Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Prince's Progress and Other Poems by Christina Rossetti

Source of book: I own the complete poems of Christina Rossetti

I recall, back when I was in single digits and first reading somewhat more grown up literature, reading a set from the 1950s from Collier’s, entitled The Junior Classics. My mom must have found it at a thrift store - they have gotten quite expensive these days. I “appropriated” the set when I got my own room, and took them with me when I moved out. Sorry mom. Sort of. I know you will be happy that my kids have read them too.

Anyway, the final volume of the set was dedicated to poetry, and it was through that book that I gained my lifelong love of poetry. I can even tell you the first poem that I truly loved: “The Bee” by Emily Dickinson. I don’t remember which poems specifically, but I also remember that I enjoyed Sara Teasdale, Robert Frost, and Christina Rossetti. My library lacks Teasdale, but I regularly read the others. While I have come to love many others, I still find that my first poetic loves speak to me in a special way.

When I started writing about my reading, first on Facebook, and then on my blog, I decided I was going to make a concerted effort to read poetry regularly, and more systematically, rather than the random and sadly infrequent way I had been. A few years back, I wrote about Rossetti’s first collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems. The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems is her second collection, written four years later.

I was a little apprehensive about reading Rossetti again. In the time since I last read her, I have gone through a spiritually traumatic time. We left our longtime church in 2017, after essentially being forced out due to our political beliefs. Our former religious tradition hitched its wagon to a white nationalist political movement and a man who embodies the opposite of Christ and His teachings in every imaginable way. In the runup to this, my wife and I started seriously processing our experiences in Christian Patriarchy. So it has been a bumpy ride. I was worried, therefore, because Rossetti wrote a lot of religious - devoutly religious - poetry. I’m not sure which worried me more: the potential triggers, or hating the poems finding myself disillusioned with one of my early loves.

Fortunately, neither happened. What did happen is that I discovered again how raw, genuine, personal, and compassionate Rossetti’s faith was. Even the ones that didn’t particularly speak to me were never self righteous, pious, or smug. She wore her lacerated heart on her sleeve. Rossetti’s emotionality and vulnerability are touching, and it is impossible to doubt her genuine quest for the Divine.

Also striking was just how personal some of the poems were when it came to her own sorrow: she was unlucky in love, and never married, despite her desire to do so. She turned down three different suitors, two because of religious incompatibility. One also wonders if she felt she would have to give up too much to enter into a Victorian marriage. Whatever the case, lost love and romantic disappointment are recurring themes throughout this collection. For example, the title poem is a long narrative of a prince who delays returning to his princess due to a series of temptations that he gives in to, only to find she has died. Some are similarly obvious about those themes, while others just hint at the cause of her heartache. Overall, I would say this collection tends toward the darker side of her writing.

Here are my favorites from the collection.

Let me start off with what was certainly one of the first of her poems I read as a child. It brought back memories of sitting and reading - and reading the poems aloud to hear the rhythm of the words.

Spring Quiet

Gone were but the Winter,
Come were but the Spring,
I would go to a covert
Where the birds sing;

Where in the whitethorn
Singeth a thrush,
And a robin sings
In the holly-bush.

Full of fresh scents
Are the budding boughs
Arching high over
A cool green house:

Full of sweet scents,
And whispering air
Which sayeth softly:
"We spread no snare;

"Here dwell in safety,
Here dwell alone,
With a clear stream
And a mossy stone.

"Here the sun shineth
Most shadily;
Here is heard an echo
Of the far sea,
Though far off it be."

That’s probably the most optimistic poem in this collection. Here is another that I remember from my childhood:


Winter is cold-hearted
Spring is yea and nay,
Autumn is a weather-cock
Blown every way:
Summer days for me
When every leaf is on its tree;

When Robin's not a beggar,
And Jenny Wren's a bride,
And larks hang singing, singing, singing,
Over the wheat-fields wide,
And anchored lilies ride,
And the pendulum spider
Swings from side to side,

And blue-black beetles transact business,
And gnats fly in a host,
And furry caterpillars hasten
That no time be lost,
And moths grow fat and thrive,
And ladybirds arrive.

Before green apples blush,
Before green nuts embrown,
Why, one day in the country
Is worth a month in town;
Is worth a day and a year
Of the dusty, musty, lag-last fashion
That days drone elsewhere.

The next one is a bit darker, a conversation between two lovers - one living, and one dead yet not at peace.

The Poor Ghost
'Oh whence do you come, my dear friend, to me,
With your golden hair all fallen below your knee,
And your face as white as snowdrops on the lea,
And your voice as hollow as the hollow sea?'

'From the other world I come back to you,
My locks are uncurled with dripping drenching dew.
You know the old, whilst I know the new:
But to-morrow you shall know this too.'

'Oh not to-morrow into the dark, I pray;
Oh not to-morrow, too soon to go away:
Here I feel warm and well-content and gay:
Give me another year, another day.'

'Am I so changed in a day and a night
That mine own only love shrinks from me with fright,
Is fain to turn away to left or right
And cover up his eyes from the sight?'

'Indeed I loved you, my chosen friend,
I loved you for life, but life has an end;
Through sickness I was ready to tend:
But death mars all, which we cannot mend.

'Indeed I loved you; I love you yet,
If you will stay where your bed is set,
Where I have planted a violet,
Which the wind waves, which the dew makes wet.'

'Life is gone, then love too is gone,
It was a reed that I leant upon:
Never doubt I will leave you alone
And not wake you rattling bone with bone.

'I go home alone to my bed,
Dug deep at the foot and deep at the head,
Roofed in with a load of lead,
Warm enough for the forgotten dead.

'But why did your tears soak through the clay,
And why did your sobs wake me where I lay?
I was away, far enough away:
Let me sleep now till the Judgment Day.'

I love the ambiguity here. Has he really forgotten her? Has he married another? Or is he really still mourning her? Does she resent being summoned or not? There is a deliciousness in what is left unsaid.

The next poem is an interesting take on wind and the changing of the seasons.

A Year’s Windfalls

On the wind of January
Down flits the snow,
Travelling from the frozen North
As cold as it can blow.
Poor robin redbreast,
Look where he comes;
Let him in to feel your fire,
And toss him of your crumbs.

On the wind in February
Snowflakes float still,
Half inclined to turn to rain,
Nipping, dripping, chill.
Then the thaws swell the streams,
And swollen rivers swell the sea:—
If the winter ever ends
How pleasant it will be!

In the wind of windy March
The catkins drop down,
Curly, caterpillar-like,
Curious green and brown.
With concourse of nest-building birds
And leaf-buds by the way,
We begin to think of flowers
And life and nuts some day.

With the gusts of April
Rich fruit-tree blossoms fall,
On the hedged-in orchard-green,
From the southern wall.
Apple-trees and pear-trees
Shed petals white or pink,
Plum-trees and peach-trees;
While sharp showers sink and sink.

Little brings the May breeze
Beside pure scent of flowers,
While all things wax and nothing wanes
In lengthening daylight hours.
Across the hyacinth beds
The wind lags warm and sweet,
Across the hawthorn tops,
Across the blades of wheat.

In the wind of sunny June
Thrives the red rose crop,
Every day fresh blossoms blow
While the first leaves drop;
White rose and yellow rose
And moss-rose choice to find,
And the cottage cabbage-rose
Not one whit behind.

On the blast of scorched July
Drives the pelting hail,
From thunderous lightning-clouds, that blot
Blue heaven grown lurid-pale.
Weedy waves are tossed ashore,
Sea-things strange to sight
Gasp upon the barren shore
And fade away in light.

In the parching August wind
Corn-fields bow the head,
Sheltered in round valley depths,
On low hills outspread.
Early leaves drop loitering down
Weightless on the breeze,
First fruits of the year's decay
From the withering trees.

In brisk wind of September
The heavy-headed fruits
Shake upon their bending boughs
And drop from the shoots;
Some glow golden in the sun,
Some show green and streaked,
Some set forth a purple bloom,
Some blush rosy-cheeked.

In strong blast of October
At the equinox,
Stirred up in his hollow bed
Broad ocean rocks;
Plunge the ships on his bosom,
Leaps and plunges the foam,—
It's oh! for mothers' sons at sea,
That they were safe at home.

In slack wind of November
The fog forms and shifts;
All the world comes out again
When the fog lifts.
Loosened from their sapless twigs
Leaves drop with every gust;
Drifting, rustling, out of sight
In the damp or dust.

Last of all, December,
The year's sands nearly run,
Speeds on the shortest day,
Curtails the sun;
With its bleak raw wind
Lays the last leaves low,
Brings back the nightly frosts,
Brings back the snow.

The next one is a bit of an anecdote as a metaphor for Rossetti’s own lack of luck in love.

The Queen of Hearts

How comes it, Flora, that, whenever we
Play cards together, you invariably,
However the pack parts,
Still hold the Queen of Hearts?

I've scanned you with a scrutinizing gaze,
Resolved to fathom these your secret ways:
But, sift them as I will,
Your ways are secret still.

I cut and shuffle; shuffle, cut, again;
But all my cutting, shuffling, proves in vain:
Vain hope, vain forethought too;
The Queen still falls to you.

I dropped her once, prepense; but, ere the deal
Was dealt, your instinct seemed her loss to feel:
'There should be one card more,'
You said, and searched the floor.

I cheated once; I made a private notch
In Heart-Queen's back, and kept a lynx-eyed watch;
Yet such another back
Deceived me in the pack:

The Queen of Clubs assumed by arts unknown
An imitative dint that seemed my own;
This notch, not of my doing,
Misled me to my ruin.

It baffles me to puzzle out the clue,
Which must be skill, or craft, or luck in you:
Unless, indeed, it be
Natural affinity.

Of the more religiously themed poems, three stood out. (I’ll quote the final one later.)

What Would I Give

What would I give for a heart of flesh to warm me through,
Instead of this heart of stone ice-cold whatever I do!
Hard and cold and small, of all hearts the worst of all.

What would I give for words, if only words would come!
But now in its misery my spirit has fallen dumb.
O merry friends, go your own way, I have never a word to say.

What would I give for tears! Not smiles but scalding tears,
To wash the black mark clean, and to thaw the frost of years,
To wash the stain ingrain, and to make me clean again.

I’ve mentioned that I love sonnets - I love the rigid form, the balanced sections, the need to make ideas concise and yet linked. I even wrote some technically correct (but artistically amateurish) sonnets during high school. I can’t find them now, which is probably just as well. This sonnet is a bit of a riff on Ecclesiastes.

Vanity of Vanities

Ah, woe is me for pleasure that is vain,
Ah, woe is me for glory that is past:
Pleasure that bringeth sorrow at the last,
Glory that at the last bringeth no gain!
So saith the sinking heart; and so again
It shall say till the mighty angel-blast
Is blown, making the sun and moon aghast
And showering down the stars like sudden rain.
And evermore men shall go fearfully
Bending beneath their weight of heaviness;
And ancient men shall lie down wearily,
And strong men shall rise up in weariness;
Yea, even the young shall answer sighingly
Saying one to another: How vain it is!

The next poem is - in my opinion - one of Rossetti’s best. It is haunting, lacerating, full of agony - and nakedly honest.



I nursed it in my bosom while it lived,
         I hid it in my heart when it was dead;
In joy I sat alone, even so I grieved
         Alone and nothing said.

I shut the door to face the naked truth,
         I stood alone,--I faced the truth alone,
Stripped bare of self-regard or forms or ruth
         Till first and last were shown.

I took the perfect balances and weighed;
         No shaking of my hand disturbed the poise;
Weighed, found it wanting: not a word I said,
         But silent made my choice.

None know the choice I made; I make it still.
         None know the choice I made and broke my heart,
Breaking mine idol: I have braced my will
         Once, chosen for once my part.

I broke it at a blow, I laid it cold,
         Crushed in my deep heart where it used to live.
My heart dies inch by inch; the time grows old,
         Grows old in which I grieve.


I have a room whereinto no one enters
         Save I myself alone:
         There sits a blessed memory on a throne,
There my life centres.

While winter comes and goes--O tedious comer!--
         And while its nip-wind blows;
         While bloom the bloodless lily and warm rose
Of lavish summer.

If any should force entrance he might see there
         One buried yet not dead,
         Before whose face I no more bow my head
Or bend my knee there;

But often in my worn life's autumn weather
         I watch there with clear eyes,
        And think how it will be in Paradise
When we're together.

While I think Rossetti is speaking of her rejection of her suitors, I think this poem resonates as a description of a certain kind of grief. The grief one feels when one has to make a horrible choice, one in which there is no winning, just losing less badly. One where one, perhaps, must make a choice to do the moral thing, even though the cost is devastatingly high. For her, marrying outside her religion (in an era when Protestants and Catholics were still deeply divided) was a bridge too far. Having had to make a number of my own hard choices on the basis of conscience over the last couple of years, I really felt this poem hit home. I’m still grieving.

The final poem is another devastating one, this time with a religious theme. It could be the theme of our own time, and our modern-day Pharisees who refuse to see the vulnerable as Christ in disguise.

Despised and Rejected

My sun has set, I dwell
In darkness as a dead man out of sight;
And none remains, not one, that I should tell
To him mine evil plight
This bitter night.
I will make fast my door
That hollow friends may trouble me no more.

'Friend, open to Me.'—Who is this that calls?
Nay, I am deaf as are my walls:
Cease crying, for I will not hear
Thy cry of hope or fear.
Others were dear,
Others forsook me: what art thou indeed
That I should heed
Thy lamentable need?
Hungry should feed,
Or stranger lodge thee here?

'Friend, My Feet bleed.
Open thy door to Me and comfort Me.'
I will not open, trouble me no more.
Go on thy way footsore,
I will not rise and open unto thee.

'Then is it nothing to thee? Open, see
Who stands to plead with thee.
Open, lest I should pass thee by, and thou
One day entreat My Face
And howl for grace,
And I be deaf as thou art now.
Open to Me.'

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.

When this collection came out in 1866, it was illustrated by Rossetti’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I found a couple of them online, and figured it was worth including them in this post. 


  1. I truly love Rossett's works, and "Despised and Rejected" is really haunting.

    I've wondered about the last line some. Originally, I saw it as a guilt-mark - "You're guilty of My blood." But I wonder if instead it's a sign of grace - "Even though you rejected Me, out of love I still place My blood of protection on your door" (referencing Exodus).

    1. YES! I love that last line for the same reason. I don't think her ambiguity is ever accidental.