Analysis and commentary of Body's Beauty by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
In Body’s Beauty (1866), Dante Gabriel Rossetti writes about Adam’s first wife Lilith (line 1) who, in my opinion and as the poem’s title suggests, represents carnal beauty, which tempted Adam before Eve could give him the apple (line 2). Lilith is also the main figure of his painting ‘Lady Lilith’, which he started to draw in 1864 before the poem was written, although it was finished a few years later (1869). The purpose of this paper is to relate and to identify the elements which symbolise seductive beauty in both works and the significant differences they present, but, first, I will briefly comment on the poem’s structure, type, rhyme and other poetic devices.
‘Body’s beauty’ is a sonnet which contains two stanzas, an octet and a sestet. Its rhyme is entirely assonant, with an abbaabba pattern in the first stanza, and a cdcddc pattern in the second one (McGann). In addition, it is important to remark that there are an anaphora with the word ‘and’ in lines 4-6, and an anastrophe in lines 13 and 14.
With regard to the meaning, both the poem and the picture focus on Lilith’s physical beauty and her power of attraction. In the poem, Rossetti calls her a ‘witch’, not because of her dreadful and monstrous appearance but because of her capacity of cheating, as we can see when, with a synecdoche, the poet claims that ‘her sweet tongue could deceive’. However, it is in line 4 where we can see the first important symbolic element that appears in both works: her hair, which, in my opinion, symbolises temptation since Rossetti refers to it as ‘the first gold’ (line 4). In ‘Lady Lilith’, the painting, her copper hair, which is extremely long, occupies an important position in the centre of the picture.
The poem continues with the image of Lilith sitting, in line 5. Nevertheless, in the picture there is an extra element: a dark comb, which is not mentioned in the poem. While Lilith is combing her hair, she is apparently admiring her own beauty, as the author says in line 6. Next, Rossetti says that through her ‘bright web’ which can be also a symbol of temptation, Lilith can attract men under her control. This web is represented in the picture by the ivory colour dress, whose loose sleeve exposes her white shoulder, highlighting her sensuality.
In the second stanza, Rossetti states that Lilith’s favourite flowers are the roses and the poppies (line 9), which also appear in the painting around the lady’s figure. It is important to say that, as all we know, poppies are used to make the well-known drug, the opium, which could mean that her sensual beauty could have a narcotic effect on men.
Subsequently, a rhetorical question appears in lines 10 and 11, where, besides the alliteration with the letter ‘s’, there is an important verb ‘snare’ since, in ‘Lady’s Lilith’, it is symbolised by the bow around her wrist. Furthermore, this bow has an outstanding characteristic that shares with the woman’s lips and the rose at the left bottom of the picture: its red colour, which in many cultures has a strong sexual connotation.
In the Jewish tradition, according to Patricia Monagham in ‘Goddesses and Heroines’, Lilith refused to accept to lie down beneath Adam in their first sexual relation since she felt ‘insulted…pointing out that they had been created equally…’ (Monagham) This is the reason why Rossetti claims that Adam felt extremely angry as it is suggested in line 12, and that, as a revenge, Lilith put a ‘spell’ on him, using ‘one strangling golden hair’ in his heart and neck.
In conclusion, both works coincide in some descriptions of Lilith as, for instance, the importance of her hair and the image of the flowers. Nevertheless, the differences are also remarkable if we take into account, for example, that the comb and the detailed female figure are in the painting, and that the mention to the relation between Adam and Lilith is only in the poem.
Erika Giselle Wilson Cantariño
McGann, Jerome J. Ed. The Complete Writings and Pictures of Dante Gabriel. Rossetti. 25 Feb 2006. http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/2-1867.s205.raw.html
Monagham, Patricia. “The Goddesses and Heroines”. Hrana’s Gallery of Goddesses. 28 Feb 2006. http://www.hranajanto.com/GoddessGallery/lilith.html
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. “Body’s Beauty”. Art of Europe. 25 Feb 2006. http://www.artofeurope.com/rossetti/ros1.htm
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. “Lady Lilith”. No date. Online image. Bert Christensen’s Cyberspace Gallery. 25 Feb 2006. http://bertc.com/subsix/g85/rossetti8.htm#top