Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2469
Two equally strong but antithetical voices speak in Christina Rossetti’s poetry: the sensuous, which is with some justice associated by critics with Pre-Raphaelitism, and the ascetic, which is not confined to her devotional verse, but speaks also in her secular poems. The critics Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar have...
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- Critical Essays
Two equally strong but antithetical voices speak in Christina Rossetti’s poetry: the sensuous, which is with some justice associated by critics with Pre-Raphaelitism, and the ascetic, which is not confined to her devotional verse, but speaks also in her secular poems. The critics Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar have defined the aesthetics of renunciation as the key element of all Rossetti’s writing, and they suggest that her aesthetics derived less from her ascetic Christianity than from her position as a woman poet in Victorian England. The tension between the sensual and the ascetic, between revelry and renunciation, however it may be interpreted, is central to Rossetti’s poetry.
One temptation is to view this tension as the meeting of two intellectual movements in Victorian England: the Pre-Raphaelite movement in art and poetry and the Oxford Movement in theology, both of which profoundly influenced Rossetti’s thought and art. The Pre-Raphaelites got their name from their conviction that after the Italian painter Raphael (1483-1520), European art and poetry took a wrong turn toward representational realism and away from symbolism and simplicity. The poetry and art of the English Pre-Raphaelites, consequently, celebrated sensuality, minute detail, formal simplicity, and a symbolic system emulating medieval iconography. It is true, as Rossetti’s most recent critics have maintained, that she cannot be considered merely a passive learner of Pre-Raphaelitism—indeed, she must have influenced it as much as it influenced her. She was there at its beginning, and Goblin Market, and Other Poems was the first poetic voice of the movement, shining in popular and critical praise while the poetry of William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti lingered unnoticed. Her connection with the movement may be overemphasized, but it cannot be ignored.
The Oxford Movement, on the other hand, influenced Rossetti in more subtle ways. To begin with, she was not directly connected with it. It began at Oxford when she was little more than two years old. A group of young Anglican clerics, led by John Keble and John Henry Newman, sought to counter a tendency toward liberalism and secularism, and away from tradition, in the English church. One result was the development of a segment of the English church, known as the high church, whose piety looked back to earlier forms of devotion. It favored the concerns of the next world over the vanities of this one. In poetic imagery this piety takes the form of the renunciation that Gilbert and Gubar speak of.
The influence of such Oxford Movement piety is typically presented as a counterpoint to the Pre-Raphaelite sensuality of Rossetti’s poetry, but there is one common impulse in both movements. High-church devotion and Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics were attempts to recapture earlier traditions: the Pre-Raphaelites in art and the Oxford Movement in religion. T. S. Eliot, in his famous essay on the metaphysical poets, saw Christina Rossetti as continuing the poetic line established by the seventeenth century religious poets.
Next to the confluence of sensuality and renunciation in Rossetti’s poems, the most characteristic themes concern death and thwarted love. Her poems about death are remarkable for their attempt to adopt the point of view of the dead toward the living. In such poems as “Song” (1862), “Dream Land” (1850), “After Death” (1862), and “Sleeping at Last” (1893), the speaker of each poem is recently dead and looks back on life not with regret but relief at her escape. Her consistent image of death as sleep or rest from an ordeal may seem morbid or quietistic, but it also may be seen simply as an expression of the doctrine of soul sleep, the belief that the souls of the saved remained in a trance from the time of their deaths until Judgment Day.
The motif of love denied certainly suggests an autobiographical element: Rossetti refused three marriage proposals from two men between 1848 and 1866. A twentieth century biographer has contended that her love poems were inspired by a married man, William Bell Scott. Thwarted love can also be related to the renunciation theme in her writings. When the narrator of the brief lyric “No, Thank You, John” (1862) charmingly declines a marriage proposal, there is no sense of regret or loss, and in the poem “Amor Mundi” (1865) love is represented as a trap to be avoided. The title story of her first volume of fiction, “Commonplace” (1870), centers around a series of marriage proposals and rejections in the Charlmont family. The youngest sister, Jane, marries for money and languishes in a loveless marriage. Middle sister Lucy turns down many proposals, waiting for her ideal beau Alan Hartley, who ends up marrying another. Eldest sister Catherine remains single to devote herself to God, a choice strikingly like Rossetti’s own.
Rossetti’s sonnet “A Triad” (1862) is a similar analysis of three women thwarted in love, though Catherine’s religious option is not presented in the poem. One woman “shamed herself in love.” The second married respectably but, like Jane in “Commonplace,” without real love. The third remained a spinster, but unlike Catherine died still yearning for earthly love. In the sonnet, as well as in the short story, earthly love is neither an end in itself nor a guarantee of happiness, even if it is not the danger it seems to be in “Amor Mundi.” “A Triad” was first published in Goblin Market, and Other Poems, but reaction against the disturbing implications about love and marriage was so sharp that Rossetti deleted it from her collected volumes of 1875 and 1890. It did not appear in print again until after her death. A Spectator reviewer of “A Triad” called its “voluptuous passion” worthy of her brother Dante Gabriel, which was not meant as a compliment. A century after her death, critics still consider the conflict of passion and renunciation central to her poetry.
First published: 1862 (collected in Goblin Market, and Other Poems, 1862)
Type of work: Poem
Despite her sister Lizzie’s warnings, Laura succumbs to the temptations of the magical fruits offered by goblins and must be rescued by Lizzie.
“Goblin Market,” Rossetti’s most anthologized and discussed poem, is also, at 567 lines, one of her longest. A narrative poem (a rarity for Rossetti), it tells the story of two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, and their close brush with a sinister group of goblin merchants. The first of the twenty-nine irregular stanzas simply records the cries of the goblin men for someone to buy their magical fruits. Lizzie warns Laura not to succumb to their temptation, reminding her of the fate of their friend Jennie who, tasting the goblin fruit, wasted away and died. Laura ignores the warning and buys the enchanted fruit with a lock of her golden hair.
The enchantment of the fruit is one of addiction: Having tasted it, the victim desires nothing but another taste, which the goblins refuse. Like Jennie, Laura pines away for the fruit, dwindling and turning gray. This image of the dangers of temptation is typical of Rossetti’s later religious poetry, though here the spiritual import is embedded in allegory. When Lizzie realizes her sister is dying, she goes to the goblins, wears them down with heroic resistance to their temptation, and returns to Laura, not having tasted the fruit, but having its juice and pulp smeared all over her face by the struggle. When Laura kisses her sister, she tastes the juice, which removes the curse of the goblin fruit and restores Laura’s youth and health. While the poem is not overtly Christian in the way that Rossetti’s later devotional verse is, the Christlike nature of Lizzie’s salvific sacrifice is unmistakable. The final stanza of “Goblin Market” is an epilogue in which the sisters, each having married and had children, use the story of the goblin market as a lesson to their children of the salvific virtue of sisterhood.
The theme of renunciation central to this poem seems a traditional Christian attitude of rejecting the sensual, yet many critics have noted an ambiguity in the way sensuality, represented by the goblin fruit, is depicted in the poem. Laura’s devouring of the fruit, and later her sensuous sucking of the juices off her sister, is described in a lushness of physical imagery. The overt moral on the value of sisterhood, found in the final six lines of “Goblin Market,” is often disparaged as an afterthought, unrelated to the rest of the poem. A close study of Lizzie’s sacrifice, however, reveals that the themes of renunciation and sisterhood are related. Lizzie’s resistance is merely temperance at first, but later, when it saves Laura, it takes on a sacrificial quality. Lizzie’s Christlike self-giving defines sisterhood, and makes her even more Christlike as Laura’s savior, resurrecting her from the death-in-life caused by the evil fruit—an obvious parallel to the story of Eden.
“The Prince’s Progress”
First published: 1866 (collected in The Prince’s Progress, and Other Poems, 1866)
Type of work: Poem
Succumbing to a series of temptations, a prince delays going to his bride. When he finally arrives, he is too late—she is dead.
The title poem of Rossetti’s 1866 volume, “The Prince’s Progress” is her only other important narrative poem besides “Goblin Market,” and second only to that poem in length. Her first impulse in poetry was lyrical; she does not sustain narrative well, neither in fiction nor in verse. The poem began as a sixty-line lyric entitled “The Alchemist,” composed on October 11, 1861, and published in Macmillan’s magazine for May, 1863. This original poem constitutes the end (lines 481-540) of “The Prince’s Progress.” The other 480 lines represent, according to biographer Edith Birkhead, the influence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who urged his sister to tell the story implicit in the song.
The poem has a similar fairy-tale quality to “Goblin Market” and a similar metrical inventiveness that echoes the folk ballad and the nursery rhyme. The narrative portion (the first 480 lines) consists of eighty six-line stanzas rhyming aaabab. The great number of rhymes on the same sound lends a singsong quality to the verse and taxes Rossetti’s rhyming powers. There are generally four beats per line, except in the last line of each stanza, which has only three, signaling an ending.
The prince of the title is continually warned by the voices of the ladies waiting on his bride (which seem to find him magically across the miles) that she awaits his arrival, and that he must not tarry. He does, however, delayed by several temptations: A milkmaid offers him refreshment, but her fee is that the prince stay with her that day; an old alchemist offers him lodging, but his fee is that the prince work the bellows to create his “elixir of life”; the prince is rescued from drowning by lovely ladies who urge him to stay with them. Finally he heeds the voices of his bride’s attendants and rushes to her, hoping that the alchemist’s elixir of life will justify his delay. He is too late: He arrives to find his bride dead. The stanza form changes slightly for the last sixty lines. The last six stanzas are ten lines each, alternately long and short, and rhyming abcbdbebfb—only the even-numbered lines rhyme. This portion is simply a rebuke addressed to the prince for his delay.
Several of Rossetti’s characteristic themes come together in this poem. The picture of thwarted love, seen throughout her early verse, is seen here in the bride pining away for her prince who will never come to her. The theme of seizing the moment, which would normally be antithetical to Rossetti’s ethic of renunciation, is here appropriate, for the moment the prince must seize is sacred union with his bride. He squanders the time, and he pays for it by losing his bride.
“Monna Innominata: A Sonnet of Sonnets”
First published: 1881 (collected in A Pageant, and Other Poems, 1881)
Type of work: Poem
The speaker, beloved by one of the many love poets before Dante and Petrarch, expresses her frustration.
Monna innominata means “unknown lady,” and indicates the situation of the speaker of the sonnets. In a brief prose introduction, Rossetti explains that the most celebrated ladies of two Italian poets—Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura—left behind no writing of their own to record the women’s experience of love. In Rossetti’s own century, Elizabeth Barrett Browning did leave such a sonnet record, but her experience, Rossetti says, was happy, and therefore did not match the emotional tensions of Dante or Petrarch’s sonnets. It appears that “Monna Innominata: A Sonnet of Sonnets” is intended to fill that gap.
The fourteen poems of “Monna Innominata: A Sonnet of Sonnets” are truly a sequence: Though each is an artistic whole, there is a progression from one to the other that links them. Rossetti clearly considered them inextricably connected: In an 1883 letter responding to a request to anthologize some of her poems she insisted that none of the individual poems of “Monna Innominata: A Sonnet of Sonnets” be published separately. They are intended to be read as a single work. The subtitle, “A Sonnet of Sonnets,” refers to more than the fact that a sonnet is a fourteen-line form, and the sequence has fourteen sonnets. The development of the whole group matches the form of the Italian sonnet.
The Italian or Petrarchan sonnet is twofold in structure, with an eight-line first part, called the octave, rhyming abbaabba, and a six-line conclusion, called the sestet, with various rhyme patterns, but never more than three rhymes. Thus, there is usually a turning point, which the Italian sonneteers called a volta in the ninth line, signaling the change from the octave to the sestet, matched by a similar change in thought. “Monna Innominata: A Sonnet of Sonnets” mirrors this pattern in the overall structure of the sequence, its first eight sonnets depicting a tension between divine and earthly love in the speaker’s relationship with her lover, and the ninth suddenly announcing that the love she hoped for cannot be.
“Monna Innominata: A Sonnet of Sonnets” explores the familiar Rossetti theme of the conflict between romantic love and the love of God. The first four sonnets do not mention God’s love at all, establishing the situation of the earthly lovers: the pain at separation (sonnet 1), the attempt to recall their first meeting (sonnet 2), the preference of dream love over reality (sonnet 3), and the immeasurability of love (sonnet 4). The next four sonnets introduce the preeminence of God’s love, ending with a comparison to the Biblical lover Esther (sonnet 8). Sonnets 9 through 12 move toward a reconciliation that is completed in sonnet 13, with the speaker renouncing her claim to her lover. The last sonnet reveals that the pangs of earthly love remain, despite the idealized sentiments of resignation.