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.
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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 […]