Sunday, March 18, 2012

Goblin Market and Other Poems by Christina Rossetti

Source of Book: I own Rossetti’s complete poems

Those who have followed my blog from its beginning may recall that my love for poetry began with two women: Emily Dickenson, and Christina Rossetti. As part of my ongoing poetry project, I decided to revisit Rossetti’s poetry. 

Christina Rossetti. Portrait by her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Rossetti grew up as the youngest in a family of writers and artists. Her father was an exiled Italian poet. Her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is the best known of her siblings, both as a poet and as an artist. The others, a brother and a sister, were also writers. Christina fit the profile of the sensitive artist, suffering with bouts of depression, and having poor fortune at love. She was engaged in her teens, but broke engagement when her fiancé converted to Catholicism. She later refused two additional suitors for reasons of religion and temperament. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's original illustration for Goblin Market

Goblin Market and Other Poems was Rossetti’s first big hit, published in 1862, when she was thirty-one. Since Elizabeth Barrett Browning had died the year before, Rossetti seemed to naturally assume the role as the foremost female English poet.

Rossetti’s work is known for its technical mastery and for its devotional character. Goblin market is in many ways typical of her work. About half of the poems are devotional in character, and references to Scripture are throughout the poems. In fact, a thorough knowledge of the Bible is helpful to the understanding and enjoyment of many of the poems.

In some ways, this interlacing of Biblical allusions reminds me of the “Where’s Waldo” books of my youth. Every page was packed full of incident – one could spend hours on one picture looking for all of the jokes and other hidden treasures. Likewise, a Rossetti devotional poem contains a plethora of one or two word allusions that can be discovered by the careful and knowledgeable reader.

The other poems in the collection are often achingly bittersweet. Rossetti felt deeply and expressed the darker side of her nature in her poetry. Death and disappointment are themes which are revisited often, and with a subtle depth of thought. Her words can often mean more than one thing; a seemingly simple line can conceal a world of emotion.

The title poem, Goblin Market, is a long narrative (nearly 600 lines long) that is, on its surface, a tale of two sisters and their misadventures with goblins. At a deeper level, it is a story of innocence lost, and redemption through love and sacrifice. Others have interpreted it as an allegory of erotic desire, or a veiled commentary or gender roles. I can see each of these as a possibility – Rossetti did bury all of the above in her poems.

Oddly, Goblin Market was cited by Lewis Carroll as an inspiration for Alice in Wonderland. I have tried to figure out what the connection could be, but it remains a mystery to me. The process by which Carroll transformed this poem into the surrealist atmosphere of Alice is hardly obvious.

Regardless, Goblin Market is a good read – an interesting story, with plenty to ponder, and beautifully written language.

Regular readers already know of my fascination with sonnets. I love the form, and the discipline necessary to write a good one.

Two stood out in this collection, both in the Italian sonnet form:

            A Triad

Three sang of love together: one with lips
Crimson, with cheeks and bosom in a glow,
Flushed to the yellow hair and finger tips;
And one there sang who soft and smooth as snow
Bloomed like a tinted hyacinth at a show;
And one was blue with famine after love,
Who like a harpstring snapped rang harsh and low
The burden of what those were singing of.
One shamed herself in love; one temperately
Grew gross in soulless love, a sluggish wife;
One famished died for love. Thus two of three
Took death for love and won him after strife;
One droned in sweetness like a fattened bee:
All on the threshold, yet all short of life.

Rossetti herself fell, perhaps in the third category, yet she spurned the chance at the second, and was too virtuous for the first. The theme of out-of-wedlock pregnancy runs through a number of the poems. Rossetti spent time volunteering at a home for “fallen women”, so perhaps the connection was inevitable. I will note here “Maude Clair”, another narrative poem that tells of a love triangle. One woman gets the aristocrat in the end, but the narrator bears his child while the haughty wife remains childless.

The second sonnet is even darker than the first.

Dead Before Death

Ah! changed and cold, how changed and very cold,
With stiffened smiling lips and cold calm eyes:
Changed, yet the same; much knowing, little wise;
This was the promise of the days of old!
Grown hard and stubborn in the ancient mould,
Grown rigid in the sham of lifelong lies:
We hoped for better things as years would rise,
But it is over as a tale once told.
All fallen the blossom that no fruitage bore,
All lost the present and the future time,
All lost, all lost, the lapse that went before:
So lost till death shut-to the opened door,
So lost from chime to everlasting chime,
So cold and lost for ever evermore.

Such a bitter, bitter sonnet. And yet, it fascinates me. That line, “much knowing, little wise” is haunting. I know those who have become calcified rather than softened with age, a fate I hope to avoid.

Likewise, Rossetti’s thoughts on death affected me as a child, and still touch an inner string. A pair of poems examine the memory of a departed friend from two different perspectives. The first, another sonnet, was a favorite of mine as a youth.


Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann'd:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

In contrast, the speaker in “At Home” is truly disturbed that the living are so quick to forget.

When I was dead, my spirit turned
To seek the much-frequented house:
I passed the door, and saw my friends
Feasting beneath green orange boughs;
From hand to hand they pushed the wine,
They sucked the pulp of plum and peach;
They sang, they jested, and they laughed,
For each was loved of each.

I listened to their honest chat:
Said one: "To-morrow we shall be
Plod plod along the featureless sands,
And coasting miles and miles of sea."
Said one: "Before the turn of tide
We will achieve the eyrie-seat."
Said one: "To-morrow shall be like
To-day, but much more sweet."

"To-morrow," said they, strong with hope,
And dwelt upon the pleasant way:
"To-morrow," cried they, one and all,
While no one spoke of yesterday.
Their life stood full at blessed noon;
I, only I, had passed away:
"To-morrow and to-day," they cried;
I was of yesterday.

I shivered comfortless, but cast
No chill across the table-cloth;
I, all-forgotten, shivered, sad
To stay, and yet to part how loth:
I passed from the familiar room,
I who from love had passed away,
Like the remembrance of a guest
That tarrieth but a day.

Lest it appear that all of Rossetti’s works are this melancholy, I should add that there are numerous poems with humor and hope. One of these, “No Thank You, John”, tells of the rejection of a rather undesired suitor. It begins thus:

I never said I loved you, John:
Why will you tease me day by day,
And wax a weariness to think upon
With always "do" and "pray"?

You Know I never loved you, John;
No fault of mine made me your toast:
Why will you haunt me with a face as wan
As shows an hour-old ghost?

One wonders if “John” lacked Christina’s intelligence and wit. I found the form of this poem interesting in that the first two lines are iambic tetrameter, the third is pentameter, and the final line is trimeter. The third line’s length is used to accentuate the tedium of the suit, and the short final line feels like a door shut in the face. This continues through the remaining lines to the end of the poem, when Rossetti states the old “let’s just be friends” line in the most poetic, yet final way. The impact would not be the same had the last two words of the penultimate line been placed in the last line instead.

Here's friendship for you if you like; but love,-
No, thank you, John.

The humor in “Winter: My Secret” is less biting, but more ebullient and childlike. The poem is too long to quote, but the beginning is representative.

Perhaps some day, who knows?
But not today; it froze, and blows and snows,
And you're too curious: fie!
You want to hear it? well:
Only, my secret's mine, and I won't tell.

Rossetti wrote a large number of children’s poems, and this one is somewhat in the vein. Older children, such as myself, can still enjoy them, provided we have not become dead before death.

Another positive poem is “A Birthday”

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water'd shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these,
Because my love is come to me.

Raise me a daïs of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.

The devotional poems have their own interest as a record of a relationship with Christ made personal. To a degree, I would compare Rossetti’s poems to those of George Herbert, another master of the form. The intensely personal nature of Rossetti’s poems make them seem almost like listening in on a private prayer. One of the best short ones is “A Better Resurrection.”

I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb'd too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm'd with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.

My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall--the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.

My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish'd thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.

I also enjoyed “Advent”, which connects Rossetti’s experience of Christmas with a longing for the second coming. Her depressive tendencies are turned to hope and expectation.

'The days are evil looking back,
The coming days are dim;
Yet count we not His promise slack,
But watch and wait for Him.'

I’ll end this with one that I discovered for the first time in this collection. It made a lasting impression on me, and I am still meditating on its meaning and truth.

            A Pause of Thought

I looked for that which is not, nor can be,
  And hope deferred made my heart sick in truth:
  But years must pass before a hope of youth
    Is resigned utterly.

I watched and waited with a steadfast will:
  And though the object seemed to flee away
  That I so longed for, ever day by day
    I watched and waited still.

Sometimes I said: This thing shall be no more;
  My expectation wearies and shall cease;
  I will resign it now and be at peace:
    Yet never gave it o'er.

Sometimes I said: It is an empty name
  I long for; to a name why should I give
  The peace of all the days I have to live?—
    Yet gave it all the same.

Alas, thou foolish one! alike unfit
  For healthy joy and salutary pain:
  Thou knowest the chase useless, and again
    Turnest to follow it.

 Note on edition:

I own the paperback Penguin edition of Rossetti’s complete poems. The disadvantage is obvious: I prefer hardback whenever possible. However, there is much to recommend this edition. First, it has the complete poems, something hard to find. Second, it has copious endnotes. Of the 1200 pages of this volume, about 300 are notes. Included are citations for all of the allusions, both literary and Biblical; and historical notes such as the original publication date and format, quotes from the author and her close associates regarding the poem; and references to similar poems and themes by other contemporary poets. If I could find a hardback with all of the above, it would be the perfect book.

One more for good measure:

Although it is not in Goblin Market, Rossetti’s best known work is probably the text for In the Bleak Midwinter, set to music by Gustav Holst.

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

1 comment:

  1. Rossetti is one of my top favorite poets. "Goblin Market" is terrific, and I love the humor of "Maude Clair." But "In the Bleak Midwinter" is my all-time favorite of hers.