The concept that self-denial was essential to secure true, or transcendent, love was a fixture of a great deal of 19th century literature, particularly in regard to the aspirations of women in fiction and poetry. It could be argued that this extreme view of romance as something obtainable often only after death or the most severe trial was prompted by notions of the fallibility of men themselves; that is to say, if men were traditionally seen as more willing to settle for earthly gratifications and physical love, it was all the more incumbent upon women to hold to a higher standard, and thus elevate love to its rightful, transcendent state. However it emerged as a dominant theme, authors Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Charlotte Bronte each created works in which transcendent love is presented as the ultimate human attainment, and this very inaccessibility of it provides them with foundations upon which to fully explore the range of human potential.
Rossetti’s “Blessed Damozel”
It is always tempting to apply the fact of an author’s age and circumstances to an examination of a work, particularly when, as in the case of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and “The Blessed Damozel”, the poet is a boy of eighteen. There is some justification for doing so here, despite the fact that poetry must stand apart from such considerations; everything about “The Blessed Damozel” evokes youthful excess, both in rapture and sadness, and Rossetti’s youth at the time of its composition helps to illustrate, perhaps, its insistence on transcendent love. That is to say, such an extremely romantic stance from a male demands more in the way of explanation than would a similar one from the pen of a woman of the era.
The reality is that only a very young man, artist or otherwise, feels the need to view love in so lofty a manner. Poets are, of course, notoriously driven to excess of feeling, yet even the more effusive poetry of older poets is usually tempered by a sense of pragmatism. They love and they frequently glorify the beloved, but the love itself is often earthbound. It exists in the real world, no matter the divine attributes of the beloved. Very young men, conversely, part company from their seniors at this stage of their lives, and it is a time when the masculine and feminine outlooks on romance most nearly parallel. Love, new to each, is baffling and frightening; consequently, young men and women tend to apply to it qualities larger than life.
This is the kind of almost adolescent exuberance that marks “The Blessed Damozel”, and demands it focus on love as a purely transcendent thing, possibly obtainable only as a heavenly reward for the faith kept to it. In a sense, the entire poem is something of a “balcony scene”, an analogy to the extreme romanticism of Romeo and Juliet by no means coincidental. The heroine of the title resides in a divine limbo, aware of the heaven around her and pained by the separation from her still-living lover. He, for his part, feels and senses his beloved, and both yearn for the day when his death will bring them together again. The poem is strangely both pagan and implacably Christian, as well; the damozel is attended by the celestial handmaidens of the goddess Artemis, yet her prayers go to the Virgin Mary and to Christ himself. Beyond these elements of “set”, however, the essence of the poem is resoundingly clear. If fidelity is honored, then the love between the two may be rewarded for eternity, and the transcendent quality of this love will make the long years of suffering worthwhile. Simply, transcendent love is reserved for the worthy, who are those lovers capable of enduring a lifetime of no love at all. Even so, as Rossetti’s lovers feel all too acutely, there is no assurance of this love as being realized.
Charlotte Bronte: Transcendent Love as Lost Aspiration
A somewhat more stoic, if not outright harsh, view of transcendent love is expressed throughout Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Employing the greater range of literary freedom made possible by prose, Bronte sets out a story wherein the glories of love are only minimally glimpsed, and rarely ever taken as potentially attainable. Much of the novel, in fact, is what may be termed “anti-romantic”, as it takes every opportunity to remind the reader, and the title heroine, that the world is a hard place, and that ideal love is a miraculous occurrence, at best.
This is not to say that Bronte does not actually testify to a faith in transcendent love. On the contrary, her relentless focus on the obstacles to it only serve to highlight what she evidently perceives to be its majesty. Nearly Puritanical in her rigorous virtue, Jane nonetheless does dream. The dreams are few, and she is not crushed by the loss of her dream of love with Rochester – she virtually anticipates it, so dour are her expectations – but they are nonetheless the more idealized by the contrast. Then, as with Rossetti, there is a fundamental Christianity underlying the promise of such love; only noble sacrifice on a Christ-like scale, it is felt, may entitle a weak mortal to such a paradise of feeling. So, too, is it conveyed that Christian duty must take precedence over even the most passionate stirrings of the heart and soul.
What is most compelling in Jane Eyre, in regard to the heroine’s romantic life, is her conviction of unworthiness stemming, at least in part, from her own, worldly circumstances. This is interesting, and cynical, of Bronte. That is, Jane believes in a goodness of loving beyond human measure, yet she is always acutely aware that she lacks the mortal qualities which typically generate any kind of love at all. She is poor, of no family, and plain in appearance. She has pride, because she holds to inner beliefs regarding humanity and each person’s obligations in living as a true Christian, but she has no illusions. This is most evidently illustrated when, after carefully and modestly indicating in her story the depth of her feeling for Edward Rochester, he expresses his undying love for her. Her reaction is strikingly brusque. She demands that he repeat himself in the light, that she may read the honesty of his eyes. She lists her shortcomings, offering him the opportunity to withdraw his avowal. If he is to actually meet her expectations of the transcendent, inexpressible love of the soul she herself feels, she puts him to the most rigorous testing first.
As the story unfolds and Rochester’s misery of a marriage ends their relationship, Bronte carries her view of transcendent love into even starker terrain. Jane does, at least intellectually, fully subscribe to Rochester’s argument that, in being together, they commit no sin. She is tortured because the impossible, brilliant love she neared remains, even then, at hand. Here, however, is where Bronte “raises the stakes” on transcendent love. It cannot be had through any sort of compromise at all, for to do so would render it earthly, and non-transcendent. Leaving Rochester means, for her, the end of any possible happiness for ether of them, but her Christian concept of transcendent love allows for no other action. The real beauty of the love finally given to, and accepted by, Jane is that the transcendent force of it has never been tarnished. It is more forceful, in fact, because the reader understands completely that Jane was prepared to go without it. As with Rossetti’s poem, consistent virtue may be the only reward for the pursuit of transcendent love, and all that a person may be capable of is then drawn out. For Rochester, it may well have meant a life of grim acceptance; for Jane, little beyond that. The standard of transcendent love held to, however, is what would have enabled both to meet these destinies.
For whatever cultural and/or artistic motivations guiding them, both Rossetti and Bronte give to the world a form of love so rarefied, its wonders are never promised. Its literary function, however, is immensely valuable. In “The Blessed Damozel” and Jane Eyre, transcendent love is employed as something of a device, and one by which the greatest range of human potentials may be tested. Rossetti and Bronte each create works in which transcendent love is presented as the pinnacle of the human connection, and the extraordinary difficulty in striving for it allows for a rich development of character and the exploring of real, human potential.