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Images of Lilith in A Sea-Spell and The Orchard Pit

Images of Lilith in A Sea-Spell and The Orchard Pit

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.

An Analysis of Lilith (Body’s Beauty)

An Analysis of Lilith (Body’s Beauty)

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).

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