Rossetti and the Goitrous Necks: 5. Christina

Christina pics 2Christina was Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s sister, and along with their mother, the model for ‘The Girlhood of Mary Virgin’ (1849). The next image shows a sketch of her looking more like his usual models, but less sexy, more studious. She did actually have a visible ‘neck’/thyroid gland problem, which she later kept covered up.

This condition was recognised as ‘Graves’ Disease’ even in 1871, and was thought to be a disturbance of the heart because of the raised pulse rate, common in hyperthyroidism. Apart from enlargement at the neck (goitre), another classic sign is bulging of the eyes (exopthalmia), visible in the photograph. Although this illness is now considered auto-immune, Christina was treated with iodine amongst other things and surgery was considered.

In her famous poem ‘The Goblin Market’, the tempted sister is described thus:

Laura stretched her gleaming neck
Like a rush-imbedded swan,
Like a lily from the beck,
Like a moonlit poplar branch,
Like a vessel at the launch
When its last restraint is gone.

These are ‘stunning’ lines which well match Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painted beauties, the so-called ‘stunners’.




Scurvy and the Ghastly Crew

2019 Dead uprose b

They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose,
Nor spake, nor moved their eyes;
It had been strange, even in a dream,

To have seen those dead men rise.
The helmsman steered, the ship moved on;
Yet never a breeze up blew;
The mariners all ‘gan work the ropes,
Where they were wont to do:
They raised their limbs like lifeless tools —
We were a ghastly crew.

The undead seamen were presumably scorbutic hallucinations, but as the Ancient Mariner had blessed the water-snakes, he will be saved.

Scurvy, the Horror Story of the Sea

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Gustave Dore illustration to Coleridge’s ‘The Ancient Mariner’

Four times fifty living men,
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan)
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropped down one by one.

Scurvy affects the mind as well as the body, which may partly account for why the sea captains regarded it with shame, rather than remedying the dietary deficiency.

Jonathan Lamb argues that this was the problem for the Ancient Mariner and his crew-mates, with a characteristic enhancement of the senses leading to visions of extreme horror and also of beauty.

Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes :
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware.

Oxygen Therapy 7: Davy and Coleridge

Coleridge for blogColeridge was another poet who was eager to try Davy’s gases, and commented:

‘The first time I inspired the nitrous oxide, I felt an highly pleasurable sensation of warmth…The only motion which I felt inclined to make, was that of laughing…’

His famous poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, more likely composed under the influence of opium, features an ‘Undead Lady’:

Her lips were red, her looks were free,

Her locks were yellow as gold:

Her skin was as white as leprosy,

The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,

Who thicks man’s blood with cold.

It has been recently suggested by Jonathan Lamb that she represents the disease scurvy, which could indeed kill off a ship’s crew, and that the accompanying heightening of the senses in some ways resembles the effects of nitrous oxide.

Oxygen Therapy 4: Humphry Davy’s Laboratory

Davy Ppt for blog 2The young Humphry Davy, while busy developing and testing gases for Dr Beddoes’ patients in 1799,  first tried them out on himself, and  so wrote the poem ‘On Breathing Nitrous Oxide’, putting data into verse:

My bosom burns with no unhallowed fire:

Yet is my cheek with rosy blushes warm

Yet are my eyes with sparkling lustre filled

Yet is my mouth replete with murmuring sound

Yet are my limbs with inward transport thrilled

And clad with newborn mightiness around.

Richard Holmes, in his excellent book ‘Age of Wonder‘ concedes Davy may have been also inspired by Mrs Beddoes, born Anna Edgeworth.