About Dr Serena Trowbridge

Lecturer in English at Birmingham City University

‘Parisina’s Sleep’ by Ford Madox Brown


‘Parisina’s Sleep’ by Ford Madox Brown

Accession Number: 1927P355

Date: 1842

This chalk study for ‘Parisina’s Sleep’ (one of three in the Birmingham collection) is based on Byron’s poem with the same title. These were preliminary sketches for an oil painting, whose whereabouts is now unknown. Byron’s narrative tells of Parisina, who has been forced to marry Azo whilst being in love with his son from a previous relationship, Hugo. Her guilty love is given away in her sleep:

And Hugo is gone to his lonely bed,
To covet there another’s bride;
But she must lay her conscious head
A husband’s trusting heart beside.
But fevered in her sleep she seems,
And red her cheek with troubled dreams,
And mutters she in her unrest
A name she dare not breathe by day,
And clasps her lord unto the breast
Which pants for one away:
And he to that embrace awakes,
And, happy in the thought, mistakes
That dreaming sigh, and warm caress,
For such as he was wont to bless;
And could in very fondness weep
O’er her who loves him even in sleep.

Azo hears the muttered name of Hugo, and realises how his wife feels; he draws his dagger to kill her, but cannot bring himself to do it; her beauty and apparent innocence whilst asleep protects her:

He could not slay a thing so fair—
At least, not smiling—sleeping—there—
Nay more:—he did not wake her then,
But gazed upon her with a glance
Which, had she roused her from her trance,
Had frozen her sense to sleep again—

Hugo is summoned to Azo the next day, and sentenced to death. Hugo does not protest but claims he will go to his death nobly, while Parisina watches aghast. Byron spares no detail of the young man’s execution, but Parisina’s fate is equally tragic: after a maddened schriek, no more is heard of Parisina, who vanishes from sight forever, and soon enough Azo finds another wife. Byron’s source is Edward Gibbon’s telling of the tale, based on a true story from fifteenth-century Italy.

Madox Brown’s work focuses on the moment of betrayal, when Parisina sleeps a guilty sleep. Azo is described in Byron’s poem as having bulging veins and a darkened brow, and this is certainly present in the drawing. His expression as he gazes at his wife is terrifying, and she, with her hair hanging down, fast asleep still, seems an innocent victim to a tyrant husband. It is a psychologically complex tale, since guilt and innocence are present on both sides, and the drawing reflects this ambiguity effectively.