Alfred H. Miles, ed. Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by Arthur Symons
Christina Georgina Rossetti (18301894)
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 Princes 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 Rossettis Poetical Works were published in one volume in 1890.
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 stylewhich seems innocently unaware of its own beautyis, 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 Rossettis 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 poetrypoetry which has, all the same, several points of approach and distinct varieties of characteristic.
Miss Rossettis 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-Marketsurely the most naïve and childlike poem in our languageis the perfect realisation of those happy and fantastic aspects of the supernatural which we call Fairyland. Miss Rossettis 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,
Cat-like and rat-like,
Ratel and wombat-like,
Snail-paced in a hurry,
Parrot-voiced and whistler,
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,
In The Princes 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 balladsWilliam Morriss, for instancethan 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.
Yet another phase of the supernatural meets us in a little group of poems (The Ghosts 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 Rossettis 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 memoriesif memory they haveof 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.
These strange little poems, with their sombre and fantastic colouringthe picturesque outcome of deep and curious pondering on things unseenlead easily, by an obvious transition, to the poems of spiritual life, in the customary or religious sense of the term. Miss Rossettis 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 souls 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 faithfaith 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.
In Miss Rossettis 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.
Whateer 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 piecesthat 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 emotionall her noblest gifts and qualities, with her very noblest possibilities of style and versificationmeet 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,
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-sequencea comparison of which with the sonnet-sequence of Mrs. Browning she herself did not shrink from challengingshould 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.
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 comfortersnature 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 seasonsspring 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 Rossettis 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.
What renders these little songs so precious is their pure singing qualitywhat Matthew Arnold calls the lyrical cry; and the same quality appears in a really large number of exquisite lyrics scattered throughout Miss Rossettis 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 verseas spontaneous apparently in its outflow as a larks trillseems 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 songssongs, as a rule, enshrining an almost scentless flower of sentiment.
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 Mea poem that seems written with a pen dipped in the hot tears of Franceno 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 Rossettis 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.