Christina Rossetti Poems
The Clear Value of Romantic Love: “Soeur Louise de la Misericorde,” “Twice,” and Other Poems
The idea of romantic love being presented as invariably negative in 19th century literature is questionable to some extent. Romantic love is often characterised as being damaging and hurtful in Rossetti’s poetry through the contrast with divine love in poems such as ‘Soeur Louise de la Misericorde’ and ‘Twice’, supported by her religious devotion and dedication to God. However in other poems such as ‘A Birthday’, romantic love is presented as something that brings a newfound vitality to the speaker’s life. Through closer analysis of these three poems, it becomes possible to disprove the idea that romantic love is invariably presented in a negative light.
This idea of romantic love being invariably negative is explored in the poem ‘Soeur Louise de la Misericorde’. The poem centres around a woman who has recently become a nun, in order to distance herself from her identity with earthly love: ‘I have desired and been desired’. The first line immediately creates a wistful tone, suggesting that the speaker is unable to recall her experiences with earthly love without feeling the emotional pain attached to it. Similarly, the use of the past tense indicates that the speaker is desperately attempting to distance herself from her previous desires to escape judgement. This is particularly relevant to Rossetti and women of the Victorian era, where they would be shamed and sometimes even ostracised for expressing their romantic and sexual desires. This ridicule is also present when the speaker says that ‘dying embers mock my fire’. This is perhaps a metaphor to show the public ridicule that she has received, since fire is often synonymous with desires. The shift from past to present tense also shows that the speaker has repressed her desires and that and that they are now ‘dying embers’, relating to the vow of chastity taken before a woman becomes a nun.
Punishment of desires is also shown in ‘Goblin Market’, where despite being warned by her sister that ‘their evil gifts would harm us’, Laura is unable to suppress her desire to taste the goblins’ fruit. This has strong Biblical overtones, relating to the fall of man in Genesis when Eve was tempted by the serpent to eat the forbidden fruit. The idea of the fallen woman was relevant in Rossetti’s life also, since she devoted much of her time to a home for fallen women in Highgate. This shows that Rossetti has had a first-hand experience with how love and desire can have an impact on women, which may have influenced her writing and gives a suggestion as to why romantic love is presented us invariably negative.
Romantic love is also presented as invariably negative in ‘Twice’, where the speaker turns to God following rejection from a male suitor. From the beginning of the poem, a sense of the speaker’s vulnerability is shown instantly: ‘I took my heart in my hands’. This shows the speaker’s fragility and nervousness, suggesting that they have little experience confessing their true emotions to someone. The emphatic positioning of ‘I’ also presents a character that is active in voicing her feelings, which contrasts with the coy image that a Victorian woman was expected to present. This sense of defiance is also present when she asks her lover: ‘This time let me speak’, suggesting that she is a typically submissive character whose desires are overshadowed by her male counterparts. It also shows that the speaker has had to defer to male judgement in order to feel validated and has remained quiet as a result.
Female defiance is also present in Rossetti’s poem ‘No, Thank You, John’, where the speaker states that she ‘never loved you, John’. This is an effective opening line to the poem, because it immediately presents the reader with a female resolute in her words who is reclaiming her sexuality for herself, unlike the typical woman in Rossetti’s poetry who is subservient to men. Following the speaker’s rejection in ‘Twice’, she seeks out God to comfort her broken heart: ‘refine it with fire and gold’. This creates the suggestion that divine love has the power to absolve someone of their desires and presents it as everlasting, whilst romantic love is fleeting. However, despite the speaker having found a new lease of life, by submitting to God she is still deferring to male judgement. Despite this, the point still remains that the speaker is happy in this position compared with her experience of romantic love, meaning that it is presented as negative when contrasted with divine love.
However, even though a large amount of Rossetti’s poetry presents romantic love as negative, others – such as ‘A Birthday’ – take a more optimistic approach to love. In the poem, the speaker describes her heart as being ‘like a watered shoot’. The implication here is that romantic love has revitalised the speaker’s life and using natural imagery in this context enhances the vivacity of the situation and shows the beauty of romantic love. The use of this imagery also suggests that experiencing romantic love is completely natural, which contrasts with Rossetti’s other poems where divine love is favoured and sexual desires must be repressed. The positive perception of romantic love is also reinforced at the end of the poem, with the speaker declaring that ‘the birthday of my life is come, my love is come to me’. This shows the positive effects that romantic love can have on a person, suggesting that the speaker has found a new purpose in life – or at least appreciates the beauty of life because of it. The use of a ‘birthday’ to describe romantic love emphasises the idea that it should be celebrated and the joyful tone of the poem reinforces the idea that it is a celebration of love, meaning that love is not presented as invariably negative in Rossetti’s poetry.
Overall, it seems unfair to suggest that writings of romantic love are invariably negative. Whilst it is true in many of Rossetti’s poems – including ‘Soeur Louise’ and ‘Twice’ – that women are either hurt or punished in romantic love, others such as ‘A Birthday’ put forward the idea that earthly love is joyous and should be celebrated. Therefore, though there are few poems that argue against the statement, it means that it can still be disproved that romantic love is written to be invariably negative.
Male and female relationships in Maude Clare.
Composed in 1857, Maude Clare is written as a narrative in which Maude Clare confronts her previous lover on his wedding day. As is common in her poetry, Rossetti uses this fictional event to discuss the theme of male and female relationships. The ambiguity of Maude Clare can perhaps be seen to reflect Rossetti’s own conflicting views on the relationship between men and women; as a devout Anglican, Rossetti struggled throughout her lifetime with the biblical view that women are inferior to men, and her own ideas, perhaps influenced by the beginning of the suffrage movement, that the two sexes are equal. Whilst she certainly did not consider herself a feminist, Maude Clare, along with several of her other poems, suggests that she was supremely uncomfortable with the typical Victorian relationships between men and women, particularly regarding the double-standards surrounding sexuality.
A major theme which is discussed in Maude Clare, particularly at the beginning, is the relationship between men and women within the context of marriage. The way in which Rossetti initially refers to Nell as ‘his bride’ whilst Maude Clare, who is free from marriage, is immediately presented as a dominant force as the poem takes her name. This suggests that, through marriage, Rossetti believes that women lose their identity and autonomy. In fact, the possessive pronoun ‘his’ suggests that, as a result of marriage, Nell has become nothing but an object owned by her husband, an idea typical amongst the Victorians, where marriage was as much the conclusion of a business contract between the groom and father of the bride as it was a religious ceremony. Whilst Rossetti may present marriage as something which works to the disadvantage of women, the fact that lord Thomas’s father is absent from the poem suggests that men place little value upon it. As it is only his mother who congratulates her son with ‘smiles’ on his wedding day, Rossetti perhaps implies that marriage exists only to provide security for women, whilst it constrains the more sexually promiscuous men. This idea which is supported by the penultimate line of the poem in which Nell says ‘I’ll love him till he loves me best’, adding to the idea that marriage is a means by which a woman can make a man faithful to her. Whilst on first reading lord Thomas’s mother’s response to her son’s wedding may seem joyful, the fact that she speaks ‘almost with tears’ creates a troubling undertone. Possibly she is grieving for her son’s loss of freedom which the constraints of marriage will bring, but Rossetti’s comparison between Nell and Thomas’s mother (she is not ‘so pale as Nell’) suggests that she is tearful on Nell’s behalf; as Thomas’s mother says ‘your father thirty years ago/had just your tale to tell’, Rossetti implies that, just as Thomas had had a previous relationship with another woman, so had his father, and so Nell is effectively following in the footsteps of Thomas’s mother. Thus, she is perhaps aware of the fate which marriage will bring Nell. Whilst in ‘In the Round Tower at Jhansi’ Rossetti presents marriage as something which is filled with an all-consuming love, shown through the Skenes’ agreement that ‘it is not pain thus to kiss and die’, in Maude Clare she presents it as something which is devoid of happiness. For example, it is strange that Thomas’s mother does not hope that the newly-wedded couple will be happy, but rather hopes that they will ‘live but as true’, or as faithfully, as she and her husband have done, suggesting that happiness is simply too much to expect. However, the contrast here between Rossetti’s portrayal of relationships within marriage in ‘Maude Clare’ and ‘In the Round Tower’ can perhaps be explained by the fact that Thomas and Nell’s marriage follows Thomas’s relationship with Maude Clare, whilst it could be assumed that Mrs Skene was Skene’s first love, as their marriage is so idyllic. Thus, it is perhaps marriage following a relationship with someone else which Rossetti is criticizing, rather than marriage as a whole.
The two main female characters in this poem can be seen, through their relationship with Thomas, to represent the two archetypal biblical women; Eve, the sexualized temptress who lures the unwitting Adam (or Thomas) into sin (through their illicit love affair), and the idealized virgin Mary, represented by Nell. However, through her exploration of the role of Maude Clare, Rossetti subverts this role of temptress, presenting her as justified in her vengeance on Thomas, who is equally to blame for her pre-marital loss of virginity. Maude Clare’s desire for vengeance is clear when she says ‘I have brought my gift my lord’, evocative of traditional fairy-tales where the curse cast on the protagonist is disguised as a ‘gift’, such as in sleeping beauty. Thus, Maude Clare destroys all that could possibly be good in the couple’s relationship when she ‘blesses’ the ‘hearth’, ‘board’, and ‘marriage bed’. The ironic use of the word ‘bless’ which has distinctly religious connotations perhaps suggests that Maude Clare is in fact doing the bidding of God; because Thomas has sinned by having sex with Maude Clare without marrying her, he must face the consequences. In fact, contrary to societal expectations of the time, Rossetti does not explicitly condemn Maude Clare for expressing her sexuality through her pre-marital relationship with Thomas, as the images which represent her loss of virginity (such as the ‘lilies’ which they ‘waded’ for in the ‘beck’) are entirely positive, and typical of the romanticized ideals of what a relationship should be like. Similarly, the alliterative ‘b’ in ‘budding bough’ creates the impression of vitality and passion, implying that Rossetti does not view their relationship itself as problematic, but the way in which Thomas then did not marry Maude Clare. However, this is something which is unusual within Rossetti’s poetry; in ‘Soeur Louise de la Misericorde’ Rossetti criticizes female lust, having the tormented voice of her poem exclaim ‘oh vanity of vanities desire’. Likewise, in Goblin Market, Jeanie (and very nearly Laura) is destroyed by her lust which leads her to eat the goblins’ ‘fruit’ (or lose her virginity to them). As a strong Anglican who never married, Rossetti’s conflicting ideas can perhaps be attributed to her own presumed lack of experience surrounding sex. Furthermore, the recurring motif of the lily, a flower commonly associated with virginity, suggests that Maude Clare was once as pure as Nell, yet the lily ‘fades’ once she has been corrupted by lord Thomas, much in the same way that Laura’s hair turns grey once she has been corrupted by the goblins.
In contrast, Nell, who could be considered to be Maude Clare’s foil, represents the virgin Mary, just as Maude Clare might once have done. At the beginning of the poem Nell fulfills the Victorian stereotype of a bride, submissive and accepting, much like Mrs Skene in ‘In the Round Tower…’, who clearly relies on her husband for instructions, as is indicated by her frequent questions. However, at the end of the poem, Nell takes on a much more powerful voice, silencing Maude Clare’s attack. Nell’s use of a syndetic triad when she says ‘and what you leave’, ‘and what you spurn’, and ‘and him I love’ creates a tone of authority. It also mirrors Maude Clare’s use of triads with her repetition of ‘to bless’, perhaps indicating that the control has shifted from Maude Clare to Nell. Whilst we might expect Nell to be shocked by Maude Clare’s revelation, she instead responds calmly, humbly accepting Maude Clare’s ‘gift’ of Thomas’s ‘fickle heart’ and ‘paltry love’. Perhaps Nell had prior knowledge of their relationship, or simply loves her new husband so much that the revelation of his sexual history matters little, yet this seems unlikely, as she does not attempt to defend Thomas from Maude Clare’s criticisms and accusations. Alternatively, it is marriage itself which Nell respects, and so she realizes that, now she is married, she must accept Maude Clare’s gifts, as to spurn her husband would be to go against the vows which she just made. This is supported by the way in which she quotes the wedding vows, saying ‘for he’s my lord for better and worse’. Thus, Rossetti suggests that, as marriage is a religious ceremony, Nell’s loyalty to Thomas is in fact born out of respect for God, and so perhaps Rossetti believes that a person’s relationship with God is far more valuable than the relationship between men and women. This idea is also expressed in Rossetti’s ‘Soeur Louise de la Misericorde’, in which the speaker laments the sinfulness of desire, having instead turned to God in becoming a nun, and also in ‘Twice’, where, on being rejected by a man, the speaker instead offers her heart to God.
Whilst the relationship between the two women is fraught with conflict, it is unclear who Rossetti intends us to sympathize with. Although Nell seems to defeat Maude Clare by the end of the poem, the poem nonetheless is named after Maude Clare, suggesting that she is the focus. Perhaps, then, Rossetti intends us to sympathize with them both, even though they are (or at least were once) effectively in competition with each other. In terms of who is held in the highest esteem by men, the answer is clear: Nell, as she is a ‘maid’, and so a virgin. However, Rossetti brings the injustice of this to our attention by having Nell admit that Maude Clare is ‘more wise and much more fair’. That it is still Nell who Thomas chooses is indicative of the huge value which was placed on female virginity within male-female relationships, a massive double standard, as within the poem Thomas’s lack of virginity is not even raised as a problem. In this way, Maude Clare is reminiscent of Goblin Market, where, on losing her virginity, Laura is abandoned by the goblins to ‘dwindle’, whilst the goblins are allowed to continue to tempt more ‘maids’.
Whilst Rossetti encourages us to sympathize with the two female characters, she is far more critical of the role of men within relationships. This is immediately made clear through lord Thomas’s comparatively weak characterization; whilst Maude Clare, Nell, and even his mother have a considerable amount of dialogue, lord Thomas simply stutters ‘Maude Clare’. This perhaps reflects Thomas’s weak moral compass in not marrying her. Therefore, Rossetti subtly undermines the Victorian and biblical concept that men are the strongest in the relationship, both intellectually and morally. That he is unable to ‘match’ Maude Clare’s ‘scorn’ also suggests that he, unlike Maude Clare, is unjustified in his scorn, and so is entirely to blame within the relationship. This is a stark contrast to the speaker’s rejection of John in ‘No thank you John’, where we sympathize with the speaker who tries to rid herself of John’s unwanted affections. However, unlike Thomas, the speaker of ‘No thank you John’ gave John no reason to believe she loved him, as is shown when she says ‘I never said I loved you’. Likewise, just as the goblins in ‘Goblin Market’ are characterized as being unpleasant, or even repugnant, as Rossetti compares them to typically repulsive animals, such as a ‘rat’ and a ‘snail’, Thomas is presented entirely negatively, as he is reduced to nothing but a ‘fickle heart’ which is rejected by one woman only to be self-sacrificially accepted by the next. Rossetti here may be making a more general comment about masculine love; by modifying the nouns ‘love’ and ‘heart’ with negative adjectives she suggests that the love of men within a relationship is worthless. However, Rossetti perhaps allows us to sympathize, or at least pity Thomas to an extent; the sustained vowel sound in ‘gazed long’ creates a wistful tone, suggesting that he still loves Maude Clare, and perhaps realizes he has made a mistake in rejecting her in lieu of Nell.
As it is written in the form of a ballad, Maude Clare’s regular rhythm and rhyme scheme creates an almost fairy-tale like atmosphere, possibly intended to suggest that the relationship between Thomas and the two women is an all too common tale. Alternatively, the way in which Rossetti subtly subverts the ballad form by using an abcb rhyme scheme instead of abab implies that instead she is debunking the idealized ‘fairy-tale’ of love, showing relationships between men and women for what they really are. Whilst the story of the poem is generally linear in its progression, Maude Clare disturbs this by bringing to the forefront her past with Thomas, suggesting that a man can never truly escape past relationships. In fact, the strong sense of place which is created within Maude Clare’s description of the past through her use of alliteration in ‘budding boughs’ and the onomatopoeic ‘plucked’ (suggestive perhaps of the premature ending of a relationship) creates the impression that it is Thomas’s relationship with Maude Clare, and not Nell, which is most viable, even though it took place out of wedlock.
Overall, Rossetti presents male and female relationships in Maude Clare as being extremely problematic, at least where a man has rejected a woman who he has essentially corrupted by taking her virginity. Whilst some of Rossetti’s poetry does present male-female relationships positively (such as ‘In the round tower at Jhansi’), Rossetti’s overriding conviction appears to be that relationships between men and women are destructive, as is the case in ‘Goblin Market’, ‘Soeur Louise de la Misericorde’, and ‘Twice’. However, the way in which Rossetti’s concept of romantic relationships changed radically from poem to poem alludes to her own conflicting beliefs at various stages of her life.
Loss as a Central Theme of “Shut Out,” “Up Hill,” and Other Poems
It is undeniable that the theme of loss is weaved throughout much of Rossetti’s poetry, often reflecting the emotional hardship of her own life. It stands out clearly in Shut Out as a key part of Rossetti’s message and is arguably used as a vehicle to demonstrate areas of loss and isolation that were present in Rossetti’s own life. Through considered use of language, Rossetti creates contrasting atmospheres of loss and hope that clearly help highlight the emotional and spiritual difficulties of loss, as well as brandishing a selection of poetic techniques that help in her presentation of loss as a life altering, soul consuming emotion. It could almost be said that the use of the Garden of Eden as a central plot point is merely a catalyst to further express her feelings on the topic. Ultimately, we are painted a complex yet concise picture of Rossetti’s feelings towards this theme in all of its complexity.
Rossetti presents the impact of loss as a battle of contrasting emotions, although initially suggesting that loss has a life destroying effect upon a person there are definite sparks of hopefulness within the poem. The clear use of contrasting imagery throughout the poem is a demonstration of loss’s fluctuating effects. Within the first stanza, the cold and lifeless imagery of the “iron bars” gives an almost unnatural depiction of Rossetti’s feelings. Her choice to use the image of prison-like bars perhaps suggests that these feelings of loss are purely a construction of man, not nature, or in the view of Rossetti, God. This point is further supported by the juxtaposition used in the description of the gardens natural charm. By describing the flowers as “bedewed and green”, we are presented with the idea that Rossetti views the climb out of loss as a gift from God. The connotations of freshness and purity relate directly to Rossetti’s open devotion to the Christian Faith. Ultimately through this clever use of juxtaposition Rossetti is able to convey the eruption of contrasting emotions felt after a loss of any form, the relevance of these are everlasting, even to a 21st century reader. This point is further complimented through Rossetti’s use of a large shift in tone between the sixth and seventh stanzas. The penultimate stanza has a heavy semantic field of pain and isolation. The speaker is described as being “blinded with tears” not only showing the feelings of depravity but also creating a violent undertone. This is however soon juxtaposed with the final stanza’s depiction of a “lark” building a nest within a “violet bed”. The themes of rebirth and natural beauty are heavy within this stanza not only further demonstrating the extreme flurry of emotions associated with loss but also painting a hopeful future for all who are crippled with the pains of loss. When looking broadly at all of Rossetti’s work, it is easy to find other examples of this idea that beyond loss hope still prevails.
Within the poem Up Hill, Rossetti demonstrates her confidence in her own faith and depicts heaven to be a welcoming place for all who believe. The poem is littered with dark imagery and language possibly describing the pain of losing someone, which is ultimately countered by the reassurance of the second speaker who is symbolic of any Christian’s view on death; they do not fear it, as they will reach paradise after death. Like Shut Out, Up Hill places a considerable focus on contrast, utilising the two speakers to demonstrate the polar opposite emotions given by loss. Once again, we are shown a hopeful future for those suffering from the pains of loss; however, in this example Rossetti tackles the more abstract aspects of loss as she delves into the core philosophy of her faith. Rossetti also presents the theme of loss as not only a devastating emotion, but as an ever-present part of people’s lives, that has the power to dictate their feelings actions. Ultimately, she has depicted loss as an emotional prison that prevents the victim from enjoying the life they were given by god. Her use of a clear and consistent rhyme scheme, with the ABBA structure, is used throughout to give a tight, controlled tone to the poem, Rossetti may feel that the ‘prison’ of loss has prevented her from wallowing in her other more joyful emotions. This idea is further supported by the mention of the “wall” built to exclude the speaker from her lost garden. A wall has very obvious connotations of segregation and permanence, enforcing the idea that loss has an almost unnaturally controlling effect upon a person. This and the tightly structured rhyme scheme is accompanied with the Ballard form that the poem takes. The obvious connotations of the Ballard is that there is a moral lesson to be learnt. In this sense, it could be said that Rossetti believes that God created loss as lesson to teach his followers, a possible question of their faith.
Throughout Rossetti’s life, she devoted herself to God, often choosing the virtuous path of Christianity over her own aims and desires. Although questioning her own faith in defiant moments within her life, her passion for God is present throughout her poetry. The idea of the structure and form of the poem mirroring the emotional imprisonment of loss is also apparent in the final stanza where syntactic parallelism is used to further enforce the fact that the pain and turmoil caused by loss can distort the lives of its victims in an almost calculated fashion. Conclusively, Rossetti views the theme of loss as a oppressive part of people lives with the capacity to carve said lives into whatever cruel path it sees fit. Once again, these ideas and techniques are found within many of Rossetti’s poems. In The Round Tower at Jhansi, human structure is once again used to emphasise the catastrophic effect of loss upon the unfortunate. Like the previously mentioned “wall” the Tower at Jhansi is used to emphasise the permanent impact of loss on the mental state of those who have suffered its pains. In The Round Tower can also be compared to shut out in terms of its Ballard form and tight ABAB rhyme scheme. The theme of loss is shown in an overly emotional tone as the two lovers defy the law of Christianity and take each other’s lives as to escape the “wretches below”.
Rossetti demonstrates to her readers that loss can influence every aspect of their lives, not only changing the way in which they view the world, but also consumes all they knew to be true. In fact, Rossetti succeeded in representing loss as a darker, more morbid state. She presents the theme subtly in all aspects of her poetic prowess and is able to cast light on a theme that has infinite relevance within our world.
Biblical Allegories in Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’
Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ can indisputably be called her most popular work considering the amount of critical attention it has attracted leading to disparate readings that delve into multifaceted motifs, each giving birth to fresher perspectives. Claimed to be as a work for children by the creator, this ambiguous poem has been interpreted as a work charged with implied homo-erotic imagery, as one of the pieces that contributed to the buildup of impending first wave of revolution by the ‘fairer sex’ against the conventions of the Victorian era, as an allegory of the fall and redemption of humanity. Goblin’s Market encompasses a plethora of literary themes with its feminist undertones, gothic style, sexual innuendos and hence the space for diverse readings should be permissible. However, even Rossetti’s assertion that this deceptively simple poem was simply intended for children does not diminish the irresistibility of the prospect of giving it an allegorical reading as “nearly all her poems contain important allusions to and quotations from The Book of Common Prayers and the Bible.” (Jerome McGann). Hence, an interpretation of this poem through an allegorical lens would be an enlightening one considering the symbols it contains.
The poem opens with a detailed description of tempting fruits, which haunt the sisters “morning and evening” (lines 1-2) as they hear the enticing cries of the goblins, “Come buy our orchard fruits, / Come buy, come buy” (lines 3-4), while recognizing the dangers of getting themselves involved with these creatures. Unlike Lizzie, Laura cannot resist the lure of their fruits which she obtains in exchange of giving them a “golden lock” of hers. Shackled by the experience, Laura states to wither away as her addiction prevents her from any sort of ingestion besides the fruit which she does not have access to anymore as she is unable to find the goblins. Compelled by her love for Laura, Lizzie ventures out to approach the goblins for a fruit for her dying sister, who instead attack her as they are infuriated by the fact that she talked back to them. Persistent in her resistance, she does not give into the violence or the bullying of the goblins and runs home to Laura with her tossed silver penny covered in the juice of the goblin fruits, which eventually saves Laura’s life. Rossetti’s narrative follows the standard pattern of the Biblical Fall— “temptation, fall, redemption, and restoration” (Christensen). However, the poem offers a different vision, carrying philosophical and sociological implications as she converts the parable into a feminist commentary by gendering the characters. Marian Shalkhauser identifies Lizzie as Christ and Laura as “Adam-Eve and consequently all of sinful mankind,” concluding her brief study with the statement that Rossetti created “a Christian fairy tale in which a feminine Christ redeems a feminine mankind from a masculine Satan” (19-20).
As June Sturrock suggests that this poem is “inescapably a Genesis story”, the climatic fruit eating scene where Laura indulges into the pleasures of the forbidden can find its correspondence to Genesis 3:1-7 – the Fall of Eve. In the Biblical context, Laura mirrors Eve’s actions in the garden of Eden as both the women give into their temptations due to the cunning of the goblins and the serpent despite the warnings, and undergo a fall – both physical and mental in the case of Laura. Sarah Fiona Winters notes that Laura’s failure to accompany Lizzie out of the glen at twilight echoes Eve’s ill-fated decision to wander away from Adam. Satan tries to persuade Eve that night “is the pleasant time”, just as the goblins manage to cause in Laura a “longing for the night”. The implication of man being subjected to death and decay in the Genesis can be seen reflected in these lines by Rossetti “Her hair grew thin and grey;/ She dwindled” (lines 277-278). The post lapsarian Laura is also shunned by the Goblins, as she cannot see or hear them, after a bite of the forbidden fruit, just like the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden. This adaptation however does not result into guilt or shame on Laura’s part, just desperation and craving, like Eve’s fall does.
As Laura begins to waste away from desire, Lizzie intervenes. Strong Christian symbolism is evident in this aspect as a substantial number of critics have noted the relation between the unselfishness of Lizzie in “Goblin Market” and Christ’s sacrifice of himself. Rossetti fills the outlines of Lizzie such that her selfless actions imitate that of Christ who suffers in order to bear the sins of the humankind – Lizzie heroically endures the attacks of the goblin’s for the sake of her sister. The reactions of the goblins on Lizzie’s approach are much alike to those of the Roman soldiers who tormented Christ as he readied himself for the crucifixion, “Laughed every goblin/When they spied her peeping/Came towards her hobbling/Flying, running, leaping/Puffing and blowing/Chuckling, clapping, crowing/Clucking and gobbling/Mopping and mowing/Full of airs and graces/Pulling wry faces” (lines 129-138).
The lines that describe Lizzie’s refusal to not give into the torture of the goblins – Like a lily in a flood/Like a rock of blue-veined stone/Lashed by tides obstreperously/Like a beacon left alone (lines 409 – 411) – seem to contain some theological references. When Rossetti compares her protagonist with a “lily”, a “rock” and a “beacon” this for the poet herself would have evoked three scriptural images that she elsewhere identified with Christ: the “lily of the valley” (Song of Solomon 2:1-3), the “true rock” (Matthew 16:18), and the “light of the world” (John 8:12). Hill argues that the image of Lizzie as a “rock of blue-veined stone lashed by tides obstreperously” is an image of Christ, and the entire scene is a description of Christ’s sacrifice, just as Lizzie sacrifices herself for her sister. The line “Eat me, drink me, love me” (line 471), suggests D’Amico, is reminiscent of the Eucharist in which Christ’s flesh and blood are offered in the form of bread and wine. Laura’s salvation is accomplished when she devours the goblin juice that Lizzie brings back as it functions a strong antidote to the illness caused by her earlier consumption of the same fruits. This accomplishment through the consumption of Lizzie’s body, is much allegorical to the Holy Communion.
Despite the strong allusions between the scriptures and the poem, Rossetti resorted to rewriting the traditional story of redemption despite adhering to its grid. Cullinan’s explanation for this rephrasing would be Rossetti’s intuitive sense to avoid the glorification of suffering which the original story does as this could have a damaging effect on the suppressed portions of the society – especially women. In representing woman, not as a passive object of profane love, but a subject and an agent in religious devotion, she also challenges the Victorian “cult” of angelic womanhood. This Victorian masterpiece has enough redrafting to put forth pioneering ideas towards the progression of women, and enough retention to reinvigorate the Christian tradition.
Christensen, Matt. “Can I know it? —Nay: An Alternative Interpretation of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market.” Victorian Web.
Cullinham, Colleen Carpenter Redeeming the Story: Women, Suffering, and Christ Paperback – August 27, 2004 D’Amico, Diane, Christina Rossetti: Faith Gender and Time. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1999.
Sturrock, June Protective Pastoral: Innocence and Female Experience in William Blake ‘s Songs and Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market 1994
In a traditional Victorian society which was patriarchal, it was expected that women remained subservient and complaint at all times, obediently yielding to the inclinations of both men and the community around them. The women in Christina Rosetti’s poems, however, were defiant and daring, innovating beyond the conventional standards of women, and rarely allowing anything to repress them. From “Jesse Cameron’s” adamant refusal to marry to “Maude-Claire’s” determined endeavor to break a marriage. A variety of instances in numerous poems by Rosetti portray women whom incessantly break traditional social norms, subliminally implementing that women merit more rights and liberties. Conversely, on some occasions, it seems that despite attempting to shatter conventions, the women are repressed, either way, not truly succeeding to make themselves independent.
An example of a defiant woman is the narrator in “Cousin Kate”, someone who had a sexual relationship with a “lord”, without being married. The poem is essentially directed at her “Cousin Kate” whom supposedly “grew fairer” than the narrator which then lead the “lord” to choose her, and “cast” the narrator aside. Instantaneously, noticeable references to a sexual relationship are made, for example; “Plaything”, and “his love”. The narrator additionally states that “he changed me like a glove” meaning she has clearly experienced some sort of catharsis, where the liberation leads her to become a changed woman. The tenor in the poem is extremely vengeful, and the narrator is clearly spiteful, this elucidates her defiance as women were expected to be forgiving in the past. However, in this case; she expresses bitterness, planning to retrieve her payment for their betrayal, and clearly illustrating her rebelliousness. Nevertheless, there are signs that the narrator has submitted to conventions, meaning that there are signs that the narrator has forgiven the “lord”, as women were supposed to. The narrator only addresses; herself, and her cousin throughout the poem, sometimes beginning stanzas with “O Lady Kate”, and “O cousin Kate”. In addition, even the poem’s title is “Cousin Kate”, which clearly displays that her anger is directed to her. This could indicate that the narrator wasn’t truly defiant as she did succumb to the conventions of their society.
“Maude Claire” follows the story where the protagonist, which “Maude Claire” herself, attempts to gain the upper hand over a married couple, amidst their wedding ceremony. She is clearly a defiant character as she has had a sexual relationship with the groom in the past, and isn’t willing to let him go, despite the fact that such acts were frowned upon, and unforgivable during the Victorian period. In addition, “Maude Claire” in fact begins to taunt the “bride” and groom, uttering that she has “bought” a “gift” to “bless the marriage bed”. Although her words don’t come across as particularly derisive; as she continues to talk, she clues at the intimacy that she and “Thomas” used to have, presenting her “half of the golden chain”. Her intention here was clear; she wanted to unnerve “Nell” whom was the “bride”, and ensure that “Thomas” submitted to her, meaning that she was entirely in control of the situation and able to acquire what she desires from it. “Maude Claire” is somewhat successful as she leaves “Thomas” “faltered in his place”, and hiding “his face”, displaying that she is a dominant character. As she addresses “Nell”, the reader learns that “Nell” isn’t as passive or docile as she has been behaving during the majority of the poem as she takes control here, becoming dominant over both “Thomas”, and “Maude Claire”. She states that she’ll “love him till he loves [her] best”, as “Thomas” seemed to be enamored by “Maude Claire”, although he had married “Nell”. There seems to be some role reversal present in the poem as “Thomas” is more submissive, however, the two main females are more assertive.
Nevertheless, as defiant as both “Maude Claire”, and “Nell” attempt to be, they still seem to be at a disadvantage here, with “Thomas” getting the most out of the situation anyway. It appears that at the end of this, “Thomas” will have a woman loving him, and he wouldn’t be alone unless the women decide to team up, and go their own way. Nonetheless, this is extremely unlikely to occur due to the way in which they have been raised; in a Victorian patriarchal society. For example; “Maude Claire” has been used, and cast aside, however she cannot do anything about it but taunt as the society doesn’t allow her too. In addition, “Nell” seems to love him unconditionally as she doesn’t appear perturbed that her husband has had another lover. However, her unresponsive behavior may be due to her being repressed, leading her to be denied the right to protest, similarly to “Maude Claire”. Although Thomas is clearly caught between two women, the situation is actually in his favor because they seem to be fighting over him (despite “Maude Claire’s” dismissive actions), and this subliminally reinforces traditional patriarchal values, leading women to be further oppressed. As defiant as they may seem, all things considered, they are brawling a man who played with their hearts, and are, therefore, still getting played by him because they fail to realize that they are only raising his status and placing him on a higher threshold.
Ultimately, Rosetti’s women are clearly defiant and rebellious as they attempt to override the traditional patriarchal values that the Victorian society uphold. Nevertheless, in some cases, they have to conform to the convention in order to spare themselves getting shunned by the society, which could then lead to repression. However, Rosetti has presented them as defiant, showing that she believed women deserved more rights.
Conflict in Cousin Kate
“Cousin Kate” follows the story of a former “cottage maiden” who was jilted by her lover, “a great lord” for her cousin, “Kate”. The poem presents the protagonist’s feelings and thoughts throughout the poem, congruently conveying her motives, and views about the events that have transpired to her. She expresses her discernment in a bitter manner, ultimately feeling vengeful and plotting her retaliation against her cousin, whom she believed wronged her by marrying the “the great Lord”. The conflict throughout transpires between “Kate” and the narrator, displaying her bitterness, however, she also exhibits an acrimonious attitude towards the “Lord”, and at times chagrins herself over any decisions she made.
The first indicator that the conflict may be between the persona and “Cousin Kate” is in the title. If Kate wasn’t a significant individual in the poem, then the title wouldn’t be her name, showing that she has a certain prominence. The narrator introduces her “cousin Kate” in the third stanza, opening the first sentence with “O Lady Kate, my cousin Kate”, suggesting that she is the cause of her troubles, and the reason why when she “moans”, she is an “unclean thing.” In addition her words seem almost mocking or sarcastic as if she’s only taunting the “Lady”, Kate has been elevated to, showing that she believes Kate’s higher status is temporary. The persona had been used and discarded by the “great Lord”, stating that Kate “grew more fair”, leading “the lord” to choose her, and “cast” the narrator “by” She expresses her chagrin here, using the word “cast” as though she was toy that was disregarded because something prettier was found. This quite easily reflects the Victorian society that they lived in, where a male was allowed to have many sexual relationships, however, a female was condemned for having one without being married, and was lessened to “an unclean thing.” Status also plays a huge role as the male involved was called a “Lord”, and the persona used to be a “cottage maiden.”
In the sixth stanza, the narrator openly expresses that she “wouldn’t have taken his hand”, if they were to have opposite roles, stating that she would have “spit in his face”, which is quite a violent reaction, and clearly illustrates the true extent of the persona’s anger towards Kate. Her conflict with her cousin is also reflected in the opening sentence “O cousin Kate”, the use of “O” is somewhat irritated, as if she is enervated of her cousin’s behavior, later expressing that her “love was true” but Kate’s was “writ in sand” once again ridiculing Kate’s relationship with the Lord. Previously she also states that since Kate was “bound” by the Lord’s ring, “the neighbours” call her “good and pure”, however they called her “an unclean thing” The “neighbours” were essentially the Victorian society which disproved of non-monogamous sexual relationships, meaning that the persona was shunned from their social relations. Nevertheless, Kate, in spite of taking her cousin’s lover was accepted because he married her. The narrator’s main source of conflict seemed to center on the fact that Kate accepted the Lord’s hand, and had no regard for narrator’s relationship with him.
On the other hand, since the poem is a dramatic monologue, numerous references to mournful language can be located throughout, suggesting the persona’s main conflict may be with herself, and not with her “Cousin Kate”. For instance, at the end of the first stanza, the use of rhetorical question displays her regret; “why did a great lord find me out…” Her use of “a” is impersonal and displays detachment, meaning that she wishes to distance herself from the situation, and possibly remain unaffected. Furthermore, the persona states in the second stanza that “woe’s me for joy thereof”, meaning that her problems began she fell for the lord, causing her “to lead a shameless shameful life” which she knows was scandalous, however, couldn’t help indulging herself in it. The persona seems to be extremely remorseful now as in the fourth stanza, she compares her life with Kate. The juxtaposition between “I sit and howl in dust”, and “You sit in gold and sing” illustrates the true vigor of the persona’s pain, further displaying that the main conflict may be with herself and not “Kate”. Though Kate is referred too, the narrator’s use of “howl” expresses her frustration and loneliness as wolves are known to “howl” when they are forlorn, and in need of assistance, showing she is struggling with inner conflict. The “howl” may also refer to the men of the Victorian society, and how they displayed wolfish tendencies, such as being lustful and shameless, however, were never scorned for it, disparate to women, who were.
This links to the next point; that the narrator’s main conflict is with the “lord”, and not her “cousin”. In the first stanza, her question “why did a great lord find me out…” could be directed at the “lord” himself. It is almost as if she is blaming him for finding her out. In addition, she also states that he “lured” her to the palace, meaning that she was tricked and deceived, enticed under false pretenses to go to his palace home. She subsequently goes on to say that it was his fault that she “lead a shameless shameful life”, affirming that she was his “plaything”. The sexual undertone suggests that the “lord” possessed no actual feelings for the persona and used her as a time pass. In addition, in the fifth stanza, although she bluntly addresses “Kate”, there is an underlying sense of despair and anger towards the “lord”. For instance; the persona states “if he had fooled not me but you” here, despite directing the section to “Kate”, the use of “fooled” suggests that she actually accuses the “lord” instead because it is possible that they were both “fooled”. The persona additionally states that she had “spit in his face”, demonstrating that she is irate with him. What further advocates that the persona’s rage was targeted at the lord are her non-conformist nature. In a traditional Victorian society, women were expected to forgive and forget, nevertheless, it is clear that the persona has not done either. Moreover, she is non-conformist as she began a sexual relationship before getting married which was seen as decadent in the past. Therefore, her anger towards the “lord” isn’t unusual, because she is unlikely to forgive and forget due to initially infringing the rules of the former society.
Nevertheless, the final stanza of the poem contains a twist which ultimately illustrates that the persona’s main conflict was indeed with her “cousin Kate”. In the first few she utters that she has a “gift” that “Kate” is unlikely to receive, which is her “son”. This implies that “Kate” is infertile, and the persona finally seems to have the upper hand, which leads you to wonder whether she had ulterior motives. The person refers to her “son” as her “shame” and her “pride.” The juxtaposition between the two portrays the complication the narrator has found herself in. on one hand, her son is her “shame” as he is a constant reminder that she is shunned by her society, and reduced to “an outcast thing”. Nevertheless, he is her “pride” as he will aid her in accomplishing her ultimate goal. Her revenge on “Kate” and the “Lord”. Since the second line of the stanza implies that “Kate” cannot have children; “and seen not like to get…” it is only plausible that the Lord’s inheritance is passed along to his only living heir, which is the persona’s son. The last few lines tie the poem together, allowing the main source of conflict to be established; between Kate and the persona. “Your father would give lands for one.” Due to her son, the persona is able to instigate her revenge against Kate, as she christens him her “gift”, inferring strongly that her taunts were aimed at Kate.
Largely, the persona’s conflict mostly occurred with her cousin, who didn’t think twice before marrying her lover; the lord. The fact that Kate’s name is in the title, and the majority of the taunts and spiteful words throughout are directed at Kate is evidence enough that the persona was extremely irate with what her cousin had done. She was so infuriated that it had left the persona feeling; shunned, malicious, and vengeful at the end. Despite some instances indicating that the persona’s anger was dictated elsewhere, ultimately, Kate was the true cause of her anguish and the reason for her vindictiveness
The role of the outsider in Christina Rossetti’s Poetry
Many of Christina Rossetti’s poems explore the theme of those who are placed outside of society, supporting the claim that the outsider is always an intriguing figure in literature. However, this concept is explored and presented by many ways by Rossetti in a variety of her poems.
“Shut Out” is a poem that deals directly with the theme of the outsider and the narrator and events within the poem can be interpreted in a variety of different ways. The narrator describes how “the door was shut” on her and she can no longer access her “beautiful” “garden”. The narrator describes how she is “quite alone” and “blinded with tears “in her “iron bar” prison. This description does generate some sympathy from the reader especially when Rossetti contrasts the despair of the narrator with the beautiful natural imagery of the garden outside. The poem also includes a “shadow less spirit at the gate” guarding the narrator and showing her no mercy. One way this poem can be interpreted as a fallen woman “shut out” of society for her sins. In the Victorian era, women who had sex before marriage were declared “fallen”. It was believed that they were eternally tarnished due to their grave sin and were “shut out” of society to repent. During her lifetime, Rossetti did a lot of work with fallen women, particularly prostitutes, and believed that they should not be treated so harshly. This poem could be seen as a representation of this, Rossetti’s attempt for readers to feel sympathy for these women. However, the poem can also be interpreted as a portrayal of Eve being removed from the garden of Eden for her sins. Rossetti was a devout Christian who would have held great importance to this biblical story, “The Shadow less spirit” may be a depiction sinners. Regardless of which interpretation is applied, the narrator is clearly an extremely intriguing figure, as the reader is left to ponder why they have been shut out in this way.
Similar in some ways to “Shut Out” “from the Antique” also depicts a narrator outside of society. Whilst the narrator of “From the antique” has not been forcibly shut out, it seems as though she feels she would rather be out of society than in it, due to the hardships it entails. The narrator first claims “I wish and wish I were a man” before taking it a step further by saying “or better than any being were not”. This is a direct contrast to “Shut Out” as this narrator is longing to be removed from society, whereas the narrator of shut out longs to be returned to it. The narrator of “From the Antique” presents a very bleak version of life, by describing how all we do is “wake and weary and fall asleep”. The Victorian era was full of poverty and life for the working class was full of hardships. As the poem suggests, life for women was particularly hard. Seen as inferior to men, they faced large inequalities, in education, employment, political and social opportunities. As previously mentioned, Rossetti did lots of work with struggling women, and this knowledge enhances the reading of this poem as one about wanting to be removed from the hardships of society. Once again, this narrator is extremely intriguing as an outsider, we are curious to find more about her life and why she has come to feel this way. This is also particularly interesting when contrasted to “Shut Out” as the narrators have very different view of outsiders – one longs to be reinstated back in her society whilst the other wants to remove herself from it.
Maude Clare is another one of Rossetti’s poems that deals with the role of an outsider. Maude Clare is a proud fallen women, unashamedly attending the wedding of her former lover. Whilst Maud Clare is clearly on outsider in this environment she is more intriguing as she has not fully been removed from society like the narrator of “Shut Out”, but rather walks with a “lofty step” and remains proud “like a queen”. Because of her work with fallen women, Rossetti saw them as real women who shouldn’t face such exclusion from society. It is likely that Rossetti deliberately contrasts Maude Clare to shut out, to show how she believed fallen women should have the right to behave, against how they are actually treated in society in a way that she believed is wrong. The character of Maude Clare is also on outsider in her treatment of Tom, her former lover. Maude Clare public ally embarrasses him with “scorn” whilst he “hid his face”. This is a gender reversal the opposite of what would have been expected to happened in Victorian society. Maude Clare’s disregard for traditional Victorian behaviour makes her seem even further removed from Victorian society and causes us to see her as even more intriguing.
In Souer Louise de la Misericord, Rossetti presents the story of Louise, a real mistress to king Louis who gave up her life of luxury and sin to become a nun and devote herself to God, In the poem, Rossetti presents Louise as an outsider to her previous life, looking back on a former version of herself, Louise remarks that now “the days are over of desire” and that “the rose of my life has gone all to prickles”. This poem is extremely reflective – it shoes how drastically Louise’s life has changed the former “rose” is now “prickles”. This shares similarities with From the Antique – Louise has chosen to remover herself from a corrupt society that she no longer wants to be a part of, however she has achieved this unlike the narrator in From the Antique who just longs for death to remove her. This poem is also slightly reminiscent of Maude Clare, similarly to Maude Clare’s pride and “lofty step”, Louise boldly and openly declares that “I have desired and I have been desired” suggesting she shares the same pride and shameless attitude. This makes her even more intriguing, as someone who has chosen to make themselves an outsider by walking away from their previous luxurious life.
To conclude, it can be said that Rossetti’s poems do support the idea that the outsider is always an intriguing figure in literature. She explores the removal of those from society in several different ways, from those who desire to these to those forcibly removed, the reasons for this and the reactions and emotions that follow.
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.
Sexuality and Mortality in “The Round Tower at Jhansi,” “A Birthday,” and Other Poems
Most of Rossetti’s poetry has links to the concerns of love and passion, with some displaying it as enjoyable if not exciting. However, on the other hand much of her writing condemns passion, making links to religious texts such as in “Soeur Louise de la misericorde.” Many of the darker poems that link to death also have connections to love, indicating the pure mortality of it such as in song. Rossetti explores theme connected to love through her use of language and form inside of the poem; it is mentioned in multiple essays about the topic of love she connects to a ‘victorian sentimentality’ perhaps creating literature with dramatic tales of love and loss to engage an audience in a world dominated by men. Such features are especially prominent in “The Round Tower at Jhansi” and a few related texts.
Some of Rossetti’s works, such as “A Birthday,” celebrate loving relationships (perhaps over-sighting passion) demonstrating the pure joy that comes with love and being loved. Using similes such as ‘my heart is like a singing bird’ Rossetti indicates such love, emphasising the delight it brings. Using a direct reference to the narrators heart and connecting that with a song bird can also indicate the idea of opening up inside of a relationship with the heart being the most sensitive part of the body. This theme of opening up appears rarely in Rossetti’s pieces and is important here as it draws the readers attention to such a line highlighting the trusting relationship the two characters have. In this poem Rossetti is able to display a close and full hearted depiction of love: the use of anaphora with the phrase ‘my heart is like’ emphasises this love as it indicates that she is unable to word the exact feeling reflecting how her heart it deemed to be “full.” This along with the personified objects to represent her heart combine to create an often untold exploration into the theme of love which would be the wording of it. With the narrator struggling over how to convey the love she feels so deeply even going as far as to reference the church explaining he would ‘raise me a dais’ clearly making a link between not only religious imagery but also other poems inside of her collection with also deal with the theme of love, perhaps in different ways.
It could be indicated that the reason for Rossetti’s shift into perhaps more convent ail approaches to writing about love would be because of the multiple proposals she encountered in her time as a writer and could maybe even be linked to the brief engagement she had and the joy she felt. However another view could be that it actually represents her love for god himself making the religious connection all the move important. It is also argued by certain writers particularly Alice Kirby that she has given her characters ‘the agency to make their own decisions’ which indicates perhaps why this poem was written in such a way, focusing on the woman alone and not naming the character she is talking about, it given a proto-femanist gaze to the poem indicating that the narrator has perhaps made her own choices about love and a loving relationship with the repetition of the personal pronoun ‘my’ indicating a rather egocentric stand point for a poem based in the victorian era, especially with a woman with highly religious views such as Rossetti’s. Overall, in “A Birthday Rossetti” explores love directly, looking at the more beautiful and joyous moments and conveying that love can make a persons life feel full and vibrant.
Another poem that portrays a positive view on love and passion is “The Round Tower at Jhansi”; although the narrative of the poem is bleak, the loving elements inside of it are joyful and reflect a trusting and deep relationships atop the melancholy of the situation the narrators find themselves in. The action of ‘Kiss and kiss’ convey the passionate relation the couple share, and is one of the few times that Rossetti has a positive portrayal of passion explaining how ‘it is not pain thus to kiss and die’ with the indication that the pain of death can be numbed by as kiss an act which can be viewed as intently passionate especially in the situation. This numbing suggests that just the feeling of love can overcome death and reflects completely the depth of the love the characters share. Rossetti explores this saddening yet passionate love using such language in the poem linking the connotation of death to the living feeling of love. The poem was meant to be based upon an actual event that occurred in India during the victorian era and would have appealed to a wide reading audience. This may be why there is the positive spin of love and hope intermixed with the siege of the tower and the imminent deaths of the couple. As it is put in another essay about “The Round tower at Jhansi,” ‘the writer returned again and again to the theme of lost and doomed love’ which gives the alternative view of the love portrayed in this poem, which is ‘doomed’ this more negative portrayal. This would also link into Rossetti’s own views of love after she turned down several men in her time perhaps linking to her more negative view of love and passion in the poem. However, this view can be easy argued against as although Rossetti did have some negative views of men inside of her poetry these views are rarely consistent with some referring to her as a strong christian who believed simply in the way of god, as it would be indicated by good Friday and up-hill. Other writers can see her as one of the early feminists (although it did not have a name in victorian Britain) such as in “A Birthday” and “Goblin Market.” Theses mixed views help to embed the argument the in The Round Tower at Jhansi explores love and and passion as something both song and beautiful with the love overcoming even the pain of death.
On the other hand most of Rossetti’s poetry conveys a more negative view of love and passion condemning it. In “Soeur Louise de la misericorde,” Rossetti explores the opposing view of passion looking into how it is sinful and incorrigible. The use of the repetition of the word ‘desire’ demonstrates this as it highlights the emotions once felt and disparages them. As the narrator explains how to be desired is the ‘vanity of vanities:’ a clearly negative portrayal it is understandable why this can be viewed as a negative portrayal of love and passion. As it explains that to have a passionate relationship is to throw away any sentiment towards god. This linked with the fact that the narrator is a nun conveys that to be rid of such desire is to be rid of earthly passion; turning to god instead. This poem is believed to be based of the king of Frances lover who ran away and became a nun suggesting why Rossetti reflects negatively on such passionate relationships as she would have been influenced by the story of this woman. On the other hand it can also be argued that this poem shows a fallen woman deploying a woman who fell from the right path and is correcting that by following god, still condemning passionate relationships but also exploring the theme of forgiveness. Again, Alice Kirby explores this understanding of Rossetti’s poem explaining how she ‘gives a voice to the fallen woman.’ This links directly to Rossetti’s life as she worked for a time with fallen woman in linden helping prostitutes to turn their lives around. Rossetti explores the theme of love and passion quite differently in “Soeur Louise” than she does in “A Birthday,” conveying a negative message linked with passion and love and pushing the fact that by turning to the church you can be saved instead of love itself saving you.
Rossetti also explores love and passion is “Song,” and yet again she looks at the theme in a completely different way. The opening line ‘when I’m dead my dearest’ shows this different portrayal directly, as in “Song” Rossetti explores the theme of love being a very mortal attraction. Once a person is dead they can no longer love this is explored completely in song as the narrator says ‘plat thou no roses at my head’ the connotation of roses which are a conventionally passion based flower can indicate the relationship she had. The wish for such plants not to be planted shows how she no longer cares, that once dead there is not point having love or passion. Rossetti does not negatively display passion in “Song” as she does in “Soeur Louise”; she simply explores how it is not necessary for someone who is dead. Some of Rossetti’s poem carry this incredibly melancholy theme of death and love including shut out which carries highly depressive imagery that could link to being locked away from love. This theme of death comes up very little in other works perhaps due to its opposing view to that of the Christian faith of who believe that there is a life after death and that (as long as you are good in life) you will receive paradise. Thus, the portrayal of love and passion in “Song” is that of an extremely earth-bound sentiment, and Rossetti explores this sentiment through her use of past tense language.
As a poet, Rossetti has very conflicting views on love, perhaps because of the different states she viewed in through out her life. Some such as “Soeur Louise are incredibly negative, condemning passion, whilst others such as “A Birthday” explore how love can be fulfilling and joyful. These conflicting views are present in throughout the various themes of Rossetti’s poetry, allowing Rossetti to create a poetry unified, paradoxically, but its shifting attitudes.
Compare and contrast the ways in which Christina Rossetti communicates her attitudes towards death in ‘Song’, and ‘Remember’
In both ‘Song’ and ‘Remember’, Rossetti articulates several different attitudes towards death, avoiding any one set approach. In ‘Song’, she uses techniques involving the structure and tone of the poem to communicate that she is in fact happy to be out of the relationship. However, in the poem ‘Remember’, Rossetti uses the displays a much more consoling tone, giving a much different interpretation on death than that of ‘Song’.
In ‘Song’, one of the main themes was the use of natural vocabulary to create a sense of relief. For example, Rossetti writes “I shall not hear the Nightingale Sing on, as if in pain”. This image could possibly suggest that the Nightingale is a metaphor for her relationship, and in death Rossetti has finally escaped from her lover, who may not have cared for her in the way that he should. Another interpretation of this could perhaps be that her lover was not loving towards her, and only acted as though he did at her funeral. This would mean that the “Nightingale” was a metaphor for her lover, and she uses the words “as if” to emphasise that he is perhaps using his state of mourning as a show. The repetition of the words, “I shall not” on the three lines before the Nightingale metaphor also support the idea that she sees death as an escape due to the tone that it creates; one of hope for better after death.
Some of the themes in ‘Remember’ contrast with those of ‘Song’ due to the meaning behind them. For example, she declares, “Only remember me”, which could emphasise the fact that she expects loyalty from a man that she does genuinely love; otherwise, if she didn’t care then she would most likely tell her ‘lover’ not to bother. However, another interpretation to this line can be surfaced by the emphasis on the word “Only”. The emphasis is made obvious by the sudden change in meter and is the first break in rhythm in the poem, which suggests to the reader that it is a key line in showing the meaning behind ‘Remember’. Arguably, Rossetti is trying to use this line to plead with her lover, who has been unfaithful towards her, and telling him to remember her instead of any of the other women that he had relationships with. A common theme in both poems, is the role of women in relationships within society. In both ‘Song’ and ‘Remember’, Rossetti hints at men being unfaithful to their lovers, which shows a divide in classes which fits with the context of the time in Victorian Britain. For example, in ‘Song’, there are the obvious connotations of there being no real ‘love’ in the relationship, due to the “Nightingale” metaphor. Also, in ‘Remember’, there is a hint at male dominance in the relationship, which is seen when Rossetti comments on the “future that you plann’d”, as if she had no say in what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. The vocabulary used in song can also communicate Rossetti’s attitudes towards death. For instance, she uses the image of the “shady cypress tree”, a traditional symbol of mourning, and instructs her lover not to plant one. This could be her way of asking why he should care for her now that she is dead when he didn’t care for her in life. Having said that, another interpretation could be one of a completely opposite meaning. She could, in fact, want her lover to keep their memories in his mind, instead of under a “shady cypress tree”.
Something similar occurs in ‘Remember’ in that the purpose of using the imagery is to soften the blow of her death to her lover. For example, in ‘Remember’, Rossetti uses euphemisms for death, such as “gone away” and “into the silent land”. This usage implies that death is quite a negative aspect of life, as it can break hearts. The fact that she is using euphemisms, clearly shows that she is being careful with her words, when addressing her lover, so as to not upset him. Another example of where Rossetti is seen to be painting death in a negative light can be found on line 11, when she writes about the “darkness and corruption” associated with it. This could hold some religious context, as in the Bible, with “Darkness” often being related to Hell. This says to the reader that she sees life apart from her lover as being similar to Hell, which further implies that death is not a happy thought for her. This fits with both Rossetti’s religious views and the general religious views of the time, what with the belief in God being the religious norm. The form and structure of both poems also contributes to Rossetti’s attitude towards death. In ‘Song’, the poem is split into two symmetrical stanzas to juxtapose the experience of death for the deceased themselves and those that they leave behind. This allows the reader to infer that Rossetti sees death as an obstacle to stability in a relationship. This instability within a relationship that is based on death, fits with the context of the Victorian era due to the high mortality rate. Back then, when a person would die was a real factor in whether one would court another person or not. The average of 6.7 syllables per line certainly conveys this sense of uneasiness and uncertainty when it comes to the future.
The poem ‘Remember’ follows the form of a Petrarchan Sonnet, which is typically a love poem made up of one octave stanza and one sestet stanza, separated by a change of thought, known as the volta. In the first stanza, Rossetti focuses on instructing her lover on how to deal with her passing, repeating the word “remember” to emphasise the main action that she wants her lover to complete. However, in the second stanza, she is forced to accept the fact that her lover may forget her and be happy, as opposed to remembering her and being trapped in a state of mourning. The rhyme scheme in ‘Remember’ can also contribute towards Christina Rossetti’s attitude towards death, particularly in the sestet stanza. The breaking into a different pattern than the ‘ABBAABBA’ of the octave, it again shows the instability that the idea of death causes in terms of love, which directly links to ‘Song’.The tone in ‘Song’, however, contradicts the tone of sadness to one again of a possible escape from a toxic relationship. For instance, in the second line, the constant repetition of the “s” sound, somewhat adds to the ‘fluffiness’ of the line. This overly affectionate feature of the poem alludes to a tone of sarcasm within the meaning of ‘Song’. To go with this, the third line seems to the reader to be very fast paced for a poem that should possibly be matching the lethargy of death, perhaps suggesting that she cannot wait to die.
This stance forms a stark contrast to the tone of ‘Remember’, in which Rossetti takes a much more consoling tone with the lover that she leaves behind in the poem. She does this by inserting caesura into the seventh and tenth line to break up the meter and create a pause. This reinforces the reassurance in her words. In many ways, the poem also takes quite a tentative tone when it addresses her over, which is shown by the fact that Rossetti even changes the message that she wishes to give to her lover, after the volta. Ultimately, ‘Song’ and ‘Remember’ are both very similar in terms of what they relay to the reader about Rossetti’s views on death. However, this is down to the reader’s interpretation as aspects of both poems, such as the tone, depend on the way that the reader deciphers the poem and therefore the meaning that they deduce from it.