The Life and Burial of Lizzie Siddal
( You flew too near the sun and you were scorched.
From The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. )
Your face I knew, long before your name.
You were a bird that flew,
no pen or brush could cage or tame.
Your beauty noble, wild,
like that of a deer,
who runs through the woods,
to pause, alert, by a river,
to stoop, to drink water,
ready to flee from the hunter,
declare yourself free from the enchanter,
always one leap away from his net and his game.
Your face, I saw, once, on a canvas,
and then, there it was, again.
I saw sorrow in your beauty,
tears, strain, as if you had long endeavoured
not to surrender to love’s pain.
Thought your face was idealized,
as in an angel sculpture or Mary icon,
from an artist’s cleansed and clear mind,
his vision of fair womankind.
Now I know, that face, painted on canvas,
drawn on paper, was your face,
that of a real woman,
not an ideal or vision.
My eye can see why he loved you,
wanted you as his muse, his lover,
for there is poetry in your face, your name,
Lizzie Siddal, wild bird that none could tame.
You were the daughter of a cutler,
that is, a knife maker or dealer,
and you were a milliner,
worked in Mrs Tozer’s hat shop,
just off the Old Kent Road,
in murky, foggy London,
when Victoria sat upon the throne
of Britain and the Empire,
before the wheels began to tire,
clog and melt in rusty fire.
The market place and streets you knew,
in company and alone.
It was Walter Deverell,
a friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti,
the Pre-Raphaelite poet, painter,
who told him he had found you,
working in your hat shop,
described you as a stunner,
said that you were tall,
your neck stately,
your brow, your face,
like the carving of a Pheidean goddess,
your hair long, a dazzling reddish copper gold,
with a shimmer, as it fell from your shoulders down.
So after he had seen you,
he asked permission of your parents,
to have you for his paintings pose,
for he knew he had found in you
a fair and rare, wild rose.
Of all the faces he saw passing by in London,
yours was the one he chose.
What draws us together, tears us apart,
but that is the leap that lovers dare.
There’s always the danger, right from the start,
but the heart knows, it is best to care.
First, John Everett Millais
lay you in a bath of cold water,
to paint you as Ophelia,
drowned with flowers in a river,
after Hamlet had scolded her,
told her to get to a nunnery,
after his discovery
that his mother and her lover
were the murderers of his father,
and she had lost her mind,
like you, she had found life to be unkind.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
painted you as Beatrice,
but only after you had died.
Despite those other women
who became his muses,
like Annie Miller, Fanny Cornforth,
Ruth Herbert and Jane Burden,
you were the one he mourned
as his dead wife,
over your grave, he cried.
You gave birth to his child,
but you sat and rocked an empty cradle,
for your child was born dead.
And among the tears you shed,
you were tormented by the face of Annie Miller,
who William Holman Hunt
had taken as his muse,
said he saved her from the gutter.
Now she posed as he painted her,
as his model, his lover.
As the Lady of Shalott, he painted her,
as she sailed in her barge,
down the river, to Camelot,
from the verses of Tennyson,
his Victorian vision of the Arthur king,
haunting as the lays the Medieval minstrels sing.
And your husband painted her as Helen of Troy,
so you felt neglected, abandoned,
a blanked out muse, forgotten toy.
He came home from teaching one evening,
to find you lying dead upon the floor.
An accidental overdose of laudanum
was the verdict when you died.
At your burial at Highgate,
he buried you with a notebook of his verses,
which in the madness of his grief,
he later had exhumed,
so that others might still read them,
and not leave them with you,
Do not be sorry, you left behind your life,
your stained and broken love story,
your face on canvas and on paper,
such as the drawing your husband did of you,
he called, Lizzie Lets Down Her Hair.
You are still here, you are there, and everywhere.
Do not cry over what happened to you.
Remember, even if lovers do not part,
in the end, one must die first,
then, the other, after.
But you were young once.
Your hair was long and copper red,
you fed on market bread,
on apple, cherry, strawberry,
from a basket you were bred.
John Ruskin said you were a genius,
after studying your drawings, paintings, poems,
and he should know, for he wrote Modern Painters
and The Seven Lamps of Architecture.
You wandered round the market,
with fruit and bread inside your basket,
and smiled to hear the friendly calls,
the loud lunged, carefree laughter.