Up to this point in the class I have used my blog as an opportunity to write and publish some poetry online. One of my favorite forms is the Petrarchan sonnet. Two poems I have posted thus far are written in this form, and though I feel I am getting better at conquering this form, I still have trouble with meter. I absolutely loved the poem “In an Artist’s Studio,” because Christina Rossetti not only understands meter, but is able to deviate from it at will in order to hint at what is not being said. I am not at this point in my writing yet. I am still struggling with writing in strict iambic pentameter. I would love to be able to deviate from it at will for the purpose of the topic of the piece. If any in the class are not familiar with what I am talking about in regards to meter, I highly suggest reading Perrine’s Sound & Sense, which is a wonderful book on poetic elements and how to employ them, or how to explicate a poet’s work and see how they employ these poetic elements. Once learned, poetry becomes a lot of fun, especially if you enjoy puzzles, riddles and analyzing. I have decided to post my second essay I wrote for this class, which is an explication on “In an Artist’s Studio.” I hope you all find it coherent, though you may have to refresh your memory on some of the terminology. Most of all I hope it inspires everyone to pick up Perrine’s Sound & Sense. It is worth the purchase.
In an Artist’s Studio
Using the poetic elements of repetition, irony, overstatement, synesthesia, simile and metaphor, Christina Rossetti speaks as an Artist’s beloved subject; “In an Artist’s Studio” is a portrayal of this subjects longing to be seen as more than a beautiful object.
It is important to note the poem is a Petrarchan sonnet, written true to form in near perfect iambic pentameter with a near perfect rhyme scheme, which goes ABBAABBACDCDCd. The very slight imperfections in meter and in rhyme shows that the speaker does not believe herself to be ideal, but human with human flaws.
The first two lines, “One face looks out from all his canvasses, / One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans,” (1-2) opens this sonnet with the use of repetition. “One face” and “One selfsame figure” suggests that the artist has trouble depicting his subject in any realistic fashion. The context of the painting does not matter. “One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans,” shows that it doesn’t matter where the subject is, what she is doing, or what she is thinking, because the center of all the works is her “One face,” and it is always painted the same.
The following two lines, “We found her hidden just behind those screens, / That mirror gave back all her loveliness” (3-4) are ironic because line 3 suggests, with the word “We,” that the two in the studio, artist and subject, discussed how to bring the portrait to life, which is “hidden just behind those screens,” or canvasses. This life in the portrait would have to entail imperfections, lest the subject is made to seem as a Greek Goddess. However, the metaphor in line 4, “That mirror,” which is meant to be the artist’s eyes, “gave back all her loveliness.” In other words, they took away all of her imperfections, because, like a mirror, the artist’s eyes are only able to see what is on the surface and nothing deeper. This becomes crystal clear in the following three lines: “A queen in opal or in ruby dress, / A nameless girl in freshest summer greens, / A saint, an angel” (5-7). In lines 5 and 7 Rossetti uses overstatement when the subject is compared to a queen, a saint and an angel, and in line 6, sandwiched between these comparisons sits “A nameless girl,” being crushed by the high standards thrust upon her.
In lines 7 through 8 we have the statement “—every canvas means / The same one meaning, neither more nor less.” I believe the subject wishes to be seen as more than a physical beauty with a marble face, but what is interesting is that she states “neither more nor less,” which to me means she would rather not be depicted at all if she is seen as only one thing; she is a human being, and therefore multi-faceted, and if this cannot be shown, better to have less than one meaning, which would be none at all.
In the next line Rossetti employs synesthesia, or a confusion of the senses: “He feeds upon her face by day and night,” (9). The artist’s eyes feast, rather than gaze, upon this singular, beautiful obsession he is painting over and over again, as if he relies on the image for sustenance.
The last five lines of this sonnet tease the reader with clues as to how the artist is completely misreading his subject:
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream. (10-14)
In line ten we have the first deviation from perfect iambic pentameter when Rossetti describes the portrait of the face looking back at the artist with “true kind eyes,” which is three hard syllables in row, a spondee in “true kind” before resuming the perfect iambic pentameter with “eyes.” This break in meter suggests, screams even, that the description is a false one. We see something similar in line eleven which starts with a hard syllable, “fair” followed by an anapestic foot, “as the moon,” before continuing on in iambic pentameter and ending in another anapestic foot, “as the light.” Again, this plainly tells me that the description is a false one, demonstrating the artist’s inability to portray the subject with her human flaws, some of which are described in line twelve: “Wan with waiting” and “with sorrow dim.” The repetition of “Not” in lines twelve through fourteen not only wraps up the sonnet in the same way it began, but lends emphasis to “Wan with waiting,” as if the subject is waiting over and over again for the artist to produce an accurate portrayal. Further, the repletion of “Not as she is” in lines thirteen and fourteen shows the artist will never produce the realistic portrait, but only the one that “fills his dream,” the face with which “hope shone bright.” I believe that hope to be the subjects initial hope of being recognized for more than her beauty, but that hope has faded with each successive painting. She is ever changing, even as the artist paints, but he is blind.
Finally, the rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet’s sextet is off slightly. Normally it would rhyme CDCDCD, but this one ends with a slant rhyme, changing it to CDCDCd. This slant rhyme at the end of the sonnet has the same effect as the deviation in the meter. It tells the reader that the artist’s “dream” is a false one. It ends the poem with a note of discord. No one is perfect, and to portray them as such is to set unrealistic expectations upon them.
Christina Rossetti is a master of poetic elements, deviating from rhyme and meter only to make the poem more powerful. In all areas the rhyme and meter is perfect save when it describes the artist’s superficial, false perceptions of his subject’s beauty. The sonnet is not only impressive, but also inspiring, as it shows the range of expression within a fixed form, especially one as difficult as the Petrarchan Sonnet.