Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s first published poem, “The Card-Dealer,” was based on a painting by Theodore von Holst (1810-1844) called “The Wish” or “The Fortune-Teller” (1840). The poem, which epitomized Rossetti’s fascination with the theme of the femme fatale, was inspired by the painting that he described as being of “a beautiful woman, richly dressed, who is sitting at a lamp-lit table, dealing out cards, with a peculiar fixedness of expression.” In his poem, the woman (Death?, La Morte, in Rossetti’s Italian) plays with men as she plays with the cards, which, we are told, represent the heart that craves the more it feeds, the diamond that makes even the base seem brave, the club that smites, and the spade that digs a grave.
“The Card-Dealer” (1852; revised 1870)
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Could you not drink her gaze like wine?
Yet though its splendour swoon
Into the silence languidly
As a tune into a tune,
Those eyes unravel the coiled night
And know the stars at noon.
The gold that’s heaped beside her hand,
In truth rich prize it were;
And rich the dreams that wreathe her brows
With magic stillness there;
And he were rich who should unwind
That woven golden hair.
Around her, where she sits, the dance
Now breathes its eager heat;
And not more lightly or more true
Fall there the dancers’ feet
Than fall her cards on the bright board
As ’twere an heart that beat.
Her fingers let them softly through,
Smooth polished silent things;
And each one as it falls reflects
In swift light-shadowings,
Blood-red and purple, green and blue,
The great eyes of her rings.
Whom plays she with? With thee, who lov’st
Those gems upon her hand;
With me, who search her secret brows;
With all men, bless’d or bann’d.
We play together, she and we,
Within a vain strange land:
A land without any order,—
Day even as night, (one saith,)—
Where who lieth down ariseth not
Nor the sleeper awakeneth;
A land of darkness as darkness itself
And of the shadow of death.
What be her cards, you ask? Even these:—
The heart, that doth but crave
More, having fed; the diamond,
Skilled to make base seem brave;
The club, for smiting in the dark;
The spade, to dig a grave.
And do you ask what game she plays?
With me ’tis lost or won;
With thee it is playing still; with him
It is not well begun;
But ’tis a game she plays with all
Beneath the sway o’ the sun.
Thou seest the card that falls,—she knows
The card that followeth:
Her game in thy tongue is called Life,
As ebbs thy daily breath:
When she shall speak, thou’lt learn her tongue
And know she calls it Death.
Read more about the poem and the painting here.