Poems, Christina Rossetti
Selected with an afterword by David Stoker, 2013
Greville Press Pamphlets [6 Mellors Court, The Butts, Warwick CV34 4ST] £7.50
A Breaking Heart
This elegantly presented pamphlet contains powerfully intimate poems of depression, loneliness, doubt, devotion and futile love. Emotions are sometimes held in tightly, and sometimes allowed to cry out in despair and agony. All of this is made beautiful and dignified as a result of the limitations and advantages of the strict rhyme and form:
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.
The focus of this collection is on Love both eros and agape, the human and the divine and I find this combination fascinating. Unlike contemporary female confessional poetry where anything goes, I wonder if poets in the Victorian era sometimes deliberately disguised their longing for love and sex (which they were unable to openly admit, but needed to express) by intermingling, making God seem to be the object of their obsessive affection. Using passionate biblical references, Rossetti imagines the voice of God talking to her, ‘Lo the Bridegroom shall come and shall not delay’, and then again (in ‘Old and New Year Ditties 3’):
Arise, come away, night is past and lo it is day,
My Love, My Sister, My Spouse, thou shalt hear Me say.
Then I answered: Yea.
The happiest poem, ‘The Birthday’, is a celebration where her heart is described as a singing bird, a watered shoot, an apple tree, a rainbow shell.
But the mood soon darkens, unrequited love only comes in dreams and the focus is all too often on death. She suffers greatly, describing herself in ‘Memory 2’ as ‘One buried yet not dead.’ Imagining her love visiting her death bed in ‘After Death’, she ends the poem with a hint of a real person grieving:
He did not love me living; but once dead
He pitied me; and very sweet it is
To know he still is warm though I am cold.