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Femme Fatale Images in Other Rossetti Poems - "A Sea-Spell"(1868) and "The Orchard Pit" (1869)


While Lilith's only explicit appearances are in the poems "Lilith" and "Eden Bower," images of her arise in a number of other poems by Rossetti, including "A Sea-Spell" and "The Orchard Pit" (Johnston 120). Considered "minor" poems, very little has been written on either. Of "A Sea-Spell," some have gone so far as to proclaim "it is kinder to the memory of the artist to say nothing. It is the work of a prematurely faltering mind and hand" (Waugh 211). As for "The Orchard Pit," a fragmentary prose tale, there is little that even could be said.

Yet, in the sonnet "A Sea-Spell," there exists imagery directly relating this Siren-figure to Lilith, making the poem worthy of consideration here. The sonnet reads:

Her lute hangs shadowed in the apple-tree,
While flashing fingers weave the sweet-strung spell
Between its chords; and as the wild notes swell,
The sea-bird for those branches leaves the sea.
But to what sound her listening ear stoops she?
What netherworld gulf-whispers doth she hear,
In answering echoes from what planisphere,
Along the wind, along the estuary?

She sinks into her spell: and when full soon
Her lips move and she soars into her song,
What creatures of the midmost main shall throng
In furrowed surf-clouds to the summoning rune:
Till he, the fated mariner, hears her cry,
And up her rock, bare-breasted, comes to die?
(Collected Works 361)

As evidenced above, both specific Lilith-imagery and Lilith-related themes are present in this sonnet.

The poem begins with an immediate reference to Lilith, specifically Rossetti's Lilith, with the line: "Her lute hangs shadowed in the apple-tree" (line 1). This image is reminiscent of Lilith's supposed tempting of Eve while in the "apple-tree," the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad. Line 2 then borrows imagery directly from "Lilith." The corresponding lines of "Lilith," for example, read:

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. (lines 6-8)

It is this same story which is told in "A Sea-Spell." The character is a beautiful Siren who weaves her magic into a "spell" that will ensnare and kill men ("Sea-Spell," line 2; "Lilith," line 13). In both poems, the male figures succumb to the Siren's charms, causing their own demise.

Like Lilith and La Belle, the power of this unnamed Siren is far-reaching and monumental. Able to lure all the "creatures of the midmost main," she performs on a natural level the sort of seduction Rossetti's other women do on a human level. Herein lies her primary difference. Unlike Lilith's seduction of the unnamed, universalized "youth," this woman seduces a "fated mariner," one who acts more as a symbol of the natural world than of the world of mankind.

Although certainly not representing Lilith alone, the siren of "A Sea-Spell" nevertheless reflects the themes and issues raised by Rossetti in "Lilith" and "Eden Bower." She is beautiful, seductive, and deadly -- desirable and feared -- all characteristics which, in Rossetti's world, depict the magnificent and eternal "femme fatale."

"The Orchard Pit" also makes allusion to Lilith. In theme, it contains many of the same ideas as "The Sea Spell," and some have suggested that "The Orchard Pit" plays a similar complementary role toward "The Sea Spell" as "Eden Bower" did toward "Lilith" (Johnston 105). All four of these poems, therefore, can be seen as complements of one another. Like "The Sea Spell," "The Orchard Pit" begins with an image of the apple-tree which links this unnamed femme fatale to Lilith. The poem reads:

Piled deep below the screening apple-branch
They lie with bitter apples in their hands:
And some are only ancient bones that blanch,
And some had ships that last year's wind did launch,
And some were yesterday the lords of lands.

In the soft dell, among the apple-trees,
High up above the hidden pit she stands,
And there for ever sings, who gave to these,
That lie below, her magic hour of ease,
And those her apples holden in their hands.

This in my dreams is shown me; and her hair
Crosses my lips and draws my burning breath;
Her song spreads golden wings upon the air,
Life's eyes are gleaming from her forehead fair,
And from her breasts the ravishing eyes of Death.

Men say to me that sleep hath many dreams,
Yet I knew never but this dream alone:
There, from a dried-up channel, once the stream's,
The glen slopes up; even such in sleep it seems
As to my waking sight the place well know.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

My love I call her, and she loves me well:
But I love her as in the maelstrom's cup
The whirled stone loves the leaf inseparable
That clings to it round all the circling swell,
And that the same last eddy swallows up.
(Collected Works 377)

Even more than "A Sea Spell," this poem directly speaks to the story of Lilith as temptress of mankind.

The images in stanza one serve the same purpose as Keats' recollection of the many powerful men -- kings, princes, and warriors -- who succumbed to La Belle. As in Keats' poem, this unnamed woman has power over the wealthy elite, "the lords of lands," as well as the lowly unknown men of the past, "ancient bones that blanch" (lines 5, 3). Furthermore, these "ancient" bones could also refer to the bones of the most ancient, perfect, and powerful man of all: Adam.

Stanza three connects this figure to Lilith -- and all other "femme fatales" -- by describing her body in terms of simultaneous passion and pain, life and death. Her hair, highlighted for the reader by the enjambment of line eleven, draws "burning" breath from the narrator's lips in line twelve, indicating feverous passion. She also has two sets of eyes: one of Life and one of Death. Interestingly, the eyes of Life are located on the fair forehead while the "ravishing eyes of Death" are located on her breasts, an obviously far more sexualized location (line 20, Sambrook, ed. 172).

While this Lilith-figure causes the death of innumerable men, true to the spirit of Pre- Raphaelitism, Rossetti does not pass judgment on her. She is not painted as a vicious, dreadful witch but as a beautiful temptress whose beauty inevitably -- though not necessarily purposefully -- kills any who get too close. After taking of "her apples," these men are no longer able to live in the world, for they have experienced the ultimate in pleasure and love. By granting "her magic hour of ease" (line 9), therefore, this Lilith- figure is giving these men the only experience that is left after perfect love: death.

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