June 12, 2006

Christina Rossetti and the Power of Hair

Writing about web page http://www.fashioningfiction.stir.ac.uk/

On 27th–28th May I attended a brillant conference at Stirling University entitled 'Fashioning Fiction. I've come home with lots of issues to think about and books to read.

In my paper I considered how Christina Rossetti engaged with the various manifestations of her hair–obsessed culture as she worked with complex Biblical representations which highlighted the incredible power women’s hair could have for good and for evil. I also discussed the way in which she drew on a variety of texts and paintings to acknowledge that, as well as serving as a weapon or a veil for the righteous, angelic woman, hair can also serve as a snare, a web, or a noose for the wicked scheming woman.

I focused primarily on three sonnets:
The World (Composed 27 June 1854, published in Goblin Market, 1862)

By day she wooes me, soft, exceeding fair:
But all night as the moon so changeth she;
Loathsome and foul with hideous leprosy
And subtle serpents gliding in her hair.
By day she wooes me to the outer air,
Ripe fruits, sweet flowers, and full satiety:
But thro' the night, a beast she grins at me,
A very monster void of love and prayer.
By day she stands a lie: by night she stands
In all the naked horror of the truth
With pushing horns and clawed and clutching hands.
Is this a friend indeed; that I should sell
My soul to her, give her my life and youth,
Till my feet, cloven too, take hold on hell?

From ‘Monna Innominata: A Sonnet Of Sonnets’ (published in A Pageant and Other Poems, 1881)

"I, if I perish, perish"—Esther spake:
And bride of life or death she made her fair
In all the lustre of her perfumed hair
And smiles that kindle longing but to slake.
She put on pomp of loveliness, to take
Her husband thro' his eyes at unaware;
She spread abroad her beauty for a snare,
Harmless as doves and subtle as a snake.
She trapped him with one mesh of silken hair,
She vanquished him by wisdom of her wit,
And built her people's house that it should stand:—–
If I might take my life so in my hand,
And for my love to Love put up my prayer,
And for love's sake by Love be granted it!

Babylon the Great (published in The Face of the Deep, 1892, and Verses, 1893)

Foul is she and ill–favoured, set askew:
Gaze not upon her till thou dream her fair,
Lest she should mesh thee in her wanton hair,
Adept in arts grown old yet ever new.
Her heart lusts not for love, but thro' and thro'
For blood, as spotted panther lusts in lair;
No wine is in her cup, but filth is there
Unutterable, with plagues hid out of view.
Gaze not upon her, for her dancing whirl
Turns giddy the fixed gazer presently:
Gaze not upon her, lest thou be as she
When, at the far end of her long desire,
Her scarlet vest and gold and gem and pearl
And she amid her pomp are set on fire.

- 2 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Martin Eyles

    I don't get on brilliantly with this 19th century english, but I do like the line "Harmless as doves and subtle as a snake.".

    28 Aug 2006, 19:02

  2. Yes, it is good. It is actually derived from Matthew 10:16 which reads: ‘Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.’ (KJV)

    02 Sep 2006, 18:08

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