Mia Forbes looks at the poetry of Christina Rossetti
“Remember me when I am gone away, gone far away into the silent land.” – Mia Forbes looks the poetry of Christina Rossetti.
Brought up in a highly intellectual and creative family amid the hustle and bustle of visiting scholars, artists and writers, Christina Rossetti was well-versed from an early age in literature, history, art, theology and politics. At just twelve-years-old, she began to sign and date her own poems. These initial experiments reflected the style of those poets that she was encouraged to read by her parents: Keats, Petrarch and most of all Dante, after whom her equally-renowned brother was named. Throughout her career, Rosetti’s poetry would continue to display the themes of loss, pain and death featured in her early work, but the Romantic atmosphere these originally evoked soon gave way to a much darker and more melancholic tone.
Something happened to Christina Rossetti just as she was approaching her fifteenth birthday. A nervous breakdown was followed by a sustained period of physical weakness, a reluctance to leave the family home, a redoubled sense of religious ardour, bouts of self-harm and a general depression that was to haunt her for the rest of her life. What exactly occurred to the fourteen-year-old girl is not clear. Although she alludes to a tragic event in her writings, she never tells us precisely what it was. In fact, she appears to enjoy teasing the reader by refusing to reveal her secret:
None know the choice I made; I make it still.
None know the choice I made and broke my heart,
I have a room whereinto no one enters
Save I myself alone:
If any should force entrance he might see there
One buried yet not dead
This last couplet points towards perhaps the most dominant idea in her oeuvre. Rossetti had that acute awareness of human mortality found in those steeped in classics and in religious study, but she presents the idea of an end to life not simply as an incontrovertible fact, but as an attractive and keenly-anticipated promise. Although she never openly indulges in suicidal thoughts, it is clear that following the unknown trauma that occurred in her mid-teens, Rossetti sought solitude and stillness. Indeed, in At Home and After Death, she writes from the perspective of one already dead, while poems such as Spring Quiet and Who Shall Deliver Me? expose both her desire to escape from the world that hurt her, and the internal sense of shame and self-disgust that makes her poetry even more harrowing:
Here dwell in safety,
Here dwell alone,
With a clear stream
And a mossy stone.
– Spring Quiet
God strengthen me to bear myself,
That heaviest weight of all to bear,
Inalienable weight of care.
All others are outside myself;
I lock my door and bar them out,
The turmoil, tedium, gad-about.
I lock my door upon myself,
And bar them out; but who shall wall
Self from myself, most loathed of all?
– Who Shall Deliver Me?
Like many unfortunate trauma-survivors, Rossetti looked towards death as an end to her pain. Lifelong physical afflictions – migraines, fatigue and self-inflicted injuries – and intense emotional torment both led her to conclusion that death could provide a comprehensive and restful escape from life’s hardships:
Set free at last,
The short pang past,
In sleep, in death, in dreamless sleep locked fast.
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.
I laugh, it is so brisk and gay;
It is so far before, I weep:
I hope I shall lie down someday,
Lie down and sleep.
– Fata Morgana
Life is not sweet. One day it will be sweet
To shut our eyes and die:
Asleep from risk, asleep from pain.
– Life and Death
But Rossetti’s desire to bring an end to her suffering takes a slightly different and more intriguing form in many of her other poems, in which she gives voice not to a straightforwardly suicidal impulse, but in fact to an obsession with oblivion. A state of non-being, or of nothingness, where not even the concepts of time and space have relevance, would certainly offer an escape from the daily anguish she felt. This is epitomised in Cobwebs, in which the state of non-being and inactivity, as well as being eerie and unsettling, is undeniably accompanied by a sense of stability and liberation. If there is “no pulse of life through all the loveless land”, there is at least no threat of danger. The poem ends by dwelling on the pay-off one must accept when searching for safety: for there to be “no fear” of things getting worse, there can also be “no future hope” of them improving:
It is a land with neither night nor day,
Nor heat nor cold, nor any wind nor rain,
Nor hills nor valleys: but one even plain
Stretches through long unbroken miles away,
While through the sluggish air a twilight grey
Broodeth: no moons or seasons wax and wane,
No ebb and flow are there along the main,
No bud-time, no leaf-falling, there for aye: –
No ripple on the sea, no shifting sand,
No beat of wings to stir the stagnant space:
No pulse of life through all the loveless land
And loveless sea; no trace of days before,
No guarded home, no toil-won resting-place,
No future hope, no fear for evermore.
Rossetti contemplates a similar idea in Dream Land, in which the principal character is in a “Sleep that no pain shall wake; / Night that no morn shall break”. While she still “sees the sky look pale, / And hears the nightingale”, the parallels between her “perfect rest” and death are clear. And yet, Rossetti is not afraid of calling a spade a spade (one of her actually poems begins “When I was dead”) so the fact that she refrains from speaking directly of death indicates that there is something more at play here. Her character seems to be in an in-between state: present, but separated from life “as through a veil”. While she thus loses out on some of life’s delights, “she cannot see the grain / Ripening on hill and plain”, she is also protected from life’s distresses, “She cannot feel the rain / Upon her hand”:
Where sunless rivers weep
Their waves into the deep,
She sleeps a charmed sleep:
Awake her not.
Led by a single star,
She came from very far
To seek where shadows are
Her pleasant lot.
She left the rosy morn,
She left the fields of corn,
For twilight cold and lorn
And water springs.
Through sleep, as through a veil,
She sees the sky look pale,
And hears the nightingale
That sadly sings.
Rest, rest, a perfect rest
Shed over brow and breast;
Her face is toward the west
The purple land.
She cannot see the grain
Ripening on hill and plain;
She cannot feel the rain
Upon her hand.
Rest, rest, for evermore
Upon a mossy shore;
Rest, rest at the heart’s core
Till time shall cease:
Sleep that no pain shall wake;
Night that no morn shall break
Till joy shall overtake
Her perfect peace.
– Dream Land
The reason for this subtle distinction between death and oblivion in Rossetti’s work owes a great deal to her spiritual standpoint. As a devout Anglican, Rossetti believed wholeheartedly that the death of the earthly body would be followed by God’s judgement of the soul. This conviction appears again and again throughout her writings, generally accompanied by a sense of long-awaited relief, purpose and attainment:
When all the over-work of life
Is finished once, and fast asleep
We swerve no more beneath the knife
But taste that silence cool and deep;
There God shall join and no man part,
I full of Christ and Christ of me.
– The Heart Knoweth Its Own Bitterness
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.
– A Better Resurrection
The day had come, that day.
Multitudes – multitudes – stood up in bliss,
Made equal to the angels, glorious, fair;
With harps, palms, wedding-garments, kiss of peace,
And crowned and haloed hair.
They sang a song, a new song in the height,
Harping with harps to Him Who is Strong and True:
They drank new wine, their eyes saw with new light,
Lo, all things were made new.
– From House to Home
But equally prominent in Rossetti’s work is an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame. From Goblin Market to Eve, her poetry is filled with the stories of women doing wrong and suffering the consequences. Recurring phrases like “ruin”, “fall” and “sin” evoke ideas of Biblical and moral culpability, while the self-hatred evident in poems such as Who Shall Deliver Me? and For Thine Own Sake, O My God also reveals Rossetti’s preoccupation with the state of her own body and soul. One of the most striking couplets in the latter reads “Wearied I loathe myself, I loathe my sinning, / My stains, my festering sores, my misery”. Although it could be argued that this particular poem need not be read autobiographically, the same feeling of shame is so pervasive in Rossetti’s work that it is clear that this was one of the emotions that kept her trapped in a deep depression throughout her entire life. She seems to have been plagued continually by the dread of “His rod / Of righteous wrath fall[ing] on us smiting sore” and, tragically, her faith seems to have brought her little comfort when her own time came, as on her deathbed she expressed intense fears of going to hell.
It may also have been this fear that caused her to fixate on oblivion, rather than death, as a means of escaping from her torment. For Rossetti, convinced that her death would be followed by judgement, and then either salvation or condemnation, the prospect of dying was perhaps even more terrifying than the idea of living on through daily suffering, especially as it is clear that she often looked at herself as a sinner, albeit a repentant one. Oblivion, by contrast, holds no threat to equal that of divine condemnation. Its nothingness makes past events meaningless and future events impossible, removing the risk of further injury, even if throwing any potential recovery or progression into a state of stagnation too. This must have seemed an appealing prospect to a woman plagued by daily physical and emotional anguish in life, but also terrified of God’s judgement in death.
Rossetti’s fear of divine punishment, as well as her self-disgust and shame, may well hint at the type of trauma she suffered as a young girl, particularly if read alongside her love poetry. When it comes to the subject of romantic love, her writing is generally tinged by a sense of bitterness, regret and loss. Despite never marrying, Rossetti was involved in a number of significant relationships during her adult life and even rejected three marriage proposals. Her words often speak of a love lost, whether due to death or some other form of separation it is not clear. In Echo, she calls for her “love of finished years” to return once more and “Speak low, lean low, / As long ago, my love”, while in Remember, she implores her unnamed addressee to “Remember me when no more day by day / You tell me of our future that you planned”. In the wickedly vengeful Sister Maude, the speaker laments her dead suitor, who now lies “as cold as stone, / With his clotted curls about his face: / The comeliest corpse in all the world / And worthy of a queen’s embrace”. Such poems suggest a heart-breaking separation of two lovers against their will, and perhaps this was something Rossetti had experienced herself, but there is another implication contained within some of her most profound and emotionally intense poems.
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.
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 awhile;
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 cornflowers wild,
Nor sung with the singing bird.
I take my heart in my 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.
Twice also tells of a lost love, but in this case the relationship came to an end not due to tragic circumstances outside of the lovers’ control, but rather because of the actions of one of the parties. The female speaker makes herself vulnerable by entrusting her heart to a man with a “friendly smile”, who goes on to discard her after a drawn-out period of pretence. The same occurs in The Prince’s Progress, an inversion of the classic fairy-tale, in which the dashing hero fails to save his princess as he dawdles overlong on the intrepid journey to her tower. Repeatedly in Rossetti’s poems, the woman is let down by the man who is supposed to save and protect her; in this case of The Prince’s Progress, one of her longest works and the title of the collection in which it appeared, his neglect results in her death. The power with which Rossetti describes such disappointments and injuries suggests that she herself may have had a similar experience. And if, like the speaker in Twice, she had handed her heart to a man only to have it toyed with and then broken, it could certainly have left permanent scars. This would be especially likely if the encounter occurred while she was young, and her mind and body “still unripe”.
Indeed, if at just fourteen years of age, Rossetti had been manipulated, enticed and let down by a man like those she would later write about, or if her formative experience of love was of the kind she describes in many of her poems, there is no doubt that it would have left her broken, disappointed and unable to trust. The meticulous notes taken by Rossetti’s psychologist, while they record her various dire symptoms and the treatments he recommended, do not speculate about the cause or source of her suffering. We must wonder then, in the context of Victorian sexual standards, emphasis on reputation, and expectations of upper-class women, whether Rossetti’s breakdown might not have stemmed from a failed or forbidden romantic or sexual exploit, which her family and doctor would have been unwilling to openly acknowledge, but which would nonetheless have left her mind and emotions in turmoil. While there is no direct evidence to support such a theory, the prevalent feeling of shame, loss and unease attached to Rossetti’s love poetry, her fear of divine judgement and punishment, and her obvious longing for the solitude and safety of oblivion, make it a possibility worth considering.
In his memoir, William Rossetti recalls how his sister’s “temperament and character, naturally warm and free, became “a fountain sealed”” after this unknown event, taking the quote from The Heart Knoweth Its Own Bitterness. It is quite remarkable that a woman so isolated from her family and friends was willing to share the most intimate movements of her heart and soul with the wider world through poetry. It seems that her work, published in a variety of magazines and by the recently established Macmillan company, was the medium through which she found herself able to communicate and explore the grief and pain that otherwise kept her in solitude and melancholy. Even if the precise details of Rossetti’s life, loves and struggles are visible only “as through a veil”, her readership must be grateful that poetry allows us access to such raw and powerful emotions, written with the lucidity, sincerity and beauty that earned Christina Rossetti her place among the greatest of the English poets.
Image: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, Frances Rossetti and William Michael Rossetti, by Lewis Carroll , Chelsea, 7 October 1863.
Credit: Artokoloro / Alamy Stock Photo