Christina Rossetti Poems
Discussion of Rossetti’s Poetry: ‘Remember’, ‘A Birthday’, and ‘Amor Mundi’
Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘Remember’ is a 14-line sonnet that explores the ideas of loss, grief, and separation. As often observed in her poetry, strong visual imagery alluding to the concepts of life, death, beginning and end, is elicited through her use of linguistic and structural devices. A strong sense of voice is established in the first line, “Remember me when I am gone away”, as if the narrator of the poem, presumably a representation of Rossetti herself, is speaking directly to the reader and addressing herself in first person. The concept of loss is introduced in this line as a proposition that generates a sombre, melancholy tone. This is immediately followed and reinforced by the next line in which an isolated, deserted atmosphere is created by the use of the motif “silent land” and the repetition of the phrase “gone far away”. The following line strongly alludes to intimacy and affection – “When you can no more hold me by the hand”, intensifying the yearning, mournful tone of the narrator’s voice. Here, she refers to a distinctly tactile memory of her loved one, longing for their touch and warmth. This further portrays her desire and request to be remembered by her beloved with whom she shared a profoundly intimate relationship.
The highly structured metrical pattern displayed throughout the poem enhances its solemn atmosphere, as a strong sense of regularity and order is imposed by an iambic pentameter. However, its octave and sestet display a great deal of contrast in not only the rhyme schemes used but also the use of enjambment, creating a free-flowing rhythm. The regular ABBA ABBA rhyme pattern shown in the octave is contrasted by the irregular scheme of CDD ECE in the sestet that follows. The contemplative and mournful tone established in the octave is counteracted by the narrator’s sense of acceptance and contentment in the sestet that tells her loved one, “do not grieve” and that they should “forget and smile” and not “remember and be sad”. This shift in the narrator’s tone illustrates her change in attitude over time – from a dark, grief-stricken fear of being forgotten, to her earnest wish for the happiness of her beloved even when she is no longer remembered.
While Rossetti’s poem ‘Remember’ illustrates the expression of grief and sorrow in one’s death and remembrance, ‘A Birthday’ narrates feelings of intense joy and uncontainable delight for the arrival of her “love”. Although it remains ambiguous as to what her love refers to – whether it is romantic, her religious devotion to her Christian faith, or simply a state of being – the central focus of the poem is in the uninhibited expression of exhilaration and fulfillment. The “birthday” is used as a motif throughout the poem, representing renewal, growth, and a new beginning, and contributes to the celebratory, festive atmosphere of the poem.
In the first stanza, the vivid imagery alluding to the beauty of the natural world establishes the overjoyed tone of the narrator. She compares her heart to a “singing bird”, strongly evoking a sense of vitality and delighted energy. Here, singing is perceived as a free, uninhibited form of expression by which one conveys intense feelings of joy. This is further reinforced by the imagery of a “nest” in a “water’d shoot” which alludes to the concept of nurture, care, and growth. The first two lines of the stanza are enjambed, contributing to the song-like, lyrical flow of the rhythm and further reinforcing the strong sense of liveliness and freedom.
As with ‘Remember’, the narrative tone shifts as the poem progresses. The second half of the first stanza introduces a sense of mysticism with the use of motifs such as a “rainbow shell” and a “halcyon sea”. In juxtaposition with the depiction of physical beauty of nature in the first half of the stanza, this intangible, ambiguous reference to spirituality is suggestive of the binary oppositions that exist within Rossetti’s perception of the world. At the end of the stanza, the narrator expresses that the intensity of her joy and fulfillment is incomparable to anything she describes, as her “heart is gladder than all these, because my love is come to me”. The atmosphere of the poem continues to shift through the second stanza, as the narrator’s symbolic potrayal of satisfaction and contentment draws on objects associated with extravagance, abundance, and luxury. In an imperative tone that commands, “Raise me”, “Hang it”, “Work it”, a series of visual motifs including a “dais of silk”, “vair”, “purple dyes” and “gold and silver grapes” represent the intensifying growth of her love and joy. The ending of the stanza serves to signify a moment of epiphany and self-insight, as the narrator declares that the “birthday” of her life has come, and therefore, so has her love.
Rossetti’s poem ‘Amor Mundi’ combines the dualities of growth and decay, and temptation and corruption. The dialogue that consists of a call-and-response pattern between two antithetical voices explores the concepts of temptation and corruption. The first stanza begins as the question “O where are you going…” is posed, with “love-locks flowing” used as a symbol that establishes an atmosphere of freedom and wild, unrestrained vitality. This also alludes to the associations made with women who exposed their hair during the Victorian era; the “flowing locks” presented in this context strongly suggests a sense of seduction and alluring temptation. The next line “…west wind blowing along…” further reinforces this atmosphere of free-flowing, uninhibited energy. The second voice that answers, “The downhill path is easy…” speaks in a playful, deceptive tone, luring the others into temptation of pleasure by asserting, “come with me an it please ye”. Another motif that refers to this concept of enticement and pleasure are presented in the second stanza, the “honey-breathing heather”. This is used to illustrate not only the outward beauty of a flowered heath, but more significantly the excessive sweetness and overindulgence elicited by the imagery of honey. Here, the moral corruption of the two characters of the poem is foreshadowed as they plan to “escape uphill by never turning back”, indulging themselves in unrestrained pleasure and temptation which lead to their own destruction.
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.
Contrasting Unrequited Love Two Poems: Christina Rossetti’s ‘No, Thank You, John’ And W.H. Auden ‘The More Loving One’
Poetic verse has been used as an outlet of strong emotions and feelings for centuries. The elegance of poetry has long been thought of as more refined than that of prose writing, and thus as a better vessel for conveying strong feelings. Subjects such as death, love, hate, beauty, and betrayal are common themes, but poems can also be about almost nothing at all. One of the most classic themes in poetry is the broad topic of love. A sappy sonnet to a loved one on Valentine’s day, a free verse comparing a broken heart to a cracked chicken egg, a haiku about the beauty of one’s love in the moonlight, the list goes on and on. In both W. H. Auden’s “The More Loving One” and Christina Rossetti’s “No, Thank You, John” the subject of the poem deals with unrequited love, but each from the opposite side of the spectrum. Unrequited love, and the usual resulting broken heart, is one of the more poignant issues a person can deal with. This lack of emotional reciprocation can be very difficult to deal with, but both poems have satisfying resolutions to their problems.
Although the two poems have a similar premise, they differ in perspective. While Rossetti’s poetic subject is the object of one man’s, John’s, desires, Auden’s poetic subject is a lover “of stars who do not give a dam” (l 10). The lack of returned feelings is something that the subject grapples with through out Auden’s work. He understands that the stars do not love him and that they never will, regardless of his feelings for them. This can be seen as a direct analogy for loving a person and not receiving love back. However, Auden clearly knows that when in a relationship with another person or animal, as opposed to the stars, “indifference is the least” (l 3) thing he has to fear.
As Auden contemplates a star-to-man role reversal in the second stanza, readers can make inferences about the man’s emotional history:
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me. (ll 5-8)
It is the man’s familiarity with the pain of unrequited love that drives him to be the more loving one. He understands the anguish so well, that he would rather face it himself than wish it on another. The power of his love, although unreturned, is strong enough for him to submit himself to heartache and to spare the object of his desire.
In the first two stanzas, Auden establishes the man’s feeling and the lengths at which he would go for the object of his desire. Although the poem is about loving the stars, the results of the unrequited love can be translated to a relationship to “man or beast” (l 4). In the second two stanzas, Auden offers solace to the man:
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel it’s total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time. (ll 13-16)
The man knows that no matter how passionately he burns for his beloved stars, he cannot change the way they feel about him. He comforts himself with the fact that time (“take me a little time”) will heal all wounds. Although he is suffering from his unreturned love, eventually the pain and even the desire will fade completely.
One other beautiful aspect of Auden’s work is the imagery of the stars. By having stars be the object of the man’s love, Auden’s characterizes the distance and estrangement that one feels from unrequited love. He could love the stars to death, and it would not change anything. Thus, he must wait for the healer of all things, time.
While Auden’s poem deals with not receiving any love, Rossetti’s poem deals with not giving any love. She is the object of a man’s advances and uses the poem to adamantly turn him down, though she uses a great deal of tact and honesty to do so. She opens with “I never said I loved you, John” (l 1). With this opening statement she sets a tone of honesty for the rest of the poem. Also, throughout the poem she maintains that she was never untrue to him or gave him false hope: “Don’t call me false, who owed not to be true” (l 14). This is an important distinction that she makes. If she had instead given John false hope for love, and then denied him, some of the blame for the situation would rest on her shoulders. But she did not. She implores him to use his sense and realize that it is not her fault that she was made his “toast” (l 6), and that he cannot blame her for the way she feels or the way she does not feel. Her somewhat brutal honesty comes to a point when she last exclaims, “I’d rather answer “No” to fifty Johns / Than answer “Yes” to you.” (ll 19-20).
Rossetti was a Victorian poet and this was a very progressive way of thinking for women at the time. It went against the status quo to not be a subservient and obedient woman. It is thought that Rossetti wrote that poem for the 19th century artist John Brett.
As Rossetti moves from simple refusal to absolute rejection, she counters the arguments John has to make her rethink her decision: “I have no heart?-Perhaps I have not; / But then you’re mad to take offence / That I don’t give you what I have not got.” (ll 13-15). She shuts down his excuses and advances as John vainly tries to salvage some sort of romantic relationship. Her words are crisp and have an adamant, no-nonsense impression. By supplying a question to herself (“I have no heart?”), the readers can assume that John has not taken the high road as the speaker in Auden’s poem has. John seems to be pettier and is clutching at his last shred of hope for Rossetti’s love. He will eventually get over his rejection, “Though this might take [him] a little time.” (l 16).
After Rossetti’s poem reaches peak rejection, she helps to heal the wound, similarly to Auden’s poem, by offering solace to John in the last 3 stanzas. She asks him to “mar our pleasant days no more” (l 21) and to “strike hands as hearty friends; / No more, no less” (l 25-26). Although her annoyance with John is apparent throughout the poem, the sincerity she shows towards the end offers consolation for him. By honestly and adamantly telling him that no love could form between him, she prevents him from having false hope, and she shows her true character by offering the friendship between them: “Here’s friendship if you like; but love,- / No, thank you, John.” (ll 30-31). She deflects John’s almost pathetic desperation and still manages to tactfully reject him. It is not easy to come out as the ‘good guy’ when you break someone’s heart, but Rossetti seems to have done it flawlessly.
Auden and Rossetti were authors of very different time periods. Auden was born a decade after Rossetti died. They most likely had very little in common, and yet their poems compliment each other quite well: Rossetti tactfully doling out a harsh rejection, Auden maturely and rationally dealing with that rejection. The unrequited love that both poems deal with reminds readers, who have experienced it, what it is like to love and to lose. Rossetti’s offers insight and advice to someone who must reject emotional advances, while Auden’s offers great solace and consolation for those who have been rejected. The poems encapsulate great feelings and emotions while maintaining impeccable poetic flow. Rossetti’s sharp and witty (and almost humorous) rejection is balanced nicely by Auden’s soft but poignant rationale. The authors use the poems wonderfully as an elegant vessel to encapsulate great and powerful emotions.
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.
Examining the Voice of Negation in a Close Reading of “Goblin Market”
Christina Rossetti’s poems were viewed as moral pieces, especially in comparison to her brother Dante’s sensual and even sexual poetry. However, Rossetti’s poetry is demonstrative of the Victorian mindset in that, it is not simply dutiful and preaching. Rossetti’s poems, like the Victorians, are full of questions about life…what it means to be a human and what it means to be a woman. Rossetti asked these questions in a way that allowed her poetry to be seen as simple and moral, if deceptively so.
“White and golden Lizzie stood, ‘-‘-‘-‘
Like a lily in a flood,– ‘-‘-‘-‘
Like a rock of blue-veined stone ‘-‘-‘-‘
Lashed by tides obstreperously,–” ‘-‘-‘—
(Goblin Market 408-411)
In these four lines from Goblin Market Rossetti is using her characteristic manner of seeming to say something very simple while implying much more.
First, let us look at these four lines from a technical standpoint. The first three lines contain seven syllables, four of them stressed with three interspersed unstressed syllables. The regularity of the rhythm, combined with the soft, lulling repetition of the ‘L’ sounds (in “Lizzie”, “like”, “lily”, and “lashed”), create a singing, lullaby-like sound to this somewhat erotic cautionary tale.
Each of the first three lines begins and ends with a stressed beat, so that the line break interrupts a potential spondaic foot. The end-stops on the lines framed by stressed beats create an exaggerated pause between the lines, so that they seem to stand independently from each other. This effect breaks apart the format of the similes. The pauses and breaks make the reader separate the tenor from the vehicle, so that we are not sure what exactly is “Like a lily” or “Like a rock”…is it Lizzie? the way she’s standing? her color or purity?
The similes also draw interest because they contradict each other. A “lily in a flood” is going to behave very differently than a “rock of blue-veined stone / Lashed by tides”. The lily is likely to be broken or uprooted by a flood, whereas a stone may wear down only over years and years of being struck by tides. Particularly, “obstreperous” tides are problematic, since the word “obstreperously” declines into three unstressed beats, breaking the rhythm of the lines. The tides, therefore, are noisy and uncontrolled, lack force against the rock, fading where the rhythm dictates that they should remain strong.
The role of color in these four lines invokes angelic and royal imagery. Lizzie is “White and golden”, colors associated with purity and angels, and with “blue-vein[s]” indicating aristocratic or royal blood. Lizzie represents, in these lines, an idealized woman: she is angelic and noble. However, Rossetti seems to call into question what the idealized woman is: is she pure and dainty like a lily, or cold and persevering like stone? Or, is the perfect woman somehow called to the impossible task of being all of these things at once? The even rhythm and soothing, reassuring consonance of the repeated ‘l’ all are forces to make the reader take the work as a simple tale of the triumph of morality. But the off-beat the last line, the odd use of the word “obstreperously” and, most importantly, the incongruous similes make the reader uneasy in this reading. If Rossetti wanted her readers simply to understand that all women should strive to be like Lizzie, why would she create impossible credentials for Lizzie? Rossetti uses negating imagery to cause the reader to ask the important question: what is a moral woman? Is it Lizzie? Is it possible to be?
“Still the world would wag on the same, ‘-‘-‘’-‘
Still the seasons go and come:” ‘-‘-‘-‘
(From the Antique 9-10)
Lines 9 and 10 from From the Antique contain eight syllables and seven syllables each, respectively. This syllabic misalignment creates an interesting conflict between what is being said and what is being heard, especially in combination with how every line opens and closes with a strong beat. Between the lines there is a long pause that contradicts the idea of a “world wag[ging] on the same”. The pause between the lines seems to imply otherwise: that something is happening between these cycles of seasons and that is disruptive and different. But the disruption does not seem to be negative or destructive. The strong beats at the beginning and close of each line give the aural impression of something chugging on, gaining new steam each line and not stopping.
The first line’s alliteration of the ‘w’-sound (“world would wag”) is both playful and tiring, as is the word “wag”. “Wag” implies endless repetition, mimicked by the alliteration, and “wag on the same” sounds potentially cheerful (like a puppy’s wagging tail) but also wearying.
The speaker’s weariness is also emphasized by the world “Still” which opens two contiguous lines. “Still” has multiple meanings: still can mean not moving; it can mean persistent or persevering; to halt something’s movement or make something quiet. “Still” in these lines, then, could be positive or negative. Is it that the weary “wag[ing] “world” persists in going on, that the seasons persist to keep go around in circles? Or, is it that the world would persevere and, despite it all, would manage to “wag” happily on, and the seasons would manage to always cycle back to spring after winter?
The voice in these seems simple. It is not using difficult language; the diction is almost colloquial with words like “wag” and “go and come” (an inversion of the typical ‘come and go’). Every word, except the easily accessible word “seasons”, is monosyllabic. But, the voice is not so simple. It is simultaneously happy about the world ability to carry on, using the positive, blossoming language of spring, and yet depressed about the static repetition of the same old cycle time and time again. It is making dual, yet contradicting assertions, in a manner characteristic, and defining, of Christina Rossetti’s poetry.
Despair in ‘from the Antique’
Despair is a very common theme in many of Rossetti’s poems and is particularly important to her poem, ‘From the Antique’. It is typical of her attitude towards despair, since Rossetti appears to be having a moral dilemma between her religious fanaticism and her desire for death. This is conveyed through her use of natural imagery, which helps to emphasize the beauty of the world that she will be leaving behind if her suicidal thoughts overpower her faith. This essay will intend to prove the idea that ‘From the Antique’ presents Rossetti’s typical attitude towards despair, through a close comparison with the poems, ‘Remember’ and ‘Goblin Market’.
Despair and suicide are prevalent themes in Rossetti’s poem, ‘From the Antique’. The title of the poem seems to suggest nostalgia, which could show the speaker’s desire to return to the past and rid themselves of these feelings of depression. Alternatively, ‘antique’ may be alluding to the ancient civilizations of the Greek and Romans, where sacrificing oneself was considered heroic rather than sinful. This may indicate that the speaker is having problems with the era in which they live; the Victorian era was known for being particularly conservative, meaning that issues such as depression and mental health were not discussed. It also presents the speaker’s religious crisis, since suicide is considered a mortal sin in Christian theology; Rossetti was a committed High Church Anglican, which sheds light on her personal conflict with depression and her faith. For that reason, the speaker has feelings of despair because there is no outlet for them to come to terms with depression other than that of the written word. This also highlights Rossetti’s struggle with her own mental health and the idea that she is creating a persona that she is able to relate to. However, Rossetti’s use of third person in the first line of the poem indicates that she is attempting to distance herself from the speaker: ‘It’s a weary life, it is, she said’. This also relates to the idea of depression being a taboo subject in the 19th century and misleads the reader to believe that Rossetti is not struggling with this problem herself. Natural imagery is also used in the poem to portray feelings of despair, particularly in the third stanza: ‘Blossoms bloom as in days of old, cherries ripen and wild bees hum’. Rossetti chooses to focus on spring and summer as opposed to autumn and winter, which juxtaposes the depression of the speaker with the vitality of the Earth. It also helps to present the beauty that the speaker will no longer be able to admire if their desire for death is too strong. Since the seasons occur in a cycle, it shows how the speaker believes that life would go on the same if they died and implies that they have left no significant impact on the world, presenting the speaker’s complete lack of self-worth. This lack of self-worth may stem from Rossetti’s problems with her gender, as the speaker says: ‘I wish and I wish I were a man: or, better than any being, were not’. Rossetti’s ideas of gender roles were closely linked to her religious views, in which she fundamentally believed that men and women could not be equal and that they were created for different purposes. The first stanza takes a drastic shift from gender identity to suicide, showing that the speaker’s despair is so great that dying as a woman seems more appealing to them than living does. This displays the female struggle in the Victorian era, since women were seen as inferior to men and lived lives that were far more oppressed than their male counterparts were.
The theme of despair is also present in Rossetti’s poem ‘Remember’. This poem displays the speaker’s fear of being forgotten, which contrasts with ‘From the Antique’, where the speaker is more resigned to the idea of being forgotten. The poem begins with a pleading tone: ‘Remember me when I am gone away’. The word ‘remember’ is used as a refrain throughout the poem, which helps to reiterates the key message of the poem and the fear of being forgotten. In this context, it is used as an imperative verb, which emphasizes the pleas of the speaker and the despair that they feel. During her life, Rossetti had been deeply affected by illness and death; her father had died from ill health and she had suffered a mental breakdown during her teenage years. During the 19th century, there was also a high mortality rate due to a lack of medicine, so it is understandable why Rossetti’s fear of death easily translated to her writing. The ninth line of the poem shows a change in tone from the speaker: ‘Yet if you should forget me for a while and afterwards remember, do not grieve’. At this point in the poem, the speaker’s tone is more resigned to the idea of being forgotten; they decide that it would be better for others to forget and be happy, rather than remember and be sad. Therefore, it could be argued that the speaker is putting the well-being of others before themselves, since they do not want their loved ones to go through the same feelings of depression and despair. This change in tone may also represent the idea of female inferiority, since women were not expected to command others do carry out actions and the speaker believes that her wishes will not be complied with. This change in tone is also accompanied by an irregular rhyme structure, which helps to present the speaker’s conflict between remembrance and the happiness of others.
The poem ‘Goblin Market’ also explores the theme of despair, but is presented in a different way to the other poems. This poem instead chooses to focus on the idea of the dependency on the material world to contextualize these feelings of despair. Desire is used to present how temptations can lead to despair: ‘their evil gifts would harm us’. This is a biblical reference to the forbidden fruit, which led to the fall of man; similarly the goblins’ fruit leads to Laura’s despair. This also links to Rossetti’s religious views, since she was a devout High Church Anglican and may therefore be criticizing Laura for her compliance. Laura’s desperation for the fruit is clear in line 283, when she attempts to grow the fruits herself: ‘Watched for a waxing shoot, but there came none. It never saw the sun’. This is similar to Laura’s own state, because her dependency on the goblins means that she is no longer willing to eat or drink. The lack of a shoot also shows that vitality is missing from Laura, because she is so preoccupied with obtaining the goblins’ fruit that has been controlling her both mentally and physically. It could be implied that Laura represents the fallen women that Rossetti worked with at St Mary Magdalene’s home, which indicates that she may be showing some sympathy. However, the fact that she has given in to temptation much like Eve did with the forbidden fruit, suggests that she may partly be to blame for her own downfall because she showed no resolve like her sister.
In conclusion, all three poems portray feelings of despair however this may be achieved in different ways. In ‘From the Antique’ and ‘Remember’, Rossetti links these feelings to death, whilst in ‘Goblin Market’ it is displayed through dependency on material objects. Nevertheless, all three poems serve to prove that despair is what leads to the destruction of the personas in the poems and that death may stem from this.
Erotic Undertones in “Goblin Market”
Christina Rossetti grew up among a family of skilled writers and artists whose muses had to do with contemporary life and past scholarship, yet they were strictly evangelical Christians. Christina Rossetti strictly followed the expectations of this ideal (Everett). There has been much conjecture that she lived a self-repressed life in which she revealed her passions for certain men through her poetic works since they did not share similar religious values, and she lived vicariously through her less repressed brother and his friends (Gilbert & Gubar 874). The implications of these incompatible and contrasting dynamics can be read through her poetry, particularly “Goblin Market,” published in 1862 (RPO). “Goblin Market” uses imagery, symbolism and erotic characterization of the sisters Laura and Lizzie to symbolically discuss the way that women’s relationships with men undermine women’s value and worth, and that women can only realize their full potential through relationships with other women. Although these relationships are not limited to sexual or romantic ones, the relationship between the sisters is eroticized in order to starkly emphasize the way in which women can bring beauty and greatness out of other women, while men’s degradation tends to only use women up.
The fruits in this poem are described in a sexual way through the words “wild free born cranberries,” “sweet to tongue,” and “luscious,” and the way Lizzie describes them as “evil gifts” (lines 11, 30, 61 and 66). The fruits are also from various locations in the world and fresh at different times of the year, yet they are all part of the goblin’s market, which suggests some preternatural or supernatural aspect of these goblin men, and also suffices to make the fruits both more coveted and more forbidden. The goblins selling the fruit are inherently deceitful; Laura and Lizzie’s attempts to resist their offers show that they are chaste and would like to avoid giving in to such tricks that may cause them to “[pine] and [pine] away,” and “dwindle and [grow] gray,” like their friend Jeanie who gave in (lines 154, 156). However, Laura is slightly more receptive and curious to their forbidden offers, which is detrimental to her. This could have been similarly dangerous for a woman in the latter half of 19th century England, especially had she been focused on her stringent Anglican way of life.
This danger is conspicuous when the Goblins sneak up on Laura and give each other sly looks, signifying their licentious plotting (line 95-96). The golden curl that they request from Laura indicates a shift; since she cried when she hands it over, it is conspicuously valuable to her in a personal way, and she grapples with her emotions in submitting to provide her golden curl. However, since it is payment to the goblin men, this shows that they value her hair as a commodity, but also since hair can represent feminine beauty, they are taking away some of her beauty in exchange for “fruits” which come to represent brief sensual pleasure and then decay. This is interesting when situated in the late 1800’s, a time when marriage was becoming based more upon “mutual love” than on dowry or social advancement (Yalom 180). The social conventions and conception of women at this time went along with the new marriage ideals in that, with the focus of marriage being on love, women tried to attract such love by being “as physically attractive as possible” (Yalom 183). This part of the poem suggests that women’s beauty and youth is their sole importance to men, and that once it is taken from the women, their life begins to fade, they are no longer wanted, and they are left to waste away after brief moments of pleasure.
The eating of the fruit can be equated with Laura (and previously Jeanie) having lost her virginity. However, it can be seen as giving up her beauty or vitality to a man in a more general sense; for instance, a woman’s main roles at this time were to “obey and satisfy one’s husband [through] keeping one’s children physically and morally sound and maintaining the household,” and these could all be seen as ways in which she “sold” herself only to be taken advantage of and used up, but never actually fulfilled (Yalom 180). The fruits had an intoxicating effect on her as she “sucked their fruit globes fair or red,” until “her lips were sore,” but she left with no knowledge of what time of day it was (lines 127, 136). Laura is noticeably altered, and her connection with her sister is somewhat broken because of the connection with the goblin men and their fruits which have replaced it.
Interestingly, this overt sexuality when Laura eats the fruit is replaced with a more natural and innate kind of sexuality which Rossetti refers to when she describes the two sisters–now inevitably distinct form one another– as “Folded in each other’s wings,” “Cheek to cheek and breast to breast, Locked together in one nest” (line 186 and line 197-98). While this is not as conspicuously eroticized as Laura’s goblin encounter, there is especial attention paid to their proximity and the manner in which their bodies gently touch. Laura’s anxieties when she realizes she no longer hears the goblins yet her sister does, bear semblance to the thoughts a woman may have once she has wasted prime years of her youth and happiness giving too much of herself to a man, in the lines “Must she no more such succous pasture find, Gone deaf and blind? Her tree of life dropped from the root” (line 257-60). This anxiety is again contrasted with the potential gratification she could experience through her relationship with her sister, like the night earlier, but rather she is stricken “passionate yearning,” which is similar to a kind of malaise. The subsequent yearning and concern and palpable emptiness following her brief rapture is significant as compared with her prior serenity of mind. The encounter of her eating the fruit and the frantic obsession she had afterwards represent even an intoxicated ecstasy that blinds a woman until sobering light of day, much like how Laura’s hair turns “thin and gray,” and the rapid progression of time “burn[ed] her fire away” when “noon waxed bright” (276-280).
The Goblin men did not literally bring Laura to decay, but they played a large part in persuading her to make the choice that did. The Goblin men represent destructive sexuality, which is demonstrated through the way they initially sexualize Laura and she starts decaying, but more explicitly when they “Hugged and kissed [Lizzie]: Squeezed and caressed her,” but then violently “tore her gown and soiled her stocking” when she refuses to eat the fruit (348-49 and 403). The once-romanticized notion of the forbidden men with their forbidden fruit turns into a terrifying violent reality which they enact shamelessly, and negates the possibility of Laura’s succumbing to their deception earlier as appearing at all beautiful or vibrantly sexual; instead, it shows that these goblin men have intentions which they do all they can to fulfill, which involve taking advantage of the women and using force. The sexuality, then, between men and women in this poem is portrayed as destructive and dangerous, which is alleviated only by Lizzie’s courage and the interaction which saves Laura when Lizzie cries “Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices” and “Eat me, drink me, love me; Laura, make much of me” (line 468 and 471-72). While these words are inherently sensual, they are not ominous and representative of sublime unknown powers of the goblin men. They echo the words Rossetti used in describing Laura eating the fruit of the goblin men, but it is more muted, since Lizzie has impassioned desperate cries to her sister, rather than the sly looks and voices in unison of the goblins. Also, Laura then ate the fruit for the first time in ecstatic ignorance, and now she consumes the antidote, first in caution, but then from the skin of her trusting sister who has sacrificed herself for Laura. Similarly, as if it is a realization of her only way to find fulfillment, Laura, “After long sultry drouth; Shaking with anguish fear, and pain, kiss’d and kiss’d her with a hungry mouth” (490-92).
Complete fruition of the antidote and Lizzie’s efforts is realized when Laura “awoke as from a dream,” which Rossetti describes as “life out of death;” importantly, Laura’s golden hair is back to normal and her eyes are full of light, demonstrating her vitality, yet she is not “sick in part” or afflicted with an elusive malady like when she first eats the fruit (lines 537, 524, 212). In this way, Rossetti effectively corrects sexual relationships with men where women are singularly self-sacrificial, with the eroticized relationship of the sisters, where presumably, they would both sacrifice for the other’s fulfillment, as Lizzie did. Not only does Lizzie revive Laura from braving the goblins and getting the antidote and from compassionately watching her throughout the night, but Laura’s ability to be renewed from Lizzie also brings Lizzie new life fulfillment. Lizzie’s quest also provides her a new understanding of herself and a sense of pride, which would not have been gained without Laura’s transgression to begin with. Although the sisters are not “lovers” in the conventional sense, Rossetti uses sexual connotations in their encounters in order to symbolically show the way that such relationships may offer far more gratification, and even live-saving properties, than relationships between women and men. Women appreciate other women due to their ability to empathize and understand their condition, rather than attribute monetary worth to their bodies and try to use it for all that they can.
Rossetti mitigates and qualifies the intense imagery and blatant sexual undertones of the poem in the last stanza, where the earlier elaborated-upon antidote is called “fiery” and the tone is more loving than sensual, in the words “For there is no friend like a sister” (559, 562).
The Analysis of the Poem “What is Pink” by Christina Rossetti
This poem was written by Christina Rossetti and the name of it is ‘What is pink?’. It is basically about colours but on a deeper level, showing us the positive side of it. There is unity in this poem and no stanzas . In lines 1-4, the poet uses the words “pink” and “red”, these colours have a connection with flowers, which the poet refers to as the “rose” and “poppy”
The poem’s beginning is grounded with softness and comfort as the poet uses colours that represent romance and hearts. There is tenderness inferred in lines 1-2 and something comforting in lines 3-4. In lines 5-8, the poet uses the word “blue” which is rather morose and “white” which is rather bland. It is less romantic and now more inspirational as the poet represents these colours with beautiful entities such as the “sky” and “swan” which refer to extending up. Reaching for dreams and sailing into a world that is wonderful and majestic are represented by “The sky” and “Sailing”.
Although it isn’t as positive as the first four lines and colours that represent morose and blandness are used, “clouds” and “swan” is added to change the morose and blandness to something beautiful and breath-taking In lines 9-12, colours are crossed to find similarities when the poet says; “pears” are “yellow” representing warmth (as well as “red” in line 3) and “grass is green” representing coolness (as well as “blue” in line 5). There is beauty in the lines 10 and 12 where the poet uses the words “Rich and rip and mellow” and “With small flowers between”. The similarity continues to extend from lines 1-4 as the idea of plants has returned where “rose” and “poppy” are more akin to “pear” and “grass” than “sky” and “swan” . In lines 13-16, the poet has once again continued the similarity, but this time, with lines 5-8 reminding us of the “sky” and “swan” as the word “clouds” has been used instead of a flower or plant to represent “violet”
The connection between plants and the sky can now be noticed as we can now see the links and jumps in the ideas for this poem. The colour that offsets this similarity is “orange”, it seems as if it isn’t given much thought as the other colours – that is what the poet wants us to think, but what the poet wants the poem to reveal to us is that as we saw the good and positive in the other colours, we must always look past trivial and look deeper to continue to see the good and positive, that is how we will see somethings possibility and true beauty.
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.
From Objectified to Deified: an Exploration of Self in “Goblin Market”
A torrid lesbian love affair. An acerbic commentary on the commercialization of sex. A dire struggle between physical temptation and spiritual good. A child’s nursery rhyme. “Goblin Market” encompasses a wealth of interpretations, some of which smoothly blending together, others remaining diametrically opposed. It symbolizes its creator’s complex nature. With each reading, it challenges readers to analyze, debate, and actively engage with it anew. In light of several of her other poems as well as her biography, yet another voice emerges to guide the interpretation of this intricate work. Christina Rossetti’s narrative poem “Goblin Market” asserts itself as an early feminist text in its condemnation of the Victorian women’s roles and its empowerment of a female heroine. Rossetti denounces her female contemporaries for their characteristic vulnerability and submission to men’s wills through her depiction of Laura’s temptation and downfall. Rather than merely condemn the status quo, she provides her audience with a credible and inspirational heroine in Lizzie. However, the truly revolutionary and feminist quality of this poem lies in Rossetti’s assertion of Lizzie as a female Christ figure. In her contrast between the helpless Laura and the self-reliant Lizzie, Rossetti introduces her Victorian audience to the inevitable shift of women’s roles.
In the Victorian era, women shouldered the burden of quietly and gratefully attending to their husbands’ every need and whim. Rather than retain their own identities, women became men’s objects and possessions. In her poem “In an Artist’s Studio,” Rossetti subtly addresses the injustice of this relationship through her description of a woman objectified in an artist’s painting. Instead of portraying her “as she is,” the artist merely paints her “as she fills his dreams,” without the pains of living that make her human (14). When he represents her simply as a perfect “saint” or “angel,” he refuses to acknowledge the “wan with waiting” and dimness of sorrow in a real woman’s eyes (7, 12).
Rather than allow Victorian women to add the role of victim to object, Rossetti condemns these women for their inability to assert themselves through her characterization of Laura in “Goblin Market.” Despite her initial admonishments to “not look at the goblin men” and “not buy their fruits,” Laura finds herself weak-willed and unable to resist their calls (42, 43). “Curious Laura chose to linger” among the goblin men, thereby ignoring her instincts and succumbing to their will (69). Persuasive and assertive in their temptations, they easily crumble her “last restraint” and watch as she “sucked and sucked and sucked the more” (86, 134). Rossetti further chastises women for their weak constitutions in her portrayal of Laura’s helplessness. Upon realizing the futility of her search for the goblin market, Laura “[gnashes] her teeth for baulked desire” and grows as “cold as stone” instead of actively seeking a way to extract herself from these depths of despair (267, 253). Through her tongue-in-cheek portrayal of a woman objectified in a painting coupled with her denunciation of Laura’s weakness and helplessness, Rossetti critiques Victorian women’s passivity and inferior status in an attempt to propel the recognition of the need for change.
In lieu of demanding instant and revolutionary changes in gender roles, Rossetti offers Victorian women practical and effective means of gaining power. Rather than succumb to the easy solution of a marriage of convenience, the speaker of “‘No Thank You, John’” assertively rejects convention in favor of her personal needs. Although many other women “would take pity” on the suitor if he would ask, this woman refuses to “perform that task” because she “never loved” him from the start (9-10, 12, 5). Despite his incessant entreaties, she maintains that she would “rather answer ‘No’ to fifty Johns” than succumb to weariness and “answer ‘Yes’ to [him]” (19, 3, 20). Furthermore, the speaker adopts the dominant role when she instructs her immature suitor to “rise above quibbles” and use his “common sense” (29-30, 16).
In addition to her vignette of this speaker creating power for herself, Rossetti further encourages women to challenge the status quo by her portrayal of Lizzie as the heroine in “Goblin Market.” Beyond her mere characteristics of purity and kindness, Lizzie’s true heroism hails from her active pursuit of danger and her determination to conquer it. As a witness to Laura’s anguish, Lizzie fully comprehends the risks of venturing into the world of goblins and forbidden fruit. Despite her desire to “buy fruit to comfort [Laura],” she recalls another girl driven to death by her fall to temptation and fears “to pay too dear” (310, 311). Then Lizzie’s wavering ceases when “Laura dwindling seem[s] knocking at Death’s door,” thereby prompting the heroine to take action (320-321). In order to save Laura, Lizzie begins to actively “listen and look” for danger (328). Though she remains ever mindful of the risk, she firmly demands “much and many” of the fruits and refuses to comply with the goblins’ temptation to eat in their presence (365). In both of these poems, Rossetti depicts women who assert their strength and integrity by holding firmly to their principles in the face of temptation.
In her most revolutionary and controversial tactic, Rossetti bolsters the feminist voice of this piece through her portrayal of a female Christ figure. According to her biography, Rossetti embodied many contrasts and polarities as part of her “complex nature” (1611). Deeply devout in her religious beliefs, Rossetti “renounced… any pleasures or relationships that did not conform to her strict Anglo-Catholic principles” (1611). Nevertheless, her life was woven with a thread of defiance of convention in favor of personal integrity: she “regarded her choice of single life as an act of artistic self-preservation” despite the Victorian society’s promotion of marriage and procreation as a civic and religious duty (1611). Her ability to reconcile her strict faith with her challenges to convention indicates that she would likewise be capable of toying with controversial aspects of her faith while maintaining the deference for its basic tenets.
In her assertion of Lizzie as a Christ-figure in “Goblin Market,” Rossetti simultaneously elevates women’s status and empowers them by simply challenging the importance of Christ’s gender. Because “tender Lizzie could not bear to watch her sister’s cantankerous care” and not “share” in the burden and strife, she parallels Christ’s role as the sacrificial lamb (299-300, 301). She willingly offers herself to evil with the intent of rescuing her fallen sister. Just as Christ suffered on the cross to redeem sinners, Lizzie endures the goblins’ mauling, mocking and clawing in her attempt to save Laura (429, 401). Despite their taunts and cruelty, “Lizzie [utters] not a word” (430). After the agony and despair, Christ rises from the dead for the salvation of sinners and to inspire his people to spread the word of God’s glory. Lizzie likewise transcends the torture of the “evil people” and returns to Laura, for the sake of whom she “braved the glen” (437, 473). By licking the juice residue from Lizzie’s face, Laura’s anguish lifts and she awakes “as from a dream” and from “life out of death” (537, 524). As Christ’s apostles proclaimed his sacrifice, Laura gathers the children to “tell them how her sister stood in deadly peril to do her good” (557-558). In her portrayal of a woman as a Christ-figure, Rossetti further supports a feminist interpretation of this work.
Although she lived in the Victorian era and endured the severe inequality between men and women, Christina Rossetti refused to passively abide by rigid gender roles. The success of her poetic career and her strict professionalism alone attest to her hope for and work towards expanded opportunities for women. In her controversial poem “Goblin Market,” Rossetti anticipates a shift in women’s roles by contrasting the deeds of Victorian Laura with the early feminist Lizzie. As the embodiment of the Victorian woman, Laura easily succumbs to the goblin men’s temptations because of her vulnerability and lack of independence. Lizzie sharply contrasts Laura by resolutely maintaining her moral ground and by coaxing her inner strength to the surface. In an attempt to further challenge these social roles, Rossetti draws distinct connections between the self-sacrifice of the feminist heroine and of Christ. The characterizations of these two women render the “Goblin Market” a feminist work of art. The women of Rossetti’s poems span an array of personalities, ranging from a soulless object to a weak-willed sinner to a single woman to a selfless heroine to a Christ-like figure. Through her self-expression in art, Christina Rossetti finally explores the many facets of her “complex nature.”