Verse > Anthologies > Alfred H. Miles, ed. > Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century
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Alfred H. Miles, ed.  Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century.  1907.
 
Critical and Biographical Essay by Arthur Symons
Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830–1894)
 
CHRISTINA GEORGINA ROSSETTI, the younger sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was born in London December 5th, 1830, and died there December 29th, 1894. She was the daughter of Gabriele Rossetti, the Neapolitan poet, patriot, and commentator on Dante; her mother was Frances Mary Lavinia Polidori, an Italian of partly English extraction, born in England, and in all her sympathies a complete Englishwoman. When Miss Rossetti was sixteen, her grandfather, G. Polidori, printed at his private press a little pamphlet of “Verses by Christina G. Rossetti” (1847). In 1850 she contributed a few poems to The Germ, under the pseudonym of Ellen Alleyn. It was not till 1862 that her first volume of poetry, “Goblin Market, and other Poems,” appeared. This was followed by a second volume, “The Prince’s Progress, and other Poems,” in 1866. In 1870 appeared a collection of tales under the name of “Commonplace, and other Short Stories.” Two years afterwards Miss Rossetti published a little book of rhymes and snatches, “Sing-Song, a Nursery Rhyme-book,” with illustrations by Arthur Hughes. In 1874 appeared “Speaking Likenesses,” three short tales slightly connected together, somewhat in the manner of “Alice in Wonderland.” From this time until 1881 Miss Rossetti published nothing but devotional works: “Annus Domini, a Collect for each Day of the Year, founded on a Text of Holy Scripture” (1874); “Seek and Find: Short Studies of the Benedicite” (1879); “Called to be Saints, the Minor Festivals devotionally Studied” (1881). In 1881 appeared a new volume of poetry, “A Pageant, and other Poems.” Subsequently Miss Rossetti published two more works of devotion, “Letter and Spirit, Notes on the Commandments” (1883), and “Time Flies, a Reading Diary” (1885). The latter, which contains some of her most charming later work, shows Miss Rossetti in the double character of poet and homilist. It consists of reflections, in prose and verse, for every day of the year. Though written for purposes of devotion, it may be read for artistic pleasure, so full of charm, of delicate harmony, of quaint humour, of subtle observation, is both verse and prose. Miss Rossetti’s “Poetical Works” were published in one volume in 1890.  1
  The poetry of Miss Rossetti, as I have said elsewhere, deeply thought, intensely felt as it is, appeals first of all to the reader through a quality not always found, in any specially prominent degree, in the work of passionate or thoughtful poets. Almost every poem leaves on the mind a sense of satisfaction, of rightness and fitness; we are not led to think of art, but we notice, almost unconsciously, the way in which every word fits into its place, as if it could not possibly have been used otherwise. The secret of this style—which seems innocently unaware of its own beauty—is, no doubt, its sincerity, leading to the employment of homely words where homely words are wanted, and always of natural and really expressive words; yet not sincerity only, but sincerity as the servant of a finely touched and exceptionally seeing nature. A power of seeing finely beyond the scope of ordinary vision: that, in a few words, is the note of Miss Rossetti’s genius, and it brings with it a subtle and as if instinctive power of expressing subtle and yet as if instinctive conceptions; always clearly, always simply, with a singular and often startling homeliness, yet in a way and about subjects as far removed from the borders of commonplace as possible. This power is shown in every division of her poetry; in the peculiar witchery of the poems dealing with the supernatural, in the exaltation of the devotional poems, in the particular charm of the child-songs, bird-songs, and nature lyrics, in the special variety and the special excellence of the poems of affection and meditation. The union of homely yet always select literalness of treatment with mystical visionariness, or visionariness which is sometimes mystical, constitutes the peculiar quality of her poetry—poetry which has, all the same, several points of approach and distinct varieties of characteristic.  2
  Miss Rossetti’s power of seeing what others do not see, and of telling us about it in such a way that we too are able to see it, is displayed nowhere more prominently than in those poems which deal, in one way or another, with the supernatural. “Goblin-Market”—surely the most naïve and childlike poem in our language—is the perfect realisation of those happy and fantastic aspects of the supernatural which we call Fairyland. Miss Rossetti’s witchcraft is so subtle that she seems to bewitch, not us only, but herself, and without trying to do either. The narrative has so matter-of-fact, and at the same time so fantastic and bewildering an air, that we are fairly puzzled into acceptance of everything. The very rhythm, the leaping and hopping rhythm, which renders the goblin merchantmen visible to us, has something elfin and proper to “the little people” in its almost infantile jingle and cadence.

            “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,
Demure grimaces,
Cat-like and rat-like,
Ratel and wombat-like,
Snail-paced in a hurry,
Parrot-voiced and whistler,
Helter-skelter, hurry-scurry
Chattering like magpies,
Fluttering like pigeons,
Gliding like fishes,—
Hugged her and kissed her:
Squeezed and caressed her:
Stretched up their dishes
Panniers and plates:
“Look at our apples
Russet and dun,
Bob at our cherries,
Bite at our peaches,
Citrons and dates,
Grapes for the asking,
Pears red and basking
Out in the sun,
Plums on their twigs;
Pluck them and suck them,
Pomegranates, figs.”

In “The Prince’s Progress” we are in quite another corner of the world of faëry. The poem is more mature, it is handled in a more even and masterly way; but it is, while still very different, more like other romantic ballads—William Morris’s, for instance—than “Goblin-Market” is like anything at all. The narrative is in the pure romantic spirit, and the touch of magic comes into it suddenly and unawares, The verse is throughout flexible and expressive, but towards the end, just before and during the exquisite lament, bride-song and death-song at once, it falls into a cadence of such solemn and tender sweetness as even Miss Rossetti rarely equalled.

        “Too late for love, too late for joy,
    Too late, too late!
You loitered on the road too long,
    You trifled at the gate:
The enchanted dove upon her branch
    Died without a mate;
The enchanted princess in her tower
    Slept, died, behind the grate;
Her heart was starving all this while
    You made it wait.
  
“Ten years ago, five years ago,
    One year ago,
Even then you had arrived in time,
    Though somewhat slow;
Then you had known her living face
    Which now you cannot know:
The frozen fountain would have leaped,
    The buds gone on to blow,
The warm south wind would have awaked
    To melt the snow.
  
“Is she fair now as she lies?
    Once she was fair;
Meet queen for any kingly king,
    With gold-dust on her hair.
Now these are poppies in her locks,
    White poppies she must wear;
Must wear a veil to shroud her face
    And the want graven there;
Or is the hunger fed at length,
    Cast off the care?
  
“We never saw her with a smile
    Or with a frown;
Her bed seemed never soft to her,
    Though tossed of down;
She little heeded what she wore,
    Kirtle, or wreath, or gown;
We think her white brows often ached
    Beneath her crown,
Till silvery hairs showed in her locks
    That used to be so brown.
  
“We never heard her speak in haste:
    Her tones were sweet,
And modulated just so much
    As it was meet,
Her heart sat silent through the noise
    And concourse of the street.
There was no hurry in her hands,
    No hurry in her feet,
There was no bliss drew nigh to her,
    That she might run to greet.
  
“You should have wept her yesterday,
    Wasting upon her bed:
But wherefore should you weep to-day
    That she is dead?
Lo, we who love weep not to-day,
    But crown her royal head.
Let be these poppies that we strew,
    Your roses are too red:
Let be these poppies, not for you
    Cut down and spread.”
  3
 
  Yet another phase of the supernatural meets us in a little group of poems (“The Ghost’s Petition,” “The Hour and the Ghost,” “At Home,” “The Poor Ghost”) in which the problems of the unseen world are dealt with in a singular way. Miss Rossetti’s genius was essentially sombre, or it wrote itself at least on a dark background of gloom. The thought of death had a constant fascination for her, almost such a fascination as it had for Leopardi or Baudelaire; only it was not the fascination of attraction, as with the one, nor of repulsion, as with the other, but of interest, sad but scarcely unquiet interest in what the dead are doing underground, in their memories—if memory they have—of the world they have left; a singular, whimsical sympathy with the poor dead, like that expressed in two famous lines of the “Fleurs du Mal.”  4
  These strange little poems, with their sombre and fantastic colouring—the picturesque outcome of deep and curious pondering on things unseen—lead easily, by an obvious transition, to the poems of spiritual life, in the customary or religious sense of the term. Miss Rossetti’s devotional poetry is quite unlike most other poetry of the devotional sort. It is intensely devout, sometimes almost liturgical in character; surcharged with personal emotion, a cry of the heart, an ecstasy of the soul’s grief or joy: it is never didactic, or concerned with purposes of edification. She does not preach; she prays. We are allowed to overhear a dialogue of the soul with God. Her intensity of religious feeling touches almost on the ecstasy of Jacopone da Todi, but without his delirium. It is usually a tragic ecstasy. In such a poem as “Despised and Rejected,” one of the most marvellous religious poems in the language, the reality of the externalised emotion is almost awful: it is scarcely to be read without a shudder. Christ stands at the door and knocks, at the unopening door of the heart.

        “Then I cried out upon him: Cease,
Leave me in peace;
Fear not that I should crave
Aught thou mayst have.
Leave me in peace, yea trouble me no more,
Lest I arise and chase thee from my door.
What, shall I not be let
Alone, that thou dost vex me yet?
  
But all night long that voice spake urgently:
“Open to Me.”
Still harping in mine ears:
“Rise, let Me in.”
Pleading with tears:
“Open to Me, that I may come to thee.”
While the dew dropped, while the dark hours were cold:
“My Feet bleed, see My Face,
See My Hands bleed that bring thee grace,
My Heart doth bleed for thee,
Open to Me.”
  
So till the break of day:
Then died away
That voice, in silence as of sorrow;
Then footsteps echoing like a sigh
Passed me by,
Lingering footsteps slow to pass.
On the morrow
I saw upon the grass
Each footprint marked in blood, and on my door
The mark of blood for evermore.”

In “Advent,” another masterpiece, the ecstasy is of faith—faith triumphant after watching and waiting, after vigils and darkness: a cry from spiritual watchtowers. In all these poems we are led through phase after phase of a devout soul; we find a sequence of keen and brooding moods of religious feeling and meditation, every word burningly real and from the heart, yet in every word subjected to the keenest artistic scrutiny, the most finished and flawless artistic manipulation.
  5
  In Miss Rossetti’s religious poems there is a recurring burden of lament over the vanity of things, the swiftness of the way to death, the faithlessness of affection, the relentless pressure of years, finding voice in the magnificent paraphrase on Ecclesiastes (the early poem called “A Testimony”), in the two splendid sonnets, “Vanity of Vanities,” and “One Certainty,” and, less sadly, in the little lyric masterpiece, “Passing away, saith the World, passing away!”

        “All things are vanity, I said:
  Yea vanity of vanities.
  The rich man dies; and the poor dies:
The worm feeds sweetly on the dead.
Whate’er thou lackest, keep this trust:
All in the end shall have but dust:
  
The one inheritance, which best
  And worst alike shall find and share:
  The wicked cease from troubling there,
And there the weary be at rest;
There all the wisdom of the wise
Is vanity of vanities.
  
Man flourishes as a green leaf,
  And as a leaf doth pass away;
  Or as a shade that cannot stay
And leaves no track, his course is brief:
Yet man doth hope and fear and plan
Till he is dead:—oh foolish man!
  
Our eyes cannot be satisfied
  With seeing, nor our ears be filled
  With hearing: yet we plant and build
And buy and make our borders wide;
We gather wealth, we gather care,
But know not who shall be our heir.
  
Why should we hasten to arise
  So early, and so late take rest?
  Our labour is not good; our best
Hopes fade; our heart is stayed on lies:
Verily, we sow wind; and we
Shall reap the whirlwind, verily.
  
He who hath little shall not lack;
  He who hath plenty shall decay:
  Our fathers went; we pass away;
Our children follow on our track:
So generations fail, and so
They are renewed and come and go.
  
The earth is fattened with our dead;
  She swallows more and doth not cease:
  Therefore her wine and oil increase
And her sheaves are not numberèd;
Therefore her plants are green, and all
Her pleasant trees lusty and tall.
  
Therefore the maidens cease to sing,
  And the young men are very sad;
  Therefore the sowing is not glad,
And mournful is the harvesting.
Of high and low, of great and small,
Vanity is the lot of all.
  
A King dwelt in Jerusalem;
  He was the wisest man on earth;
  He had all riches from his birth,
And pleasures till he tired of them;
Then, having tested all things, he
Witnessed that all are vanity.”

So, in its grave and sober assurance of earthly mischance speaks the “Testimony.” But the quiet sadness of these poems of abstract meditation over the vanity of things, passes, when we turn to another well-defined class of poems, into a keener and more heart-moving outcry of sorrow. There is a theme to which Miss Rossetti returns again and again, a theme into which she is able to infuse a more intense feeling than we find in any other but her devotional pieces—that of a heart given sorrowfully over to the memory of a passion spent somehow in vain, disregarded or self-repressed. There is a marvellously affecting expression given in such poems as that named “Twice,” to the suppressed bitterness of a disappointed heart, anguish of unuttered passion reaching to a point of ascetic abnegation, a devout frenzy of patience, which is the springing of the bitter seed of hope dead in a fiery martyrdom. In that “masterpiece of ascetic passion,” as Dante Rossetti justly called the dramatic lyric entitled “The Convent Threshold,” this conception obtains its very finest realisation. We meet with nothing like the passion, nothing like the imagination, of this superb poem, save in one or two pieces only of her poetic work. The romantic feeling, the religious fervour, the personal emotion—all her noblest gifts and qualities, with her very noblest possibilities of style and versification—meet here as one.

        “Your eyes look earthward, mine look up.
I see the far-off city grand,
Beyond the hills a watered land,
Beyond the gulf a gleaming strand
Of mansions where the righteous sup;
Who sleep at ease among their trees,
Or wake to sing a cadenced hymn
With Cherubim and Seraphim;
They bore the Cross, they drained the cup,
Racked, roasted, crushed, wrenched limb from limb,
They the offscouring of the world:
The heaven of starry heavens unfurled,
The sun before their face is dim.
  
  You looking earthward, what see you?
Milk-white, wine-flushed among the vines,
Up and down leaping, to and fro,
Most glad, most full, made strong with wines,
Blooming as peaches pearled with dew,
Their golden windy hair afloat,
Love-music warbling in their throat,
Young men and women come and go.
*        *        *        *        *
  “I tell you what I dreamed last night:
It was not dark, it was not light,
Cold dews had drenched my plenteous hair
Through clay; you came to seek me there.
And ‘Do you dream of me?’ you said.
My heart was dust that used to leap
To you; I answered half asleep:
“My pillow is damp, my sheets are red,
There’s a leaden tester to my bed:
Find you a warmer playfellow,
A warmer pillow for your head,
A kinder love to love than mine.”
You wrung your hands; while I, like lead,
Crushed downwards through the sodden earth:
You smote your hands but not in mirth,
And reeled but were not drunk with wine.
  
  For all night long I dreamed of you:
I woke and prayed against my will,
Then slept to dream of you again.
At length I rose and knelt and prayed;
I cannot write the words I said,
My words were slow my tears were few
But through the dark my silence spoke
Like thunder. When this morning broke,
My face was pinched, my hair was grey,
And frozen blood was on the sill
Where stifling in my struggle I lay.
  
  If now you saw me you would say:
Where is the face I used to love?
And I would answer: Gone before;
It tarries veiled in Paradise.
When once the morning star shall rise,
When earth with shadow flees away
And we stand safe within the door,
Then you shall lift the veil thereof.
Look up, rise up: for far above
Our palms are grown, our place is set;
There we shall meet as once we met,
And love with old familiar love.”
  6
 
  The passion here is almost fierce. In “Monna Innominata: a Sonnet of Sonnets,” the masterpiece of the “Pageant” volume, a much quieter, perhaps only a sadder, voice is given to the same cry of the heart. This sonnet-sequence—a comparison of which with the sonnet-sequence of Mrs. Browning she herself did not shrink from challenging—should and will take its place among the great works in that line, if delicate art, perfect within its limits, wedded to delicately sincere and deep emotion, limited, too, within a certain range, can give it right of admission among the stronger and more varied sequences of Dante and Petrarch, of Mrs. Browning and Rossetti.  7
  In a world which wears chiefly an aspect of gloom for her, which is tragical in its earnestness, when it is not tragical in its pain or passion, there are still for Miss Rossetti, as for all sane and healthy spirits in however dark a world, two elements of pure joy, two eternal comforters—nature and children. To her, nature was always a relief, an escape; certain aspects she responded to with a peculiarly exhilarating joyousness. It was always the calm aspects of natural things, and chiefly growing nature, that called out her sympathy and delight. What we call scenery she never refers to; nor to mountains, nor often to the sea. But nowhere in poetry can we get such lovingly minute little pictures of flowers, and corn, and birds, and animals; of the seasons—spring particularly. She delights in just such things as are the delight of a child; her observation is, as of set purpose, very usually that of a thoughtful and observant child. Children, we must remember, especially very small children, play a great part in the world of Miss Rossetti’s poetry. They have, indeed, a book all to themselves, one of the quaintest and prettiest books in the language. “Sing-Song: a Nursery Rhyme-book,” illustrated with pictures, almost equal to the poems, by Arthur Hughes, makes a very little book for all its hundred and twenty poems and pictures; but its covers contain a lyric treasure such as few books, small or great, can boast of.  8
  What renders these little songs so precious is their pure singing quality—what Matthew Arnold calls the “lyrical cry”; and the same quality appears in a really large number of exquisite lyrics scattered throughout Miss Rossetti’s volumes; some of them being, perhaps, in the most ethereal and quintessential elements of song, the most perfect we have had since Shelley, whom she resembles also in her free but flawless treatment of rhythm. The peculiar charm of these songs is as distinct and at the same time as immaterial as a perfume. They are fresh with the freshness of dewy grass, or, in their glowing brightness, like a dewdrop turned by the sun into a prism. Thoughtfulness passing into intuition, thoughtfulness that broods as well as sees, and has, like shadowed water, its mysterious depths; this, joined to an extreme yet select simplicity of phrase and a clear and liquid melody of verse—as spontaneous apparently in its outflow as a lark’s trill—seems to lie at the root of her lyric art: a careful avoidance of emphasis, a subdued colour and calculated vagueness, aiding often in giving its particular tone to one of her songs—songs, as a rule, enshrining an almost scentless flower of sentiment.  9
  Finished workmanship, as I intimated at the outset, we find in practically every poem, and workmanship of such calm and even excellence that it is not at first sight we are made aware of the extremely original, thoughtful, and intense nature which throbs so harmoniously beneath it. Even in a poem so full of sorrow and wrath and indignation as the almost matchless lyric on the German-French campaign, “To-day for Me”—a poem that seems written with a pen dipped in the hot tears of France—no surge of personal feeling disturbs the calm assurance of the rhythm, the solemn reiterance of the tolling burden of rhyme. Indeed, the more deeply or delicately felt the emotion, the more impressive or exquisite, very often, is the art. At the same time, poems like “To-day for Me” are the exception, by no means the rule, in Miss Rossetti’s poetry. Something altogether less emphatic must be sought for if we are anxious to find the type, the true representative of this mystic and remote, yet homely and simple, genius; seeing so deeply into things of the spirit and of nature, overshadowed always with something of a dark imminence of gloom, yet with so large a capacity for joy and simple pleasure; an autumnal muse perhaps, but the muse, certainly, of an autumn going down towards winter with the happy light still on it of a past, or but now scarcely passing, summer.  10
 
 
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