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BEAUTY IN THORNS: Christina Rossetti's Sleeping Beauty poem

Thursday, June 08, 2017

My novel 'Beauty in Thorns' tells the extraordinary love story behind the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones's famous painting of 'Sleeping Beauty', which he returned to half-a-dozen times over the forty-odd years of his career.

The Pre-Raphaelites were inspired by myth and poetry and fairy tales. Edward Burne-Jones also painted 'Cinderella' (his model was his wife Georgie) while his best friend William Morris wrote the first ever creative response to 'Rapunzel' (I wrote a chapter on his poem in my doctoral exegesis, published as The Rebirth of Rapunzel.)



I very much wanted to write part of my novel from the point-of-view of the brilliant poet Christina Rossetti, who was the younger sister of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I have always loved her poetry and she is such a fascinating woman, all the thwarted desire of her sensuous and passionate nature being poured out in astonishing verse. However, I had to make the terrible decision to cut her out of the book as my story was simply growing too big and unwieldy, and Christina's story deserved to be given more space and time.

One day I would like to write a book about her - I hope that the chance will come.


Christina Rossetti was painted as the young Virgin Mary by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti when she was aged 20 & he was 22  


in the meantime, I thought I would share with you Christina Rossetti's powerful and disturbing poem, 'The Fairy Prince Who Arrived Too Late'. A dark inversion of the 'Sleeping Beauty' fairy tale, it was first published in Macmillan's Magazine in May 1863, when Christina was not yet 33 years old. Christina would later expand it into a long quest narrative, 'The Prince's Progress', which follows the prince on his journey to reach the waiting princess. These stanzas were then included as the poem's tragic denouement. I love this poem just as it is, though. I hope you love it too.   

 


The Fairy Prince Who Came Too Late

Too late for love, too late for joy,
Too late, too late!
You loitered on the road too long,
You trifled at the gate:
The enchanted dove upon her branch
Died without a mate;
The enchanted princess in her tower
Slept, died, behind the grate;
Her heart was starving all this while
You made it wait.
 

Ten years ago, five years ago,
One year ago,
Even then you had arrived in time,
Though somewhat slow;
Then you had known her living face
Which now you cannot know:
The frozen fountain would have leaped,
The buds gone on to blow,
The warm south wind would have awaked
To melt the snow.
 
Is she fair now as she lies?
Once she was fair;
Meet queen for any kingly king,
With gold-dust on her hair,
Now these are poppies in her locks,
White poppies she must wear;
Must wear a veil to shroud her face
And the want graven there:
Or is the hunger fed at length,
Cast off the care?
 
We never saw her with a smile
Or with a frown;
Her bed seemed never soft to her,
Though tossed of down;
She little heeded what she wore,
Kirtle, or wreath, or gown;
We think her white brows often ached
Beneath her crown,
Till silvery hairs showed in her locks
That used to be so brown.
 
We never heard her speak in haste;
Her tones were sweet,
And modulated just so much
As it was meet:
Her heart sat silent through the noise
And concourse of the street.
There was no hurry in her hands,
No hurry in her feet;
There was no bliss drew nigh to her,
That she might run to greet.
 
You should have wept her yesterday,
Wasting upon her bed:
But wherefore should you weep today
That she is dead?
Lo we who love weep not today,
But crown her royal head.
Let be these poppies that we strew,
Your roses are too red:
Let be these poppies, not for you
Cut down and spread.

Christina Rossetti


The poem was published fifteen months after her sister-in-law Lizzie Siddal Rossetti died of a laudanum overdose. Dante Gabriel Rossetti often called his wife 'a dove', and they had had a very long and difficult relationship, with Rossetti often promising and then failing to marry her.  

It is probable that Lizzie suffered from an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, and so the lines:

"The enchanted princess in her tower
Slept, died, behind the grate;
Her heart was starving all this while
You made it wait ..."

may well refer to the tragedy of Lizzie's death. 

I was unable to include Christina Rossetti as a character in 'Beauty in Thorns', but I did use her poems as epigraphs throughout the novel.

And one day I hope that I will be able to write more about her ....


     

SPOTLIGHT: William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites 

William Blake was born today, two hundred and sixty years ago. He was a poet, painter and visionary who was virtually unknown in his lifetime. 
Nowadays he is widely celebrated, even being named No 38 in the BBC’s 2002 poll of 100 Greatest Britons. 

Yet few know that it was another young British painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was instrumental in saving him from obscurity. 

        

     William Blake, painted by Thomas Phillips (1807)  

                      

      A self-portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, drawn in 1847 


Rossetti first became interested in Blake after reading about him in Allan Cunningham’s The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, published in 1830. He was intrigued by this man who saw angels and devils, and who implored humanity to cast off their ‘mind-forg’d manacles.’ Like Rossetti, Blake was educated at home by his mother, showed extraordinary early promise as an artist, wrote poetry as well as painted, and was interested in the work of such unfashionable artists as Raphael, Michelangelo and Durer. 

One day Rossetti heard that an attendant at the British Museum had a battered old notebook in which Blake had drafted poems and scribbled sketches, mostly in pencil. On 30 April 1847, when he was just nineteen years old, Rossetti purchased the manuscript from the attendant, William Palmer, whose artist-brother Samuel had been a pupil of Blake’s in his final years. Rossetti paid ten shillings for it, which he borrowed from his long-suffering younger brother William Michael Rossetti. 

              

Blake had begun writing and drawing in the notebook in February 1787, and continued to work in it for the next thirty years. When he reached the end of the notebook, probably around 1793, he turned it upside down and began working from the end on the back of each leaf, over-writing earlier drafts and illustrations. 

The closely-filled pages give a fascinating insight into Blake's creative process, allowing readers to follow the composition of some of his best-known work, including one of my own personal favourites, 'The Tyger'.

            

The notebook was to have a profound effect on Rossetti’s work and life, and rippled out to influence the art and poetry of his friends and family, including Christina Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne. 

Rossetti was intrigued with Blake’s rebellious reputation and with his rejection of conventional morality. The notebook is full of poems that promote free love and radical politics, including the humorous epigram ‘When a man has married a wife, he finds out whether/her knees and elbows are only glued together’, which accompanied a sketch of a man and a woman rising from a rumpled bed. 

              

The book also contained attacks on such well-known artists such as Sir 
Joshua Reynolds which chimed with Rossetti’s own rebellion against the establishment (Rossetti famously nicknamed the Academy’s first president Sir Sloshua). It was after reading Blake’s manuscript that Rossetti and his friends William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais decided to form the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood in 1848.

Rossetti showed the notebook to Alexander Gilchrist in the 1850s, which helped inspire him to write what would become the first major biography of the poet and visionary. And after Gilchrist died from scarlet fever, Rossetti helped his widow Anne Gilchrist to finish the magnus opus. 

  
Rossetti also edited Blake’s poems for publication. He has since been criticised for making changes to make the poems more palatable for a Victorian readership, but the fact remains the poems may have been lost if he had not done so.

Blake’s interest in the occult, in the Gothic and in the spiritual can all be seen to chime with the Pre-Raphaelites’ work, and his clearly delineated outlines and rich prismatic colouring can also be seen as influences. 

         

William Blake "Glad Day", c. 1794 


          

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Damsel of the Sanct Grael' c.1857  

The literary critic Arthur Symons has written: ‘it is to D.G. Rossetti that we owe the recovery, if not also the discovery, of Blake.’ 

I went to see the notebook (often called The Rossetti Manuscript) at the British Library when I was in London last June. They have very kindly microfiched each page so you can scroll back and forth as you please.

I really loved looking through the pages, seeing William Blake’s swift deft sketches and scribbled poems, and seeing Rossetti’s handwritten note on the inner cover, describing how he bought it. And, yes, of course, I had to put  reference to it in my novel about the Pre-Raphaelites, Beauty in Thorns, to be published July 2017. 

You can see the whole book at the British Library’s website

Here is the final manuscript version of 'Tyger, Tiger, Burning Bright', with the words below for ease of reading. 



Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 
In the forests of the night; 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 

In what distant deeps or skies. 
Burnt the fire of thine eyes? 
On what wings dare he aspire? 
What the hand, dare seize the fire? 

And what shoulder, & what art, 
Could twist the sinews of thy heart? 
And when thy heart began to beat, 
What dread hand? & what dread feet? 

What the hammer? what the chain, 
In what furnace was thy brain? 
What the anvil? what dread grasp, 
Dare its deadly terrors clasp! 

When the stars threw down their spears 
And water'd heaven with their tears: 
Did he smile his work to see? 
Did he who made the Lamb make thee? 

Tyger Tyger burning bright, 
In the forests of the night: 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?


William Blake

BEAUTY IN THORNS: My novel-in-progress

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

BEAUTY IN THORNS – My Novel-in-Progress

I am always being asked what I am now writing, and so I thought I'd share with you some of the work I've been doing in the past year.

I am about halfway through writing a new fairytale-infused historical novel which I am calling BEAUTY IN THORNS

It tells the dramatic story of love, desire, obsession and tragedy behind the famous painting of 'Sleeping Beauty' by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. 



Burne-Jones was one of a collection of daring young artists who outraged Victorian society with their avant-garde paintings and scandalous behaviour. After Burne-Jones broke off their passionate affair, his mistress Maria Zambaco tried to drown herself. Dante Gabriel Rossetti famously buried his poems in his dead wife’s coffin and later had her exhumed to retrieve the worm-eaten manuscript. His sister Christina wrote intense poetry filled with images of girls both sleeping and dead. His lover Jane Burden was married to one of his best friends, William Morris, and they maintained a secret ménage a trois for years, before Rossetti succumbed to madness. Morris himself fell in love with Burne-Jones’s wife Georgie, and wrote some of his most lyrical poetry for her. 

Burne-Jones was obsessed with 'Sleeping Beauty' and painted numerous different versions of the tale. Here are just a few:








BEAUTY IN THORNS is told by the voices of eight true-life women:




Georgie Burne-Jones



Her daughter Margaret Burne-Jones



Jane Burden



Her daughter May Morris



Mary de Morgan


Christina Rossetti



Lizzie Siddal 




Maria Zambaco

In the original fairy tale by Charles Perrault, there were seven fairy godmothers invited to the christening feast of the baby princess - and one who was not invited and so, in her rage and scorn, cursed the child. This was the inspiration for the eight fascinating women whose stories I have chosen to tell.  


With so many glorious Pre-raphaelite paintings to pour over, I had the most wonderful time building my writer's notebook, which is always a kind of scrapbook of my creative process. Here are a few pages: 
 


The first page of my notebook – a picture of one of Edward Burne-Jones’s famous ‘Sleeping Beauty’ paintings

 

First words of the novel written 4 January 2016 – recorded in my notebook


I have now written around 80,000 words and am around the halfway mark. Its always very exciting to see the book begin to weave itself together. 



Read more about the story behind the writing of BEAUTY IN THORNS here!




          



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