How does Woolf's comment on Rossetti's relation to beauty apply to 'An Apple Gathering'?
Woolf: "No sooner have you feasted on beauty with your eyes than your mind tells you that beauty is vain and beauty passes. Death, oblivion and rest lap round your songs with their dark wave."
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Rossetti's 'An Apple Gathering' seems to be about a young woman who has given her love too soon and imprudently. Her lack of apples compared to others seems to symbolise that her rash action of picking the blossom "that evening" has left her without fruit, that is, without an enduring relationship. This is evidenced by the plaintive call to Willie in the fifth stanza: "Ah Willie, Willie, was my love less worth / Than apples with their green leaves piled above?"
This poem does seem to bear out Woolf's assessment of Rossetti's work in several ways. Firstly, we can see that Rossetti is "feast[ing] on beauty" in this poem as the speaker's connection with her lover Willie is symbolised in the apples. The first line, 'I plucked pink blossoms from mine apple-tree", leaps into the poem with a definite first person voice and a bold alliterative phrase and shows her appetite for what the apple-tree might bring. Towards the middle of the poem, Rossetti emphasises the "beauty" of love and sexual connection with the images of the other people with their "heaped-up basket[s]". By using a food image to explore the rich and spontaneous sensations of love, Rossetti makes it seem enticing, but also easily consumed.
Woolf's comment is also evidenced in the way that Rossetti immediately undercuts the speaker's confidence and youthful brio when she concludes the opening stanza with "I found no apples there" which gives a flat, disappointed tone, with its monosyllabic words and fore-shortened line-length. By rhyming this line with the more romantic and carefree line, "And wore them all that evening in my hair", Rossetti makes the second line even more blunt in its effect. This does seem to show that Rossetti both savours the "beauty" of youth, love and sexuality in her poem, but at the same time registers the pain that "beauty is vain and beauty passes".
Finally, the poem does suggest that "Death, oblivion and rest" are near at hand as Rossetti builds up a sensation of cold emptiness through the core of the poem which she then gives voice to explicitly in the closing stanza. Whilst the main speaker is immediately lacking ("I found no apples there") and "empty-handed", the others around her, passing her, are rich and vital. "Lilian and Lilias", with their labial names and comfortable companionship are "sweet-voiced" and "Their mother's home [is] near". Gertrude is "Plump" and has "A stronger hand" to help her. These images of abundance in others who are travelling in the other direction serve to emphasise the poverty of the main speaker who moves towards a kind of death. As the others disappear and the night draws on (a powerfully structuring device used by Rossetti here), the main character "loiter[s]" and as it "grew chill". There is an interesting enjambment in "while the dews / Fell fast" which quickens the final line and suggests a desperation in the main character as she succumbs to her isolation. It is also telling that the final word of the poem is "still". The initial lustful energy of the poem is quickly subdued and does suggest, as Woolf comments, that "Death, oblivion and rest lap round your songs with their dark wave."
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