Transgressive Fashion in the Victorian Era
O YE, all ye that walk in Willowwood… that walk with hollow faces burning white…
Every 15 November, those of us who are devotees of the Pre-Raphaelites celebrate #PRBDay in the blogosphere. Previously I’ve written about ‘The Myth of Pre-Raphaelite Dress’ and Holman Hunt’s sartorial experiments. This year I’m going to stray slightly from the subject of this blog to share an excerpt of my research on the Willow Tea Rooms here in Glasgow, the decorative theme of which was inspired by my favourite Rossetti poem: Willowwood. The tea room, opened in 1903, was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and takes its name from the street upon which it sits, Sauchiehall, which means ‘alley of the willows’ in Gaelic. Mackintosh remodelled an extant building and in addition to the main dining room, the upper floors contained a smoking and billiards room for gentlemen, while the crowning jewel of the Willow, the Salon de Luxe – a lavender and silver toned dining room, intended to appeal to female clientele – took pride of place on the second floor of the building, taking full advantage of the Northern light from the Mackintosh’s new stained-glass bow window.
For the interior of this dazzling room, Mackintosh enlisted the aid of his wife, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh. Specifically, Macdonald crafted a gesso panel for this room, arguably amongst her most beautiful, titled after the first line in the third sonnet of Rossetti’s cycle of four, O Ye, All Ye That Walk In Willowwood. The Salon de Luxe is a quintessential example of how the Mackintoshes engaged with Symbolist practices in the creation of a gesamtkunstwerk—a total work of art. The panel may be viewed as a narrative key to understanding the space’s meaning.
What follows is an excerpt from a longer essay focused on the Salon de Luxe. But for this post I’m going to focus on the analysis of the poems. Literary analysis isn’t something I often get a chance to tackle, and I enjoyed writing this a great deal. Unfamiliar readers may wish to spend some time with the original poems, considering them on your own before reading my interpretation.
The ‘Willowwood’ sonnets form the heart of a larger work by Rossetti, The House of Life. Rossetti scholar Jerome McGann tells us ‘The House of Life project grew out of the composition of these four poems in December 1868’ and argues that the Willowwood sonnets are a sort of miniaturized version of The House of Life, both expressing ‘a problem about love and the hope of its fulfilment.’[i] There are varied interpretations of the sonnets and of the work as a whole, but in Rossetti’s own words: ‘I should wish to deal in poetry chiefly with personified emotions; and in carrying out my scheme of the House of Life (if ever I do so) shall try to put in action a complete ‘dramatis personae’ of the soul.’[ii] On other interpretations, McGann observes: ‘[e]veryone agrees, however, that the ambiguities all pivot around [Rossetti’s] complex love-commitments, and especially his commitments to his wife Elizabeth, on one hand, who died in early 1862, and his friend’s wife Jane Morris, on the other.’ The sonnets, told in first-person narrative, suggest that the speaker is Rossetti himself; to clarify the discussion here, the three main characters in this drama will be referred to in the following manner: The Poet (the narrator), the Lost Love (the vision of a lost love), and Love (personified).
The first sonnet opens with The Poet sitting with personified Love by a ‘woodside well.’ Upon Love’s touching of his lute, The Poet recalls the voice of his Lost Love, and begins to weep. His tears fall into the well, and the rippling of the water creates a vision. With the sweep of Love’s wing-feathers touching the water, the vision of his lost love rises to meet him, and The Poet leans down to touch his lips with hers on the surface of the water. This image is quite important, as it is symbolically represented in the Willowwood panel, as shall be seen.
Here, Rossetti establishes important contrasting themes for the rest of the work: passion and sorrow, love and loss. ‘Willowwood I’ also serves as an introduction for iconography in the work, and as a reminder of Rossetti’s influences, chiefly Italian art and poetry such as Dante Alighieri’s Vita Nuova, which is similarly centred on the narrator’s pining for an unattainable Love, mediated by encounters and discourses with personified Love. Rossetti comes to this theme repeatedly in his poetry and art, such as in his famous Beata Beatrix, appropriating Christian iconography and transforming it into his own symbolic conventions to relate an imagined moment from the Vita Nuova. In an 1873 letter to William Graham, for whom he painted a replica, Rossetti explained Beata Beatrix in the following manner:
The picture must of course be viewed not as a representation of the incident of the death of Beatrice, but as an ideal of the subject, symbolized by a trance or sudden spiritual transfiguration… and in sign of the supreme change, the radiant bird, a messenger of death, drops the white poppy between her hands.[iii]
Thus instead of a white dove or a red rose, symbols that are more familiar Christian signifiers, he appropriates the bird/flower iconography of the god/virgin relationship, and creates a red bird/white poppy messenger of death. The symbolic language is familiar, yet not, like a different iconographic dialect.
Rossetti’s twisting of iconography appears in both his painting and poetry, foreshadowing later Symbolist interventions. Take for example, the central component of the well in Willowwood (which we shall see in the central formal element of the gesso panel, the green oval). Symbolically, wells are meeting as well as drinking places, which is an intriguing consideration for a tea room theme. In ‘Willowwood I’, we witness two metaphysical meetings, as seen through the gaze of the poet: first, with Love, whose eyes he meets in the waters below, and second, with the Lost Love who comes forth from the reflected eyes of Love in the water. The well itself is a liminal space, a site for The Poet to encounter his Lost Love, whether she is the spectre of a dead woman, or simply someone out of his reach. Both images suggest a moment between the physical and spiritual, suggestive of sensuality and desire through the encounter with Love and the kiss.
The second sonnet opens with the words ‘And now Love Sang’, which would seem to suggest we are about to hear his song. Instead, Rossetti makes us wait, and rather describes the nature of the song, as well as the rising action of the drama that occurs while Love sings, indicated by the first words of the last line of the sonnet ‘And still Love sang.’ Rossetti describes the song in complex terms, and while it has been argued that these lines may somehow reference souls waiting for the ‘second coming,’ [iv] there is precedent for another more esoteric theme here, that of reincarnation. In 1854, Rossetti wrote the poem ‘Sudden Light’ while vacationing with Elizabeth Siddal in Hastings:
I HAVE been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.
You have been mine before,—
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow’s soar
Your neck turned so,
Some veil did fall,—I knew it all of yore. 10
Has this been thus before?
And shall not thus time’s eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death’s despite,
And day and night yield one delight once more?[v]
There can be little question that reincarnation is the theme of this poem, signalled by the opening of each verse: ‘I have been here before… you have been mine before… has this been thus before?’ In Willowwood, Love’s song is akin to one ‘disused souls’ would sing, ‘meshed with half-remembrance’ when their ‘new birthday tarries long’; in other words when they are waiting to reincarnate, and filled with fading memories of their former life. This interpretation is especially poignant when considering the subsequent lines about the dumb throng, the mournful forms which emerge from the wood, who The Poet recognizes as their former selves, ‘The shades of those our days that had no tongue.’ They could be memories, but could also be shadows of past lives. All of this happens in the same moment as the kiss upon the water, at which these shades cry out in longing as we are returned to the song of love, which is the subject of the next sonnet.
This third sonnet is the most important for the purposes of this study, as its first line is the title of Macdonald’s panel. This sonnet is actually Love’s song, but rather than being a ‘romantic’ ballad sung by Love as troubadour, it is a mournful song that offers a poignant message: pining for lost love is fruitless, and will bring naught but more pain.
Here is an appropriate place to address a question that is perhaps the most important in interpreting both Rossetti’s poem and Macdonald’s work: what, in a larger sense, is a willowwood? In a literal sense, it is the wood of willows next to the well in which the action takes place. But willowwood also carries with it several symbolic connotations. The associations of the willow with sorrow and mourning are evident. In an agricultural light, willows are found near riverbanks, and their roots are excellent for preventing soil erosion. Thus, they are associated with water (also a signifier of continuity), which is represented by the well in the poem. It is also an ancient medicinal plant. The bark and leaves are rich in salicin, a natural glucoside akin to the active ingredient in aspirin, acetylsalicylic acid. The most common way of utilizing the willow’s healing properties was to boil its bark in water and drink it; in other words, to make tea. Finally, Willows were also considered guardians, and planted around cemeteries to keep spirits bound. This could apply to the ‘shades’ in ‘Willowwood II’ that manifest themselves each next to a tree, but have no voice to speak with, and which do not approach the action of the scene.
The place that is Willowwood is defined by all of these associations, and also by the action ascribed by Love’s song. Those who ‘walk in Willowwood’ are those who mourn yet long (‘hollow faces burning bright’), those who have been left behind in ‘soul-struck widowhood’, whose existence has become ‘one lifelong night’. This last could have a double meaning: night, as in the darkness, but also as in the time when spirits can be seen (and perhaps even touched). The song goes on to suggest that these souls cultivate their sorrow in vain, those who ‘wooed your last hope lost’ and ‘in vain invite your lips to that their unforgotten food’. This is a direct reference to The Poet’s action of kissing the vision in the well, which the shades—manifestations of the lovers—lament in longing. Thus Willowwood is a place of mourning, if not a place of the dead, where yearning souls (living or not) dwell, those who attempt in vain to be with those lost to them.
The sextet that follows offers even more insight into the painful nature of Willowwood:
Alas! the bitter banks in Willowwood,
With tear-spurge wan, with blood-wort burning red:
Alas! if ever such a pillow could
Steep deep the soul in sleep till she were dead,—
Here we again find Rossetti’s colour symbolism: red and white used interchangeably for love, passion, life and death. This is reinforced by the rhyme scheme: the second line of the octet ends ‘burning white’ while the second line of the sextet ends ‘burning red’; and each have their own associations within their verse: ‘white’ rhymes with ‘night’, ‘invite’, and ‘light’; and ‘red’ rhymes with ‘dead’. The word associations within the rhyme serve a similar function to the visual symbolism discussed above in Beata Beatrix, to connote colour and words in a crafting a reinvented system of signification.
Like these plants, dwellers in Willowwood are weakened by their tears and burning with their rage and passion. Also interesting to note is the bitter nature of each of these plants: spurge is an invasive plant that consumes and takes over wherever it takes root, and bloodwort was used medicinally to induce vomiting (spurge carries within it a milky white sap, while the red roots of bloodwort were used to make dyes). Thus in a beautiful crafting of language and imagery, Rossetti uses the natural plant-life found on an English riverbank as a tool to describe the bitter emotion involved in this sort of longing. Willowwood here is not just a place of mourning, but the mourning itself made manifest in the bitter banks of which Love laments that one cannot ‘steep deep the soul in sleep till she were dead’ (and here, one cannot help but think of Elizabeth Siddal, who steeped herself in sleep with laudanum, then died from it).
The closing lines of the sonnet/song carry the potent message that love wishes to relate:
Better all life forget her than this thing,
That Willowwood should hold her wandering!’
But far from offering closure, Love has planted the seed of hope in the midst of his song: the last line of the octet, in the middle of his song, he declares: ‘Ere ye, ere ye again shall see the light!’ Recall its rhymes, which when said together say, not coincidentally, ‘white night invite light’. This promise of light foreshadows the ambiguously hopeful ending of the final sonnet.
The cycle closes with a description of the end of the encounter, and an enigmatic image of hope. In the final sonnet, Rossetti analogizes the ending of the kiss as two clinging roses who, having withstood the ‘wind’s wellaway’ or Love’s lamentation, at the end of the day drop their leaves that had been loosened ‘where the heart-stain glows’. The opening line of the octet is also a double-entendre recalling the action of the second sonnet, the ‘meeting rose and rose’ (and the importance of rose symbolism to the Mackintoshes is well-known). The vision/phantom of Lost Love fades back, ‘drowned’ from view, and The Poet reveals uncertainty that he will ever see Her again. Yet at the end, Rossetti offers a hopeful twist: As The Poet takes a last draught of his Lost Love’s presence, Love leans forward and graces him with a blessing through his touch, his ‘moan of pity and grace’, and finally, in a potent visual image, moves his head ‘till both our heads were in his aureole.’ It is rather ambiguous as to whom the ‘both’ refers to, Love and The Poet, or The Poet and his Lost Love, but a potent case could be made for the latter if one recalls the themes of Dante’s Vita Nuova and the repetition of trinities. By encompassing both of the lovers’ heads in his aureole, Love joins the three of them, gracing them with his blessed halo and making profane love sacred. It is this interpretation of the Willowwood, as a place of unrequited love, where sorrow and longing mingle passionately with longing and hope that provides the most compelling interpretation of Macdonald’s Willowwood, and the Salon de Luxe.
The Willowwood panel is a symbolic illustration of Rossetti’s poems. It is in fact a continuous narrative of the vision of the Lost Love in the well, and the shades of her wandering the wood. The green oval at centre is the well, and the face that hovers inside it is that of the Lost Love. The similar features and hairstyles, plus an understanding of the poem, tell us that the other two figures are her shades, walking in a circular fashion about the well, inside the wood that is represented by the rhythmic gesso lines on the surface. The Poet and Love are also present, however. A ghostly hand hovers on the surface of the well; The Poet touching the surface of the water. The ripple this creates is in the form of a rose—this rose, along with the others found throughout the composition, denotes the presence of Love. However, the particular rose that is beneath the hand serves a dual function—it is positioned just over the Spirit’s lips, and is therefore also representative of the meeting of lips—the kiss—described in ‘Willowwood I’.
Surely it was a simple bit of logic which moved the Mackintoshes to borrow from Rossetti’s willow-themed poetry; but the Willowwood sonnets also embraced perhaps the most idealistic motif of the Mackintoshes’ life and work: love. There is a melancholy hopefulness to the theme, that in some other place we shall find those we love, that they wait, and that we should not linger on their loss. In the context of the design scheme, the Salon de Luxe is like a liminal space; somewhere not quite otherworldly, but also hardly typical of a public dining room: a chamber of glittering silver and lavender juxtaposed against the grey city beyond the windows; the musical clinking of china and whisper of voices versus the noise of the street. If the Willowwood panel depicts Rossetti’s sonnets, and the theme extended about the room in mirrors and leaded glass (like water, reflective surfaces), then the room itself becomes the wood in which she dwells. Her accompanying shades are the patrons who come for tea, passing through the fantastical doors to the otherworldly spaces, touching their lips to their libations as The Poet who drank from the well. The Salon de Luxe is, symbolically, Willowwood.
[i] Jerome J. McGann, ed., The Complete Writings and Pictures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Rossetti Archive] (Freely distributed by IATH and the NINES consortium under a Creative Commons License, 2008), http://www.rossettiarchive.org/index.html. Comprised of sonnets written between the years of 1847-1870, the text ranges in size depending on its publication date, from the first sixteen-sonnet sequence published in the Fortnightly Review in March 1869, under the title ‘Of Life, Love, and Death: Sixteen Sonnets’; then subsequently added to and restructured until the final version of forty-five were published March 1, 1870.
[ii] Dante Gabriel Rossetti in a letter to his friend Hake. Quoted in Jerome J. McGann, ‘Willowwood – Collection Introduction,’ The Rossetti Archive, n.d., http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/14-1869.raw.html.
[iii] Dante Gabriel Rossetti in a letter to William Graham, March 1873. Quoted in Lady Frances Horner, Time Remembered (W. Heinemann, ltd., 1933), 25.
[iv] A footnote for this poem in the ‘The Norton Anthology Online Archive’ states: ‘as souls unused in death’s sterility may sing when waiting for the second coming (i.e. ‘new birthday’).’ http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/noa/pdf/27636_Vict_U13_Rossetti.pdf.
[v] Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Poems, A New Edition (London: Ellis & White, 1881), 242.