From the soporific cadence of its opening line, ‘The Card-Dealer’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), unfolds its narrative in languid seduction. With masterly skill, the poem transports the reader to a heady non-corporeal plane; the space between the gossamer veil of life and death.
The poem was inspired by a painting by the symbolist artist Theodore Von Holst1 entitled The Wish (also known as The Fortune Teller (1840). Dominating the centre of the canvas the figure of a woman stares out; her face is heavily shadowed contrasting with the bright illumination of her hands and the cards she deals. Her dark penetrating eyes hold the viewer whilst her hands and cards seal their fate. Rossetti’s poem serves as a commentary on the painting and successfully articulates the paintings rhythms with the use of a slow metronomic meter that hypnotizes the reader.
‘Could you not drink her gaze like wine
Yet, through its splendour swoon
Into the silence languidly
As a tune into a tune
Those eyes unravel the coil’d night
And know the stars at noon.’
If we view the opening line as an intoxicant contrived by Rossetti to lull the reader into a heady drunkenness, then we have to consider the lines that follow as a means to reduce the reader to a malleable stupor. Within this dream-space the lines ‘into the silence languidly, as a tune into a tune’ evokes the notion that the reader is falling into the card-dealer’s rhythm, she is pre-ordained to ensnare those she encounters just as the reader is pre-destined to be caught. Powerless the reader is fast within the card-dealer’s grip, too mesmerised to attempt extrication.
As the poem progresses the card-dealer develops the mythical aura of the femme fatale, with a decadent beauty described in terms of precious metals– her hair is described as woven gold and she is decadently bejeweled:
‘Blood-red and purple, green and blue,
The great eyes of her rings’
The Card-Dealer has a magical ‘stillness’ that electrifies the air around her, she is otherworldly and in essence she is at the centre of humanity around who all other life must orbit.
Each verse is a card in her hand to be played and is an extension of her will. The final three verses make clear what her role is to the reader and allude to the true role of the cards: ‘The heart that doth crave…the diamond skill’d to make the base seem brave’ and chillingly ‘the spade, to dig a grave’. The final verse brings the denouement:
‘Her game in thy tongue is call’d life
As ebbs thy daily breath
When she shall speak, thou’lt learn her tongue
And know she calls it death’.
Rossetti greatly admired the painting by Von Holst and to some extent it illustrates Rossetti’s predilection towards the narrative and figurative power of the femme fatale, indeed this motif surfaces with rhythmic regularity throughout Rossetti’s career from Beatrice to Lilith the seductress.
1. The Rossetti archive
The card dealer http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-card-dealer/