Monday, March 3, 2008

The Dark Side of Victorian Hair

A woman's hair in Victorian times could be a symbol of warm sexuality, beauty, and security. Lovers would ask for a lock of their beloved's hair, and after a loved one would die, hair ornaments would be created. Whole poems were written devoted to the "hair tent"...the name for when a man would nestle on his beloved's breast and she would let her hair hang down all around him like a safe refuge. However, like the mixed Victorian sentiment toward womanhood in general, a woman's hair could also be considered a dark and evil thing.

A woman's hair could possibly be a wild and evil thing in several ways...
  • A source of power for a sorceress, or a source to lose power in womanhood
  • Snake-like and poisonous
  • A web to entangle
  • An instrument with which to strangle
In Victorian fiction, poetry, and art, all four of these motifs are repeated numerous times. In Rossetti's composition, "Jenny," the title character sells her hair, and is left with her virtue, health, and wealth thereby diminished. In numerous poems and artworks, a woman's hair is described and pictured as snake-like, either moving against the will of the individual, or doing her evil bidding. Hair is also seen as a web, to entangle men in, or to entangle herself. Consider The Lady of Shalott by Holman-Hunt. In a wonderful article on hair in Victorian art, it is said "Hunt casts her as either frenziedly weaving her web or struggling to be free of the entwining and ensnaring threads. She becomes simultaneously the skillful weaver and the desperate slave who has lost control of her web."

However, I think my favorite evil connotation for hair (if one can really use the word "favorite" in regard to something like this?) is the motif of a woman's hair as an instrument for strangling. Waterhouse's La Belle Dame Sans Merci (shown at top) uses her hair as a noose to pull the knight to his death, while the famed poem Porphyria's Lover tells of a man strangling his beloved with her own yellow hair.

And then there is also the persistent story that when Rossetti had Lizzie Siddal's grave exhumed to retrieve his poems, her hair had continued growing until it filled the entire coffin. The morbidity and simultaneous beauty and macabre of such an image is a perfect example of the Victorian man's mixed opinions on a woman's hair, and her body. Recently, in my "research" on Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite hair, I came across a poem that was just too delicious to not share. The idea of a beloved calling from beyond the grave, and the mixed loving and morbid tone remind me much of the story of Siddal's grave, and the attitude of Victorian men.

I Love My Love
by Helen Adam

In the dark of the moon the hair rules.
--Robert Duncan

There was a man who married a maid. She laughed as he led her home.
The living fleece of her long bright hair she combed with a golden comb.
He led her home through his barley fields where the saffron poppies grew.
She combed, and whispered, "I love my love." Her voice like a plaintive coo.
Ha! Ha!
Her voice like a plaintive coo.

He lived alone with his chosen bride, at first their life was sweet.
Sweet was the touch of her playful hair binding his hands and feet.
When first she murmured adoring words her words did not appall.
"I love my love with a capital A. To my love I give my All.
Ah, Ha!
To my love I give my All."

She circled him with the secret web she wove as her strong hair grew.
Like a golden spider she wove and sang, "My love is tender and true."
She combed her hair with a golden comb and shckled him to a tree.
She shackled him close to the Tree of Life. "My love I'll never set free.
No, No.
My love I'll never set free."

Whenever he broke her golden bonds he was held with bonds of gold.
"Oh! cannot a man escape from love, from Love's hot smothering hold?"
He roared with fury. He broke her bonds. He ran in the light of the sun.
Her soft hair rippled and trapped his feet, as fast as his feet could run,
Ha! Ha!
As fast as his feet could run.

He dug a grave, and he dug it wide. He strangled her in her sleep.
He strangled his love with a strand of hair, and then he buried her deep.
He buried her deep when the sun was hid by a purple thunder cloud.
Her helpless hair sprawled over the corpse in a pale resplendent shroud.
Ha! Ha!
A pale resplendent shroud.

Morning and night of thunder rain, and then it came to pass
That the hair sprang up through the earth of the grave, and it grew like golden grass.
It grew and glittered along her grave alive in the light of the sun.
Every hair had a plaintive voice, the voice of his lovely one.

"I love my love with a capital T. My love is Tender and True.
I'll love my love in the barley fields when the thunder cloud is blue.
My body crumbles beneath the ground but the hairs of my head will grow.
I'll love my love with the hairs of my head. I'll never, never let go.
Ha! Ha!
I'll never, never let go."

The hair sang soft, and the hair sang high, singing of loves that drown,
Till he took his scythe by the light of the moon, and he scythed that singing hair down.
Every hair laughed a liting laugh, and shrilled as his scythe swept through.
"I love my love with a capital T. My love is Tender and True.
Ha! Ha!
Tender, Tender, and True."

All through the night he wept and prayed, but before the first bird woke
Around the house in the barley fields blew the hair like billowing smoke.
Her hair blew over the barley fields where the slothfull poppies gape.
All day long all its voices cooed, "My love can never escape,
No, No!
My love can never escape."

"Be still, be still, you devilish hair. Glide back to the grave and sleep.
Glide back to the grave and wrap her bones down where I buried her deep.
I am the man who escaped from love, though love was my fate and doom.
Can no man ever escape from love who breaks from a woman's womb?"

Over his house, when the sun stood high, her hair was a dazzling storm,
Rolling, lashing o'er walls and roof, heavy, and soft, and warm.
It thumped on the roof, it hissed and glowed over every window pane.
The smell of the hair was in the house. It smelled like a lion's mane,
Ha! Ha!
It smelled like a lion's mane.

Three times round the bed of their love, and his heart lurched with despair.
In through the keyhole, elvish bright, came creeping a single hair.
Softly, softly, it stroked his lips, on his eyelids traced a sign.
"I love my love with a capital Z. I mark him Zero and mine.
Ha! Ha!
I mark him Zero and mine."

The hair rushed in. He struggled and tore, but wherever he tore a tress,
"I love my love with a capital Z," sang the hair of the sorceress.
It swarmed upon him, it swaddled him fast, it muffled his every groan.
Like a golden monster it seized his flesh, and then it sought the bone,
Ha! Ha!
And then it sought the bone.

It smothered his flesh and sought the bones. Until his bones were bare
There was no sound but the joyful hiss of the sweet insatiable hair.
"I love my love," it laughed as it ran back to the grave, its home.
Then the living fleece of her long bright hair, she combed with a golden comb.



Katherine said...

Ha! As soon as I started reading your post, I thought of that poem--what a delicious tale of love gone too far.

I love the Pre-Raphaelites, and your blog is delightful! Please keep it up!

Grace said...

Thanks! I find it simultaneously fascinating and disturbing how much influence a woman's hair had on the Victorian man!

Brad Ferguson said...

I don't usually comment on a person's appearance, but I must tell you that you have the most beautiful hair. Having both a thing for long hair and for red hair I was struck by it. I in no way consider myself "Victorian" but I have to say that your locks have had an influence on me.

Grace said...

Thank you so much, Brad! Having just perused your blog, I have to say I have a huge amount of admiration for what you do. The beauty of your work is undeniable!

Anonymous said...

Hi, I came across your blog when searching for an easy way to de-tangle long hair! I've only recently grown my own hair after many years of having it short and find all hair-related things of great interest. I've never read that poem before but found it fascinating.

Grace said...

Hi Anonymous! Good luck with the hair. I've been growing mine out for 8 years now...still working on that elusive waist-length :)