A Sextet of Shadows

An artists’ model, whose delicate good looks and flaming red hair helped to shape the Pre‑Raphaelite ideal of female beauty, Elizabeth Siddal married the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti in May 1860, after a protracted and turbulent engagement. In failing health and allegedly experiencing depression after a stillbirth, Elizabeth became increasingly dependent on the opiate Laudanum, and died of a self-administered overdose on 11th February 1862; whether or not this overdose was deliberate is unknown. She was buried in the Rossetti family plot at Highgate Cemetery on 17th February that year, with Rossetti placing the only copy of a volume of his poems inside her coffin, within her hair, as a tribute to her and as an act of sacrifice.

Several years later, experiencing depression himself, as well as poor eyesight which prevented him painting, Rossetti began to desire the return of his poetry, and of one poem in particular—Jenny. Eventually he applied to the Home Secretary for permission to exhume Elizabeth’s coffin in order to retrieve the book; he was also legally obliged to gain the permission of the owner of the grave—in this case, his mother. On the night of 5th October 1869, by candlelight so as not to attract public attention, Elizabeth’s grave was dug out and her coffin opened; Rossetti did not attend the exhumation. Elizabeth is said by those who were present to have been remarkably well preserved, and beautiful, even in death. The volume of poetry, however, had faired a little less well, with a worm hole through many of its pages, including all of those on which Jenny was written. Despite this, Rossetti was still able to reconstruct much of the book’s contents afterwards, and many of these poems—including Jenny—were published in his volume, Poems, in April 1870.


Dim phantoms of an unknown ill
Float through my tired brain;
The unformed visions of my life
Pass by in ghostly train; ….

A shadow falls along the grass
And lingers at my feet; ….

   – from Elizabeth Siddal’s poem, A Year and A Day

A Sextet of Shadows

The Husband: Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Oh, how the year‑long days have crept,
so slowly, since we’ve been apart.
How hollow, life; how heavy, heart.
Oh, how I’ve raved, and how I’ve wept.
Mere time the healer of our pain?
If only platitudes were true –
my fevered mind fixates on you,
and how you might be mine again.
Forgive me, Lizzie; I don’t speak
of you, but of another’s name.
Obsession overcoming shame,
my Jenny is the one I seek.
Within her paper tomb she lies, interred;
but I must resurrect her – every word.

The Cemetery Plot’s Owner: Frances Polidori Rossetti

Irrational, his mind unsound,
my artist son – my flesh and blood –
conspires to drag our name through mud.
The dead should stay within the ground.
Oh, why can he not reproduce
these damned odes from existing notes?
His papers are replete with quotes;
why perpetrate this rank abuse?
And what of you, Elizabeth?
Have you found solace, resting where
you feel no pain, and need not care?
Or do you suffer still, in death?
Would you, who loved him, understand his need
to execute this strange, unnatural deed?

The Home Secretary: Henry A. Bruce

A most irregular entreat.
Intrude on Highgate’s sanctity,
for nothing more than poetry?
At all costs, let them be discreet.
I won’t pretend to understand
the schemes of the artistic brain.
Bohemian or quite insane
to hunt such morbid contraband?
A ghoulish thing to want! To ask!
I picture those to whom it falls
to undertake what so appals.
A grim, distasteful, ghastly task.
For who disturbs the cold deceased at rest
must surely have but little peace, at best.

The Grave-Digger: Name Unknown

How heavy was my spade that night,
its actions an affront to God.
It sought its quarry, clod by clod,
as shadows danced by candlelight.
I thought that lid would never budge
(so loath to look upon her face,
I prayed that such would be the case)
and yet, I swear, as God’s my judge –
such beauty I had never seen,
in any woman, live or dead.
Her hair, a burnished copper-red,
her unmarked countenance, serene.
How cruel her husband, not to let her keep
the silent dignity of sacred sleep.

The Exhumed: Elizabeth Siddal

In life and death, through night-dark days,
I kept his secrets close to me;
no question of my loyalty,
for love remains, though flesh decays.
Yet distant voices, dimly heard,
contrive, it seems, to infiltrate
my weary soul’s reposing state –
approaching, ghostly, undeterred.
His tribute, placed within my hair,
the words he meant for me alone,
as much mine as each grave-chilled bone
within my frame – no longer there.
Such precious lines, now all the world’s to read –
dim phantoms of an unknown ill, indeed.

The Poem: Jenny

Sweet liberation! Free at last;
escape from all that casket’s fust.
No more for me the dust to dust,
my dank detention in the past.
I scarce believed my senses when
my dear creator, mad with grief,
entombed my pages, every leaf –
the progeny of his own pen.
Debased by worms and coffin-rot,
I feared I’d never know the light
of day that is a poem’s right –
a footnote history forgot.
Oh blessed, the feel of fingers on my spine.
Blow out your candles. Let my glory shine.

© Sarah Doyle, March 2012,
for the Pre-Raphaelite Society.
All rights reserved.

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