‘The Staircase of Notre Dame, Paris’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is a fourteen-line sonnet that is contained within one block of text. Rossetti has chosen to write in the style of an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet. The poem conforms to the traditional rhyming pattern of abbabbcdecde. A poem of this form also utilizes the rhythmic pattern of iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed.
The title of this piece makes the context and setting clear. Rossetti’s speaker, who is likely the poet himself, is climbing the stairs of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, France. For the speaker, it is a kind of pilgrimage to one of the highest points in the city as well as a way to better understand France as a country. The narrative quickly moves from being focused on the cathedral to the resilience of France in the face of various storms.
The poem was originally published in Rossetti’s verse journal. It contained a number of travel sonnets and was titled, A Trip to Paris and Belgium. The journal was started in September of 1849, the year after the French Revolution of 1848. It is in this context that Rossetti constructed his poem. He was experiencing the pressures of the political climate and speaking on them through a metaphor about the Notre Dame cathedral.
Summary of The Staircase of Notre Dame, Paris
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he is one “who” is making his way through a “narrow stair.” This is a direct reference to the title, placing the speaker within Notre Dame cathedral. The pathway is cramped and loud with the sound of bells he knows are far off.
In the next stanza, Rossetti’s speaker relates the environment of the stairwell and how he felt within it, to France as a whole. There is a storm pressing down on the country. The people have become restless and ready for a change. This is a reference to the February Revolution that took place in France in 1848. It was just one of a number of revolutionary movements in Europe aimed at ridding the continent of monarchical rule.
The storm is building at a distance from the country, but it feels very close. It might come into the city center, or it might blow itself out at sea. He also posits the possibility that it moves on to another country and works away at another population. Whatever the case may be, the speaker knows that eventually France will escape from underneath the dark skies and step out into the light.
Analysis of The Staircase of Notre Dame, Paris
As one who, groping in a narrow stair,
Hath a strong sound of bells upon his ears,
Which, being at a distance off, appears
Quite close to him because of the pent air:
The speaker begins ‘The Staircase of Notre Dame, Paris’ by describing his immediate environment and the impact it is having on his senses. He is referring to himself in the third person as “one” who is experiencing something noteworthy. At this particular moment, he is said to be “groping,” or feeling his way helplessly, though a “narrow stair.” Due to one’s previous knowledge of where this piece is taking place, a reader knows that he is in the stairwell of the Notre Dame cathedral. He is likely making his way to the top of the central spire.
The passageway he is climbing through is narrow, lending the scene a sense of claustrophobia. It is not somewhere one would like to choose to linger. In addition to the confines of the walls, there is the “strong sound of bells.” They too are pressing down upon the speaker, impacting his other senses. The bells are loud, and although they are “at a distance” they see to be “Quite close to him.” This is due to the “pent” or constrained air of the space. It makes sounds louder and more prominent.
So with this France. She stumbles file and square
Darkling and without space for breath: each one
Who hears the thunder says: “It shall anon
Be in among her ranks to scatter her.”
In the next section of the poem, the speaker moves back from his intimate description of the stairwell to address the land as a whole. The setting the speaker is experiencing is related to France. The speaker says that everything he described previously in regards to the stairwell also applies to France. It is “with” France as well.
He describes the country with poignant words such as “square / Darkling.” France is said to be stumbling through the present just like he made his way through the stairwell. There is no space for the country to breathe, just as there was no space for “breath” in the cathedral spire.
In the next lines, he states that there is a sound pressing in on France as well, that of thunder. It is representing the tensions of the political moment and feels as close as the bells did to the speaker. It will “anon,” or soon be within the city itself. The thunder will force the “ranks” of France to “scatter.”
The growing power of the environment could refer to the June Days uprising that occurred in June of 1848. This event refers to a bloody and ultimately unsuccessful insurrection amongst the people of Paris. By the end of 1848, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte was elected President of the Second Republic.
This may be; and it may be that the storm
Is spent in rain upon the unscathed seas,
Or wasteth other countries ere it die:
At the beginning of the ninth line of ‘The Staircase of Notre Dame, Paris’ the octave ends and the sestet begins. Here the rhyme scheme is different, (cdecde), and marks a turn in the poem. Rather than building on the tension present in the first half of the poem, the speaker changes directions. He states that everything he just said “may be,” or something else could happen.
The storm, that is likely representing the will of the people, could be “spent in rain upon the unscathed seas.” It could wear itself out somewhere far from the city center, sparing the governmental institutions and effecting no change. Alternatively, the power of the storm could move to “other countries ere,” or before, “it die. “ This is an allusion to the fact that this time period saw a series of revolutions throughout Europe. They were aimed at removing old monarch based systems of government with more than 50 counties affected.
Till she,—having climbed always through the swarm
Of darkness and of hurtling sound,—from these
Shall step forth on the light in a still sky.
In the last three lines, the speaker brings the narrative back to France “herself.” The power of the people might move into other countries and help to power other revolutions but it will “climb” back. Eventually, France is going to make “her” way through the storms of political upheaval and step into the “light in a still sky.” The speaker sees a brighter future ahead for the country.