Skip to main content

“Beauty's Soul: After Rossetti”

By Alanna McKnight

There is a fascinating trend in poetry at the moment called “Uncreative Writing”, wherein the poet takes a pre-existing text, deconstructs it, and makes poetry from the words.  Toronto-based Avant-Garde poet Jacqueline Valencia ( has used books, movie scripts, and even receipts to create new works.  I used this as inspiration for this creative assignment.  Rather than using Rossetti’s poem as is with a reproduction of the painting Soul’s Beauty/Sybilla Palmifera, I opted to de-write it.  I began by plotting out the rhyming scheme that Rossetti used (ABBAABBA CDDEEC), and took apart the poem, word by word, placing them in new orders until it created a coherent idea.  The same principle was used for the accompanying image and title.  As Rossetti’s title Soul’s Beauty only has two words, I reversed them.

Where Rossetti painted Sybilla Palmifera first, and then wrote the accompanying sonnet, I worked the other way around.  I included the dress I made based on the Sybil, props such as roses and a censer, and the un-lit candle of Lady Lilltih.  The photo was taken on a blustery day, and wind aided with the wild hair that is present in many of Rossetti’s images.  The cloth that covers the seat has pomegranates on it, which are representative of Persephone/Proserpine, which not only is a nod to other Rossetti works, but also represent the dualism of life and death in the poem.  This is repeated in my holding a live rose and a dagger.  Like Rossetti, the words and text are included together in the frame, which was inspired by a variety of frames of the Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts movements. 

The words that make up my sonnet are the words that Rossetti wrote, placed in a different order, so is my image is the same woman, in a different context.  The photograph was taken by Dan Henderson of Valhalla Images.