earth is immense. What is emphasized is the separateness of the lovers: The wish is not the thing itself; the traditional Christian sops about being in heaven hold no comfort for the bereaved lover, for without the beloved, the heaven becomes a hell.