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Christina Rossetti 1830-1894
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Ellen Alleyn) English poet, short story writer, and prose writer. See also Goblin Market Criticism.
Rossetti is ranked among the finest English poets of the nineteenth century. Closely associated with Pre-Raphaelitism—an artistic and literary movement mat aspired to recapture the vivid...
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- Critical Essays
Christina Rossetti 1830-1894
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Ellen Alleyn) English poet, short story writer, and prose writer. See also Goblin Market Criticism.
Rossetti is ranked among the finest English poets of the nineteenth century. Closely associated with Pre-Raphaelitism—an artistic and literary movement mat aspired to recapture the vivid pictorial qualities and sensual aesthetics of Italian religious painting before the year 1500—Rossetti was equally influenced by the religious conservatism and asceticism of the Church of England. Scholars find in her poetry an enduring dialectic between these disparate outlooks, as well as an adeptness with a variety of poetic forms.
Rossetti was born in 1830, four years after her father, an Italian exile, settled in London and married Frances Mary Polidori. Demonstrating poetic gifts early in her life, Rossetti wrote sonnets in competition with her brothers William Michael and Dante Gabriel, a practice that is thought to have developed her command of metrical forms. At age eighteen, Rossetti began studying the works of Italian poet Dante Alighieri, who became a major and lasting influence on her poetry, as evidenced in her many allusions to his writing. As a young woman, Rossetti declined two marriage proposals because her suitors' failed to conform to the tenets of the Anglican Church. Rather than marry, she chose to remain with her mother, an equally devout Anglican. Rossetti's poetic production diminished as she grew older and increasingly committed to writing religious prose. A succession of serious illnesses strongly influenced her temperament and outlook on life; because she often believed herself close to death, religious devotion and mortality became persistent themes in both her poetry and prose. In 1871 she developed Graves's disease and, though she published A Pageant, and Other Poems in 1881, she concentrated primarily on works of religious prose, such as The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse, published in 1892. That same year she was diagnosed with cancer; she died two years later.
Rossetti's first published poem appeared in the Athenaeum when she was eighteen. She became a frequent contributor to the Pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ, which her brother Dante Gabriel founded. The title poem of her first collection of poetry, Goblin Market, and Other Poems (1862), relates the adventures of two sisters who are tempted by the fruit of the goblin merchants of Elfland. The poem has been variously interpreted as a moral fable for children, an erotic fantasy, and an experiment in meter and rhyme. In 1874 Rossetti published a collection of prose for children, Speaking Likenesses. The book consists of three fantasy stories which are told to five sisters by their aunt. The title poem of The Prince's Progress, and Other Poems (1866) relates a prince's physical, moral, and spiritual journey to meet his bride. Rossetti's later volumes of poetry consist primarily of reprinted poems from her first three volumes and other sources. The first authoritative collection of her work The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti (1904), was edited by her brother William and contains most of Rossetti's highest esteemed and frequently studied works. Rossetti's devotional verse explores humanity's relationship with God and the nature of life in the afterworld. It also celebrates Rossetti's denial of human love for the sake of religious purity, as in the sonnet sequence "Monna Innominata," included in A Pageant, and Other Poems. Time Flies: A Reading Diary (1885), offers for each day of the year a thought or passage designed to provoke spiritual reflection. In The Face of the Deep, Rossetti explores, verse by verse, the entire Book of the Revelation of St. John. Throughout Rossetti's verse and prose, the themes of isolation and unhappiness recur.
Critics generally consider Rossetti's poetry superior to her later nonsecular prose works but observe that much of her most highly regarded verse was also inspired by her deeply held religious beliefs. Faulted by some critics for an alleged indifference to social issues, she is praised by others for her simple diction, timeless vision, and stylistic technique. Although she is remembered by many merely as the ethereal symbol of Pre-Raphaelitism evoked in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's paintings, Rossetti also produced a unique body of work that transcends the limits of any single movement. Rossetti's work continues to inspire scholarly study and debate. Modern critics, including Constance Hassett and W. David Shaw, have focussed recent studies of Rossetti on what is unsaid or alluded to in her work. Others, such as Antony Harrison, have explored the feminist aspects of Rossetti's work, and in doing so challenge their nineteenth-century predecessors and their twentieth-century peers who have focussed their examinations of Rossetti on the poet's reticence and her renunciation of this world in favor of the afterlife.
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SOURCE: "Miss Rossetti's Poems," in Littell's Living Age, Vol. XC, No. 20, August 18, 1866, pp. 441-42.
[In the following review of Rossetti's poems collected in the volume The Prince's Progress, and Other Poems, the critic praises Rossetti 's unaffected style.]
If an illustration of the unsatisfactoriness of Robertson's definition of poetry—"the natural language of excited feeling"—were necessary, it could be found nowhere better than in the productions of Miss Rossetti. On the other hand, however, the definition, when applied to the volume now before us, contains a kind of half truth, for Miss Rossetti, though never excited, is always natural. It would be difficult to find a selection of poems so thoughtful and serious, yet so devoid of that frenzy which is often inseparably associated with the notion of true poetry—such as Miss Rossetti's really is. In all she writes there is a certain element of tranquillity and repose. Calm and subdued herself, she imparts to her reader's mind a kind of grateful quiet. Poetical authorship evidently is with her no field for the display of brilliantly sensational ability. She applies herself to the composition of a poem in the same way, and probably for much the same reasons, that many persons would read the most reflective passages of Wordsworth in solitude; but that solace which others find in reception, comes to her through the exercise of her creative powers. For this reason, if for no others, Miss Rossetti's writings cannot fail to be interesting; whatever imperfections of style and expression we meet with, we cannot help feeling all along that we are contemplating the workings and processes of a mind of no common order. Tranquil in her joy, she is not over demonstrative in her grief. We can perceive that her whole being mourns, but we can perceive, too, very plainly the presence of a self-disciplined heart. Strictly speaking, it is to herself alone that she sings—always sweetly, and always as her passing emotions prompt her utterance. Hence she is to a certain extent inclined to an almost morbid habit of introspection; but behind this there is, as it were in the distance, a faint background of peaceful happiness and satisfaction, which prevents any one of her poems from being gloomy. Perhaps there is no better instance of this than in one of her "Devotional pieces"—all Miss Rossetti's poems are full of the spirit, though not the technicality, of devotion—entitled "Dost Thou not Care?":—
Lord, it was well with me in time gone by,
That cometh not again,
When I was fresh and cheerful: who but I?
I fresh, I cheerful: worn with pain,
Now out of sight and out of heart;
O Lord, how long?—
I watch thee as thou art,
I will accept thy fainting heart, be strong.
But Miss Rossetti can be sportive as well as serious; in the "Queen of Hearts" a good idea is well worked out, and lightly handled. Of the poem which gives its name to the present volume, we do not think that it is altogether the best. Miss Rossetti pleases us most in her short lyrical thoughts—we use the latter word advisedly. There are some minds to whom sustained effort is painful, or rather, whose emotions are best expressed in short, detached pieces, and it is to this class that Miss Rossetti seems to us to belong. A poem of thirty pages wants some strong prominent figure to which other figures are subordinate, and in the "Prince's Progress" too much strength is spread equally over a somewhat enlarged surface. But we are treated to some delicious glimpses of scenery:—
By willow courses he took his path,
Spied what a nest the kingfisher hath,
Marked the fields, green to aftermath,
Marked where the old brown field-mouse ran,
Loitered awhile for a deep-stream bath,
Yawned for a fellow man.
Much, too, would it please us to quote at length the "Bride Song" at the end of this poem, the rhythm of which is well managed, the sound and sense accompanying each other perfectly.
We are almost sorry that one or two pieces have not been omitted—"Eve," for example perhaps, and "Maiden Song." Occasionally, too, Miss Rossetti deals in conceits which she would have done well to avoid. These, however, are minor defects, and detract but little from the merits of the pleasantest volume of verse which this year has given us. On the whole, we feel inclined to assign the first place to "Life and Death." It is not only, to our mind, the best poem in the book, but the most characteristic as well. In the contemplation of death, the writer carefully, or we should rather say instinctively, avoids looking at the gloomy and terrible side. To her, to die is nothing more than to become unconscious of a world of sweet sounds and sights, and that at a time when one has become weary of the earth:—
Life is not sweet. One day it will be sweet to shut our eyes and die:
Nor feel the wild flowers blow, nor birds dart by with flitting butterfly;
Nor grass grow long above our heads and feet;
Nor hear the happy lark that soars sky high;
Nor sigh that spring is fleet and summer fleet,
Nor mark the waving wheat,
Nor know who sits in our accustomed seat.
There is nothing here of me horrors of dissolution and the pangs of a tortured eternity. Miss Rossetti has so happily expressed her conception of cessation of existence—death seems almost too stern a name—that there is left upon the mind a strange feeling of indistinctness as to whether it is sorrow or grief that is left for ever. It would be absurd to compare Miss Rossetti's poems to "Vers de Société, " yet in one point, at least, there is a similarity between W. M. Praed and the present authoress. Each is able to bring out into the strongest relief the gentle, and for this reason the lighter, side of human feeling: the difference, of course, is, that with the one it is the levity of comedy, with the other it is the levity of seriousness.
To a host of readers Miss Rossetti's poems will deservedly be very popular. Possessing just that tinge of melancholy which it may be assumed, is as indispensable to beauty as, according to the Baconian canon, is a corresponding "strangeness," their melancholy never mars their picturesqueness. Rather is it subordinate to it, yet subordinate in such a manner that it is always sincere, always heart-deep, never affected, and never false. Hers is never the voice of sorrow only; to quote her own words—
Her voice is sweeter than that voice;
She sings like one who grieves.
It is because Miss Rossetti is so entirely free from affectation, so true to nature, and so true to herself, that we welcome her poems so heartily. At a time when in verse, as in everything else, the glare, and glitter, and tinsel of pseudo-sentiment are often painfully discernible, it is a positive pleasure and relief to meet with poetry the music of which is as melodious as its truthfulness is deep. We cannot, perhaps, discover many traces of originality; but it is far better to be simply and easily natural than to be ever hankering after the creation of some novel and striking effect. Like most other poetical writers of the present time, Miss Rossetti frequently causes us to remember that she lives under the Tennysonian dynasty; but it would be as absurd to suppose that minor poets could be dead to the influence of the great contemporary masters of song, as it would be to assert that these in their turn were not affected by the influences of the times in which they lived; nor does this fact prevent Miss Rossetti's new volume from being the most acceptable of recent contributions to English poetry.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5674
SOURCE: "Christina G. Rossetti," in The Catholic World, Vol. IV, No. 24, March, 1867, pp. 839-46.
[In the following review of the verses collected in Poems, the anonymous critic analyzes the defects in Rossetti's poetry.]
We had heard some little of Miss Rossetti, in a superficial way, before reading this her book. Various verses of hers had met our eye in print, and if they themselves left no very decided mark upon the memory, yet we had the firm impression, somehow, that she was one more of the rising school of poets. Accordingly we thought it well to take a retrospect of a few post-Tennysonians—Mrs. Browning, Owen Meredith, Robert Buchanan, Jean Ingelow, and so on—supposed fellow disciples—so as to be tolerably sure of ranking the new-comer rightly. On reading this volume we find our labor lost through an entirely unforeseen circumstance. Unfortunately, it does not appear that Miss Rossetti is a poetess at all. That there are people who think her one, we infer from the fact that this is in some sort a third edition; why they think so, we are at a loss to see. The book will not answer a single test of poetry. The authoress's best claim to consideration is, mat she sincerely, persistently, fervently means to be a poetess. Only the most Demosthenian resolve could have kept her writing in face of her many inherent unfitnesses. For imagination, she offers fantasy; for sentiment, sentimentality; for aspiration, ambition; for originality and thought, little or nothing; for melody, fantastic janglings of words; and these, with all tenderness for the ill-starred intensity of purpose that could fetch them so far, are no more poetry than the industrious Virginian colonists' shiploads of mica were gold.
The first cursory impression of this book would be, we think, that its cardinal axiom was "Poetry is versified plaintiveness." The amount of melancholy is simply overwhelming. There is a forty-twilight power of sombreness everywhere. Now, criticism has taken principles, not statistics, to be its province; but we could not resist the temptation to take a little measurement of all this mourn fulness. Limiting our census strictly to the utterly irretrievable and totally wrecked poems, with not a glimmering of reassurance, we found no less than forty-nine sadnesses, all the way from shadow to unutterable blackness—"nfernam Iumbram noctemque perennem. " There is the sadness decadent, the sadness senescent, the sadness bereft, the sadness despondent, the sadness weary, the sadness despairing, the sadness simply sad, the grand sadness ineffable, and above and pervading all, the sadness rhapsodical. They are all there. Old Burton will rise from his grave, if there be any virtue in Pythagoreanism, to anatomize these poems. What it is all about is strictly a secret, and laudably well kept; which gives to the various sorrows that touching effect peculiar to the waitings of unseen babies from unascertained ailments. So sustained is the grief, indeed, that after protracted poring, we hang in abeyance between two conclusions. One is that Miss Rossetti, outside of print, is the merriest mortal in the United Kingdom; the other, that her health is worse than precarious. That one or the other must be right, we know. There is no other horn to the dilemma, no tertiary quiddity, no choice, no middle ground between hilarity and dyspepsia.
Perhaps the reader can judge for himself from mese lines, which are a not unfair sample:
I cannot tell you how it was;
But this I know: it came to pass
Upon a bright and breezy day,
When May was young; ah, pleasant May!
As yet the poppies were not born,
Between the blades of tender corn;
The last eggs had not hatched as yet,
Nor any bird foregone its mate.
I cannot tell you what it was;
But this I know: it did but pass.
It passed away with sunny May,
With all sweet things it passed away,
And left me old and cold and gray.
We may be very unappreciative, and probably are sinfully suspicious, but the above sounded at the first and sounds at the present reading, exactly like a riddle. We certainly don't know how it was nor what it was. There is a shadowy clue in its passing away with sunny May, but we are far too cautious to hazard a guess. If there be any conundrum intended, all we have to say is, we give it up.
We do but justice, however, in saying that amid much mere lugubriousness mere is some real and respectable sadness. The following, in spite of the queer English in its first lines, sounds genuine, and is moreover, for a rarity of rarities, in well-chosen and not ill-managed metre:
I have a room whereinto no one enters
Save I myself alone:
There sits a blessed memory on a throne,
There my life centres.
While winter comes and goes—Oh! tedious comer!
And while its nip-wind blows;
While bloom the bloodless lily and warm rose
Of lavish summer;
If any should force entrance he might see there
One buried, yet not dead,
Before whose face I no more bow my head
Or (sic) bend my knee there;
But often in my worn life's autumn weather
I watch there with clear eyes,
And think how it will be in Paradise
When we're together.
Here is one of a trite topic—nearly all the good things in this book are on themes as old as moonlight—but with a certain mournful richness, like autumn woods:
Life is not sweet. One day it will be sweet
To shut our eyes and die:
Nor feel the wild flowers blow, nor birds dart by
With flitting butterfly;
Nor grass grow long above our head and feet,
Nor hear the happy lark that soars sky high,
Nor sigh that spring is fleet, and summer fleet,
Nor mark the waxing wheat,
Nor know who sits in our accustomed seat.
Life is not good. One day it will be good
To die, then live again;
To sleep meanwhile: so not to feel the wane
Of shrunk leaves dropping in the wood,
Nor hear the foamy lashing of the main,
Nor mark the blackened bean-fields, nor where stood
Rich ranks of golden grain,
Only dead refuse stubble clothe the plain:
Asleep from risk, asleep from pain.
This is one of her best poems in point of style. The "waxing wheat" we are just a shade doubtful about; but the mellowness of the diction is much to our liking, and it is unmarred by any of the breaks of strange ill taste that flaw nearly all these poems. If not poetry nor novelty, at least we find it sadly agreeable verse.
Our professor of rhetoric once astonished his class by a heterodoxy, which we have since thought sound as well as neat. "Walter Scott," said he, "writes verse as well as a man can write and not be a poet." We are sorry we cannot say as much for Miss Rossetti; she has considerable faults as a writer. The chief of these has elsewhere been carped at—her laborious style of being simple. The true simplicity of poets is not a masterly artifice, but a natural and invariable product where high poetic and expressive powers combine. The best thought is always simple, because it deals only with the essences of things: the best expression—the machinery of thought—is simple, just as the best of any other machinery is. But the grand, obvious fact to the many is that the best poetry is admired for being simple. Writing for this market, Miss Rossetti and unnumbered others have more or less successfully attempted to achieve this crowning beauty of style by various processes that are to the inspiration of real simplicity as patent medicines to vigorous vitality. Almost all hold the immutable conviction that Saxon words are an infallible recipe for the indispensable brevity. Accordingly the usual process is by an elaborate application of Saxon—if rather recondite or even verging on the obsolete, so much the more efficacious—to a few random ideas. Of course, with such painful workmanship, one must not expect the best material. Original, or even well defined thought seldom thrives in the same hot-house with this super-smoothness. But without pursuing the process into results at large, we have only to take Matthew Arnold's distinction as to Miss Rossetti:—she tries hard for simplicité, and achieves simplesse. But there is no such thing as hard work without its fruits. This straining after effect crops painfully out in a peculiar baldness and childishness of phrase that is almost original. The woman who can claim The Lambs of Grasmere as her own has not lived in vain. This production, with its pathetic episode of the maternal
Teapots for the bleating mouths,
Instead of nature's nourishment,
has already been noticed in print, and duly expanded many visages. We pause rapt in admiration of the deep intuition that could select for song the incident of feeding a sheep with a teapot. It carries us back, in spirit, to the subtle humor and delicate irony of "Peter Bell," and "We are Seven." What a burst of tenderness ought we to expect, if Miss Rossetti should ever chance to see stable-boys give a horse a bolus! . . . . We shall not cite examples of this simplesse; those who like it will find it purer and more concentrated in the bard of Rydal; or if they must have it, they are safe in opening this book almost anywhere.
Of the individual poems, the two longest, "The Goblin Market" and "The Prince's Progress," are rivals for the distinction of being the worst. All the best poems are short, excepting one, "Under the Rose." The story is of an illegitimate daughter, whose noble mother takes her to live with herself at the inevitable Hall, without acknowledging her. There are able touches of nature in the portrayal of the lonely, loving, outlawed, noble heart, that, knowing her mother's secret, resolves never to betray it, even to her. In the following passage, the girl, alone at the castle, as her mother's favorite maid, describes her inner life:
Now sometimes in a dream,
My heart goes out of me
To build and scheme,
Till I sob after things that seem
So pleasant in a dream:
A home such as I see,
My blessed neighbors live in;
With father and with mother,
All proud of one another,
Named by one common name;
From baby in the bud
To full-bloun workman father;
It's little short of Heaven.
Of course the servants sneer
Behind my back at me;
Of course the village girls,
Who envy me my curls
And gowns and idleness,
Take comfort in a jeer;
Of course the ladies guess
Just so much of my history
As points the emphatic stress
With which they laud my Lady;
The gentlemen who catch
A casual glimpse of me,
And turn again to see
Their valets, on the watch
To speak a word with me;—
All know, and sting me wild;
Till I am almost ready
To wish that I were dead,—
No faces more to see,
No more words to be said;
My mother safe at last
Disburdened of her child
And the past past.
"The Convent Threshold"—the last words of a contrite novice to her lover—has touches of power. There is an unusual force about some parts, as for example here:
You linger, yet the time is short;
Flee for your life; grid up your strength
To flee; the shadows stretched at length
Show that day wanes, that night draws nigh;
Flee to the mountain, tarry not.
Is this a time for smile and sigh;
For songs among the secret trees
Where sudden blue-birds nest and sport?
The time is short, and yet you stay:
To-day, while it is called to-day,
Kneel, wrestle, knock, do violence, pray;
To-day is short, to-morrow nigh:
Why will you die? why will you die!
How should I rest in Paradise,
Or sit on steps of Heaven alone?
If saints and angels spoke of love,
Should I not answer from my throne,
'Have pity upon me, ye, my friends,
For I have heard the sound thereof?'
Should I not turn with yearning eyes,
Turn earthward with a pitiful pang?
Oh! save me from a pang in heaven!
By all the gifts we took and gave,
Repent, repent, and be forgiven.
The lines called "Sound Sleep," p. 65, we like very well for very slight cause. It says nearly nothing with a pleasant flow of cadence that has the charm of an oasis for the reader. Much better is "No, Thank You, John!" which strikes into a strain of plain sound sense that we could wish to see much more of. The style, as well as the sense, seems to shuffle off its affectations, and the last two stanzas especially are easy, natural, and neat.
A strange compound of good and bad is the singular one called
I took my heart in my hand,
O my love, O my love!
I said, "Let me fall or stand,
Let me live or die;
But this once hear me speak,
O my love, O my love!
Yet a woman's wonds are weak;
You should speak, not I"
You took my heart in your hand,
With a friendly smile,
With a critical eye you scanned,
Then set it down
And said: "It is still unripe—
Better wait a while;
Wait while the skylarks pipe,
Till the corn grows brown."
As you set it down it broke—
Broke, but I did not wince;
I smiled at the speech you spoke,
At your judgment that I heard:
But I have not often smiled
Since then, nor questioned since,
Nor cared for corn-flowers wild,
Nor sung with the singing-bird.
I take my heart in hand,
O my God, O my God!
My broken heart in my hand:
Thou hast seen, judge thou.
My hope was written on sand,
O my God, O my God!
Now let thy judgment stand—
Yea, judge me now.
This, contemned of a man,
This, marred one heedless day,
This heart take thou to scan
Both within and without:
Refine with fire its gold,
Purge thou its dross away;
Yea, hold it in thy hold,
Whence none can pluck it out
I take my heart in my hand"—
I shall not die, but live—
Before thy face I stand,
I, for thou callest such;
All that I have I bring,
All that I am I give,
Smile thou, and I shall sing,
But shall not question much,
This poem, we confess, puzzles us a little to decide upon it. The imitation is palpable at a glance, but it is a very clever one: the first three stanzas above all catch the mannerism of their model to admiration. But the whole is a copy, at best, of one of the archetype's inferior styles; and yet we fancy we can see, under all the false bedizening, something of poetry in the conception, though it is ill said, and only dimly translucent. There is art, too, in the parallelism of the first and last three verses. But we do not like the refrain in the fourth verse—somehow it jars. Perhaps the best we can say of it is, that Browning, in his mistier moments of convulsiveness, could write worse.
There is another imitation of Browning in this book, that is the most supremely absurd string of rugged platitudes imaginable—"Wife to Husband," p. 61. The last verse is sample enough:
Not a word for you,
Not a look or kiss Good-by.
We, one, must part in two;
Verily death is this,
I must die.
The metre generally throughout this book is in fact simply execrable. Miss Rossetti cannot write contentedly in any known or human measure. We do not think there are ten poems that are not in some new-fangled shape or shapelessness. With an overweening ambition, she has not the slightest faculty of rhythm. All she has done is to originate some of the most hideous metres that "shake the racked axle of art's rattling car." Attempting not only Browning's metrical dervish-dancings, but Tennyson's exquisite ramblings, she fails in both from an utter want of that fine ear that always guides the latter, and so often strikes out bold beauties in the former. Most of Miss Rossetti's new styles of word mixture are much like the ingenious individual's invention for enabling right-handed people to write with the left hand—more or less elever ways of doing what she don't wish to do. What possible harmony, for instance, can any one find in this jumble, which, as per the printer, is meant for a "song":
There goes the swallow—
Could we but follow!
Hasty swallow, stay,
Point us out the way:
Look back, swallow, turn back, swallow, stop, swallow.
There went the swallow—
Too late to follow,
Lost our note of way,
Lost our chance to-day.
Good-by, swallow, sunny swallow, wise swallow.
After the swallow—
All sweet things follow;
All things go their way,
Only we must stay,
Must not follow; good-by, swallow, good swallow.
Where on earth is sound or sense in this? Not a suggestion of melody, not a fraction of a coherent idea. People must read such trash as they eat meringues à la crême: we never could comprehend either process.
Truth to tell, we have in this book some of the very choicest balderdash that ever was perpetrated; worthy to stand beside even the immortal "Owl and Goose" of Tennyson. There is a piece at p. 41 which we would give the world to see translated into some foreign language, we have such an intense eagerness to understand it. Its subject, so far as we have got, seems to be the significance of the crocodile, symbolically considered. We glanced over, or rather at it once, and put it by for after reading, thinking the style probably too deep for love at first sight. On the second perusal we fell in with some extraordinary young crocodiles that we must have missed before. They had just been indulged in the luxury of being born, but Miss Rossetti's creative soul, not content with bestowing upon them the bliss of amphibious existence, made perfect their young beauty by showing them "fresh-hatched perhaps, and—daubed with brithday dew."
We are strong of head—we recovered from even this—we became of the very select few who can say they have read this thing through. There was a crocodile hero; he had a golden girdle and crown; he wore polished stones; crowns, orbs and sceptres starred his breast (why shouldn't they if they could); "special burnishment adorned his mail;" his punier brethren trembled, whereupon he immediately ate mem till "the luscious fat distilled upon his chin," and "exuded from his nostrils and his eyes." He then fell into an anaconda nap, and grew very much smaller in his sleep, till at the approach of a very queer winged vessel (probably a vessel of wrath), "the prudent crocodile rose on his feet and shed appropriate tears (obviously it is the handsome thing for all well-bred crocodiles to cry when a winged ship comes along) and wrung his hands." As a finale, Miss Rossetti, too nimble for the unwary reader, anticipates his question of "What does it all mean?" and triumphantly replying that she doesn't know herself, but that it was all just so, marches on to the next monumentum aere perennius. In the name of the nine muses, we call upon Martin Farquhar Tupper to read this and then die.
There are one or two other things like this longo intervallo, but it is reserved for the Devotional Pieces to furnish the only poem that can compete with it in its peculiar line. This antagonist poem is not so sublime an example of sustained effort, but it has the advantage that the rhyme is fully equal to the context. Permit us then to introduce the neat little charade entitled
It is over. What is over?
Nay, how much is over truly!—
Harvest days we toiled to sow for;
Now the sheaves are gathered newly,
Now the wheat is garnered duly.
It is finished. What is finished?
Much is finished known or unknown;
Lives are finished, time diminished;
Was the fallow field left unsown?
Will these buds be always unblown?
It suffices. What suffices?
All suffices reckoned rightly;
Spring shall bloom where now the ice is,
Roses make the bramble sightly,
And the quickening suns shine brightly,
And the latter winds blow lightly,
And my garden teems with spices.
Let now the critic first observe how consummately the mysticism of the charade form is intensified by the sphinx-like answers appended. Next note the novelties in rhyme. The rhythmic chain that links "over" and and "sow for" is the first discovery in the piece, closely rivalled by "ice is" and "spices" in the last verse. But far above all rises the subtle originality of the three rhymes in the second. A thousand literati would have used the rhyming words under the unpoetical rules of ordinary English. Miss Rossetti alone has the courage to inquire "Was the fallow field left unsown? Will these buds be always unblown?" We really do not think Shakspeare would have been bold enough to do this thus.
But despite this, the religious poems are perhaps the best. They seem at least the most unaffected and sincere, and the healthiest in tone. There are several notably good ones: one, just before the remarkable "Amen," in excruciating metre, but well said; one, "The Love of Christ which Passeth Knowledge," a strong and imaginative picture of the crucifixion; and "Good Friday, a good embodiment of the fervor of attrite repentance. The best written of all is, we think, this one (p. 248):
"Weary in Well-doing."
I would have gone; God bade me stay;
I would have worked; God bade me rest.
He broke my will from day to day,
He read my yearnings unexpressed
And said them nay.
Now I would stay; God bids me go;
Now I would rest; God bids me work.
He breaks my heart, tossed to and fro,
My soul is wrung with doubts that lurk
And vex it so.
I go, Lord, where thou sendest me;
Day after day I plod and moil:
But Christ my God, when will it be
That I may let alone my toil,
And rest with thee?
This is good style (no simplesse here) and real pathos—in short, poetry. We do not see a word to wish changed, and the conclusion in particular is excellent: there is a weariness in the very sound of the last lines.
It is remarkable how seldom thought furnishes the motive for these poems. With no lack at all of intelligence, they stand almost devoid of intellect. It is always a sentiment of extraneous suggestion, never a novelty in thought, that inspires our authoress. She seems busier depicting inner life than evolving new truths or beauties. Nor does she abound in suggestive turns of phrase or verbal felicities. In fact, as we have seen, she will go out of her way to achieve the want of ornament. But there is one subject which she has thought out thoroughly, and that subject is death. Whether in respect to the severance of earthly ties, the future state, or the psychical relations subtly linking the living to the dead, she shows on this topic a vigor and vividness, sometimes misdirected, but never wanting. Some of her queer ideas have a charm and a repulsion at once, like ghosts of dead beauty: e.g. this strange sonnet:
The curtains were half-drawn, the floor was swept
And strewn with rushes; rosemary and may
Lay thick upon the bed on which I lay,
Where through the lattice ivy-shadows crept.
He leaned above me, thinking that I slept
And could not hear him; but I heard him say,
"Poor child, poor child!" and as he turned away
Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept; He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold
That hid my face, or take my hand in his,
Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head;
He did not love me living, but once dead
He pitied me, and very sweet it is
To know he still is warm though I am cold.
There is some chiaro-oscuro about this. Under all the ghastliness of the conception, we detect here a deep, genuine, unhoping, intensely human yearning, that is all the better drawn for being thrown into the shadow. We do not know of a more graphic realization of death. Miss Rossetti seems to be lucky with her sonnets. We give the companion piece to this last—not so striking as the other, but full of heart's love, and ending with one of the few passages we recall which enter without profaning the penetralia of that highest love, which passionately prefers the welfare of the beloved one to its own natural cravings for fruition and fulfilment:
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you no more can hold me by the hand
Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more, day by day,
You tell me of our future that you planned;
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve;
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
Another marked peculiarity often shadowed forth is our authoress's sharply defined idea that the dead lie simply quiescent, neither in joy nor sorrow. There are several miserable failures to express this state, and one success, so simple, so natural, and so pleasant in measure, that we quote it, though we have seen it cited before:
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress-tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dew-drops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows;
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on as if in pain;
And dreaming through that twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
Such bold insight into so profound a subject says more for the soul of an author than a whole miss's paradise of prettinesses.
In singular contrast with this religious fervency and earnestness, the sincerity of which we see no reason to impeach, comes our gravest point of reprehension of this volume. We think it fairly chargeable with utterances—and reticences—of morally dangerous tendency; and this, too, mainly on a strange point for a poetess to be cavilled at—the rather delicate subject of our erring sisters. Now, we are of those who think the world, as to this matter, in a state little better than barbarism; that far from feeling the first instincts of Christian charity, we are shamefully like the cattle that gore the sick ox from the herd. The only utterly pitiless power in human life is our virtue, when brought face to face with this particular vice. We hunt the fallen down; hunt them to den and lair; hunt them to darkness, desperation, and death; hunt their bodies from earth, and their souls (if we can) from heaven, with the cold sword in one hand, and in the other the cross of him who came into the world to save, not saints, but sinners, and who said to one of these: "Neither do I condemn thee. Go, and now sin no more."
But there is also such a thing as misdirected mercifulness; a dangerous lenity, all the more to be guarded against for its wearing the garb of charity; and we think Miss Rossetti has leaned culpably far in this direction. Two poems are especially prominent examples—"Cousin Kate," and "Sister Maude." In each the heroine has sinned, and suffered the penalties of discovery, and in each she is given the upper hand, and made a candidate for sympathy, for very bad reasons. There is no word to intimate that there is anything so very dreadful about dishonor; that it may not be some one else's fault, or nobody's fault at all—a mere social accident. A few faint hinting touches there may be of conventional condemnation, but somehow Miss Rossetti's sinners, as sinners, invariably have the best of the argument and of the situation, while virtue is put systematically in the wrong, and snubbed generally. "The Goblin Market" too, if we read it aright, is open to the same criticism. We understand it, namely, to symbolize the conflict of the better nature in us, with the prompting of the passions and senses. If so, what is the story translated from its emblematic form? One sister yields; the other by seeming to yield, saves her. Again there is not a syllable to show that the yielding was at all wrong in itself. A cautious human regard for consequences is the grand motive appealed to for withstanding temptation. Lizzie tells Laura, not that the goblin's bargain is an evil deed in the sight of God, but that Jennie waned and died of their toothsome poisons. She saves her by going just so far as she safely can. What, if anything, is the moral of all this? Not "resist the devil and he will flee from you," but "cheat the devil, and he won't catch you." Now, all these sayings and silences are gravely wrong and false to a writer's true functions. With all deference then, and fully feeling that we may mistake or misconstrue, we sincerely submit that some of these poems go inexcusably beyond the bounds of that strict moral right, which every writer who hopes ever to wield influence ought to keep steadily, and sacredly in view. We are emboldened to speak thus plainly, because we have some reason to believe that these things have grated on other sensibilities than our own, and that our stricture embodies a considerable portion of cultivated public opinion.
In conclusion, we repeat our first expressed opinion, that Miss Rossetti is not yet entitled to take a place among today's poets. The question remains, whether she ever will. We do not think this book of hers settles this question. . . . She has done nothing in poetry yet of any consequence. These verses may be as well as she can do. They contain poetical passages of merit and promise, but they show also a defectiveness of versification, a falseness of ear, and occasionally a degree of affectation and triviality that, we can only hope, are not characteristic. To borrow a little of the style and technology of a sister branch of thought, the case, as now presented, can be accounted for as in essence a simple attack of the old and well-known endemic, cacœthes scribendi. Probably it befell her at the usual early age. Only instead of the run of gushing girls, we have Dante Gabriel Rossetti's sister, Jean Ingelow's intimate friend, and a young lady of intelligence and education, constantly in contact with real literary society, and—what is thoroughly evident in this book—read in our best poets. Add all these complicating symptoms, and is there not something plausible about the diagnosis? We do not say, observe, and do not mean to say, that this is Miss Rossetti's case; only all she has done so far seems explicable on this hypothesis. For ourselves, we lean to the view that she will do more. We judge hers a strong, sensuous, impulsive, earnest, inconsiderate nature, that sympathizes well, feels finely, keeps true to itself at bottom, but does not pause to make sure that others must, as well as may, enter into the spirit that underlies her utterances, and so buries her meaning sometimes beyond Champollion's own powers of deciphering. But her next book must determine how much is to be ascribed to talent, and how much to practice and good models; and show us whether genius or gilt edges separate her from the ο πολλοί.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1651
SOURCE: "Christina Georgina Rossetti," in The Dial, Chicago, Vol. XVIII, No. 206, January 16, 1895, pp. 37-9.
[In the following unsigned essay, the critic praises three of Rossetti's volumes of poetry, comparing her literary achievement to that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.]
The last day of the year just ended brought news of the death of Miss Rossetti, the youngest of mat famous quartette of brothers and sisters of whom Mr. W. M. Rossetti is now left the sole survivor. Maria Francesca, who died in 1876, was the oldest of the four, having first seen the light in 1827. Then came Dante Gabriel in 1828, William Michael in 1829, and Christina Georgina in 1830. Miss Rossetti gave early evidence of her poetic talents, as is shown by the privately-printed volume of Verses, dated 1847. In 1850, with her brothers, she wrote for the famous Germ, over the pseudonymous signature of "Ellen Alleyne." It was not, however, until 1862 that she took her destined place among the greater Victorian poets, with Goblin Market and Other Poems. That volume was followed, in 1866, by The Prince's Progress and Other Poems, and, in 1881, by A Pageant and Other Poems. It is upon the contents of these three collections that Miss Rossetti's reputation must rest, although she did a considerable amount of other literary work. Before discussing the character of her poems, we may dispose of the other books by a simple enumeration. Commonplace and Other Short Stories (1870) and Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme-Book (1872) are titles that speak for themselves. Speaking Likenesses, a volume of "quasi-allegorical prose," and Annus Domini: A Prayer for Every Day in the Year, both bear the date 1874. Seek and Find, Called to the Saints, and Letter and Spirit, three religious works in prose, date from 1879, 1881, and 1883, respectively; while Time Flies, a reading diary in alternate verse and prose, appeared in 1885, and was, we believe, her last published volume. These devotional books, which have both found and deserved a large and appreciative audience, are distinctly out of the common, but the spirit which finds expression in them finds utterance still more intense and rapturous in the three volumes of song to which we now turn.
It is not the least of the glories of English poetry that two women should be numbered among the singers whom we most love and honor. It is perhaps idle to inquire whether Mrs. Browning or Miss Rossetti is to be esteemed the greater poet; the one thing certain is that no other English woman is to be named in the same breath with them. These two stand far apart from the throng, lifted above it by inspiration and achievement, and no account of the greater poetry of our century can ignore them. If there is something more instinctive, more inevitable in impulse, about the work of Mrs. Browning, there is more of restraint and of artistic finish about the work of Miss Rossetti. The test of popularity would assign to the former the higher rank, just as it would place Byron above Keats and Coleridge, or above Wordsworth and Shelley; but the critic has better tests than the noisy verdicts of the multitude, and those tests lessen, if they do not quite do away with, the seeming disparity between the fame of the two women.
The longer pieces which introduce Miss Rossetti's three volumes are not the most successful of their contents. It is rather to the lyrics, ballads, and sonnets that the lover of poetry will turn to find her at her best. Who, for example, could once read and ever forget such a sonnet as "Rest"?
O Earth, lie heavily upon her eyes;
Seal her sweet eyes weary of watching, Earth;
Lie close around her; leave no room for mirth
With its harsh laughter, nor for sound of sighs.
She hath no questions, she hath no replies,
Hushed in and curtained with a blessed dearth
Of all that irked her from the hour of birth,
With stillness that is almost Paradise.
Darkness more clear than noonday holdeth her,
Silence more musical than any song;
Even her very heart hath ceased to stir:
Until the morning of Eternity
Her rest shall not begin nor end, but be;
And when she wakes she will not think it long.
Or who could escape the haunting quality of such a lyric as this:
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress-tree;
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
The poem just quoted can hardly fail to recall, in feeling, thought, and measure, Mr. Swinburne's "Rococo," and thus emphasizes the spiritual relationship of the author to the poets of the group sometimes styled "Pre-Raphaelite." Similarly, the perfect lyric called "Dream-Land" is clearly akin to "The Garden of Proserpine," and it is not difficult to discern the same sort of kinship between Miss Rossetti's "Up-Hill" and Mr. Swinburne's "The Pilgrims." Now the point to be noted is that all three of Miss Rossetti's poems were published in the volume of 1862, while the three Swinburnian poems date from several years later. There is, of course, no question of imitation—in each case what remains a simple theme with the one poet is elaborated into a symphony by the other—but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the man was influenced by the woman in all three of the cases. Particularly with "Up-Hill" and "The Pilgrims," we note the common use of the dialogue form and the absolute identity of the austere ethical motive.
Miss Rossetti's verses sometimes suggest those of other poets, but we always feel that her art is distinctly her own. The divine simplicity of Blake is echoed in such a stanza as
What can lambkins do
All the keen night through?
Nestle by their woolly mother,
The careful ewe.
The melting, almost cloying, sweetness of the Tennysonian lyric meets us in these verses:
Come to me in the silence of the night;
Come in the speaking silence of a dream;
Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright
As sunlight on a stream; Come back in tears,
O memory, hope, love of finished years.
As for the influence of the great Italian, which shaped so powerfully the thought of every member of the Rossetti family, it is less tangible here than in the work of her greater brother, yet to it must be attributed much of the tenderness and the pervasive mysticism of her poems. It is perhaps most apparent in the two sonnet-sequences, "Monna Innominata" and "Later Life," both included in the volume of 1881. And the influence of that brother who bore the sacred name of the Florentine is likewise intangible but pervasive. We get a glimpse of it in "Amor Mundi," for example, and in many a vanitas vanitatum strain. But we must repeat that Miss Rossetti's genius was too original to be chargeable with anything more than that assimilation of spiritual influence from which no poet can hope wholly to escape, and which links together in one golden chain the poetic tradition of the ages.
If in most of the provinces of the lyric realm Miss Rossetti's verse challenges comparison with that of our greater singers, it is in the religious province that the challenge is most imperative and her mastery most manifest. Not in Keble or Newman, not in Herbert or Vaughan, do we find a clearer or more beautiful expression of the religious sentiment than is dominant in Miss Rossetti's three books. In this respect, at least, she is unsurpassed, and perhaps unequalled, by any of her contemporaries. In her devotional pieces there is no touch of affectation, artificiality, or insincerity. Such poems as "The Three Enemies" and "Advent" in the first volume, "Paradise" and "The Lowest Place" in the second, and many of the glorious lyrics and sonnets of the third, will long be treasured among the religious classics of the English language. Perhaps the poet's highest achievement in this kind is the "Old and New Year Ditties" of the first volume. Some such claim, at least, has been made by no less an authority than Mr. Swinburne for the closing section of the poem.
Passing away, saith the World, passing away;
Chances, beauty, and youth sapped day by day;
Thy life never continueth in one stay.
Is the eye waxen dim, is the dark hair changing to gray
That hath won neither laurel nor bay?
I shall clothe myself in Spring and bud in May:
Thou, root-stricken, shalt not rebuild thy decay
On my bosom for aye.
Then I answered: Yea.
Passing away, saith my Soul, passing away;
With its burden of fear and hope, of labor and play;
Hearken what the past doth witness and say:
Rust in thy gold, a moth is in thine array,
A canker is in thy bud, thy leaf must decay.
At midnight, at cock-crow, at morning, one certain day
Lo, the Bridegroom shall come and shall not delay:
Watch thou and pray.
Then I answered: Yea.
Passing away, saith my God, passing away:
Winter passeth after the long delay;
New grapes on the vine, new figs on the tender spray,
Turtle calleth turtle in Heaven's May.
Though I tarry, wait for Me, trust Me, watch and pray.
Arise, come away, night is past, and lo it is day,
My love, My sister, My spouse, thou shalt hear Me say.
Then I answered: Yea.
It is peculiarly fitting that the author of these fervid and solemn verses, written for one New Year's season, should herself have passed away on the very eve of another.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6092
SOURCE: "Devotional Prose," in Christina Rossetti: A Biographical and Critical Study, fourth edition, Haskell House Publishers Ltd., 1971, pp. 285-318.
[In the following excerpt, first published in 1898, Bell surveys Rossetti's works of devotional prose.]
Annus Domini, which was issued in 1874, through the publishing house of Messrs. James Parker & Co., Oxford and London, is the first in point of date of Christina Rossetti's devotional prose works, and deserves particular attention, as it presents many features showing the inception of her later devotional prose style. Annus Domini is called on the sub-title page 'a prayer for each day of the year, founded on a text of Holy Scripture.' Following the title-page is a brief commendatory note by the Rev. William Henry Burrows. . . . Next comes a short Prefatory Note by the author, and then two pages occupied by what she names a 'Calendar' wherein the numbers are given of certain of the prayers which presumably she considered appropriate to memorable periods of the Christian year, such as Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Septuagesima, Lent, Passiontide, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension, Whitsuntide, Holy Trinity, Saints' Days, Feast of the Blessed Virgin, S. Michael and All Angels, Ember Weeks, and Rogation Days. Each prayer is addressed to Christ. These prayers are not so imaginative as Christina's later devotional work. Perhaps this restraining of the imagination may have arisen on her part from her deep reverence for prayer as prayer, and her feeling, once or twice expressed to me, that no human creature, however skilful, ought wantonly to embroider with his own ability petitions to the Almighty. It may also have arisen partly from the fact that her symbolism became more developed in later life. But even in this book we find her remarkable power of evoking spiritual sublimity from Biblical passages which at first sight do not appear to contain it in a great degree. As an example of her writing here page 354 may be quoted in its entirety:
Rev. xv. 4.
"Who shall not fear Thee, O Lord, and glorify Thy Name? for Thou only art Holy."
O Lord Jesus Christ, Who only art Holy, forgive, I implore Thee, forgive and purge the unholiness of Thy saints, the unholiness of Thy little ones, the unholiness of Thy penitents, the unholiness of the unconverted, the unholiness of me a sinner. God be merciful to us sinners. Amen.
Occasionally we see the influence of the Book of Common Prayer and it is not too much to say that she has sometimes caught much of its well-ordered grandeur. Perhaps there is almost an excessive realism in these words, part of a petition to Christ:
By virtue of Thy victory give us also, I entreat Thee, victory. Let Thy pierced Heart win us to love Thee, Thy torn Hands incite us to every good work, Thy wounded Feet urge us on errands of mercy, Thy crown of thorns prick us out of sloth, Thy thirst draw us to thirst after the Living Water Thou givest: let Thy life be our pattern while we live, and Thy death our triumph over death when we come to die. Amen.
But how beautiful, how full of the true rhythm of the finest English prose is the following:
O Lord Jesus Christ, King of Kings, draw, I beseech Thee, all Kings of the earth to come and worship before Thee. Bless them who for our sakes are burdened with responsibility and cares; teach us to reverence, love, and obey them in all things lawful; and in the next world of Thy goodness give them with us rest. Amen.
Seek and Find was published in 1879, and on the title-page is termed by its author 'A double series of short studies of the Benedicite.' In a 'Prefatory Note' on the succeeding page, she tells us that in writing her book she consulted the Harmony by the late Isaac Williams (presumably his work entitled A Harmony of the Four Evangelists). She goes on to say that, as she is unacquainted with either Hebrew or Greek, any 'textual elucidations' were obtained from 'some translation,' and that she discovered 'many valuable alternative readings' 'in the Margin of an ordinary Reference Bible.'
Following the 'Prefatory Note,' under the general heading of 'The Benedicite,' are five pages of small type setting forth the contents of the volume, each of the five pages being divided into three columns. . . .
The 'first series' of 'studies,' called on the sub-title-page 'Creation,' occupy one hundred and fifty-three pages; while the 'second series,' termed 'Redemption,' fill one hundred and fifty-nine pages.
In a letter to Christina, (October 8, 1879), her brother Dante Gabriel says that he finds Seek and Find 'full of eloquent beauties,' and then adds:
I am sorry to notice that—in my own view—it is most seriously damaged, for almost all if not for all readers, by the confusion of references in the text, which they completely smother. Surely these should all have been marginal, and not nearly so numerous. [Mr. Frederic] Shields, who was of course much interested in seeing the book, took quite the same view in this.
The volume might certainly have been better arranged. But, this objection stated, little but praise ought to be given to a work that contains so many noble prose sequences. 'It is the Spirit that quickeneth'—Christina Rossetti, without knowing Hebrew and Greek, was, nevertheless, frequently able to flash light on a Scriptural phrase, or series of phrases, owing to a devout use of her poet's intuition, for, generally speaking, she approaches even her prose work from the standpoint of a poet. Throughout Seek and Find her characteristic inclination towards symbolism is everywhere displayed and mainly with happy effect, although once and again, as in her disquisition on the connection between fishes and men, she appears to carry her symbolism a little too far. Perhaps the finest disquisition in the book is that on angels—a disquisition valuable not only for the ideas set forth therein, but because some of these ideas seem to be more fully the outcome of her personal experience than is usual even with Christina Rossetti. The excerpt that follows, sets forth some of these ideas:
Since we believe that even in this life we dwell among the invisible hosts of angels,—since we hope in the life to come to rejoice and worship without end in their blessed company, let us collect what we already know of these our unseen fellows, that by considering what are their characteristics, we ourselves may be provoked unto love and to good works. (Heb. x. 24).
Seek and Find is not one of Christina Rossetti's great books, but it is not unworthy of her, and is further noticeable as exhibiting her great knowledge of the Bible.
Called to be Saints: The Minor Festivals Devotionally Studied, was published in 1881. The saints and festivals dealt with in the volume are St. Andrew, 'Apostle'; St. Thomas, 'Apostle'; St. Stephen, 'Deacon'; St. John, 'Apostle and Evangelist'; The Holy Innocents; St. Paul, 'Apostle'; The Presentation and Purification; St. Matthias, 'Apostle'; The Annunciation; St. Mark, 'Evangelist'; St. Philip and St. James the Less, 'Apostles'; St. Barnabas, 'Apostle'; St. John, 'Baptist'; St. Peter, 'Apostle'; St. James the Great, 'Apostle'; St. Bartholomew, 'Apostle'; St. Matthew, 'Apostle and Evangelist'; St. Michael and All Angels; St. Luke, 'Evangelist'; St. Simon and St. Jude, 'Apostles'; and All Saints.
Prefixed to the volume is 'The Key to my Book,' a short essay ending with the lyric "This near-at-hand-land' to which reference has been made at the beginning of Chapter VII. To each of the saints a separate section is given. Each of these sections is again sub-divided into brief dissertations, and in the contents each of these has a separate heading. The first of these headings is always styled 'The Sacred Text'; the second, 'Biographical Additions'; the third, 'A Prayer,' a composition written wholly by Christina Rossetti, and partly based on the characteristics of the especial saint commemorated. Then comes what is designated as 'A Memorial.' These 'memorials' are noteworthy in many ways, and are often of considerable length, the memorial of St. Andrew, for example, extending to ten pages of fairly close type. They show their author's intimate acquaintance with the Bible, and her great power in bringing the passages she cites to bear on the particular subject she has in hand. Each of the pages in these 'memorials' is divided midway into two portions. At the opening of the left-hand column are the first words of some brief commentatory matter, supplied by Christina Rossetti, and printed in block type, and these commentatory words are interspersed in the left-hand column of the 'memorials' throughout the book. For purposes of example this commentatory matter in the first three pages of the memorial to St. Andrew has been given below, and printed consecutively, but, to save space, more closely than in the author's text, asterisks being placed where breaks occur in the original:
St. Andrew of Bethsaida * * * learns of St. John Baptist, follows Christ and abides with him that day, * * * brings to our Lord his brother, * * * on whom a new name is bestowed, * * * is called from the nets to be fisher of men, * * * is ordained Apostle.
Following each of these detached phrases, and set in the same type as the rest of the volume, are Scripture passages relating either to the Saint's history, or mainly interpreting it. In the right-hand column are text from the Bible also in usual type illustrative of, but not directly referring to, the saint. Further there is a little treatise, often most delicately phrased, relating to some flower, and to each of the saints she appropriates some particular flower. To St. Andrew, for instance, she appropriates the daisy. She adds likewise, in the case of the Apostles, a short disquisition on each particular precious stone with which she associates them, the disquisitions in their case being suggested by Rev. xxi. 14:
And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
She follows the order of the precious stones given in the same chapter of Revelation, verses 19 and 20, and, adopting the Ecclesiastical Calendar in the assignment of the stones, gives the jasper to St. Andrew and, proceeding in regular order, gives the amethyst, the last of the stones mentioned, to St. Jude—the latest apostle in the Ecclesiastical Calendar. Scattered throughout the prose text moreover are some of her most exquisite and solemn lyrics, fervid and intense in their piety, ecstatic in their rapture, but these, as they are discussed in Chapter VIL, need not be referred to in detail here.
Following Rev. iv. 7:
And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle,
and the traditions of many centuries, she appropriates the fourth living creature, the eagle, to St. John, with a few words charged with fitting symbolism; while in a similar manner she gives the first living creature, a lion, to St. Mark; the third living creature, an angel, to St. Matthew; and the second living creature, an ox, to St. Luke.
The prose of 'The Key to my Book' is full of that rhythmical beauty noticeable especially in much of her devotional prose,—perhaps, because the mental qualities required in order to write such prose with a high degree of excellence, were precisely the qualities she possessed. Her simple yet sensuous mind—a mind stored with poetic imagery—found in such work a stimulus to lofty achievement. Nor, in her case, is this lofty achievement ever gained by elaborate artifice. Her arrangement and choice of words are as unartificial as the wild flowers of England, which she prefers to associate with the saints she loves, rather than the flora of Palestine. Very tender and touching are these opening words:
How beautiful are the arms which have embraced Christ, the hands which have touched Christ, the eyes which have gazed upon Christ, the lips which have spoken with Christ, the feet which have followed Christ.
How beautiful are the hands which have worked the works of Christ, the feet which treading in his footsteps have gone about doing good, the lips that have spread abroad his name, the lives which have been counted loss for him.
Her description of 'Hepaticas' which she allocates to Matthias is an excellent example of her admirable power of idealising a merely botanical description. Work such as this is exceedingly difficult. If ordinary language be used, then the effect is commonplace and dull. If overmuch symbolism be employed, then the result seems strained and unreal. In this instance, however, the result is most successful. The passage which follows is especially pretty and fanciful:
Hepaticas favour a light soil, and love to meet the morning sun rather than to endure a more continuously sunny exposure. They do not well bear moving, or at the least they bear it not always with indifference: an instance is quoted of one changing from blue to white when transplanted, whilst on returning to its former soil the enduring plant resumed its original tint. Humble in height, the hepatica may be termed patient in habit; for during one whole year the blossom, perfect in all its parts, lurks hidden within the bud.
This plant belongs to the family of Anemones or Wind-flowers; and, as a wind-flower, seems all the more congruous with St. Matthias;. . . When, the lot having already fallen on him, "suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind," that wind which "bloweth where it listeth," and on him as on the rest the Fiery Tongue of consecrating power lighted and sat.
Kindly as the hepatica thrives amongst us, it yet is no native of England, but comes to us from Switzerland. Thus if hepaticas prefer repose, they yet submit to transference, blooming cheerfully in their allotted sphere.
Mention may be made of an exquisite little homily on violets; of her 'Prayer for Conformity to God's Will'; and of her disquisition on 'Arbutus and Grass,' which she designates as 'great and small,' and assigns to All Saints Day. In the discourse last-named there is one of the autobiographical touches which, when they occur in her work, are always interesting.
Often as I have let slip what cannot be regained, two points of my own experience stand out vividly; once, when little realising how nearly I had despised my last chance, I yet did in bare time do what must shortly have been for ever left undone; and again, when I fulfilled a promise which beyond calculation there remained but scant leisure to fulfil.
As to this passage Mr. William Rossetti has sent me the following communication:
[Concerning] those references made by Christina in Called to be Saints. As to "doing in bare time what would shortly have been un-do-able," the natural inference seems to be mat she did something or other in relation to a person who soon afterwards died. As to a promise which was fulfilled, but only just in time, a similar inference again suggests itself. It is just as likely as not that me incidents were in themselves of the very slightest consequence possible; for C[hristina] often bore such matters in mind, if any sort of principle seemed to be involved in them.
The last quotation that shall be made from Called to be Saints is from her meditation on St. Michael and All Angels, and may be said to be a complement to the passage concerning angels in Seek and Find lately referred to. The extracts which here follow show how deep was the spirituality of her nature.
Now of all which is, that which is made known unto us is undoubtedly made known for our profit. Let us not fail to love God all the more because He hath given His Angels charge concerning His own to keep them in all their ways; because the armies of heaven pitch their camp around the faithful when need arises; because blessed spirits minister to the heirs of salvation; because they rejoice over one sinner that repenteth:—for all this we know assuredly, whether or not with a multitude of pious souls we solace ourselves by the thought of one Angel guardian assigned to each baptised person. . . . When it seems (as sometimes through revulsion of feeling and urgency of Satan it may seem) that our yoke is uneasy and our burden unbearable, because our life is pared down and subdued and repressed to an intolerable level: and so in one moment every instinct of our whole self revolts against our lot, and we loathe this day of quietness and of sitting still, and writhe under a sudden sense of all we have irrecoverably foregone, of the right hand, or foot, or eye cast from us, of the haltingness and maimedness of our entrance (if enter we do at last) into life,—then the Seraphim of Isaiah's vision making music in our memory revive hope in our heart.
Probably with the single exception of The Face of the Deep, Called to be Saints is more thoroughly and beautifully built up through symbolism than any other of Christina Rossetti's devotional books.
Lady Mount-Temple 'found joy in' Called to be Saints (to use Mr. Shields's happy phrase). He told this to Christina who, in a letter to him now before me, expresses her great satisfaction at hearing it.
Letter and Spirit: Notes on the Commandments, published in 1883, is dedicated
To My Mother in thankfulness for her dear and honoured example.
—a dedication specially interesting in view of some words to Mr. Shields, which may here be inserted. Writing from 'Church Hill, Birchington-on-Sea,' under date August 23, 1883, Christina says:
Thank you for welcoming Letter and Spirit—my Mother's life is a far more forcible comment on the Commandments than are words of mine.
As its title is doubtless meant to indicate, Letter and Spirit is a treatise on the inner meaning of the Commandments. Christina places in full on the first page of her book Christ's exposition of the Decalogue as it is given in Mark xii. 28-30, and Matt. xxii. 39-40, and then quotes the entire Decalogue itself, the rest of the work being an exposition of it. The volume ends with a Harmony on I. Corinthians xiii. and in the right column parallel sayings of Jesus culled from the Gospels.
On a first glance at this book one is apt to think that, in form at least, it partakes too much of the character of the ordinary religious commentary. Not till we have looked further into it do we perceive it filled with the same qualities which have made her other devotional prose remarkable—the qualities I mean of symbolism and a chastened form of imagination. The original manuscript of Letter and Spirit is now in the possession of Mr. Fairfax Murray, and he has been good enough to allow me to examine it with some care. Like many other of her manuscripts, particularly the manuscripts of her later prose works, it is written on ordinary blue paper, quarto size, and in somewhat large handwriting, with considerable space between the lines, and with comparatively few erasures.
Letter and Spirit is the only one of her books, except Seek and Find, and Speaking Likenesses, which contains no verse of her own. It is likewise noteworthy from the fact that only two lines of verse of other writers are quoted—the lines of Bishop Heber:—
Richer by far is the heart's adoration,
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.
Seldom in her books did she quote the verses of other poets. Probably this was because, in her case, it was so easy to write verse. But was there another reason? It is a somewhat interesting field of speculation. . . .
Nothing is more unreasonable than the opinion so often expressed and apparently truly felt that the poetic mind is deficient in practical attributes. The exact reverse is not seldom the case with the higher types of poetic genius, and certainly nothing could be more practical than the exhortations of Christina Rossetti in this book. She refers to England by name, and is persuaded 'that our national honour, wealth, credit, already impaired' probably implies, 'unless we repent' the commencement 'of our chastisement.' By and by she remarks that it is 'no light offence to traduce the dead.' If we believe that every man and woman born into the world since its beginning still lives a life unbroken by death—still retains 'one continuity of individual existence from birth to this moment, from this moment to the Day of Judgment'—if we feel assured that, with them, we shall ourselves be judged, then must we realise in full that to cherish 'malice' towards them is 'simply devilish'—then must we realise what 'a solemn thing it is to write history'; and she concludes by this personal reference, striking in its graceful homeliness:
I feel it a solemn thing to write conjectural sketches of Scripture characters; filling up outlines as I fancy, but cannot be certain, may possibly have been the case: making one figure stand for this virtue and another for that vice, attributing motives and colouring conduct. Yet I hope my mistakes will be forgiven me, while I do most earnestly desire every one of my personages to be in truth superior to my sketch.
We have likewise some carefully thought out remarks on the arrangement of daily life; on the relative importance of rest and work; and on what really constitutes work, what rest.
The beautiful Harmony, alluded to already, opens with a little note, in which she tells her readers that it 'was in part if not wholly suggested to me,' and though the person who made the suggestion is not certainly known, it was most probably her sister Maria.
She approaches, as said before, in Letter and Spirit more nearly than in her other writings to theological disquisition. She was not a professed theologian. She had too distinct a bias to the symbolical—to the poetic—and was too little touched by the merely intellectual, to excel in theological disquisition. Occasionally, however, particularly in her prose devotional works, we come upon passages in which her natural commonsense and her natural eloquence enable her to deal with themes more or less theological with much power.
Time Flies: A Reading Diary, with the appropriate motto 'A day's march nearer home' from James Montgomery, was published in 1885. It was dedicated thus:
To My Beloved Example, Friend, MOTHER.
'Her children arise up, and call her blessed.'
Time Flies has the distinction of containing more frequent personal references than any other of her books, unless it be The Face of the Deep. Indeed it may almost be called a kind of spiritual autobiography. For even when there are no obvious personal allusions many of the original thoughts and pregnant sayings that enrich the book must have had their root in her own spiritual experience. Probably having to write something about each day in the year, something that must necessarily be short, and that ought also to be concise and pithy, she fell back, unconsciously, on her own wide experience, wide, not in the outer but in the inner sense. Be this as it may, what has just been said gives an added and peculiar value to Time Flies, altogether apart from the remarkable literary merit of the book.
As showing Christina Rossetti's breadth of mind and ample charity, despite her firm and unwavering faith not only in religion but in dogma, it is worthy of note, that very often in the course of these books we encounter passages which none could have written but a woman who had thought for herself, and who had not reached her present standpoint without much deep meditation. Seldom does she allow her passion for symbolism to carry her too far, and thus her symbolism rarely becomes, as we have often seen it become in the hands of lesser writers, something almost ridiculous. This in itself is a great achievement. For, as may easily be imagined, in a volume of brief devotional essays such as this 'reading diary' is in effect, it is most difficult to discuss in a few words, and without a sense of the ridiculous, such questions, for instance, as whether the association of 'tapers and bonfires' with St. Blaise arose or did not arise out of a quibble on his name. To January 24, she allocates the sonnet beginning:
'Give Me thy heart.' I said: Can I not make
Abundant sacrifice to Him Who gave
Life, health, possessions, friends, of all I have,
All but my heart once given?
terming the sonnet 'devotional.' She further adds that a 'friend' gave it to her many years before, and that she now reproduces it from memory. The 'friend' was James Collinson.
Sometimes Christina Rossetti introduces in a characteristic manner her opinions respecting subjects only indirectly connected with the theme which she is treating at the moment. Thus under date of February 5, and in relation to the Feast of St. Agatha, Virgin Martyr (who is supposed to have 'suffered death' about the year 251) she tells how Catania and Palermo claim to be the birthplace of 'this heroine of piety'; how Quintianus, 'Consular of Sicily' loved Agatha; and how, when he found that Agatha remained a Christian and repelled his overtures, his affection towards her became repugnance. She narrates further how he 'exhausted cruelty and torture' on her in vain, and how subsequently Agatha died in prison. Then she discusses anew, with simplicity and force, the familiar problem of how far a man or a woman may differ on important points and yet love one another. Her conclusion is that much real affection may exist despite important differences of opinion, and she closes her remarks by quoting St. Paul's words at Athens 'I found an altar with this inscription, "To the Unknown God."'
Time Flies contains many sayings of Christina's full of striking commonsense such as this: 'For many are they of whom the world is both "not worthy" and ignorant,' or this under date of February 18, where she adduces some excellent lessons from the 'quaint remark' of a friend who said, concerning her own—not Christina Rossetti's—feet, that it was a good thing they were so large for thus anyone could wear her boots. Then we have a neat and sensible little homily, with considerable freshness, on the 'square man in a round hole.' Later we have a cheerful little exhortation on the subject of 'dirt' as the symbol of 'something out of place.' Still later there is a timely disquisition on the relative duties of hospitality in which she points out that
In many cases the person who annoys and the person who is annoyed are both in the right, or (if you please) are both in the wrong—
illustrating her proposition by the differing standards of courtesy of an Arab chief and his English guest.
In response to an enquiry as to whether the poem allocated to February 15 beginning
My love whose heart is tender, said to me,
And still she keeps my heart and keeps its key,
refers to her sister, her younger brother writes to me:
I certainly regard it as applying to Maria. The 2nd line, "a moon lacks light" &c, is conclusive to me. Maria had a very round face, and Christina was much in the habit of calling her Moon, Moony, &c. I have no doubt that Maria on some occasion made this her cue for saying something very like what appears in the poem. However I never knew her to call C[hristina] her "Sun," or anything of the sort.
At February 8 are some subtle and carefully differentiated remarks respecting heaven and music, in the course of which Christina points out that music to be music must not be monotonous, and that therefore 'a heaven of music,' even if that conception of heaven be not somewhat narrow and unreasonable, would be a place of variety, not of monotony. Under date of March 28 and April 16, she shows conclusively that, what she aptly calls physical 'grievous besetments,' may not relatively be disadvantageous; she also at the second date avers how even our most cherished opinions almost inevitably are modified by time, drawing therefrom this cheerful moral:
If even time lasts long enough to reverse a verdict of time, how much more eternity?
Let us take courage, secondary as we may for the present appear. Of ourselves likewise the comparative aspect will fade away, the positive will remain.
At March 7 we meet with a few words about Vivia Perpetua, the martyr, on the subject of whose pathetic career the author of Nearer my God to Thee wrote a drama full of force and poetical enthusiasm. Christina Rossetti's special powers of reasoning are admirably used in her moralisings on the Feast of St. George, Martyr. The entry under May 8 has peculiar interest, and reveals her love of William Blake:
There is a design by William Blake symbolic of the Resurrection. In it I behold the descending soul and the arising body rushing together in an indissoluble embrace: and the design, among all I recollect to have seen, stands alone in expressing the rapture of that reunion:
—an opinion worth quoting when we recollect how great, apparently, was the influence of Blake on her own work, though it is right to add what Mr. William Rossetti tells me:
It would I think be an error to suppose that C[hristina] at any time read B[lake] much or constantly—certainly she prized the little she did read.
The entry under May 8 closes with a suitable quotation from Cayley's translation of Dante's 'Paradise,' Canto XIV.
Under date of August 30 tact is discussed shrewdly. Her entry for the following day, (where she dwells on the resemblance, once pointed out to her, between a grey parrot and an elephant) seems at first sight to have a quality akin to humour, were it not for the grim seriousness of the words with which she concludes:
It is startling to reflect that you and I may be walking about unabashed and jaunty, whilst our fellows observe very queer likenesses amongst us.
Any one may be the observer: and equally any one may be the observed.
Liable to such casualties, I advise myself to assume a modest and unobtrusive demeanour.
I do not venture to advise you.
In a right sense she had a fearlessness, almost a contempt of current opinion, and, under date of September 30, she recalls with approval the saying of Jerome to the lady Asella: 'I know we may arrive at heaven equally with a bad, as a good name.' There is deep spiritual teaching in the following words which occur under date of December 20:
St. Thomas doubted.
Scepticism is a degree of unbelief: equally therefore it is a degree of belief. It may be a degree of faith.
St. Thomas doubted, but simultaneously he loved. Whence it follows that his case was all along hopeful.
The Face of the Deep: a Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse has as motto 'Thy judgments are a great deep'—Psalm xxxvi. 6. It was dedicated
To MY MOTHER for the first time to her beloved, revered, cherished memory,
and was published in 1892 by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
In the simple and touching account given by Mr. William Rossetti (in his memoir of Dante Gabriel) of the early education of his brother and sisters we are told how their good mother instructed them in the Bible, and in this connection the Apocalypse is especially mentioned. There is therefore fair ground for supposing that Christina Rossetti's knowledge of the Book of the Revelation, and her fondness for it, had their origin in very early days, probably, in Mr. William Rossetti's opinion, by the age of eight or nine. Should such be the case, and the inference is just, it is striking and beautiful to think that her last, and in some respects her greatest literary achievement, was a commentary on the Book she had loved as a child.
The Face of the Deep deals systematically with the entire Book of the Revelation of St. John, a chapter in the commentary being devoted to each Chapter of the Book. One, two, or three verses of the chapter under consideration are placed in block type, being followed by a paragraph or paragraphs of comment.
Two and a half, or perhaps three years elapsed between the date at which she first commenced to write her treatise and the date on which she handed the completed manuscript to her publishers.
The commentary, as indicated by the sub-title, is of course largely devotional. No effort of set purpose is made on the author's part to expound prophecy, nor does she make any fixed attempt at exegesis. Throughout, the reader is impressed by her childlike humility and by her unconsciousness of the fact that she possessed, in addition to her other gifts, no small share of miscellaneous learning. Very frequently when a word or phrase suggests something to awaken her lyrical gift, she breaks forth into snatches of exquisite song. Throughout the commentary we have also many noble prose litanies (to use the apt word by which Mr. Shields spoke of them to me). In these sequences her rich diction and fine ear for the rhythm of prose enable her to excel. Some of these, indeed most of them, are choice examples of rhythmically-balanced and delicate prose. Once and again, indeed, she reaches such a high level of style that her work is comparable with the finest masterpieces of prose composition in the English language—with the work, for example, of the translators of the authorised version of the English Bible of James the First's time—of the compilers of The Book of Common Prayer—and with great writers like Hooker and Jeremy Taylor.
Her 'Prefatory Note,' with its reference to her sister Maria, . . . is couched in that characteristic vein of dignified humility (the phrase is used for lack of a better) with which students of her writings are familiar. This, indeed, is the secret of her wide influence. Very original likewise are the opening words wherein she implies that if she cannot 'dive' and 'bring up pearls' she may at least 'collect amber.' 'Though,' she adds, 'I fail to identify Paradisaical "bdellium," I still may hope to search out beauties of the "onyx stone."' These words are the keynote of the entire commentary.
Of a commentary of such considerable length as The Face of the Deep, (extending to five hundred and fifty-two pages) it is manifestly undesirable, even if space permitted, to give a full and detailed analysis. . . .
She bases her opening sentences on the first two verses of chapter i. of the Revelation, and writes:
"Things which must shortly come to pass."—At the end of 1800 years we are still repeating this "shortly," because it is the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ; thus starting in fellowship of patience with that blessed John who owns all Christians as his brethren (see ),'
so emphasising anew what she regards as the central idea of the book. In the course of her remarks on Rev. i. 12-16, we have one of the first outbursts of devotional feeling which, noticeable in all Christina Rossetti's religious works, are especially so in The Face of the Deep. And these outbursts of devotional—of ecstatic feeling grew in intensity as she proceeded in the writing of this treatise—as the sublimity of her theme gradually took a deeper hold of her mind. Nothing shows more clearly her essential sanity, her essential commonsense—qualities in which her mind was akin to the greatest minds of all ages—than that never throughout The Face of the Deep has she once departed either from sanity or commonsense. And remembering the temptations which the obscurity, as well as the abounding symbolism of the theme, must have had for her, who was at once so devout, so poetic, and so prone to symbolism, to say this of The Face of the Deep is to say much, and yet not to laud it unduly.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4512
SOURCE: "Christina Rossetti," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 94, No. 6, December, 1904, pp. 815-21.
[In the following essay, More extols Rossetti's "feminine genius" as displayed in her poetry.]
Probably the first impression one gets from reading the Complete Poetical Works of Christina Rossetti, now collected and edited by her brother, Mr. W. M. Rossetti, is mat she wrote altogether too much, and that it was a doubtful service to her memory to preserve so many poems purely private in their nature. The editor, one thinks, might well have shown himself more "reverent of her strange simplicity." For page after page we are in the society of a spirit always refined and exquisite in sentiment, but without any guiding and restraining artistic impulse; she never drew to the shutters of her soul, but lay open to every wandering breath of heaven. In comparison with the works of the more creative poets her song is like the continuous lisping of an Æolian harp beside the music elicited by cunning fingers. And then, suddenly, out of this sweet monotony, moved by some stronger, clearer breeze of inspiration, there sounds a strain of wonderful beauty and flawless perfection, unmatched in its own kind in English letters. An anonymous purveyor of anecdotes has recently told how one of these more exquisite songs called forth the enthusiasm of Swinburne. It was just after the publication of Goblin Market and Other Poems, and in a little company of friends that erratic poet and critic started to read aloud from the volume. Turning first to the devotional paraphrase which begins with "Passing away, saith the World, passing away," he chanted the lines in his own emphatic manner, then laid the book down with a vehement gesture. Presently he took it up again, and a second time read the poem through, even more impressively. "By God!" he exclaimed at the end, "that's one of the finest things ever written!"
Passing away, saith the World, passing away:
Chances, beauty, and youth, sapped day by day,
Thy life never continueth in one stay.
Is the eye waxen dim, is the dark hair changing to gray,
That hath won neither laurel nor bay?
I shall clothe myself in Spring and bud in May:
Thou, root-stricken, shalt not rebuild thy decay
On my bosom for aye.
Then I answered: Yea.
Passing away, saith my Soul, passing away:
With its burden of fear and hope, of labor and play,
Hearken what the past doth witness and say:
Rust in thy gold, a moth is in thine array,
A canker is in thy bud, thy leaf must decay.
At midnight, at cockcrow, at morning, one certain day
Lo the Bridegroom shall come and shall not delay;
Watch thou and pray.
Then I answered: Yea.
Passing away, saith my God, passing away:
Winter passeth after the long delay:
New grapes on the vine, new figs on the tender spray,
Turtle calleth turtle in Heaven's May.
Though I tarry, wait for Me, trust Me, watch and pray:
Arise, come away, night is past and lo it is day:
My love, My sister, My spouse, thou shalt hear Me say.
Then I answered: Yea.
And Swinburne, somewhat contrary to his wont, was right. Purer inspiration, less troubled by worldly motives, than these verses cannot easily be found. Nor would it be difficult to discover in their brief compass most of the qualities that lend distinction to Christina Rossetti's work. Even her monotone, which after long continuation becomes monotony, affects one here as a subtle device heightening the note of subdued fervor and religious resignation; the repetition of the rhyming vowel creates the feeling of a secret expectancy cherished through the weariness of a frustrate life. If there is any excuse for publishing the many poems that express the mere unlifted, unvaried prayer of her heart, it is because their monotony may prepare the mind for the strange artifice of this solemn chant. But such a preparation demands more patience than a poet may justly claim from the ordinary reader. Better would be a volume of selections from her works, including a number of poems of this character. It would stand, in its own way, supreme in English literature,—as pure and fine an expression of the feminine genius as the world has yet heard.
It is, indeed, as the flower of strictly feminine genius that Christina Rossetti should be read and judged. She is one of a group of women who brought this new note into Victorian poetry,—Louisa Shore, Jean Ingelow, rarely Mrs. Browning, and, I may add, Mrs. Meynell. She is like them, but of a higher, finer strain than they . . ., and I always think of her as of her brother's Blessed Damozel, circled with a company of singers, yet holding herself aloof in chosen loneliness of passion. She, too, has not quite ceased to yearn toward earth:—
And still she bowed herself and stooped
Out of the circling charm;
Until her bosom must have made
The bar she leaned on warm,
And the lilies lay as if asleep
Along her bended arm.
I have likened the artlessness of much of her writing to the sweet monotony of an Æolian harp. The comparison returns as expressing also the purely feminine spirit of her inspiration. There is in her a passive surrender to the powers of life, a religious acquiescence, which wavers between a plaintive pathos and a sublime exultation of faith. The great world, with its harsh indifference for the weak, passes over her as a ruinous gale rushes over a sequestered wood-flower; she bows her head, humbled but not broken, nor ever forgetful of her gentle mission,—
And strong in patient weakness till the end.
She bends to the storm, yet no one, not the great mystics nor the greater poets who cry out upon the sound and fury of life, is more constantly impressed by the vanity and fleeting insignificance of the blustering power, or more persistently looks for consolation and joy from another source. But there is a difference. Read the masculine poets who have heard this mystic call of the spirit, and you feel yourself in the presence of a strong will that has grasped the world, and, finding it insufficient, deliberately casts it away; and there is no room for pathetic regret in their ruthless determination to renounce. But this womanly poet does not properly renounce at all, she passively allows the world to glide away from her. The strength of her genius is endurance:—
She stands there like a beacon through the night,
A pale clear beacon where the storm-drift is—
She stands alone, a wonder deathly-white:
She stands there patient, nerved with inner might,
Indomitable in her feebleness,
Her face and will athirst against the light.
It is characteristic of her feminine disposition that the loss of the world should have come to her first of all in the personal relation of love. And here we must signalize the chief service of the editor toward his sister. It was generally known in a vague way, indeed it was easy to surmise as much from her published work, that Christina Rossetti bore with her always the sadness of unfulfilled affection. In the introductory Memoir her brodier has now given a sufficiently detailed account of this matter to remove all ambiguity. I am not one to wish that the reserves and secret emotions of an author should be displayed for the mere gratification of the curious; but in this case the revelation would seem to be justified as a needed explanation of poems which she herself was willing to publish. Twice, it appears, she gave her love, and both times drew back in a kind of tremulous awe from the last step. The first affair began in 1848, before she was eighteen, and ran its course in about two years. The man was one James Collinson, an artist of mediocre talent who had connected himself with the Preraphaelite Brotherhood. He was originally a Protestant, but had become a Roman Catholic. Then, as Christina refused to ally herself to one of that faith, he compliantly abandoned Rome for the Church of England. His conscience, however, which seems from all accounts to have been of a flabby consistency, troubled him in the new faith, and he soon reverted to Catholicism. Christina then drew back from him finally. It is not so easy to understand why she refused the second suitor, with whom she became intimately acquainted about 1860, and whom she loved in her own retiring fashion until the day of her death. This was Charles Bagot Cayley, a brother of the famous Cambridge mathematician, himself a scholar and in a small way a poet. Some idea of the man may be obtained from a notice of him written by Mr. W. M. Rossetti for the Athenœum after his death. "A more complete specimen than Mr. Charles Cayley," says Mr. Rossetti, "of the abstracted scholar in appearance and manner—the scholar who constantly lives an inward and unmaterial life, faintly perceptive of external facts and appearances—could hardly be conceived. He united great sweetness to great simplicity of character, and was not less polite man unworldly." One might suppose that such a temperament was peculiarly fitted to join with that of the secluded poetess, and so, to judge from her many love poems, it actually was. Of her own heart or of his there seems to have been no doubt in her mind. Even in her most rapturous visions of heaven, like the yearning cry of the Blessed Damozel, the memory of that stilled passion often breaks out:—
How should I rest in Paradise,
Or sit on steps of heaven alone?
If Saints and Angels spoke of love,
Should I not answer from my throne,
Have pity upon me, ye my friends,
For I have heard the sound thereof?
She seems even not to have been unfamiliar with the hope of joy, and I like to believe that her best-known lyric of gladness, "My heart is like a singing bird," was inspired by the early dawning of this passion. But the hope and the joy soon passed away and left her only the solemn refrain of acquiescence: "Then I answered: Yea." Her brother can give no sufficient explanation of this refusal on her part to accept the happiness almost in her hand, though he hints at lack of religious sympathy between the two. Some inner necessity of sorrow and resignation, one almost thinks, drew her back in both cases, some perception that the real treasure of her heart lay not in this world:—
A voice said, "Follow, follow:" and I rose
And followed far into the dreamy night,
Turning my back upon the pleasant light.
It led me where the bluest water flows,
And would not let me drink: where the corn grows
I dared not pause, but went uncheered by sight
Or touch: until at length in evil plight
It left me, wearied out with many woes.
Some time I sat as one bereft of sense:
But soon another voice from very far Called, "Follow, follow:" and I rose again.
Now on my night has dawned a blessed star:
Kind steady hands my sinking steps sustain,
And will not leave me till I go from hence.
It might seem that here was a spirit of renunciation akin to that of the more masculine mystics; indeed, a great many of her poems are, unconsciously I presume, almost a paraphrase of that recurring theme of the Imitation: "Nolle consolari ab aliqua creatura," and again: "Amore igitur Creatoris, amorem hominis superavit; et pro humano solatio, divinum beneplacitum magis elegit." She, too, was unwilling to find consolation in any creature, and turned from the love of man to the love of the Creator; yet a little reading of her exquisite hymns will show that this renunciation has more the nature of surrender than of deliberate choice:—
He broke my will from day to day;
He read my yearnings unexprest,
And said them nay.
The world is withheld from her by a power above her will, and always this power stands before her in that peculiarly personal form which it assumes in the feminine mind. Her faith is a mere transference to heaven of a love that terrifies her in its ruthless earthly manifestation; and the passion of her life is henceforth a yearning expectation of the hour when the Bridegroom shall come and she shall answer, Yea. Nor is the earthly source of this love forgotten; it abides with her as a dream which often is not easily distinguished from its celestial transmutation:—
O dream how sweet, too sweet, too bitter sweet,
Whose wakening should have been in Paradise,
Where souls brimful of love abide and meet;
Where thirsting longing eyes
Watch the slow door
That opening, letting in, lets out no more.
Yet come to me in dreams, that I may live
My very life again though cold in death:
Come back to me in dreams, that I may give
Pulse for pulse, breath for breath: Speak low, lean low,
As long ago, my love, how long ago.
It is this perfectly passive attitude toward the powers that command her heart and her soul—a passivity which by its completeness assumes the misguiding semblance of a deliberate determination of life—that makes her to me the purest expression in English of the feminine genius. I know that many would think this preëminence belongs to Mrs. Browning. They would point out the narrowness of Christina Rossetti's range, and the larger aspects of woman's nature, neglected by her, which inspire some of her rival's best-known poems. To me, on the contrary, it is the very scope attempted by Mrs. Browning that prevents her from holding the place I would give to Christina Rossetti. So much of Mrs. Browning—her political ideas, her passion for reform, her scholarship—simply carries her into the sphere of the masculine poets where she suffers by an unfair comparison. She would be a better and less irritating writer without these excursions into a field for which she was not fitted. The uncouthness that so often mars her language is chiefly due to an unreconciled feud between her intellect and her heart. She had neither a woman's wise passivity nor a man's controlling will. Even within the range of strictly feminine powers her genius is not simple and typical. And here I must take refuge in a paradox which is like enough to carry but little conviction. Nevertheless, it is the truth. I mean to say that probably most women will regard Mrs. Browning as the better type of their sex, whereas to men the honor will seem to belong to Miss Rossetti; and that the judgment of a man in this matter is more conclusive than a woman's. This is a paradox, I admit, yet its solution is simple. Women will judge a poetess by her inclusion of the larger human nature, and will resent the limiting of her range to the qualities that we look upon as peculiarly feminine. The passion of Mrs. Browning, her attempt to control her inspiration to the demands of a shaping intellect, her questioning and answering, her larger aims, in a word, her effort to create,—all these will be set down to her credit by women who are as appreciative of such qualities as men, and who will not be annoyed by the false tone running through them. Men, on the contrary, are apt, in accepting a woman's work or in creating a female character, to be interested more in the traits and limitations which distinguish her from her masculine complement. They care more for the idea of woman, and less for woman as merely a human being. Thus, for example, I should not hesitate to say that Thackeray's heroines are more womanly than George Eliot's,—though I am aware of the ridicule to which such an opinion lays me open; and for the same reason I hold that Christina Rossetti is a more complete exemplar of feminine genius, and, as being more perfect in her own sphere, a better poet than Mrs. Browning. That disconcerting sneer of Edward FitzGerald's, which so enraged Robert Browning, would never have occurred to him, I think, in the case of Miss Rossetti.
There is a curious comment on this contrast in the introduction to Christina Rossetti's "Monna Innominata," a sonnet-sequence in which she tells her own story in the supposed person of an early Italian lady. "Had the great poetess of our own day and nation," she says, "only been unhappy instead of happy, her circumstances would have invited her to bequeath to us, in lieu of the Portuguese Sonnets, an inimitable 'donna innominata' drawn not from fancy, but from feeling, and worthy to occupy a niche beside Beatrice and Laura." Now this sonnet-sequence of Miss Rossetti's is far from her best work, and holds a lower rank in every way than that passionate self-revelation of Mrs. Browning's; yet to read these confessions of the two poets together is a good way to get at the division between their spirits. In Miss Rossetti's sonnets all those feminine traits I have dwelt on are present to a marked, almost an exaggerated, degree. They are harmonious within themselves, and filled with a quiet ease; only the higher inspiration is lacking to them in comparison with her "Passing Away," and other great lyrics. In Mrs. Browning, on the contrary, one cannot but feel a disturbing element. The very tortuousness of her language, the straining to render her emotion in terms of the intellect, introduces a quality which is out of harmony with the ground theme of feminine surrender. More than that, this submission to love, if looked at more closely, is itself in large part such as might proceed from a man as well as from a woman, so that there results an annoying confusion of masculine and feminine passion. Take, for instance, the twenty-second of the Portuguese Sonnets, one of the most perfect in the series:—
When our two souls stand up erect and strong,
Face to face, drawing nigher and nigher,
Until the lengthening wings break into fire
At either curvèd point,—What bitter wrong
Can earth do to us, that we should not long
Be here contented? Think. In mounting higher,
The angels would press on us, and aspire
To drop some golden orb of perfect song
Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay
Rather on earth, Beloved,—where the unfit
Contrarious moods of men recoil away
And isolate pure spirits, and permit
A place to stand and love in for a day,
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.
That is noble verse, undoubtedly. The point is that it might just as well have been written by a man to a woman as the contrary; it would, for example, fit perfectly well into Dante Gabriel Rossetti's House of Life. There is here no passivity of soul; the passion is not that of acquiescence, but of determination to press to the quick of love. Only, perhaps, a certain falsetto in the tone (if the meaning of that word may be so extended) shows that, after all, it was written by a woman, who in adopting the masculine pitch loses something of fineness and exquisiteness.
A single phrase of the sonnet, that "deep, dear silence," links it in my mind with one of Christina Rossetti's not found in the "Monna Innominata," but expressing the same spirit of resignation. It is entitled simply "Rest:"—
O Earth, lie heavily upon her eyes;
Seal her sweet eyes weary of watching, Earth;
Lie close around her; leave no room for mirth
With its harsh laughter, nor for sound of sighs.
She hath no questions, she hath no replies,
Hushed in and curtained with a blessed dearth
Of all that irked her from the hour of birth;
With stillness that is almost Paradise.
Darkness more clear than noonday holdeth her,
Silence more musical than any song;
Even her very heart has ceased to stir:
Until the morning of Eternity
Her rest shall not begin nor end, but be;
And when she wakes she will not think it long.
Am I misguided in thinking that in this stillness, this silence more musical than any song, the feminine heart speaks with a simplicity and consummate purity such as I quite fail to hear in the Portuguese Sonnets, admired as those sonnets are? Nor could one, perhaps, find in all Christina Rossetti's poems a single line that better expresses the character of her genius than these exquisite words: "With stillness that is almost Paradise." That is the mood that, with the passing away of love, never leaves her; that is her religion; her acquiescent Yea, to the world and the soul and to God. Into that region of rapt stillness it seems almost a sacrilege to penetrate with inquisitive, critical mind; it is like tearing away the veil of modesty. I will not attempt to bring out the beauty of her mood by comparing it with that of the more masculine quietists, who reach out and take the kingdom of Heaven by storm, and whose prayer is, in the words of Tennyson:—
Our wills are ours, we know not how;
Our wills are ours, to make them Thine.
It will be better to quote one other poem perhaps her most perfect work artistically, and to pass on:—
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labor you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.
The culmination of her pathetic weariness is always this cry for rest, a cry for supreme acquiescence in the will of Heaven, troubled by no personal volition, no desire, no emotion, save only love that waits for blessed absorption. Her later years became what St. Teresa called a long "prayer of quiet;" and her brother's record of her secluded life in the refuge of his home reads like the saintly story of a cloistered nun. It might be said of her, as of one of the fathers, that she needed not to pray, for her life was an unbroken communion with God. And yet that is not all. It is a sign of her utter womanliness that envy for the common affections of life was never quite crushed in her heart. Now and then through this monotony of resignation there wells up a sob of complaint, a note not easy, indeed, to distinguish from that amari aliquid of jealousy, which Thackeray, cynically, as some think, always left at the bottom of his gentlest feminine characters. The fullest expression of this feeling is in one of her longer poems, "The Lowest Room," which contrasts the life of two sisters, one of whom chooses the ordinary lot of woman with home and husband and children, while the other learns, year after tedious year, the consolation of lonely patience. The spirit of the poem is not entirely pleasant. The resurgence of personal envy is a little disconcerting; and the only comfort to be derived from it is the proof that under different circumstances Christina Rossetti might have given expression to the more ordinary lot of contented womanhood as perfectly as she sings the pathos and hope of the cloistered life. Had that first voice, which led her "where the bluest water flows," suffered her also to quench the thirst of her heart, had not that second voice summoned her to follow, this might have been. But literature, I think, would have lost in her gain. As it is, we must recognize that the vision of fulfilled affection and of quiet home joys still troubled her, in her darker hours, with a feeling of embittered regret. Two or three of the stanzas of "The Lowest Room" even remind one forcibly of that scene in Thomson's City of Dreadful Night, where the "shrill and lamentable cry" breaks through the silence of the shadowy congregation:—
In all eternity I had one chance,
One few years' term of gracious human life,
The splendors of the intellect's advance,
The sweetness of the home with babes and wife.
But if occasionally this residue of bitterness in Christina Rossetti recalls the more acrid genius of James Thomson, yet a comparison of the two poets (and such a comparison is not fantastic, however unexpected it may appear) would set the feminine character of our subject in a peculiarly vivid light. Both were profoundly moved by the evanescence of life, by the deceitfulness of pleasure, while both at times, Thomson almost continually, were troubled by the apparent content of those who rested in these joys of the world. Both looked forward longingly to the consummation of peace. In his call to Our Lady of Oblivion Thomson might seem to be speaking for both, only in a more deliberately metaphorical style:—
Take me, and lull me into perfect sleep;
Down, down, far hidden in thy duskiest cave;
While all the clamorous years above me sweep
Unheard, or, like the voice of seas that rave
On far-off coasts, but murmuring o'er my trance,
A dim vast monotone, that shall enhance
The restful rapture of the inviolate grave.
But the roads by which the two would reach this "silence more musical than any song" were utterly different. With an intellect at once mathematical and constructive, Thomson built out of his personal bitterness and despair a universe corresponding to his own mood, a philosophy of atheistic revolt. Like Lucretius, "he denied divinely the divine." In that tremendous conversation on the river-walk he represents one soul as protesting to another that not for all his misery would he carry the guilt of creating such a world; whereto the second replies, and it is the poet himself who speaks:—
The world rolls round forever as a mill;
It grinds out death and life and good and ill;
It has no purpose, heart or mind or will. . . .
Man might know one thing were his sight less dim;
That it whirls not to suit his petty whim,
That it is quite indifferent to him.
There is the voluntary ecstasy of the saints, there is also this stern and self-willed rebellion, and, contrasted with them both, as woman is contrasted with man, there is the acquiescence of Christina Rossetti and of the little group of writers whom she leads in spirit:—
Passing away, saith the World, passing away. . . .
Then I answered: Yea.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2131
SOURCE: "Sequence and Meaning in Christina Rossetti's Verses (1893)," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 17, No. 3, Autumn, 1979, pp. 259-64.
[In the following essay, Kent arques that Rossetti's devotional verses must be read as a whole, as the poet intended, in order to fully comprehend their structure and meaning.]
Thanks to such critics as Robillard, Fredeman, and Baker, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The House of Life is no longer thought to lack "systematic arrangement" or a "principle of grouping," as even a sympathetic estimation had earlier asserted. The stubborn ghost of biographical criticism has been successfully exorcized, and the poet's conscious artistry in his sonnet sequence rediscovered and more fully appreciated. The devotional poetry of Christina Rossetti has, unfortunately, never benefited from any comparable redemption. If her religious poems are not completely ignored by today's readers, they are probably regarded with the same kind of patronizing condescension that Dorothy Stuart voiced fifty years ago: "Her devotional verses can be as trite as the quatrains on a Christmas card, as stuffy as the smell of pitchpine and red baize." However, a brief examination of Verses (1893), her major collection of devotional poetry, demonstrates that the sister did inherit a concern for the meaningful arrangement of lyrics similar to that of her brother.
Christina Rossetti's interest in the poetic possibilities of ordered structures for shorter poems should be almost self-evident from the numerous examples of linked poems (e.g., "Three Stages" or "Three Nuns") and sonnet sequences (e.g., "Monna Innominata" and "Later Life") within her total body of writings. And, to indicate the poet's firm convictions on this question of arrangement, Lona Mosk Packer has already cited her reply in 1883 to a correspondent who wanted to anthologize some of her lyrics. Her opposition to any disruption in her own arrangement is unambiguous and the stern rebuke, from a normally reticent woman, notable:
I do not mind what piece you select, subject only to your taking any piece in question in its entirety; and my wish includes your not choosing an independent poem which forms part of a series of group,—not (for instance) one . . . of "Passing Away" or one Sonnet of "Monna Innominata." Such compound work has a connection (very often) which is of interest to the author, and which an editor gains nothing by discarding.
The identical sentiment recurs in a letter of November 24, 1886, in which she comments on a possible reprinting of Goblin Market. She will give permission, she states, "on no account if any portion whatever is to be omitted. . . . I now make a point of refusing extracts, even in the case of my Sonnet of Sonnets some of which would fairly stand alone." Evidently Christina Rossetti was all too aware that her lyrics tempted editors to arbitrary selection and to a neglect of the "compound work" in which her poems were sometimes embedded. The regretful irony is that she voiced these strictures too privately, and that the "extracts" she so vigorously opposed during her life have actually governed the editorial treatment of her poetry ever since her death.
The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge first published Christina Rossetti's Verses, a collection of 331 religious lyrics disposed in eight sections, late in 1893. By the spring of 1894 the volume had passed into its third edition; the SPCK in fact continued to issue it well into the present century. The decisive date in its history came in 1904, though, when William Michael Rossetti edited The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti. This edition effectively subsumed all earlier publications of her poetry, and it has since remained authoritative. The precedent Rossetti set for subsequent editors has, however, not been entirely beneficial to his sister's reputation as a poet. The overriding problem with his edition is that chronology, the "order of date," is the criterion by which he arranges his sister's poetry. The result insofar as Verses is particularly concerned is nothing less than disastrous. His chronological procedure, quite simply, completely disrupts the original order of the eight sections. He thus creates the following sequence for her devotional poems: instead of the authorial order of 1 . . . 8, the reader is given 8, 3, 6, 7, 2, 1, 4, 5—with miscellaneous poems wedged between most of the sections as well. Because of this radical dismemberment of Verses for the 1904 edition, few critics—if any—have ever read Christina Rossetti's devotional poetry in the sequential order she designed for it. The time is therefore long overdue for according her last publication the kind of reading she intended it to receive.
Christina Rossetti's Verses contains no "original" compositions because all of the poems had been previously published by the SPCK in three books of devotional prose: Called to be Saints: The Minor Festivals Devotionally Studied (1883), Time Files: A Reading Diary (1885), and The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse (1892). And although the poems in these texts are normally subordinate to other devotional aids (such as exegesis of Scripture, explanations of tradition, or the citation of Psalms and Biblical passages), these facts do not in themselves mean that Verses is merely the product of perfunctory compilation. Indeed, collation of the poems in the prose texts with their state in Verses shows clearly that the collection is the result of much conscientious revision. Christina Rossetti made over 800 individual changes in the more than 300 religious lyrics as she prepared Verses for publication. What is of even more importance here, however, is that she also fashioned a unified poetic sequence out of this mass of heterogeneous materials.
The eight sections of Verses dramatize the spiritual pilgrimage of the poet-speaker, who begins in confessions of guilt, "self-contempt and blame," and who gradually achieves understanding of, and faithful resignation to, God's will. The sequence can best be described as having two major movements, or two quatrains of thematic focus. The first four sections center on the speaker's personal growth, while the second quatrain of sections shifts to a more cosmic, impersonal vantage point; in the second half of the sequence, then, the important issues are the more universal questions of the fallen world, time, and eternity. The two halves of Verses have almost the same number of poems: the first half contains 168 poems, the second half, 163.
The title of section I, "Out of the Deep have I called unto Thee, O Lord," is drawn from Psalm 130, and the tone of these seventeen poems is consistently plaintive. Each "humble hopeful quiet psalm," furthermore, is a sonnet, a form particularly appropriate to the speaker's loving but ardent complaints. Insistent petitioning to the "Lord," for the moment distant and detached, finally stops when the speaker recognizes that she can only wait attentively: "Lord, drop Thou in the counterscale alone / One Drop from Thine own Heart, and overweight / My guilt, my folly, even my heart of stone." Section II, "Christ our All in all," dramatizes in a series of dialogues Christ's merciful response to the suppliant. Intimate communion thus supplants separation, and communicative exchanges replace the lonely, penitent monologues of I. In section II itself, reassurance and counsel ease the speaker's oscillations between encouragement and paralyzing shame, awe and complaint, and by the end of II—certain that God "hast not forgotten" and "wilt not forget"—the speaker can conquer her vacillation. Section III, "Some Feasts and Fasts," men places the personal relationship with God within the larger context of the church's corporate life of worship because, for Rossetti, it is there that the pilgrim receives the necessary nourishment to carry on in the world. This grouping of poems surveys the church year and consists of the poet-speaker's meditations on the major feasts and fasts. All of the various elements of the spiritual life—praise, confession, supplication, declarations of faith—take their place within the formalized order of the liturgical year. Whereas section II dramatizes the gracious intervention of Christ into the individual's heart, section III traces the consequences of Christ's historical intervention into time as it is recreated and commemorated annually by the church. The dominant concern of the following section, "Gifts and Graces," is with the qualities of spiritual discipline that the pilgrim needs in this life. Reconciled with her God, me speaker aims to justify His ways to men by celebrating the gifts He bestows. One such gift is hope, "the counterpoise of fear," and the speaker is now able to perceive even anguish and suffering, when rightly used, as "potential bliss." The quiet acceptance and confident faith characteristic of IV testify to the speaker's personal growth in the sequence to this point as well as signal the conclusion of the first movement. Although section IV ends, as section I had begun, with supplicatory prayers, the speaker is no longer desperate and anxious. Christ's intervention in II, a strengthening circuit of the church year in III, and a revaluation of God's gifts in IV all help to make her closing entreaties the expression of a ripened faith.
Section V, "The World. Self-Destruction," marks an abrupt transition to the second half of Verses, the second quatrain of thematic focus where more universal terms of reference replace the earlier emphasis on the individual's relationship with God. The violent contemptus mundi sentiment mat explodes in V counterpoints dramatically the preceding calm and underlines the sudden shift in perspective. Denunciations of the world as a "hollow tiling" conclude with a warning that the fate of the "Self-slain" is death to the comfortless tolling of a bell. In section VI, "Divers Worlds. Time and Eternity," diese funereal bells reappear in more positive terms in the very first poem: although man is "out of tune with daily bells," paradise "accords the chimes / Of Earth and Heaven." The promise of eternity, grounded in the oxymoronic "evidence of faith," restores the lost harmony between man and time, reconciles the speaker to life amid "death and ills," and helps section VI to initiate an ascending movement that culminates in section VII. The special thematic tension of VI is the antithesis between time and eternity, me "world of sin" wimin and the "world of righteousness" above which the second lyric of the section describes. Section VII, "New Jerusalem and its Citizens," is free of this tension; as its title suggests, it celebrates and focuses primarily upon the joys awaiting the pilgrim in paradise. The visions of the "lovely city" in section VII contrast sharply with the nihilistic tenor of V. Yet, as in the first half of the sequence, hellish separation from God (I and V) has been bridged by renewed hope and faith (II and VI), and the picturing of endless praise and worship in eternity (VII) parallels the performance by the church of the same rites in this world in the analogous section of the first half (III). Section VIII, "Songs for Strangers and Pilgrims," provides a fitting conclusion both to the second half of Verses and to the whole sequence by recapitulating all the major themes and gestures of the preceding sections. The plaintive petitions of section I, the dialogue poems, the poems on the saints and on the nature of pilgrimage, the occasional lapses into despair, the assertions of final reward, and more visions of the New Jerusalem all recur in this massive section comprising ninety poems. As a closing witness of faith to "Strangers" and another act of dedication on behalf of all "Pilgrims," section VIII ends with a victorious glance backward: "Looking back along life's trodden way." Endowed with the authority of experience, the speaker recognizes, and can convey to her readers, how "Evening harmonizes all to-day." The pilgrimage of Verses is completed, and the speaker stands ready to meet her God.
If Christina Rossetti's devotional poetry seemed to Dorothy Stuart to lack the "thrust and counter-thrust of image and ideation" that critic once claimed for the best religious poetry, then much of the reason for that impression is that the sequential structure the poet had designed for her devotional verse has been totally ignored. The only critical treatment of Verses in its original order is by Mackenzie Bell, and his impressionistic remarks (e.g., "How expressive are the lines . . . ") do nothing to illuminate the poet's larger intentions. I have tried to outline the main contours of sequential meaning in Christina Rossetti's arrangement of her religious poems. That Verses needs closer scrutiny from editors and critics of the poet seems obvious. That her sequence has been overlooked for so long is the legacy of careless attention to the poet's concern with ordered structures for short lyrics and to her stated intentions about how she wished her poetry to be handled and read. Just as her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The House of Life has been accorded careful study out of respect for its wholeness, so students of Christina Rossetti need to reconsider her devotional poetry in light of the fact that Verses is "compound work" to be read "in its entirety. "
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7716
SOURCE: "Christina Rossetti's Poetry: The Art of Self-Postponement," in Love and the Woman Question in Victorian Literature: The Art of Self-Postponement, The Harvester Press, Sussex, 1983, pp. 3-25.
[In the following excerpt, Blake examines the themes of time, waiting, and "balked desire" in Rossetti's poetry.]
"Hope deferred"—Christina Rossetti repeats this phrase from Proverbs 13.12 over and over again in her poetry. A discouraging phrase, it emphasises and extends the postponement already implied by hope. No other poet returns so often to words like lapse, slack, loiter, slow, tedious, dull, weary, monotonous, long. She plays on the relation between long and longing; long gets longer in a favourite word, lengthening. A poet with a "birthright sense of time", she usually counts time as slow suspense, suspense so slow that it loses almost the eagerness of suspense. By contrast, "Goblin Market" (1862, written 1859) displays vividness and speed, luscious fruits and an "iterated jingle". Her most famous poem, in her first volume, is an anomaly, except for establishing the sensuous underlay of her austerity and the native alacrity painfully strung out in the bulk of her work. Or, if the story of the girl nearly fatally insatiate for goblin fruits treats "passionate yearning" and "balked desire", so does the rest of Rossetti's poetry. Only the emphasis shifts from the passion to its balking.
The poet is in slow suspense because she is a Christian. She draws upon her experience as a woman to embody this condition.
According to The Face of the Deep (1892), her commentary on the Apocalypse, suspense characterises the state of humanity as it awaits the second coming. This state is pictured in the angels' tensed stillness at the four corners of the earth as they hold back the winds in the prolonged moment before the Day of Judgement. Rossetti says the angels may be there now. But now lasts a long time, and Christ is long in coming. The earth must meanwhile endure "the drips / Of Thy slow blood". The opening sentence of The Face of the Deep invites us to consider the 1800 years that the faithful have had to wait for things "shortly" to come to pass, and Rossetti calls patience an exclusively New Testament word.
Traditionally, also, patience is a feminine word. Christina Rossetti is traditional—she disassociated herself from the suffrage movement and thought women's rights and Christianity were at odds. At the same time she treats the maddening, martyring dullness of feminine patience. Her purpose is neither social analysis nor criticism. She simply shows postponement as it becomes, in her brother's phrase characterising her own life, "self-postponement". There is nowhere better to study the style, the very tempo, as well as the content of this feminine state of mind.
Rossetti offers a number of reflections on feminine mentality. A woman particularly ponders the fact that time passes but doesn't get anywhere, so that "woman's looking-glass" forms "wisdom's looking-glass". Here is a weary wisdom:
It's a weary life, it is, she said:—
Doubly blank in a woman's lot:
I wish and I wish I were a man:
Or, better than any being, were not.
The poem "In Progress" sounds like a comment on the poet's own life, described by William Michael Rossetti as a "hushed life-drama", "a life which did not consist of incidents". It gives the quality of a woman's patience:
Gravely monotonous like a passing bell.
Mindful of drudging daily common things,
Patient at pastime, patient at her work,
Wearied perhaps, but strenuous certainly.
According to Rossetti's unpublished notes on Genesis and Exodus, the penalty of death has been laid on men and of life on women, and, for her, continuance exacts as great a penalty as extinction. Thus in a number of poems she as passionately commiserates Christ for his endurance of life as of death, and she adds onto his six hours of agony the foregoing thirty-three years. A parallel may be drawn between Christ-like and feminine longsuffering.
And yet there is a difference between the patience of Christ and the patience of a woman, because in Christ inheres his own eventual glory, whereas the woman must wait for grace to come to her. Of course, this is true for all Christian souls. But in a very significant statement in The Face of the Deep Rossetti makes the woman in love the emblem of radical insufficiency and dependence on an external dispensation: "Eve, the representative woman, received as part of her sentence 'desire': the assigned object of her desire being such that satisfaction must depend not on herself but on one stronger than she, who might grant or might deny". This passage offers a key to Rossetti's love and devotional poetry. She returns again and again to the experience of one who loves but cannot act on that love, which constitutes the woman's relation to the man, in her view, and the soul's to God. Initiative and saving grace lie on the other side.
The poem "Twice" describes the unnatural and futile seizure of initiative by the woman:
I took my heart in my hand,
(O my love, O my love),
I said: Let me fall or stand
Let me live or die,
But this once hear me speak—
(O my love, O my love)—
Yet a woman's words are weak:
You should speak, not I.
The man coolly rebuffs her advance. With a friendly voice and a critical eye he says, "Better wait awhile". Waiting is the role of the woman in love, as it is of the soul who loves Christ: Loving Lord, accept us in good part; / And give me grace to wait".
Throughout her poetry and prose devotional writing Rossetti uses the figure of the Bride who awaits the Bridegroom, drawn from the Song of Solomon and from the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew 25. 1-13. The Bride is the Church, the collective faithful, or the individual soul, and the Bridegroom is Christ, the "Heavenly Lover", "Husband, Brother, Closest Friend to me". Rossetti addresses the lover/saviour with erotic longing: "I am sick of love in loving Thee. / But dost Thou love me? Speak and save". But the consummation is deferred to heaven: "There God shall join and no man part, / I full of Christ and Christ of me". Sometimes she imagines an alternative travesty marriage and even a grisly procreation, as in the love-death vision of the grave in "Two Thoughts of Death", where the worms will be "flesh of her flesh" and will be "born of her from nothingness". There is no certainty of desired fulfilment since, in her phrase, hope signifies no more than fear viewed on the sunny side. Sometimes she cries out against the suspense. In the poem "Why" the soul asks, "Lord, if I love Thee and Thou lovest me, / Why need I any more these toilsome days? / Why should I not run singing up Thy ways / Straight into heaven?" Christ answers, "Bride whom I love . . . Thou needs must choose My Likeness for thy dower: / So wilt thou toil in patience, and abide". Christ the Bridegroom admonishes the soul in another poem: "Though I tarry, wait for Me". Rossetti therefore customarily resolves to "keep silence, counting time", and to "meditate / Our love-song while we wait". The image of the Bride above all embodies tense, waiting patience, as feminine as it is Christian.
A number of Christina Rossetti's longer poems treat the waiting bride in her secular aspect shading toward spiritual allegory. Most notable is the title poem of her second volume, The Prince's Progress (1866, written 1861-5). The emotional impact of this work does not derive from the prince's progress as such, nor from his difficulties, detours and backslidings along the way. That is, the poem does not follow the Red Crosse Knight model. Rather, Rossetti views the prince's movements from the stationary position of the bride to whom he journeys. The poem begins and ends with the princess. She waits till she is dead. The prince comes too late. He is delayed by one thing and another, a witch-like milkmaid, a stagnant, wasteland terrain, and a hermit-like old man in the desert. Weak-purposed and slow in setting out, "Lagging he moved and apt to swerve". His waystations can be interpreted, and such interpretation comprises the usual critical approach to the poem. But more important man why he delays is the delay itself. Rossetti isn't especially interested in what keeps him; she says, "He did what a young man can". She is more interested in what it means to sit and hope that he will come at last. From the first stanza the poem sounds me stretched-out music of monotony:
Till all sweet gums and juices flow
Till the blossoms of blossoms blow,
The long hours go and come and go;
The bride she sleepeth, waketh, sleepeth,
Waiting for one whose coming is slow:—
Hark! the bride weepeth.
The stanza opens with a time word, Till. Time is to be filled; time is to be fruitful only later. The repetitions of words forgo novelty—Till, till, blossoms of blossoms, go, go, sleepeth, sleepeth. "Go and come and go" restores me cyclical meaning to the stock phrase "come and go"; and also makes it longer. Cyclical meaning is carried too by "sleepeth, waketh, sleepeth". "Slow" expresses the prevailing idea; its long vowel suits the meaning and therefore suitably furnishes the prevailing rhyme sound. The falling cadence of the "feminine" ending trails effectively, especially with the unstopped "m" sound. The meter is mostly tetrameter, with a signable flow. As Rossetti says elsewhere, "There's music of a lulling sort in words that pause between.' And yet the overall effect is not only lulling. Line three counters the lulling rhythm; it lengthens and stops it both. The princess experiences time passing in regular units of hours of sleeping and waking, but for her time is also long, and also sometimes, so to speak, stuck. Line three can be read in regular tetrameter. But the monosyllables "long hours go" cry out for a stress each, and such stresses break and slow the rhythm, make it more tolling that lulling, and stretch the line to five beats.
Intermittently throughout the poem we return to the princess and her patient attrition. The prince makes painfully gradual progress, and the princess undertakes the minimum of movement: "We never heard her speak in haste; / Her tones were sweet, / And modulated just so much / As it was meet . . . There was no hurry in her hands, / No hurry in her feet; / There was no bliss drew nigh to her, / That she might run to greet". For her the only movement is found in the revolution of seasons, of night and day; one year, five years, ten years pass; she sleeps, wakes, sleeps, dreams, weeps, waits, dies. It is a poem about a princess out of the action, dependent on the prince's action. It is highly kinetic poem about the sense of motion of someone who sits still.
"Goblin Market" contrasts to "The Prince's Progress" in being often a hurrying poem, with goblins "Flying, running, leaping / Puffing and blowing / Chuckling, clapping, crowing". The tempted sister, Laura, shows no inclination to wait like the princess. She is in only too great a hurry to close with the little men. The goblins offer satisfaction of desire in the form of fruits bearing the additional erotic connotation of "joys brides hope to have", for which Laura's friend Jeannie had been unwilling to wait. The shortness and shifting irregularity of the poem's lines produce a breathless tempo. Yet the whole point is to warn against over-eagerness. Jeannie had died of seizing her desire. Patience is the lesson. If it is not the cheerful sort like the patience of good sister Lizzie, who resists the goblins by enduring to go hungry, it is desperate like the patience forced on Laura. Once having tasted forbidden fruit, she is left longing impotently for the goblins to come back with more:
Day after day, night after night,
Laura kept watch in vain
In sullen silence of exceeding pain.
She never caught again the goblin cry,
"Come buy, come buy;"—
She never spied the goblin men
Hawking their fruits along the glen:
But when the noon waxed bright
Her hair grew thin and grey;
She dwindled as the fair full moon doth turn
To swift decay and burn
Her fire away
No strict meter regulates this passage, but the pace is certainly slowed down from that of the jaunty goblins. The prevailing line lengths are irregularly mixed tetrameter and trimeter, suggestive of ballad measure thrown off its even flow. Two lines have five beats, but line 10 is stretched even further to six (or possible seven) beats, expressive of Laura's drawn-out ordeal, and the spondaic "fair full moon" is very leisurely. The line length then emblematically dwindles to match the dwindling of the moon and the maiden. Although Laura languishes for illicit joys brides hope to have and not for an authorised princely bridegroom, let alone Christ, this stanza evokes very much the same psychological condition as that of the waiting princess, the Christian Bride, and many another wearily tense Rossetti heroine.
"The Lowest Room" makes women's needlework the emblem of ennui, as do other poems, like "Repining" and one of the "Sing-Song" nursery rhymes. "The Lowest Room" (1856) shows two sisters at their needles, talking. One is dexterous and unflagging, while the other is disgusted with her aimless life. She has been reading Homer and wishes she could have lived in that time of passion and action. She is attracted by the fighting heroes, and she hold that even the women were happier at their embroidery of glowing scenes of battle than the two sisters are as stitch follows stitch "Amid that waste of white". The elder sister is content while the younger frets, because the elder has something happening in her life besides sewing and reading. She has a lover. He arrives while the two sit there, and the elder sister gets up to go outside into the garden with him. "While I? I sat alone and watched". This is what Christina Rossetti's heroines do, with sedentary, more or less impotent yearning. This poem explores the bad temper of the watcher, though she pacifies herself by transferring her expectations from an earthly lover to the archangelic trumpet-burst, meanwhile accepting the "lowest room" of the title.
According to Rossetti's introduction, the sonnet cycle "Monna Innominata" (before 1882, pp. 58-64) expresses what the troubadour's lady would have had to say for herself, that is, the feminine viewpoint on romantic love. The romantic love tradition, which flourishes on separation, divides Dante from Beatrice and Petrarch from Laura. The introduction invokes this tradition and promises an unhappy affair. But if Dante and Petrarch pant, aspire, and follow after their ladies, Christina Rossetti treats the ladies' case, which is to await the lovers' doubtful arrival. The first sonnet opens, "Come back to me, who wait and watch for you", and the entire poem counts time by a man's coming or not coming. The time seems long before he comes; it lags while he's away. Hope waxes and wanes. The lady thinks always of "when he comes, my sweetest 'when'", and the same hyperconsciousness of time intensifies her sense of the pastness of past youth and joy, and even forecasts pastness into the future, since every meeting precedes farewells, and then the waiting begins again.
A number of other shorter poems treat the woman "watching, weeping for one away". The absent one is the lover, bridegroom or husband on far travels or across the ocean or sometimes in his grave, as in "The Ghost's Petition", "Twilight Night", "Hoping Against Hope", "A Fisher-Wife", "Songs in a Cornfield", and "Song". One of the "Sing-Song" nursery rhymes describes Minnie waiting for her Johnny to come home from the sea: she watches the church clock, but it hardly seems to go.
Occasionally Rossetti treats the joy of the lover's arrival, as in her most rarely jubilant poem, "A Birthday": "Raise me a dais of silk and down; / Hang it with vair and purple dyes; / Carve it in doves and pomegranates, / And peacocks with a hundred eyes; / . . . Because the birthday of my life / Is come, my love is come to me" (1857). More characteristic is the torment of an almost-arrival. The poem "Autumn" pictures a sort of Lady of Shalott living alone in a tower by a river that flows down to the sea (1858). Boats sail on the river, and she hears lovesongs across the water, but no friend comes to her. The lady is full of longing. This is a poem about fulfilment in sight but out of reach and passing by. The frustration is exquisite when the wind flags, the love vessels lie bacalmed in sight of the lady's strand. Those on board cannot hear her moan, but their amorous songs rouse echoes in her lonely land. Yet the imagery of calm winds is also an imagery of languor. The maidens on the boats are lulled and languid. The erotic energy slackens. When the wind rises, it both rouses the lovers and carries them away, leaving the lady alone with her longing again.
It is interesting that one poem depicts the bridegroom who waits for the bride to sail from a far land. The situation is the same but different from the usual in a Rossetti love poem. There is the customary waiting tension, but the difference is that when the bride's ship sinks and she does not arrive, the bridegroom blithely marries someone else ("A Birds-Eye View," 1863). The woman in love and not the man typifies indefinite patience.
One of Rossetti's best-known poems bridges the erotic and the religious with a variant of the Bride/Bridegroom motif which shows that the waiting continues even after death. "A Pause" pictures a woman who lies dead (1853). Flowers are heaped on her bed, and she does not hear the birds about the eaves or the reaper in the field. She is dead but not insensate, which means that she can still keep watch: "Only my soul kept watch from day to day, / My thirsty soul kept watch for one away". This represents the extreme of powerless suspense. She is waiting, typically, for her lover, for his step on the stair, Earthly and spiritual consummation are confounded in the poem. At the sound of the step and the turning lock, her spirit flies free, it scents the air of paradise, and the waiting is over: "then first the tardy sand / Of time ran golden; and I felt my hair / Put on a glory, and my soul expand".
Rossetti is fascinated by the possibilities of consciousness after death because of her characteristic fascination with long-drawn-out patience and suspense. Her famous "Song" (1848) wonders whether the living lover will remember or forget; this is less odd than to raise the same question about the one who lies in the grave: "Haply I may remember, / And haply may forget". Rossetti builds poems on both contingencies. In "Rest" the dead woman enjoys blissful release from irksome consciousness. In "After Death" she is aware of her lover's tears and gratified by them. "Life Hidden" proposes a paradoxical combination of unconsciousness and consciousness: "She doth not see, but knows; she hears no sound, / Yet counts the flight of time". Rossetti does not stop counting, even after death. This typifies her temporal obsession. She sometimes uses grave time to imagine the contrast that defines earthly time. In the grave, time may lose tension, as in "Dream Land" and "Rest": "Rest, rest at the heart's core / Till time shall cease"; "Her rest shall not begin nor end, but be / And when she wakes she will not think it long". Suspense eases to suspension at least.
A theological tenet underlies Rossetti's interest in the equivocal state of mind of the dead. Death does not insure an end because some interim, long or short, still divides the burial day of the faithful from Christ's second coming, when the dead arise for final judgement. Though she makes the grave a relatively quiet waiting place, Rossetti is never one to minimise the stretch of time mat must pass. It is thus purely appropriate that in her devotional tract Seek and Find (1879) as well as in her Exodus notes she should contemplate with interest the great temporal extension by evolutionary science of the orthodox six days of creation. She can easily imagine a "day" as a vast geological period, just as she can imagine lengthy residence in the grave. This is because mere is nothing swift about earthly days for Christina Rossetti or for one of the waiting brides about whom she so often writes.
In 1850 Rossetti wrote what her brother deemed a "Tale for Girls". It is called "Maude", and it examines feminine long-suffering, stripping it of charm and almost of merit. It is a less pious and a more clinical story than it has been taken to be. This time not even a lover presents, or absents, himself, and yet Maude pines. The tale poses the question—why is Maude so depressed? What does she find to reproach herself with such that she writes broken-hearted verses at the age of fifteen and feels so much need of chastisement by sickness and suffering that she dies willingly before she is twenty? In introducing the story William Michael Rossetti sounds a bit nonplussed by Maude's sense of sin since the only misdeeds she can claim are valuing her own poetry, enjoying church services, and missing the sacrament when she feels unworthy of it. He sets her self-reproaches down to Christina Rossetti's over-fine scruples. However, the story itself scrutinises such scruples.
Maude's misdeeds may look awfully innocent, but Rossetti is more interested in her state of mind. Acute feminine innocence breeds its own betrayers: ennui and irritability. The story opens by describing Maude as pale, tired and headachy. Her mother is used to her inattention. She is abstracted because everything bores her except writing. The languor and resignation of her sonnets—characteristic Christina Rossetti sonnets—are both Christian and highly specific to Maude's life. For instance, the sentiment of one of them, "To do is quickly done; to suffer is/Longer" is desentimentalised by the context in which it appears. After writing it Maude yawns and wonders how she is going to fill the time until dinner. On a visit to her conventional cousins in the country, Maude gladly hears the clock announcing bedtime; this means the first day is over. She hates facing a dreary social visit, the evening drags intolerably, the meal seems endless, the small talk dies, and yawns have to be suppressed. Maude is annoyed by the two ladies who insist on gushing over her verses. In this context the soulful note of Maude's poetry sounds almost querulous—"To-day is still the same as yesterday"—or just wretchedly tired—"let us wait the end in peace". These lines come from poems that appear independently as devotional pieces in William Michael Rossetti's collected edition of his sister's work. As originally placed in "Maude" they illustrate the source of a particular religious mood in the particulars of a young woman's life.
Maude is stultified. She would like a little unsaintly variety, such as to go to balls, where she could watch people, or to the theatre, except that no one offers to take her. She is restive, and that constitutes her spiritual problem. From the dismal social evening she returns home in a fret of dissatisfaction with her circumstances, her friends, and herself. What she calls her "impatient fits" explain her bad conscience. Rossetti makes clear that she overdoes her contrition and that in banishing herself from communion she performs a misplaced penance, more hurtful than what it punishes. She draws a portrait of an altogether sickly and overwrought mentality, and an altogether feminine one. Maude's cross is her dull girl's life, her sin to find it a cross; it makes her cross.
Rossetti captures the lack of content, in both senses of the word, of a life like this, which, without being innocent, has to strain to find reasons for its sense of sin. She doesn't beatify her heroine. Maude is the most unglamorous of martyrs. Her suffering is out of proportion to what she has to suffer, so that actual illness and death are necessary to restore some correlation. It is a relief to have done. Maude finds an essentially negative delivery from life, like the dead woman in Rossetti's "Rest": "Hushed in and curtained with a blessed dearth / Of all that irked her from the hour of birth; / With stillness that is almost Paradise". "Irked" stands as the important word here. It is not a word much expected in poetry, and not perhaps expected from Christina Rossetti, by reputation lovely, lachrymose, saintly, morbid, feminine. All true enough, but also irked to death.
Christina Rossetti remarks of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's paintings of Elizabeth Siddall that "every canvas means / The same one meaning", and something similar might be said of her own writing. The painful sense of time so often figured by feminine waiting and irksome tedium is the same one meaning that finds expression in a number of ways throughout her work, both in content and form. Even when Rossetti titles a devotional tract Time Flies (1885), she doesn't mean that time flies. She means that, though we may rejoice that no day lasts longer than twenty-four hours, we cannot afford to wish the time shorter in which to receive Christ; it means that mortal life is the vigil, and death is the festival. Time Flies is cast as a journal that works its way through the ecclesiastical year, and it belongs with other prose and poetic sequences that display in their formal structures Rossetti's habit of counting off time. She is a repetitious poet, in her themes, in her words, phrases, rhythms, sounds. Always "hope deferred", and hence "Our long and lengthening days", "these long still-lengthening days", "Yesterday, this day, day by day the Same", "Time lengthening, in the lengthening seemeth long", "Oh long re-echoing song! / O Lord, how long?" Inventive novelty would be lost on a poetry of ennui. And yet changes can be rung on sameness. There is enough variation in Rossetti's ways of conceiving the pains of time for her to be able to keep on saying what she has to say.
Time can drag, or move restlessly, or stand still. She captures these temporal experiences in several emblems, besides drawing from a woman's life the image of the Bride waiting for the earthly or divine Bridegroom. Some (like the Bride/Bridegroom motif) represent waiting, and come supplied with closure, though necessarily to Rossetti's outlook, not close at hand. These are the repeated emblems of days and seasons. Night drags awaiting morning; winter drags awaiting spring. More final and fulfilling is the longed-for harvest of souls of the Apocalypse: "Is not time full? Oh put the sickle in, / O Lord, begin!" She also employs a journey motif. With this she shifts from the stance of stationary waiting, but the emotional difference is negligible because the soul struggling toward God hardly seems to move, the way is so far, as it makes its "long-drawn straining effort across the waste", "As the dry desert lengthens out its sand". Often the emphasis falls more on lasting out the time than covering ground: "Will the day's journey take the whole long day?" The extraordinary strain of this line comes from the questioning of a foregone certainty, since a day's journey must take a day.
Other emblems emphasise restlessly cycling time, hopeless of an end. These are the surging sea and the waxing and waning moon. "The stir of the tedious sea" is especially depressing. "The tilings that were shall be again; / The rivers do not fill the sea, / But turn back to their secret source". For all of its motion, the sea makes no progress because of "the under / Drain of ebb that loseth ground". Rossetti figures the sea as aspiring to be full but never full. It typifies unappeasable craving, just as the waxing and waning moon typifies "a fire of pale desire in incompleteness". She thereby suggests the frustration of a circle aspiring to linear direction and goal.
An interesting aspect of Rossetti's concern for time as cycle lies in her preternatural sensitivity to memory and foreknowledge: "So tired am I, so weary of to-day, / So unrefreshed from foregone weariness, / So overburdened by foreseen distress"; "I am sick of where I am and where I am not, / I am sick of foresight and of memory". This explains her prevision of the grave and her projection of time even there. It also explains the pain mixed even with meeting in the love poetry of "Monna Innominata"; because she can remember, she can forecast the parting.
Rossetti has another version of radical reiteration. She presents identity as perpetual re-enactment: "I am not what I have nor what I do; / But what I was I am, I am even I. / Therefore myself . . . My sole possession every day I live, / And still mine own despite Time's winnowing". This dogged persistence in identity resembles that of Lazarus: "I laid beside the gate am Lazarus; / See me or see me not I still am there / . . . Dog-comforted and crumbs solicitous / . . . And, be I seen or not seen, I am thus". These poems render the dignifìed part of what Rossetti elsewhere calls her "tedious dignity".
Other poems explain the tedious part, the making and remaking of the same old self: "Wearied of sinning, wearied of repentance, / Wearied of self. "Three Stages" (1854) shows the effort of will required perpetually to reiterate the self, which the time sense casts more as a treadmill than as a steadfast rock. The poem describes life experienced as stages, actually more than the three of the title, which don't lead anywhere except to the point of beginning over again. Succeeding one another are desire, then consciousness of hope deferred, watching and waiting, continued effort felt to be useless, regret for useless effort, a haunting sense of what else one might have done, sickening and resignation, endurance, and near lapsing into the condition of sleep, but then awakening and a renewed pulse of life, with full awareness that these must again pass, while "I . . . yet nerve myself to give / What once I gave, again". The poem "Memory" (1857/1865) is also about being one's past by constantly re-enacting it, a wearing sort of integrity: "None know the choice I made; I make it still. / None know the choice I made and broke my heart, / Breaking mine idol: I have braced my will / Once, chosen for once my part". Anaphora figures effectively in a poem about repetition. The repeated "once" is ironic because not even the word happens once, just as once is now too; the choice is singular but not the choosing. For the love she crushed still forms the centre of the woman's life, and she has to keep crushing it. Great effort goes into remaining the same, and the only change in the poem lies not in any change from what she was, but in her growing exhaustion in choosing what she chose.
Time moving round and round grows as tiring in its way as time lagging and sluggish. I have already discussed some examples of Rossetti's metrical slowing in "The Prince's Progress" and "Goblin Market", for she is a poet who expresses movement or lack of movement where it is most intimately felt, in her rhythms. She can also write speedy, jingly lines, as for the nimble goblins. But most frequently she makes speed express perpetual motion more hectic than exhilarating. To this effect a poem on the restless wind uses a short, two-beat line, nearly unrelieved repetition of pairs of participles, and sameness of rhymes: "Whistling and moaning / Ever beginning / Ending, repeating / Hinting and dinning / Lagging and fleeting". The point here is that the wind always seems to be saying something important, but it never amounts to a clear message. Only a sort of nagging commotion comes across. Another poem uses the fast flow of a regular and internally-balanced line to express a cycle with no sense of upshot: "The stream moaneth as it floweth, / The wind sigheth as it bloweth, / Leaves are falling, Autumn goeth, / Winter cometh back again". "Vigil of the Annunciation" brilliantly contrasts speed with solemn pacing as the difference between earth and heaven:
All weareth, all wasteth,
All flitteth, all hasteth,
All of flesh and time:—
Sound, sweet heavenly chime,
Ring in the unutterable eternal prime.
Lines one and two are jingles of two unstress/stress/unstress feet, rhythmically regular and syntactically symmetrical. Line three provides a transition. It uses the same first word "All" but shifts to an iamb, so that "AH" is stressed rather than unstressed, and there are three beats to the line. The pace is no longer rushing but deliberate and emphatic, the more so because the short foot makes the opening a strong beat, and the now "masculine" ending closes the line with a strong beat; the colon and dash also signal this full close. Line four has four beats and tolls with spondees, like the bells it describes. The last line takes its dignified time, now up to five beats, freed from monotonous metrical predictability. It makes the earthly jogtrot of short lines, regular metre, reiterated words and syntactical units, and unemphatic "feminine" endings sound merely repetitious and trivial.
However, if lagging suspense or cyclical, reiterative time tires Christina Rossetti, standstill can be worse. An emblem for this condition is a landscape. The prince of "The Prince's Progress" encounters it, and it appears also in the distressing poem "Cobwebs" (1855). The landscape distresses by lack of change. No night and day, no seasons, no waxing and waning moon, no ebbing and flowing tide relieve the monotony. Even such aimless fluctuation would enliven this stagnant, sluggish, brooding plain. There is no past or future. Without time there is no fear either, says the poem's last line, which I find interesting, because it prefers to barren changelessness the time line implied even by fear.
Rossetti is in one mode a poet of unbearable stoppage, expressed in sound as well as conceptually and visually. A powerful example comes from Sonnet 26 of her double sonnet sequence "Later Life" (before 1882). It begins, "This Life is full of numbness and of balk. / Of haltingness and baffled shortcoming". A word could hardly stop shorter than "balk", in meaning and in the abruptness of the explosive "k" after the continuant "1". It is a hard-to-say word. "1" before certain consonants comes so hard that it often tends to be elided (as in "calm" and "walk"), but in "balk" it demands full pronunciation. "Balk" is here appropriately end-stopped. Early in the next line the slant-rhyming "halt" reinforces its meaning. It accumulates stress by the yielded stress of "and", as strict iambic pentameter gives way to speech rhythm. "Baffled shortcoming" also perfectly baffles the ostensible metre; it stops it short. This line has ten syllables and can be read with five beats, but it generates no flow at all, since "short" and "come" form a spondee, leaving the iamb and the "ing" nowhere. The "led" in "baffled" is one of those stillborn mutters of English hard to dignify into a syllable, further frustrating the iamb and almost making "baffled short" into a spondee. All this stoppage at the end discourages any impulse to lilt "haltingness", which would mean forcing normal speech rhythm anyway, so that the line really comes out with four beats instead of five, three of them displaced. It is no wonder that Christina Rossetti found admirers not only in the mellifluous Swinburne but also in the more unorthodox and wrenching Gerard Manley Hopkins. Her lines could be very meaningfully sprung. She possesses sensitivity to time counted syllabically and quantitatively too, though she never imitates Greek versification. For instance, she remarks that "Autumn" is a "slow name". The same could be said of "numbness" in my example.
Rossetti's heaven contradicts itself in a way that comments on her earth and time and song. She says heaven enjoys exemption from variability. The apocalyptic sea of glass does not ebb and flow. In contrast to the world, which is "this near-at-hand-land [that] breeds pain by measure", heaven sheds pain by shedding measure. But since this life is as dreadful when it seems to stop as when it rushes in aimless circles or drags on, awaiting consummation, she elsewhere restores time to heaven. According to Time Flies, no monotony or tedium troubles heaven because of the change, succession, and variety supplied by music. Bliss dispenses with time yet keeps it. A perfect casting of the paradox appears in the poem "Young Death", which makes heaven a place where there is "no more . . . cadence in the song". Oxymoronic song without cadence is heaven. There are cadences in Rossetti's songs.
Her obsession with time makes her an intensely musical poet, but since earth's time is long drawn out in suspense, fretfully fluctuating, or balked, so is her music. Critics have disagreed as to whether to consider her an imperfect and irregular poet or a technical virtuoso, and even when her technique is admired it may seem to serve mere dreariness and monotony of material. Ruskin complained about Rossetti's metrical irregularity, but Geoffrey Grigson has compared the poetic gifts of Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti in her favour. C. M. Bowra and K. E. Janowitz appreciate formal elements—restricted phrasal emphasis, long vowel sounds, heavy caesuras, tolling regularity of beat, anaphora, and other kinds of repetition—for their fine adjustment to content. Stuart Curran is impatient with this content, which he finds too penurious to justify the rich technical skill. He finds Rossetti's outlook, in fact, too modest and too feminine. I think he is right about the modesty and femininity, except in supposing that these aren't enough to sustain poetic worth, and that fineness of finish only cloaks an underlying poverty. Rather, I think the poetry is fine for giving voice to qualities necessarily muted.
It is true that one must develop an ear for Christina Rossetti because her subject won't bear eloquent assertion, or tough wit, tautness and compression, Curran's desired "masculine force". Neither would it bear the sort of liquid loveliness Ruskin presumably wanted when he told her to smooth out her metre. What would either toughness or smooth charm have to do with the worn-out, waiting princess? Mostly, Christina Rossetti is left to be famous in name and a few children's and anthology pieces. Criticism is scanty, but I think we shall be able to appreciate her more than Ruskin or Curran or most others if we can appreciate Virginia Woolf s comment: "Modest as you were, still you were drastic."
Re-evaluation of Rossetti is beginning among feminist critics. Still, her effects are drastic and not guaranteed to please either fanciers of a virile style or feminists, who may grow dispirited and find fault with work which expresses neither women's fulfilment nor even much anger at its lack. In their influential Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar judge a poetry of renunciation to be necessarily a renunciation of poetry. Their theoretical base is a post-Freudian linking of "the self-gratifications of art and sensuality". They assume the fusion into a single force of the "poetic/sexual life of self-assertion". For them, "Goblin Market" tells its author's story. To remain unsatisfied by the goblins' erotic fruits means to forfeit fruits of knowledge (by a problematical analogy with the fruit Eve ate) and hence to forfeit fruits of language and poetry. Gilbert and Gubar think that Rossetti bowed to the balking of desire and, in so doing, buried herself alive as a poet. But in my view poetry may be made of love's deferral as well as its consummation.
In some cases, certainly, Rossetti's poems react against deferral in non-acceptance and anger, utter giving up, or imagined fulfilment and release. Some turn a critical eye on the woman who lives to wait. However, the proportions of the work remain such that the reactions only serve to set off the usual long-suffering.
"Another Spring" offers a rare example of refusal to accept "hope deferred". The speaker says she should have seized the day. For once, she wishes she had not waited, and a touch of anger accompanies the thought of lost chances. Anger grows stronger in "An Old World Thicket" (before 1882). Here a dreamer is galled by the discrepancy between the springtime jubilee of a dream landscape and the blankness of her own feelings. She shifts from sadness and dejection to revolt, "That kicks and breaks itself against the bolt / Of an imprisoning fate, / And vainly shakes, and cannot shake the gate". Diction and syntax beautifully enforce the idea of vainness in the last line. Anger and quenching occur simultaneously, for the same verb takes affirmative and negative forms. Action is exactly nullified; shaking happens and doesn't happen.
Sometimes Rossetti contemplates just giving up, "Faithless and hopeless turning to the wall". On the other hand, when lowered energy is allowed to soar, the relief is wonderful. Her prayer is heard, "Re-energise my will", and then the "long-drawn straining effort" ceases. Instead, "I will arise and run", "horses of sheer fire / Whirling me home to heaven". "Joy speaks in praises there, and sings and flies". "In Progress" achieves the tremendous energy of its last lines by juxtaposition with earlier heaviness. A woman's life passes in review, calm, dim, exhausted, slow-speaking, silent, grave, monotonous, drudging, patient, wearied, but "Sometimes I fancy we may one day see / Her head shoot forth seven stars from where they lurk". "Shoot" quite astonishes, and the seven stars take one's breath away.
Other poems look for release. "Acme" (1856) proposes two different kinds. One is sleep, unconsciousness: "Sleep awhile: / Make even awhile as though I might forget". The other is the opposite of not feeling the pain. It seeks to feel it acutely and definitely, waking "To quickened torture and a subtler edge. / The wrung cord snaps at last: beneath the wedge / The toughest oak groans long but rends at length". "Snaps" is sharply, explosively right, especially after "wring", and "at last" exactly makes the point. But I can't help wondering if the oak that groans long but rends at length qualifies the relief of release, like the sleep that only soothes "as though" it brought forgetfulness. "Rends" lacks the suddenness and finality of "snaps", both in idea and sound. "At length" differs from "at last"; it can mean "over a long period", which returns us to Rossetti's usual experience. Quick, sharp, final pain merely stakes a boundary defining, like release through sleep, or fruition in heaven or on earth, or hopeless turning to the wall, or angry revolt, Rossetti's imaginative centre: a sense of life a long time enduring: "I wish it were over the terrible pain, / Pang after pang again and again: / First the shattering ruining blow, / Then the probing steady and slow".
She can define her position by self-criticism too, obliquely or more directly. The poem "Repining" (1847) presents a figure of restlessness and fatigue, a woman spinning. The endless thread and the wearily turning suggest time passing without arriving: "The long seemed to increase / Even while she spun and did cease". This woman wants something to happen to her from her ennui. Typically, she wants a lover to but the poem subjects her hope to the disillusioning of fulfilment. A lover does come, he materialises as kind of angel, but it turns out he does not save her. leaves with him, but her journey satisfies her no man sitting still because in the world she surveys deathly horrors, an avalanche, a shipwreck, a city on a battlefield. No finality graces the coming of the lover. The journey leads nowhere except to her wish go back to where she came from, that is, to her
"Day-Dreams" (1857) also treats the characteristic Christina Rossetti experience in a characteristic figure, woman waiting. It is an interesting and unusual because it employs a male voice, using this to give critique of feminine lassitude. The speaker is the who comes to woo mis archetypal Rossetti maiden sits gazing and gazing through her chamber dreaming, silent, still, gradually dying. The last two zas describe her burial, but the poem doesn't explain she dies; in fact, the speaker is bemused by her perplexing attrition. When he strews flowers before his she just sits there. He gets no answers from her, and response to his passion: "Cold she sits through all kindling". The poem stands in ironic relation to "Goblin Market" and "The Prince's Progress". Laura in "Goblin Market" is in too much of a hurry for sensuous/erotic consummation—joys brides hope to have. In "The Prince's Progress" the bride waits for her tardy bridegroom long as she must and can. But in this poem love is hand, and it is not goblin-tainted, yet the lady makes move. With an ennui grown constitutional like ence, and the repining goes on. This is a poem of ciation without a reason and waiting without an out-and-out relish either. He doesn't quite know what think.
And in the poem me speaker doesn't know what his is waiting for. Her long watch perpetuates itself inexplicably, and she seems to fix her expectations on the mate consummation of oblivion. He is baffled and exasperated: "Who can guess or read the spirit / within her eyes?" "Now if I could guess her secret, Were it worth the guess?" Full of vague longing and guor, the lady "wastes" her lover's strength and his and days. She defers hope and love until he no cares for her answer. She dies a mystery mat went on long: "I will give her stately burial, / Stately willow-branches bent: / Have her carved in alabaster, / As dreamed and leant / While I wondered what she Through mis nonplussing damozel Christina Rossetti ments critically on the morbidity mat many have complained about in her own poems. But in morbidity a poet can find material for eloquence, and of self-postponement she can make art. Emblematic of this art is the figure of a woman whose love vigil extends itself in perpetuity, a woman a man finds hard to understand.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6243
SOURCE: "Christina Rossetti and the Poetry of Reticence," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 4, Fall, 1986, pp. 495-514.
[In the following essay, Hassett argues that Rossetti uses a variety of techniques to emphasize the concepts that are hinted at and alluded to in her poetry.]
Christina Rossetti is a reserved poet. Against the pressure of her guardedness, her writer's impulse resolves itself into shaped stanzas, deflected understatements, and quieted rhythms. Her laconic style is the result of a deeply private dialectic between verbal evasion and aesthetic control. The paradox of Rossetti's art is that the withholding of speech is constitutive. She bends an instinct to silence, avoidance, and mute watchfulness into a distinctive style.
Not surprisingly, Rossetti's struggle into articulateness becomes her subject. Diffidence and brave reticence are treated overtly in her text. In the confrontation-scene of "Goblin Market," Rossetti contrives matters so that "Lizzie uttered not a word" (1:22). In a highly typical gesture, one Rossetti female turns "in silence to the wall" (1:154); another retreats from a quarrel and does "not answer him again" (1:137). Rossetti's characters often feel "brimful of words" (2:150) and truths "which had to stay unsaid" (1:167). While such instances of verbal avoidance and suppression could be multiplied, the best single example is "May."
I cannot tell you how it was;
But this I know: it came to pass
Upon a bright and breezy day
When May was young. . . .
I cannot tell you what it was;
But this I know: it did but pass.
It passed away with sunny May. . . .
Not only does this poem plead an inability to specify its subject, "I cannot tell you what it was," it relies on punningly evasive phrasing, "passed away," to regret a loss it never concretely identifies. As often in Rossetti's poetry, conspicuous avoidance is pure gain. By suppressing its apparent subject, "May" seems to make only modest claims for the importance of the event it records, while at the same time suggesting an impressively large and ineluctable emotion. In effect, what might be called Rossetti's decorum of omission blocks intepretation and thus protects her Wordsworthian theme. No particular loss, but rather, the enigma of loss, the mysteriousness of life's "fallings from us, vanishings," remains the poem's undiminished concern.
"May" also exhibits Rossetti's distinctive way with detail. Although the poem works principally by withholding information, it is by no means vaguely bereft of particulars. On the contrary, there is a nearly inverse relation between significant omission and fine distinctions. Rossetti approaches her avoided subject by surrounding the unnamed "it" with specification. She localizes its arrival, for example, within the boundaries of May: "As yet the poppies were not born / Between the blades of tender corn" (1:51). The displaced precision of these lines—with their yet-to-be-born poppies among discrete blades of grain—creates an impression of accuracy that works to heighten Rossettian reticence. Inclusions signal exclusions and the pressure of something left out is intensified. "It" becomes a present-absence, and authorial reticence begins to solicit attention as reticence. In short, the play of detail contributes to Rossetti's poetics of the known-but-unmentioned. In general, the minutiae Rossetti selects tend to be of a particular class. Her clear-eyed notice is not so much microscopic as it is attentive to the elusive and half-hidden. Typical observations attend to the way ripples cause reflections to "flow, / One moment joined, to vanish out of reach" and how violets lie hidden in a "double shade of leaves, / Their own and others dropped down withering" (1:194).
Rossetti's details have been appreciated before, of course, but their effect has been somewhat misrepresented. The notion prevails that Rossetti is a highly pictorial poet, one who offers "richly colored scenes in the authentic Pre-Raphaelite mode" [Lionel Stevenson, The Pre-Raphaelite Poets, 1972]. This evaluation, however, is not strictly accurate. Rossetti's representation of flowers is an illuminating case in point. Although she frequently mentions them, she does not attempt the high-realization of the dandelion puff in Hunt's Rienzi (his first PRB painting) or the violets, field roses and purple loosestrife in Millais's splendid Ophelia. And if one avoids cross-genre comparisons and looks instead to contemporary Victorian poetry, the conclusion is the same. Rossetti's appealing phrase, "chillveined snowdrops" (1:48), does not exhibit the "remarkable visual precision" of Tennyson's description of the "lines of green that streak the white / Of the first snowdrop's inner leaves." Nor is there anything to match Rossetti's own prose comments in Called to be Saints:
The Snowdrop . . . droops its head like an icicle. That which is not white in its blossom, is green; with a deep-set yellow centre, like a hint rather than a touch of sunshine. . . . its leaves grow in pairs, slim as grass, pointing upwards: every vein of each leaf tends straight upwards, without twists or retrogression of curves. Its stalk is green and bowing at the summit, whence hangs the bell-shaped flower, composed of six petals in a twofold arrangement: near that point where the stalk curves downwards a green tip extends as if to shelter the blossom, and within the bell are lodged six fruitful stamens.
As a poet, Rossetti simply does not indulge in this degree of visual particularity. And yet the impression of an "authentic Pre-Raphaelite" style is not entirely unfounded. While Rossetti does not offer startlingly full or fresh pictures, she does convey the sense of intense, habitual attentiveness. That she seems to make "the minuter discriminations" derives from the manner of her observation: her poetry singles out the objects of her notice. Undaunted by the profusion nature presents to one's field of vision, Rossetti's keen eye locates uncurling seams of new growth and cleanly delimited edges. Her habit is to discriminate the margin, edge, tip, periphery and "boundary shore" (1:191). She sees the "rock girt" sea (1:194), the "outskirts" of a pool (1:221), the "topmost edge of waves" (2: 145), and the "skirt" of a "riven" cloud (1:214). And because there is no straining in such observations—because they are underdeveloped as pictures—they create the cumulative impression of accustomed, accurate watchfulness. One can hypothesize, too, that there is a deep connection between Rossetti's instinctive attention to margins and her personal sense of barriers, exclusions, and self-contained isolation. For her, the notion of physical limits easily slips over into existential metaphor: thus her lovers find themselves doubly edged, "on the water's brink, / As on the brink of parting"; isolation is a matter of having "hedged me with a thorny hedge" (1:192); and heaven is "accessible tho' fenced" (2:285).
Since Rossetti achieves intensity by means of inexplicitness, the proliferation of techniques for under-specifying might well be considered her hallmark. Sometimes, her recoil from a topic can be measured by the studied shyness of the diction: "Something this foggy day, a something which / Is neither of this fog nor of today / Has set me dreaming" (2:145); "Where my heart is (wherever that may be) / Might I but follow!" (1:212). In a well-wrought artistic context, such understated passages acquire the prominence of anti-style. They register as evasions and hint at motives behind their blandness. Such purposeful haziness even warrants renaming. Upon publication, "A Prospective Meeting" was given the vague new title "Somewhere or Other" (1:161, 290). One hardly knows what to expect of a work so-named and yet such uncertainty is highly apropos. The poem concerns the pain of imprecision, the difference between focused expectation and achingly unfocused desire. In the course of three stanzas, the title phrase accrues ominous and ironic meanings; the prospective meeting might occur in an as yet unknown "somewhere," or an "other" where that is nowhere, or after death in the "other" world. As possibilities multiply, it becomes clear that the wide spectrum of interpretation is the very cause of the poem's distinctive uneasiness. The vague phrasing turns out to be essential as both means and meaning; it is the method that enables the unnerved poem to hold its fears in suspension, to avoid and yet to probe a source of anxiety.
Another of Rossetti's many ways of saying little yet intimating much is her use of beguilingly familiar motifs. Her poetic economy exploits the associations that a traditional image carries. She allows narrative and thematic anticipations to create a context against which incongruities—sometimes very slight ones—register strongly. When the tension between the expected fit and the actual pressure of a detail becomes apparent, Rossetti's effect is largely achieved. "An Apple-Gathering" is a good example of the way such adjustments function. In this poem the plucking of blossoms forestalls the bearing of fruit, an action that seems to imply the early and unwise conferring of sexual favors. But Rossetti's poem is not the obvious one it appears to be. Instead of the predictable contrast between the premature and the timely, "An Apple-Gathering" turns on the difference between blossom and apple, i.e., between pre-sexual love and mature appetite. The quality of feeling is the issue. When the heroine is abandoned for a woman with a "basket full" of apples, Rossetti's unexpected point emerges:
Ah Willie, Willie, was my love less worth
Than apples with their green leaves piled above?
I counted rosiest apples on the earth
Of far less worth than love.
In the procreative and carnal scheme of things, virginal love—chaste pre-sexual feeling—is unfruitful. This cruel lesson, the girl's discovery that she is considered unappealing and unnatural, is not the poem's only point, however. Rossetti's dislocation of the apple-metaphor yields a further irony: society's identification of the virgin with her opposite. Because the heroine has resisted the fall into ripened sexuality, she is rejected by her community: "My neighbors mocked me while they saw me pass / So empty-handed back" (1:43). Rossetti's startling point is that protracted innocence leaves the heroine an outcast as surely as if she were seduced—as surely as if she were the fallen woman the reader initially takes her to be. Rossetti's use of a familiar motif thus impels the reader to enact—and presumably to reject—an identification that the poem obliquely protests.
If the reaction to Rossetti's misleading technique is a slight discomfort at having been led, a more lasting consequence is an intensification of attention. The Rossettian manner, like that of all ironists, creates Rossettian readers. Having been compelled to revise an interpretation, one learns to look for certain strategies in the poems. One becomes alerted to indirection and understatement. Occasionally Rossetti offers extra encouragement to those who would track her dislocations. In "After Death," she subverts a traditional scenario while offering rubrics for interpretation:
The curtains were half drawn, the floor was swept
And strewn with rushes, rosemary and may
Lay thick upon the bed on which I lay,
Where thro' the lattice ivy-shadows crept.
He leaned above me, thinking that I slept
And could not hear him; but I heard him say:
"Poor child, poor child:" and as he turned away
Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept.
He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold
That hid my face, or take my hand in his,
Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head:
He did not love me living; but once dead
He pitied me; and very sweet it is
To know he still is warm tho' I am cold.
The appeal of this frequently anthologized sonnet has much to do with Rossetti's skill at representing preternatural sensitivity. The dead woman comprehends, though she cannot see, the thick layer of herbs and the motion of shadows. Such subtlety of perception establishes her as a model for the reader. Moreover, in an obliquely cautionary way, the poem dramatizes the possibility of impercipience. When the viewing male assumes that there is no intelligence beneath the shroud, his mistake hardly matters in death—but it is the kind of error that certainly matters in life. The poem assumes, and exposes, his misinterpretation of the living woman.
It is important to see, too, that Rossetti is concerned with aesthetic as well as social mis-reading. Her poem can even be said to anticipate its own history in the hands of commentators. That is to say, "After Death" has often been considered maudlin and self-pitying, but such a view is not necessarily accurate. Rossetti prepares her conclusion by reporting a series of withheld touches: the man does not touch the shroud, raise the cloth, take her hand, or smooth her pillow. This litany manqué catalogs the denying actions of a non-lover, but it is also a caveat to the reader. Its warning is to look beneath the surface, to "lift the fold"; it virtually requires the uncovering of subversive readings. Thus urged, the reader does well to probe the final lines: "but once dead / He pitied me; and very sweet it is / To know he still is warm tho' I am cold." The viewed woman may be expressing gratitude for the viewer's pity, but vengefulness is also possible: the man is warm with life, but often "life is not sweet" (1:155) in Rossetti's poetry. Scorn is likely too: the man is warm with belated feeling, but it is a tepid and perhaps contemptible lukewarmness. Rossetti's technique does not require a settling on one correct interpretation, so much as an awareness that the superficial and sentimental interpretation has become unsettled. Her point is made when the reader becomes conscious of competing readings. To "lift the fold" of Rossetti's conclusion is to become less confident about what the final conjunction of "sweet" and "cold" reveals about the woman's feelings. The possibilities run the gamut from gratitude to magisterial imperturbability.
This last emotion is recurrent in Rossetti's art. Sometimes it is named in elegantly falling rhythm, "a passionless sadness without dread." Frequently it is represented as a condition of suspended animation. The poet who makes an art of what is not said describes her preferred world in terms of what is not sensed. Rossetti's blissful Persephone-figure hears "as through a veil":
She cannot see the grain
Ripening on hill and plain,
She cannot feel the rain Upon her hand.
The fortunate dead do not see
[The] grass grow long above our heads and feet,
Nor hear the happy lark that soars sky high,
Nor sigh that spring is fleet and summer fleet,
Nor mark the waxing wheat. . . .
The unimpeded rhythm and soothing anaphora of such lines mime the neutralized and evened emotion Rossetti admires. The condition of her dead represents a hypothesis about a perfected life; their "Dream Land" ease is a comment on the strains of duration. That the words "long" and "longing" recur with extraordinary frequency in Rossetti's poetry underscores her view that time-bound life is a sequence of yearning episodes:
Come back to me, who wait and watch for you:—
Or come not yet, for it is over then,
And long it is before you come again.
It is possible, of course, to treat desire as a vivid and vitalizing ardor, and Rossetti occasionally does so. The moon, in one instance, is represented as "a fire of pale desire in incompleteness" (2:273); the saints are "desirous still with still-fulfilled desire" (2:289). More characteristic, however, is the equation of longing with organic disorder; it is a dis-ease or "yearning palsy" (2:125), an unrelenting addiction:
Sometimes I said: This thing shall be no more;
My expectation wearies and shall cease;
I will resign it now and be at peace:
Yet never gave it o'er.
However strong the wish to become "wishless" (2:283), desire creeps in and destroys peace. The refractory, craving self is its own worst enemy, "self stabbing self with keen lack-pity knife" (2:125). In this polarized context of ease and dis-ease, Rossetti's Persephone-figure, her literally unfeeling heroine, is an icon of composure; her unresponsiveness emblematizes wholeness and autonomy.
Rossetti's death-loving poems are best understood, therefore, in relation to the works that liberate their characters from "cankerous" longing (1:19). They are informed by the same values that locate Laura and Lizzie in their imperturbable idyll at the conclusion of "Goblin Market." That familiar tale is surely to be read as a myth of quelled yearning. Wim Laura cheated into a condition of "baulked desire" (1:18), Rossetti effects—through Lizzie's strenuous efforts—the equivalent of an interior act of pained, hard-won detachment. Henceforth Laura is able to suspend the longing that harms her. What happens in "Goblin Market" is akin to what might have occurred in "Mariana" if Tennyson had sprung his heroine out of her despair—but without having Angelo arrive as in Measure for Measure. Fulfillment is not Rossetti's solution; her fantasy is one of release, of irrevocable and unembittered freedom from desire.
The conviction that "Dream Land" and "Goblin Market" carry is derived, in part, from Rossetti's understanding of the difference between idyllic and actual emotion. She can idealize the triumph over passion because she knows so well the grief of restraint and the secret cost of detachment. The dismay of the virginally rejected heroine of "An Apple-Gathering" is much to the point, as is the sorrow of "Memory." This highly elusive poem begins, "I nursed it in my bosom while it lived, / I hid it in my heart when it was dead" (1:147). If "it" can be nursed, die, and be mourned, perhaps "it" is like (or is) a child. But a later stanza offers an unsettling metaphor:
None know the choice I made; I make it still.
None know the choice I made and broke my heart,
Breaking mine idol: I have braced my will
Once, chosen for once my part.
The metaphor of deliberate idol-breaking is clear enough in isolation, but lingering impressions from stanza one allow a disturbing after-image—a destroyed idol/child. In her covert way, Rossetti conveys the anxiety of elective childlessness. The passionless "braced" will forestalls the love that can (in another poem) "fill thy girth / And . . . make fat thy dearth" (1:155). "Memory" ends with the ticking of the biological clock, "the time grows old, / Grows old, in which I grieve" (1:148).
In addition to the pathos of childlessness, Rossetti recognizes that passionlessness may be too near-allied to nervelessness. She knows that the impossible wish to be tranquilly whole and composed can decline into a damaging wish to be merely closed off and inert. In "By the Sea" she plays her own best critic by exploring the nuances, both positive and negative, of her favorite imagery of insentience.
Why does the sea moan evermore?
Shut out from heaven it makes its moan,
It frets against the boundary shore;
All earth's full rivers cannot fill
The sea, that drinking thirsteth still.
Sheer miracles of loveliness
Lie hid in its unlooked-on bed:
Anemones, salt, passionless,
Blow flower-like; just enough alive
To blow and multiply and thrive.
Shells quaint with curve, or spot, or spike,
Encrusted live things argus-eyed,
All fair alike, yet all unlike,
Are born without a pang, and die
Without a pang, and so pass by.
To be "unlike" and "unlooked-on" is appealing. To live "without a pang" is more attractive still. And yet, to be "just enough alive . . . to thrive" seems inadequate; these sea creatures may be, as Rossetti writes elsewhere, "short of life" (1:29).
This gem of a poem provides a striking example of Rossetti's skill at omission. The reserve that determines so many aspects of her art enables her to pare down her draft by half. The manuscript of "By the Sea" has two extra opening stanzas and an additional concluding stanza that is ruinously explicit:
I would I lived without a pang:
Oh happy they who day by day
Quiescent neither sobbed nor sang;
Unburdened with a what or why
They live and die and so pass by.
This clear choice in favor of "unburdened" pre-consciousness is uninterestingly reductive. But in cropped form, the poem allows opposing feelings to remain in suspension. Individuated but preconscious, beautiful but ephemeral: these paired qualities evoke contending responses that are more powerful for being unresolved. Rossetti also revises with an ear to correlations between theme and rhythm. The manuscript line, "Salt passionless anemones" (1:298), is printed as "Anemones, salt, passionless." The final version, with its medial pauses and abutting stresses, is considerably stiffened. Instead of sliding by in alternating rhythm the key word "passionless" now feels chosen—oddly less "passionless"—and placed with Rossettian tact. Such deftness justifies a plea for closer attention to Rossetti's skill as a metrist. Admiring but also dismissive, the assessment of Rossetti's formal accomplishment tends to rest at the adjectival stage. Her lyrics are said to be careful, decorative, easy, firm, natural, pellucid, polished, pure, simple, and apparently or genuinely spontaneous. The occasional technical comment notes the presence of alliteration, feminine endings, monorhyme and other "characteristics which are alike obvious to vigilance and carelessness." And once noted, such features are said to be "not without effect" or "no accident" and passed over. It should be granted that underdeveloped appreciation of Rossetti's "perfect" craft is not entirely the individual commentator's fault. The methods of textual analysis favor a poetry that is compressed, arresting, and highly-textured. Critical vocabulary prefers effects that are counterpointed and paradoxical and is ill-equipped to comment on the rhythmic practice of an apparently plain-speaking stanzaic poet. Nonetheless, Rossetti's style is distinguishable and its means do yield to scrutiny. The subdued quality of many poems, for example, is a matter of stress adjustment. A speaker is made to sound retiring by rhythmically weakening the lines. Thus the revenant in "At Home," does not say of her friends, "They sang, they jested, kissed and laughed." The rollicking levity of four stressed verbs is not true to her excluded condition as an onlooker. Instead she comments, "They sang, they jested, and they laughed" (1:28). The slightly hesitant rhythm—caused by the demoted third stress and the repeated "they"—marks her non-participation. An equally reticent effect is achieved by the nearly opposite technique of impeding a fully-stressed line. The printed version of "May" inserts commas in the final verse: "And left me old, and cold, and grey" (1:51). By separating the adjectives, the punctuation suggests a slowed performance of the line and creates the impression of gradually expanding thought. Because the speaker finds that no single word is severe enough for her condition, she accumulates the terms of her grief. Both the wish to specify and the reluctance are felt in the rhythm. Many of Rossetti's adjustments of tempo are reserved for final lines. The intensity of the quiet close is one of her favorite devices. "Touching 'Never'" imagines conceding a point: "I would have owned the point you pressed on me, / Was possible, or probable, or true" (2:102). The rhythm of complete concession is achieved by allowing only three full stresses and by pairing the falling rhythm of the polysyllables against a terminal monosyllable. The final "true" is simultaneously slight and heavy, literally understated and yet weightily emphatic. In short, Rossetti's reserved art owes much to the variety of her restrained rhythms.
Rossetti's poetry is all of a piece but not all in the same tone. There are buoyant poems like "No, Thank You, John" which vigorously rejects a suitor. To emphasize her heroine's firmness, Rossetti exploits the imperative: "Use your own common sense," "Don't call me false," "Rise above / Quibbles" (1:50, 51). Such briskness foils the wheedling strategies of the suitor whose polite formulas have become a "weariness." The poem, it turns out, is as much a criticism of John's rhetoric as a refusal of marriage. It exposes the obliging manner that attempts to obligate and the strategy of misconstruing another's silences. The heroine resists the suitor with a blunt insistence on the integrity of the unsaid: "I never said I loved you, John." When overt agreeableness masks coerciveness, Rossetti's solution is to insist on the absoluteness of one's verbal abstentions. Occasionally Rossetti's tone is harsh and her sedate irony gives way to open scorn. "A Triad" is fierce in its representation of women who are famished for, shamed or vulgarized by love. "Light Love" is chilled with anger. Cast as a parting dialogue between an unwed mother and her faithless lover, the poem bristles with tense exchanges. As one after another of the male's exit strategies fail, his manner declines from pretended solicitude through demeaning innuendo to crass insult. The poem is keenly interested in the psychology of this seducer. As he talks of his new love, he gloats over signs of her growing sexual responsiveness:
Ripe-blooming she, my rose, my peach;
She wooes me day and night:
I watch her tremble in my reach;
She reddens, my delight;
She ripens, reddens in my sight.
Such voyeuristic attention to a maiden's trembling sensitivity, such prying regard for this "peach" on her "guarded tree," amounts to a violation of the hortus conclusus. In her compelling article on Rossetti's "Inward Pose," Dolores Rosenblum calls attention to Rossetti's thematic "preoccupation with being looked at." She considers Rossetti's "special experience as an artist's model" to have contributed to her "persistent awareness of being scrutinized." The article is too detailed to summarize here; one wants merely to note that Rosenblum's central insight is confirmed in "Light Love" and to add a further point. Rossetti's complex reaction to scrutiny is of a piece with her poetics. Her ironies and understatements as well as the chosen restraints of her formal technique manifest an impulse to reveal—but in a manner that is veiled. Even her editorial deletions from volume to volume can be seen as a narrow application of this general tendency. When a poem is too pointed, with a theme in high relief, she withdraws it from view. Such is the case with "Light Love." Rossetti probably came to feel exposed by her exposure of caddishness for she excluded it from her 1875 volume. By her usual standards, certainly, the poem is far too explicit in its case against prying eyes.
It is a distinctive feature of Rossetti's art that one of her bitterest moods appears to be her mildest. Her betrayed characters are capable of reproachfulness, yet have remarkably gentle ways of lodging their complaints. Her revenants, in particular, are notably diffident. In numerous poems these forgotten dead return, lament their exclusion, and then withdraw. Some, indeed, make no moan at all and entirely forgo the ghostly privilege of disturbing the living. One such visitant "shivered comfortless, but cast / No chill" on the festivities "At Home" (1:28). So retiring are these shades, one must look for some additional motive, one that reinforces reticence, in order to explain their chastened emotion. Rossetti's attitude towards faithlessness is a determining factor here; she regards forgetfulness, inattention, and subtler forms of rejection as no more than ordinarily banal. When, for example, the ghost of a loved woman returns to fetch her beloved, his refusal is represented as wholly intelligible. In lines that echo the marriage vow, he protests his fidelity "for life" and "thro' sickness;" but, he concludes, "death mars all" (1:121). He prefers now to mourn rather than join her, to tend her grave where he has "planted a violet / Which the wind waves, which the dew makes wet" (1:121). This mortal's self-concern is hardly admirable, but its very ordinariness dulls the keenness of one's indignation.
Thus it happens that Rossetti's dying do not weep. They anticipate neglect and sometimes go so far as to absolve the living in advance of their defections:
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
Such lyricism is not the result of saintly self-effacement or generosity. It is—as the startling final lines reveal—an expression of anticipated detachment: "Haply I may remember, / And haply may forget." The poem practices immunity from the pain of being forgotten.
There is a peculiar but real satisfaction in such a rehearsal. For the duration that one becomes a ghost, inhabiting one's world like a revenant, life hurts less. To face the present as if it were irrevocably past is to force betrayals into the distance and to muffle resentment. Imagined relocations are not, of course, unique to Rossetti. Tennyson uses a similar device in "Enoch Arden" when he allows the returned sailor to view his own life as it is being lived by another. And a journal entry from Thomas Hardy's Life might well serve as a gloss on both poets. Hardy reports actually playing the revenant.
For my part, if there is any way of getting a melancholy satisfaction out of life it lies in dying, so to speak, before one is out of the flesh; by which I mean putting on the manners of ghosts, wandering in their haunts, and taking their views of surrounding things. To think of life as passing away is a sadness; to think of it as past is at least tolerable. Hence even when I enter into a room to pay a simple morning call I have unconsciously the habit of regarding the scene as if I were a spectre not solid enough to influence my environment; only fit to behold and say, as another spectre said: "Peace be unto you!"
Hardy, like Rossetti, tries to visit the present from a perspective beyond desire. The danger of such a strategy is a self-indulgent dourness that Rossetti, Tennyson and Hardy have each been accused of but, rightly practiced, it becomes a means of autonomy. In Rossetti's case, it makes the experience of self less susceptible to the inconstancy of others.
An understanding of Rossettian ghostliness provides a useful tool for assessing the related strategy of self-effacement. Just as Rossetti's dying prepare to be unremembered, her living often try to be unseen and unheard. If blushes are observed by "pitiless eyes" (1:219), secrets will be no less callously treated. One's recourse is to veil both the flush and the private meanings. Sometimes this wisdom of reserve is projected in seasonal terms. In "Winter: My Secret," Rossetti writes that "spring's an expansive time" (1:47) but warns against any vernal / verbal revelation. As the title suggests, the speaker has a secret, but it is tauntingly withheld: "my secret's mine, and I won't tell." This discrepancy between the poem's actual reticence and its speaker's flaunting manner is conspicuous and fully deliberate; the difference is Rossetti's way of enacting her poem's own counsel against transparency and self-exposure. One of Rossetti's most perceptive admirers has noted this connection: "The indirectness of this subtle poem is part of its strategy for preserving the integrity of its 'secret,' and hence for maintaining the very possibility of integrity and truth in speech." He adds that in Rossetti's poetry generally, secrecy is symbolic and "a sign of the presence of individuality. Independence is a function of the ability to have a secret which the sanctioned forces of society cannot invade" [Jerome McGann, Victorian Studies 23 (1980)].
This observation can be expanded; Rossetti's instinct against parading meanings yields a sub-genre of poems that solicit guesses at meanings that remain undisclosed:
So she sits and doth not answer
With her dreaming eyes,
With her languid look delicious
Less than happy, over-wise
Now if I could guess her secret,
Were it worth the guess?—
Poems often turn on the fact that others do not know an important truth. The lady of "Monna Innominata" is perhaps the most striking instance of a character who is defined by communal unknowing, but the card-playing winner of "The Queen of Hearts" is a related figure. The object of her "lynx-eyed" rival's watchfulness, Flora sustains the other's "scrutinizing gaze" (1:132-33). She cannot be found out and her "ways are secret still." Such unfathomableness elicits an inverted form of tribute as Flora's interrogator hints at "arts unknown." Should Flora explain her winning technique, there would be no more intimations of mysterious "craft." The irony here is that reticence per se conveys a kind of power. Rossetti's insight in the "Winter: My Secret," "Monna Innominata," and "The Queen of Hearts" is that opacity, a well-maintained reserve, is authoritative. Well might each of these ladies scoff: "let them prate; who know not what we knew" (2:91).
Part of the special pleasure of "The Queen of Hearts" is the way Rossetti's stanza form dramatizes the speaker's assaults and failures. Pentameter lines indicate a strategy for penetrating Flora's secret, and trimeters reveal consequences:
I've scanned you with a scrutinizing gaze,
Resolved to fathom these your secret ways:
But, sift them as I will,
Your ways are secret still.
The expansion and contraction of lines, what Rossetti refers to as the "inning and outing," enact the surge and fall of competitive hope. Once the alternation of couplet lengths is felt as a pattern, it comes to be wittily predictive. The diminishment, the shaped appearance of the stanzas on the page, confirms what the opening lines assert: Flora "invariably" wins and baffles. But to point out Rossetti's skill in molding "The Queen of Hearts" is a trifle misleading, for such imitative sculpting is not her usual practice. Ordinarily her verse forms should be read not as mimesis, but as restraint. Instead of the flow of blank verse or the suavity of pentameter couplets, Rossetti chooses the confinement of discrete, matched stanzas. Her preference for short measures and full stops confers a high degree of line-integrity; so skilled is her exploitation of the "margin of silence" that simple enjambments come to seem something of a special effect:
I all-forgotten shivered, sad
To stay and yet to part how loth.
The caesura isolates "sad" on the near-side of the line break. But with the next verse, the syntax reorganizes itself so that "sad" is pulled across the gap thereby enacting its own drama of reluctant lingering. Historically, Rossetti's stanzas often derive from ballad forms with their distinct rhythm of stresses and suppressed fourth beats. This last feature is exploited most noticeably in those tetrameter stanzas where a final trimeter isolates itself as a discrete line:
Their life stood full at blessed noon;
I, only I, had passed away:
"Tomorrow and today," they cried:
I was of yesterday.
So now in patience I possess
My soul year after tedious year,
Content to take the lowest place,
The place asigned me here.
The recurrence of such lines can still an entire poem's momentum. But Rossetti can achieve the same patient effect with a sequence of trimeters:
Where sunless rivers weep
Their waves into the deep,
She sleeps a charmed sleep.
Here the triple rhyme and circular syntax (sleeps a . . . sleep) contribute to the lines' inertia so that all seems reluctant to advance. In general, the organization of Rossetti's art is like that of her visual field; she perceives and re-presents not in terms of luxuriant wholes, but with respect to cleanly delimited edges.
Rossetti's poems also demonstrate the perils of communicativeness. The speaker of "Queen of Hearts," for example, seems unaware of the back-stabbing emotion revealed by her admission about card-marking: "I cheated once; I made a private notch / In Heart-Queen's back" (1:133). Such transparency is clearly a liability in a competitor. In other poems Rossetti explores the futility of plain-speaking. When any utterance can be willfully misconstrued as nagging—"Now never teaze me . . . he said in scorn" (1:137)—or when the terms of an argument are degraded, one can refuse to speak at all. The best recourse is "irresponsive" silence: "Aloof, aloof, we stand aloof, so stand / Thou too aloof bound with the flawless band / Of inner solitude" (2:122).
And yet Rossetti does not recommend verbal cowardice. Nor does the demise of her most forthright heroine imply a disapproving or punitive attitude on Rossetti's part. An interesting example of the complexities of reticence, "Jessie Cameron" is emphatic about Jessie's uninhibited speech.
She was a careless, fearless girl,
And made her answer plain,
Outspoken she to earl or churl,
Kindhearted in the main,
But somewhat heedless with her tongue
And apt at causing pain.
When Jessie handles an importunate suitor ungently, their verbal stand-off becomes a literal one, and the unyielding pair drown in the incoming tide. But to discover Rossetti's attitude toward Jessie's calamitous plain-speaking requires a look at the poem's long denouement. The remaining six stanzas (out of ten) record folk speculations about Jessie's suitor, the couple's final disposition, and the haunting consequences of their deaths. These stanzas are a virtual anthology of closure devices. By invoking the convention of garrulous, anonymous "watchers," Rossetti multiplies motifs until the over-abundant possibilities collapse into one another. Finally, all are irrelevant to the single, looming fact of Jessie's strong resistance. The more "some say" about the episode, the less telling each version becomes:
Whether he helped or hindered her,
Threw up his life or lost it well,
The troubled sea for all its stir
Finds no voice to tell.
By disallowing the hypotheses that might close Jessie's story, Rossetti shows that fearless speech remains an unresolved issue. Indeed, the final inexplicitness of "Jessie Cameron" holds out the possibility of subversive reading. Rossetti is not transparent or effusive, but she plainly invites the reader to "lift the fold" of her poem's reserve and see that her narrative guardedness protects a tale of unguarded utterance.
In the last analysis, Rossettian reticence is the opposite of evasiveness. Her withholdings have the feel of potential communications. Hovering between expression and non-expression, they serve as intimations to be pursued. By insisting vividly on what is not felt, not said, not revealed, not narrated, Rossetti engages the reader while she herself appears to disengage. Operating like an absent-presence, she directs attention, orchestrates experience, and invulnerably annotates our shared vulnerability. Like her own Persephones, ghosts, and secret-keepers, she establishes her distance. But it is a strategic distance. Rightly understood, Rossetti's remoteness is participatory; her abstentions are the means of her special intensity.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8381
SOURCE: "Simple Surfaces: Christina Rossetti's Work for Children," in The Achievement of Christina Rossetti, edited by David A. Kent, Cornell, 1987, pp. 208-30.
[In the following essay, McGillis analyzes Rossetti's for children, arguing that these works offer lessons and insights for adults as well as children.]
In almost everything Christina Rossetti wrote for young readers we hear an authorial voice strong in ambiguity, whispering secrets beneath what Jerome J. McGann calls "those deceptively simple poetic surfaces" [Jerome J. McGann, "Christina Rossetti's Poems: A New Edition and a Revaluation," Victorian Studies 23 (1980)]. As we allow our minds to play upon the surfaces, what appears straightforward becomes richly complex, so much so that meaning often becomes of doubtful certainty and of less importance than the simple surfaces themselves. We look less for meaning in this work than for the subtleties of form and language. In other words, Rossetti's work for children treats its readers to an experience of the high morality of art, thus offering them the opportunity for freeplay, for participation in imaginative understanding. The function of fantasy in works such as Goblin Market (1862), Sing-Song (1872), and Speaking Likenesses (1874) is to deconstruct allegoric and didactic meaning; the characteristic psychological tension in Victorian fantasy, the pull of both duty and desire, is evident in Rossetti's work, but its implications go beyond simple dichotomy. It posits a reader capable of comprehending and accepting this uncertain world as a schoolhouse where we prepare for a certain world yet to come.
Rossetti's works for children include Maude: Prose and Verse, written in 1850, but not published until 1897, three years after her death. Maude's story lacks the vibrancy of Rossetti's other works for children, and it has not reached the audience Rossetti had in mind. Goblin Market, Sing-song, and Speaking Likenesses are much more successful works for children. Goblin Market and Sing-Song continue to appear in children's lists. Speaking Likenesses has not received the same approval as the two earlier works, but it deserves attention because of its intricate form. In the following discussion I examine the three works in the chronological order in which they appeared to show that Rossetti's interest in language and form does not alter radically from work to work.
Criticism has had less to say about Sing-Song and Speaking Likenesses than about Goblin Market (I, 11-26), for reasons that are not difficult to imagine. Rossetti did not, in fact, write Goblin Market for children, and therefore the poem invites the attention of a mature reader; Goblin Market manifestly contains the theme of sexual frustration, a sure hook for academic readers; and finally the poem satisfies the critic's desire to allegorize. As McGann has noted, despite Rossetti's claim that Goblin Market is not an allegory, readers refuse to take her at her word. Even a sympathetic reader, Rossetti's brother William Michael, reports in one sentence his sister's repeated assertion that, as he puts it, the poem "is not a moral apologue consistently carried out in detail," and in the next asserts: "I find at times that people do not see the central point of the story, such as the authoress intended it: and she has expressed it too, but perhaps not with due emphasis." Critics have proposed various allegoric interpretations for Goblin Market: Christian, sexual, psychological, social, artistic, subversive. Most critics are not as candid as A. A. DeVitis, who sees "the essential meaning of the poem" revealed by "an interpretation of the symbolism and an appreciation of the imagery." If other readers are not as forthright as DeVitis, they nonetheless imply they have grasped the poem's "essential meaning."
Even when a reading formally deconstructs the poem's stated meaning, we are not left in doubt as to its real meaning. Jeanie Watson, in the most recent essay on Goblin Market, analyzes Rossetti's use of the "interplay between moral tale and fairy tale that allows [the poem] to be utterly subversive and yet ultimately moral" [Children's Literature 12 (1984)]. In this poem "the immoral moral triumphs," and the reader learns that "maidens have the right to buy the fruit of Goblin Market." In short, Watson allegorizes the poem as a Romantic text that calls for "perception and participation in whole vision." Goblin Market becomes, in effect, a sequel to The Book of Thel, only in Rossetti's poem the female does not retreat from experience. In Watson's reading, Lizzie and Laura repudiate the "fruits of knowledge," but the reader remains unconvinced that they are right in doing so: "Laura and Lizzie are saved to their damnation, and we and Christina Rossetti know it, even if they do not." Reading this interpretation, I find it difficult to understand the "discomfort" the ending of the poem communicates, since Rossetti (apparently) and Watson had no difficulty accepting the subversion of the poem's ostensible moral.
But Laura and Lizzie are manifestly not "saved to their damnation." Not only does Laura come through her experience young and refreshed, but years later she tells her children the story of her relations with goblin men. Questions come to mind, among them: who are the men Laura and Lizzie marry? and why does Laura, not Lizzie, become a story-teller? But answers are as stubbornly irretrievable (or perhaps irrelevant) as the questions are insistent. The poem's subversive power derives from its refusal to offer pat morals of any sort; it refuses allegory. When Watson says the two sisters are saved only to be damned, she bases her argument on the idea that Laura and Lizzie accept convention and mouth familiar Victorian pieties regarding sisterly love and the avoidance of experience. In this view Laura, after tasting the fruits of experience and later falling into a trance, awakes renewed; apparently she has retreated to innocence.
The result of Laura's long night of senselessness certainly gives the impression of a return to innocence:
Laura awoke as from a dream,
Laughed in the innocent old way,
Hugged Lizzie but not twice or thrice;
Her gleaming locks showed not one thread of grey,
Her breath was sweet as May
And light danced in her eyes.
Laura's awakening is reminiscent of the scene in the Odyssey in which Odysseus' sailors return to human form after Odysseus has overpowered Circe. Transformed, the sailors "not only became men again but looked younger and much handsomer and taller than before." Their experience has proved efficacious; they seem rejuvenated. We understand the sailors' fall into bestiality as transitional. If their renewal is a renewal of innocence, however, it is closer to what in Blake's terms is organized innocence than to unorganized innocence. Laura's trial is similarly renovating. She wakes "as from a dream." Her experience is perhaps as inevitable as dreaming, for it is a mental or psychological event. When she laughs in the "innocent old way," we can hear (helped by the emphasis on "old way") an ambiguity. She laughs in the manner of her former innocence; she laughs in an innocent, yet aged, wise, old way. Laura, however, is not so much renewed as she is transfigured: her hair "gleams" and light dances in her eyes.
Transfiguration, of course, is not simply transformation; Rossetti's values are not Homer's. Laura's awakening has Christian import. She rises in the early morning as
early reapers plodded to the place
Of golden sheaves,
And dew-wet grass
Bowed in the morning winds so brisk to pass,
And new buds with new day
Opened of cup-like lilies on the stream
The language here resonates with biblical echoes. In Psalm 126, for example, the Lord turns "the captivity of Zion" and fills the Israelites' "mouth . . . with laughter, and [their] tongue with singing"; they "were like them that dream." Similarly, on a fresh harvest morning, Laura wakes from her dream to laugh. The psalm tells us that he who "goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him." And Isaiah 18:4 tells us that the Lord's dwelling place is "like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest." Finally, the lilies, as Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849) and Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850) remind us, represent purity and virginity. The "golden sheaves," "new buds," "new day," and "cup-like lilies" in Goblin Market suggest not only harvest but also revelation, the uncovering of a better world. Rossetti's description, then, suggests a spiritual awakening, an awakening of almost apocalyptic import. The revelation that has come to Laura has come after her soul's sleep. The soul's sleep, as McGann points out, is a "peculiar millenarian and Anabaptist doctrine," and "the single most important enabling principle in Rossetti's poetry" [Jerome McGann, "The Religious Poetry of Christina Rossetti," Critical Inquiry 10 (1983)]. The soul's sleep is a "waiting time" between death and judgment, a time during which the soul can dream of or catch glimpses of paradise. In Goblin Market Laura experiences the soul's sleep after receiving the "fiery antidote" (1. 559) from Lizzie. We do not know what passed in her mind during that long night, but we do know Laura was "past" both pleasure and anguish. "Is it death or is it life?" asks the mysterious narrator. Whichever state it is, the result is "life out of death" (11. 522-25). The life Laura returns to on the harvest morning brings her marriage and children; more important, she becomes a storyteller.
We might recall that after eating the goblin fruit Laura becomes silent: "She said not one word in her heart's sore ache" (1. 261). She lies awake "silent till Lizzie slept," and then she rises to weep and gnash her teeth "for baulked desire" (11. 265, 267). For days, she watches "in sullen silence of exceeding pain" (1. 271). The goblin men have effectively silenced Laura; in accepting their fruit she has lost her voice. In this world men are the rhymers, the speakers, the storytellers, the merchants. Before Lizzie starts out to meet the goblin men on their own terms, with a "silver penny in her purse," she remembers Jeanie
Who should have been a bride;
But who for joys brides hope to have
Fell sick and died
In her gay prime,
In earliest Winter time,
With the first glazing rime,
With the first snow-fall of crisp Winter time.
It is not too much to imagine that the goblins' "sugar-baited words" (1. 234), their glazing rhymes, silenced Jeanie because she, like Laura, paid the goblin price: "a golden curl" (1. 125). Lizzie refuses this price and tosses her penny to the goblins. Taking part in the market place as an equal, Lizzie confounds the goblins:
They began to scratch their pates,
No longer wagging, purring,
But visibly demurring,
Grunting and snarling.
They then buffet and batter her until her resistance wearies them. Flinging back her penny and kicking their fruits, the goblins disappear into the ground, into the brook, or into the air. They are incorporated into three of the four elements.
The fourth element—fire—remains for Laura. She receives the "fiery antidote" (1. 559) from Lizzie, and this brings her release from the goblin bondage and its accompanying release of language. Bondage to goblin men is replaced by maternal bonding. Laura and Lizzie are bound up in their children, their "mother-hearts beset with fears" (1. 546). The word "beset" suggests not only that fears assail them from all sides but also that the fears brace those hearts with maternal care. For Laura this care includes telling the story of her experience with the goblin men; she repeats her history in words and transforms this history into fiction, into fairy tale. She gathers "the [not "her"] little ones" about her and tells them "of her early prime" (11. 548-49). She would tell of
Those pleasant days long gone
Of not-returning time:
Would talk about the haunted glen,
The wicked, quaint fruit-merchant men,
Their fruit like honey to the throat
But poison in the blood . . .
It is notable that Laura recalls her past experiences as "pleasant," a strange adjective in light of her listlessness and frustration after she ate the goblin fruit. But in the form of narrative those experiences are pleasant. And what Laura is now capable of seeing is the worth of her early fall from innocence. She now perceives the nature of the goblins' wickedness: their perversion of language.
Laura not only calls the goblins "wicked," she also calls them "quaint," which indicates the goblins are strange in appearance, as indeed they are. But "quaint" also refers to their cleverness with language; they are quaint orators, cunningly reversing what we know: "One parrot-voiced and jolly / Cried 'Pretty Goblin' still for 'Pretty Polly'" (11. 112-13). One of them speaks in "tones as smooth as honey" (1. 108), a metaphor that appears again in Laura's narrative when she describes the goblin fruits as "honey to the throat / But poison in the blood" (11. 554-55). This line echoes Revelation 10:8-10, in which an angel commands John to take the "little book" that the angel holds and to "eat it up," and, John says, "it was in my mouth sweet as honey: as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter." In other words, Laura's experience is revelatory; she has become a seer and sayer free of the earthbound goblins who would silence her and confine her to a sterile natural cycle. Yet without the goblins, without the nameless bitterness, she would not be free to speak.
We might conjecture that Laura, speaking as she does to an audience of children, chooses the fairy tale as her form of utterance. As many commentators have pointed out, Goblin Market is a fairy tale. Alan Barr compares the poem to "Snow White," in which the beautiful girl who eats a poisoned apple can be revived from her deadly sleep only by a prince. Dorothy Mermin speaks of Rossetti's story as "a transformation of a traditional fairy tale," but, unlike Snow White (whom Mermin does not mention), Laura is not "cured" by a prince; her cure comes when she "ceases to want him." According to Mermin, Lizzie, who not only brings the antidote to Laura but who also "is the antidote," is the "folktale heroine," since she outwits the goblins, "getting their treasure without paying their price."
That Rossetti has the fairy tale tradition in mind is hardly questionable, and that she is aware of the fairy tales' understanding of female identity and the demands made upon it by a patriarchal society (especially as presented by the Brothers Grimm) seems just as clear. In many of the tales females are robbed of their identity and pushed to the edge of hysteria by male attitudes and male tyranny (see, for example, or ). In Goblin Market Laura speaks of stealing from the goblins: "Good Folk, I have no coin, / To take were to purloin" (11. 116-17). Ironically, it is the goblins who "purloin"; they steal Laura's identity—her voice, her lock of golden hair, her maidenhood. The goblins do not show "all good fidelity"; truly they do not sell such fruit in any town, since once paid with that which is most precious, they depart. In actuality, because of Lizzie's efforts, the goblins do not accomplish the theft of Laura's identity. Lizzie and Laura are perhaps "two sides of a single individual" [Alan Barr, "Sensuality Survived: Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market," English Miscellany 28-29 (1979-1980)] and, after Lizzie's successful confrontation with the goblins, Laura's identity is restored.
If there is one fairy tale from which Goblin Market derives, it surely must be "The Robber Bridegroom." In this story a father offers his younger daughter in marriage to a stranger, despite the fact that his daughter does not love him "as a bride ought to love her bridegroom." The girl visits her prospective husband only to learn that he is the leader of a band of robbers. An old woman in the robber's house warns her that her "wedding can only be with Death." Hiding behind a large cask, the girl witnesses a gruesome scene: the robber with his henchmen returns with another young girl "that had been ensnared like the bride." The robbers kill the young girl. One tries to remove a ring from one of the dead girl's fingers (in some translations he chops off the finger), and the ring flips behind the cask. The robbers soon fall asleep; the girl escapes. When the bridegroom comes for his bride, a feast is set and the guests tell stories. When the bride's turn comes she tells of her "dream" in which she describes the events she had witnessed in the robber's house. She tells her tale carefully, building up to the moment when she reveals the ring. The bridegroom and his gang of thieves are executed. In this story the murdered young girl, like Jeanie in Goblin Market, illustrates the fate of the female who accepts male domination. The old woman, whose role is like Lizzie's but without the implications of Christian sacrifice, assists the bride in avoiding the usual female fate. The bride becomes master of her fate.
McGann points out that "personal independence" is one of Rossetti's "central subjects," and to the extent that Laura and Lizzie are free of the goblin menace, they become independent. Apparently, however, the two girls do not (as Mermin suggests Laura does) cease to desire a male. Whom they marry remains a mystery, but it is certain that they become "wives / With children of their own." Marriage is in keeping with the biblical overtones of the poem and in Rossetti's poetry often represents "wholeness, sanity, and integration." We might recall "Snow White" or especially "Sleeping Beauty," in which the marriage signals a renewal of the kingdom, a recovery of the land. Or we might recall "The Frog Prince," in which, paradoxically, the ugliness of sex, when rejected, is transformed into the lineaments of gratified desire. Perhaps Rossetti (in Goblin Market at least) is not so much "ambivalent about the sensual joys of this world" as she is aware of the fairy tale attitudes to marriage and to male-female relationships generally. Perhaps she goes farther and plays with the form. McGann speaks of Goblin Market as exhibiting "the disarming formal.appearance of a children's fairy story."
It is true, I think, that Goblin Market troubles the reader through its formal as well as its thematic ambiguities. The poem teases us out of thought; it plays with our reactions and expectations; it shifts our understanding of language. It might not be too much to say that the poem is about its own form, its language. Like the fairy tale, Goblin Market foregrounds design and language. The opening announces this formal interest:
Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
"Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Wild freè-born cranberries,
All ripe together
In summer weather . . .
And the catalogue continues for fifteen more lines. These lines establish, as Barr says, "the obvious tone of wonder and fairy-tale like fantasy" and also a "strongly commercial aspect of the language." What Barr does not point out is that fairy tale language and commercial language are opposites, just as morning and evening are opposites. The reader immediately learns to be wary of goblin language; goblins are hawkers, double talkers. Why, for example, need they say "orchard fruits" rather than simply "fruits" (the third line would then scan the same as the fourth line)? What the goblins are selling is language; they take a familiar patterning of language in children's literature—the list or catalogue—and charm Laura with it ("Their offers should not charm us"). They "suck" her in, although it is she who "sucked until her lips were sore" (1. 136).
The verbal stream at the beginning of the poem is, of course, a lie. Instead of freeing language and releasing passion, the goblin words fix, enclose, suspend, and exhaust those who listen to them with eager curiosity. The thirty-one-line opening bark of the goblins begins and ends with the exhortation to "come buy." In all, there are only six different rhymes in this passage. The rhyme on "buy" ("cry," "fly," "by," "try," and "eye") sounds at the beginning, middle, and end of the passage, effectively enclosing and fixing it. Further, the most frequently repeated rhyme, on "berries," clogs these lines. The goblins sound sweet "cooing all together" (1. 78); they sound "kind and full of loves" (1. 79), but their sound is deceiving, cloying. Tucked into the middle of this list of fruits is the familiar carpe diem warning: "Morns that pass by, / Fair eves that fly" (11. 17-18). Here is the nub of the goblins' argument: come buy before it is too late. But the roll call of fruits from apples to citrons mutes this hint of change and decay. The catalogue fills the mind with the fullness of nature, yet it, like innocence, can deceive. Nursery rhyme and fairy tale unlock the word hoard and play with language; the goblins' list purports to do the same, while in truth it is merely a huckster's cry. The language the goblins sell betrays the sense of community that fairy tales and nursery rhymes promote. Laura restores this sense of community at the end when she gathers the little ones about her and bids "them cling together" (1. 561). The final words of the poem, Laura's words, are often thought to be overly didactic, but they speak of brotherhood—or, in this case, sisterhood—of the importance of friendship and community. The poem has shown, through its similes, through its repetition, through its verbal echoes, that "sister" is as much figurative as actual.
Finally, then, Goblin Market is a poem of figuration. Its surface dazzles with similes (there are forty in all), accented rhythms, and intricate rhymes. Its verbal ingenuity turns a "kernel-stone" (1. 281) into a "carnal" stone and the act of sucking becomes a draining of the self, a shrinking into the self. Clearly, it is not by eating but by being eaten that one comes closest to the soul of another. Clearly, it is by perceiving nature as figuring a higher reality and not as a reality in itself that we free ourselves from the tyranny of material things. Laura's mistake is in accepting the goblin fruit as literal; she buys from the goblins a language without polysemy. The result is a craving for more and more, a carnality that cannot be satisfied, at least not until Lizzie returns home and offers herself to her sister: "Laura, make much of me" (1. 472). And the reader must make much of Goblin Market. Language is untrustworthy when we fail to make enough from it. The fall from innocence is a verbal fall as much as anything else, and if children are not to experience language only as the hectoring babble of the market place they must be prepared at an early age to appreciate the play inherent in it.
This emphasis on the imaginative possibilities of language informs Rossetti's first published work for children, Sing-song. Sing-Song is a book of nursery rhymes, as the subtitle informs us, but these rhymes are acutely aware of the verbal world children live in, and they encourage children to enjoy the play of language. Some rhymes are obviously playful:
A city plum is not a plum;
A dumb-bell is no bell, though dumb;
A party rat is not a rat;
A sailor's cat is not a cat;
A soldier's frog is not a frog;
A captain's log is not a log.
That words are not so much referential as they are metaphoric is clear. A city plum is and is not a plum, but a plum, whether city or otherwise, is dumb. Words in poetic discourse move in the direction of sound play and their semantic meanings loosen. A frog may sit on a log, although a soldier's frog more appropriately sits on a shoulder. And it has nothing whatever to do with a captain's log. A captain's log, although not a log, is probably made from one. In Saussurian terms the signifiers are not at one with the signifieds; instead, Rossetti's rhyme points out how in poetic discourse metaphor detaches us from the one-dimensional relationship between word and concept. In other words, poetic language need not refer to a direct reality. The purpose of "A city plum is not a plum" is not, as R. Loring Taylor suggests, to give information or to teach children "basic skills." As Anthony Easthope says,
The language of a poem may aim for transparency but this does not make a poem referential. Transparency, a certain relation of signifier and signified, is not the same thing as reference, which is a relation between signified and reality . . . in all discourse the signifier precedes the signified and no discourse is by nature transparent. But this fact does not preclude there being a discourse which gives knowledge by referring to a reality. It does mean that discourse providing such knowledge depends upon the reader being positioned so as to read the discourse as transparent and treat it as referential. On this basis the study of poetry can give knowledge of poetry by referring to it accurately [Anthony Easthope, Poetry as Discourse, 1983].
The poems in Sing-Song (at least a great many of them) give pleasure in the way all nursery songs give pleasure, through their rhyme, their rhythms, and their metaphors; they teach children to understand, and to have fun with, the play of language. In these poems, as in Goblin Market, Rossetti emphasizes sound, repetition, and the heavily accentual line. Meaning emerges from the reader's engaging the poem as discourse, that is, as a form of communication that differs from statement. Any prose statement we might produce from our reading of Rossetti's poems derives from formal elements. Take for example this poem:
Crows the cock before the morn;
Roses in the east are born.
Early birds begin their singing;
The day, the day, the day is springing.
More obviously than other poems in the book, this poem derives from nursery rhymes such as "Cock-a-doddle doo! My dame has lost her shoe," "Titty cum tawtay," and "Bow, wow, wow." The voice that speaks the poem produces two sound words that are similar yet opposite. The consonants are the same, but the vowel sounds differ. In the first stanza this pattern raises the question: if cocks crow "kookoorookoo," then who or what cries "kikirikee"? The second stanza might indicate that early birds sing "kikirikee," but the semicolon at the end of the second line (in both stanzas) works against this reading. If we allow the semicolon to divide each stanza in half, then the "kikirikee" is a general sound communicating the energy and life of the new day. The last line with its three repetitions of "day" reinforces this sense of vitality. So too do the alliteration and assonance: "crows cock before morn kee east roses born."
The word "springing" not only supports the energetic bounce of the poem's rhythm and the liveliness of the new morn, it also suggests springtime and that pastoral freshness so pervasive in Sing-Song. A hint of this quality is perhaps evident in the roses that have their birth in the east. Rossetti delicately shades her meaning so that pastoral freshness is inseparable from spiritual celebration. Georgina Battiscombe notes that Sing-Song contains "no mention of God, or of the Christian stories so familiar to Victorian children, or indeed, of religion in any form" [Georgina Battiscombe, Christina Rossetti: A Divided Life, 1981]. Yet angels, the Maker, heaven, faith, hope, love—all these appear in Sing-Song. An aura of spirituality is apparent both in this poem and throughout Sing-Song. We begin to suspect there is a spiritual meaning in the line "Roses in the east are born," especially when we consider that roses and other flowers appear as figures in at least fifteen poems in the volume. The poem, then, is a celebration of birth, a new morning, spiritual vitality, and natural harmony. The "kookoorookoo" and "kikirikee" do not belong exclusively to specific birds, and the speaker of the poem is not a specific individual. This verse, like all nursery rhymes, is a collective song, only here the song is a collective hymn of praise to a world that reflects the divine.
But this reading presents only half the story. "Kookoorookoo, kookoorookoo" is but one poem of many in this volume. We experience Sing-Song as we experience Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, as a coherent text; and, Battiscombe points out, "even in these childlike verses for and about children Christina cannot forget the great central themes of her poetry, love, death, and parting." In other words, there is a dark side to the pastoral innocence of Sing-Song. The reader learns that spring blossoms and youth are frail and that today and tomorrow are brief; in one poem the poet exhorts three children not to "wait for roses" (II, 26) and so lose the day. We might recall the opposition of vowel sounds in "kookoorookoo" and "kikirikee." Add to this the opposition (in the same poem) of bird and flower, active verb and passive verb in the first stanza, and we might catch a hint of deeper, unstated opposites: east and morning imply west and evening, birth leads to death, and what springs up must come down.
One of the best-known poems in Sing-Song reflects the presence of the divine. "Who has seen the wind" gives simple, yet intense, expression to the numinous:
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling
The wind is passing thro'.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads
The wind is passing by.
The movement from three to two to four to three stress lines in the first stanza accurately suggests the passing wind, and the half stress on "hang" effectively modulates the breeze. Line three of the second stanza has five stresses to convey the strength of the wind that bends the branches. The sense of the wind as inspiritus, the breath of the divine, comes through in the word "trembling"; the leaves that tremble express awe. Reverence is in the line: "But when the trees bow down their heads." And the two words "thro'" and "by" convey the spiritual power to penetrate or to brush by. In other poems, too, Rossetti uses the wind as an image of divine immanence and power both to emphasize the pastoral harmony of her world and to show the darker side of pastoral innocence. "O wind, where have you been" and "O wind, why do you never rest" depict sweetness and restlessness. In "The wind has such a rainy sound," wind and sea combine to present an evocation of death.
It is fair to say, however, that joy dominates here and throughout Sing-Song. Even when their theme is clearly death and parting, the poems express an element of joy:
"Goodbye in fear, goodbye in sorrow,
Goodbye, and all in vain,
Never to meet again, my dear—'
Never to part again."
"Goodbye today, goodbye tomorrow,
Goodbye till earth shall wane,
Never to meet again, my dear—"
Never to part again."
Two voices speak. One voice, that which speaks the first three lines of each quatrain, is melancholy and negative. The second voice, however, transforms the first speaker's negative into a positive. Like the child in Wordsworth's "We Are Seven," the second speaker does not accept discontinuity. In its verbal repetition and its complicated interlocking rhymes, the poem centers on form; the two quatrains draw together. Although the implication here is not exactly that "death is the bringer of joy," in Sing-Song as a whole Rossetti presents death as a positive aspect of life. In part, she accomplishes this transformation by identifying death as one point in a larger pattern, and as a natural event. A child may die, but the child is a rose: "I have but one rose in the world, / And my one rose stands a-drooping" (II, 39). Ships may go down, but they do so like apples in the orchard tumbling from their tree. A baby dies making father and mother sigh; flowers also "bloom to die" and they ask not why: they accept the way of things, especially since "if all were sun and never rain, / There'd be no rainbow still" (II, 24). Finally, death is soul's sleep: "Our little baby fell asleep, / And may not wake again / For days and days, and weeks and weeks" (II, 20). But the poem assures us he will "wake again." Death sends a child's soul "home to Paradise" and leaves his "body waiting here" (II, 22).
Throughout Sing-Song death is an imaginative idea, not a sign of closure. In other words, just as Rossetti's poems delight in word play and intricacy of form and allusion, her notion of death is equally fertile and equally at variance with discontinuity and finality. Rossetti's concern with death and attention to poetic form is perhaps best summarized in the volume's final poem:
Shut up eyes, bo-peep;
Taylor finds an "alarming ambiguity" in this lullaby, and he also finds "disconcerting" a "tendency to equate sleep with death" in Sing-Song generally. The sleep that is death, however, is Rossetti's depiction of the soul's sleep, that comforting time of preparation and waiting for a grand new morning. In "Lie a-bed" the masculine rhymes and strong end-stops at the third and last lines signal finality, closure, death. But the two halves of the little poem are hooked together with the rhyme of "bo-peep" and "sleep." "Bo-peep" reminds us we are in the world of nursery rhyme where rhyme is strongly musical; the words have a nonreferential significance and power. If we catch a somber note here, as Taylor does, if we allow our minds to play on the meaning of "wake" and consider its two senses—emerging from sleep and watching over the body of a dead person—we might also consider the wake of the poem as the track it leaves behind, the residue in the mind. We might hear that coupling of "peep" and "sleep," an aural connection that suggests a seeing in sleep. During the soul's sleep we catch glimpses of the greater reality to come; we peep into the future. During our nightly dreams we peep into our unconscious. This little lullaby allows us a peep into the mystery of sleep both in its nightly and in its premillenarian aspects. This baby will not sleep the sleep of death, but this baby may or may not sleep until the next morning or the final morning. The sense of closure in all lullabies is premature, since there is always more to come, more to sing.
Sing-Song contains many themes: death, mother love, pastoral delicacy, desire, class divisions, suffering, the importance of family, love, and fantasy. There are lessons in arithmetic, time, money, and color. Even in these teaching poems we can discern play with closure and its opposite. The poem explaining time, for example, begins with the smallest unit of clock time: "How many seconds in a minute? / Sixty, and no more in it." The sense of closure is blunt: "and no more in it." Time circumscribes experience; we have twenty-four hours in a day "for work and play," and the almanac "makes clear" there are twelve months in a year. Yet time cannot circumscribe experience, as the poem's final couplet makes clear: "How many ages in time? / No one knows the rhyme" (II, 30). "Time" and "rhyme"—the two words are united and remind us that neither completes anything. Rhyme is part of a poem's time, its musical beat, but it has nothing to do with measurable clock or seasonal time. Rhyme is as timeless as language and sound. Time, on the other hand, is rhymeless in the sense that it cannot be packaged in a couplet, since "no one knows the rhyme"; paradoxically, time and rhyme perform this coupling which the poem says is impossible.
Sing-Song, like Goblin Market, is less concerend with allegory or didacticism than it is with intensity of both form and language. Rossetti chooses her forms—fairy tale and nursery rhyme—carefully. These forms foregound play, repetition, song, and language. What Douglas Kneale says in the context of Wordsworth's Prelude applies here: "The question of what a text is 'about' . . . shifts from a concern with historical or referential meaning to a concern with rhetorical or semiological foregrounding." This concern is nowhere more apparent than in Rossetti's last book for children, Speaking Likenesses, the only prose work Rossetti published for children. Speaking Likenesses is a fantasy consisting of three stories held together by the framing device of an aunt who tells the stories to five sisters while they sew, draw, or darn. The first story, by far the longest, tells of little Flora's eighth birthday and the dream she has during the afternoon. The second story tells of a girl named Edith who attempts vainly to boil a kettle. The last story takes place on Christmas Eve, and it concerns the night journey of Maggie to the country house of a doctor. The first and third stories contain frightening and disturbing images and action. This is probably why the Times Literary Supplement called Speaking Likenesses "a peculiarly revolting book" (May 29, 1959, p. xi). Taylor too finds the stories in Speaking Likenesses self-defeating and "unclear"; rather than a children's book Rossetti has written "a sad and sometimes bitter parable of a lonely lady." But in this book too Rossetti's concerns are playful. Her narrator, for example, is a source of fun, and we should be careful not to conclude that this "aunt" speaks for Christina Rossetti. True, the narrator's "didactic stance permeates the book," but the children who are her audience manage to undercut her didacticism.
Clara, Jane, Laura, Ella, and Maude continually interrupt the narrator's storytelling. They comment on the oddness of a name, they ask for clarification, or they point out improbable assertions. The cumulative effect is to point out the difference between the irritable, presumptuous, and matter-of-fact aunt from the curious children who are receptive to fancy and wonder. For example, when, in the first of the three stories, the narrator describes the sunny afternoon of Flora's birthday, she remarks mat "bell flowers rang without clappers." Before she can complete her sentence, Maude interrupts to ask whether bell flowers can ring without clappers. The narrator shrugs the question off with the reply: "Well, not exactly, Maude: but you're coming to much more wonderful matters!" In other words, don't ask difficult questions and attend to the rest of my story.
Yet the narrator's attitude to storytelling is rather strange: she urges her listeners to occupy themselves with sewing, painting, or darning while they listen. When Jane and Laura appear to become engrossed in the fantastic room with animated furniture, the narrator admonishes them not to "quite forget the pocket handkerchiefs you sat down to hem." Sitting down to hear a story is apparently too idle an occupation for mis aunt. Like many other writers for children in the nineteenth century, Rossetti, through her narrator, expresses a distrust of fantasy, of make-believe, of story for its own sake. When Jane asks whether the furniture that arranges itself flat against the walls also flattens itself across the door, her aunt answers briskly: "Why, yes, I suppose it may have done so, Jane. . . . At any rate, as mis is all make-believe, I say No. Attention!" At one point in the third story the narrator interrupts herself to ask the children if they know what would happen to the heroine of her story (a girl named Maggie) if she were to sleep out in the cold winter weather. This interruption allows the narrator to speak of death.
This is the last interruption that occurs. The book ends without a return to its narrative frame. Each of the first two stories ends abruptly, followed, apparently a day later, by a conversation between the children and their aunt concerning the next story. What are we to assume at the end of the third story? That there is no next day? The disjunction between the opening, where the narrator tells the "dear little girls" to gather round her, and the end, where Maggie and her Granny go quietly to bed, is clear. The book begins with a call to story, and it ends within the world of story. What matters is story, not the narrator's lessons on acoustics or her warning that one should never put an empty kettle on a fire. The children's interruptions show their interest in and engagement with the stories; they ask for details when their aunt appears insufficiently clear or niggardly with detail. In short, they ask with Laura, "And please, Aunt, be wonderful."
Just as the narrative frame draws attention to the act of storytelling—to the notion that details impede linearity of plot, to the fact that the reading experience involves the interruption of narrative—the stories themselves draw attention to form, to the play of allusion, to impediments to linearity. The second story, the account of Edith's failure to boil a kettle, can serve as an illustration for them all. Edith and the kettle are "spending one warm afternoon together in a wood," which has, "by some freak," one vine that grows among the beech trees and silver birches and that "dangled bunches of pale purple grapes among its leaves and twisted tendrils." Just where the vine grows a party is to take place, and Edith decides to take the kettle there and light the fire to boil it. First, however, she eyes the grapes and longs to grasp a cluster. Then she turns her attention to the fire; she fails with her six matches to start the fire, and her helpers, various animals, also fail. Just before the project is brought to an end by the arrival of Nurse, a fox bustles up, brushes the dust from Edith's frock, attempts in vain to reach the grapes and then trots away muttering "they must be sour." The allusion is clearly to Aesop. If we look for a moral in this story of Edith and the kettle, Aesop's famous fable provides one. The fox does not worry about not reaching the grapes; Edith is in "despair" and sits down to cry: some people blame circumstances when they fail through their own incapacity, while others take disappointment with indifference. Edith, however, does neither. Rossetti inverts Aesop's moral.
Yet to point such a moral contrast is to ignore the story's more obvious nonsense. While Rossetti inverts Aesop's fable, her story does not suggest a more acute moral. She simply plays with the form of fable. The fox trots into the scene and out again, and what he signals is first the unexpected and then "fable." The fable's primary function is fun, and as several versions of Aesop indicate (most notably the 1692 translation by Roger L'Estrange), the moral explanation simply refuses to satisfy, or in some cases even to apply. Indeed, Rossetti's whole story is free association, made up as the aunt speaks (she states at the beginning that she does not know the story of the frog who couldn't boil the kettle but that she will try to tell it anyway). What ultimately matters in her story is this frog, the toad whose father lived in a stone, and the other animals who try to help so ineffectually. In short, behind Speaking Likenesses lies an impulse to the condition of Lewis Carroll. Rossetti wrote to her brother Dante Gabriel that Speaking Likenesses was "merely a Christmas trifle, would-be in the Alice style." Most readers have found the book a pale shade of Alice, yet the two works do have certain similarities: the atmosphere of dream, fantastic creatures and talking animals, animated objects, the uncovering of desire, and the nakedness of fear.
The first story in Speaking Likenesses, that of eight-year-old Flora and her birthday party, presents the clearest parallel to Carroll's own "Alice style." Flora, who is irritated at the manner in which her birthday party is passing and not interested in listening to a story, falls asleep and dreams about another birthday party where furniture comes to life and the children's bodies consist of hooks, angles, or slime. These quaint children in Flora's dream, the boys Hooks, Angles, and Quills, and the girls Sticky, Slime, and Queen, play two games: "Hunt the Pincushion" and "Self-help." The nightmare quality some readers perceive in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is also evident in Rossetti's story in these two games that reveal a deep fear of sexual violence and a disturbing disrespect for humanity. The first game treats human beings as objects, things without feeling or dignity; it reverses the fairy tale convention of imagining inanimate objects as human. This mis-imagining is Rossetti's point. In Carroll's first Alice book inanimate objects such as mallets and balls become hedgehogs and flamingos. The Queen of Hearts presides over a lively game in which there are no rules and no ill consequences. "Hunt the Pincushion," however, reverses this situation. The hunt is no longer an innocent search for an object; it is a bloodsport. Rossetti clarifies the sexual implications of the game and draws attention to its nastier aspects. Through her representation of this game, as well as the second game, "Self-help," Rossetti provides a criticism of her culture. In modern terms, this is a feminist criticism. Players of "Hunt the Pincushion" select "the smallest and weakest player (if possible let her be fat: a hump is best of all)," and they "chase her round and round the room." The pincushion is female. In "Self-help" the "boys were players, the girls were played," and in describing this game, Rossetti satirizes the whole notion of self-help, made popular in the mid-century by Samuel Smiles's Self-Help (1859). The unpleasant implications for females in Smiles's assertion that "energy of will may be defined to be the very central power of character in a man" are uncovered in Rossetti's imagined game. In Flora's dream "self-help" comes to mean a male helping himself at the expense of the female.
Most readers of Speaking Likenesses will be brought up short by Rossetti's descriptions of these games. Plot and linearity are irrelevant. Satire and innuendo halt—or should halt—the reader. Rossetti herself indicates the proper response by having her narrator interrupt the narrative to say, "Don't look shocked, dear Ella, at my choice of words. . . ." What these shocking words are we can only suppose, but since the description of "Self-help" that immediately precedes mis interruption is harmless enough, we can imagine Ella (and the other girls) registering a growing amazement as the story proceeds. Certainly, the description of "Hunt the Pincushion" contains shocking words:
Quills with every quill erect tilted against her, and needed not a pin: but Angles whose corners almost cut her, Hooks who caught and slit her frock, Slime who slid against her and passed her, Sticky who rubbed off on her neck and plump bare arms, the scowling Queen, and the whole laughing scolding pushing troop, all wielded longest sharpest pins, and all by turns overtook her.
The passage that follows, in which the narrator reflects on the effect of the game upon the "stickers," combines colloquial expression ("cutting corners") with tautology ("pricking quills, catching hooks") and alliterative effect ("particular personal pangs"). In short, the narrator directs our attention to vocabulary and to stylistic effects, and in so doing she impedes the narrative. The story is not the thing; words become things.
Christina Rossetti's work for children, then, is difficult only in the sense that the reader who expects simple narrative or clear didacticism will be surprised. The three works I have discussed do appear conventionally didactic and traditionally narrative in impulse (Sing-Song's traditional quality is in its nursery rhyme simplicity). Yet they are also disturbing and confusing. What appears straightforward is, upon reflection, askew. The reader confronts nursery rhyme and fairy tale in a new guise, and so discovers Rossetti's conscious playing with form and traditional themes. Even the shortest rhyme in Sing-Song is an exercise in stylistics: "Motherless baby and babyless mother, / Bring them together to love one another" (II, SO). The first line is an example of antimetabole, a repetition of words (here with morphological change) in reverse order. The second line overcomes the first in that the negative "less" gives way to the positive "to" (together, to love). Opposites come together in this rhyme, opposites that are not, in fact, so opposite to begin with. The disturbing fact of death, the uncertainty of life—these are defeated by the stronger sense of continuity: the continuing mystery of mother love, of human relationships, and of a language strong enough to communicate these mysteries.
Because children's literature generally appears simple, unconcerned in its content with the complexities and vagaries of human emotion, thought, and psychology, it has attracted little critical scrutiny. Because serious literary commentary has never allowed children's literature a canonical status, it has remained outside the great tradition. Rossetti's Goblin Market, however, has been embraced by critics and anthologists as a children's poem precisely because it invites the kind of literary debate they are hard-pressed to generate from works more forthrightly presented as children's literature—even though Goblin Market finds its formal impetus in the same tradition that informs the more obviously childlike Sing-song and Speaking Likenesses: the tradition of fable, fairy tale, and nursery rhyme. These forms derive their power from ellipsis and symbol and freedom from the contingencies that govern realistic and referential forms of literature. By using these forms, Rossetti—like many other women writers of the Victorian period who wrote for children—was able to voice her desires and her feminine concerns at once openly and secretly. Thus a child can read these works for the adventures of plot and language; an adult may look for the edifying lessons in behavior that will benefit a child; and the careful reader will discern the desire of a passionate woman who wanted to express her identity as a woman and to create an art that was truly personal and yet truly representative of humanity's possibilities. Clearly, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, the deceptively simple surfaces of Rossetti's art reveal secret delights and imaginative truth.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8033
SOURCE: "Meaning More Than Is Said: Sources of Mystery in Christina Rossetti and Arnold," in Victorians and Mystery: Crises of Representation, Cornell, 1990, pp. 251-75.
[In the following excerpt, Shaw discusses Rossetti's reserved and tentative style, arguing that her language and poetic techniques reveal her religious beliefs.]
[Christina Rossetti] is a heroic knower: to cross the divide that separates knowledge from belief, she must make such mystery words as "God" and "heart" mean more than she can hope to say. Rather than profane a mystery by scaling it down reductively, as Matthew Arnold tries to do when redefining religion, she prefers to be silent like Clough. Only "love," says Rossetti, can understand "the mystery, whereof / We can but spell a surface history" ("Judge nothing before the time," 11. 1-2; 2:295). By "mystery" she means something like a secret science or withheld truth, as Newman defines these difficult ideas in his Oxford sermons. In her sonnet "Cardinal Newman," Rossetti commends Newman's doctrine of reserve, praising him for choosing "love not in the shallows but the deep." As God speaks less openly the more he promises, so Rossetti speaks more obliquely the more she has to say. Less reserve might have exposed her harrowed heart to the sport of scoffing and insult, to which Newman says any high road open to all men would have exposed the mysteries of religious faith.
George Steiner has argued that language "borders on three other modes of statement—light, music, and silence." Like Vaughan's "great ring of pure and endless light," the fourth act of Shelley's Prometheus Unbound has much in common with an overexposed negative; and Swinburne's poetry often sounds like music for which readers are asked to supply a libretto. Rossetti, by contrast, tends to find silence at the limits of language, or else some simple but powerful gesture like the offering of her heart. Rather than saying less about God than she means to say, she prefers to say nothing. To intimate more than she is able to say, Rossetti keeps using dashes and elisions. Often she presents mere deleted fragments of a text she has censored. Such a text may survive only in manuscript or in its resourceful reconstruction by an editor-critic. Her inventive use of repetition and metaphors of situation also confers elusive contextual definitions upon the dictionary meaning of so simple but mysterious a word as "heart" or "love." Finding refuge in muteness, Rossetti draws upon tautologies and tropes of reserve. The signature of her skepticism is a use of elisions, dashes, and caesural breaks, which remind us that she means more than she says. The signature of her faith, by contrast, is a heroic use of chiasmus. This trope of crossing over allows Rossetti to say all that she means. It helps her cross the divide between life and death, knowledge and ignorance, in an ironic double movement that is sanctioned ultimately by the perfect chiasmus of the Cross.
Though deeply personal suffering nourishes many of Rossetti's best lyric poems, we can best grasp her uncanny power to mean more than she says when that suffering has been most carefully displaced, as in the lyric "Listening." Originally the poem was part of a longer lyric called "Two Choices," whose canceled sixth and seventh stanzas contained the following desolating lines:
He chose a love-warm priceless heart,
And I a cold bare dignity . . .
I chose a tedious dignity
As cold as cold as snow; . . .
I chose a barren wilderness
Whose buds died years ago.
The graceful bough and tendrils of the vine to which the modern Eve is now compared (11. 7-8) were initially harrowing metaphors, harsh images of barrenness and waste, prompting the thought that the buds in Rossetti's wilderness died years ago. Her loss is more painful when contrasted with the Eden of delights and refreshing waters—the paradise of soul's sleep—from which Rossetti, while alive, has chosen to remove herself. The husband has chosen in his cushat dove the kind of wife Rossetti could never consent to become. From possible wisdom she declines to cold dignity, then to mere tedious dignity, which is cold as snow. Once we restore the deleted stanzas of "Listening," we realize that its vision of a domestic Eden is the vision of an outsider. Only a study of the poem's revisions can reveal how harrowing is its crisis of representation. The half-satirical portrait of the "cushat dove" discloses the "listening" of a soul in hell, or else the dream of someone who is sleeping at last.
Though the poet's self-censorship is strict, her heartbreaking pain cannot be permanently repressed. Indeed, in the next poem Rossetti wrote, the sonnet "Dead before death" (1:59), all the displaced suffering surges forth. Its bitter outburst appalled William Michael Rossetti. "I am unable to say," he admits in a perplexed tone, "what gave rise to this very intense and denunciatory outpouring." William Michael might better have appreciated the cause of his sister's acrimony had he consulted the manuscript notebook in his possession, which reveals how the domestic paradise of "Listening" had originally been disturbed by countervailing impressions of chaos and hell. We expect the sestet of a Petrarchan sonnet such as "Dead before death" to resolve or at least mute the despair of its octave. But the sestet of this sonnet uses the echoing vault of the poet's despair to set up new linkages of desolating sound. Indeed, this sonnet refuses to honor, as it were, its own generic promise. Even after the expression of despair ought formally to conclude, at the end of the octave, the echoes of desolation continue to sound through the last six lines:
All fallen the blossom that no fruitage bore,
All lost the present and the future time,
All lost, all lost, the lapse that went before:
So lost till death shut-to the opened door,
So lost from chime to everlasting chime,
So cold and lost for ever evermore.
("Dead before death," 11. 9-14)
The harshness of the anaphoric triads (11. 9-11) is relieved only by the reverberating wail of open vowels. "Evermore" answers "everlasting" and "for ever," and "So" and "cold" answer a series of other open sounds; "Ah," "All," and "lost" (11. 1, 9-11, 14). While the triadic "So," "So," "So" (11. 12-14) remains rigid, the echoing "lost"s huddle close together (1. 11), then become predictably expansive. The contraction of the chiming "ever"s, converging in the final "for ever evermore," reverses this expanding pattern. Because the speaker's despair persists "from chime to everlasting chime," even after we expect it to be resolved at the end of the octave, we find these echoes that refuse to cease are not crowded with meaning but are mere hollow sounds like the echo of Sin's words in Paradise Lost, a reverberation of loss, desolation, and death: "I fled, and cry'd out DEATH; / Hell trembl'd at the hideous Name, and sigh'd / From all her Caves, and back resounded DEATH" (Paradise Lost, 2.787-89).
To turn the hell of a stony heart into an Eden of renewal or rebirth, Rossetti will sometimes make literal losses figurative. In the revised version of the lyric entitled "May" ("Sweet Life is dead."—"Not so"), Rossetti replaces an active first-person use of the verb "build" with a noncommittal passive form of the verb "freeze."
'Twixt him and me a wall
Was frozen of earth-like stone
With brambles overgrown:
("May," 11. 17-19)
The lyric was originally titled "A Colloquy." In the extensively revised second stanza we can see most clearly how a love lyric has been turned into a nature poem. Initially, in building a wall of stone between herself and her lover, Rossetti had only her own stony heart to blame for their separation and estrangement:
But love is dead to me;
I watched his funeral:
Cold poplars stood up tall
While yewtrees crouched to see
And fair vines bowed the knee
Twixt him and me a wall
I built of cold hard stone
With brambles overgrown;
Chill darkness wraps him like a pall
And I am left alone.
The funeral she watched in the original version was not just the funeral of the "worn-out year" (1. 12) but the funeral of a lover for whose death she seemed personally responsible. By contrast, in the revised version the colloquy between two voices evokes an unlocalized event, which cannot be given just one name, as it could in the first version where a specific lover had died. In the dividing wall of frozen "earth-like stone" (1. 18) there is something now that exceeds the picture of a literal wall as a riddle exceeds its solution.
But Life is dead to me:
The worn-out year was failing,
West winds took up a wailing
To watch his funeral:
Bare poplars shivered tall
And lank vines stretched to see.
Twixt him and me a wall
Was frozen of earth-like stone
With brambles overgrown:
Child darkness wrapped him like a pall,
And I am left alone.
("May," 11. 11-21)
If the masculine third-person pronouns in this stanza refer not just to "Life" but to a lover who has died or from whom Rossetti is actually estranged, then the "earth-like stone" is less an image than a phantasm. The pictures in the stanza possess hallucinatory power. Their obsession with wailing winds, shivering trees, stretching vines, and earthlike stone is indeed strange. But as tokens of estranged and suppressed guilt, these dark phantasms dramatize a crisis of knowing: it is no wonder Rossetti can never quite shake them off. By turning a poem about thwarted love and guilt into a triumphal nature lyric, however, she is able to displace self-blame. Restorative power comes not in the form of another lover but as a life force from nowhere, catching the poet off guard.
I meet him day by day,
Where bluest fountains flow
And trees are white as snow. . . . .
He makes my branch to bud and bear,
And blossoms where I tread.
("May," 11. 2-4, 30-31)
Stirred into being by pregnant caesural pauses between "branch," "bud," and "bear" (1. 30), and by strong rhymes such as "flow" and "snow" (11. 3-4), as compared with the weakly trailing feminine rhymes "failing," "wailing" (11. 12-13), this new power imposes itself stealthily but irresistibly. Bound by obligation and love to the springtime scene as she never could be bound to another heart, Rossetti finds that her throttled affections also start to bud and grow.
Originally, the mother in the ballad "Seeking Rest" was not a literal mother but Mother Earth. In its earlier version, preserved in Bodleian Library MS. Don. e, notebook 6, fols. 22-26, the ballad opened with the following words of the child: "She knocked at the Earth's greening door. / O Mother, let me in." In seeking the greater objectivity of a ballad, Rossetti decides to delete the child's suicidal longing and her powerful echo of the old man's petition in "The Pardoner's Tale": "And on the ground which is my modres gate / I knokke . . . / and saye, 'Leve moder, leet me in'" (11. 441-43). But in no sense are the silences of the final version marked by neatness and composure.
My Mother said: "The child is changed
That used to be so still;
All the day long she sings and sings,
And seems to think no ill;
She laughs as if some inward joy
Her heart would overfill."
My Sisters said: "Now prythee tell
Thy secret unto us:
Let us rejoice with thee; for all
Is surely prosperous,
Thou art so merry: tell us, Sweet:
We had not used thee thus."
My Mother says: "What ails the child
Lately so blythe of cheer?
Art sick or sorry? Nay, it is
The winter of the year;
Wait till the Springtime comes again,
And the sweet flowers appear."
My Sisters say: "Come, sit with us,
That we may weep with thee:
Show us thy grief that we may grieve:
Yea haply, if we see
Thy sorrow, we may ease it; but
Shall share it certainly."
How should I share my pain, who kept
My pleasure all my own?
My Spring will never come again;
My pretty flowers have blown
For the last time; I can but sit
And think and weep alone.
"Seeking Rest" is a deeply disturbing ballad, partly because of what it leaves out. The breaks at the end of the poem, "I can but sit / And think and weep alone" (11. 29-30), are too sharply and strikingly placed to be only rhythmic breaks. Like the breaks between the stanzas, especially between stanzas 2 and 3, where incommunicable joy turns to equally unfathomable grief, the caesuras are designed to juxtapose actions and thus avoid plot and explanation. The child is autistic. In her inexplicable joys she is as totally isolated from her mother and her sisters as she is strictly alone in her immedicable woes. These are "woes that nothing can be done for," as Frost would say, the woes of someone for whom "spring will never come again" (1. 27), "woes flat and final." Though grief is merely a blank in this ballad—the absence of a joy that has been—enough of the original loss survives to unnerve the reader and intimate an absence that is expressed in silence, a silence of private mourning and unshakable reserve. Contrary to what the mother and sisters assume, the silences do not result from the absence of something nameable such as spring. The child is silent because she has a mute sense of the larger strangenesses of life. She is also in the presence of a nothingness, a void, that successive stanzas of the ballad forcefully intimate but that no inquiry or surmise of the mother and the sisters can successfully explain.
Like the child in "Seeking Rest," Rossetti finds there are mysteries about which she can either say nothing or say too much. In "Winter, my secret" cutting, eliding, and covering up are all means of preserving silence about such mysteries. Volleys of multiple rhymes set off humorous chain reactions in the poem.
Perhaps some day, who knows?
But not to-day; it froze, and blows, and snows. . . . .
Come bounding and surrounding me,
Come buffeting, astounding me
(11. 2-3, 15-16)
By the time we reach the fourth internal rhyme in the second example, however, the joking has ceased to be merely amusing. Prying readers may be less hostile or bitter than the fierce Russian snows, but Rossetti prefers to leave that assumption untested. Winter destroys, she muses, and springtime renewals are precarious at best. Perhaps the only time to reveal secrets like hers is late midsummer. These seasonal images are nonnaming figures for the secrets of Rossetti's inner weather. As charades for the mysteries Rossetti has locked up, these figures betray a Zenlike propensity to tease the reader. Rossetti jokes about what frightens her and coyly hints that her secret may be the absence of any secret after all. The poem means more than it says because it keeps postponing its disclosures. Like all the lyrics examined so far, it appears to present a mere deleted fragment of some less withholding testament Rossetti has chosen to suppress.
In other groups of poems Rossetti contrives to mean more than she says by creating elusive contextual definitions for the dictionary meaning of so apparently simple a word as "heart." Each metaphor of situation that Rossetti uses points enigmatically to a mysterious "overmeaning" for "heart" that she is unable to dramatize fully in any single situation in the poems. One of the most potent of these definitions comes at the end of "A Christmas carol" ("In the bleak mid-winter") (1:216-17). The sudden exaltation of the lowly "maiden" (1. 30) prepares for Rossetti's insistence at the end of the carol on the sufficiency of a single unadorned word—the poet's "heart." The gifts of the Magi and of the heavenly cherubim and the gifts of the poor coexist, both plainly established, now without conflict and in reciprocal dignity.
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,—
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.
("In the bleak mid-winter," 11. 33-40)
After the dash, the poet catches her breath before offering her heart. She drops the "I" and repeats the verb. The poet is poorer than a shepherd, who at least could bring a lamb. And like Mary, she has no wisdom. But at the end of the carol Rossetti's intimate offerings of her heart and her art are wholly congruent. The confidence sponsored by this congruence can be felt in the lyricism of the last verse, which implicitly rebukes the stiffness of the bleak opening stanzas. Its trochees are at once rigid and lilting, spare and weighted. As one of those rare lyrics in which apparent artlessness seems the greatest achievement of the poet's art, "In the bleak and mid-winter" is really a response to Mary's directive in the sonnet "All Saints." The greatest gift Rossetti can give is poetry of etched austerity and unadorned words, a poetry expressing her love of God—an art of the heart.
Contributing to our sense that by "heart" Rossetti means something more than she can say is her use of a different situation to define the word in the lyric beginning "Lord, when my heart was whole I kept it back" ("Afterward he repented, and went,'"). In this lyric, now that her heart is broken, Rossetti wonders whether she can ever achieve at-onement with God. Why should God be expected to accept damaged goods? And yet God operates by love and is not bound by logic, she reflects. The broken heart she offers may be most like God's, since his too was once broken on a cross.
In another lyric, "A heavy heart," the heart is at first the ponderous grammatical object of a transitive verb: "I offer Thee this heavy heart of me" (1. 2). In the last stanza the lightened heart is lifted, and it becomes grammatical subject instead of object.
Lifted to Thee my heart weights not so heavy,
It leaps and lightens lifted up to Thee.
(11 . 11-12 )
In the final line, "Thy Face, me loving, for Thou lovest me," the first-person pronoun is twice framed by the divine "Thou" in an empathic merging of persons. The mirroring effect of the midline caesura and the chiasmus of "me loving, . . . lovest me" are devices of a poet who knows how to use the chiasmus of the Cross and who loves to handle varied grammatical elements, turning them over with fond and exact scrutiny. In finding the proper language of prayerful petition in "Sursam Corda" (2:311-12), Rossetti also finds the means to lift up her heart, an action she is powerless to perform at the beginning of the lyric: "I cannot, Lord, lift up my heart to Thee" (1. 2). The proximity of "Lord" and "lift" and the remoteness of "I" and "lift" suggest who the real agent of the lifting must be. In a powerful chiasmus and an increasingly intimate progression of principal verbs, Rossetti implores God to take what she is powerless either to keep or to give away: "Stoop, Lord, and hearken, hearken, Lord, and do, / And take my will, and take my heart, and take me too" ("Sursam Corda," 11. 8-9).
Of all Rossetti's poems on bruised or broken hearts that seek at-onement with God, the lyric "Twice" (1:124-26) is most affecting. It condenses most powerfully the repressions of both human and divine love and is therefore the riskiest of Rossetti's experiments in this genre. There is always a disquieting possibility that in experiencing the disappointment of her earthly love, Rossetti is simply rehearsing for a disappointment after death. Can religion entirely overcome the exhaustion, despair, and suffering reiterated in her secular lyrics? If God is as cruelly stringent as Rossetti, will her afterlife not be as resolutely chastened and impoverished as her present life? These are fearful questions for Rossetti to ask. She has staked all on God's love for her: she does not want to lose a wager twice.
"Twice" establishes a precarious but potent relation between the "You" of the first half of the lyric and the "Thou" of the second. Is God going to be any more generous or loving than the contemptuous "You" who coldly studied then rejected the proffered heart as he might have studied, then discarded, a flawed work of art?
You took my heart in your hand
With a friendly smile,
With a critical eye you scanned,
Then set it down,
And said: It is unripe . . .
("Twice," 11. 9-13)
As in "A Fisher-Wife" (2:109), in which the "heart sits leaden" in the fisher-wife's "breast" until brought into her "mouth" (11. 4, 8), there is in this lyric a powerful interaction between figurative and literal meanings. Part of the human anatomy can be made to achieve metonymically what the whole body can never achieve: "You took my heart in your hand / . . . Then set it down, / . . . As you set it down it broke" (11. 9, 12, 17). As the critical friend, who cannot really have loved Rossetti, handles the heart as he might handle a piece of pottery, the metonymy is made to come to life with shocking literalness and force.
The last three stanzas repeat the drama for a second time: two of the agents—Rossetti and her proffered heart—are the same, but God is substituted for the critical lover.
This contemned of a man,
This marred one heedless day,
This heart take Thou to scan . . . . .
I take my heart in my hand—
I shall not die, but live—
Before Thy face I stand;
I, for Thou callest such:
All that I have I bring,
All that I am I give,
Smile Thou and I shall sing,
But shall not question much.
("Twice," 11. 33-35, 41-48)
In revising the original version of line 33, "this heart, contemned of man," Rossetti seems too ashamed even to name her proffered gift and deletes the word "heart" (1:273). In the final version the heart becomes nothing more distinctive than a displaced object, a mere demonstrative pronoun detached for three lines from its proper referent: "This contemned . . ., / this marred . . ., / this heart take Thou to scan" (11. 33-35). But even while intensifying the shock and pain of her earlier rejections, Rossetti now uses the altered refrain ("You took my heart in your hand" [1. 9], "I take my heart in my hand" [11. 25, 41]), the new form of scanning and criticizing (which is now refining, not dismissive), the smile of God, which replaces the cold stare of the friend, and the "I'"s singing instead of questioning, to recall and correct other uses—not only in this lyric but also in other poems on bruised or broken hearts. "All that I am I give" (1. 46) harks back to the ending of "A Christmas carol": "I would do my part,—/ Yet what I can I give Him, / Give my heart" (11. 38-40). As Rossetti in her carol falters after the dash, she wonders if she will be able to make her offering and complete her song. Will the whole enterprise totter and come to ruin, as her heart has so often faltered and failed her? Even in the poem "Twice" the dash after "live" (1. 42) puts the outcome in doubt.
But Rossetti is saved by devices that are now familiar. In "A Christmas carol" the remote is made homely, an art of the heart, as biblical commonplaces are renewed and the ordinary becomes miraculous again. And in "Twice" the poet's simple promise to "sing" (1. 47) reverses the bleak ending of the third stanza: "Nor sung with the singing bird" (1. 24). Even the last line recalls and completes the meaning of line 22: "nor questioned since." Though the poet refuses to question in both instances, she does so for opposite reasons. "To question" in the third stanza was to be self-critical, or perhaps to question God's justice. Originally Rossetti had lacked the heart to examine her own heart; she had not enough courage to be critical of others. Now she "shall not question much," not because she is afraid of any injustice she may expose, but because she is confident God's treatment of her will be just.
In refusing to close the divide that separates her faith in God from her understanding of him, Rossetti is simply refusing to reduce deity to the compass of her own imperfect mind and heart. To pretend that the gap does not exist, as a reductionist like Arnold does when he redefines God as the higher self, is simply to annihilate that distinction between nature and grace—that divide between God and man—that any heroic theory of knowledge and faith must struggle to preserve as its precondition and sine qua non. Her skepticism is inseparable, then, from the ironic double movement that reinstates faith at the moment of doubt, when caesural breaks inflict wounds on her poetry and God comes to life in the silence of a dash or a negation—at the very site of fracture or loss.
This skepticism is most apparent in lyrics that use tautologies, depleted diction, and tropes of reserve. In one of her most exacting lyrics of depletion, for example, "'A bruised reed shall he not break'" (1:67-68), Rossetti makes the end lines of successive stanzas decline from the modest to the minimal: "Alas, I cannot will" (1. 8), "I cannot wish, alas!" (1. 16), "I do not deprecate" (1. 24). Each time the soul seems capable of doing less. But at least the final negation is an affirmation in disguise. To deprecate is to negate, but to negate that negation is already to prepare for a reversal of the soul's will-less state. Though no self-activity may be possible, Rossetti can at least anticipate the first faint stirring of affective life.
We think that God will appeal to the soul's memory of the Crucifixion as a way of restoring the poet's love. He will chastise her by asking, How can you forget? But this is not what Rossetti's God says. Rather, if God was crucified for this will-less (though not unwilling) soul, the question to be asked is: How can I forget?
For thee I hung upon the cross in pain,
How then can I forget?
If thou as yet dost neither love, nor hate,
Nor choose, nor wish,—resign thyself, be still
Till I infuse love, hatred, longing, will.—
I do not deprecate.
("'A bruised reed shall he not break,'" 11. 19-24)
Over the expected platitude Rossetti has inscribed her own censorship of platitude. On behalf of the poet's bruised and damaged soul, God has already suffered too much to forget her now. Nor does he presume to criticize or minimize her anguish, for he has known the same anguish himself.
Everything depends on the power of contraction. The final line is the most contracted of all, for here the utterance of both speakers—God and the soul—is gathered into a single concentrated phrase. Indeed, for the first time in the poem God and the soul are able to speak in unison. The last line, "I do not deprecate," is equally in character for either speaker. Though readers are shocked, I think, to find "hatred" included in the catalog of affective states God chooses to "infuse"—love, hatred, longing, will—it is part of Rossetti's honesty that she should make God the author of her hatred of himself. "All poetry is difficult," as T. S. Eliot reminds us, "almost impossible, to write: and one of the great permanent causes of error in writing poetry is the difficulty of distinguishing between what one really feels and what one would like to feel." In this lyric about bruised and broken hearts Rossetti is trying to find in life's most minimal offerings something residual mat will suffice. In examining the depletions of a skeletal life—the renunciations of a soul that has perhaps renounced too much, Rossetti contracts language to the vanishing point. But even as the refrains decline from the modest to the minimal, Rossetti shows how the last trace of a false refuge or comfort must be broken down and abandoned. Her exacting honesty makes her exhaustion and depleted diction harrowing, but that honesty is part of her greatness as a poet.
In another of her most charged but depleted lyrics, "All heaven is blazing yet," Rossetti manages to mean more than she says by using many connecting strategies that are all part of the verbal sleight-of-hand and the contrived economy of means. The tremor of open vowels, including the four exclamatory "0"s, sends a quaver of barely suppressed emotion down these lines. The tones range from hopeful to despairing. Linking patterns of similar length and shape invite the reader to compare "O hope deferred, be still' (1. 12) with "O hope deferred, hope still" (1. 16). Lines 4 and 12 have the same shape, as do lines 5 and 6 and lines 13 and 14. Even the rhyme words in these similar pairs are nearly identical: "choose," "Will" (11. 13, 14) and "chose," "will" (11. 5, 6). The huddling together of repeated sounds is the shudder of a soul that laments what it has lost but that also resolves to gather up and concentrate its now diminished powers.
All heaven is blazing yet
With the meridian sun:
Make haste, unshadowing sun, make haste to set;
O lifeless life, have done.
I choose what once I chose;
What once I willed, I will:
Only the heart its own bereavement knows;
O clamorous heart, lie still
That which once I chose, I choose;
That which I willed, I will;
That which I once refused, I still refuse:
O hope deferred, be still.
That which I chose and choose
And will is Jesus' Will:
He hath not lost his life who seems to lose:
O hope deferred, hope still.
("All heaven is blazing yet")
Linkages of shape and sound are most arresting when there is some disproportion between the members. Thus there are slight variations in the rhyme words, and the pattern of syntax in "be still" and "hope still" (11. 12, 16) is only apparently identical. The first "still" is an adjective, meaning "quiet" or "serene," and the second "still" is an adverb, a synonym for "perpetually" or "nevertheless." Lines 5 and 6 are almost tautologies: "I choose what once I chose; / What once I willed, I will." Tautology is the most withholding of tropes, and part of Rossetti's private theology of reserve: it enables her to mean more than she says. But in lines 13 and 14, which bear a deceptive similarity to these analytic statements, the poet switches to a synthetic judgment. Now she adds in the predicate a meaning not given in the subject, an identification of the poet's will with Jesus' will.
The rhyme words "will," "still," "chose," and "choose" recur ten times in a sixteen-line poem. The shadow of depletion is on such chastened diction. It is as if a computer had been given a limited number of rhymes and instructed to produce a minimal narrative. The austere poetic economy extends to individual words such as "only," which pack maximum meaning into Rossetti's unlavish idiom by looking two ways at once. "Only" (1. 7) might mean "were it not for the fact that the heart in its aloneness is clamorous and unruly." Or it might mean that the heart and nothing but the heart "its own bereavement knows." Lines 5 and 6 produce chiastic inversions of each other: "I choose what once I chose; / What once I willed, I will." Lines 9 and 10 repeat the same syntactic pattern as lines 5 and 6 but use different accusative forms. Line 11 has approximately the same semantic shape, but there is some disproportion now in its greater length: "That which I once refused, I still refuse." Coincidence of syntactic units and line lengths concentrates the energy with astonishing economy of means. The final "hope deferred" (1. 16) is the hope of earthly joy, but what it hopes "still" is the hope of Paul. Renunciation and deferral are made more acceptable when they allow Rossetti to cross the divide that separates hope from Hope, the second of Paul's three Christian virtues.
Closely allied to such lyrics of tautology and depleted diction are oracular poems that manage to mean more than they say by hiding thought in multiple or punning uses of a single word. Ordinarily, the comfort provided by a predictable refrain helps protect the mind against invasions of powers it is helpless to control. But when a familiar phrase takes on unpredictable new meanings, as does the phrase "Astonished Heaven" in Rossetti's lyric "Her seed; it shall bruise thy head," the comfort of a limit is continually being broken down. By using changing grammatical functions of "astonished" Rossetti can create an experience of that very astonishment that is evoked by what is indefinite, unlimited—ultimately beyond the power of any single word to define.
Refrains are a familiar form of domesticating mystery, of trying to bring the strange into the orbit of the commonplace and known. First heaven is astonished at the miracle of man's creation: "Astonished Heaven looked on when man was made" (1. 1). This is merely conventional wonder and is appropriately conveyed by an adjective modifying a noun. But the oracle about the second Adam astonishes heaven in a different sense. To define the typological mystery of the lyric's title, which prefigures the victory of the second Adam over Satan, Rossetti seems to use "astonished" as a transitive verb that turns "heaven" from a grammatical subject into an object:
Surely that oracle of hope first said,
("Her seed; it shall bruise thy head," 11. 3-4)
But how can "heaven," as the author of "that oracle," be astonished by its own invention? The absence of any commas in the 1892 version of line 3, the use of two commas in the 1904 version, one before "first" and one after "said," and the use of only one comma in the version preferred by R. W. Crump, which is the version I have quoted (2:455), suggests the grammatical instability of the lines, which waver in emphasis between the effect on heaven of the oracle's pronouncement and the burden of the oracle itself. If we register the latter emphasis, it is as if the stanza's last line circles back on the opening phrase, making the oracle's content nothing less than the first quatrain of Rossetti's poem.
Most astonishing is the third use of "astonished." In confronting the mystery of a final transformation we might expect Rossetti to use a subjunctive verb: "Till one last trump shake earth, and" astonish Heaven. Instead, she writes "and undismayed / Astonished Heaven" (11. 10-11). Perhaps in the eyes of God the Last Judgment has already occurred. Or is the past tense of "astonished" used to remind the reader of the instability of all time indicators? "Astonished Heaven" may simply be a nominative absolute construction, syntactically severed from the phrases that precede, as the soul that awakes at the end of time is astonished to find a disintegrating world fall away around it. Or is "Heaven," along with "earth," another direct object of the verb "shake"?
Till one last trump shake earth, and undismayed
("Her seed; it shall bruise thy head," 11. 10-11)
If so, why is there a comma after "earth"? And if Rossetti is saying that the trump did not dismay "Astonished Heaven," why does she use the past tense to describe a future action? David A. Kent reminds me that the active grammar may restore to life a buried pun in "undismayed." The trump that "unmakes" earth is able to astonish but not undo an "un-dis-made" or undismantled heaven, invulnerable, at the end, to the grand annihilation. The ever-present alternatives to any single interpretation come from Rossetti's conviction that God's vision of the end of time is not her own, and that each renewed insight about change will disclose deeper problems concerning a mystery she can never quite adjust to, a strangeness she continues to ponder with fresh wonder.
In the lyric "Praying Always," it is the mystery of "forever," already latent in the commonplace adverb "always," that is first being limited to the measurement of a clock, then imperceptibly transformed into something immeasurable. The repeating phrase "The clock strikes one" (11. 2, 7) is a time indicator that localizes events "after midnight" and "after mid-day." But the third use of "one" terminates the action like a stopwatch "after noon and night" (1. 11) when, in the final stanza, time stops altogether. Although the preposition "after" appears to be used similarly in all three phrases, there is in fact a profound disparity between the first two "after"s and the final one. The first phrase of stanza 3, "After noon and night," is not another adverbial phrase like "after midnight" (1. 1) or "after mid-day" (1. 6). Because this third phrase is introduced by a nontemporal preposition, by an "after" after all befores and afters, its meaning is not to be found in any dictionary.
After noon and night, one day
For ever one
Ends not, once begun.
O brothers and O sisters? Pause and pray.
("Praying Always," 11. 11-15)
Like Arthur Hallam's summons to Tennyson from "that deep dawn behind the tomb" (In Memoriam,) the summons to all brothers and sisters is a summons that speaks to Rossetti from the other side of silence.
If tautologies, depleted diction, and a punning or oracular multiple use of words are the signatures in Rossetti's verse of her skeptical conviction mat meaning is always in excess of anything she can say, her heroic use of chiasmus is the signature of her equally strong conviction that mysterious truths, though beyond the power of words to compass fully, can at least be intimated. In poems of heroic crossing between doubt and faith, death and life, Rossetti combines two attitudes to God that are seldom found together. She speaks as if there were a divine attribute of justice that must be appeased. But she also shares the mystic's sense mat the only atonement she has need of is an atonement or becoming one with the divine nature. Too often in seeking the comfort of a limit, Rossetti builds a wall between herself and God. This wall can be broken down only when the poet learns to tutor her heart and discipline her affections. Though the simultaneous search for limits and for something unlimited or boundless precipitates a crisis in representation, Rossetti finds that only by achieving at-onement with God in the mystic's sense can she understand how atonement in the traditional sense is possible.
In "Weary in well-doing" (1:182) Rossetti must learn to make her life a chiasmus, a crossing-over from despair to hope, from brokenness and fragmentation to at-onement with God. But this crossing is at first a mere vexing: God simply crosses her will.
I would have gone; God bade me stay:
I would have worked; God bade me rest. . . . . .
Now I would stay; God bids me go:
Now I would rest; God bids me work.
("Weary in well-doing," 11. 1-2, 6-7)
The first two lines of the second stanza are the chiastic inversion of the first two lines of the first stanza. God's will seems an arbitrary reversal of everything Rossetti seeks. With the predictable midline caesuras in the first two lines and the strong breaks at the end of line 3 and 4, "He broke my will from day to day, / He read my yearnings unexpressed / And said mem nay . . . "("Weary in well-doing," 11. 3-5), Rossetti's emphatically rhymed tetrameters and dimeters compose a sequence of pauses filled by words. The caesuras are more than just breaks. They are cuts, deliberately inflicted to batter down and wound the heart. As Rossetti's broken will turns into a broken heart "tost to and fro" like damaged merchandise (1. 8), the mere deciphering of unexpressed desires becomes the more frightening terror of the doubting soul, who begins to question her faith in God.
The true chiasmus of a crossing-over from emptiness to plenitude, from brokenness to true communion, comes only as a different kind of crossing—as a crossing of the line lengths in the final question:
I go, Lord, where Thou sendest me;
Day after day I plod and moil:
But, Christ my God, when will it be
That I may let alone my toil
And rest with Thee?
("Weary in well-doing," 11. 11-15)
In the first three lines of stanzas 1 and 2, semantic units and line lengths coincide. The one-line units tend at first to isolate the "I" as a mere cipher confined to singular statements. But in the last stanza the line lengths of the semantic units begin to expand. The pattern of lines per semantic unit is 1, 1, 3 instead of 1, 1, 1, 2. The movement into the more spacious three-line unit provides a crossover from the individual to God. Through a slight augmentation of the two-line unit Rossetti shows how a soul that is broken and not at one strives for wholeness and at-onement.
In another lyric of crossing-over, "Love is strong as death," the soul's initial neglect of God—it has not sought, found, or thirsted for God—sets the metaphorical terms for its own recovery of at-onement. So appropriate is the changed perspective in the second stanza to both the transformed soul and God that by the end of the lyric the poet and God, locked together by three binding verbs—"look and see / And clasp" (11. 11-12)—can slip into each other. Lost in a coupling of pronouns, God and the soul are no longer divided as they were at the end of the first stanza: "Thy perishing me." Instead, their union is celebrated by a syntactic convergence, by a fusing of "thee . . . Me" (1. 12) in an empathic merging of persons.
Poems of quarreling and fractious debate usually set the terms of their own resolution. A lyric of crossed wills may turn into a lyric of genuine crossing, but only if the poet's aimless questioning has a destination as well as a destiny. Even in a lyric such as "Up-Hill" the reader has a sense that the pilgrim's questions and the stranger's answers could go on forever. The inn is said to contain "beds for all who come" partly because the pilgrim is eager for rest and frames the appropriate question: "Will there be beds for me and all who seek?" (1. 15). Like a skilled Socratic ironist, the stranger withholds information. Instead of consolidating the mental level on which the pilgrim's questions are asked, the stranger's laconic answers are only as satisfactory as the pilgrim's questions. Better and fuller answers must await better questions.
The soul's ability to set the terms of its own recovery is nowhere more evident man in another poem of anguished crossing-over, the sonnet "Have I not striven, my God, and watched and prayed?", which rivals in intensity and despair the dark sonnets of Hopkins. The triad of alliterating verbs in the middle of the sonnet, "I grope and grasp not; gaze, but cannot see" (1. 7), recalls the leveling hammer blows of the opening line, with its polysyndeton and harsh triple stresses on the past participles: "Have I not striven, my God, and wátched and práyed?" But this triad allows Rossetti to launch her final fearful question. When she is herself as God is now, out of sight and reach, will the God who has reduced her to nothingness in every other sense reduce to nothingness her shame as well? If so, the loneliness that has contracted her soul in the one-line questions of the sestet, generating the near insolence of her query "Is Thine Arm shortened that Thou canst not aid?" (1. 4), has still to achieve mat curious blend of intimacy and reverence that by the end of the sonnet must once more make her whole.
One of this sonnet's curious features is the way it breaks at the end of the seventh line. The querulous self at the beginning is given only seven of the octave's normal eight lines, while the drive toward at-onement occupies exactly half the sonnet. The spacious expansion of the final question, which occupies one more line than a conventional sestet, hesitatingly sets forth the search for wholeness. After the broken, halting syntax of the first seven lines, where the one-line anaphoric questions collapse into elliptical half-line confessions of heartbreak and despair, Rossetti is able to cross by the bold bridge of her spacious seven-line question to an imagined state of recovered wholeness and simplicity. This striking dramatic effect is lost in the sonnet's original manuscript version. Initially, the premature crossover at the end of line 5 made Rossetti's indictment of God too studied and rhetorical.
Have I not striven, my God, and watched and prayed?
Have I not wrestled in mine agony?
Wherefore still turn Thy Face of Grace from me?
Is Thine Arm shortened that Thou canst not aid?
Thy silence breaks my heart: speak tho' to upbraid,
For Thy rebuke yet bids us follow Thee.
I grope and grasp not; gaze, but cannot see.
When out of sight and reach my bed is made,
And piteous men and women cease to blame
Whispering and wistful of my gain or loss;
Thou Who for my sake once didst feel the Cross,
Lord, wilt Thou turn and look upon me then,
And in Thy Glory bring to nought my shame,
Confessing me to angels and to men?
Or is the load of one more sinner laid
On Thee, too heavy a load for even Thee?
This original version, which appears in the manuscript notebook in the British Library, is recorded by R. W. Crump. But in the revised version, the anger is more desolating and is allowed to break out into stark bereavement: "Thy silence breaks my heart." It then turns into an oddly abased but still reproachful prayer: "speak tho' to upbraid, / For Thy rebuke yet bids us follow Thee." In the final version all the steps of feeling are embodied in the short clauses, the sharp midline break after "heart" (1. 5), and in the strong end-line pauses. The chiasmus of the sonnet's last two lines, which encloses the phrases "my shame" and "me" between God's "glory" and the approval of his angelic witnesses, is a climactic crossing-over from nothing to all. The crossover ratifies and puts its seal, so to speak, on the syntactic and semantic drive of the brokenhearted petitioner who, though shattered and unwhole, also rediscovers the meaning of again being one with God.
Rossetti's best lyrics of elegiac crossing combine so many forms of mystery that each time we read them they reveal a different facet to the mind. Some readers may feel that, in crossing over from human to divine love, a lyric such as "Twice," which I have examined as an example of conferring contextual definition upon the word "heart," should culminate in an act more impressive and less homely than the poet's taking her heart in her hand. But then, one realizes, this is an exact and powerful gesture. The offering of her heart is the most important gift she can make. The plain honesty of statement, intimating an almost mute depth of feeling, reverberates with the last line of "A Christmas carol" and has the same reassuring ordinariness and truth. More immediate and poignant than the solemnities of her marriage feast in "Revelation" is Rossetti's vision in "Twice" of a divine lover, capable of picking up her broken heart and offering it such solace as he can. When the devotional poet stops looking at her brokenness and looks instead at the wholeness of Christ, she has already set the conditions for her recovery. Instead of remaining self-abased and depleted, Rossetti must learn to merge with God: she must trust that her broken heart will be acceptable to him and that she can find in her at-onement with him all the heart can wish.
In order to mean more than she says, it is important that Rossetti, even in crossing the divide between death and life, doubt and faith, human and divine love, should continue to use withholding tautologies and tropes of reserve. Rossetti worries more than most poets about what cannot be said, about the places in personal life where hope winds down and possibilities of renovation seem to die. Her tentativeness can be more compelling than positiveness, and her most weighted moments are emphasized by lack of insistence. Even when recorded in little operettas or domestic melodramas of the soul, Rossetti's losses are a touching memento of human limits, a reminder of all that can never be fully grasped or loved or said. I suspect this is another way of saying that Rossetti's art of reserve is simply human in the fullest sense.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6636
SOURCE: "Christina Rossetti and the Sage Discourse of Feminist High Anglicanism," in Victorian Sages and Cultural Discourse: Renegotiating Gender and Power, edited by Thais E. Morgan, Rutgers University Press, 1990, pp. 87-104.
[In the following essay, Harrison explores the feminist leanings in Rossetti's works.]
[W]hile knowledge runs apace, ignorance keeps ahead of knowledge: and all which the deepest students know proves to themselves, yet more convincingly than to others, that much more exists which still they know not. As saints in relation to spiritual wisdom, so sages in relation to intellectual wisdom, eating they yet hunger and drinking they yet thirst.
It may never indeed in this world be [God's] pleasure to grant us previsions of seers and forecastings of prophets: but He will assuredly vouchsafe us so much foresight and illumination as should suffice to keep us on the watch with loins girded and lamps burning; not with hearts meanwhile failing us.
—Christina Rossetti, Seek and Find
Three months before she died of cancer, Christina Rossetti wrote to her close friend Frederick Shields in order to bid "good-bye for this life" and request his "prayers for a poor sinful woman who has dared to speak to others and is herself what God knows her to be." Ironically, by the date of this letter (5 September 1894) Rossetti had a reputation in both England and America as a saintly, reclusive writer of highly wrought and effective poems (both secular and devotional) as well as six widely read books of religious commentary. In all of these works she "dared to speak to others" in a characteristically humble, but nonetheless firmly sagacious, indeed often prophetic, voice. Commentators toward the end of the century commonly acknowledge the power of Rossetti's work which for them is inseparable from her religious piety. "She is an inspired prophetess or priestess," according to one reviewer [Catholic World 24 (Oct. 1876)]. For another, she is a "poet and saint" who "lived a life of sacrifice . . . [and] unreluctantly endured the pains of her spirituality" [Alice Meynell, New Review 12 (Feb. 1895)]. One eulogy acknowledges that "her language was always that of Christian assurance and of simple . . . faith in her Saviour. . . . [H]er life was one of transcendent humility" [Times (London), January 7, 1895]. After the turn of the century, we are told that Rossetti "needed not to pray, for her life was an unbroken communion with God" [Paul Elmer More, Atlantic Monthly 94 (Dec. 1904)].
Rossetti's reputation as a devout "prophetess" and saintly woman, along with consistently strong reviews of her work (especially her devotional poems and prose), attracted a remarkable audience, as other commentators late in her career indicate. A long essay in Harper's for May 1888 insists that "Christina Rossetti's deeply spiritual poems are known even more widely than those of her more famous brother." Two years earlier William Sharp had acknowledged that "the youngest of the Rossetti family has, as a poet, a much wider reputation and a much larger circle of readers than even her brother Gabriel, for in England, and much more markedly in America, the name of Christina Rossetti is known intimately where perhaps that of the author of the House of Life is but a name and nothing more." Reviewing Mackenzie Bell's biography of Rossetti in 1898, a writer for The Nation noted that her income rapidly increased during the last years of her life "less because of a growing appreciation of her poetry than because of her manuals of piety" which "secured her an extensive following." And a writer for The Dial remarked that Rossetti's "devotional books . . . have both found and deserved a large and appreciative audience." Such observations appear to confirm a widespread agreement among the Victorian reading public that "[T]here is no higher form [of Christianity] than that of a highly educated, devout English woman."
As these commentaries also suggest, Rossetti's work is most often patently didactic. In that respect it resembles the sage discourse of Carlyle, Ruskin, and even Arnold at times, but the language she speaks, the stances she most often adopts, and her intended audience are uniquely "feminine" (according to Victorian stereotypes) and otherworldly. These latter traits afford Rossetti a perspective on the values and behavior of her contemporaries that is unavailable to male writers of the era and enable her to launch a quietly comprehensive attack on the entire network of patriarchal values which even the most stringent social critics of her day normally accept without question. Surprisingly, and it may seem, paradoxically, Rossetti is able to accomplish this goal by positioning herself as a devout adherent of High Anglican religious doctrine and, ostensibly, as an advocate of the more widespread Victorian ideology of "woman's sphere." By embracing religious values with a uniquely radical fervor, however, Rossetti's work undercuts the domestic ideology of middle and upper-class Victorians, and functions to subvert both the patriarchal values that governed Victorian England and their extension in industrial capitalism.
Historically, criticism of Rossetti has properly emphasized her renunciatory mindset. Vanitas mundi is her most frequent theme, and no work better illustrates her employment of it than the sonnet "The World" (1854):
By day she wooes me, soft, exceeding fair:
But all night as the moon so changeth she;
Loathsome and foul with hideous leprosy
And subtle serpents gliding in her hair.
By day she wooes me to the outer air,
Ripe fruits, sweet flowers, and full satiety:
But thro' the night, a beast she grins at me,
A very monster void of love and prayer.
By day she stands a lie; by night she stands
In all the naked horror of the truth
With pushing horns and clawed and clutching hands.
Is this a friend indeed; that I should sell
My soul to her, give her my life and youth,
Till my feet, cloven too, take hold on hell?
Rossetti's use of image patterns from religious and classical sources here is striking, as is her craftsmanship. But the fact that Rossetti personifies as a duplicitous woman the world she repudiates is of even greater interest because her procedure in this poem is typical of her poetry as well as of her prose works. Rossetti appropriates traditional antifeminist (that is, Medusan) iconography in order to highlight its patriarchal origins by conflating the image of the "foul" seductress with her male counterpart from Christian tradition, Satan. The speaker employs these representational traditions of "the world" not only to expose the materialism, hedonism, and false amatory ideologies that they serve, but also to renounce the degraded constructions of woman's nature and her accepted roles that these ideologies depend upon and perpetuate. Clearly, the wholly fallen, "loathsome and foul," world that is disparaged includes the stereotypes that have been associated with duplicity and corruption ever since the myths of Medusa and Eve were generated within patriarchal cultures.
Much of Rossetti's poetry and, more significantly, all of her devotional writings are designed for a female audience and exploit an array of assumptions about women's social and moral roles that were fundamental to the Victorian ideology of the "woman's sphere." This domestic ideology insisted that a middle-class woman, as a leisured Angel in the House, occupy herself by ministering to the moral and spiritual needs of her husband and children while undertaking tasks (embroidering, arranging flowers, playing music) that were largely ornamental. Retaining her spiritual purity by transcending, or at least remaining oblivious to, all worldly—that is economic, political, or in any sense utilitarian—concerns was essential to the Victorian woman's success as a spiritual minister. Joan Burstyn has explained usefully a rationale for the inculcation of this stereotype and the assumptions on which it was based:
[According] to this ideal, women played a crucial part in providing stability for men who were torn by doubts and faced by insoluble problems. Few people were prepared to confront social, economic and intellectual changes in society by changing their own terms of thought, which was what the psychological crisis of the age called for; most Victorians turned, instead, to an intensification of personal relationships and an exaggerated adherence to domestic virtues. Religious writers, in their exaggeration of domestic virtues, described women as saviours of society. Men might be assailed by religious scepticism, but women never.
Rossetti's work consistently engages this ideology in its clear connections with the material seductions of the world, and insists, in effect, that both be renounced. In the work of less radical writers, commentaries like Rossetti's would appear merely to reinforce middle-class Victorian ideals of the woman's sphere. But, as I will demonstrate, the stance that she takes regarding worldly renunciation is far more militant than that of most of her contemporaries, and ultimately undercuts the material assumptions upon which the stereotypical roles of middle-class women were based.
One aim of the domestic ideology in Victorian England was to compensate for the almost complete usurpation by men of economic activities (such as spinning, sewing, and other domestic labors) previously undertaken by women of all classes. These activities had provided women with social status and a degree of economic independence unavailable to them in Victorian England. Judith Lowder Newton has examined how "the ideology of woman's sphere . . . served the interests of industrial capitalism by insuring the continuing domination of middle-class women by middle-class men and, through its mitigation of the harshness of economic transition, by insuring the continuing domination of male bourgeoisie in relation to working-class men and women as a whole." The domestic ideology assured women "that they did have work, power, and status" in the world after all. Through her insistent advocacy of worldly renunciation, Rossetti implicitly repudiates the fundamental economic and political values of industrial capitalism and thus subverts the ideology of the "woman's sphere" which operated in the service of those values.
Rossetti's most fervent monitions are associated, in the predictably orthodox manner of "The World," with the figure of Satan. In Time Flies (1885), for instance, she decries the fact that, "over and over again we are influenced and constrained by the hollow momentary world we behold . . . while utterly obtuse as regards the substantial eternal world no less present around us though disregarded." At one point, she compares this "hollow momentary world" to a funnel-shaped spider's web: "it exhibits beauty, ingenuity, intricacy. Imagine it in the early morning jewelled with dewdrops, and each of these at sunny moments a spark of light or a section of rainbow. Woven, too, as no man could weave it, fine and flexible, frail and tenacious. Yet are its beauties of brilliancy and colour no real part of it. The dew evaporates, the tints and sparkle vanish, the tenacity remains, and at the bottom of all lurks a spider." The spider is, of course, Satan who, according to Rossetti's theological literalism, owns this world: "it must be perilously difficult to set up one's tent amid Satan's own surroundings and continue in no way the worse for that neighborhood. The world and the flesh flaunt themselves in very uncompromising forms in the devil's own territory. And all the power and the glory of them set in array before a man whose work forces him to face and sift them day and night, may well make such an one tremble." In the event,
Earth is half spent and rotting at the core,
Here hollow death's-heads mock us with a grin,
Here heartiest laughter leaves us tired and sore.
Men heap up pleasures and enlarge desire,
Outlive desire, and famished evermore
Consume themselves within the undying fire.
In order to assist readers in avoiding such a fate, Rossetti typically presents them with parables. In the approximately two thousand pages of devotional commentary she published between 1874 and 1892, Rossetti instructively discusses an extraordinary range of topics from the perspective of a fervent adherent of the High Anglican devotionalist doctrine. These include such matters as what and how to read; the probability of Christian election; the possibilities for self-perfection through the imitation of Christ; prospects for immortality; varieties of love; the necessity of patience, obedience, and humility; the maintenance of moral purity, or the controversy over virginity; the need for empathy and charity; the problems of knowing truth in a fallen world; the achievement of harmony with the divine will; the necessity of faith; the inevitability of suffering; the multitude of temptations in the world (especially the problem of vanity); and the constitution of true happiness. Rossetti usually approaches such issues through an analysis of religious texts, the lives of saints, or personal experiences rendered figuratively. Because Rossetti clearly anticipated a female audience for her devotional works, the treatment of all diese subjects bears ultimately on her perception of the prescribed roles for Victorian women.
Early in Seek and Find (1879) Rossetti makes explicit her intent to address a variety of issues derived from the Benedicte primarily in connection with "the feminine lot." Here, as elsewhere throughout her devotional prose, Rossetti insists upon the spiritual superiority of women by comparing expectations of their behavior with the example of Christ. More complexly, however, she is able to reconcile herself to women's subordination to men in worldly affairs only by looking forward to an eventual equality of the sexes in heaven.
In many points the feminine lot copies very closely the voluntarily assumed position of our Lord and Pattern. Woman must obey: and Christ "learned obedience" (Gen. 3. 16; Heb. 5. 8). She must be fruitful, but in sorrow: and He, symbolised by a corn of wheat, had not brought forth much fruit except He had died (Gen. 3. 16; St. John 12. 24). She by natural constitution is adapted not to assert herself, but to be subordinate: and He came not to be ministered unto but to minister, He was among His own "as he that serveth" (1 St. Peter 3. 7; 1 Tim. 2. 2, 12; St. Mark 10. 45; St Luke 22. 27). Her office is to be man's helpmeet: and concerning Christ God saith, "I have laid help upon One that is mighty" (Gen. 2. 18, 21, 22; Ps. 89. 19). And well may she glory, inasmuch as one of the tenderest of divine promises takes (so to say) the feminine form: "As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you" (Is. 66. 13)
In the case of the twofold Law of Love, we are taught to call one Commandment "first and great," yet to esteem the second as "like unto it" (St. Matt. 22. 37-39). The man is the head of the woman, the woman the glory of the man (1 Cor. 11. 3, 7). . . . But if our [pride] will after all not be stayed, or at any rate not be allayed (for stayed [it] must be) by the limit of God's ordinance governing our sex, one final consolation yet remains to careful and troubled hearts: in Christ there is neither male nor female, for we are all one (Gal. 3. 28). (30-32)
Clearly Rossetti herself has a "careful and troubled" heart when considering diese vexed matters. I quote this lengthy passage in full because its rhetorical strategies mark a conflict within the patriarchal religious doctrine to which Rossetti subscribes. Repeatedly in her poetry, her prose works, and her letters, she wrestles with the glaring contradiction between her culture's insistence upon the inferior social status of women and their spiritual exaltation. She obediently and humbly claims to accept the illogic of this contradiction. But, as in this passage, her ultimate subordination of power relations in this world to expectations for the afterlife subverts the domestic ideology that her exegetical discourse would appear to serve. The final purpose of her prose works is to insure that women, deemed "last" in the affairs of this world, will be "first" in heaven, and thereby to inspire each of her female readers to give "all diligence to make her own personal calling and election sure." Rossetti's general procedure is to translate "symbols, parables, analogies, inferences" into "words of the wise which are as goads." Her aim is mat, as a result of such efforts as her own, "we" women "shall demean ourselves charitably, decorously according to our station; we shall reflect honour on those from whom we derive honour; out of the abundance of our heart our mouth will speak wisdom; kindness will govern our tongue, and justice our enactments;—thus shall it be with us even now, and much more in the supreme day of rising up, the Day of Resurrection."
This passage and many of her poems—from "Goblin Market," "A Triad," and "Maude Clare" to "The Lowest Room," "The Prince's Progress," and "Monna Innominata"—adapt the discourse of gender-marked power struggles to the language and formulae of religious doctrine. That is, within the conventional language of such passages that clearly accepts the patriarchally ordained position of women, a deliberate subtext of resistance to cultural determinations operates. Such a strategy appears again in Time Flies in the entry for March 23: "In common parlance Strong and Weak are merely relative terms: thus the 'strong' of one sentence will be the 'weak' of another. We behold the strong appointed to help the weak: Angels who 'excel in strength,' men. And equally the weak the strong: woman 'the weaker vessel,' man. This, though it should not inflate any, may fairly buoy us all up." Ultimately, Rossetti believed in the potential of all women to be "elect," as the title of her volume published in 1881, Called to Be Saints, indicates. In The Face of the Deep (1892) she explains, "now the saints are they who know not their names, however they name each other. Thus Patience will not discern herself, but will identify a neighbour as Charity, who in turn will recognize not herself, but mild Patience; and they both shall know some fellow Christian, as Hope or Prudence or Faith; and every one of these shall be sure of the others, only not of herself."
Very often in Rossetti's work, as in the passages I have cited, the rhetoric of orthodoxy and acquiescence gradually becomes a rhetoric of resistance. This writing is "a mode of social strategy" and "a form of struggle"—as Newton has described certain Victorian novels—directed to a specific literary and religious subculture in Victorian England that, by extension and projection, assumes a degree of solidarity and sisterhood. Elaine Showalter was the first to discuss this "feminist" phenomenon in connection with the literature of Victorian England, emphasizing that "it is important to understand the female subculture not only as . . . a set of opinions, prejudices, tastes, and values prescribed for a subordinate group to perpetuate its subordination—but also as a thriving and positive entity." Rossetti's position illustrates Nancy Cott's view that "women's group consciousness [is] a subculture uniquely divided against itself by ties to the dominant culture. While the ties to the dominant culture are the informing and restricting ones, they provoke within the subculture certain strengths as well as weaknesses, enduring values as well as accommodations." In assaulting her dominant culture's primary social and material value systems through a critique based in the religious beliefs that traditionally complemented and served those systems, Rossetti deploys subversive strategies of extraordinary power and complexity.
In order fully to understand the operations of these strategies, it is crucial to explore the particular sociohistorical contexts of her work. Rossetti's adherence to Victorian High Anglicanism, as a culturally specific and unique system of religious values, actually reinforced the femininist subversiveness of her writing.
As is evident from even the most cursory reading of Rossetti's poetry and devotional prose, her work finds its primary inspiration in her High Anglican religious beliefs. Her agnostic brother W. M. Rossetti described her as "an Anglo-Catholic, and, among Anglo-Catholics, a Puritan." In this century, Raymond Chapman has successfully argued a case "for seeing Christina Rossetti as directly and fully a product of the Oxford Movement," and he insists that she is "the true inheritor of the Tractarian devotional mode in poetry." More recently, George B. Tennyson and others have extended Chapman's argument, and the history of Rossetti's involvement with High Anglican churches and church figures has been documented thoroughly by her biographers. In 1843, at the impressionable age of twelve, Rossetti began regular attendance at Christ Church, Albany Street, "noted at the time for the incendiary sermons of the Reverend William Dodsworth, one of the chief preachers of the Oxford Movement, a man closely associated with both [John Henry] Newman and [Edward] Pusey." As Lona Mosk Packer notes, citing an article from the Edinburgh Review, this church was becoming "a principal centre of High Church religionism in the metropolis." Rossetti's early religious education in this environment and her lifelong involvement with major figures from the later days of High Anglicanism profoundly influenced her particular appropriations of a system of religious beliefs that pervaded every aspect of her existence. Rossetti's most recent biographer, Georgina Battiscombe, insists that "for [Rossetti] this form of religion came to be, quite simply and without question, the most important thing in her life."
Readers of Rossetti's works today tend to forget the extent to which Anglo-Catholicism was perceived in mid-century as a radical movement. As Packer explains, "this exhilarating . . . Tractarian Renascence" was "an avant-garde movement accepted alike by the Regent's Park worthies and the Albany Street literati." Rossetti's involvement with the institutional extensions of this movement continued and deepened throughout her life. All but one of her books of devotional prose were published by the Society for Promoting Christian knowledge, a press with close ties to Anglo-Catholicism.
More significantly, Rossetti developed important connections with the High Anglican movement to resurrect sisterhoods, conventual institutions that many Victorians found threatening because they undercut the roles and functions widely accepted for middle-class women. One Anglican convent opened about 18S0 a few doors from Christ Church:
founded and directed by Dr. Pusey, who chose the Albany Street church as the scene of a novel ex-periment, . . . the religious community of women caused amazement and consternation even in a parish as radical as [William] Dodsworth's. 'The special vocation of a Sister,' wrote Pusey's biographer, 'the character involved and the claims of such a character, were altogether unknown. . . . That young ladies [of good families] should shrink from society, and entertain thoughts of a vow of celibacy in the face of an eligible marriage was almost inconceivable.'
In 1874, Rossetti's sister Maria, to whom she was extremely close, joined the All Saints' Sisterhood in Margaret Street. Yet already two decades earlier Rossetti had been composing poems, such as "Three Nuns" and "The Convent Threshold," that clearly reflect her fascination with these new institutions that liberated women from the temptations of "the world," especially the world of the Victorian marriage market (attacked parodically in "Goblin Market") and the domestic ideology of which they were a crucial component.
In her sonnet "A Triad" Rossetti concisely exposes the unsatisfactory vocational alternatives for Victorian women.
Three sang of love together; one with lips
Crimson, with cheeks and bosom in a glow,
Flushed to the yellow hair and finger tips;
And one there sang who soft and smooth as snow
Bloomed like a tinted hyacinth at a show;
And one was blue with famine after love,
Who like a harpstring snapped rang harsh and low
The burden of what those were singing of.
One shamed herself in love; one temperately
Grew gross in soulless love, a sluggish wife;
One famished died for love. Thus two of three
Took death for love and won him after strife;
All on threshold, yet all short of life.
For Rossetti, becoming a bride of Christ was the only vital alternative to the stereotypical roles of prostitute, wife, and lovelorn spinster, and it is one she advocates repeatedly in her poems and devotional works, sometimes with extraordinary passion. Renunciation of the world, with all its misguided social institutions and material temptations, is the unique route to self-fulfillment, as is made clear in "A Better Resurrection":
My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk;
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall—the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.
My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perished thing,
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.
Rossetti herself never joined a sisterhood, in part because of a compulsion to exercise whatever influence she could through her writings in order to expose and to subvert the system of cultural values that denied genuine fulfillment for women. She did so by advocating strict, devotional alternatives. (Unexpectedly, at one point in Time Flies she wryly interjects, "But Bishops should write for me, not I for Bishops!"). Rossetti did, nonetheless, become an associate at one of the many Anglican Church-related homes founded at mid-century for the redemption of prostitutes, working regularly at St. Mary Magdalene's on Highgate Hill until her health broke down in the late 1860s. As Martha Vicinus has observed, the "reform of fallen women" was one of the three major tasks undertaken by the Anglican sisterhood. Rossetti's involvement in it had visible effects on her many poems about fallen women (including "Goblin Market," "The Convent Threshold," and "An Apple-Gathering") as well as on her devotional prose works.
Rossetti's intimate connections with the newly developing Anglican sisterhoods, although she remained outside their conventual restrictions, gave her a unique position from which freely to present a critique of her society. These institutions, conservative as they might appear in the late twentieth century, were, in fact, radically liberating for the women who became involved with them. As an extension of the Oxford Movement, the convents "played an important initial role in the emancipation of women in England," presenting "a wide variety of opportunities to women in the fields of teaching, nursing, social work, and community organization." Vicinus has traced the origins, development, and social influence of the Anglican sisterhoods, emphasizing the extent to which they empowered Victorian women: the "sisters carved out an area of expertise and power within their male-dominated churches. . . . [They] were clearly in the vanguard of women's single-sex organizations, in both their organizational autonomy and their insistence upon women's right to a separate religious life." Vicinus also remarks upon the varieties of freedom offered to Victorian women through the sisterhoods, which were among "the most important women's communities in the nineteenth century":
They were among the first to insist upon a woman's right to choose celibacy, to live communally, and to do meaningful work. They demanded and received great loyalty from their members and were in turn deeply supportive of each other . . . [T]he orders maintained a very high standard of religious life, proving convincingly that women could lead women, live together, and work for the greater good of the church, the people, and God.
One sister's commentary suggests the radicalism of the Anglican sisterhood movement: "It was a wonderful thing at that period to be young among young comrades. . . . It was an era of religion and faith, and at the same time of intellectual challenge. We read, discussed, debated and experimented and felt that all life lay before us to be changed and moulded by our vision and desire."
Rossetti could not have been unaware of the potentially liberating effects of Anglican sisterhoods upon Victorian women, and of the fact that these sisterhoods were perceived by many to be disturbingly subversive of dominant patriarchal ideologies, including that of the woman's sphere. John Shelton Reed has recently discussed the public controversy that swirled around the sisterhoods. He explains that "there was widespread uneasiness about the development of sisterhoods" because they clearly presented an "affront to Victorian family values." For instance, "Prebendary Gresley of Lichfield, a sober Tractarian . . . gave the anglo-catholic view when he remarked matter-of-factly that 'Home and comfort have been too long the idols of Englishmen, a settlement and establishment in life the summum bonum of Englishwomen. It is a great point to have it admitted that there may be something nobler and more desirable than these acknowledged blessings." Earlier, Florence Nightingale, a heroine of Rossetti's early adulthood, had described the Victorian domestic ideology derisively as a "Fetich": "'Family'—the idol they have made of it. It is a kind of Fetichism. . . . They acknowledge no God, for all they say to the contrary, but this Fetich." Sisterhoods strongly threatened this idol. Conventual life "took women out of their homes. It gave important work and sometimes great responsibility. It replaced their ties to fathers, husbands, and brothers by loyalties to church and sisterhood. It demonstrated that there were callings for women of the upper and middle classes other than those of wife, daughter, and 'charitable spinster,'" offering "an alternative to a life of idleness or drudgery—exotic, but safely exotic, and cloaked in the respectability of religion."
But as Reed has demonstrated, the sisterhood was only one of many Anglo-Catholic innovations that threatened the social and economic values of the Victorian patriarchy. The revival of auricular confession and the establishment of "free and open seating" in the churches (as opposed to private family pews), among other Anglo-Catholic alterations of church ritual, were also seen as powerfully subversive, especially because these changes were strongly supported by women who, as most observers agreed, were drawn to Anglo-Catholicism in disproportionate numbers. One commentator complained that "The Ritual movement is a lay movement . . . but it is more than that; it is a female movement. . . . The Ritualistic clergyman is led, or rather misled, by a few ladies." In fact, the religious movement to which Rossetti fervently committed herself and the audience to whom she directed her devotional prose commentaries and poems must finally be seen as feminist:
By its sometimes studied disregard for conventional standards of manliness and by its revaluation of celibacy, the movement issued a series of subtle but continual challenges to received patriarchal values. That these challenges were heard and understood by the movement's male opponents is evident in their denigration of women's part in the movement, and in the alarm and contempt evoked in them by the movement's 'effeminacy.'
As I have already remarked, the quality of Rossetti's own devotionalist feminism is complicated and often disguised by her ostensible subscription to orthodox notions of male supremacy, especially in her prose writings. (Her poems, however, are full of male villains.) But a number of passages from her devotional books, letters, and unpublished remarks expose a radically femininist bent. Rossetti's insistence that women patiently endure this life in expectation of the life to come upholds the dogmas of the patriarchy, but only in anticipation of the ultimate dissolution of these dogmas in that afterlife which is a "flowering land of love" where men and women will be "happy equals" ("Monna Innominata"). Typical is Rossetti's modulation (in a discussion of St. Hilary) from an acceptance of an "unknown" wife's subordinate position in matters of worldly reputation to an insistence on her ultimate equality with her spouse: "now of St. Hilary's wife I read nothing further, beyond such a hint of her career as is involved in that of her husband. Wherefore of her I am free to think of as one 'unknown and yet well known'; on earth of less dignified name than her husband. . . . in Paradise it may well be of equal account" (Time Flies).
Rossetti's discussions of marriage and of the marital relations between the sexes are, in her devotional works, most often cautiously critical. Her poems almost never broach the topic, except to renounce the prospects of marital union, to depict betrayed or disappointed love, or to celebrate the prospect of marital union with Christ in the afterlife. (In the preface to "Monna Innominata" she goes so far as to suggest that Elizabeth Barrett Browning would have written better sonnets had she been "unhappy, rather than happy in love". Because worldly marriages for Rossetti most often require that women "grow gross in soulless love," she often implicitly disdains the institution. In one passage from Letter and Spirit she obediently acknowledges that "A wife's paramount duty is indeed to her husband, superseding all other human obligations." But she immediately proceeds to subvert the patriarchal ideology underlying that dogma: "yet to assume this duty, free-will has first stepped in with its liability to err; in this connexion woman has to reap as she has sown, be the crop what it may: while in the filial relation all is safe and flawless, for all is of Divine ordaining."
When discussing prospects for immortality in particular, or moral virtue and purity in general, Rossetti frequently recurs to Christ's commandments regarding marriage:
Change and vicissitude are confined to this life and this world: once safe in the next world the saved are safe for ever and ever. So our Lord deigned to effect to teach us all, when answering certain Saducees, He said: "The children of this world marry, and are given in marriage: but they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage: neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels. . . ." And further we gather hence by implication that not all shall "obtain . . . the resurrection from the dead." (Face of the Deep).
The clear implication here is that the unmarried are more likely to be saved than those who succumb to this worldly institution. Earlier in The Face of the Deep, when discussing how "the precarious purity of mortal life shall become the indefectible purity of the immortal," Rossetti compares the individual who succumbs to the world's temptations to trodden snow which turns to mud. By contrast, those who remain pure are like "snow on mountain summits" that "endures alone": "Even so chaste virgins choose solitude for a bower." Such implicit attacks upon marriage in Rossetti's work must finally be seen discursively to reify the subversion of patriarchal social values—especially the "Fetich" of the family and its extension in the ideology of the "woman's sphere"—a revolt that took on institutional form in the revival of the Anglican sisterhoods.
Because Rossetti strategically positions herself on the margins of "the world" in her prose works, focusing her commentaries on preparing for the afterlife, she rarely presents cultural critiques that do not take on circumspect, parabolic forms. In her secular poems, however, especially the dozens that expose patriarchal amatory ideologies that victimize women, she is more outspoken; but even many of these works (including "Goblin Market," "The Prince's Progress," and "Dream-Love") are allegorical. Occasionally, Rossetti's letters also demonstrate the feminist directions of her thought quite explicitly. One in particular, written to the widely published suffragist Augusta Webster, reveals Rossetti's view of sexual roles as artificial "barriers" that are exclusively this-worldly in their provenance. Rossetti is apparently responding to a request from Webster that she support the suffragist movement. "You express yourself with such cordial openness that I feel encouraged to endeavour also after self-expression," Rossetti explains candidly, as she begins a discussion of the appointed roles of the sexes mat modulates into a speculation on their power relations. I quote the rest of this extraordinary letter in full:
Does it not appear as if the Bible was based upon an understood unalterable distinction between men and women, their position, duties, privileges? Not arrogating to myself but most earnestly desiring to attain to the character of a humble orthodox Xian, so it does appear to me; not merely under the Old but also under the New Dispensation. The fact of the Priesthood being exclusively man's, leaves me in no doubt that the highest functions are not in this world open to both sexes: and if not all, then a selection must be made and a line drawn somewhere.—On the other hand if female rights are sure to be overborne for lack of female voting influence, then I confess I feel disposed to shoot ahead of my instructresses, and to assert that female M.P.'s are only right and reasonable. Also I take exceptions at the exclusion of married women from the suffrage,—for who so apt as Mothers—all previous arguments allowed for the moment—to protect the interests of themselves and of their offspring? I do think if anything ever does sweep away the barrier of sex, and make the female not a giantess or a heroine but at once and full grown a hero and giant, it is that mighty maternal love which makes little birds and little beasts as well as little women matches for very big adversaries.
Rossetti begins with an unquestioning acceptance of the dogmas of patriarchal orthodoxy. But her fear—irrepressible in this letter as in so many of her poems—that men cannot be expected, finally, to protect "female rights" inspires her to take a line that is, even at the end of the century, distinctly radical.
That radical line emerges in part from Rossetti's customary exaltation of motherhood, her significantly partial acceptance of the ideology of the "woman's sphere." (Most often in her work, Rossetti elides any discussion of husbands and marriage as a necessary institutional prelude to the production of children.) But her radicalism also results from a literal acceptance of a basic premise of the domestic ideology: that men are inevitably seduced and sullied by involvement with "the world." Although Rossetti acknowledges that women are men's helpmates (the "weaker vessels" appointed to assist "the strong"), it becomes clear in this letter and throughout her secular poetry that "goblin" men will prove difficult, if not impossible, to redeem, participating as they do in the "loathsome and foul" world controlled by Satan. Hence, the most consistently positive relationships among characters in Rossetti's poems are between mothers and daughters or between sisters. These relationships reinforce a spirit of subcultural solidarity that, ultimately, can deal with "the world" only by wholly renouncing it.
Thus, Rossetti's sage discourse always advocates renunciation and resistance. Addressing a female audience whose values, like her own, had been molded primarily by patriarchal religious, amatory, and domestic ideologies, she consistently appropriates elements of those ideologies in order to expose their inability to fulfill the spiritual, moral, and even intellectual needs of Victorian women. In response to the misguided values of "the world," she urges the acceptance of alternative, radically devotionalist values whose origins are avowedly patriarchal but whose otherworldly goal for adherents is an eventual assumption into a genderless, egalitarian utopia—Paradise.
Despite the unwavering strength of her faith and the consistency of her vision of the fallen world, Rossetti was characteristically humble and cautious, especially in her prose works, when she assumed the authoritative role of sage that her reformist ambitions demanded of her. In The Face of the Deep, her last work, she comes to final terms with the spiritual dangers and ideological difficuties facing any Victorian woman who engaged in sage discourse. As usual, however, a prospectively feminist self-confidence emerges in the very act of self-effacement:
Far be it from me to think to unfold mysteries or interpret prophecies. But I trust that to gaze in whatever ignorance on what God reveals, is so far to do His will. If ignorance breed humility, it will not debar from wisdom. If ignorance betake itself to prayer, it will lay hold on grace. . . . [A]t least I . . . may deepen awe, and stir up desire by a contemplation of things inevitable, momentous, transcendent.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 770
Addison, Jane. "Christina Rossetti Studies, 1974-1991: A Checklist and Synthesis." Bulletin of Bibliography 52, No. 1 (March 1995): 73-93.
Biographical sketch and extensive bibliography of writings about Rossetti from 1974 to 1991.
Crump, R. W. Christina Rossetti: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1976, 172 p.
Bibliography of writings about Rossetti from 1862 to 1973.
Battiscombe, Georgina. Christina Rossetti: A Divided Life. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981, 233 p.
Biography focussing on the conflict between the outward calm of Rossetti's life and her internal emotional turmoil.
Jones, Kathleen. Learning Not to Be First: The Life of Christina Rossetti. Gloucestershire, England: Windrush Press, 1991, 252 p.
Biography in which the critic argues that earlier accounts of Rossetti's life were overly speculative in nature.
Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography. New York: Viking Penguin, 1995, 640 p.
Complete, feminist interpretation of Rossetti's life.
Parker, Lona Mosk. Christina Rossetti. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1963, 459 p.
Biography concentrating on Rossetti's emotional life.
Rossetti, Geoffrey W. "Christina Rossetti." The Criterion X, No. XXXVIII (October 1930): 95-117.
Biographical essay by Rossetti's nephew which includes excerpts from the poet's poems and letters.
Rossetti, William Michael. "Memoir." In The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti, by Christina Georgina Rossetti, edited by William Michael Rossetti, pp. xiv-lxxi. New York: Macmillan Co., 1904.
Biographical essay by Rossetti's brother.
Saunders, Mary F. The Life of Christina Rossetti. London: Hutchinson & Co., n.d., 291 p.
Biography based partly on previously unpublished materials and interviews with Rossetti's associates.
Thomas, Eleanor Walter. Christina Georgina Rossetti. New York: Columbia University Press, 1931, 229 p.
A critical biography in which Thomas examines the relationship between Rossetti's work and the literature of her time.
Thomas, Frances. Christina Rossetti. Worcestershire: Self Publishing Association, 1992, 446 p.
Comprehensive biography of Rossetti with an introduction that provides an overview of Rossetti's literary achievements.
Adlard, John. "Christina Rossetti: Strategies of Loneliness." In The Contemporary Review 221, No. 1280 (September 1972): 146-50.
Analysis of Rossetti's Goblin Market focussing on the adult themes of the work.
Armstrong, Isobel. "Christina Rossetti: Diary of a Feminist Reading." In Women Reading Women's Writing, edited by Sue Roe, pp. 115-37. Brighton, England: Harvester Press, 1987.
Discusses Rossetti's place in the literary canon from a feminist perspective.
Charles, Edna Kotin. Christina Rossetti: Critical Perspectives, 1862-1982. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehana University Press, 1985, 187 p.
Reviews and explains the scholarship and criticism of Rossetti's works from 1862 to 1982.
D'Amico, Diane. Review of The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti: A Variorum Edition, Vol. 3, by Christina Rossetti, edited by R. W. Crump. In Victorian Poetry 30, No. 1 (Spring 1992): 87-91.
Discusses the importance of Crump's variorum edition of Rossetti's poetry in prompting reevaluations of Rossetti's significance.
Forman, H. Buxton. "Christina Gabriela Rossetti." In Our Living Poets: An Essay in Criticism, pp. 231-53. London: Tinsley Brothers, 1871.
Provides an early critical assessment of Rossetti as a significant contributor to "real poetry" and the "history of female literature."
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. "The Aesthetics of Renunciation." In The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, pp. 539-80. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.
Examines the work of Rossetti and that of other female poets, such as Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf, in the context of the argument that women writers have experienced difficulty in sustaining an image of them-selves as poets—that, in fact, they have been forced to "renounce" themselves.
Harrison, Antony H. "Christina Rossetti: The Poetic Vocation." Texas Studies in Language and Literature 27, No. 3 (Fall 1985): 225-48.
Argues that an examination of Rossetti's methods of composition and aesthetic principles reveals the seriousness of her dedication to her poetic works.
Knoepflmacher, U. C. "Avenging Alice: Christina Rossetti and Lewis Carroll." Nineteenth-Century Literature 41, No. 3 (December 1986): 299-328.
Explores the connection between Rossetti's Speaking Likenesses and Carroll's Alice in Wonderland in the context of the relationship between Rossetti and Carroll.
McGann, Jerome. "The Religious Poetry of Christina Rossetti." Critical Inquiry 10, No. 1 (September 1983): 127-44.
Explores the neglect of Rossetti's religious poetry by early twentieth-century proponents of the New Critical movement.
Morrill, David F. "'Twilight is not good for maidens': Uncle Polidori and the Psychodynamics of Vampirism in Goblin Market." Victorian Poetry 28, No. 1 (Spring 1990): 1-16.
Suggests the influence of John Polidori's The Vampyre on Rossetti's "Goblin Market."
Woolf, Virginia. "I Am Christina Rossetti." In Collected Essays, Vol. IV. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967, pp. 54-60.
Originally written to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of Rossetti's birth, this essay offers a positive assessment of Rossetti's work.
Additional coverage of Rossetti's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 35; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 7; Something About the Author, Vol. 20; and World Literature Criticism.