In Rossetti's "Sister Helen," explain why this poem could be called a ballad and if there is any contrast between little brother’s and sister Helen’s attitude? How would you characterize these...

In Rossetti's "Sister Helen," explain why this poem could be called a ballad and if there is any contrast between little brother’s and sister Helen’s attitude? How would you characterize these attitudes?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One way in which Rossetti's poem can be seen as a ballad is because of its structure.  The structure of each stanza is reflective of a musical quality in a ballad.  The brother speaks, Sister Helen's response follows, along with a call out to Mother Mary.  There is a musical quality to this, with refrains in alternate lines.  In this ballad structure, there exists some distinct differences between the little brother's approach and Sister Helen's attitude.  The little brother continually seeks to probe the nature of why Sister Helen is the agent of others' pain and suffering.  For the most part, there are questions in the brother's approach.  His opening question of  “Why did you melt your waxen man / Sister Helen? To-day is the third since you began" sets him off on an entire phase of questioning why people are suffering, and even why his sister adopts the perspective that she does.  For her part, Sister Helen is resolute in her approach.  She does not waver despite the questions that her brother puts to her.  This can be seen in lines such as, "No vesper-chime, but a dying knell," "Blest hour of my power and her despair," and  "One morn for pride and three days for woe."  In these moments, there is a distinctly harsh and punitive attitude in Sister Helen.  The brother reflects a world where questions about the nature of consciousness are raised. Sister Helen's responses are reflective of decisive action being taken.  There is a finality to her responses, and while she allows the brother to ask his questions, she will not deviate from her path.  It is this dynamic of questioning and the denial of anything substantive resulting from it that prompts the closing line of the ballad:

O Mother, Mary Mother,
Lost, lost, all lost, between Hell and Heaven!)
In this ending, the differences between the brother's attitude and Sister's Helen resolute condition collapse into a condition pleading for help.
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