Two Lovers, 1854 by Elizabeth Siddal (Photo by Ashmolean Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Emerging from the shadow of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

Placing the poems of Pre-Raphaelite muse Elizabeth Siddal in context

Artillery Row Books

This critical study of Elizabeth Siddal arrives three years after Serena Trowbridge’s 2018 annotated collection of Siddal’s poetry. Much inter-disciplinary study amongst Victorianists has focused on culturally recuperating forgotten nineteenth century poetesses, and Anne Woolley’s book is no exception. It is an attempt at recovery: to take Elizabeth Siddal and transform her from being a lurid footnote in the legend of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, to becoming a resurrected poet in her own right.

The poems of Elizabeth Siddal in context by Anne Woolley, Manchester University Press

Born in 1829, Elizabeth (‘Lizzie’) Siddal did not see her poetry published in her lifetime. Between 1850 and 1852 she involved herself with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, sitting for Holman Hunt and Millais, modelling as Ophelia for the latter and catching pneumonia in the process. By 1853 she was sitting only for Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to whom she became muse and lover. A possible overdose attempt by laudanum in early 1860 heralded Rossetti’s return to her and their subsequent marriage in May 1860. In February 1862, a year after the birth of their stillborn daughter, Siddal committed suicide at the age of 32.  After her suicide, Rossetti removed any mention of her from his diaries.

Woolley argues that although literature was as important as fine art to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, it is the avant-garde spirit of contemporary poetry which held a special place. Siddal’s position as the only female pre-Raphaelite poet/artist is unique. She was a publicly exhibited and well-received painter who Ruskin thought to be a genius. In contrast, her poems were written in secrecy and found scribbled in pencil on scraps of paper. They were published in 1890, twenty-eight years after her death.

The work is often unfinished, rough and emotionally agitated. The ballads are dramatic lyrics, and are almost song-like. They contain what Siddal’s sister-in-law, Christina Rossetti ,called a “cool, bitter sarcasm” as Siddal experiments with lyrical form to craft a critique of the ballad’s inability to express difficulties in communication.

All of the four chapters deal in the personal and literal relationships Siddal held with various members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and Woolley draws a tight correlation between Siddal’s artworks and her poetry. In the first chapter, Woolley delves into the dualism between human love and divine love which she sees as being at the heart of both Rossetti’s sonnet-sequence The House of Life and Siddal’s ‘A Silent Wood’ (1857) and ‘The Lust of the Eyes’ (undated). This is interspersed with Siddal’s austere drawings in pencil and brown ink, characterised by their strong vertical lines, and also by her startling oil-on-canvas Self-Portrait (1853-54).

Woolley maintains that Siddal inverted the oral traditional elements of the ballad to illustrate that the ballad form is too restrained to allow for communication of a woman’s needs

The second chapter unpacks Siddal’s experiments with the ballad tradition in fascinating detail, including a particularly interesting segment on the history of the ballad form. Woolley compares Siddal’s balladeering with that of her friend, Swinburne. Woolley maintains that Siddal inverted the oral traditional elements of the ballad to illustrate that the ballad form is too restrained to allow communication of a woman’s needs. We get half way through the chapter before Woolley quotes one of Siddal’s ballads in full. This a shame; an earlier showing of it would give the reader a more rounded sense of what kind of balladeering poet Siddal was. The ballad which Woolley selects, ‘Speechless’, is one of her best.

The third chapter brings Siddal’s poetry into the wider social and political debates surrounding Victorian gender discourse, with a particular focus on ‘the Woman Question’. Woolley illustrates how analysing Siddal’s awareness of this brings her into a closer literary relationship with Alfred, Lord Tennyson and John Ruskin. Although not arguing for political or economic equality, writes Woolley, Siddal’s poetry makes women aware of their own possibilities of moral autonomy. In a slightly less compelling argument than the previous chapter, Woolley writes that the transformative role undertaken by love in these poems carries a potential empowerment for women, as it enables them to recognise their victim status.

The power struggle between the physical and the spectral body is the focus of the final chapter. Four of Keats’s poems provide a foundation for examining three of Siddal’s poems, illustrating how language emerges as a tool to transform the spectral body. This spectral body depends on a posthumous existence, and Woolley ties this in with ideas of textual afterlife, a nod to the poetry’s posthumous publication.

Woolley is adept at painting a vivid picture of the cultural landscape, yet her hypothesis relies on the belief that Siddal is using ballad form to express frustration at what it cannot communicate. We are constantly reminded of the gaps in what Siddal wants to say. This is problematic material to work with and results in Siddal the poet remaining somewhat hidden. This sense of fracture extends from form into content. Much emphasis is given to the poems’ ambiguity, and the fragmented truths that emerge when their content is examined. The production of the poems in the published space is also fractured. We cannot know whether any of the poems were intended as finished copies. We cannot know if they were intended to be read by anyone other than Siddal. Woolley claims in Chapter 4 that some of the poems are illegible. Woolley is admirably stoic in her insistence that the poems are capable of analysis, and that this uncertainty regarding their provenance feeds into the ‘spectral’ nature of the poems and their production. The only conclusion to be drawn from the poems is that their meaning is ultimately inconclusive.

The only conclusion to be drawn from the poems is that their meaning is ultimately inconclusive

The strength in the poems, notes Woolley, is due to them being essentially visual. Perhaps that is why in this study the artistic world appears as a foundation which holds up the poetry here, not the other way around. This is a noble undertaking, in which Siddal starts to emerge from behind the Brotherhood’s shadow into her own poetic autonomy. Woolley robustly engages with Siddal’s strange, intense lyrical ballads, only to find that Siddal hides her intentions and cannot be easily placed. The visual element which grants her poetry strength is the same element that resists clarity when the poems are placed under the microscope. Perhaps they are best understood as an art to be experienced by visual impact. Siddal the poetess remains as remote and elusive as ever unless we understand her poems as a series of paintings made with words.

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