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Reflections on Poetry, Painting, and Temporality through Rossetti’s Ekphrastic Sonnets

By Millie Grainger

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Ruggerio Delivering Angelica. 1819. Photo: National Gallery


For Ruggerio Delivering Angelica by Ingres - Dante Gabriel Rossetti.


A remote sky, prolonged to the sea's brim:

One rock-point standing buffeted alone,

Vexed at its base with a foul beast unknown,

Hell-birth of geomaunt and teraphim:

A knight, and a winged creature bearing him,

Reared at the rock: a woman fettered there,

Leaning into the hollow with loose hair

And throat let back and heartsick trail of limb.

The sky is harsh, and the sea shrewd and salt:

Under his lord the griffin-horse ramps blind

With rigid wings and tail. The spear's lithe stem

Thrills in the roaring of those jaws: behind,

That evil length of body chafes at fault.

She does not hear nor see—she knows of them.


Clench thine eyes now,—'tis the last instant, girl:

Draw in thy senses, set thy knees, and take

One breath for all: thy life is keen awake,—

Thou mayst not swoon. Was that the scattered whirl

Of its foam drenched thee?—or the waves that curl

And split, bleak spray wherein thy temples ache?

Or was it his the champion's blood to flake

Thy flesh?—or thine own blood's anointing, girl?

Now, silence: for the sea's is such a sound

As irks not silence; and except the sea,

All now is still. Now the dead thing doth cease

To writhe, and drifts. He turns to her: and she,

Cast from the jaws of Death, remains there, bound,

Again a woman in her nakedness.



It was on a visit to Paris in the autumn of 1849 that Dante Gabriel Rossetti first encountered Ingres’ painting Ruggiero Delivering Angelica. He found himself infatuated, explaining in a letter to his brother that it was ‘unsurpassed for exquisite perfection by anything I have ever seen.’ Just ten days later, his brother received another letter; two sonnets written for the painting, together entitled For Ruggerio and Angelica by Ingres. They are exercises in ekphrasis, a Greek term describing poems that respond to a work of visual art. The sonnet pair explore notions of temporality and motion through the inherently static medium of painting. This blending of disciplines offers an interesting route into the philosophical discourse of aesthetics and value within the realm of poetry.


Ingres’ painting takes inspiration from the tenth canto of Ariosto’s sixteenth century epic Orlando Furioso. The poem captures the climactic moment in which Ruggiero, the hero of the story, catches the sight of the beautiful Angelica, shackled and unconscious on the Isle of Tears. She has been stripped and left for dead, acting as a human sacrifice for the evil monster of the sea. When Ruggerio stumbles upon the damsel, he comments that she looks like a finely carved statue ‘deemed of alabaster made, or marble rare.’ Just as he and his hippogryph approach the captured woman, the sea monster charges. A battle commences, ending with the beast knocked unconscious, and the two escaping the island. The narrative effect of Ruggiero Delivering Angelica is the first instance of overlap between the literary and visual arts. Ingres paints the ‘pregnant moment’; the defining point, at climax or crisis, that implies what happens both before and after. Such artworks attempt to transcend the limitations of the visual medium by expressing motion, progression, and temporality through the static image.


The first of Rossetti’s sonnets eloquently transcribes the painting into prose. It delivers a vivid description of the scene, responding only to the pictorial image. Scholar Abigail S. Rischin defines this style of poetry as ‘static ekphrasis’, that which ‘confines itself to the single moment of action arrested in the painting.’ Rossetti faithfully guides the reader across the image without ever lingering on one element. The climactic anticipation of Ingres’ original work seems heightened as it is drawn out through word, emphasised with the increasingly vivid and intense language. However, he never strays from description, which is underscored by his continued use of indefinite articles. In the same manner as painting, the sonnet captures the still, eternal moment. Such loyal and earnest re-presentation may be seen as an act of devotion to Ingres, a tribute to such ‘exquisite perfection’ that ensures Ruggiero Delivering Angelica is memorialised across all artistic media.


Such notions can be related to a branch of literary philosophy that explores the ‘value aesthetics’ of poetry. It argues that the value of a poem resides, at least in part, in the reader's experience a subjective yet shared encounter. The value lies in its ability to evoke a particular aesthetic experience in the reader. By grounding poetry's value in experience, it becomes interconnected with the arts, distinguishing poetry from other forms of literature. Rossetti’s sonnets reverse this: he begins with the visual, using his subjective aesthetic experience to construct his poems. Thus, at lease in Rossetti’s case, the value of art resides in the viewer’s experience, further entangling the two.


The second sonnet diverts from description, with Rossetti now entering the scene and propelling it forward. Rischin coins this ‘dynamic ekphrasis’, in which the poem moves beyond the single moment depicted in the painting. She explains ‘as he ushers the painting into the realm of temporality, the poet himself crosses the boundary between life and art, between spectatorship and intervention.’ The devotion to the painting still remains, celebrating the power of narrative painting by answering the rhetorical question posed by the pregnant moment: what happens next? Rossetti begins this transition into the narrative with a set of commands - ‘clench’, draw’, ‘set’, ‘take’ - directed at the frozen Angelica, implying her ability to listen and take action. He then introduces a past to this imaginary world, asking ‘was that the scattered whirl / of its foam drenched thee?’ Through these first few stanzas, the reader is brought into a world where things have happened, are happening, and will continue to happen. We are immediately flung from the static and eternal realm of the first sonnet into a succession of action and temporality.


However, Rossetti is careful not to stray too far from Ingres’ original image, reminding the reader that this is a sonnet to the visual arts. After the monster is slain, there is a final moment of silence and stillness. We return to the harmonic stasis that is an integral property of painting. The sonnet closes with a poignant final image - the naked Angelica, still shackled. Ruggerio’s change in focus as ‘he turns to her’ reflects the attention of the viewer towards Angelica's vulnerable state.


On the whole, For Ruggerio Delivering Angelica by Ingres reflects the paradox of narrative painting - striving to convey temporality within a static medium. Divided into static and dynamic modes, Rossetti's sonnets liberate the painting from its fixed constraints, reaffirming its power to evoke temporal action. It is an act of true devotion, raising the painting to transcend its own medium through his admiration of its narrative potential.


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