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D.G.

Rossetti Bodys Beauty


Dante Gabriel Rossetti created the poem Bodys Beauty and the associated painting Lady Lilith in a time and place
where women had a specific role in society. The ideal nineteenth-century English woman was submissive to any male
influence in her life, always proper, and well behaved. With this poem and painting, Rossetti presents an alternative
view on females in this society, one that will be explored through analysis and interpretation of this written and visual
work. Bodys Beauty and Lady Lilith challenge the societal norms and expectations of women in the nineteenthcentury. Rossetti does this by depicting a woman putting herself and her own needs before that of any man, by
addressing the potentially negative aspects of women that society tends to repress, and by using religious tones for
the use of comparison. Rossettis purpose in all this was to portray women as they truly are, which is much more
complex than nineteenth-century society allowed them to be.
An average nineteenth-century woman had many men to answer to in her daily life. This included all male members of
her family, her pastor, eventually her husband, and any man who happened to be older than she in her community.
Women, with an array of characteristics, feature prominently in Rossettis works1. The proper English lady would
always be submissive and obedient to any man that fit into any of these categories, and in Bodys Beauty Rossetti
dares to present a woman that would not. The subject of the poem, Lady Lilith, is portrayed as a femme fatale, a
woman who answers to no man and instead uses them for her own pleasure2.
Of Adam's first wife, Lilith, it is told
(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve,)
That, ere the snake's, her sweet tongue could
deceive3
Lady Lilith is referred to as a witch, to be seen as a threatening and haunting presence4. She was the type of woman
to get under a mans skin, to haunt him with her presence even after they had parted, and had the ability to deceive
any man just by moving her lips. This image Rossetti has portrayed does not embody the stereotypical wallflower a
proper nineteenth-century woman was designed to be. A lack of submission is a prominent theme in Bodys Beauty, as
Rossetti said himself, that self-absorption by whose strange fascination such natures draw others within their own
circle is about the most essential notion of the sonnet5. Lady Lilith is portrayed as a woman who tends to her own
needs before that of any man, which again is challenging societys ideology of the stereotypical female.
Bodys Beauty by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is riddled with religious connotations. Lady Lillith supposedly Adams first
wife. She refused to submit to Adam and fled the Garden of Eden. Some mythology centers on Lady Lillith and her
role as a sex symbol and succubus. When Rossetti was painting this portrait to go along with his poem Bodys Beauty,
he clearly knew these ideas and portrayed them onto his subject because he incorporated many temptress-like
attributes.
Lillith as shown as a very vain woman which was never an acceptable trait in a woman. She is looking into a mirror as
she grooms herself because she knows she is beautiful and knows she has that to her advantage. Women in the 19th
Century were not encouraged to boast about their looks and to be humble and quiet. Lady Lillith fought this
interpretation head on by very obviously flaunting her porcelain skin and luscious hair6.
In contradistinction to the more common practice of illustration following text, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting Lady
Lilith seems to predate his sonnet written on the same subject and eventually included in the sequence The House of
Life under the title "Body's Beauty." Thus, "Body's Beauty" provides a concrete example of how Rossetti dealt with
some of the problems encountered when translating image into text.
The painting itself depicts a beautiful woman, loosely clad, and combing her hair as she admires herself in a
hand mirror. Other than the title itself, little indicates that this is Lilith, the legendary first wife of Adam in Jewish
folklore. In fact, the canvas more probably recalls the classical subject of the toilette of Venus as reconceived by such
Old Masters as Titian and Velazquez essentially, an excuse for portraying a voluptuous nude in the privacy of the
boudoir. Rossetti has situated his Lilith, however, in a space which ambiguously suggests both interior and exterior;
roses and poppies, symbols of love and death, crowd the right edge of the canvas, while the mysterious object in the
upper left corner functions as both mirror and window. Lilith herself strokes her hair listlessly, fully consumed, it seems,
in her own dangerous beauty, and in a way that bears obvious similarities to Rossetti's portrait of Helen of Troy, also
from this period.
When we turn to the sonnet, we may see how Rossetti has made use of similar elements, such as the roses and
poppies, in unifying the two works, even as he chose to narrativize his subject to some extent, particularly in the last
three lines:
In fact, Rossetti exploits to great effectiveness the tension between the ever-static Lilith ("young while the earth is old")
as portrayed in the bulk of the poem, and implicit threat of violence realized at the poem's closed. While in the
painting, Rossetti can only represent Lilith's terrible power by means of her beauty and self-absorption, in the poem,
he gestures obviously towards such literary predecessors as the serpent of Eden, Keats's Lamia and Belle Dame sans
Merci, or the Lorelei of Germanic tradition. (Indeed, Goethe's Faust seems to have been responsible for reviving
interest in Lilith during the 19th century, and there too she is noted for her beautiful hair). Certainly, the detail of the

D.G. Rossetti Bodys Beauty


golden, strangling hair must recall Browning's "Porphyria's Lover," which Rossetti certainly knew. (In his youth Rossetti
so admired Browning that he copied out by hand from the British Museum copy the complete text of Pauline,
Browning's first book. GPL) Thus, the translation from image to painting required of Rossetti not only the reinvention of
his technical vocabulary, the transition from still image to flow of words, but it also inevitably evoked a different set of
artistic associations, contextualizing the subject in a new way.
Much like "Lady Lilith," "Bodys soul" celebrates the pleasures of physicality. As an enchantress, she "draws men to
watch the bright web she can weave," but she does not invite them to be mere voyeurs of her charms (line 7). Instead,
she invites them to her and then ensnares them in her "web" of physical beauty, ultimately causing their death (line 8).
"Subtly of herself contemplative," a phrase echoing Pater's famous description of the "Mona Lisa," highlights Lilith's
attitude of "voluptuous self applause," an attitude which was so visually apparent in Rossetti's painting (Baum 185). As
in her picture, Lilith is placed among the rose and poppy, symbolizing sterile love and sleep/death, images which add
to her representation as an attractive and desirable, yet deadly, woman.
Lilith's golden hair echoes the "bright" hair of which Goethe wrote in Faust and Rossetti painted in "Lady Lilith."
Rossetti thus borrows the image of ensnaring and strangling hair directly from Goethe. Although it is used as an
instrument of death in the end, its physical beauty is what Rossetti first draws attention to, describing it as "the first
gold" (line 4). Yet it is the "spell" cast by her fetishized hair which eventually penetrates, emasculates, and kills the
"youth" of this poem (line 13, Bullen 139).
The Lilith portrayed in this sonnet is undoubtedly the first wife of Adam, for Rossetti tells this to his readers outright,
setting this knowledge off in quotes as if to inform an audience whom he did not think would be familiar with the
legend. Her existence as the first wife is highlighted in the description of her hair as "the first gold" and in the
revelation that she could deceive even before the snake, representing Satan (or possibly Lilith herself) during the Fall.
The emphasis on the snake in this poem is severe. Not only is it introduced early in the sonnet, but his/her image is
invoked again through the alliteration present in lines 10-11. The pronouns "his" and "her" can be used
interchangeably here because the poem does not make clear whether Rossetti intends for the snake and Lilith to be
seen as one or as separate entities. In either case, the "soft-shed kisses" of Lilith do seem to draw upon Keats' image
of Lamia, the snake-woman. And while the cause of the male character's death is Lilith's "one strangling golden hair,"
this hair can also be seen as a metaphor for the coiling body of a snake.
The extensive snake imagery in the poem can also be read as an indication of Lilith's powerful sexuality, as Jan Marsh
indicated when she stated, "the sexual qualities of her nature are barely concealed beneath the insistent Freudian
imagery" (Sisterhood, 235). This reading of the snake imagery certainly continues the theme of sexuality present in
Rossetti's other portrayals of Lilith, while not prohibiting the snake from being read simultaneously as an actual
character.
In light of the fact that this poem was first published only one year prior to "Eden Bower," one might expect that
Rossetti would have told similar versions of the Lilith legend in these two poems. Under this assumption, one could
easily make the case that "Lilith" portrays Lilith as becoming incarnated in the snake in order to cause Adam's demise,
much as is told in the ballad of "Eden Bower." Early critics recognized this possibility, stating: "Lilith's snake-like
form seems to coil in every line of the sonnet, and leaves one with almost a feeling of suffocation at the imagery of the
last line" (Boas 105, emphasis added).
This reading is possible because of the unidentified "youth" in line 12, a character that can be read as Adam. If seen
as Adam, the second stanza of this sonnet seems to play out the demise of Adam, at Lilith's hand. Lines 10 and 11,
therefore, would indicate that Lilith is incarnated in the body of the snake. Line 12 would then regress to the past tense
and explain how "that youth's eyes burned at thine," indicating the simultaneous lust and anger Adam felt when Lilith
refused to lie beneath him. Then, Lilith would have sent her "spell" through him, possibly referring to the way in which
she became incarnated as the snake in order to deceive Adam and Eve, causing their Fall. Finally, Adam is left with
"his straight neck bent," defeated, lifeless, dead.
Much like Keats' "La Belle Dame sans Merci," " Bodys soul " can be read as a warning for men against all
womankind. It warns that any woman so beautiful as Lilith, so self-contented and powerful, will cause nothing other
than a man's death. The image of castration in line 13 -- she "left his straight neck bent" -- results directly from her
"spell," her excessive beauty, her voluptuous body, her long, flowing hair. Thus, while the experience of being with
Lilith, of loving her physically, may surpass any other mortal experience -- much like the experience of loving the

D.G. Rossetti Bodys Beauty


femme fatale of "La Belle" -- it will ultimately result in symbolic castration through the loss of power or, even, literal
death.
Body's Beauty
Alternately titled: Lady Lilith
Alternately titled: Lilith
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
General Description
Date: 1866
Date: 1864-1869
Rhyme: abbaabbacdcddc
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet
Scholarly Commentary
Introduction
This famous sonnet and its companion painting comprise a paradigm of DGR's involuted and polyvalent aesthetic
procedures. These works, individually and composite, hold themselves open to the most radical kinds of divergent
views. The differentials are perhaps epitomized in the history of the painting's production. When it was first seen and
exhibited, Lilith's head was modelled on Fanny Cornforth, and that image is captured in two of the earliest and most
important commentaries on the painting, by Swinburne and Stephens. Later, however, DGR painted out Fanny's
head and replaced it with the head of Alexa Wilding. (These two favorite models represented for DGR real/mortal
beauty, on one hand, and ideal/heavenly beauty on the other. Thus, in the end the painting internalized, as it were,
the original dialectic it played out (objectively) with its paired antithesisSibylla Palmifera, whose model was Alexa
Wilding.) Elena Rossetti Angeli aptly notes that the two sonnets and their accompanying pictures constitute a new
expression of Amor Sacro e Profano of Titian (see her Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1906), 31 ).
Despite the common view of the sonnet as a representation of the Rossettian femme fatale which the sonnet
certainly isthe poem develops various contradictory ideas out of its symbolic/allegorical images. To see this more
clearly we should recall DGR's general comment on reading Dante. In a note to the Donna della Finestra passage in
the Vita Nuova DGR says: what I believe to lie at the heart of all true Dantesque commentary . . . is, the existence
always of the actual events even where the allegorical superstructure has been raised by Dante himself. The best
readers of DGR have always followed exactly this approach toward Dante's greatest Victorian inheritor. In the
present case, then, if we attempt to reconstruct a set of actual events within the allegorical superstructure of the
sonnet, we recover an antithesis very like the one played out in the painting. In the case of the sonnet, however, the
key figures are DGR's wife Elizabeth and Jane Morris
The sonnet's most apparent intertext, that is to say the sonnet in The House of Life titled Life-in-Love, brings the
issues into sharp relief. The key figure is the strangling golden hair. Commentators have regularly associated this
hair with Fanny Cornforth and have elaborated commentaries on that association, which is based largely on the
relation of the sonnet to the original painting. But in the context of The House of Life the hair has to be associated
with Elizabeth. Such an association appears at first quite paradoxical, since elsewhere DGR's dead wife stands as a
figure of a certain spiritual presence, and scarcely as a sign of Body's Beauty.
These contradictions are to be registered, not necessarily resolved. They are complicated when DGR's own bright
web of his poetical intertexts is further elaboratedfor instance, when here we read the sonnet also in relation to
the companion sonnet of Life-in-Love, that is, withDeath-in-Love, a poem explicitly associated with Elizabeth.
The symbolic/allegorical figure of Lilith can help to clarify these kinds of contradictions. The legends represent Lilith
not only as the witch-figure realized in Eden Bower, but as a threatening and haunting absent presence (see
WMR, Rossetti Papers 1862 to 1870 483-486 , where a compendium of the legends is supplied). Read as a sign of
DGR's dead wife, Lilith is to Eve as Elizabeth is to Jane. But of course in DGR's case all autobiographical schemas
are themselves sign-systems, not ultimate explanatory references. They function in his work as the imaginative
locus of the conflicted emotional relations that so typify DGR's poetry and pictures.

D.G. Rossetti Bodys Beauty


The sonnet of course forms a pair with Soul's Beauty, the two comprising an investigation of the ancient theme of
sacred and profane love. See also DGR's translation of Dante's sonnet on much the same theme, Of Beauty and
Duty.
Textual History: Composition
Only one manuscript of the sonnet survives, DGR'scorrected copy in the Fitzwilliam composite House of
Life sequence. The precise date of composition is not known, but it was almost certainly written while the painting
was being executed in 1866. In any case the sonnet existed by 27 October 1866, for on that date George Boyce
recorded in his diary that Gabriel had been painting a beautiful picture he proposes calling Lady Lilith, and has
written a fine sonnet under it.
Textual History: Revision
The sestet of the first printed text of 1868 differs in notable ways from the received text. The alterations were made
in the Penkill Proofs in August or September 1869. As with its companion sonnet Soul's Beauty, a major revision
involves its respositioning in DGR's works: in the 1870 Poems the sonnet appears among the Sonnets for Pictures,
but in 1881 DGR made it a part of The House of Life. The shift in placement brought a change in the 1870 title,
Lilith. (For a Picture), to the received title; and there was a small change in line 7 as well.
Production History
Following WMR, Surtees says it was begun in 1864 (see WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer 64 ); but it was
commissioned (by Leyland) in 1866 and may not have been begun until that year; in any case, the surviving studies
all date from no earlier than 1866, except for two undated notebook sketches. The finished (oil) painting is dated
1868 but it may not have been completed and sent to Leyland until 1869. In 1872 DGR secured the painting back
from Leyland to make some alterations, including the removal of Fanny Cornforth's face as the model for Lilith and
the substitution of Alexa Wilding's face. Accounts differ about whether Leyland asked to have this important change
made, or whether it was DGR himself who wanted it.
Four surviving copies of the picture preserve Fanny Cornforth's head: the oil replica in the Metropolitan Museum of
Art, the crayon drawing in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the pastel drawing in the Harry Ransom Research Center,
and the chalk drawing in a private collection.
Reception
The point of departure for all later responses isSwinburne's essay included as Part II of the Notes on the Royal
Academy Exhibition, 1868 (pages 46-47).
Iconographic
DGR's comments on his picture-sonnet to his friend Hake are to the point here: You ask me about LilithI
suppose referring to the picture-sonnet. The picture is called Lady Lilith by rights (only I thought this would present a
difficulty in print without paint to explain it,) and represents a Modern Lilith combing out her abundant golden hair
and gazing on herself in the glass with that self-absorption by whose strange fascination such natures draw others
within their own circle. The idea which you indicate (viz: of the perilous principle in the world being female from the
first) is about the most essential notion of the sonnet. (see Fredeman, Correspondence, (21 April 1870) 70. 110 ).
Printing History
First printed in May, 1868 as part of Swinburne's essay included as Part II of the Notes on the Royal Academy
Exhibition, 1868 (page 47). This text is taken from the frame of the painting that DGR executed at the time, and it
corresponds to the surviving fair copy that was used as printer's copy for the Penkill Proofs. Reprinted in September
1869 in the Penkill Proofs for the 1870 volume of Poems, it was eventually published in the Sonnets for Pictures,
and Other Sonnets section of the volume. In 1881 DGR printed it as sonnet LXXVIII in The House of Life sequence
in his Ballads and Sonnets volume.

D.G. Rossetti Bodys Beauty


Pictorial
The details in the poem reproduce those in the painting, except that DGR repeatedly alludes to the legendary and
mythic materials that inspired him to paint the picture.
Historical
Allen calls attention to the contemporary relation between the figure of the femme fatale and the Women's
Emancipation Movement in England. More specifically, she notes that among DGR's papers was a letter to the
editor of the Athenaeum dated November 1869 in which the author, Ponsonby A. Lyons, makes the following
observation: Lilith, about whom you ask for information, was the first strong-minded woman and the original
advocate of women's rights (see WMR, Rossetti Papers 1862-1870 483 ).
Literary
The poem should be compared with DGR's translation of a passage from Goethe (Lilithfrom Goethe) and of
course with his major work on this subject, Eden Bower. At least as relevant is the earlier sonnet in The House of
Life, Life-in-Love, which is plainly recalled at the conclusion of this poem. The influence of Keats's La Belle Dame
Sans Merci is equally cleara text, it should be recalled, famous for the ambiguous presentation of the knight at
arms' witch-lady.
Autobiographical
The autobiographical subtext of this work is radically conflicted. In one view Lilith is the figural form associated with
Fanny Cornforth, but in another Lilith stands for DGR's dead wife Elizabeth. Those associations create an inertia for
realizing the more oblique presence of Jane Morris in the poem, who in one view is figured as Eve (whereas in
another, Eve is a sign of Elizabeth).