An Understanding of Rossetti’s Methods and Concerns in “Promises Like Piecrust”

“Promises like Piecrust” by Christina Rossetti relates a narrative between a speaker and beloved in regards to the other’s romantic attraction towards the speaker. The title of the poem is taken from the expression ‘Promises are like pie crust, they are made to be broken’, likening the difficulty of keeping a promise to the fragility of pie crusts, a thing that is easily broken. The title captures, in essence, the running theme throughout this Rossetti poem, that promises, and perhaps people, are fragile and fleeting.

Rossetti structures the poem in an argumentative fashion, acting as a plea to the addressee of the poem. The steady seven-syllable meter reflecting the speaker’s stable emotional and mental state when presenting her argument against her beloved, painting the speaker as reasonable and unencumbered by emotion. The alternating rhyme (ABAB/CDCD) is suggestive of a lack of mutuality between the two parties, with neither of them being able to meet the other in terms of their wants in the relationship. It suggests a sense of wavering in the speaker, who perhaps is not as certain as she seems.The paradoxical opening line in the first stanza of ‘Promise me no promises’ and the following line ‘So will I not promise you;’ suggests the speaker wanting a non-committal relationship between the two parties, with the speaker somehow finding security in the lack of security due to the absence of promises between each other. The line ‘Keep we both our liberties,’ implies a high need for independence on part of the speaker who does not want to be bound to the beloved, which is something of an oddity in the Victorian era where marriage for a woman was a gateway towards financial security, thus the speaker could be read as breaking free of her patriarchal bonds as well. Alternatively it could also be read as the speaker setting the beloved free from possible commitment to her, suggesting a feeling of unworthiness or inferiority, which is supported by the line ‘free to come and free to go’, with the repetition of the word free further highlighting the speaker’s need for freedom from attachment, or freedom in general. The antithesis of ‘false’ and ‘true’ is coloured by the prefix of ‘never’, the negation representing the inability of either party to be able to emotionally affect the other if the beloved takes heed to the speaker’s earlier request in the first two lines. Furthermore, the ‘die’ is symbolic of chance, thus of the risk that needs to be undertaken in order any outcome in their relationship, with the word ‘uncast’ shows that the speaker is unwilling to take that risk. The final two lines of the stanza begin to develop the theme of the unknowable past of both the speaker and her beloved, for the line ‘for I cannot know your past’ suggests that the beloved might be harbouring past secrets from the speaker. A common method of Rossetti would be her usage of rhetorical questions, which she uses to shroud her poems with a sense of intrigue and mystery, an example of which would be in her poem ‘Winter: My Secret’. The usage of a rhetorical question in the final line (‘And of mine what can you know?’) would achieve a similar effect, drawing in readers to speculate on answers not freely given. On the other hand, it could also be read as the speaker taunting the beloved, implying that he is unable to fully comprehend the speaker,

The second stanza is further development on the pasts of both the speaker and the beloved. An accusatory tone is levied against the beloved in the first line, especially if one were to read phrase ‘so warm’ as sarcastic. There is a trace of jealousy in the speaker in the line ‘warmer towards another one’, impliedly stating that the beloved was more attentive and loving in a past relationship, thus her jealous disposition possibly arising from a lack of clarity about her beloved’s faithfulness. However, the usage of the word ‘may’ adds a degree of speculation towards the speaker’s recount of her beloved is passed, could perhaps be indicative of some form of paranoia, possibly stemming from a sense of insecurity on the speaker’s part. Rossetti seems to further intensify the speculative aspect further in the stanza with the rhetorical question of ‘Who shall show us if it was/Thus indeed in time of old’, indicating the speaker herself is uncertain how the past relationships unfolded. Structurally, the first and third line of the stanza is nearly identical with the same rhythm and caesura placement, forming a mutual bond between the speaker and the beloved. Moreover. the antithesis of ‘You’ and ‘I’, as well as ‘warm’ and ‘cold’, can be inferred as the intrinsic, irreconcilable differences between the two, or their current emotional disposition towards each other. Given the context, ‘Sunlight’ can be taken as a metaphor for a past relationship of the speaker, while ‘felt the sun’ could be read as the speaker being more passionate in the past compared to her ‘coldness’ in the present. Other than that, the repetition of ‘once have’ is representative of the speaker’s clear fixation on the past, indicative of the speaker being unable to move on and perhaps is in a state of emotional limbo, thus being unable to properly commit herself to a new relationship. A juxtaposition of the past and present adds credence to the speaker’s argument that the two parties should not be involved in a relationship with each other, for impliedly their past relationships both ended even though they were apparently (according to the speaker) warmer and more loving back then. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that if they were to enter a relationship with each other in their current states, it would be bound to end in failure. The stanza ends with fading imagery, suggesting the unattainability of their relationship or the unpredictability of the future if they were to involve themselves in one. Critic Jens Kiefer provides some interesting insight on the usage of metaphorical imagery in the stanza, stating ‘Her strategy of representing the past as something that can be reconstructed only in the form of allusions, therefore looks suspiciously like an attempt to divert attention from her real reason for declining to enter into a romantic relationship: fear’. Alternatively, the usage of allusion could be representative the speaker clinging too fondly to the past, being unable to describe it in its entirety for fear of dragging old memories back to the surface.

The final stanza reintroduces the concept of promises and personal liberty, acting as a continuation of the theme from the first stanza. An antithesis of ‘you’ and ‘I’ echoes the earlier stanza, involving a parallel structure. While the antithesis was earlier used to describe their emotional states in their past relationships, here it serves as a warning from the speaker of the dangers if they were to ‘promise’ each other, which is euphemistic for the consequences emotional commitment towards each other. Commitment is in fact highly negatively slanted by the speaker, claiming that the beloved ‘might grieve for lost liberty’, with the alliteration seemingly emphasising her point, whilst the usage of the word ‘again’ could be referencing his past relationship, where he actually did express negativity towards his former commitment. The speaker also slants herself as being unable to commit, likening a relationship to a ’chain’, as if treating it as a form of imprisonment on her behalf. A reasonable argument is developed by the speaker, taking into account the consequences a relationship would have on the beloved and herself. It could also, however, be deemed as irrational or overly pessimistic, as the speaker clearly focuses on the negatives of a relationship and has little mention of the positives.

Rossetti’s poetry often paints love in a bleak nature, possibly stemming from her own rejection of romantic advances, usually arising from religious differences between herself and the suitor, such as with the case of Charles Bagot Cayley, who she rejected due to agnostic beliefs. However, remained lifelong friends. The idea of friendship is the driving force behind the last half of the final stanza, where reverting to this former state of their relationship (‘Let us be the friends we were,’) would allow them to avoid the sufferance of heartbreak. The line ‘Nothing more but nothing less’ is structurally balanced due to the antithesis of ‘more’ and ‘less’, thus friendship can be interpreted as a happy medium or compromise for the speaker and the beloved. A moralizing dimension is added to the final two lines of the poem The antithesis of ‘thrive’ and ‘perish’ as well as, and in connection to ‘frugal’ and ‘excess’ suggests that the speaker is speaking of a universal truth regarding the effects of love on friendship, which is that it would cause friendship to ‘perish’. Conversely, the speaker might be making one desperate, final plea towards the beloved in order to convince him at the frailty of an attempted relationship, or perhaps even to convince herself.

“Promises like Piecrust” is a poem in which relationships are slanted as always doomed to failure, with the constant mention of liberty and an inability to uphold promises as perhaps indicative of a fear of giving up too much in order to gain seemingly marginal benefits. The complicated dance between love and friendship is as common now as it was then. On the basis of Rossetti’s verses, constant friendship is far better than a slice of temporary perfection.

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