The Woman You Wouldn’t Take Home

As part of a wider review into the portrayal of women and their place in and out of the home throughout the ages, this post is a specific look at the poem ‘Jenny’ written by the pre-Raphaelite painter and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

It does not require much effort to find good examples of how women are associated with the home in Western literature and art. In the period of Victorian England, the ideal woman would strive to be godly, chaste and good, and in the typical fiction of the time, good women become good wives, where they act as the “angel in the house”. This is an ideal of womanhood and domesticity based on submission, selflessness, duty and purity (REF).

The rainbow
Rossetti: The Rainbow

However, the texts of this era also address, by contrast, the (fallen) women who aren’t so ‘good’. These are invariably women who are not part of the home, or whose home is not homely, but rather somewhere ‘other’. A prime example of this would be the prostitute.

In Rossetti’s poem, a man has returned to a prostitute’s room, after taking her out dancing. She has fallen asleep on his knee, and as the sun rises he ruminates on her beauty (which he knows will soon fade), her nature and her circumstances. These musings principally define Jenny by her dwelling place: where and how she lives in comparison with the speaker. The biggest difference, it seems, is books; serious thoughts, serious study.  

This room of yours, my Jenny, looks

A change from mine so full of books . . .

Even as to-night my work was left:

Until I vowed that since my brain

And eyes of dancing seemed so fain,

My feet should have some dancing too: —

And thus it was I met with you.

Books in this passage mean brains, and Jenny has none. Her chambers are outside of the learned world of respectable Victorian society, which of course, is where only ‘pure’ women dwell. Jenny’s mind is likened to a sewer…

For is there hue or shape defin’d

In Jenny’s desecrated mind,

Where all contagious currents meet,

A Lethe of the middle street?

…with the suggestion that the refinement of the narrator’s thoughts about her could never be shared with her because she wouldn’t understand.

All golden in the lamplight’s gleam,—

You know not what a book you seem,

Half-read by lightning in a dream!

How should you know, my Jenny?

The limits of her mental capacity would mean that his ideas on her ‘humanity’ couldn’t even be received by her. The poem therefore raises the belief that the working class mind, swimming in the gutter, is unable to build thoughts.

Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Found_-_Study_for_the_Head_of_the_Girl_-_Google_Art_Project

The particular mind of this prostitute, however, is not given a voice. Jenny is silenced by both the narrator and the poet, first by her state of ‘sleeping’:

Asleep, poor Jenny, hard and fast,—

So young and soft and tired; so fair,

and then by the narrator speaking about her and thinking for her.

For sometimes, were the truth confess’d,

You’re thankful for a little rest,—

Glad from the crush to rest within,

From the heart-sickness and the din

Where envy’s voice at virtue’s pitch

Mocks you because your gown is rich;

That he does so internally – the thoughts aren’t spoken out loud – also means she couldn’t, or wouldn’t reply even if she were awake, thus silencing her further.

Rossetti the roman widow httpswww.google.co.uksearchbiw=1239&bih=583&tbm=isch&sa=1&ei=qympWrrHFcjWgAb4wpLYBg&q=dante+rossetti+painting&oq=dante+rossetti+paitning&gs_l=psy-ab.1.0.0i13k1j0
Rossetti: The Roman Widow

However, the dramatic monologue technique of this poem renders Jenny a creation that is addressed and talked ‘to’ in the text, which leads the reader to think of the counter argument. By the very act of removing her voice and her own thoughts, the text draws attention to this lack of voice and thought.  From this position, we can see that every statement in the poem opens up the possibility of Jenny replying.

If of myself you think at all,

What is the thought?—conjectural

On sorry matters best unsolved?—

Or inly is each grace revolved

To fit me with a lure?—

The punctuation signifies both the prompt to reply, and the lack of (opportunity to) reply. Questions hang in the air.

This duality is indicative of a divided consciousness. The narrator is in two worlds at once; the corporeal (both as Jenny’s body and her social position. In this respect both are also commercial) and the emotional or spiritual, in which Jenny’s social otherness is rendered meaningless.  From this double perspective, or what Jules Paul Siegal defines as a “dialogue of the heart and head” (REF) the themes of working class and equal human life (or ‘mortal’ and ‘immortal’ REF) can be explored and addressed, allowing for a tension between the two viewpoints.

the_beloved_detail
Rossetti: The Beloved (detail)

The duality between corporeal and spiritual takes on many forms. We are shown at the beginning of the poem, for example, how the narrator is full of energy after their dancing, while she is tired out.

Whose head upon my knee to-night

Rests for a while, as if grown light

With all our dances and the sound

To which the wild tunes spun you round:

There are two ways of looking at this – is her life so physical and ‘non’ mental that she can’t dance like he can (showing that he is from another social and class sphere) or is she tired by the drudgery of her life?

Jenny’s body and life are correspondingly likened to ‘man’s’ relationship with commercial society, where the speaker becomes an embodiment of the hypocrisy involved in this.

I lay among your golden hair

Perhaps the subject of your dreams,

These golden coins.

The speaker’s patronising and patriarchal language  (“I know your dreams”)  further brings forward the idea that she is more exhibit, more animal, more aesthetic than she is a human. Indeed, aestheticising her removes her humanity. She becomes an idea, a strand of thought. If she is “a rose shut in a book/ In which pure women may not look”, she is a ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’ denied by false societal constructs, but also, merely an abstract concept in which to discuss this. The figure of the prostitute – as an other of society and also, then, an other of the text – illuminates the core action of both the narrator and the text: the speaker’s empathy is part of the transaction. He uses her for sexual and intellectual stimulation before leaving her with “a kiss and goodbye”. By doing so, he conceptually becomes another of the men “Whose acts are ill and his speech ill…”

Who, having used you at his will,

Thrusts you aside, as when I dine

I serve the dishes and the wine.

la pia de tolomei
Rossetti: La Pia de Tolomei

…………………………………………………………………………………………………..

“Vengeance of Jenny’s case! Fie on her! Never name her, child!”—Mrs. Quickly

Lazy laughing languid Jenny,

Fond of a kiss and fond of a guinea,

Whose head upon my knee to-night

Rests for a while, as if grown light

With all our dances and the sound

To which the wild tunes spun you round:

Fair Jenny mine, the thoughtless queen

Of kisses which the blush between

Could hardly make much daintier;

Whose eyes are as blue skies, whose hair

Is countless gold incomparable:

Fresh flower, scarce touched with signs that tell

Of Love’s exuberant hotbed:—Nay,

Poor flower left torn since yesterday

Until to-morrow leave you bare;

Poor handful of bright spring-water

Flung in the whirlpool’s shrieking face;

Poor shameful Jenny, full of grace

Thus with your head upon my knee;—

Whose person or whose purse may be

The lodestar of your reverie?

 

This room of yours, my Jenny, looks

A change from mine so full of books,

Whose serried ranks hold fast, forsooth,

So many captive hours of youth,—

The hours they thieve from day and night

To make one’s cherished work come right,

And leave it wrong for all their theft,

Even as to-night my work has left:

Until I vowed that since my brain

And eyes of dancing seemed so fain,

My feet should have some dancing too:—

And thus it was I met with you.

Well, I suppose ’twas hard to part,

For here I am. And now, sweetheart,

You seem too tired to get to bed.

 

It was a careless life I led

When rooms like this were scarce so strange

Not long ago. What breeds the change,—

The many aims or the few years?

Because to-night it all appears

Something I do not know again.

 

The cloud’s not danced out of my brain,—

The cloud that made it turn and swim

While hour by hour the books grew dim.

Why, Jenny, as I watch you there,—

For all your wealth of loosened hair,

Your silk ungirdled and unlac’d

And warm sweets open to the waist,

All golden in the lamplight’s gleam,—

You know not what a book you seem,

Half-read by lightning in a dream!

How should you know, my Jenny? Nay,

And I should be ashamed to say:—

Poor beauty, so well worth a kiss!

But while my thought runs on like this

With wasteful whims more than enough,

I wonder what you’re thinking of.

 

If of myself you think at all,

What is the thought?—conjectural

On sorry matters best unsolved?—

Or inly is each grace revolved

To fit me with a lure?—or (sad

To think!) perhaps you’re merely glad

That I’m not drunk or ruffianly

And let you rest upon my knee.

 

For sometimes, were the truth confess’d,

You’re thankful for a little rest,—

Glad from the crush to rest within,

From the heart-sickness and the din

Where envy’s voice at virtue’s pitch

Mocks you because your gown is rich;

And from the pale girl’s dumb rebuke,

Whose ill-clad grace and toil-worn look

Proclaim the strength that keeps her weak,

And other nights than yours bespeak;

And from the wise unchildish elf,

To schoolmate lesser than himself

Pointing you out, what thing you are:—

Yes, from the daily jeer and jar,

From shame and shame’s outbraving too,

Is rest not sometimes sweet to you?—

But most from the hatefulness of man

Who spares not to end what he began,

Whose acts are ill and his speech ill,

Who, having used you at his will,

Thrusts you aside, as when I dine

I serve the dishes and the wine.

 

Well, handsome Jenny mine, sit up:

I’ve filled our glasses, let us sup,

And do not let me think of you,

Lest shame of yours suffice for two.

What, still so tired? Well, well then, keep

Your head there, so you do not sleep;

But that the weariness may pass

And leave you merry, take this glass.

Ah! lazy lily hand, more bless’d

If ne’er in rings it had been dress’d

Nor ever by a glove conceal’d!

 

Behold the lilies of the field,

They toil not neither do they spin;

(So doth the ancient text begin,—

Not of such rest as one of these

Can share.) Another rest and ease.

Along each summer-sated path

From its new lord the garden hath,

Than that whose spring in blessings ran

Which praised the bounteous husbandman,

Ere yet, in days of hankering breath,

The lilies sickened unto death.

 

What, Jenny, are your lilies dead?

Aye, and the snow-white leaves are spread

Like winter on the garden-bed.

But you had roses left in May,—

They were not gone too. Jenny, nay,

But must your roses die, and those

Their purfled buds that should unclose?

Even so; the leaves are curled apart,

Still red as from the broken heart,

And here’s the naked stem of thorns.

 

Nay, nay mere words. Here nothing warns

As yet of winter. Sickness here

Or want alone could waken fear,—

Nothing but passion wrings a tear.

Except when there may rise unsought

Haply at times a passing thought

Of the old days which seem to be

Much older than any history

That is written in any book;

When she would lie in fields and look

Along the ground through the blown grass,

And wonder where the city was,

Far out of sight, whose broil and bale

They told her then for a child’s tale.

 

Jenny, you know the city now,

A child can tell the tale there, how

Some things which are not yet enroll’d

In market-lists are bought and sold

Even till the early Sunday light,

When Saturday night is market-night

Everywhere, be it dry or wet,

And market-night in the Haymarket.

Our learned London children know,

Poor Jenny, all your pride and woe;

Have seen your lifted silken skirt

Advertise dainties through the dirt;

Have seen your coach-wheels splash rebuke

On virtue; and have learned your look

When, wealth and health slipped past, you stare

Along the streets alone, and there,

Round the long park, across the bridge,

The cold lamps at the pavement’s edge

Wind on together and apart,

A fiery serpent for your heart.

 

Let the thoughts pass, an empty cloud!

Suppose I were to think aloud,—

What if to her all this were said?

Why, as a volume seldom read

Being opened halfway shuts again,

So might the pages of her brain

Be parted at such words, and thence

Close back upon the dusty sense.

For is there hue or shape defin’d

In Jenny’s desecrated mind,

Where all contagious currents meet,

A Lethe of the middle street?

Nay, it reflects not any face,

Nor sound is in its sluggish pace,

But as they coil those eddies clot,

And night and day remembers not.

 

Why, Jenny, you’re asleep at last!—

Asleep, poor Jenny, hard and fast,—

So young and soft and tired; so fair,

With chin thus nestled in your hair,

Mouth quiet, eyelids almost blue

As if some sky of dreams shone through!

 

Just as another woman sleeps!

Enough to throw one’s thoughts in heaps

Of doubt and horror,—what to say

Or think,—this awful secret sway,

The potter’s power over the clay!

Of the same lump (it has been said)

For honour and dishonour made,

Two sister vessels. Here is one.

 

My cousin Nell is fond of fun,

And fond of dress, and change, and praise,

So mere a woman in her ways:

And if her sweet eyes rich in youth

Are like her lips that tell the truth,

My cousin Nell is fond of love.

And she’s the girl I’m proudest of.

Who does not prize her, guard her well?

The love of change, in cousin Nell,

Shall find the best and hold it dear:

The unconquered mirth turn quieter

Not through her own, through others’ woe:

The conscious pride of beauty glow

Beside another’s pride in her,

One little part of all they share.

For Love himself shall ripen these

In a kind of soil to just increase

Through years of fertilizing peace.

 

Of the same lump (as it is said)

For honour and dishonour made,

Two sister vessels. Here is one.

 

It makes a goblin of the sun.

 

So pure,—so fall’n! How dare to think

Of the first common kindred link?

Yet, Jenny, till the world shall burn

It seems that all things take their turn;

And who shall say but this fair tree

May need, in changes that may be,

Your children’s children’s charity?

Scorned then, no doubt, as you are scorn’d!

Shall no man hold his pride forewarn’d

Till in the end, the Day of Days,

At Judgement, one of his own race,

As frail and lost as you, shall rise,—

His daughter, with his mother’s eyes?

 

How Jenny’s clock ticks on the shelf!

Might not the dial scorn itself

That has such hours to register?

Yet as to me, even so to her

Are golden sun and silver moon,

In daily largesse of earth’s boon,

Counted for life-coins to one tune.

And if, as blindfold fates are toss’d,

Through some one man this life be lost,

Shall soul not somehow pray for soul?

 

Fair shines the gilded aureole

In which our highest painters place

Some living woman’s simple face.

And the stilled features thus descried

As Jenny’s long throat droops aside,—

The shadows where the cheeks are thin,

And pure wide curve from ear to chin,—

Whit Raffael’s, Leonardo’s hand

To show them to men’s souls, might stand,

Whole ages long, the whole world through,

For preachings of what God can do.

What has man done here? How atone,

Great God, for this which man has done?

And for the body and soul which by

Man’s pitiless doom must now comply

With lifelong hell, what lullaby

Of sweet forgetful second birth

Remains? All dark. No sign on earth

What measure of God’s rest endows

The many mansions of his house.

 

If but a woman’s heart might see

Such erring heart unerringly

For once! But that can never be.

 

Like a rose shut in a book

In which pure women may not look,

For its base pages claim control

To crush the flower within the soul;

Where through each dead rose-leaf that clings,

Pale as transparent psyche-wings,

To the vile text, are traced such things

As might make lady’s cheek indeed

More than a living rose to read;

So nought save foolish foulness may

Watch with hard eyes the sure decay;

And so the life-blood of this rose,

Puddled with shameful knowledge, flows

Through leaves no chaste hand may unclose:

Yet still it keeps such faded show

Of when ’twas gathered long ago,

That the crushed petals’ lovely grain,

The sweetness of the sanguine stain,

Seen of a woman’s eyes, must make

Her pitiful heart, so prone to ache,

Love roses better for its sake:—

Only that this can never be:—

Even so unto her sex is she.

 

Yet, Jenny, looking long at you,

The woman almost fades from view.

A cipher of man’s changeless sum

Of lust, past, present, and to come,

Is left. A riddle that one shrinks

To challenge from the scornful sphinx.

 

Like a toad within a stone

Seated while Time crumbles on;

Which sits there since the earth was curs’d

For Man’s transgression at the first;

Which, living through all centuries,

Not once has seen the sun arise;

Whose life, to its cold circle charmed,

The earth’s whole summers have not warmed;

Which always—whitherso the stone

Be flung—sits there, deaf, blind, alone;—

Aye, and shall not be driven out

Till that which shuts him round about

Break at the very Master’s stroke,

And the dust thereof vanish as smoke,

And the seed of Man vanish as dust:—

Even so within this world is Lust.

 

Come, come, what use in thoughts like this?

Poor little Jenny, good to kiss,—

You’d not believe by what strange roads

Thought travels, when your beauty goads

A man to-night to think of toads!

Jenny, wake up. . . . Why, there’s the dawn!

 

And there’s an early waggon drawn

To market, and some sheep that jog

Bleating before a barking dog;

And the old streets come peering through

Another night that London knew;

And all as ghostlike as the lamps.

 

So on the wings of day decamps

My last night’s frolic. Glooms begin

To shiver off as lights creep in

Past the gauze curtains half drawn-to,

And the lamp’s doubled shade grows blue,—

Your lamp, my Jenny, kept alight,

Like a wise virgin’s, all one night!

And in the alcove coolly spread

Glimmers with dawn your empty bed;

And yonder your fair face I see

Reflected lying on my knee,

Where teems with first foreshadowings

Your pier-glass scrawled with diamond rings:

And on your bosom all night worn

Yesterday’s rose now droops forlorn,

But dies not yet this summer morn.

 

And now without, as if some word

Had called upon them that they heard,

The London sparrows far and nigh

Clamour together suddenly;

And Jenny’s cage-bird grown awake

Here in their song his part must take,

Because here too the day doth break.

 

And somehow in myself the dawn

Among stirred clouds and veils withdrawn

Strikes greyly on her. Let her sleep.

But will it wake her if I heap

These cushions thus beneath her head

Where my knee was? No,—there’s your bed,

My Jenny, while you dream. And there

I lay among your golden hair

Perhaps the subject of your dreams,

These golden coins.

For still one deems

That Jenny’s flattering sleep confers

New magic on the magic purse,—

Grim web, how clogged with shrivelled flies!

Between the threads fine fumes arise

And shape their pictures in the brain.

There roll no streets in glare and rain,

Nor flagrant man-swine whets his tusk;

But delicately sighs in musk

The homage of the dim boudoir;

Or like a palpitating star

Thrilled into song, the opera-night

Breathes faint in the quick pulse of light;

Or at the carriage-window shine

Rich wares for choice; or, free to dine,

Whirls through its hour of health (divine

For her) the concourse of the Park.

And though in the discounted dark

Her functions there and here are one,

Beneath the lamps and in the sun

There reigns at least the acknowledged belle

Apparelled beyond parallel.

Ah Jenny, yes, we know your dreams.

 

For even the Paphian Venus seems,

A goddess o’er the realms of love,

When silver-shrined in shadowy grove:

Aye, or let offerings nicely placed

But hide Priapus to the waist,

And whoso looks on him shall see

An eligible deity.

 

Why, Jenny, waking here alone

May help you to remember one,

Though all the memory’s long outworn

Of many a double-pillowed morn.

I think I see you when you wake,

And rub your eyes for me, and shake

My gold, in rising, from your hair,

A Danaë for a moment there.

 

Jenny, my love rang true! for still

Love at first sight is vague, until

That tinkling makes him audible.

 

And must I mock you to the last,

Ashamed of my own shame,—aghast

Because some thoughts not born amiss

Rose at a poor fair face like this?

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.

poem sourced from the Poetry Foundation

 

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