Rossetti wrote more than 320 poems during his 53 years of life, almost two dozen of which were complimented by some sort of visual element, such as a drawing or painting, earning these multimedia pieces of art the name "doublework."
The Blessed Damozel
One example of this "doublework" is his painting and poem, both entitled "The Blessed Damozel." The painting illustrates the basic premise of the poem, a man on earth staring up into Heaven at one woman in particular - his lost love, holding "three lilies in her hand" - surrounded by other women with embracing couples in the distance.
"The Blessed Damozel" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1878 - Public Domain)
There are some differences between painting and poem, for instance, the poem insists "the stars in her hair, ['yellow like ripe corn'], were seven," while the painting shows only six stars in her auburn hair. However, the story remains the same; most of the focus is on the angelic woman as she thinks about the man she left behind on earth, but a bit of space is left over for the man and his thoughts of her.
The poem was in part a response to Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" (he also responded to Poe's poem with this drawing). Rossetti explained,
“I saw that Poe had done the utmost it was possible to do with the grief of the lover on earth, and so I determined to reverse the conditions, and give utterance to the yearning of the loved one in heaven.”
Both poems detailed a mourning lover, Poe described the man suffering on earth, and later Rossetti imagined the woman waiting in Heaven. Poe knew his wife, Virginia, was suffering from tuberculosis when he wrote "The Raven," and she died two years after it was published. Rossetti's poem would probably take on new meaning to him after his wife and fellow painter/poet, Elizabeth Siddal, died from laudanum overdose. Lines 38-41 of Rossetti's poem:
Around her, lovers, newly met
'Mid deathless love's acclaims,
Spoke evermore among themselves
Their heart-remembered names;
echo lines 9-12 of Poe's poem:
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.
Both poems capture the grief of one of a pair of lovers separated by death, but only Rossetti's leaves room for hope that the two might be happily reunited. Poe's protagonist asks the Raven if he will ever again clasp his Lenore, to which it gives the infamous reply of "Nevermore." Rossetti's poem ends with the following:
She gazed and listened and then said,
Less sad of speech than mild, ---
'All this is when he comes.' She ceased.
The light thrilled towards her, fill'd
With angels in strong level flight.
Her eyes prayed, and she smil'd.
(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.)
While this is by no means a happy ending and could be interpreted as the moment when the woman witnesses her man going to Hell, another reading could suggest that she simply misjudged the amount of time it would take for him to get to Heaven and is in tears because she realizes she'll have to wait the rest of his (possibly long) life.
Another of his poems, "The Portrait," again delves into the issue of a dead lover. The titular portrait is of a woman the narrator once loved who is now "below the earth" and "above the skies;" her body is buried and her soul is in Heaven. The poem itself was buried along with Elizabeth's body as "the earth [was] over her," until he wanted it and others among his works back and had them exhumed from her grave. When Elizabeth was alive, she often modeled for his paintings and paintings of the other Pre-Raphaelites. Rossetti painted her again after she died (from the memory of her alive, not of her dead body). "Beata Beatrix" was painted in her memory, and later he painted her again posthumously in "Regina Cordium or the Queen of Hearts."
"Beata Beatrix" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1870 - Public Domain)
Several similarities can be found between the seemingly unrelated "Beata Beatrix" and "The Portrait." There is of course the obvious - "Beata Beatrix" is a portrait - but there are textual comparisons to be made as well.
This is her picture as she was:
It seems a thing to wonder on,
As though mine image in the glass
Should tarry when myself am gone
Rossetti painted the Elizabeth he remembered, creating his own image of her that has outlived him by 129 years circa 2011. The same can be said for the poem the painting resembles; it too has created another of his images of her, with "sweet lips" and a "sweet heart," plus the poem "The Portrait" has lasted even longer than the portrait "Beata Beatrix."
Rossetti pairs themes of an absent love (and perhaps once again a love no longer living) and a life at war in his poem "Parted Love."
What shall be said of this embattled day
And armed occupation of this night
By all thy foes beleaguered,---now when sight
Nor sound denotes the loved one far away?
Of these thy vanquished hours what shalt thou say,---
As every sense to which she dealt delight
Now labours lonely o'er the stark noon-height
To reach the sunset's desolate disarray?
Stand still, fond fettered wretch! while Memory's art
10 Parades the Past before thy face, and lures
Thy spirit to her passionate portraitures:
Till the tempestuous tide-gates flung apart
Flood with wild will the hollows of thy heart,
And thy heart rends thee, and thy body endures.
This sonnet may be about Elizabeth, but it also may be about another of his models/romantic interests, Jane Morris--the wife of his friend and Pre-Raphaelite brother, William Morris. It was written in 1869, 7 years after Elizabeth's death, and 4 years after he started to become intimate with Jane. The tone of the poem seems to imply more of a military metaphor for the anticipation of waiting for a living lover to return than for the longing for a reunion with a dead love. After all, it is far more likely that at the time Jane's "body endure[d]," whereas the corpse of Elizabeth probably did not.
"Parted Love" is far less linked to the visual arts than either of the previous poems discussed, but it still mentions "her passionate portraitures." This might be assumed to be Rossetti's portraits of Jane, but it could also refer to those he painted of Elizabeth, or even perhaps the portraits the female artist made herself before her death.