First published in 1868 in Swinburne's pamphlet-review, "Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition," the sonnet entitled "Lilith" was written to accompany the painting "Lady Lilith." The poem and picture appeared alongside Rossetti's painting "Sibylla Palmifera" and the sonnet "Soul's Beauty," which was written for it. In 1870, both of these poems were published among the "Sonnets for Pictures" section of Rossetti's Poems.
In 1881, however, "it occurred to Rossetti to contrast the two as representatives of fleshly and spiritual beauty," and thus he transferred them to "The House of Life" (Baum 181). The Lilith sonnet was then renamed "Body's Beauty" in order to highlight the contrast between it and "Soul's Beauty," and the two were placed sequentially in "The House of Life" (sonnets number 77 and 78). Because Rossetti originally named the sonnet "Lilith" and only changed the name to highlight the contrast between it and "Soul's Beauty," this study will refer to it by its original name. "Lilith" reads as follows:
Of Adam's first wife, Lilith, it is told
(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve,)
That, ere the snake's, her sweet tongue could deceive,
And her enchanted hair was the first gold.
And still she sits, young while the earth is old,
And, subtly of herself contemplative,
Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,
Till heart and body and life are in its hold.
The rose and poppy are her flower; for where
Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent
And soft-shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?
Lo! as that youth's eyes burned at thine, so went
Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent
And round his heart one strangling golden hair. (Collected Works, 216).
Much like "Lady Lilith," "Lilith" celebrates the pleasures of physicality. As an enchantress, she "draws men to watch the bright web she can weave," but she does not invite them to be mere voyeurs of her charms (line 7). Instead, she invites them to her and then ensnares them in her "web" of physical beauty, ultimately causing their death (line 8).
"Subtly of herself contemplative," a phrase echoing Pater's famous description of the "Mona Lisa," highlights Lilith's attitude of "voluptuous self applause," an attitude which was so visually apparent in Rossetti's painting (Baum 185). As in her picture, Lilith is placed among the rose and poppy, symbolizing sterile love and sleep/death, images which add to her representation as an attractive and desirable, yet deadly, woman.
Lilith's golden hair echoes the "bright" hair of which Goethe wrote in Faust and Rossetti painted in "Lady Lilith." Rossetti thus borrows the image of ensnaring and strangling hair directly from Goethe. Although it is used as an instrument of death in the end, its physical beauty is what Rossetti first draws attention to, describing it as "the first gold" (line 4). Yet it is the "spell" cast by her fetishized hair which eventually penetrates, emasculates, and kills the "youth" of this poem (line 13, Bullen 139).
The Lilith portrayed in this sonnet is undoubtedly the first wife of Adam, for Rossetti tells this to his readers outright, setting this knowledge off in quotes as if to inform an audience whom he did not think would be familiar with the legend. Her existence as the first wife is highlighted in the description of her hair as "the first gold" and in the revelation that she could deceive even before the snake, representing Satan (or possibly Lilith herself) during the Fall.
The emphasis on the snake in this poem is severe. Not only is it introduced early in the sonnet, but his/her image is invoked again through the alliteration present in lines 10-11. The pronouns "his" and "her" can be used interchangeably here because the poem does not make clear whether Rossetti intends for the snake and Lilith to be seen as one or as separate entities. In either case, the "soft-shed kisses" of Lilith do seem to draw upon Keats' image of Lamia, the snake-woman. And while the cause of the male character's death is Lilith's "one strangling golden hair," this hair can also be seen as a metaphor for the coiling body of a snake.
The extensive snake imagery in the poem can also be read as an indication of Lilith's powerful sexuality, as Jan Marsh indicated when she stated, "the sexual qualities of her nature are barely concealed beneath the insistent Freudian imagery" (Sisterhood, 235). This reading of the snake imagery certainly continues the theme of sexuality present in Rossetti's other portrayals of Lilith, while not prohibiting the snake from being read simultaneously as an actual character.
In light of the fact that this poem was first published only one year prior to "Eden Bower," one might expect that Rossetti would have told similar versions of the Lilith legend in these two poems. Under this assumption, one could easily make the case that "Lilith" portrays Lilith as becoming incarnated in the snake in order to cause Adam's demise, much as is told in the ballad of "Eden Bower." Early critics recognized this possibility, stating: "Lilith's snake-like form seems to coil in every line of the sonnet, and leaves one with almost a feeling of suffocation at the imagery of the last line" (Boas 105, emphasis added).
This reading is possible because of the unidentified "youth" in line 12, a character that can be read as Adam. If seen as Adam, the second stanza of this sonnet seems to play out the demise of Adam, at Lilith's hand. Lines 10 and 11, therefore, would indicate that Lilith is incarnated in the body of the snake. Line 12 would then regress to the past tense and explain how "that youth's eyes burned at thine," indicating the simultaneous lust and anger Adam felt when Lilith refused to lie beneath him. Then, Lilith would have sent her "spell" through him, possibly referring to the way in which she became incarnated as the snake in order to deceive Adam and Eve, causing their Fall. Finally, Adam is left with "his straight neck bent," defeated, lifeless, dead.
Much like Keats' "La Belle Dame sans Merci," "Lilith" can be read as a warning for men against all womankind. It warns that any woman so beautiful as Lilith, so self-contented and powerful, will cause nothing other than a man's death. The image of castration in line 13 -- she "left his straight neck bent" -- results directly from her "spell," her excessive beauty, her voluptuous body, her long, flowing hair. Thus, while the experience of being with Lilith, of loving her physically, may surpass any other mortal experience -- much like the experience of loving the femme fatale of "La Belle" -- it will ultimately result in symbolic castration through the loss of power or, even, literal death.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and Its Influences (1848-1954)
Rossetti's painting "Lady Lilith" (1863 and 1864-1868?)
Rossetti's poem "Lilith," later published as "Body's Beauty" (1868)
Rossetti's ballad "Eden Bower" (1869)
"Femme fatale" images in "A Sea-Spell" (1868) and "The Orchard Pit" (1869)