Wednesday, January 20, 2010

All Ye That Walk In Willow-wood

Here are four of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's sonnets, a series called the Willowwood sonnets, followed by a response from his sister Christina Rossetti. I am interested here, besides the beauty of the language and the depth of emotion that all five sonnets produce in me, in the question of originality.

Our modern conception is that for a work of art to be great it must be thoroughly original. But that has not always been the assumption for great art. Sometimes it is in the interplay between the source material and the new version that we find the real ART. Take for example CS Lewis' reworking of the Myth of Sisyphus, which he titled "Till We Have Faces." As a stand alone piece it is a grand work. But it is, as he emphasized, a re-telling of the ancient myth. But in the re-telling he has breathed a new and much more intense and eternal meaning into the old myth. His new work is amazing, but much more so when we think on how his work can be a commentary and critique of the old. That interplay between new and old adds immesurable depth to a story that Lewis might have written simply from scratch without involving the ancient sources.

Or sometimes the wonder is simply in a better telling, in a more perfect version of an old tale. Consider the work of William Shakespeare. Was Hamlet original? Hardly! The story had circulated in various versions and various languages for hundreds of years. But Shakespeare provided it with a couple of new and seemingly irresolvable twists, and reworked it into language so glorious that few can forget it once they have heard it. MacBeth was simply working out from the old history books. (As an aside: Do you know what part of MacBeth is the most historically accurate according to the old histories? It is the witches and their portents. Later, prosaic, portions of his life are less clear and Shakespeare took more liberties there. But the lines of the witches are taken down almost verbatim from the histories.) Troilus and Cressida is simply extrapolation from Homer and other Greek storytellers.

Original? Perhaps not in the modern sense of that word. Great art? Who would dare malign the artistry of Shakespeare or Lewis?

In the parable of the vinyard, Jesus is simply re-working a story that popped up a couple of times in the Old Testament. But is his story great art? Absolutely! And the New Testament authors took pains to prove that they were not "original" but that all they were saying was in fact already said by the old authors. Yet I can't get past the artistry with which John, Luke, Paul, Peter and the rest told it!

This modern penchant for the "original" work of art is not only out of sinc with the Bible's understanding of what makes art great, but it denies all that we by nature find exciting in art.

Jeremy Erickson sang in a great song, "This is my attempt at being original," before he proceeded to demolish that originality.

So, without further babbling on my part, here are four sonnets by the brother of Christina Rossetti, followed by her sonnet in response. Hers is obviously derivative. The word "derivative" is in literary parlance a synonym for "worthless." Dante's four sonnets greatly move me. But is not the "derivative" one, the poem of his little sis, immeasurably greater? Does it not surpass his four in its depth, its involvement of us, in its gain and loss within the space of a single word? Derivative? Certainly, in the modern sense. Greater art? I know what I think, but what think you?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The Willowwood Sonnets


I sat with Love upon a woodside well,
Leaning across the water, I and he;
Nor ever did he speak nor looked at me,
But touched his lute wherein was audible
The certain secret thing he had to tell:
Only our mirrored eyes met silently
In the low wave; and that sound came to be
The passionate voice I knew; and my tears fell.

And at their fall, his eyes beneath grew hers;
And with his foot and with his wing-feathers
He swept the spring that watered my heart's drouth.
Then the dark ripples spread to waving hair,
And as I stooped, her own lips rising there
Bubbled with brimming kisses at my mouth.


And now Love sang: but his was such a song,
So meshed with half-remembrance hard to free,
As souls disused in death's sterility
May sing when the new birthday tarries long.
And I was made aware of a dumb throng
That stood aloof, one form by every tree,
All mournful forms, for each was I or she,
The shades of those our days that had no tongue.

They looked on us, and knew us and were known;
While fast together, alive from the abyss,
Clung the soul-wrung implacable close kiss;
And pity of self through all made broken moan
Which said, 'For once, for once, for once alone!'
And still Love sang, and what he sang was this:Ñ


'O ye, all ye that walk in Willow-wood,
That walk with hollow faces burning white;
What fathom-depth of soul-struck widowhood,
What long, what longer hours, one lifelong night,
Ere ye again, who so in vain have wooed
Your last hope lost, who so in vain invite
Your lips to that their unforgotten food,
Ere ye, ere ye again shall see the light!

Alas! the bitter banks in Willowwood,
With tear-spurge wan, with blood-wort burning red:
Alas! if ever such a pillow could
Steep deep the soul in sleep till she were dead,Ñ
Better all life forget her than this thing,
That Willowwood should hold her wandering!'


So sang he: and as meeting rose and rose
Together cling through the wind's wellaway
Nor change at once, yet near the end of day
The leaves drop loosened where the heart-stain glows,Ñ
So when the song died did the kiss unclose;
And her face fell back drowned, and was as grey
As its grey eyes; and if it ever may
Meet mine again I know not if Love knows.

Only I know that I leaned low and drank
A long draught from the water where she sank,
Her breath and all her tears and all her soul:
And as I leaned, I know I felt Love's face
Pressed on my neck with moan of pity and grace,
Till both our heads were in his aureole.

Christina Rossetti
An Echo From Willowwood

Two gazed into a pool, he gazed and she,
Not hand in hand, yet heart in heart, I think,
Pale and reluctant on the water's brink,
As on the brink of parting which must be.
Each eyed the other's aspect, she and he,
Each felt one hungering heart leap up and sink,
Each tasted bitterness which both must drink,
There on the brink of life's dividing sea.
Lilies upon the surface, deep below
Two wistful faces craving each for each,
Resolute and reluctant without speech: —
A sudden ripple made the faces flow
One moment joined, to vanish out of reach:
So those hearts joined, and ah! were parted so.

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