To Think of Toads

We had to clear and clean and arrange the “spare room” yesterday. We’ve been putting it off for all the good reasons things get put off, but the imminent arrival of a guest spurred us to a blaze of action. The actual physical work wasn’t so bad; not bad at all; sort of invigorating really. No, it’s the painful triage of accumulated Stuff that makes us procrastinate, especially the sorting of memorabila from forgetabilia. Is this broken plastic fork a memento of some happy picnic?

Yer knows yer loiks it.On the plus side: many delightful archaeological unearthings. For example: an old GameBoy Color with a Harvest Moon cartridge still in it. A perfecly functional Palm Zire 72 (the one with a built in camera); it lacked a hotsync cable, but I found a website that carries them. And pictured above: an old, old used-book-sale find. [Dante Gabriel] Rossetti’s Poetical Works as edited and prefaced by his brother!!! It’s the classy sort of book that has a sheet of translucent paper between the frontispiece and title page. It almost calls for a smoking jacket and snifter of brandy.

The poems are a scream. Take Jenny. “Jenny” being slang for a whore. Rossetti spends some 400 lines considering the prostitute passed out with her head on his knee — she snoring, he alternating among paeons to her beauty, mockery for her monetary motivation, storms of exquisite post-Christian guilt, and what-a-good-boy-am-I grins.

First the praise:

Fair shines the gilded aureole
In which our highest painters place
Some living woman’s simple face.

It’s funnier if you take “simple” to mean “stupid” instead of “pure,” but in fact he thinks it would take a Renaissance painter to capture the way “Jenny’s long throat droops.” Her cute lil features, he says,

With Raffael’s, Leonardo’s hand
To show them to men’s souls, might stand,
Whole ages long, the whole world through,
For preachings of what God can do.

Hugh Hefner couldn’t have said it better, Dante Gabriel. Too bad this generous thought of yours brings on an instant reaction:

What has man done here? How atone,
Great God, for this which man has done?
And for the body and soul which by
Man’s pitiless doom must now comply
With lifelong hell, what lullaby
Of sweet forgetful second birth
Remains? All dark.  No sign on earth
What measure of God’s rest endows
The many mansions of his house.

Hey, what’s with that “man” business, Dante Gabriel? Don’t try to hang your peccadillos on all of us! I never even met the girl! And don’t worry about your doom being pitiless. You’ve enough self-pity to supply whole dark mansionsful of naughty Victorians.

He compares his compulsion for whoring to a “toad within a stone” that will stay hidden there until the end of time when the stone will

Break at the very Master’s stroke,
And the dust thereof vanish as smoke,
And the seed of Man [There he goes again!] vanish as dust:–
Even so within this world is Lust.

I don’t really follow that last part. It sounds to me like Rossetti’s lusty toad, far from being stuck in stone, is hopping all over the place. He seems to sense the falsity of his metaphor because he immediately chides himself:

Come, come, what use in thoughts like this?
Poor little Jenny, good to kiss,–
You’d not believe by what strange roads
Thought travels, when your beauty goads
A man to-night to think of toads!

I suspect nothing about men’s thoughts would surprise Jenny, though I admit the toad thing might give her a moment’s pause. Certainly toad-thoughts disrupt Rossetti’s reverie and he notices the sun coming up:

And now without, as if some word
Had called upon them that they heard,
The London sparrows far and nigh
Clamor together suddenly;
And Jenny’s cage-bird grown awake
Here in their song his part must take,
Because here too the day doth break.

Well, what did you suppose, Dante Gabriel? That her room was perpetually a nighttime den of ranine poetic composition?
At this point, Rossetti slips a cushion beneath Jenny’s head in place of his cramped knee. He gets dressed, leaves some gold coins on her hair, then imagines her surprise when she wakes up, lifts her head and the coins spill on the floor:

Jenny, my love rang true! for still
Love at first sight is vague, until
That tinkling makes him audible.

A cheap shot that. But he apologises right away:

And must I mock you to the last,
Ashamed of my own shame,–aghast
Because some thoughts not born amiss
Rose at a poor fair face like this?

Oh, for heavens sake, just put on your top hat and go home!


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