‘Babylon the Great’ by Christina Rossetti is a fourteen-line sonnet that is contained within one block of text. The rhyme scheme conforms to the traditional structure of a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. It follows a pattern of ABBAABBACDDECE.
The first half of the poem, which is made up of two quatrains, combined to form an octave (set of eight lines) the rhyme scheme is identical to that thought of as Petrarchan. The next set of lines is a sestet, or grouping of six. As is usual in Petrarchan sonnets three new end sounds are introduced which are usually employees in a variety of different patterns. The pattern Rossetti chose, CDDECE, is unusual.
Before reading this piece it is important to understand the Biblical narrative underpinning the text. The title refers to a “great prostitute,” Babylon the Great, from the book of Revelation. In the Bible, this woman represents the allure of riches and worldly pleasures, or false religions. The text speaks of her abstractly as a force, like a “great city.” But Rossetti uses the image much more literally.
In ‘Babylon the Great’ Rossetti describes a woman who is outwardly beautiful. She has everything she could want, but that just makes her more “ill-favoured.” The speaker is quite set against her from the beginning and the speaker uses her image to try to steer the reader away from a life of greed and boundless pleasure.
The poem begins with the speaker introducing the “Foul” Babylon the Great. This woman was a prostitute in the Bible, used to represent false religion. In this context though Rossetti employs her form to scare readers away from a life of contemptible luxury. The speaker wants everyone to stay away from this woman. It is impossible to escape from her embrace once one gives in.
By the time the poem reaches its conclusion, it is clear the speaker believes Babylon the Great is going to Hell. She also knows that any who follow her will end up there as well. This is her final argument to scare away those who might care too deeply about money, and not enough about God.
Analysis of Babylon the Great
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.
In the first lines of this piece, the speaker begins by making a strong statement against Babylon the Great. The speaker refers to her as “Foul” and “ill-favoured.” These adjectives are quite visceral but speak more to the influence she has on the world rather than physical traits. The speaker also says that she is “set askew.” This gives the reader an image of a woman who is not quite right.
The speaker goes on to warn the reader not to “Gaze…upon her.” If one spends too long looking at her then they will come to a different conclusion. They might be taken in by her beauty and become “mesh[ed]” in “her wanton hair.” Hair as a wanton, sexual image is commonplace throughout religious and literary traditions. Rossetti makes use of an already established line of thought to further her argument for living a good, clean life.
In the final line, Rossetti’s speaker makes clear that the prostitute is a complete temptress. She spent her days learning the “old” arts of seduction and manipulation and made them new for this modern world.
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.
In the next set of lines, the speaker continues on to state that the prostitute’s heart is not pure, like the listeners is. She does not want the things a normal person does, like love. Instead, she seeks out “blood.” Here, Rossetti’s speaker makes sure there is no doubt that her heart contains anything but a lust for more. She repeats the world “thro’” in line five in order to emphasize this point. There is nothing inside this woman worth seeking out.
She looks for blood like a panther creeping out of its lair, looking for food. She is strong, conniving, and dangerous. The speaker then describes her “cup.” This is a reference to the woman’s soul, or inner moral being, and to the luxury Babylon the Great is meant to be surrounded by. This woman does not have “wine” in her “cup” though. There is only “filth.” If one were to go over to her side, they would soon find that money, jewels and sex do not bring any sort of happiness.
What is inside this woman’s mind and heart is “Unutterable” to a good soul. No one should go near her who still holds God to be the most important thing in their heart.
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.
In the last six lines, the speaker repeats the phrase “Gaze not upon her” two more times. She lists out additional reasons why even looking at the prostitute is dangerous. The first is that one might see her “a dancing whirl” and then turn become“giddy.” A sight such as this would make one lose control over their higher functions. Even the most moral human being would have trouble fighting off the desire to go to the woman.
The speaker goes on to state that one should not “Gaze upon her” because they might end up in the “fire” just like she will. This is a dramatic ending to the poem and shows the depth of the speaker’s dislike and what the prostitute represents. The speaker is sure that Babylon the Great is going to Hell, as are any taken in by her.