This story has everything a reasonable person could possibly want in a macabre bedtime story- dark Victorians, poetry, death, opium, decomposition, grave robbing, famous people, eros/thanatos, complicated grief. The list goes on and on and everything on that list is good.
I was having dinner the other night with my friend Avi, librarian and casket factory worker, and he brought up the Pre-Raphaelite poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I had heard the story of his wife’s death before, but Avi had a book that described it especially vividly, Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism.
Summer beach book, ya’ll!
Dante Rossetti was a Victorian era painter and poet who founded the Pre-Raphealite brotherhood, responsible for all those flowy medieval lady paintings of the period. His wife, Lizzie Sidal, was a sickly (possibly consumptive) depressed type, so common of the times. She was also the muse for many of Dante’s paintings, with her bright red hair and alabaster skin- this was pre anti-ginger sentiment in Britain.
One evening while Dante was away teaching painting, Lizzie decided she had had enough of the cruel world and overdosed on laudanum, an opium based medicine. When Dante found her he was so overcome by grief that he put his only copy of a brand new book of his poems in Lizzie’s arms. They were buried with her in her coffin, as a final proof of his eternal love for dear Lizzie.
In the years following her death, Rossetti shut himself off from the world:
Rossetti assembled a menagerie of exotic animals at the house — from peacocks, raccoons, kangaroos and armadillos, to zebus, marmots, a brahmin bull and a wombat. In the house he kept mice, parrots, owls and woodchucks.
Of course, as people are essentially a self absorbed lot, as Dante’s grief began to fade over the years, he began to feel a longing for the buried poems.
“Had the notebook begun to decompose, deeply buried in the arms of a corpse? Were worms eating his verses? There underground, on the other side of death, were his words still legible?”
So Dante did what any reasonable man would do. Seven and a half years after Lizzie died, he had her body exhumed in the dead of night to retrieve his book of poetry. To be fair, he had tried to hold séances to reach her, perhaps to have her read them out loud from the grave so he could copy them down. If she wasn’t going to cooperate, she had to be dug up.
Two important notes.
One: Dante didn’t even have the gilded Victorian balls to do it himself. He sent other men to the cemetery to do it for him.
Two: They had a doctor with them at the exhumation to make sure the book didn’t have disease from Lizzie’s corpse clinging to it that would possibly infect the living. This should sound ridiculous today, as we know that corpses are not dangerous in any way, but alas people still believe they can catch death.
According to descriptions from the time of the exhumation, the book of poems was, as should be expected, not in great shape. It was soggy and smelled like decomp and all the pages were stuck together. There was a massive wormhole through Dante’s favorite section. Serves you right, ass.
There is a popular legend that dear Lizzie was perfectly preserved in death, even seven and a half years later. It’s interesting that they would want to describe the poems (mere paper, mind you) as being sticky and decomposed but the corpse itself as being perfectly intact and radiant. How Victorian, non?
Then Rossetti published the poems. The End.