Rossetti’s Blend of Poetry and Painting

Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote a collection of poems on art of which two sonnets are on his own painting “The Girlhood of Mary Virgin.” Aside from the significance of these works in regard to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, I was fascinated with the combination of two genres that are typically treated separately: visual art and poetry.

Today we are bombarded with images combines with words, but the pictures are the focus and the words are a tagline to accompany the picture rather than a work of art in themselves. A common example is advertisements and memes. Often if you take away the picture, the words do not make sense. Whereas if you take away the words, the picture still communicates a message, though perhaps with a different tint.

The sonnets were said to have been on a piece of paper that was attached to the painting. The painting was reframed in 1864 and Rossetti’s poems were inscribed on the frame (Rossetti Archive). The poems do not serve to simply describe the painting. Instead, the entire piece is a story told in three parts, perhaps on purpose to symbolize the Christian trinity. Each part of the trio can stand alone, but together the poems and painting provide different perspectives and a fuller story.  The poems are descriptions, the first of Mary and the second of the painting though both end with the knowledge that Mary will soon be told that she will bear Jesus Christ.

Although the second sonnet starts explicitly, “These are the symbols,” it does not mention every symbol in the painting, such as the dove, and it does not piece out the meaning of every symbol (l.1) . While the poem notes, “the lily standeth, which/ Is Innocence,” the description is simplistic and does not fully embody the symbol (ll. 8-9). The poems serve to highlight and expand upon points within the painting. The poems are not a translation of the poem. The combination of these three pieces shows an emphasis on deciphering symbols in order to understand a story rather than purely reading through, whether a poem or painting, to get the story. Instead of isolating genres, we can combine them to make new works of art.

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