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  • Sonnet—Image—Intertext:Reading Rossetti's The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Found
  • Brian Donnelly (bio)

In a letter to George Rae in 1873, Dante Gabriel Rossetti reflected on the practical difficulty of displaying his sonnets written to accompany his paintings: "An inscription is much more difficult to do properly than a picture. If it is a bit too large or too black the picture goes to the devil; and, if you have not someone to do it who has an elective affinity to commas and pauses, I will ask you to spare my poor sonnet."1 Rossetti's brother William Michael reflects that the remark "shows in a rather amusing light the dislike with which Rossetti regarded any clumsiness of subsidiary detail in connection with his pictures."2 While somewhat flippant, the comment draws attention to Rossetti's very serious consideration of the formal composition of the sonnets he wrote to accompany many of his pictures. From his earliest work Rossetti reveals this preoccupation with the relationship between the sonnet form and his paintings—a relationship that may at times be directly manifest on the same canvas while at others it might be rendered more obliquely through allusion, imitation, or analogous form. What is provoking about Rossetti's engagement of both visual and verbal images to create meaning is the possible production of another kind of text, an intertext that is unique to the painter-poet.

In 1849 Rossetti's The Girlhood of Mary Virgin was the first painting exhibited bearing the initials PRB at the Free Exhibition at the Hyde Park Corner Gallery.3 Rossetti wrote two sonnets for the painting which are now inscribed together at the bottom of the frame, both under the title "Mary's Girlhood (For a Picture)."4 In the following year Rossetti produced another painting of the Virgin Mary, Ecce Ancilla Domini!, depicting the moment of the Annunciation.5 Linked primarily through their subject matter, the paintings and the sonnets together provide an opportunity to develop a reading of the intertextual relationships at work in Rossetti's visual and verbal constructions.

The Tate Gallery catalogue for the 1984 Pre-Raphaelite exhibition, where the paintings were displayed side by side and the sonnets inscribed below, has an extensive entry for The Girlhood of Mary Virgin by the Rossetti scholar Alistair Grieve. Grieve translates the meaning of Rossetti's "elaborate [End Page 475] and comprehensive" "use of symbols," reassembling Sonnet II for the gallery spectator, accepting the sonnet's invitation to read: "These are the symbols … being interpreted." The catalogue entry obliges:

The books representing the virtues are coloured symbolically. The lamp is an emblem of piety, the rose is the flower of the Madonna. The vine refers to the coming of Christ and the red cloth, embroidered with the Tri-point, beneath the cross-shaped trellis, symbolizes His robe at the Passion. The palm and thorn shaped branches prefigure the seven joys and seven sorrows of the Virgin.

(Grieve, p. 65)

When Lynne Pearce visited the Tate exhibition in 1984, her response to these paintings was dominated by the sonnets: "We could find no way through or beyond Rossetti's image of 'female excellence,' no way of claiming for our own the delicately glowing, gold-burnished exquisiteness of a painting that is the earliest, purest, cleanest that Rossetti ever produced."6 According to Pearce the sonnets "hammered to the frame" (p. 41) are an impenetrable wall of words limiting the possibilities for interpreting the image by subjecting the spectator to a "didacticism … intended not to correct one viewing possibility so much as to impose the right one, the only one" (p. 42). The verbal here is imagined as limiting the spectator's access to the visual. Elizabeth Helsinger suggests that both verbal and visual representations result in the spectator finding "herself addressed as if she were a medieval parishioner in need of instruction through pictures and through the authority of the priest, who could make such pictures speak to those who could not read."7 These accounts share a concern with decoding surface patterns and symbols without addressing the sonnet form itself, a form which Rossetti was deeply invested in exploring throughout his...


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