‘The Blessed Damozel’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is a traditional ballad that alternates its meter between iambic tetrameter, made of four beats per line, and iambic trimeter, containing three unstressed followed by stressed, beats per line. Each stanza of the poem is a sestet, meaning that it contains six lines.
Additionally, Rossetti maintains the rhyme scheme of ABCBDB throughout the piece.
‘The Blessed Damozel’ begins with the speaker describing a woman who, leaning out from heaven, can be seen holding lilies in her hands. She is breathtakingly beautiful but also melancholy. It soon becomes clear that she left someone on Earth. There is a lover, who’s lines are written in the first person and contained within parenthesis, which is heartbroken by her departure. They pine for one another across the extraordinarily vast expanse between the “ramparts” of “God’s house,” on which she is leaning, and Earth.
The damsel, sounding like bird song, speaks out loud for all to hear. She describes the love that the two share and how soon, because they have both prayed for it, they will be reunited. God will bring them together.
Once her beloved arrives in heaven she will show him all there is to see. They will meet the Virgin Mary and she will introduce them to Christ who will bless their love. The two will be able to finally live in the peace and solitude they did not get to experience on Earth. Unfortunately, this is just a dream and after returning to reality the damsel breaks down crying once more at their separation.
Analysis of The Blessed Damozel
The blessed damozel lean’d out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters still’d at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.
Rossetti begins ‘The Blessed Damozel’ by having his speaker describe the woman that he refers to as, “The blessed damozel.” This woman is leaning out over a wall, one of the highest points in “Heaven.” The narrator can see into her eyes and discerns that they are “deeper than the depth” of stilled water.
This “damozel,” or damsel, a young unmarried woman, is extraordinarily interesting to the speaker. He sees her as unattainable, but also as infinitely deep and beautiful.
The speaker continues on, giving some more detail to the scene he is viewing. The woman is holding “three lilies in her hand,” and scattered throughout her hair are seven stars, representing the seven classical planets or luminaries. This woman is part of humankind and subject, in some way, to the delicacies of life and death but she is closer to God than a normal person would be. She is being directly related to the sky, the traditional realm of God.
It will become clear that this lady has passed on and is in fact in heaven with God, pining for one she left behind.
Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem,
No wrought flowers did adorn,
But a white rose of Mary’s gift,
For service meetly worn;
Her hair that lay along her back
Was yellow like ripe corn.
The damsel’s dress is loose around her waist, it has become “ungirt.” Instead of being covered in decorations as one might expect, it is not covered in “wrought flowers,” or adorned in any way. That is, aside from a “white rose of Mary’s gift.”
This rose that she is wearing is a direct reference to Christianity. The Virgin Mary is often represented as a white rose and referred to as the “Rose of Heaven.” This strengthens the divine connection that this woman appears to have.
The last lines of this stanza once more contrast the religious imagery. Instead of having her hair pulled back and covered as would be proper, it is down, laying “along her back” and shining bright “yellow.” A woman’s hair has been seen throughout time as the embodiment of her sexuality and to have it out as this character does would not follow with Christian teaching.
Herseem’d she scarce had been a day
One of God’s choristers;
The wonder was not yet quite gone
From that still look of hers;
Albeit, to them she left, her day
Had counted as ten years.
It seems to the speaker, from her countenance, that the woman has only just gotten to heaven. She is “One of God’s choristers,” but she still has a look of “wonder” on her face as if she only just arrived. She is still stunned by her surroundings.
It might seem as if the woman has only been there for one day, but she’s been there for ten years. This speaks to her purity and divine soul, that she is still amazed by what she is seeing.
(To one, it is ten years of years.
…Yet now, and in this place,
Surely she lean’d o’er me—her hair
Fell all about my face….
Nothing: the autumn-fall of leaves.
The whole year sets apace.)
The fourth stanza of ‘The Blessed Damozel’ is told from a different perspective. The lover that she left behind in the mortal world is mourning for her absence. To him, it seems like she has been gone much longer than ten years, but he can still remember her well. So well, that at this moment it seems as if she is there leaning over him, her hair draping around his face.
This fantasy is soon crushed. It is not the hair of the damsel, only leaves that are falling from a tree. This person was outside daydreaming and got caught up in the fantasy.
It was the rampart of God’s house
That she was standing on:
By God built over the sheer depth
The which is Space begun;
So high, that looking downward thence
She scarce could see the sun.
The narration returns to the moment when the speaker is gazing up at his beloved who is standing on the “rampart of God’s house.” She’s leaning over the walls that surround heaven.
God built this place in safety. It is so far above the Earth that when the damsel looks down, hoping to see her lover, she can’t even see the sun.
It lies in Heaven, across the flood
Of ether, as a bridge.
Beneath, the tides of day and night
With flame and darkness ridge
The void, as low as where this Earth
Spins like a fretful midge.
In stanza six of ‘The Blessed Damozel’, the rampart of God “lies in Heaven,” where the damsel is trapped. There are many things that separate the two lovers. There is the distance itself, as well as “the flood of ether” that heaven is built on, and the void of “space” through which the Earth is spinning “like a fretful midge,” or a worried fly.
This stanza is meant to emphasize the different worlds that these people live in. Earth is deeply distant from Heaven and is regarded from God’s house as a speck not even close enough to see.
Around her, lovers, newly met
‘Mid deathless love’s acclaims,
Spoke evermore among themselves
Their heart-remember’d names;
And the souls mounting up to God
Went by her like thin flames.
The damsel is not alone in heaven. There are many people around her, lovers of all varieties. They are being reunited with those they have lost. Even though many have been separated for a long time, their hearts remember one another.
Their souls join together, and arm in arm, travel together “up to God.” She is not so lucky. Her lover is still on Earth and she is mourning their separation. These people pass by her like “thin flames,” and remind her of what she does not have.
And still she bow’d herself and stoop’d
Out of the circling charm;
Until her bosom must have made
The bar she lean’d on warm,
And the lilies lay as if asleep
Along her bended arm.
In stanza eight of ‘The Blessed Damozel’, the is truly depressed by her situation. Even though she is in Heaven where she should be able to find eternal happiness, it is impossible for her without her lover at her side.
She is leaning upon the wall and gazing down at where she thinks Earth is. She is “bow’d,” or bowed, and “stoop’d” or stooped, against the wall. Her body appears deflated and exhausted. Her bosom is pressed against its surface.
She has stood this way for so long that her body heat will have been transferred to its cold surface. The lilies she is holding are laying against her “bended arm” as if they are sleeping.
From the fix’d place of Heaven she saw
Time like a pulse shake fierce
Through all the worlds. Her gaze still strove
Within the gulf to pierce
Its path; and now she spoke as when
The stars sang in their spheres.
She is stuck in this place, there is no way out once one has entered.
From her viewing spot, she can see that on Earth time is moving forward “fiercely” through all worlds. All are aging, it seems, except for her.
The damsel now begins to speak, the reader does not know what she says at this point, only that it sounds as if the stars are singing.
The sun was gone now; the curl’d moon
Was like a little feather
Fluttering far down the gulf; and now
She spoke through the still weather.
Her voice was like the voice the stars
Had when they sang together.
In stanza ten of ‘The Blessed Damozel’, the lady is still standing at her viewing point singing out into the vastness of space. It is now night and the crescent moon is thin, like a “little feather.” It is in this scene that the damsel will now speak. The poet repeats once more that her voice is elegant and sounds like a number of stars are singing together.
(Ah sweet! Even now, in that bird’s song,
Strove not her accents there,
Fain to be hearken’d? When those bells
Possess’d the mid-day air,
Strove not her steps to reach my side
Down all the echoing stair?)
Once more the poet chooses to have the lover speak to the reader through first-person, contained within parentheses. It becomes clear in this section of ‘The Blessed Damozel’ that this speaker is the lover that the damsel in heaven is so desperately missing.
While the reader still does not know what the damsel is saying, the lover on Earth seems to be able to understand her through the song of a bird. At the very least the singing of the birds reminds him of their time together just as does the ringing of church bells that he hears in the distance. They make him think of a time in which she accompanied him down “all the echoing stair.”
“I wish that he were come to me,
For he will come,” she said.
“Have I not pray’d in Heaven?—on Earth,
Lord, Lord, has he not pray’d?
Are not two prayers a perfect strength?
And shall I feel afraid?
In the twelfth stanza of ‘The Blessed Damozel’ the damsel’s words are revealed. She is described her desire for her lover, stuck on Earth, to join her in heaven. She says that she wishes he would “come to me.” Then quickly follows that by reassuring herself that, yes, “he will come.”
She knows this to be the case as she has prayed in “Heaven,” and he has prayed “on Earth” for the two of them to be together. She is questioning her situation and God, asking, is this not enough? What else can we possibly do to be reunited?
“When round his head the aureole clings,
And he is cloth’d in white,
I’ll take his hand and go with him
To the deep wells of light;
As unto a stream we will step down,
And bathe there in God’s sight.
The damsel continues to speak, describing for the reader her fantasy of what things will be like when he dies and is finally able to join her. His head will be ringed with a “aureole,” or halo, and he will be wearing white clothes.
She tells anyone who is listening that she will take “his hand and go with him” into the depths of heaven as all the other lovers have been. There they will step into a stream and “bathe there in God’s sight.” The two will bare themselves to the mercy and beauty of God. They will have no fear of the future now that they are together.
“We two will lie i’ the shadow of
Occult, withheld, untrod,
Whose lamps are stirr’d continually
With prayer sent up to God;
And see our old prayers, granted, melt
Each like a little cloud.
She continues her prediction of the future in the next stanza of ‘The Blessed Damozel’. She wants the two of them to be in “the shadow of / Occult,” or more simply, hidden away somewhere that no one can find or bother them.
Inside this private place that she will find for them, there is much light and prayer. They will pray continually to God and bask in the granting of their previous requests.
“We two will lie i’ the shadow of
That living mystic tree
Within whose secret growth the Dove
Is sometimes felt to be,
While every leaf that His plumes touch
Saith His Name audibly.
When her lover comes to heaven the two of them will be able to lie together under the “mystic tree” that grows in God’s house. Everything around them will be filled with light and touched with divinity. They will finally be reunited and have the peace that they have been so desperate for.
“And I myself will teach to him,
I myself, lying so,
The songs I sing here; which his voice
Shall pause in, hush’d and slow,
And find some knowledge at each pause,
Or some new thing to know.”
The damsel has a lot of plans for their time together and one of them involves teaching her lover how to sing the songs of heaven. They will work together to get the parts of the songs right, and he will relish the practice. He will find “some new thing to know,” in all that they do. Singing is no exception.
(Alas! we two, we two, thou say’st!
Yea, one wast thou with me
That once of old. But shall God lift
To endless unity
The soul whose likeness with thy soul
Was but its love for thee?)
Once more the reader is returned to the ground where the lover is still bemoaning his living state.
The lover seems to intuit the fact that the damsel has plans to bring him to heaven with her, but he doubts that that could really happen. He is worried that the two of them will never be reunited.
One of his main reasons for worrying is his belief that he has done nothing to prove he is worthy to go to heaven. The only good thing he says he has done harbor a “love for thee.”
“We two,” she said, “will seek the groves
Where the lady Mary is,
With her five handmaidens, whose names
Are five sweet symphonies,
Cecily, Gertrude, Magdalen,
Margaret and Rosalys.
In stanza eighteen of ‘The Blessed Damozel’, the reader is returned to heaven and to the central narrative that the damsel is dreaming.
She tells the reader, the open space in front of her, and God, that she will take her lover to see “the lady Mary,” the virgin Mary, along with her many handmaidens whose names she lists.
This will be an important visit, in its own right, and for what Mary will do for them.
“Circlewise sit they, with bound locks
And foreheads garlanded;
Into the fine cloth white like flame
Weaving the golden thread.
To fashion the birth-robes for them
Who are just born, being dead.
The current speaker, the damsel, describes how they will find the women. They will be sitting in a circle with crowns of flowers on their heads and clothed in “fine cloth.” The handmaids work continually making the robes for those who have just entered into heaven.
“He shall fear, haply, and be dumb:
Then will I lay my cheek
To his, and tell about our love,
Not once abash’d or weak:
And the dear Mother will approve
My pride, and let me speak.
Her lover, upon seeing all these sights will be “dumb” with happiness. She will be there to reassure him though and make sure to “lay [her] cheek / To his,” and remind him of their love. They should not be ashamed or “abash’d” of their passion as the Virgin Mary will approve of their union. She will in fact be so proud of the couple that she will grant the damsel a request.
“Herself shall bring us, hand in hand,
To Him round whom all souls
Kneel, the clear-ranged unnumber’d heads
Bow’d with their aureoles:
And angels meeting us shall sing
To their citherns and citoles.
She says, with confidence, that Mary will bring the lovers, “hand in hand,” to see Christ. He will be encircled by the innumerable heads of souls worshipping at his feet, all of whom will have halos like the lover’s. Upon seeing the couple approach angels will begin to sing.
“There will I ask of Christ the Lord
Thus much for him and me:—
Only to live as once on Earth
With Love,—only to be,
As then awhile, forever now
Together, I and he.”
Once she has gotten an audience with Christ she will ask him to allow her and her lover to live as they used to back on Earth, “With Love” only.
She will tell Christ that they must be together in “Love” as they only had a short period to love each other on Earth. Now they will be able to do it for the rest of time.
She gazed and listen’d and then said,
Less sad of speech than mild,—
“All this is when he comes.” She ceas’d.
The light thrill’d towards her, fill’d
With angels in strong level flight.
Her eyes pray’d, and she smil’d
The damsel breaks from the dream she is living in and comes back to her lonely reality. She is once more standing and gazing.
She is more deflated and disappointed than she is sad at this point and says “mild[ly],” that all this will happen “when he comes.” She stopped speaking after these final words and she is then filled with the light of the angels and heaven.
(I saw her smile.) But soon their path
Was vague in distant spheres:
And then she cast her arms along
The golden barriers,
And laid her face between her hands,
And wept. (I heard her tears.)
The damsel’s lover, still stuck on Earth, gets to speak two more times in the final stanza of ‘The Blessed Damozel’ . He first says that even though he is stuck on Earth he can see “her smile” in heaven.
The narrator of ‘The Blessed Damozel’ breaks into his thought and reminds the reader that nothing has been resolved. The angels in light that were moving toward the damsel have changed “their path.” The lady takes this as a negative sign and leans down on the wall against which she has been standing and weeps. She cries so loudly and with so much passion that her beloved so far below her on Earth can hear “her tears.”
About Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born in 1828 in London, England to Italian parents. When he was young, Rossetti hoped to become a painter and was, along with his siblings, a very talented child. After school Rossetti apprenticed to the painter Ford Madox Brown, as well as independently extending his knowledge and love for literature.
Rossetti is most well-known for his founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848, along with a number of other painters. These men shared an interest in poetry and distaste for conventions of Fine Art. Another, and perhaps the best known, member of the group, was John Everett Millais who would become the president of the Royal Academy in London. In the late 1840s, while starting to exhibit his paintings, Rossetti met an Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal who would work as one of his models, and eventually become his wife. She committed suicide in 1862 after losing a child. Rossetti buried the only finished manuscript of his poems along with her body.
Rossetti never completely recovered from “Lizzie’s” death, but his reputation was growing. After her death, Rossetti moved to Chelsea where he began a “more aesthetic and sensuous approach to art.” He no longer painted the themes from the literature he’d loved as a child, but now focused on painting his mistresses. He had published a book of translations, The Early Italian Poets, in 1860 and during this time turned once more to poetry and decided to exhume his manuscript from Elizabeth Siddal’s grave. These poems were published in 1870 under the title, Poems. In 1872 his health began to fail and he spent his time as an invalid in his home in Chelsea. Rossetti died in 1882 after his health took a turn for the worse.