Books & Manuscripts

The Tragic Death of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Ethereal Muse, Elizabeth Siddal

By Ori Hashmonay
Uncover the devastating tale of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Poems, 1881; a collection of poems, ballads and sonnets once buried in the grave of Victorian model, poet and artist Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal. Rossetti’s work is a highlight of Fine Books and Manuscripts Online auction (7–21 June 2019, New York).
Sir John Everett Millais, Elizabeth Siddal, Study for Ophelia, 1852.

I n Sir John Everett Millais’s well-known painting Ophelia, an otherworldly Elizabeth Siddal is depicted floating, flanked by untended foliage. Cloaked in flowers, the lifeless Shakespearean beauty limply grasps at her unraveled garland (perhaps in rigor mortis) – as an assortment of poppies, daisies, and petunias join her in death. Housed in the collection of Tate Britain in London, millions of visitors witness Ophelia’s and Siddal’s united, tragic demise every year.

And in parallel with Shakespeare's character of Ophelia, Siddal – artist, poet and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood muse – perished at the young age of 32 from an opioid overdose. As she passed, her husband, poet and Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was panic-stricken.

Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52.

Years prior, Rossetti met a youthful, 20-year-old Siddal as she was sitting for a mutual acquaintance’s painting. Almost immediately, the pair were inseparable; Siddal ceased to pose for other artists, choosing instead to be Rossetti’s primary subject in both portraiture and poetry.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Regina Cordium (Wedding Portrait), 1860.

Siddal began to paint and write in tandem with Rossetti – side by side, the couple composed exceptional artworks. Rossetti’s sister, Christina Rossetti, English poet and author of Goblin Market & Other Poems, noted of their relationship:

Elizabeth Siddal, circa 1860.
“One face looks out from all his canvasses… A saint, an angel; – every canvass means / The same one meaning, neither more nor less. He feeds upon her face by day and night, / And she with true kind eyes looks back on him…”
Christina Rossetti, “In an Artist’s Studio,” 1896.

On the 17th of February 1862, Siddal was interred. Rossetti – in a moment of passion as a gesture of sacrifice – consigned his manuscript poems to rest within her soon-to-be-buried coffin (plot no. 5770 in Highgate Cemetery). As he placed the notebook in the coffin, Rossetti proclaimed to his companions: “I have often been writing at those poems when Lizzie was ill and suffering, and I might have been attending to her, and now they shall go.”

“What of her glass without her? The blank grey / There where the pool is blind of the moon's face. Her dress without her? The tossed empty space… What of the heart without her? Nay, poor heart, Of thee what word remains ere speech be still?”
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Without Her,” 1871.

Six years later, however, Rossetti began experiencing vision problems, describing sensations of “wavering and swimming,” and “whirling and flickering.” This, for the artist, was a blow, but it also gave him reason to return to poetry, which was perhaps his first love. Though he drafted many new poems during this period, he feared his collection was too slim.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix (In Remembrance of Siddal), circa 1864-70.

Thus, on the 6th of September 1868, Rossetti was granted permission by Home Secretary Henry A. Bruce – who just happened to be a friend of the artist – “for leave to exhume the body of the late wife of Mr D. G. Rossetti interred in a grave in the Highgate Cemetery for the purpose of obtaining a book placed in the coffin.” On the evening of October 5th, gravediggers removed the grave slab, were tipped with beer money, and the notebook was taken away to be disinfected. When the manuscript was returned to Rossetti ten days later, he commented that it was “in a disappointing but not hopeless state.”

One of three surviving leaves from the Dante Gabriel Rossetti's book of poetry buried with Elizabeth Siddal. Praise and prayer: manuscript, before 1862. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
“Well, of such thoughts so much I know: / In my life, as in hers, they show, / By a far gleam which I may near, / A dark path I can strive to clear. Only one kiss. Good-bye, my dear.”
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Jenny,” 1870.

“Jenny,” the poem he was most eager to have in his possession once more, had a “great worm-hole right through every page.”

Still, he managed to overcome such obstacles, and the old poems that had lain in Siddal’s grave were published alongside the new.

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