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A Sea-Spell

Updated: May 18, 2020

Oil on canvas, 1877, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 - 1882)

We learn from Homer’s The Odyssey how the mythical Sirens posed yet another trial in Odysseus’ quest to return to his island home of Ithaca where his long-suffering wife Penelope and son Telemachus (not to mention his most loyal hound Argos) awaited him after serving nobly in the Trojan War. The Sirens lured sailors towards their perilous scraggy outcrop by nestling on the rocks and casting out their sweet seductive songs across the waters. Often their singing was accompanied by harp or lyre playing and, in Homer’s account anyway, they were a beautiful erotic fixation for randy sailors who had spent intolerable weeks at sea. Unable to resist their seductions, sailors were tricked into sailing their ships onto the piercing rocks and, once wrecked, the Sirens would devour them and feast on their flesh. Nice! Odysseus is forewarned by another temptress, Circe, and so orders his own sailors to stuff their ears full of beeswax so as to deafen the Siren’s seductive charms, while Odysseus has his men bind him to the mast of the ship so he does not steer their vessel towards the trap. The more they sing to him, and the more he longs to go to them, the tighter his sailors bind him. Eventually they sail past, leaving the sea maidens forlorn and thwarted. Odysseus’ fortitude is often cited as a testament to marital fidelity rather than his maritime proficiency, but it could also stand more cynically as a metaphor for ‘the ties that bind’ notion: the sociological logic of tethering the man to the retinue of domesticity so as to neutralise a tendency for amorous wandering.

From the legacy of the Sirens popular culture has generated the phenomenon of the modern temptress, epitomised by the femme fatale stereotype so often a feature of film noir and neo-noir classics from Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity to Faye Dunaway in Chinatown to Kim Basinger in LA Confidential, not to mention the endlessly repeated trope of the caricatures we commonly refer to as 007’s ‘Bond Girls’. She has become the ultimate projection of male weakness while thinly obscuring a more misogynistic debasement: the dangerously sensual woman who lures a good man to his doom or moral bankruptcy for her own gain. Almost indisputably, it is male authors and male auteurs who fortuitously strike on a forceful female presence to conveniently ‘excuse’ the moral weakness of men, as if to suggest that the proto-Hollywood hero is himself incapable of exercising immorality in accord with his own conscience. The trope has also been used to separate man from man’s desires, as if to imply that no man can resist the seductions of an irresistible woman; as if to nullify the consequences resulting from seduction. In political parlance, the classic ‘honey trap’ was one of the seedier devices for high-profile entrapment deployed during the Cold War and since. Of course the progenitor of the femme fatale long pre-existed the modern age in the form of figures like the biblical Eve or the mythological Medusa, while sharing qualities with courtesans, songstresses and geishas.

There are also allusions to Siren-like figures in Dante’s la Vita Nuova and Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, two poets who Rossetti was obsessed with (even choosing to prefix his own name with that of Dante’s) and throughout his polymorphic artistic career, he revisited subjects surrounding beautiful but deadly women. His devotion to Medievalism meant that he was fixated on symbolic and mythic imagery rather than realism and he soon developed a particular, instantly recognisable style for depicting mesmerising close-up images of women conveyed in flat pictorial spaces characterised by the dense use of colour. This highly stylised mode reflected the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s signature commitment to a return to the Quattrocento movement of Italian art epitomised by the complexity and intensity of Raphael and Michelangelo. Rossetti coupled much of his art with his own somewhat prolix poetry and certainly the painting of A Sea Spell has a tone which one would instantly associate with the high romanticism of Arthurian Courtly Love of which the Victorians were so enamoured.

Rossetti’s siren echoes the oriental lyricism we find in something like Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan which includes the lines, ‘A damsel with a dulcimer/In a vision once I saw’ but his own accompanying sonnet reads, ‘lashing fingers weave the sweet-strung spell’ which introduces certain ambivalence to what ostensibly appears to be a benign and delicate feminine character. The adjective ‘lashing’ denotes sensuality but also the prospect of these delicate fingers becoming weaponised, while ‘sweet-strung spell’ suggests the possibility of dangerous entrapment which awaits. The siren wears a garland of pink flowers which accentuate her feminine irresistibility while her hair and lips are lusciously auburn which signal her incitement to red-hot passion. The canvas is incessantly claustrophobic and ornately decorative, which only serves to highlight the sensation of becoming entwined in a lair from which one cannot then extricate oneself: the pastel tones of Rossetti’s palette serve the dual purpose of emphasising genteel romanticism while flooding the scene with a dense feeling of becoming enclosed in a destiny which is dreamy and doomed. The flowing fabric of her dress and the accessorising flowers capture the gossamer legato liquidness of the situation which the spell of the music casts: to look on the siren is to be drawn towards her. The painting exudes a kind of rapt musicality while being absolutely silent; the siren’s promise is just as hollow. However, her 'dreamy mien' appears to imply that she too has been bewitched by the music she creates as well as the fragrance of the surrounding flowers. Her hypnotic concentration is akin to a kind of auto-suggestion: she too is busy being the subject of a seduction.

Much could be made of Rossetti’s tendency to depict his female muses in poses where their necks are often bent so as to look elongated. Comparative framing can be found in The Roman Window, Veronica Veronese, Lady Lilith, Pia de’ Tolomei and Proserpine. Why? To me, the sidelong perspective of all these figures is a ploy by the artist to sensualise his women: the extended neck allows for a more voluminous portrayal of their marble like flesh, extending down to their often broad curvaceous shoulders, and, in the case of A Sea Spell, even a rather low-hung line of cleavage. Given the social mores of the Victorian period, exhibiting nudity or flesh would have seemed indecent, and yet Rossetti still manages to instil a sense of titillation to his siren without being too risqué. If you like, it is the explicit packaged as the virtuous. The appearance of apples are an allusion to the wider exploration of the ‘woman as temptress’ trope and harks back to Eve, while the inclusion of the seagull is acknowledgement that, classically, the sirens were in fact not entirely human in form, but were traditionally sea-birds with a human head.

Rossetti’s accompanying sonnet reads as follows:

Her lute hangs shadowed in the apple-tree, While lashing 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?

Image courtesy of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.


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