[Access article in PDF]
Regarding Christina Rossetti's "'Reflection'"
"The Woman at the Window"
Recent work by Alison Chapman on biographical representations of Christina Rossetti has demonstrated an intriguing proclivity on the part of virtually every Rossetti biographer to visually "frame" the poet at a window, in a manner "highly suggestive of . . . a portrait, as if Rossetti was herself a living 'framed' picture, for she both looks out and is seen." 1 While such aestheticizations of Rossetti may be linked, as Chapman suggests, to specific biographical incidents, they also signal the absorption and reinscription of a more generalized trope in Romantic and Victorian poetry and art: the recurrence of the "woman at the window." 2 In this regard, of course, the biographical construction of Rossetti herself as a "model" of the woman poet-cum-painterly object is also inevitably informed by key texts within Rossetti's own oeuvre, texts which focus precisely on such "framed" moments of fetishistic aestheticization. "In An Artist's Studio" springs to mind immediately in this context, as perhaps Rossetti's most famous, and most famously trenchant, reflection on the obstacles posed for the nineteenth-century woman artist by her overdetermined role as object and muse in the field of artistic and cultural production. I want to suggest, however, that it is to one of Rossetti's much less widely known poems, the simple-sounding but intricately structured lyric, "'Reflection,'" that we should look, not only for a challenging opportunity to re-think the interrelated questions of subjectivity, gender ideology, and epistemology raised by the gaze of the "framed" woman, but also for an opportunity to re-think Lacan's concept of "the gaze" itself, in terms of its potential historical significance for a devout Victorian poet.
Written in 1857 but unpublished during Rossetti's lifetime, "'Reflection'" has in recent years attracted new critical interest on the part of feminist readers such as Angela Leighton and Margaret Reynolds, who include it in their important anthology Victorian Woman Poets. 3 In the (modest) attention it has received to date, the poem has, more often than not, been read as a subtle send-up of the courtly-love tradition, in which [End Page 389] a cloistered woman at her "chamber window" is addressed as "my soul's dear soul" (l. 2) by a male speaker gazing upon his beloved. Anna Maria Stuby thus argues that
readers and listeners of the poem are . . . forced to take the roles of spectators in a drama whose main action--that of watching and being watched--is divided between a male and a female protagonist, and where the gender-specific attribution of the roles of subject and object of the gaze is staged as invariable. (p. 23)
Stuby seems to base her assumption about the gender-specificity of the speaker and the object of his gaze on cues from established critics such as Dolores Rosenblum, whose work on Rossetti's devotional poetry notes that "the metaphor of sight, particularly as it involves gazing upon a face, belongs . . . to the secular tradition, where it has acquired specific and fixed gender assignments." 4 Similarly, though, Angela Leighton also reads the demand for recognition and answer in "'Reflection'"--most evident in the speaker's urgent exhortation, "Answer me, O self-forgetful!" (l. 31)--as evidence of the progressive disillusionment of a male suitor, whose "unrequited love sours into boredom" and "petulance" as the indifferent and secretive woman whom he addresses sits cold "thro' all [his] kindling / Deaf to all" he prays and says (ll. 36-37): "Now if I could guess her secret / Were it worth the guess? Time is lessening, hope is lessening, / Love grows less and less" (ll. 41-44). 5
Curiously, while Stuby, for one, recognizes the "ambiguity and doubleness" of the poem's "very title," noting that "semantically, 'reflection' oscillates between 'meditation' and 'mirror image'" (p. 23), neither she nor Leighton pursues the ambiguous potential of the self-reflexive cues announced by the title--and, incidentally, reinforced by the poem's original title of "Day Dream," as well. Indeed, of its...